The one and only time I’d seen Scáthach really fight, it had been a fairly straightforward deal. Terrifying, yes, but straightforward. She’d been all aggression, quick and deadly to an extent that very, very few people could ever hope to match. It had, essentially, been a manifestation of the ruthless, predatory nature of the Midnight Court.
But Aiko had never been that sort of person. Like she’d said, the aspect of the Midnight Court that she was most comfortable with was the deceptive, mischievous one. She was first and foremost a trickster, and that showed in how she manifested the power of her role.
So where Scáthach had been a straightforward and vicious fighter, Aiko was more of a presence. She’d always been good with illusions and deceptions. But that wasn’t even in the same world as what she was capable of now. I saw that very clearly when I climbed back to the top of the hill and got a good, bird’s-eye view of the battle.
At first, it wasn’t really obvious. That was the craziest thing about it. At a glance, it was hard to tell what was even happening. It was clear, after a moment, that the Midnight forces were generally prevailing, but it was hard to say quite why.
Once I looked closer, though, I saw the layers of potent, subtle magic drifting over the fight. Here, a strand of darkness obscured a blade at the critical moment, and the parry wasn’t quite at the right angle to stop it. There, a Sidhe warrior threw a burst of fire at the wrong targets, duped into thinking that a group of his own allies were Midnight gnomes about to fall on him with their knives. A troll placed its foot ever so slightly wrong, and brought a dozen other people to the ground with it when it stumbled.
Once I realized what I was seeing, I just stared in shock. It was…hard to process quite what was going on. Individually, none of this was beyond what I’d seen her manage before–particularly on the Otherside, where that sort of magic was so much easier than in my world.
But this wasn’t magic on the individual scale. This was juggling dozens of spells at once, every one of which was perfectly crafted and deployed at just the right moment. Moreover, she was using this magic on the Sidhe. They had a well-deserved reputation as masters of deception; this kind of thing was second nature to them. Before this, I would have said that fooling even one of them with a magical illusion would be a chancy endeavor for her, possible but not by any means certain.
Now, she was managing it on hundreds of them, at once, without any particular sign of difficulty.
The moment when I realized that was…well, it was sort of the same as when I’d seen the scale of this engagement. It was something that utterly redefined my image of the world and my place in it.
I’d always known that the Faerie Queens were far outside of my level, beyond anything that I was capable of even putting up a struggle against. But it was one thing to know that, and another entirely to see it.
And this was the weakest Queen of the Court, after having her power for a very, very short time. Just a handful of days. Relative to the other Queens, Aiko was pretty much a fumbling child.
As I watched, the Daylight forces stopped fighting, and started retreating. It was a neat, orderly retreat–the undisciplined mob had long since been slaughtered, leaving just the disciplined soldiery left. But it was still very much a retreat, very much a sign that they’d lost.
The Midnight army chased them up to the top of the other hill, to where they’d made their camp, and then stopped. Which made sense; following them past that point would be a dangerous move, one that would leave them exposed and probably surrounded. The fae were many things, but impatient was seldom one of them; immortality tended to do that to a person.
I wasn’t really watching that, though. I was mostly staring at the field behind them. And the bodies lying there.
There were…an awful lot of them. Hundreds, at least. Maybe a couple thousand. I wasn’t about to count them.
Aodh hadn’t been wrong. Watching this had been…enlightening. On multiple levels.
I suddenly realized that I should probably not be standing and staring like a moron, and jerked into motion again. I started walking towards the Midnight camp, slowly at first, then at a run.
As before, nobody tried to stop me. I got a few respectful nods as I passed, a few scowls. But nobody got anywhere close to getting in my way.
I found Aiko almost exactly where I’d left her. She was still surrounded by the elite troops of the Midnight Court, enough people that it would take a small army to even get to her. Which, going back to what Aodh had been saying, was probably more a political statement than anything. It wasn’t that she was worried about being assassinated; at this point, there couldn’t be that many people capable of murdering her if they wanted to, and anyone who could wasn’t about to be stopped by this.
But being surrounded by those people was a statement of power. It said that she had them available if she wanted to. On a more subtle level, it said that she could win this battle so easily that she didn’t even need to send her best troops. I was guessing that any one of these people could have taken a sizable chunk out of the enemy army, and there were dozens of them.
Snowflake was rather noticeably out of place, lying on the ground next to Aiko’s feet. She was panting, and her teeth were stained with fluids in a startling variety of colors. Through my bond with her, I could feel a tired, satisfied smugness from her.
“That went well,” I said.
“It did, too,” Aiko agreed, grinning. There was something forced about the expression, though I doubted I’d have realized it if I didn’t know her so very well. I’d realized fairly early on that a lot of her cheerful persona was a mask. And while that mask was very, very good, in that moment I’d have bet a fair amount that she wasn’t happy in the least.
But with the fae, appearances were a very real, tangible sort of power. The difference between what something seemed and what it was was, on a basic level, a blurry one. That was the whole point of this exercise; it wasn’t enough to be powerful, for her to fill her role. She had to be seen as powerful. That was why she’d had to be the one to win this fight in the eyes of the Courts, and that was why she had to seem like she enjoyed doing it. Anything else would be seen as another kind of weakness, in the Midnight Court.
For me to express sympathy or concern, even casually, would undermine that message. And that would just mean that we had to do this whole thing over again.
So I grinned back. “Shame I had to go so soon,” I said. “But I was…unavoidably detained.”
“Indeed,” she said. “Your opponent escaped you, I take it?”
“This time,” I said, feeling very conscious of the Sidhe watching. “Next time? We’ll see.”
“I expect we will,” she said. “In any case, today has been…productive. Now, I believe that our agents in the mortal world have found your next target. Go and confirm this. If you do find them…well, do what you need to do.”
I wanted to argue, to offer to go with her back to that dark castle and provide what comfort I could in the wake of the battle. But she hadn’t left much room for me to do so without, again, undermining her authority, which she wasn’t established enough to afford at this point. And she knew it, which meant that she wanted to be alone.
I couldn’t blame her. I mean, what was I supposed to do here? Tell her that everything was okay? That would be a blatant lie, and we both knew it. Faerie Queen was not a job you could quit once you started. Once you were in, you were in for life.
This was the reality we got. It was too late for us to change that. It was probably too late a long time ago. Nothing to do now but play out the hand we were dealt.
I opened my mouth, then closed it a moment later. There was nothing to say, even if we weren’t being watched. So I just nodded.
Aiko opened the portal, and Snowflake and I left.
I didn’t waste any time getting to the next part of the job. That would have meant time to think, and I didn’t want to think right now. The idea of being alone with my thoughts at the moment was…not appealing.
Aiko’s portal dropped us just out front of the mansion in Colorado Springs. Inside, things were a chaotic mess. Or, rather, a different sort of chaotic mess than usual. I’d gotten fairly accustomed to the throne room being slightly crazed, full of activity and people running around on various jobs. This was more or less the same, but everything was focused around a single task. Folders and notebooks were splayed out on tables, hard drives were attached to computer equipment several steps more complicated than I was capable of understanding, with people standing around and comparing notes.
“Tell me you’ve got something,” I said, as I walked in the door. People stopped what they were doing, and turned to stare at me. And then kept staring.
I realized, somewhat belatedly, that I’d forgotten to put a guise of flesh and blood on over the constructed body underneath.
Well, that cat was out of the bag. It was bound to happen eventually. Granted, I hadn’t expected it to happen quite this soon, but it didn’t really matter. As far as I could tell, my position was still secure, and even if they figured out what was going on here, most of my minions were unlikely to desert me on the basis of this.
Somewhat to my surprise, the first person to speak up wasn’t one of my usual minions. He was one of the computer nerds Selene had brought in to work on the encrypted files.
“We, ah, we’ve got something,” he said. “Still working on getting past some of this, they were fairly thorough. But the paper trail, the parts that they’ve decoded, it’s making a lot of reference to a headquarters of some kind. They don’t actually list an address, but some of the electronic records weren’t completely scrubbed, and–”
“Okay,” I said, interrupting him. “Let’s be honest, I’m not going to understand what you did here. I don’t have the grounding to appreciate your work, and I won’t insult you by pretending otherwise. Do we have a location, or not?”
He paused, then nodded. “We think we managed to piece together a set of latitude and longitude coordinates. I checked the paper files that they haven’t managed to decode, and the same numbers showed up a couple times there. Looks like a warehouse complex in Philadelphia, near the docks.”
“Cool,” I said. “Can you get me a picture? Satellite photography or something?”
“Already did,” he said, grabbing a stack of papers off a table. “Satellite photos, topo map of the area, and building blueprints for the complex. Also information on the companies that maintain warehouses in the area, partial records from the construction process, and some information on people who might be involved with operations there, although that’s highly speculative.” He handed the papers to me.
I paused before taking them, and would have blinked if that was a thing I did. That kind of initiative was…impressive. And the ability to dig up that much information, of course, but I was really more impressed that he’d taken the initiative to do so. “What’s your name?” I asked, taking the papers.
“Greg Baker,” he said.
I nodded. “You ever want a steady job, Greg,” I said, “you call me. I’ve always got room for skilled people.”
He smiled, a very thin smile that didn’t reach his eyes at all. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.
“Do.” I turned, looking for Selene, and as usual she appeared next to me before I could do much more than glance around the room. “Get a team together,” I said to her. “And…crap. I guess I need some information on who matters in Philadelphia. So get that together, too.”
She paused. “When you say ‘who matters,’ what sense are you looking for?”
“Well,” I said, “if these people really are out to get anyone who isn’t pure human, it occurs to me that there are probably a lot of people in Philly who would be interested in giving us a hand cleaning them out.”
Selene smiled at that. It was a rather more…honest expression than Greg’s, I thought. “Excellent, jarl. I’ll start making inquiries.”
“Great,” I said. “Let me know when you’re done. I’ll be looking over this stuff.”