I’d been to the Isle of Shadows before. But this was still a very novel experience.
For one thing, I wasn’t the same person I’d been back then. I’d changed, on a lot of levels. I didn’t see the world the same way anymore, literally or figuratively. And not just because the only other time I’d come here I’d been in a psychotic rage and unable to think clearly. Or at all, really.
For another, the context was completely different. The last time I’d been here, I’d come to unseat the Queen with violence and destruction. This time was…well, pretty much the exact opposite of that.
I still hadn’t fully wrapped my head around that. Or any of this, really. It was a lot to get used to, and I hadn’t even finished adapting to how my own mental functions had changed. That was a pretty vital first step when it came to adjusting to other massive upsets.
This visit started about the same way as the last one. Aiko did the portals, of course. She’d always been better with that sort of magic than I was, and the role she’d adopted had done a lot to widen that gap. Messing around with the structure of the Otherside was a major part of what a Faerie Queen did. That was what the title meant.
Aiko was good. She was one of the best I’d ever seen. She could open a portal in a couple of seconds while carrying on a conversation, and she made it look easy. They were so smooth that even Snowflake barely even stumbled.
That, in itself, did a lot to drive things home. I’d taken portals that smooth in the past, but only very rarely, and they were always the result of a major power taking an interest. Someone like Ryujin, or a Twilight Prince. That was the league Aiko was playing in, now. In one step she’d gone from being a fairly minor member of a fairly minor faction to a notable factor on the world stage.
The three of us stepped out of the last portal into Faerie. We were standing on the path leading up to the castle, back in the island. Like the last time I’d been there, it was thronging with creatures from the Midnight Court. Unlike the last time, though, they weren’t trying to kill me.
Instead, the instant Aiko appeared, they knelt and bowed their heads in her direction.
All of them. At once.
“Is this normal?” I asked in a whisper. Not that it would probably matter, given who we were dealing with. It seemed like a safe bet that a lot of the fae could hear my heartbeat, let alone a whisper. Except that I didn’t have a heartbeat anymore. You need a heart for that.
“No idea,” she replied, even more quietly. “This is the first time I’ve been here since I…you know…did it.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered. “Well, don’t let them see you flinch.” I offered her my arm, and she rested her fingers lightly on my elbow as we started up the path.
Not one of the fae said a word. There wasn’t a sound as we walked up the hill. They weren’t even breathing. I’d have known if they were. They stayed there, kneeling on the ground, until we were out of sight.
There were a lot of them, too. Enough that I gave up counting after a few hundred, and we weren’t all that far up the path. And they didn’t stop until we’d made it all the way up to the castle bridge.
I was a little hesitant to step out onto that bridge. The last time I’d done so, it bucked under my feet and threw me back to the shore, which would be rather embarrassing.
Aiko showed no such hesitation, and the stone didn’t so much as twitch. It did twitch when I stepped on it, and kept quivering under my feet the whole way across, but it didn’t go any further than that.
Across the moat, we were in the courtyard. It looked much the same, but my awareness of it had changed dramatically. I was still cognizant that it was a barren, utterly lifeless field of stone. But that was a side note, much less important than the less obvious things I could feel about the space. I could sense the currents of power running through it, torrents of energy rushing by just beneath my feet and on every side. They smelled dark, and subtle, but beyond that I couldn’t say much about them. There was too much there for me to process, even now.
Even more than that, though, I was acutely aware of the meaning of the space. I had an impression of what the courtyard, and the castle which encompassed it, were intended for, the context in which they existed. I could feel the creeping fear that was inherent in it, the deception and power. It smelled dark and quiet, like secrets and sadness, regret without remorse. It tingled on my skin, to the extent that I had skin.
And as a final note, there was a constant awareness of…well, me. I had a sort of perpetual connection to the ideas that were most important to my makeup. I could feel cold, not in the sense of being cold, but in the sense of instinctively knowing where to find cold in my vicinity. I could feel the presence of predatory minds outside the walls, the hunger there.
Between processing all that and the constant effort involved in things like walking, I didn’t have all that much attention left for actually looking at things.
The castle around the courtyard all looked about the same to me—which was, itself, probably the result of some kind of fae shenanigans, since the side we’d just come from seemed like it should have been less heavily built. Aiko, though, seemed to know exactly where she was going as she walked up to one of the tall, narrow spires and opened the door.
Then again, she would. Being on what was, now, her home ground, I was guessing she was getting an incredible amount of information as a sort of constant feed. I could almost feel the connection between her and the island, subtle but very much present once I knew to look for it.
Inside, the building was far larger than it should have been, a vast, echoing hall rather than a narrow spire. Par for the course, with the Sidhe. It was, of course, empty, the black stone lacking any sort of decoration or indicator of purpose.
Aiko ignored all of that and went straight to a staircase in the corner. It was an impossible staircase, thin slabs of black marble stacked in a tight spiral with no other form of support. In a rational world, it couldn’t have supported its own weight, and the staircase would have collapsed into a pile of broken stone. As it was, it was a perfectly serviceable spiral staircase.
It led both up and down from where we were. Naturally, we did not start climbing.
It was a long way down. A very, very long way, descending through a shaft no wider than the staircase itself. It was tight enough to trigger my claustrophobia, although it didn’t manifest the way it once had. There wasn’t fear, or even unease—no emotional reaction at all, in fact. There was just an abstract, cerebral sort of awareness of it. I knew that I was uncomfortable, that my current surroundings were upsetting me. I knew that I should be a little nervous, or even actively afraid. But the actual fear reaction just…wasn’t there.
I didn’t get tired, either. That had been one of the strangest things for me to get used to. Not having flesh meant that simple things like walking and breathing, which had once been so rote as to be entirely thoughtless, were instead difficult and demanding. But it also meant that I wasn’t susceptible to the weaknesses of the flesh. I could still get tired mentally, but I simply didn’t have a physical fatigue response.
Aiko, similarly, didn’t get tired as we descended the stairs. Her movements were casually, effortlessly perfect. She didn’t stumble, didn’t slow down, didn’t have to pause.
Snowflake, though, was still mortal, still flesh and blood. And she was not pleased about this. You don’t know how good you have it, she grouched to me when we were about two hundred steps in.
I could carry you, I offered. I had to pause for a second to do so; stairs were enough of a challenge, when it felt like I was operating a marionette rather than actually walking myself. In a sense, I supposed that perception wasn’t inaccurate. Not that it mattered too much, since the stairs were narrow enough that we had to go in single file, and I was at the back of the line.
That’s a good point, she said. Why aren’t you carrying me?
Rather than answer her, I sped up slightly and pulled her up off the ground, cradling her in my arms. It wasn’t hard. I wasn’t quite as strong using this puppet-body of ice and darkness as I had been back when I was housed in my own flesh and bone, but it also didn’t weigh nearly as much. I could make it move very, very fast when I wanted to.
The next twenty minutes passed in a steady, uneventful routine. The only real concern was boredom, which was alleviated considerably when Snowflake started telling impressively filthy jokes to break up the monotony. Aiko got in on it too; being largely unable to hear Snowflake was no longer a problem she had. One of the perks of the job, presumably.
I tried to remember to laugh—or, as was more appropriate for a lot of the jokes, groan. Neither one was an automatic response for me, anymore. They were things I had to think about, and even when I remembered, they didn’t sound right. It was like telling jokes to the Terminator. There was always that momentary pause, while I tried to remember what I was supposed to sound like, and even when I did respond, it sounded artificial.
I didn’t even try for a reaction more elaborate than that, and definitely not for actually contributing jokes myself. I was having a hard enough time managing things as it was. I figured being a bit less fun than I might have been was preferable to taking a tumble down the endless staircase.
We’d gone down a similar staircase last time. But that one had ended at a similarly vast hallway, and this time it was just a door.
It didn’t look like much. The stone of the door was glossier than that we’d seen elsewhere in this castle, something like an enormous slab of obsidian. But beyond that, there was nothing particularly remarkable about this door.
I had an intense feeling of foreboding looking at it, though. This one wasn’t the result of weird magical senses, though. It was just because I knew what was on the other side, and I’d have needed to be utterly, irrevocably mad to not be frightened at the prospect.
“Are you ready?” I asked quietly.
“Oh, hell no,” Aiko replied. “Not even a little bit.”
“Me neither,” I said. “You going to do it anyway? Because I did not get the impression that this was optional.”
“If it were optional, we wouldn’t be here,” she said. She took a deep breath, then shook her head briskly. “Okay. Let’s get it over with.”
I nodded and stepped forward to open the door for her. She stepped through first, trying her best to look authoritative and arrogant. She didn’t do a very good job of it. It wasn’t a look that came naturally to her. Aiko was good at cocky, but the formality and gravitas she was going for here just weren’t her.
The room inside the door was small. That was the first thing I noticed about it. It was small, and simple, almost cozy. There was a wooden table, not big enough to seat more than a dozen friendly people, and three chairs. A couple of empty bookshelves. That was it.
Two of the chairs were already occupied. I recognized one of the occupants, though there wasn’t a whole lot there to recognize. Her black cloak didn’t show anything of what might be underneath, not even a tiny bit of skin. I didn’t know her name, and I wouldn’t dare to use the names I could guess she’d used in the past. I called her Grandmother Midnight, because that was what she was—the eldest queen of the Midnight Court, the matriarch of the wicked fairies.
I had not, to the best of my knowledge, encountered the other being in that room before. She was beautiful, of course, in the overwhelming, inhuman, almost painful way that the high Sidhe usually were. She looked a whole lot like Scáthach had, in fact, at least at first glance. She had the same alabaster-white skin, the same raven-black hair. Only the eyes were different, a few shades darker—the green of a forest in summer, rather than spring.
Aside from her physical appearance, though, the difference was obvious. Her bearing had none of the playful mockery that Scáthach had exhibited, none of her thinly veiled sadism. The only thing that showed through her mask was a sort of detached, businesslike interest.
In other ways, the difference was even more dramatic. She smelled powerful, in a way that Scáthach never had. She’d been a powerhouse, of course, but this was something entirely different, in the sense that a military-grade assault rifle was different than a popgun. There was really no comparison.
This, presumably, was Mab, the middle queen of the Midnight Court and the one who most often acted as the Court’s political head. She was a force of nature, the sort of being that most people thought of only as a bogeyman, although she still wasn’t a match for Grandmother Midnight.
Between the two of them, though, this was very possibly the single most dangerous meeting I’d ever attended. That was a high bar, too.
They ignored me and Snowflake entirely as we walked in. No, ignoring wasn’t the word. It was more like they were aware of our presence, and dismissed it utterly as unworthy of their attention.
No, they only had eyes for Aiko as she walked in and took the third seat, with me and Snowflake standing behind her.
“Welcome to the family,” Grandmother Midnight said, with a chuckle that sent shivers down my spine.