Before I could move to chase the fleeing prey, I became aware of a change in the atmosphere, a shifting of the air.
A handful of men and women were stepping out of the crowd. They were dressed in simple robes, one and all, but there was a power and a confidence to them that defied anyone to think them insignificant.
There were nine in total, forming a broad arc between us and the rest of the prey. Most of them looked tired, favored injuries, but they weren’t running, and their attention was focused on me.
A werewolf’s ears were sharp enough to hear as one spoke to another. “Fool got himself killed,” the blue robe said.
Black shook his head, though he kept his eyes on us. “Not quite yet,” he said. “Though it was a rash choice. To call the Wild Hunt with so weak a will…he will be lucky to survive.”
The darker blue snorted. “The Hunt might not kill him,” he said. “But the stupid is terminal. Trust me on that.”
“Enough,” white said, with a tone of command that silenced the others instantly. “Walker, begin evacuating. Arbiter, Keeper, establish defenses. The rest of us will keep them off you.”
Their conversation had been interesting at first, but I was losing interest. So I threw myself forward, and the Wild Hunt came with me, moving as a single unit. They were half a mile away or more. We could reach them in a matter of moments.
The white robe was almost within the storm when he sighed and raised his hand. With that warning I wrapped the Wild Hunt around myself more thickly, the storm thickening to something closer to a sheet of ice, the defensive magics of the Sidhe sliding over my skin like chilled silk. Secure behind my defenses, I grinned and kept moving.
The storm took something of the force out of the blast, and the warding spells took more, draining its energy away.
What was left was enough to pick me up and send me sailing backwards through the air faster than I could run. Bones broke and flesh tore from the acceleration.
The storm cushioned my fall when I finally came to earth again, softening the blow. I still broke further, and bounced, skipping and skidding along for another fifty feet before hitting a dead tree and knocking it down.
I lay there for a moment, panting. It was hard to breathe with my ribcage crushed, and every movement sent a shock of sensation through me as it pulled against broken ribs, broken spine, shattered pelvis.
Ice sealed the gaps in my flesh and pulled them shut, and as I pushed myself to my feet the storm tugged and pulled at me, tugging bones back to where they should be. It felt good, little spikes of cold pleasure going through me with every movement. The bones would take a few minutes to heal, but in the meantime ice would serve to fill the gaps, adjusting to my movements as necessary.
Only the Hunt could see me through the storm—it was so thick now that I had no doubt of that—but I took a moment to cover my skin in frost anyway, mimicking the fur that had been torn away. I couldn’t have said why, except that it amused me.
I saw that the prey were escaping, marching through holes between the worlds, and snarled in cheated wrath. Standing again, I threw myself at them again, faster than before. Every step, every breath, sent more sensations rushing through me, and I laughed to feel them, my own blood dripping onto my fur and freezing there.
The rest of the Wild Hunt had reached the humans in robes, but were faring no better against them. In a sense, I could see that this was very nearly the worst-case scenario for us. We excelled at culling the weak, the slow, the young. Against a single strong target we could surround them, keep up the pressure and capitalize on any mistake, the way we had against the necromancer.
Here, the prey were much too powerful to be taken down with the casual brutality with which we had killed the dead. But they were too numerous and too quick to be overwhelmed as the necromancer had been. They hit back just as hard as he had, though. A direct hit from the white’s force magic sent us flying half a mile or more, and even with the storm to guide and protect us, not all of the Hunters rose again after being struck with such power. The violet’s lightning sliced through the storm with startling precision. She was as blind as I and lacked the Hunt to compensate, but she did not miss her targets. Even the Sidhe could not dodge aside swiftly enough to escape.
The last of the other prey in sight stepped out of this world, and the last hole sealed shut behind him. The nine people in their colored robes fell back and formed a tighter group. I could smell the barriers around them, defensive spells that would keep us at bay. There was layer on layer of barrier there, and I knew just from the smell that there was no way we were going to be breaking through.
And then we were all forcefully reminded that there were more people there than just the Wild Hunt and the prey. When we’d first entered the field of the dead, a small group of alien beings had come with us, too strange and abstract to join the Hunt, but also so far removed from anything we knew that it was impossible to categorize them as prey.
They had entered the darkness beside us, and they had stayed beside us as the necromancer fell, and they were still beside us now. Except now one of them reached out and did something. It was impossible to say quite what; the thing’s magic was as alien and abstract as the thing itself. It felt somehow sideways to reality, a line drawn perpendicular to everything I understood.
I might not know what it was, or what it had done, but I knew what the results were. Their protections, the defenses they had raised to keep us safely at bay, were gone, wiped away without a trace. It was odd; they hadn’t been dispelled or overpowered. I would have understood that. This was more like they had been entirely erased, simply wiped out of existence.
I leapt forward, grinning widely. They lashed out with their power, but they had been caught by surprise by the disappearance of their defenses, and they were slow to react. Before they could do anything to stop me I had pounced on the woman in the green robe, bearing her to the ground with my weight. I bit her neck and she screamed, pulled and bit deeper and the screaming stopped.
The pale woman in the blue robe stopped trying to burn me and gasped a few words. A moment later, as I released my prey and turned for the next, she let out a powerful surge of magic, scented with disinfectant and wide-open spaces, a long breeze flowing over the plains.
All of the prey vanished, leaving the green behind. She was dying, if not dead already. I looked around and saw them standing on a hill a quarter of a mile away. The blue fell to one knee, gasping, needing to lean on a piece of wood to stay even that close to upright.
I started in that direction, grinning, then paused. Something was holding me back, though I hadn’t noticed until I tried to move.
I looked back and saw that the yellow had her hand clasped tightly around my hind leg. She spoke a few words in a language I couldn’t place. Chinese, perhaps, or something from the same vicinity. Even had I known the language I couldn’t have understood her. Her voice was halting, choked with blood.
I smiled indulgently and watched her die.
And then a hammer of magic slammed me to the ground, knocking me out in an instant.
Things got confusing after that.
There was darkness, and pain. I felt cold, and then very hot, and then cold again. Odd colors burned against the blackness. I heard singing, quavery singing in a language I didn’t know, and then the singing turned into screaming and a massive technicolor macaroni penguin swallowed me. I rolled over, and that really hurt, and someone told me to be quiet, which was funny because I hadn’t said anything. I tried to tell them so, but all that came out was a growly sort of whimper, and that hurt too.
At some point, I realized that a lot of what I was feeling and seeing was probably a hallucination. The penguin was a bit of a giveaway, really. The hell of it, though, was that knowing it wasn’t real didn’t do me any good at all in terms of knowing what was. I opened my eyes and saw storm clouds swirling over my face, a beam of vivid green light tying itself in knots, a giant wearing velvet and carrying a massive axe with a head made out of ice. What, if any, of it was real? I couldn’t say, couldn’t even guess.
Unconsciousness would have been nice. But I didn’t have that luxury. I couldn’t tell what was real, couldn’t process or think about what was going on at all, couldn’t move beyond the occasional twitch, but I was conscious.
I closed my eyes again and lay there shuddering while the world spun around me.
The next clear impression I got was someone talking in my ear. It was a quiet female voice, which I recognized as Selene after a few seconds.
“Change,” she said. “The doctor’s here, but she needs you to change. Come on, jarl, change for me.”
I had no idea what she was talking about, not really. But Selene was one of my most trustworthy followers, and if she told me to change, there was a reason for it. So I reached inside, to where skin met fur, and twisted.
It’s hard for a werewolf to scream during the change. Your body’s all twisted around, things don’t connect right and it isn’t doing what you tell it to.
I screamed. There were times it was loud and piercing, times when all I could manage was an agonized whimper, but I screamed. It wasn’t just the pain, though there was plenty of that, enough to make most changes look like a pleasant trip to the spa. Worse than that was the feeling of intrusion, the sense that there were things inside me that did not belong there and weren’t responding the way they should to my magic. It felt like it took me an hour to tear myself apart, and five to put myself back together.
The whole time, Selene was murmuring gentle encouragements into my ear. It was weird, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t scare me a little to have a demon sitting there encouraging me, but it did give me something to focus on other than the pain.
Finally, after what felt like a small eternity, it was over. I collapsed back against what felt like a stack of pillows. I was lying in a bed on the upper floor of the mansion, back in Colorado, in one of the housecarl’s rooms. I recognized it, even if I hadn’t spent much time there.
The sheets were damp, and shredded where I’d torn them during the change. It smelled like blood, sweat, and urine in there, and I knew I was to blame for all three. I was naked, of course.
Another time, I might have felt awkward about this combination of circumstances. At the moment, I was mostly too busy feeling exhausted and in pain. Mostly.
“Good,” Selene said, standing from her chair by the head of the bed. “I’ll go get her. You just lie still.”
I was too tired to argue, so I just lay slumped against the pillows as she left. She came back in about a minute later, with two people following her. The first was the same doctor I’d taken Snowflake to, her pristine white lab coat flapping around her legs as she walked.
The second was Aiko, who looked about as tired as I felt. “Hey,” she said, moving over and sitting by my side, grabbing my hand and holding it tightly. “Sorry I couldn’t be here earlier. The doc said I shouldn’t be in the room with you.”
The doctor snorted. “I should bloody well say so,” she said. “I mean bloody hell I really don’t think you people have even the foggiest idea how much danger you were in here. Do you have even an idea and I mean even the tiniest idea of how much damage he’d have done if he woke up in the wrong way? Jesus, the way you amateurs fuck about with that which you don’t understand scares me some times. Now lie still.”
This last was directed at me, and made more ominous by the fact that she had a scalpel out in one hand and a mouth mirror in the other. “What are you doing?” I asked, edging away a little.
“I’m taking a looksee at what we’re dealing with here, what d’you think I’m doing, really, this isn’t that complicated, people. Now lie still, and yes, this is going to hurt, what kind of pansy are you anyway?”
It did hurt, but it wasn’t actually as bad as I’d been expecting. She mostly just used the scalpel to hold open cuts that were already there while she probed around inside with the mirror. Only once did she actually cut deeply into flesh, and even then it was so sharp that I didn’t feel much pain.
“All right,” she said, taking a step back from the bed and wiping the tools off on the sheets before dropping them into a pocket. “Now I first want to make it very clear that this is a special case and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen someone with their bones turning into ice before so you get no guarantees on any goddamn word out of my mouth right now. That said, it looks like it’s healing okay and the ice is apparently fused with your flesh in a way that will eventually recover, so aside from being a total freak of nature you don’t have a think to worry about.”
“Gee,” I said dryly. “How comforting. My bones are turning into ice?”
“Turned,” she corrected me. “In a few places mostly around the ribs and joints. And honestly you should be grateful, because if they hadn’t you’d probably be dead and definitely be paralyzed, since it looks like you snapped your spine like a fucking toothpick. How the hell did this happen anyway?”
I coughed, wincing as I did so. “I kind of joined the Wild Hunt for a while,” I said weakly. “Um. As the leader.”
She stared at me, and something about the expression emphasized the odd, almost reddish tone of her black irises.
It wasn’t until then that I realized I could see again. It was a bit blurry, especially for things more than about ten feet away, but I could see. That was pretty freaking nice.
“That,” she said, “is possibly the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” I protested. “Loki roped me into it!”
She continued to stare. “You are not improving things,” she said solemnly before turning to Selene. “He’ll be wanting a few days of bed rest that we both know he isn’t going to get but I kinda had to say it anyway,” she said. “And maybe keep him out of the heat for a while, ’cause how the fuck do I know what happens to him if that ice melts? I mean it should be melting already and it isn’t so maybe it doesn’t matter but I, personally, wouldn’t be taking chances with that if they were my bones. I checked up on the dog, too, and apparently being in the Wild Hunt of all fucking things to do with a brain injury was actually good for her. Passed out right now, but condition’s stable and actually better than it was.”
“Thanks,” Selene said.
The doctor snorted. “You thank me with payment,” she said bluntly. “Send it to my Cairo address. Okay, good luck and whatnot, buh-bye now, please don’t call me again for at least a week, you people need help from another kind of doctor if you know what I mean, have a nice day!”
She swept out of the room with another swish of her lab coat, leaving the space feeling much emptier. Which was odd, considering that she was the smallest one in there by a considerable margin.
“So,” I said. “Killed the necromancer in Russia, along with a whole lot of other people. Most of them were dead already, though, so that’s okay. Might have killed some people that I wasn’t supposed to kill; my memory’s a little fuzzy. How’d it go here?”
“Nothing like as exciting as your evening,” Selene said dryly. “Though we do have some news.”
Before she could say anything else, the door opened again. This time I wasn’t the only one to cringe away from the people that entered.
There were two of them, one male and one female, and both of them carried power around them like a mantle, thick and rich. The intense, musky scent of fox was heavy in the air, almost choking even to me, and I liked the way foxes smell. He was dressed in a sharp black suit, while she was wearing a grey kimono with a simple floral pattern in black.
And, in case there were any doubt of what they were, bright red fox tails protruded from the rear of their clothing. He had seven, tipped with white and waving cheerfully. She had nine, lacking the paler tip and very, very still.
I gulped hard. Seven tails was bad enough. Nine was…well, it made an impression.
He waved to me, but she dismissed me as completely as if I weren’t even there, all her attention on Aiko. “What is the meaning of this?” she asked, her voice so calm and level that you just knew there was something else underneath.
Aiko looked at her mother and swallowed. “Um,” she said. “Hi?”