The darkness instantly started pulling at me. It was the strangest feeling, somewhere between being tickled and having my fur pulled. I got the strong impression that it would probably have felt a great deal less pleasant without the combined influence of the full moon and the Wild Hunt running through me. Someone could probably have skinned me alive right then and I’d have been giggling and getting off the whole time.
I knew that it was a bad thing, though, so I reached out to the Wild Hunt, trying to find something that would protect us from the danger.
There was nothing that quite fit. I’d always had a bit of a knack for blood magic, nothing like this kind of scale, but enough that I understood the principles at work here. I could use that to work against it. The Sidhe weren’t alive in quite the same way humans approached the concept, and that alien nature gave them a certain protection, a certain resistance to the magic. The vampires were very alive, absolutely brimming with life, but they’d been designed to take that energy in, not to give it back out. It was hard to take what they didn’t want to give. Two of the mages who’d joined the Hunt had talents that could do something to block this draining effect, although neither was quite suited to the task.
A lot of kinds of defense, none of which was really sufficient. Taken all together and spread out through the medium of the Wild Hunt, they could do something to protect people.
I gathered up the protections, and through the Hunt I could feel as the others did so as well, instinctively reaching for the right powers to shield them from this threat.
The pulling sensation slowed, though it didn’t stop. We weren’t in danger of dying immediately, I thought, but this environment was still hostile. We could only spend so long here before people started dropping.
I grinned. That was good. A hunt with no challenge and no threat was a boring hunt. Having a time limit added some spice to the chase.
It was impossible to see here, and I fell back on other senses. I could feel everything that fell within my winter storm, and with that storm blanketing miles now, sight was unnecessary, more a distraction than a help. I could hear every movement, I could smell every breath of air, and there were stranger senses as well, things that I couldn’t possibly have known how to process without the Hunt. The vampires could feel the life around them with an intimacy that defied description, and the Sidhe could sense the currents of magic with a precision that put my senses to shame.
There were more of the dead here, packed in shoulder-to-shoulder, tight as lemmings on parade. They marched forward in a tight crowd, almost like a siafu swarm, but without any of the discipline or coordination the ants would display.
We hit them and kept going, even as I was wrapping what protection from the blood magic I could around myself. They fell, and were trampled by the ranks behind them before the other Hunters could even reach them.
The hard part now was just finding a way to advance. They were crowded together so tightly that there wasn’t room for me to fit between their legs, and killing them again didn’t do much good. They fell to the ground, the next rank moved forward, and then in just a handful of seconds they were standing again, the necromantic energy getting them back on their feet almost before they hit the ground.
I growled and renewed my assault, lashing out, faster and harder. My jaws and paws were coated in ice now, sharp as razors, tearing large chunks of flesh out of their bodies with every movement but it didn’t matter and they kept coming. They were slipping on the ice upon the ground and when they fell the ice clutched at them, piercing them; when they stood pieces were left behind and they stood anyway, hideous and grotesque. The wind flowed over their bodies, simultaneously giving me another way to feel them and tearing at them, a windstorm blasting them with tiny slivers of ice like a sandblaster.
The Sidhe lashed out with their weapons, impossibly graceful, dancing through the darkness with utter confidence and terrible beauty. Their steeds broke the dead, sending them flying through the air as they were kicked. When those fae blades met dead flesh they passed through like it was air, flicking casually through them and dropping them to the ground in pieces.
Hounds and wolves bit and tore, crushing bones and pulling the prey down, mobbing them on the ground, and they were pulled to pieces that still, horribly, moved. The enemy kicked them, striking at them with fists and stones and ancient weapons, but nothing could penetrate the storm around them.
The mages had turned to broad attacks now, crushing whole crowds of the dead with their powers. A column of fire twenty feet across roared down out of the sky, leaving little more than ash, and the ground steamed for a few moments before the storm swept in and blanketed it in ice again. A blast of force swept through the crowd like a bulldozer moving as fast as I could run, pushing the mangled corpses along before it and leaving an open trail behind it, until the press of the dead filled the space again.
And still, in spite of all of this, they pressed in tight around us on all sides. It was nothing like a fight, not really. In a fight there was something you could do to win, and no matter what we did here, they just kept coming. There were too many of them, and it was too hard to put them down beyond the necromancer’s ability to pick them back up again.
It was, in many ways, more like dealing with a flood. There was a constant press, threatening to overwhelm us if it was ignored for even a moment. You could create a temporary reprieve, essentially bailing out some of the water, but it only took moments for it to return.
On some level, I recognized all that.
The rest of me was entirely focused around the joy of the fight. I kept pressing forward, tearing the dead apart and tossing them aside, pulling them down and stepping over them without pause, ignoring their feeble attempts to hurt me.
I had not forgotten my aim here. This was a hunt, not a battle. These pitiful creatures were not my quarry, not truly. They were a distraction, an obstacle, a pleasant diversion on the way to my true goal.
The spear had narrowed now, our formation tightening to present less area to the exterior. I was still at the cutting tip, with Snowflake on one side, Kyra on the other, Anna directly behind. I could feel the husky exulting in the battle, the thrill, the joyous madness of the hunt. The werewolves were only slightly more reserved, if at all. The moon was singing in their veins the same as mine, the Hunt was driving them on, and any hint of fear or hesitation was buried beyond recognition.
We kept moving forward, slowly but surely, and I knew that the center of this vast aura of death was moving towards us as well, every step bringing us closer to the grand culmination of this hunt. I shuddered with pleasure at the mere thought, throwing back my head and letting out a howl of thanks to the unseen moon. The Wild Hunt took up the call, a chorus of howls and yips that rang out in the night. The Sidhe called out in voices high and sweet as silver bells, a sharp ululating battle cry that seemed to shiver in the air. The jötnar roared their approval, screaming threats and praises to their gods.
And everywhere, running over and under and through the sound, was the call of the Wild Hunt, thunderclaps and howling winds, an avalanche pouring down the mountainside, wolves racing along the snow and the prey screaming beneath the sharp teeth.
Even the dead seemed to draw back at the sound.
With a wide, mad grin I lowered my head and bit down again. This corpse was fresher, its blood only slightly tainted with the flavor of decay, and its sweet taste was a balm in my throat. It spurred me on to greater and greater heights as we moved forward.
Time was a meaningless concept in the embrace of the Hunt. I understood that, on a level that went beyond rational thought. The Wild Hunt was timeless. This Hunt was at once my hunt and all hunts, the very concept of hunting distilled down to its purest essence. This was nature, red in tooth and claw, an idea as old as time and one that would never really die.
Could I hunt forever, wrapped in the endless storm and mad joy of the Wild Hunt? I thought I could. It was a frightening prospect, in a way, but there was also a sick temptation to it. It was the feeling you got when you stood at the edge of the building and thought, I could jump. It was seeing a stranger in the night and thinking, for just a heartbeat, of blood and sex and laughter in the dark without thought for morning.
This is how werewolves go mad, I thought again, but this time there was no fear. On the contrary, there was that same sick edge of hunger.
I could jump, and I would fall forever.
I shook my head, trying to drive that thought out. It wasn’t hard. Here, now, not to think was the easiest thing in the world. Another of the dead was in front of me and my teeth closed around its leg, pulled it down within my reach, and then I bit into its torso and ripped it almost in half.
And then, suddenly, the night was clear. I could feel my storm around me, and there were no more of the dead in front of me. I looked, and though there was no light to see, I did not need to see to see now.
And then I grinned and howled again, shuddering with joy. At last, we had reached our true prey.
At a glance, I wouldn’t have known him for a man. He was taller, close to ten feet tall, as though he’d been stretched. His movements left a trail in the air, a lingering darkness that went beyond the mere absence of light. He couldn’t see, but there was no hesitation in his movements, not even a momentary doubt.
More than anything else, though, what struck me about him, what told me just how far behind he’d left any pretense of humanity, was his scent. He reeked of death and decay, stank of maggots and worms, rotting meat and corruption. He breathed out and I would have flinched, but for the influence of the Wild Hunt that made the stench of rot and decay on my prey’s breath as sweet as blood and honey.
Another night, in another mind, I would have hesitated to attack someone like that. He was powerful enough to make an army of Watchers hesitate, and that meant he operated in an entirely different world than I did.
But here, tonight, with the moon singing in my blood and the Wild Hunt wrapping me in an arctic storm, there was no thought for that. He was my prey, and that was all that mattered.
Running forward, I leapt at him, jaws open. He swatted me out of the air with one arm, moving with a speed that left me breathless, but my teeth closed on his hand as he did, and the force of his own blow tore the flesh. I flew away with a mouthful of black blood and foul-smelling meat, and I gulped it down hungrily, and it tasted delightful, an explosion of flavor on my tongue that left me breathless.
His body repaired itself almost instantly, and he was whole as the rest of the Wild Hunt followed me in, circling around him. He kept walking forward at the same pace, uncaring for the forces that had enclosed him.
Hounds and wolves leapt at him, and he knocked them aside without breaking stride. The storm protected from the worst of it and they didn’t die, but neither had they accomplished anything much. The Sidhe were shooting at him now, long arrows that gleamed brightly in the darkness though there was no light to reflect. Most of them glanced off his skin, and those that struck did little. He kept walking, disregarding them though they stood out from his flesh on both sides.
Jötnar charged him, screaming and roaring almost incoherently, chopping at him with axes and swords, and again, they simply didn’t have an effect. He dodged the worst of the blows, his skin was tough enough to mitigate many of the others, and when he was cut the wound sealed itself within instants. It was like cutting water.
Then he reached out and grabbed one of them. The giant was as large as he was, but still the necromancer lifted him off the ground easily, as though he weighed nothing at all. He broke the jotun over his knee and tossed him aside, the storm already fading from around him when he hit the ground.
The other jötnar faded back warily. There was no fear—there couldn’t be fear, in the midst of the Wild Hunt—but there was a reasonable caution, an awareness of tactics.
I picked myself up and rushed forward again, and this time I did not try to kill him. I bit down on his ankle instead, tugging it backward with all my strength just as he lifted his other foot. The ground was slick with ice and the wind was pushing him and my teeth were deep enough in him to crunch bones, and in that moment he was still strong enough, he was still strong enough to stay standing.
Until Snowflake threw herself at his face, moving at a speed that put even the other hounds to shame, her white fur fading into the white storm, nothing visible of her but iron teeth glinting in the moonlight that wasn’t there.
Finally he overbalanced and fell, and I slid out of the way just in time for him to land on a spike of ice rather than me. The ice shattered, but sharp edges dug into his skin, helping to hold him down.
The pack fell on him while he was down, biting and tearing and keeping him from rising. I was beside the vampire who chose the form of a great wolf now, with one of the great wolves of the jötnar on my other side. The giant on his back swung a bearded axe in a long arc that slammed home between the necromancer’s shoulder blades and cut deep.
Still, nothing we were doing was obviously harming him. The wounds sealed themselves, the flesh we took was replaced, and afterwards all was as it had been before.
But I knew that we were depleting his life, I knew that this was accomplishing something. He only had so much stolen life hoarded up, and if we could wear him down, he was as mortal as anything else.
But that was little consolation when he reached out and grasped one of the wolves, and tore its life out in an instant. Our protections had done something against the aura of necromantic power, but against the directed power of the necromancer himself, they were nothing.
He dropped the wolf lifeless to the ground and a moment later it stood and began attacking its fellows, the cloud of the Wild Hunt gone from it. The necromancer reached out again, and only the swift intervention of the most human-looking vampire kept it from claiming another of the hounds.
Once again, many of the Hunters had to pull back. Every life he claimed made him stronger, undoing the work we’d done, and thus to surround him with the living was to threaten ourselves. The hounds, the wolves, the mages, all of them pulled back again, leaving him room to stand. I remained, tearing and biting and pulling at him, and the vampires were there, and so were some few of the jötnar.
Too few, I thought. He was standing again, and though I was pulling at his leg, he was braced against it now and he was stronger than I was. Even with the Wild Hunt lending me the power of giants and werewolves, even with the ice beneath his feet and the storm winds howling around us, he was stronger.
Three of the mages were talking to each other, or at least their lips were moving; the meaning was carried by the Hunt, not by the air. I could catch that meaning even if I couldn’t catch the words, and thus I knew to brace myself as they coordinated with each other and blasted at the necromancer with force and lightning. His muscles jerked and the force sent him reeling and now I could pull his leg out from under him and he fell again.
The lightning ran through his body and into mine, and I shuddered ecstatically at the feeling of the electricity surging through me to the ground. I knew that it was hurting me, that my fur was smoldering and my muscles were twitching and my pounding heart had skipped a beat in its course, but it just felt so good that I couldn’t help myself.
He was down again, and I was tearing at his flesh and the creatures beside me were biting and cutting at him while the rest of the Wild Hunt kept the dead at bay, and still, still nothing was visibly harming him.
And then I saw another figure, wreathed in the ice storm without quite being of it. It was dead, but it didn’t belong to the necromancer. Its bones were sheathed in ice, and over that there was a layer of dark fog that kept the storm of the Hunt at bay. Pale blue lights blazed in the skeleton’s empty eye sockets, bright and pure as tiny suns in the darkness.
I looked at the skeleton, and suddenly I had an idea. I had a wonderful, terrible idea.
I thought I could feel Legion smiling as the demon moved off into the darkness. It didn’t matter. I knew what to do.
Tyrfing came readily to my call, appearing by my side. The storm caressed it gently, and it was an easy thing for the wind and the ice and the darkness to undo the catch and slide the cursed blade gently out of its sheath.
The storm stood still, for just a moment, and the necromancer turned to stare, stopping momentarily in his attempts to stand.
The air lifted the blade and I took the hilt in my mouth. Ice formed around it, twisting it around and holding it tightly in place. More ice coated the cutting edge, glittering gently in the glow of the lightning which cracked the night again, slamming the necromancer back to the ground.
I lunged forward and bit down again, and this time it wasn’t teeth that hit the necromancer’s flesh, it was Tyrfing.
The sword sliced off a chunk of flesh, and this time it didn’t grow back.
The necromancer screamed and swung one fist at me, but one of the jötnar seized his arm and held it in place, pinning it to the frozen ground. Another jotun grabbed his other arm and held it down, and a swarm of wolves piled onto his legs, so that he couldn’t move at all.
I moved into position and bit down. Tyrfing plunged through the center of his head without slowing at all, and the tip bit into my own lower jaw.
I shuddered in pleasure at that, letting out a low, incoherent moan.
The necromancer jerked against the hunters holding him down, and then went still.
And then the darkness began to fade, letting the moonlight shine down on the scene.
All around us, the dead fell to the ground again, clumsy and lifeless.
A crowd of mages and other fighters stood around the edge of the area which had been drained in life. They watched in shock as I pulled the sword back out of the necromancer’s body and threw my head back, howling once again as the moonlight flooded down onto me. Blood dripped red and black from my jaws as I howled, and the Wild Hunt howled with me.
Then I looked out at the crowd again, grinning a broad, bloody grin. Some part of me could recognize that they weren’t my enemy. Some of them were even friends of a sort.
But I could smell the hot blood of my prey, bright and red and full of life, and after so much dead meat and corrupted blood, it would be a great pleasure to hunt another sort of prey.
We howled again, jötnar prayers and Sidhe war cries and above all else the high, sweet howls of wolves delighting in the moon and the hunt and the victory.
The smarter of the prey began to run.