That evening found us back in Transylvania, eating dinner. We’d brought it in from a restaurant in Singapore that both of us were fond of. It went without saying that neither of us felt like eating our own cooking, and the last of the frozen meals Alexis had left had been gone for months.
There was another person I’d drifted apart from. Though in that case I wasn’t sure whether I could really blame myself. My cousin and I had never really had a chance. I couldn’t be what she needed me to be, and once she realized that it had been inevitable that a distance would grow between us.
It had been a while since I spent any appreciable amount of time here, in the castle. Oh, I’d visited now and again, but for some time now I hadn’t had the time to really just take a break and go home for a while. I still didn’t, really, but it was hard to get worked up about all the crises demanding my attention just now.
It felt a bit odd. The castle was still familiar; I still knew it intimately. But the sense of comforting familiarity, the feeling that this was home, was gone. It felt almost hollow, devoid of significance. When I looked at places and objects that used to be meaningful all I had was a bitter awareness of what I’d lost and couldn’t get back.
I went downstairs to check on the lab, and found bones strewn across the floor. After a moment I realized they were the disassembled pieces of the hound skeleton Legion had occupied since becoming my familiar; another moment was enough to see that they were arranged to spell GOODBYE. The skull was serving as the period, empty sockets turned towards the door. When I touched the bones they felt inert, lacking the power and the presence they’d held before.
Which, I supposed, made sense. I’d never expected Legion to stick around forever; when we first made the arrangement, I’d have been shocked to hear that it would even last this long. And besides, his work was done here. Its, really. Legion had only ever had a gender because I imposed one on it, and if the spirit wasn’t my familiar anymore I certainly didn’t have that right anymore.
I spent a minute or so looking at the bones, and at the rest of the lab. Then I went back upstairs to eat.
Aiko and I hadn’t really talked about what happened earlier. I didn’t know what to say. Not even a little bit. I’d been thinking that I understood things, but this development with Fenris was something that my new vision of the world hadn’t encompassed. I could only think of a few ways to make it make sense in the context of what I now knew, and none of them were good.
In a way, I felt disgusted at myself. I’d thought Fenris was a friend, and in a way I supposed that was still true. But I’d allowed it to blind me to the fact that he was still Fenris. In the end he was still a god, still a part of the vast, complex game that I was just beginning to conceive of. Expecting him to behave in a straightforward, understandable way had been foolish.
It was a pleasant meal. It felt a bit strange, just the two of us eating in a hall that could seat twenty without any crowding, but it wasn’t that far off from what we’d gotten used to while living here. We both knew it was the calm before the storm, but we silently agreed not to talk about that.
Instead, after we’d finished our respective meals, we sat and talked about small things. Fond memories, old jokes, trivial matters. It was a rather empty conversation, lacking any real substance or information, but then that wasn’t really the point. This wasn’t talking to convey information. It was just talking to talk, to fill the silence.
As I’d more than half expected, the conversation was interrupting by the sound of a knock at the door. It was a heavy knock, loud enough to hear even well inside the castle, four knocks spaced out with one second between each of them.
I glanced at Aiko, who gestured slightly. The front door flew open with a crash loud enough that I suspected the impact had been enough to damage the door, or possibly the wall.
“Overdoing it a bit?” I asked.
She sniffed. “I meant to do that,” she said.
I snorted. “Sure you did.”
Any humor, though, died quickly, leaving us sitting there staring at the door.
Hunter walked through less than a minute later.
He looked exactly the same as he had earlier on the camera, a pale man of indeterminate age in a very expensive suit. “Good evening,” he said, nodding to each of us. He had no discernable accent, his voice as nondescript as his appearance. “Is it all right if I sit down?”
“Go ahead,” I said. “There’s plenty of food if you want some.”
“That’s a generous offer,” he said. “I believe I’ll take you up on it, actually. It’s been some time since I ate.”
A few minutes passed in near-total silence as he collected a bowl of noodles and a cup of tea and sat down with them a ways down the table from us. He took a cautious spoonful of the noodles and sipped the tea, then nodded. “This is quite good,’ he said. “Thank you.”
“It’s nothing,” I said. Then, after a few moments, “This really isn’t how I would have expected this to go. I was expecting something much less…civilized.”
Hunter smiled wryly. “What, just because you tried to kill me?”
“In fairness,” I said, just as wryly, “I hardly think that was the opening move in this whole mess.”
He nodded, conceding the point. “All of that’s just business, though,” he said. “On a personal level I see no reason we shouldn’t be…maybe not friends, that might be asking too much, but at least not enemies.”
I nodded. “That’s fair,” I said. “One question before I get my hopes up too much, though. Are you actually planning to explain anything, or are you just going to spout more cryptic bullshit?”
“I can’t promise I’ll explain everything,” he said. “As much as I hate to admit it, there are still plenty of aspects and details of the situation which I don’t understand myself. I’ll explain what I can, though, and I think we’re a ways past being cryptic about it.” He smiled suddenly. “Honestly, I’ve been meaning to have a frank conversation with you about all this for some time now. It just kept slipping my mind.”
“It slipped your mind,” Aiko said, somewhat dubiously. “That seems like a pretty damn significant thing to just forget. And this is me saying that.”
Hunter shrugged. “I’ve found that time seems different once you’ve seen enough of it go by. When you’re young a year, or a decade, seems an impossibly long time. From my perspective, though, they’re much less considerable. It’s easy for me to put something off for a year without even quite realizing it.”
“Okay,” I said. “Um, not to interrupt or anything, but I think there are more useful topics we could be talking about. Starting with…what do you actually want?”
Hunter laughed at that. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, man. You don’t go for the easy questions, do you? Well, there are a few ways I could answer that one, depending on what scale we’re considering. On the grandest level, I’d say that what I’d like to see is a world where we can set the rules to be what we want, and where we can be in control of our own destinies.”
“When you say we, do you mean humanity?”
“That’s where I started, yes,” he said. “And I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t still the primary focus for me. But I realized that, really, we’re all in the same boat here. Humans and werewolves, yokai, even the fae, we’re all in the same position. Dancing to the whim of the beings that have set themselves up as the gods of our universe.”
I stared at him. “Wow,” I said. “I mean, I guess I knew it was something like that, but I assumed that I had to be misinterpreting something. You’re seriously trying to overthrow the gods?”
“It sounds so dramatic when you put it like that,” he said, grinning. He didn’t actually disagree, though.
I shook my head. “Why?”
“I’d think that you, of all people, would know that,” Hunter said. His voice was very cold all of a sudden. “Look at your own life, Winter. Look at how you’ve been used and abused, how they’ve used you as a plaything with no care for your wishes or your welfare. These things do that all the time. They ruin our lives on a whim, for no better reason than because it amuses them. They see us as toys, for them to play with and break at will, without even telling us what they’re doing or why.”
“Are they wrong?” I asked quietly. “I mean, I know I don’t really grasp what they are, on a basic level. But from what I can tell they really are that much more than we are.”
“They may have created us,” Hunter said. “On the basic level of establishing the world in which we developed, even if they weren’t directly responsible for our existence. But that doesn’t give them the right to treat us in this way. You have your responsibilities when you create something sentient, and they aren’t remotely close to fulfilling those responsibilities. No, these ‘gods’ aren’t in the right. And call me naive, but I’ve never been one to bow down to people in the wrong just because they’re powerful.”
“You can spin an idealistic story,” Aiko said to him. “But I’ve seen something of what you actually do, and I’m not at all convinced that matches what you’re saying.”
“You have to understand, we’re overpowered,” he said. “I don’t like some of the things you’re referring to, I’m not proud of having done them. But sometimes you have to do things you don’t like when you’re up against a superior force.”
“That’s a slippery slope,” I commented. “With that kind of attitude it’s easy to cross lines without even realizing it.”
Hunter grimaced. “Trust me,” he said. “I’m well aware of that. But there’s not a lot I can do to change that, and it’s still true.”
I grunted. “I’m not so sure,” I said. “That sounds an awful lot like you’re trying to convince yourself as much as me.”
He spread his hands. “Go ahead and ask, then,” he said. “Whatever’s been bothering you, ask. It’s cards on the table time, Winter.”
“Why the void?” I asked. “Why were you obsessed with finding it?”
“I had a theory,” Hunter said. “One which I’ve since become convinced is, more or less, correct. The void outside this world was both my best way to prove that theory and a way to use it. You know what my specialty is in, correct?”
“Space, I’m told.”
He nodded. “Spatial dimensions, yes. And time, which is really the same thing, but that’s a whole other conversation that you frankly don’t have the grounding in physics or dimensional network theory to understand. In any case, space is a simple and reasonably accurate way to sum up my focus, and I think that focus is largely why I’ve been so much more successful than anyone else to attempt this fight.”
“Because that kind of magic is powerful?”
“No. Because it’s fundamental. If you think about it, most magic is effectively working within the rules of the system they created. A sorcerer might produce fire, but they decide what ‘fire’ is and whether it affects them. But space and time are so fundamental, such basic facts of the reality they’ve created, that they don’t have that degree of control over them. Manipulating space can change the rules, you see?”
“And the void is even more fundamental than space,” I said. It wasn’t a question. I’d heard as much before, even if it hadn’t been phrased quite that way.
“Much more,” Hunter said, nodding. “It’s something which exists on a deeper level than this entire reality. It’s possibly the only thing that’s more fundamental than they are, and as such it can exert power over them. I’d theorized that something of the sort, that sort of raw potential, must be what ultimately powers what we call magic, and that if applied without the filters we see it through in this framework it could affect deities. Namer’s work strongly supports that conclusion, and since then I’ve done some work with filtering systems and refined the theory somewhat.”
“Okay,” I said. “And this is why you encourage people to summon things from the void? You’re hoping one of them will kill a god?”
He laughed. “Oh, not really, no. That would certainly be nice, but it’s the equivalent of winning the lottery, not something you really plan around. No, that’s to provide a distraction. I have a great many plans, a great many balls in the air, but all of them are fragile, you see? Seeding that information is a way to keep the deities busy, keep them from concentrating on my actual work.”
Aiko whistled. “That’s ballsy,” she said. “You seriously take a chance on blowing up a continent just for a distraction?”
Hunter smiled, not without satisfaction. “Go big or go home,” he said. “You can’t hesitate to raise the stakes in this game.” The smile faded. “It…does occasionally backfire, of course. Like what happened with you, all those people dying, that was an unintended consequence.”
“Tens of thousands of people died as an ‘unintended consequence’ of your little distraction,” I said quietly. “Tens of thousands. You think that’s worth it?”
“I do,” he said calmly, meeting my eyes. Most people flinch a little when they look into my eyes. Hunter didn’t even blink. “Because this is worth it, Winter. Those people died, and yes, that’s tragic. But they died as heroes in a war against the greatest foe we’ve ever had. These gods have killed billions down the ages for their own sick amusement, sparked wars and plagues, set cities on fire for the pleasure of watching them burn. We will never be safe so long as they still exist, as long as they have this control over our world.”
“And what gives you the right to make that choice?”
“Someone has to,” he said. “This is a war, Winter. And in war someone has to make the hard calls. Sometimes you have to send your people out to die. You have to sacrifice a thousand here to save a million there. I never asked to be that person, but fate decided that I would be anyway.” He paused for a second. “We may lose this war,” he said. “Probably will, in fact. The odds aren’t in our favor. But I, for one, would rather die fighting than live in slavery. And if I do ugly things in the service of this war, it’s only because I don’t want to lie there dying, and see these monsters still in power, and know that there was something else I could have done.”
I watched him closely as he spoke, looking for any hint of deception. I looked for any suggestion that this was just a cover for him seeking power. There was none. Hunter meant what he said.
No, that wasn’t enough. Hunter believed what he said. He believed it with a passion, the kind of bedrock faith that I’d seldom seen.
Blaise had said that Hunter was charismatic, that he had a knack for getting people to go along with him. I thought he hadn’t quite gotten it right. It probably wasn’t his fault. He was looking at it from the perspective of an ancient lord of the fae, and this was a profoundly mortal thing.
Hunter was a man with passion, with a fire burning inside him. He was a man with a dream, and the will to make that dream come true. And in a way you had to respect that. In the end Hunter was just a man, fighting against things that were as far beyond him as he was beyond ants, and he knew it. But he managed to stay defiant, stay proud, and keep fighting even though he knew damned well that he was going to lose.
I had to respect him for that, and I didn’t have any trouble understanding how he could get people to follow his cause. That kind of passion and courage in the face of an unwinnable battle was something that we’d always found appealing, as a species. If you looked past the blood he’d spilled in the name of that dream it was almost heroic.
“Okay,” I said. “I think I get it, then. And I guess that only leaves two questions. Why me, and why Fenris?”
Hunter looked at me sharply. “Fenris?” he said. “What about him?”
“When I was about to kill you, he stopped me,” I said. “I want to know why.”
He smiled slightly. “That wouldn’t have killed me,” he said. “I took a look at the devices you were planning to use. They’re good, but they’re based on one of Solomon’s designs. I know that design very well, and I certainly know how to deal with an imitator.”
“Wait,” Aiko said. “You mean…the Solomon? You knew him?”
“He was the first Maker,” Hunter said. “We were friends once. But he wasn’t willing to follow me down the road I’ve chosen. We haven’t spoken in…a very, very long time.” He was silent for a moment, looking pensive. “I miss him,” he said. “His advice. He was a good man.”
I blinked. “Okay then,” I said. “Um. Anyway, those are the questions I still have.”
“I’ll start with you,” he said. “That’s an easier explanation. I’m interested in you–we all are, really–because you have potential. And you have potential because you were always a bit of an unknown factor.”
“And what’s so damn special about me?” I said irritably. “I fail to see why you all couldn’t have picked some other sucker for this.”
“Most people fit into neatly labeled boxes,” Hunter said. “The vast majority. You can look at them and say…this person is human, that one is a werewolf, the other is one of the Sidhe. Those people are very reliable, as a rule, very predictable. That’s a good thing when you want reliability, but when you need something outside the norm you can’t look in the labeled boxes. The real power in this world isn’t in white and black, if you’ll forgive me for getting a bit poetical. It’s in the grey areas, the places in between, the liminal boundaries where things fade into one another.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Less poetical, please,” I said, trying to keep my voice even.
He smiled faintly. “As you wish,” he said. “The vast majority of people have a single, clearly-defined and typical magical signature. Those categories are very static, very typecast. When you mix them, though, things become less certain. Usually hybrids of that sort die–the different energies react poorly to each other and the conflict is physically or mentally destructive. Occasionally one simply overwhelms the other and the subject might as well be in one of those boxes. But sometimes, very rarely, they synergize, and you get something stronger than either heritage could have been alone.”
“Like making a werewolf out of a mage,” I said.
Hunter’s smile became a grin. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, precisely, that’s one of the most common interactions. And as you know, it doesn’t often end well for the prospective werewolf, the process is too traumatic and one way or another they end up dead. But the thing is, and keep in mind that this is largely speculation on my part, the more factors in play the more the uncertainty increases. So when you want to find someone with a real shot at becoming something powerful, you look for someone with as many different sources of power mixing as possible, and hope that they get along.”
“So this is all because I was born a freak,” I said, a bit numbly. “Some sort of crazy one-in-a-million chance that should never have survived.”
He shrugged. “I’d put it more positively than that,” he said. “But what you’re saying isn’t wrong, exactly. It’s not the most glamorous answer, but that’s how it goes.”
“Okay,” I said. “And the other?”
“Ah,” Hunter said. “That. That’s…really very unfortunate timing on his part, I suppose, but I did say I’d answer your questions. The Fenris Wolf has been on my side for ages now. I’d go so far as to say that his assistance is the main reason I’m still alive. He was the one who first told me about you, in fact.”
Aiko inhaled sharply and looked at me like she wasn’t sure whether she’d have to hold me back to keep me from attacking Hunter right then and there. It was, I supposed, not an entirely unreasonable concern to have. But my reaction was actually fairly understated. I’d been expecting something like this. “Why would he be helping you when what you’re doing is pretty obviously opposed to his interests?” I asked.
“Fenris wants an end,” Hunter said.
I did blink at that. “He’s suicidal?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Well, yes. But that’s not what I mean. Fenris wants to end, yes, and I think that as what drove him to find me–he knew I was opposing the gods, and hoped that I might kill him. But his ambition goes further than that. He wants an end to the world, and everything in it.”
The room was utterly silent for a couple seconds after Hunter said that. “Wow,” Aiko said at last. “That’s…pretty hardcore.”
“Why would he think helping you would do that?” I asked.
“Well, it is a part of my plan,” Hunter said. “It’s not the whole of it by any means, no, although Fenris thinks it is, or maybe he only hopes. In any case, I do expect that I’ll have to break the world to achieve my goals. I don’t have nearly enough power or skill to maintain the full Otherside network after the gods are gone; I expect the void will reclaim it quite rapidly without them. What Fenris doesn’t know is that I’ll be building a new world, a perfect world. One made in our image, and not theirs.”
“Megalomaniac much?” Aiko asked dryly.
He laughed, not seeming offended. “I’ve always had a bit of a leaning that way, I suppose,” he said. “But this isn’t about me. It’s really not. It’s about making a world that we can truly call our own.”
“So basically,” I said, “you took a guy that was already suicidal, and now you’re deceiving him and leading him on in hopes of something you were always planning on denying him, all so you can have a really powerful ally in a war he doesn’t really believe in.”
“I do what I need to do,” Hunter said. He didn’t sound happy, but he also didn’t really sound upset. Regretful, at most.
I nodded. “That makes sense,” I said. “So I’m guessing that if I were to try and kill you right now, you’d just teleport away?”
“You’ll note I’m well out of reach,” he said, grinning. “You should have poisoned the food if you were going to try that sort of thing.”
“It wouldn’t have worked,” I said.
“Well, no. I’m immune to most poisons. But it would have been a good idea.”
I nodded. “Probably, yes. Frankly I wasn’t expecting you to eat at all, though.”
“So I take it this line of inquiry is your way of saying you won’t be helping me, then?” Hunter asked.
I sighed. “I don’t know,” I said. “I can sort of understand where you’re coming from. Loki and his ilk have ruined my life, that’s true, and I can see how you’d say that they need to be stopped. But from what I can tell, you’re no better than they are. They might have screwed me over, but you know what? The single worst thing I’ve seen was a monster from the void let loose in this world. You’re the one who was responsible for causing that, and they were the ones who stopped it.”
“I already said that wasn’t intentional.”
“I’m not sure that isn’t worse,” I said. “You play with forces you don’t understand, and when something goes wrong and people die, all you can think to say is that you didn’t mean for that to happen. You don’t even sound like you’re sorry. You’re as arrogant as they are, Hunter, and a hypocrite too. You say that you want to put people in control over their own fate, and yet you take their agency away as much as the gods ever did.” I shook my head. “No, I won’t be helping you. And the only reason I’m not shoving Tyrfing through your face right now is that I don’t think I could get there fast enough.”
“That’s unfortunate,” Hunter said. “You understand that I can’t let an asset as valuable as you have the potential to be to fall into enemy hands, I hope?”
“You know what?” Aiko said suddenly, with a broad, devil-may-care grin. “Screw it. I’ve been waiting long enough to spring this one.”
I eyed her. “Spring what?” I asked, a little nervously. I recognized that smile, and it seldom meant good things were about to happen.
“I actually have a secret plan for once,” she said. “See, Hunter, I think maybe you were so focused on Winter you forgot some things. Like the fact that Faerie Queens were made to control the fabric of the Otherside. And you’re a guest in my home, eating at my table. I can shut down any portal you try to open, here.”
Hunter gestured, very slightly. Nothing happened. His eyes got a little wide.
“Suck on that, you pompous asshole,” she said, grinning even wider. She snapped her fingers, and the door to the room slammed closed, tendrils of supernatural darkness winding over it like chains. “Another thing you might have forgotten,” she said. “This place is a fortress. It’s built to keep things out, but I think you’ll find that it’s pretty good at locking things in, too.”
Hunter stood up, fast enough that he knocked the chair over.
“And one more thing, since three is a good number for faeries and I’m being thematic right now,” she said, also standing. She didn’t seem to be moving terribly quickly, but she was standing right next to me by the time I’d gotten out of my chair. “We trapped this place like crazy when we moved in. I’m pretty sure the one in this room involved propane vents, and while you might be immune to poisons, you’re still flammable.”
She flicked her fingers, and I smelled a quick flicker of magic, fox and cinnamon and a hint of dark lilac.
Hunter hadn’t even made it to the door when the room filled with gas and light and fire.