Transylvania hadn’t changed.
It was funny, the extent to which that dominated my thoughts. As Snowflake and I climbed the winding path to the castle, avoiding the booby traps with the ease of habit so ingrained that it had ceased to even be a thought, I found myself thinking that very strongly. Transylvania hadn’t changed.
Compared to the rest of the world, that was already enough to make it a very exceptional place. It had been five months, now, since Loki issued the broadcast heard round the world. In that time, the fundamental nature of the world had changed on almost every level. Nothing was the same. Nothing would ever be the same again.
But in the remote mountains of Transylvania? Here, the changes were…immaterial. There were no people here, no governments, no cities. It was just mountains, hills, and forests. They were still changeable, of course; nothing really lasts forever. But they were on a scale that didn’t even recognize the petty squabbling of humanity. They were here before people; they would be here afterward.
It was a thought I’d taken comfort in before, when the chaos first broke out. The notion that some things were stable, that there were things that wouldn’t fall apart, had been a comforting one.
Now, I still found it a comforting notion. But it was for an entirely different reason. Then, I’d been concerned about the changes in the world. Now, I was concerned about the changes in myself.
I started to unlock the massive front doors, then paused. I didn’t have keys. I’d had a set when I left, but somewhere along the way they’d gotten lost. Probably when my body was incinerated by napalm, in the first Lighter base; that seemed like the sort of thing that could do that.
It didn’t matter. The main defense here was the warding spells, and those didn’t respond to a physical object. I took them down, then popped the locks open with a quick twist of air and magic. Once inside, I activated the wards again, and locked the many locks, and then continued into the castle. I didn’t turn on the lights. I didn’t need them.
Snowflake was with me, walking at my side. I could feel her quiet happiness, the same vague comfort that I’d been feeling moments earlier. The idea that maybe, just maybe, things would be all right after all, that there was going to be something left after this chaos burned itself out. I could feel, too, her awareness of my mood, and that she was not thrilled by it, and didn’t know what to do about it.
Neither of us put words to the thoughts. There weren’t words for this.
In the lab, I did turn on the lights. I had an acute sense of darkness, along with the other sense I’d picked up, and I didn’t need light to navigate, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to trust to that for writing.
And besides. The lab was supposed to be brightly lit, the cold glare of fluorescent lights gleaming off the counters and the floor. That was…part of what made the laboratory what it was. Working there in the dark would just be weird.
“Legion,” I said, sitting down and pulling out a notebook and a pencil from one of the drawers. “Wake up.”
Nothing happened for a long moment, long enough that I was seriously wondering whether I was going to get a response. Finally, just when I was about to try something else, lights flickered on in the skeleton’s eye sockets, and thick black fog spun itself around the bones.
“Boss,” Legion said, before he’d even finished manifesting. “This is…wow. I am impressed. You’ve been all kinds of busy. Kudos.”
Great. The demonic embodiment of culling weakness was complimenting me. In case I needed another reason to feel a little bit freaked out about the turns my life had taken.
“Thanks a bunch,” I said dryly. “Now can you explain…this?” I gestured vaguely at myself.
“You’ll have to specify that one a bit, Boss,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of ‘this’ going on right now.”
“We’ll just have to go through it in order, then,” I said. “Start with the whole…not having a body thing. Fenris tried to explain what he did, but he’s not exactly great at explaining things.”
“It’s not his forte,” Legion said, though he didn’t seem happy about it. In the past, I hadn’t even been able to get the demon to say Fenris’s name, he didn’t want to talk about it so much. “What do you know?”
“He said something about having stripped me down to the essence and separated that from my body, then holding it together on its own until I didn’t need the body anymore. He said some other things, too, but that was the part I understood.”
“That’s not wrong,” Legion said after a moment. “But it is incomplete. You still have a body. It just isn’t physical.”
I frowned. “What does that even mean?”
“Essentially? You’re transitioning to a more spiritual state.”
I paused. “You mean like you,” I said. “Something that’s…more an idea than a thing.”
“Not like me, no,” he said. “But that’s as close as you’re likely to get at present. You still have enough connection to the material world that you can influence it, and you still have the same relationship to space and time. But yes, your existence is largely independent from any physical embodiment.”
“That’s why I can make these things,” I said, holding up one hand and letting the mask of flesh fade from it. Not that Legion would care; I doubted that he’d even noticed that mask. “Because I still have that connection to the physical.”
“Yep,” he agreed. “It’s a pretty sweet deal, really. You’ve got a lot of the strengths of being a physical person and a spirit.”
“Yeah,” I said sourly. “It’s just great. Okay. What happens if I’m somewhere that doesn’t have anything that I can control?”
Legion didn’t say or do anything, but I got a strong impression of frustration from the demon all the same. “This is one of those things that’s hard to convey to you,” he said. “You don’t have the right conceptual models to make sense of it.”
He sighed. “Okay, I’m going to dumb this down a lot so that you can grasp what I’m saying. No offense, but you need the help. Your question doesn’t make any sense. You can’t be somewhere that doesn’t have anything within your sphere of influence. You only exist in places that have something you can use as a connection to the physical world.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said irritably. “I’ve been in places like that already. I can walk right in.”
“It’s not you doing the walking,” he said. “It’s a moving construct that happens to provide you with that conduit. Basically, that puppet is your connection.”
“Okay, that makes sense. So if it’s destroyed, and there’s nothing else for me to manifest through, I die?”
“Not as such,” Legion said. “You just don’t have a physical presence. You’ll be in a spiritual state again until you find something else that you can act through.”
I nodded. “I think that’s already happened,” I said. “It’s annoying, but not a huge problem. So what can kill me?”
“Not a whole lot,” he said cheerfully. “Like I said, it’s a pretty cushy deal. In principle, you’re susceptible to the same things as a genuine spirit. So a strong enough expression of concepts opposed to your nature could, conceivably, destroy you. Shamanic magic could also kill you. Well, alter your nature enough that you cease to be you, but from your perspective it’s basically the same. It’s possible to make a weapon that can get at you directly through that physical connection, in principle, but the energy requirements would be…fairly extreme.”
“So it’s all specialized stuff, for the most part.”
“Exactly. Not to worry, though, Boss. If anyone can manage it, it’s you.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I said dryly. “Okay. I think I’ve got a decent handle on that. About as much as I’m going to for the moment, at least. Topic two, the Courts.”
“Ah,” he said. “That.”
“Yeah. That. What does it mean to be a champion for one of them?”
Legion hesitated. “Keep in mind that this is the first time I’ve gotten to examine one in any detail, and this is a pretty complex bit of work. Way more than I can sort out in this much time. So basically everything I’ve got here is speculation.”
I nodded. “Got it. Speculate away.”
“Right then,” the demon said. “Looking at you, I don’t think you’ve actually got that much Midnight power in you. You’ve just got a connection to it.”
“What, like a pipeline?”
“Nooo,” he said slowly. “Not…as such. More like a contractual agreement. You’re entitled to draw a certain amount of power from that source. But until you do, it’s not really doing anything. It’s just sitting there as potential.”
I nodded. That fit with what I’d felt. “So if I wanted to be stronger, I’d tap that connection and channel the power into strength.”
“Seems reasonable,” he agreed. “Though it did also integrate itself into you on some level. I can see a definite Midnight signature running through you, and I’m guessing it’ll give you some kind of a boost as a constant thing. It’s just minor in comparison to what you’ve got the potential to access.”
I frowned. “So why wouldn’t I just draw on that all the time?”
“I can think of a few reasons,” Legion said. “First off, like I said, it resembles a contractual agreement. I’m not sure what the terms of that contract were, but I’d guess they don’t allow you unlimited access. Second, you aren’t king of the hill, here. You do have to answer to the Queen for what you do with her power. Not as much of an issue for you, considering, but most champions don’t happen to work for their wife. Third, the more of that power you’re channeling, the more it’ll influence you.”
“I’ve drawn on it a fair amount,” I told him. “I didn’t notice any particular influence.”
Would you? Snowflake asked. Think about it. The Midnight Court is all about violence and hunger and death. That’s…kind of a thing you already do. If it was pushing you further in that direction, would you know the difference?
I frowned and stared at her. “That is a seriously disturbing idea.”
“I think the mutt’s got the right idea,” Legion said. “I mean, the whole reason you got the job is that you’re already fairly Midnighty. It’s easy to notice that kind of influence when it tries to change you. When it makes you more of the same, it’s a lot trickier to recognize what’s happening.”
“I think I’ve got a good idea of why I got the job,” I said quietly. And I was pretty sure Legion had something to do with it, knowingly or otherwise. It fit together too well to be a coincidence.
There was no point in mentioning that, though. If he didn’t know what was going on there, he couldn’t really tell me about it. And if he did know, he wouldn’t tell me about it.
So instead, I just said, “Okay, I think those were the big two for the moment. Later I’ll want to talk about making some new foci, but that’s something I want to approach with a clear head.”
“Sure thing,” he said. “Oh, and Boss? Nice work in Philly. Knew you had it in you.”
“Thanks,” I said, standing and walking towards the door. I flipped the notebook closed on the way. I’d been taking notes, although they didn’t have a whole lot to do with what Legion had been saying. For once my conversation with the demon had been simple enough that I could keep it all straight in my head.
No, those notes were all about…significance. Drawing connections between my current situation and other information. Things I’d heard Loki say, for the most part, although there were plenty of other sources to take into consideration.
In a funny way, it felt like growing up. For most of my life, I’d been preoccupied with the immediate, with questions of who and what and how. Now, I was finally starting to look past that. I was finally starting to think about why.
All of which could wait. For the moment I could feel a…presence upstairs. The feeling was nothing I could pin down or name, but it was very much there. It wasn’t magic, exactly. It was just an awareness that I was being called.
As I’d expected, when I got up to the main hall of the castle, I found Aiko waiting for me. I noted, vaguely, that she didn’t look quite like herself. The narrow bone structure of her face was more exaggerated, the dark color of her eyes more intense, her features in general more intense and beautiful. She was still wearing casual clothing–loose green silk shirt and black silk pants, expensive as hell, but clothing that she’d worn back when she was just a kitsune. Her hair was cropped unevenly just above her ears and dyed with highlights of deep, rich red.
It was almost like looking at a fusion of Aiko and Scáthach–the general look and style of Aiko, but refined, elevated, and made inhuman. Which made sense, I supposed. In a way, that was what she was. She was still Aiko, but only a fool would try to argue that taking on the role of a Faerie Queen hadn’t changed her.
“Hey,” she said, scratching Snowflake’s ears. “How’s it going?”
“Fairly well,” I said. “Think I’ve got the information I need to track down the people who’ve been using the Lighters.”
“Lighters?” she asked curiously.
“Oh, right,” I said. “Apparently that nutty human supremacist group calls itself the Light of Reason. Thus, Lighters.”
“Nice,” she said. “Okay, you’ve just about got them?”
“Hoping so. I’ve got minions going through their servers now. I’m hoping they’ll be able to track down Jason with what they find there. I owe him one.”
“You and me both,” Aiko said darkly. “When you do find him, call me. I want to take him down in person.”
“I was planning on it,” I said. “Speaking of, how’s it going for you?”
She shrugged loosely. “Not bad. Ran into some trouble with people thinking the rules I set didn’t apply to them. I’m getting bored of this, so I decided to make a bit of a demonstration of showing them they were wrong. I think the people who’ve been causing problems got the picture this time.”
“You think this is the last time you’ll have to deal with this?”
“Nah,” she said, with total confidence. “There’ll always be people causing trouble. We’re talking about the fae; it’s like herding cats, but worse. But I think after this it’ll be about the same degree of trouble that anyone in the Courts has to expect.”
“That’s something, anyway.”
“Yep,” she agreed. “Anyway, I thought the best thing to do was give them some time to think things through, and I knew you were here. So I thought I’d see if you want to take a day off.”
I shrugged. “Sure. There are things I should do back in Colorado, but nothing that can’t wait for a day.”
Lovely, Snowflake said. I’ll be out hunting rabbits. Try to leave the castle standing.