Taking a day off wasn’t like it had been. We couldn’t just be faces in the crowd, anymore. We weren’t unimportant people. When we stepped out onto the street in El Dorado, the crowd didn’t just flow around us. They stopped, and stared, and then didn’t stare so pointedly that it was somehow more pointed than the staring had been. In the domain of the sketchy alleyway, not only did no one try to mug us, but even the barkers at the dive bars and twenty-four-hour nightclubs ducked out of sight, the prospect of luring us in outweighed by the fear of what might happen once we were there. Even in the Grand Market of the Otherside, where I’d thought that literally anything could happen without anyone batting an eye, people stopped and stared and whispered.
I didn’t think they actually recognized us. Not as such. But the kind of power we were carrying around was…it had a presence to it. I remembered that very clearly, from the first time I’d met Scáthach. I hadn’t had any notion of what she was at the time, beyond “very scary.” But her significance had still been obvious; she’d seemed like she was just more than the world around her.
You don’t last long on the Otherside without learning to recognize that kind of presence, and treat it with the utmost respect. Word might not have spread that there was a new Midnight Lady, and most people wouldn’t recognize Aiko as such even if it did, but they had some idea of what they were looking at. I was sure that my presence had some degree of impact, as well–if nothing else, there weren’t a whole lot of partially-physical things walking around. And Snowflake, as usual, just looked scary.
Between the three, we were basically celebrities on the Otherside. And we were treated like it.
In its own way, that wasn’t bad. It was almost fun, in a “this is different” sort of way. But at the same time, it wasn’t really what we’d wanted, and it got old fast. So after not long at all, we ended up drifting back into the mortal world, and more specifically into Leipzig.
It was…surprisingly intact, all things considered. There was a construction crew clearing out a demolished building across the street from the alley we stepped out into, but the roads were open and functional, and the people on the streets were only slightly tense. The church near Aiko’s destination point was, seemingly, untouched by the chaos.
I wasn’t entirely sure why that was the case. It could have something to do with it being, well, a church; there were plenty of things that didn’t like holy ground. It could have something to do with protections built into the structure, since that church had been built almost a thousand years ago now–more than old enough to predate the retreat of the supernatural from daily life in Europe. Or, hell, it might just have been that nobody wanted to damage it. Nikolaikirche was a very significant location, a landmark with a lot of meaning and history behind it. It wouldn’t surprise me if, even among nonhumans, there was reluctance to damage such a cultural heritage site. Or, at least, there was reluctance among enough of them that the remainder decided to pick easier, less controversial targets.
That was one of the few bright sides of the entire world going utterly insane at once, I supposed. You didn’t have to have great defenses. Just better defenses than your neighbors.
We ended up sitting in a park not too far away, just sitting on a bench and watching the world pass around us. It was late morning, locally, but it was a weekend and it was just starting to get warm, and there were plenty of people out in the park. Snowflake, having already hunted her fill of rabbits and gotten into a really nasty fight with a pair of faerie hounds from the Daylight Court when she wandered off on her own in El Dorado, was content to doze in the sun. We could almost have been a normal family, until you looked a little closer.
In a way, we fit right in. Everything in this park looked normal and peaceful, until you looked a little closer. The numerous injuries–it seemed like half the people in sight were injured, or at the very least had freshly-healed injuries. The blank, traumatized stares. The way a lot of people were tense, jumping or going for weapons at any loud noise or sudden movement.
“Do you think things are going to go back to normal?” Aiko asked suddenly, echoing my thoughts.
I thought for a long moment, scratching Snowflake’s ears. She arched her back and pushed her head into my head with a feeling of sleepy happiness.
“Sort of,” I said at last. “Things won’t go back to the way they were. But I think they’ll settle out into a new normal state.”
“As much as things ever settle down, at least.”
“Yeah.” We just sat in the sun for a few moments in silence. Then, on impulse, I asked, “Why do the Courts keep fighting? Aodh said I should ask you.”
“Ah,” she said. “We haven’t been introduced, I don’t think.”
“Well, he does work for the other side,” I said dryly. “It would be a little weird if you had been.”
Aiko snorted. “Said the guy who’s worked for how many sides now?”
“Point,” I admitted.
“Honestly, I don’t quite know yet,” she said after a moment. “I’m starting to get an idea, I think, but there’s still so much of this that’s…it’s out of my scope, you know? The obvious answer would be that having a ready-made enemy is politically convenient for the people in charge. It makes it easier to control people. But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I think the people in charge want constant conflict, for its own sake.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said.
Aiko shrugged. “It makes sense to someone. Just not from our perspective.”
“But it hurts both sides. I mean, how many people died in that fight? Hundreds, at least. And that’s going on all the time.”
“How many people have died in this?” she asked quietly, gesturing vaguely at our surroundings.
“You mean since Loki’s broadcast?” I asked.
“The last count I heard was a little under four hundred million,” I said.
“That’s higher than the one I heard.”
“That was a while ago,” I said quietly. “It’s been slowing down, but…well, it’s not over.”
Aiko nodded. “That’s a lot of people,” she said. “Doesn’t seem to have bothered the major players to have kicked this off, does it?”
I stared. “That was Loki,” I said. “And the other gods, I guess. Not the Courts.”
“I’m starting to wonder whether there’s as much distinction there as I thought there was,” she said. “Not that the Courts are run by Loki and his guys; as far as I can tell, that’s not the case. But I’m starting to think that a lot of the people in charge of things are…sort of all involved with the same schemes, maybe, is how to phrase it.”
“That’s sounding uncomfortably like a conspiracy theory.”
She snorted. “Winter. Are you really in a position to say that there couldn’t be a conspiracy of insanely powerful things controlling what access the rest of the world has to information?”
“When you put it that way, maybe not,” I admitted. “It just…wow. If they’re orchestrating something like the war between the Courts behind the scenes, that’s…huge. I’m not sure I can really wrap my head around that.”
Aiko nodded. “It’s hard to conceptualize,” she said. “And something tells me it’s not the kind of thing you want to talk about much. As far as anyone else is concerned, the Courts just fight because they hate each other.”
What, we shouldn’t go talking about the massively secret conspiracy that controls every aspect of the world and goes to ridiculous lengths to keep people from knowing about it? Snowflake said. Gosh, what gave you idea?
“Don’t be a wiseass,” Aiko said. “That’s my thing. And believe me, it’s harder when you can’t tell a lie.”
“I’m amazed you can even do that, honestly.”
“It’s not as hard as you might think. Mostly you can phrase things in a way that doesn’t really have enough meaning to be a lie.” She grimaced. “It does make being a wiseass harder, though.”
Glad to know you have your priorities straight, Snowflake said. You’ve got crazy power, a role of literally cosmic importance, and a universal-scale conspiracy to deal with, and that’s fine. But not being a wiseass? Problem.
Aiko sniffed and pushed the dog with her foot. “Don’t knock my priorities,” she said. “The little things are important, too.”
I know, Snowflake said lightly. But I’ve got to start being the wiseass, since you can’t do the job anymore. Oh, and since neither of you is likely to notice at this point, it’s been a while since food. We should do something about that.
I laughed, but I didn’t argue.
A long while later, we were back in Transylvania. It was dark out, suggesting that we’d just about literally taken a full day off. It hadn’t felt nearly that long, though I didn’t think it had anything to do with time shenanigans. It was just a case of time flying.
Aiko was lying next to me, solidly asleep. She was in her human form–well, mostly human, at least–though she’d been a fox earlier. I’d been a little amused to see that she still only had two tails. Apparently whatever mechanism caused a kitsune to sprout more tails as they grew in power didn’t count the role of a Faerie Queen. It seemed quite likely that she’d keep growing as a kitsune in addition to the power she’d taken on with that title.
That thought was amusing for a few seconds, until I remembered what Kuzunoha had been capable of, and added the power of the Courts to that in my head. The result was…rather scary, really. It was entirely possible that the Midnight Court had gained a significant advantage by taking on a queen that could grow in power in her own right on top of what was granted by the role.
That was the state of things when I heard my phone chime as a message arrived. I reached out to grab it, stretching a bit to avoid moving. It felt like reaching out from under the covers into a cold room, except in reverse. I was a source of cold rather than heat, and the insulation of the blankets trapped that and held it in, leaving the rest of the room warm by comparison.
I glanced at the message, then grinned. “They found something.”
“Something useful?” Aiko asked instantly. Apparently she hadn’t quite been as sound asleep as she’d seemed. That, or she’d gotten a lot faster about waking up.
“Apparently the person providing the Lighters with those magic toys always meets them at the same island outside of Boston, and the next meeting is in about twelve hours.”
“Cool,” she said. “I’m coming.”
“You don’t need to be there.”
“I know I don’t need to,” she said. “But I’m bored, and the idea of stomping on them sounds fun. Besides, the last time these guys were around, they just about killed you. I’d rather not give them another shot at it.”
“You’ve got a point,” I admitted. “Should probably get moving, then. I’ve got a couple of things to take care of in Colorado first, and it’ll probably take a while to get out there.”
About time, Snowflake said, standing and shaking herself. Her teeth gleamed in the faint moonlight coming in the window. I’ve been waiting to sink my teeth into these bastards for a long while now. Let’s get started.
And on that slightly ominous tone, our vacation was officially over.