Still, I felt a fierce flash of pride and optimism. The walls had fallen. We’d gotten back up. The ice monster had come. We’d survived and the city had recovered. Now we had black holes. We would figure it out.
“Lower,” I urged. I wanted a closer look at certain parts of town. I wanted to know if any of the Shades had returned, if there were new castes of Unseelie in town, if we had more black holes of considerable size to worry about. I would have gone on a focused hunt for all the black holes, but apparently Ryodan had been keeping track of them for some time now. No point in duplicating our efforts.
As we flew through a whiteout of fog above the docks, circling wide to turn back over the city, I suddenly gasped, “No! Stop! Turn the other way!” A flock of my dreaded stalkers had just materialized directly ahead of us, streaking out from behind a bank of low-slung clouds.
But my outcry came too late. We dove straight into the center of the clutch and I squeezed my eyes shut—remnant of some absurd ostrich instinct that if I couldn’t see them maybe they couldn’t see me—bracing myself for their sudden cloying presence on all sides.
I sniffed cautiously. No awful stench, no rustle of leathery cloaks, no creepy chittering.
I opened my eyes a slit.
I was still alone on the Hunter’s back.
I opened them wide and glanced over my shoulder. My ghoulish stalkers were vanishing rapidly behind us.
“Didn’t they see me?” I exclaimed. Was I so small and unexpected astride a Hunter that they’d not noticed me? I nudged the icy beast to get its attention. “Do you know what those things you just flew through are?”
Minions. It spoke in my mind. To one nearly as ancient as I.
“One what? A Hunter?”
“Collector of what?”
Powerful, broken things. It presumes to fix them. It once tried to fix the one you call Unseelie king. It rumbled with soft laughter.
I couldn’t imagine anything trying to “fix” the Unseelie king. What would it change? Where would it even begin? And how powerful was this “collector” if it could actually tinker with something as omnipotent as the King of the Dark Fae? “I take it that didn’t go well.”
“Was one of the things we flew through the collector?”
That one does not appear until it has decided. Dispatches minions to assess. Not all things are deemed fixable.
I bristled. For months now I was being assessed by something’s minions? There was an ancient thing out there that had decided I was “broken” and wasn’t sure whether it wanted to fix me? That was offensive on too many levels for me to count. I had yet another enemy out there and didn’t even know what it looked like.
But it had been watching me.
All this time, through countless hooded eyes. Pressing close to me, sleeping beside me in Chester’s, monitoring my every move. And when I’d killed its minions, it had simply dispatched more. Always watching. Until the Book made me invisible and the collector had apparently lost the ability to keep track of me.
I snatched a hasty glance at my hand, fearing the worst. But no, I was still visible. Then why hadn’t they noticed me?
“Does it have a name?” I wanted something concrete to call my unknown enemy. Something to research, ask around about. Ryodan had once said my ghouls had attended the Unseelie king in his private quarters. Now I knew why. They’d scouted him, too, in a time long past.
A simple word but I had sudden chills at the base of my spine. I’d heard it before. The Dreamy-Eyed Guy, one of the Unseelie king’s many skins, had recently said, “ ’Ware the Sweeper, BG. Don’t talk to its minions either.” The damn king had known all along I was being hunted by it. And that was all the warning he gave me?
“I really hate the Unseelie king,” I muttered.
“Am not,” I groused. I’d laid that to rest. I might have been contaminated by the peculiar half-mad being but I wasn’t him.
Were you not, you would not fly.
“Tell me about the Sweeper,” I said. “Tell me everything.”
It said nothing.
“Have you seen it?”
The Hunter moved its great head from side to side, mouth open, straining wind through its teeth.
“Do you know anyone who knows more about it?”
Perhaps the one that inhaled the child.
It rumbled again, laughing at me. Name this. Name that.
“Do you know where K’Vruck is?”
“Could you find him?”
I do not hunt for you. Not-king.
I sighed. “If you see him, will you tell him I’m looking for him?”
Again there was no reply. I made a mental note to be more circumspect in the future about telling the Hunters I wasn’t the king. If they sensed something in me, they accorded respect, I wanted that respect. And cooperation.
I leaned forward over the Hunter’s back. Something had just caught my eye, a thing I couldn’t believe we’d forgotten.
“Fly low and land there.” I pointed to the center of the city’s largest Dark Zone.
Months ago, V’lane/Cruce had rebuilt the dolmen at 1247 LaRuhe in order to help the Keltar free Christian from the Unseelie prison. And there it stood, towering and ominous, behind the uncharacteristically formal house, smack in the middle of the crater left when Cruce had destroyed the warehouse it once occupied. The Highlanders had either neglected to dismantle the stone gate to the prison when they were done with it, or it had been rebuilt again.
I shivered. I’d walked the Unseelie prison. It hadn’t been empty. There’d been things lurking in blue-black crevices, terrible things that hadn’t ventured forth despite having been granted their freedom.
All portals between my world and Faery: bad.
And if I were successful, I’d have the Hunter fly me to the abbey, where I’d knock down those stones, too. Perhaps I’d be able to convince my ride to assist, lend a massive wing or perhaps char them with its smoky breath.
Nor do I perform tricks for you, it said in my mind.
The Hunter touched down in a wide intersection, flapping debris into funnel clouds with its giant leathery wings, showering the cobbled streets with black ice.
“Stay here until I get back.” I stripped off the gloves I was wearing, checked to make sure my spear was tucked into the makeshift holster I’d created with my scarf, and hurried down the street toward what had once been the Lord Master’s house.