I was pacing. I’d been pacing for a while now.
I was alone. None of my minions wanted to interrupt me, not now. Not that most of them ever wanted to interrupt me, but doing so at the moment was even less likely. Aiko was on the Otherside, doing fae things again; we’d lost around a week in Jason’s private hideout, and she wasn’t entrenched enough yet to go missing for a week casually.
Both of those were…not normal, precisely, but comprehensible. I understood them. The other absence in the room was far more profound, harder to understand, and thus harder to come to terms with.
Losing Snowflake was harder than I would have thought possible. Not just because I’d lost my best friend, though I had, and that was hard enough on its own. But for years now, I’d been connected to her, a mental tie that my magic had been reinforcing for so long that it wasn’t even a conscious thing for either of us. We’d been apart from time to time, of course, and unable to communicate, but even then that sense of connection was there. It was the equivalent of picking up the phone and getting a dial tone.
This, to continue the metaphor, was like if the phone had been unplugged from the network entirely. That sense of possibility, of being connected to something larger, was gone.
I’d never had that experience before; Snowflake was the only person I’d ever built that degree of a connection with, so it wasn’t like I’d been in this position before. It felt a bit like I imagined losing a limb would. I kept reaching for that connection, for a bit of mental balance or another perspective on things, and getting…nothing.
It hurt. Every time, it was a reminder of just what I’d lost, and how impossible it was to get it back. And knowing that I would get over it, that eventually I’d get used to being alone in my head again, just made it worse.
Thus the fact that my minions were leaving me well alone. I was in a foul mood, to say the least, and since Jason was already dead, I couldn’t even take it out on him. It left me inclined to lash out at anyone, whether they’d done anything to deserve it or not, just to let out that frustration.
Part of it, of course, was that they were busy. They were very busy. I had a plan, a goal, and for once I was being active rather than reacting after someone else had already started the mess.
I was going to kill Hunter. He was, I thought, responsible for a great deal of the misery I’d had to deal with in recent years. Probably more than anyone other than Loki. And he was…he had…I was going to kill him. What else could I do?
But that presented some problems. He was a mage so powerful that the Conclave was afraid of him, with thousands of years of experience. With the possible exception of Scáthach he was almost certainly the single most powerful, dangerous person I’d set myself against. To call taking him down an ambitious undertaking was…well, it was well beyond just an understatement.
I could worry about that later, though. For now I had to find him, and I didn’t expect that to be any easier. You didn’t live that long, with that many enemies, by being easy to find.
I had a lot of sources of information. I’d made myself the center of a web of information brokers, and I had a lot of contacts. But this wasn’t the sort of question you could take to those people and expect to get an answer.
I had other sources. I was still owed answers from Loki, and I knew people in other places, some of whom had access to a scary amount of information. Some of them could probably tell me where to find him. Some of them could probably give me the power to beat him when I did.
There would be a price, if I did that. There was always a price. In the past, I’d always shied way from it. I hadn’t been willing to pay the cost they would exact for that kind of power.
Now? With Snowflake dead, Aiko gone and trapped in a prison of her own making, my life in shambles and the world I knew a broken wreck? Things were different. A lot of things that used to be unthinkable were…well, I was thinking of them.
After we’d gotten back from killing Jason, and I’d recovered from the worst of the shock, I’d written out a list of people I could ask, sources I could consult. Then I’d gone over it, crossing off entries that were too unlikely to know, too difficult to contact, or just too dangerous to contact yet.
It took a few hours, and left me with less than a dozen entries. Those entries were still dangerous and expensive, on the whole, but that was the nature of the game. So once I was satisfied with the list, I gave it to Selene and told her to start arranging meetings.
I hadn’t told her what I wanted to know, or why. It was safer for everyone involved that she not know. And besides, I wasn’t in the mood to explain things. I hadn’t even told her that Snowflake was dead, though I was sure that quite a few of my minions had noticed her absence. It was rather conspicuous, given that she’d very rarely been away from me for more than a couple of hours since before I was a jarl.
And now that part was done. I’d made the call, committed to this course of action. There was nothing I could do but wait for them to reply, and pace. I felt scared, and angry, and small.
It was funny, in a way. I couldn’t even remember how many times, down the years, I’d wanted to know what was going on. How many times I’d wanted to understand. Now that I had an idea of what the answers to my questions had been, I would gladly have gone back to the way things were.
But then, that was how it went. There was a reason they said ignorance was bliss. Knowing how things worked gave you no control over how things worked. I could explain in great detail how my life was a wreck, when each step down that road had occurred, and roughly why it was a wreck. But I couldn’t tell it to fix itself, and knowing just meant that I didn’t have a grey area to provide hope.
It was almost a relief when I got the call to say that the first meeting had been arranged, just to provide a break from thinking.
London had gotten worse. The last time I was there it was relatively peaceful, relatively stable. Now it was not, and strangely, the very thing which had kept it relatively safe through the worst part of the chaos was what was now tearing it down. The city of London was truly ancient, with thousands of years of history and tradition, a complex supernatural community, and numerous powerful residents.
When the world was in turmoil, that had been a good thing. It meant that the city was largely safe from external threats. Now, though, it was becoming a problem in itself. As things started (and it was only starting, there was no question of that) to settle down throughout the world, the city of London was turning on itself. The different factions, which had been united in the face of a greater threat from outside, were turning on each other, fighting for supremacy. That fight dragged other sides into it, gangs and cops and normal people all taking sides even if they didn’t know why or what the fight was about. Violence and chaos bred violence and chaos, and within a week it had gotten to the point of riots.
I found that darkly amusing, a sort of tragicomic reflection of the world at large. It was a nasty little catch twenty-two; you couldn’t avoid disaster without numerous powerful people, but numerous powerful people caused disaster.
There was no winning this game.
It was where the Conclave wanted to meet with me, though, and I wasn’t really in a position to argue. So London it was. It was, I supposed, not really that bad. Worse than it was, sure, but not necessarily worse than any other major city right now.
It was a bit of a surprise, though, and between being jumped by a small mob of pixies and the generalized disorder, getting around was harder than it seemed like it should have been. As a result, rather than half an hour early, I was barely on time arriving at the meeting, which had been arranged in the private room at a very, very expensive bar. They probably didn’t call themselves a bar–the term “gentlemen’s club” came to mind–but while I was wealthy these days, I didn’t have the mentality of someone born into a high social class. To me, it was a bar.
The building was large, in a neighborhood where large buildings were not the norm. It was nice, in an old, indulgent sort of way; it looked like it had been there for a few hundred years, watching the city grow and change around it. There was nothing to suggest what kind of building it was, but then, this was the sort of place where if you had to ask, you didn’t belong there.
I almost asked Snowflake what she thought of the place, before remembering that I wouldn’t get an answer.
Snarling quietly, I walked up to the front door and went inside, finding myself in a small foyer. It was an interesting mix of past and present. The doorman was wearing a full tuxedo that probably cost more than some cars, and the decor had the same old, stately appearance as the building itself. But it had obviously been remodeled recently, complete with an electronic lock on the interior door and a sheet of bullet-resistant glass between the doorman and the foyer.
“May I help you, sir?” he said, his voice coming through a speaker mounted next to the window.
“I’m here for an appointment,” I said. “Jonathan Keyes.” I held up the false identification for that name, which the Guards had arranged for me back before things had fallen apart. I didn’t think it was a coincidence that they’d told me to use that identity.
“Right away, sir,” he said, pressing a button. A buzzer sounded, and the lock disengaged. I pulled the door open and went inside.
A man who looked very nearly identical to the doorman met me before I’d taken two steps, leading me silently into the building. The main room was very nicely furnished, with paintings on the walls; somehow, I was pretty sure they were expensive. It was almost deserted, though, just a couple of people sitting around reading. No one was talking, and while they tried to act casual, the tension in that room was palpable. They were scared.
I wasn’t sure whether that was because they were normal people and scared because the world was falling apart around them, or because they were clan mages here with the Conclave and they were scared of me. Either was plausible.
My guide led me down to the basement, down a narrow hallway, and to an unmarked door, then walked away. I went in alone.
A man in a plain white robe was sitting in an armchair next to a fireplace, sipping a glass of brandy. There was no one else there, and only one other armchair, currently empty.
“Prophet,” I said cautiously, closing the door behind myself. “Where are the others?”
“They won’t be coming,” he said, not looking away from the fire.
I frowned. “That’s not what I wanted.”
“You asked to meet with the Conclave,” he said. “I’m the representative of the Conclave who was available to meet with you.”
“It’s like that, then,” I said.
He nodded. “It is,” he said. “Take a seat.”
I wasn’t thrilled to be sitting down under the circumstances, but it wasn’t worth arguing, so I took the other chair.
I wasn’t sure I’d ever been this close to Prophet before. Up close, he looked…tired. Worn and drawn, like he’d been stretched too thin for too long.
“What’s the crisis this time?” I asked.
“Crises,” he said absently. “Keeper and Watcher are recovering a dangerous artifact that was stolen from the archives. Guard, Guide, and Caller are coordinating a military action against rakshasas in India, and Arbiter is busy with a dispute between two clans and the Daylight Court.”
I winced. “Things are getting worse, aren’t they?” I asked.
He shrugged and took another sip of brandy. “Things were always bad,” he said. “The difference is that now you know about these things.”
I sighed. “Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I guess I do.”
“Enough of that,” Prophet said. “Why did you ask for this meeting? Your employee was evasive.”
“It’s not something to talk about on the phone,” I said. “Or with underlings. I’m looking for Hunter.”
“For who?” he asked. He sounded genuinely curious. It was a wonderful act; if I hadn’t known better I would really have thought he didn’t know who I was talking about.
“Hunter,” I said again. “The Conclave member. From the original Conclave. You know, the one you tried to erase?”
Prophet was silent for a moment. “You were wise not to speak too broadly on this,” he said. “I would suggest you continue that course. Now, I’m only even acknowledging this because we owe you after Russia. That man doesn’t exist. Don’t ask again.” He stood up and started walking towards the door.
I debated letting him go for almost a second. Then I said, “I know what he found.”
Prophet paused. “What?”
“You wiped Hunter from the records because he went too far,” I said. “He liked to travel the Otherside, but he went too far. He went to the edge of the Otherside, and he found something, something so bad that you kill anyone who tries to do the same thing just in case they might find it too. Right?”
“Go on,” Prophet said, turning to face me again.
“I know what he found there,” I said quietly. “He found the void, didn’t he? He found the chaos that lies outside our world. And he learned how to bring things out of it.”
“You’re remarkably well-informed,” he said.
“Not well enough,” I said. “This is mostly conjecture, based on a few scraps of information that I pieced together. There’s a lot that I don’t know still. But I’m starting to put the pieces together.”
“Why do you want to find him?” Prophet asked idly. “You must be aware of the danger involved in any interaction with those four.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I owe him. He’s the one who’s behind a lot of what’s happened to me, I think. He’s the reason my dog is dead. I’m not inclined to let him get away with that.” I paused, grasping after the words for what I wanted to say next. “And…I’m just starting to put the pieces together,” I said. “There’s a lot I still don’t understand. And I want to understand. I can’t actually fix my life, you know? It’s gone too far, had some things happen that I can’t put right again. And if it’s going to be like this, I at least want to know why.”
He nodded slowly. “We can’t help you with this,” he said. “We can’t be seen to be involved in this, much less to be taking sides. It would be a disaster. And besides, we don’t know where he is. We haven’t had any contact with any of the original Conclave members in hundreds of years.”
I sighed. “Okay,” I said. “I knew it was a long shot. Thanks for taking the time to meet with me.”
“Good luck,” Prophet said. “I advise you to ask the fae. When Hunter found the edges of the Otherside, they were the ones who were most immediately affected. Some of the elder fae remember that, and there’s a chance that some of them still track him.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I may do that.”
“Good luck,” he said again, and left.