“I don’t understand,” I said, hurrying after Blaise. “What do you even want from me? Why did you do this?”
He was silent for a moment, long enough that I wasn’t sure he was going to answer. “In chess,” he said at last, “a skilled player doesn’t set out to achieve a single goal. He doesn’t move a piece with the expectation of a specific accomplishment. The game is too complex for that, you see? Focusing too strongly on a single possibility is a trap. The better choice is to develop the piece in a way such that no matter what course the game takes, you have the advantage. The same principle applies here.”
“You aren’t going to give me a straight answer, are you?”
I could barely see Blaise’s face in profile, but I thought I could see him smile. “Answering that question clearly would require me to explain a number of things,” he said. “Most of which it isn’t my place to explain.”
I sighed. “Of course not,” I said. “Okay, then. What did you want to say?”
“As I understand it, you’re looking for the man called Hunter,” he said. “In which case it behooves all of us for you to understand something of his history. Who he is, what he’s done.”
“All right,” I said. “Go ahead.”
“The man now called Hunter was born in what is now northern China,” he said. “I do not know what name he was born under; it is very possible that no one does. Certainly he has been called Hunter, in one language or another, for far longer than he used that name. Assigning an age to someone who has traveled so extensively in areas where the flow of time is…inconsistent is pointless, but what can be said with confidence is that he was born slightly less than two thousand years ago, during the collapse of the Han dynasty in the area.”
Chinese history wasn’t my strongest suit. But even I knew about that. “That was a bad time,” I said.
“Yes,” Blaise agreed. He’d stopped walking, and we were now standing still in a small grove of trees. I smelled magic, and realized that were standing in the center of a ring of mushrooms, one which was acting as the anchor of a warding spell. I didn’t think that was a coincidence. “It was a very bad time. With the collapse of imperial authority, the region was the site of a prolonged civil war between warlords seeking to claim power. For those, like him, who lived in the contested area, it was a period of extreme violence.”
“He grew up in a warzone,” I said.
Blaise nodded. “It’s during that time that he started using the name Hunter,” he said. “Though he was already an adult by that point, and seems to have already been actively practicing magic for several years. He began killing bandits, deserters, and other threats to the area in which he lived. His power is considerable, and even without formal training, he was difficult to overcome without access to comparable magic. As such, it became easier for people to simply seek easier targets, and leave that village alone.”
“Wait,” I said. “He just set himself up as some kind of vigilante? And nobody stopped him?”
“No one was in a position to do so,” he said. “The political structure, as I said, was in disarray at the time. A number of mage clans were already well established, but they didn’t yet have the degree of influence they do now–in fact, at the time a number of the largest were at war with each other. The gods hadn’t yet issued their decree against overt demonstration of the supernatural in the mortal world. In short, there was no one with both the motivation and the ability to stop him.”
I frowned. It was…hard to conceptualize things being like that. Though I supposed that made sense. This all happened so long ago it might as well have been in another world. “Okay,” I said. “Go on.”
“It was around that time that he first accessed the Otherside. I have suspicions as to who showed him how to do this…but in the end, that’s all they are. But that does mark the major turning point in his life, and also, regrettably, is why I am explaining this to you. He stumbled into Faerie, having no notion of what the location was, what the rules of the domain were, or how to survive there. He might have been simply another of the many, many such people to die in that way. However, before that happened, I found him.”
“Wait,” I said. “Just wait one second. You–you personally–are the reason that bastard’s still around?”
“Yes,” he said simply.
“Okay then,” I said. “Well, that’s one that’ll haunt you, huh?”
Blaise didn’t respond to that, but then, I didn’t really expect him to. “Hunter is a very passionate man,” he said instead. “Every now and then a human comes along with a passion, and the charisma to draw other people into that dream, without them even knowing why they follow. The sort of person who can walk up to an army specifically sent to stop him, and tell them to kill him if they liked, and end up still alive with an army following him. Hunter is that sort of man.”
I groaned. “Just what I needed,” I muttered. “The rest of it wasn’t enough. Oh no. He had to be a bloody Napoleon too.”
Blaise smiled thinly. “In any case,” he said. “The man was unusual, and had a talent for the manipulation of space. I was curious and had no pressing obligations at the time, so I took him as a protégé of sorts, and showed him things. He was an apt student. But there were aspects of his personality which I found troubling, and within a year I had ceased to have any interaction with him.”
“And then the Conclave happened,” I guessed.
He nodded. “They were not a political entity at the time,” he said. “Unlike most of the clans at the time, they weren’t united by a shared geographic origin, political ambition, or religious dogma. The original Conclave was, instead, united by a shared desire to study how the world functions. They were researchers, essentially, and they were among the most brilliant minds in human history.”
“Do you mean in terms of studying magic?” I asked. “Or were they just geniuses in general? The prehistoric equivalent of Leonardo and Einstein?”
“Some of both,” Blaise said. “And a few people who weren’t as gifted, but kept the rest working together. At first, it had seemed as though it was working. They made great strides in numerous areas of magical theory. Walker streamlined the design of direct Otherside portals and popularized their use; Maker introduced principles of design that are still in use.”
“But it couldn’t last,” I said. I wasn’t guessing this time. I had an idea of how this story ended, after all.
Blaise was quiet again, for a long time. “No,” he said at last. “It couldn’t. The collapse started with Healer. She had been experimenting with life and death, attempting to transcend the boundary between the two states. Some of the Conclave were of the opinion that this was an area which they shouldn’t be investigating, that it was going too far. When her research ended in disaster–her experiment escaped, Healer herself apparently dead–they took it as a sign that their initial objection had been correct. The others saw this reluctance as a violation of the initial goals of the group. It seemed that this split would drive them apart entirely.”
“And then along came Hunter,” I said. “The charismatic visionary who could breathe new life into the organization and bring them back together.”
“Precisely,” Blaise said. “He was a natural addition to the group. A genuinely brilliant man, and interested in many of the same things. His research into the structure of Otherside domains and the nature of spatial dimensions was not unrelated to the work that Walker and Namer were doing. Some of them were concerned that what he was doing was, in its own way, as much an exploration of topics better left alone as Healer’s, but at least for the moment, it seemed that he was a worthy addition.”
“But then he went too far,” I said. “Which can’t have been an accident. You don’t reach the outer limits of the Otherside by accident. He was looking for something, wasn’t he?”
“In truth I don’t know what drove him to that,” Blaise said. “I expect there were numerous factors at play. What’s certain is that he found the plain at the edge of the void, which is something that very few people have ever managed on their own. He found the void, and he managed some degree of understanding of it.”
“Okay,” I said. “All of that makes sense. But what did he do to piss off the fae? From what I’ve heard he has some connection to you, and I think I heard something about him causing the Sidhe Courts to split up.”
“He summoned something from the void into Faerie.” Blaise’s void was very flat and harsh. “It was put down quickly, but it was still a transgression. The factions among the Sidhe had already existed at that time–they were divided on a great many things. You might think of it as having been something like political parties; there wasn’t a single thing that defined either side, but the two had been in competition for so long that they had accumulated an enormous number of differences. Hunter’s actions were merely the final straw.”
“What were the stances?” I asked, more out of idle curiosity than anything. I didn’t think that it would really be important, but exactly what the distinction was between the Daylight and Midnight Courts was something that I’d wondered for ages.
“The faction which became the Unseelie Court was in favor of eradicating humanity,” he said, without any particular emotion. “As punishment for that offense, and to prevent similar actions from being taken in the future. The Seelie Court was not.”
I blinked. That was…rather chilling, really. If the vote had gone slightly differently, the whole world could have been killed by faeries for the crime of one man, when none of them even knew who he was. They could do it, too. Hell, if the Courts agreed and put their full forces behind the war effort, they could probably wipe out humanity now. Two thousand years ago, with the population so much smaller, and weapons so much less advanced? It wouldn’t even have been a fight.
“Following that event, the Courts gave the Conclave an ultimatum, backed by divine authority,” Blaise said. “They would do no further research in that field, would prevent anyone else from doing similar research. Or their entire species would be wiped out of existence, without mercy or exception. That ultimatum was what caused them to become a regulatory group, eventually leading to the current political structure among the clans.”
“Okay,” I said after a moment. “Okay, that’s…that’s pretty huge. It’s going to take me a while to process all of that.”
Blaise smiled and said nothing.
“It does leave the big question open, though,” I said. “Where is he now?”
“I don’t know,” Blaise said calmly. “And if I did, the information wouldn’t help you. Hunter has a facility for travel which few people can match, and a list of enemies which includes some of the most personally powerful beings in existence. He doesn’t stay in one place for long.”
“How am I supposed to find him, then?”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” he said, with an enigmatic smile. “He’ll find you.”
Blaise vanished before I could start cursing.