1. a person who hunts game or other wild animals, for sport or for survival.
2. a person who searches or seeks for something.
3. an animal, such as a hound, trained to hunt.
He hurled himself through the morning mists, the cloud of gray death of sublimating ice that blurred vision and muted sound.
This was no normal weather... this far north hadn't experienced "normal" weather in two hundred years. Lands jammed in permafrost, mists that curled and carved across the plains and melted away any flesh they found. Entire cities locked within walls of ice, vast upheaval of earth and stone as the crust of the planet cracked and cooled... those things were the new definition of normal. It was a harsh and bitter land, one which mankind had no business settling.
But settle they had, establishing a small trading post, which catered to the salvage runners which periodically looted the lands once known as Canada. Up here, the magical ice preserved manmade creations abandoned centuries ago... a man could, with the right equipment and fierce determination, haul back all manner of things into the Fringe to the south. His family had been one of several to set up shop, to act as a waystation and barter goods off these traders in exchange for a warm meal and a place to sleep. It was going so well...
Gales of laughter whipped around him, carried on sharp winds. The sound of that mocking derision crystallized as ice on his beard, sinking through flesh, right to the bone. It spoke to him in no unclear terms of absolute certainty, and of the end. His end.
The end. Of the ice. His cleated boots skidded against the slick surface, his arms flailing wildly to stop his momentum... as the mists parted just enough for him to see he was about to run straight off a cliff wall, into a chasm below. There lie the skeletal bones of a great wyrm... a tyrant-lizard of Faerie breed. And the same ones that brought it down dozens of years ago were ready to add one more notch to their belts.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
Figures that previously were chasing him, darting in and around him, now advanced nice and slow. Nowhere for him to go, after all.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
Briefly, he considered jumping. It would probably be preferable to what they had planned, given the atrocities he was forced to see, as they raided his settlement. As they found his family, huddled in a corner... the screams...
Clack. A wooden stick, banging against the ice, slow and steady. Clack...
The alpha emerged from the mists. His mask, salvaged from some ancient sporting goods store, remained expressionless; but no doubt a smile curled underneath its plastic surface. The eyes that burned behind those round holes certainly looked pleased. He expressed his delight in the doom-chant of his long sporting stick, curved at one end, which he smacked against the ice repeatedly, kicking up tiny crystals.
Behind the leader, his running pack brought up the rear. Some with the pointed ears of elves, some without. It didn't matter. They were all the same, now. All predator, malice soaked straight through every pore of their skin.
"Looks like you're out of runnin' room, eh?" the alpha hunter spoke, swinging his stick around, to bang it in the palm of his free hand. Thump. Thump. Thump...
The prey stammered, unable to let go of fear, despite knowing the inevitable couldn't be avoided. "You... you already killed my family. You killed everybody in our settlement!"
"Not everybody. Not yet. There's still you, yah?"
"...why? Why are you doing this?!" the man screamed, desperate for some sort of sense, something that would put a logic to the horror of his end...
The alpha lifted his hockey mask. He was, as predicted, smiling. Pearly whites, and bright blue eyes.
"'cause it's what we are," he explained. "Winterhounds. Killing's what we're meant to do. It's the Wild Hunt, man, that's just how things go, yah? And, hell... we do it because it's fun."
With a slow, yet powerful swing, he clocked the human across the jaw and sent him spiraling through the air. The hunter leaned over the edge of the cliff, to get a nice look at the mess made at the bottom of the ravine.
Now that the moment had passed, and the prey was dead, the predators could let down their hair and relax. Pats on the back and other compliments on the day's performance were exchanged. A former elf exchanged a high five with his former human comrade, a gesture he'd been taught in a fine example of cross-cultural understanding.
"Alright, Icepack, back to the cave for brews!" the leader announced, slinging his weapon of choice over one shoulder. "Good run here. Shame it had to go so fast, but man, humans these days just don't have much fight left in 'em, yah? Next week we'll pack up and look for another camp..."
But the pack was not alone. Not anymore.
The mists responded to the veteran Wintertouched, moved with them, obeyed their orders. Which meant that the alpha wasn't the only person on the planet able to use them to mask his presence.
With a wave of a gloved hand, the newcomer parted the air. He stood, one foot planted firmly on the ice, the other still on his sled. It was overflowing with survival gear, tents, maps, compasses, and even some electronic surveyor's equipment. However, unlike most team-drawn sleds... his was drawn by eight wild wolves, leashed in series, and completely content to be under the yoke of their driver.
This visitor wasn't unwelcome, however. Any opportunity to assert himself was good for the alpha.
"Hey, boys, look! It's the eskimo," he called out. "How're yah doin'? Missed all the fun, Tamsy--"
"Taamusi," the elder man with sun-leathered skin spoke. "But you knew that, Dylan. You choose to malign my name to lessen me, but your words are always empty and meaningless. Call me whatever you like."
Dylan the alpha hunter scowled, not liking this defiance. He twirled the hockey stick resting against his shoulder, in a manner which somehow became threatening simply because of what he was.
"Push off," he suggested. "The Pack's got no quarrel with you. Go club a baby seal or somethin'."
"Just making sure you heard of the gathering, young Dylan. The Winterhounds are summoned. We are to meet with our new Queen. The call to gathering is maligait, a thing to be followed."
"We heard, yah," the pack champion said, with a little shrug. "So?"
"You will attend?"
"'course. It's... what's that injun word you used? Malygat? She's the Winter Queen, so we're going," he spoke. Then, a sly grin. "Heard rumor she beds down with a former Winterhound, whatsisname, that boy from down south..."
"Yeah, him. He's a funny one. Got a soft streak, and a hard streak. You hear how he messed up that Summer Court nobleman four years back? Any Queen that'll lie down for a hound has some salt to her; good potential. Maybe she'll be cool. ...for a human, I mean. The Icepack'll ride for her if she respects us like Lady Winter did. And if she doesn't... well. I hear the Braid's lookin' for some friends up north, eh?"
His business here concluded, Taamusi tightened up the bindings on his gear pack, and stepped back up fully onto his sled.
"The gathering is at twilight, upon Niagra," he reminded the boy, just in case. "Be there."
With a wild howl, the wolves launched themselves into the gray dawn. No whips or command words were needed; the beasts had a fine understanding with their passenger.
the second age
by stefan gagne
They came, moving from shadow to shadow, as the eternal winter sun set upon Canada. Some traveled alone; others rode in packs. Still others brought with them their favored pets and followers... those without the gift of life-in-death, but nevertheless changed forever by its power, however indirectly.
It's unclear what term should be applied to a grouping of Winterhounds. Murder was already taken by the crows, flock wasn't nearly threatening enough, and pack only applied to an allied group of specific hounds. The only certainty was that if you were indeed facing down multiple Winterhounds, you would not likely care about terminology as much as you would with running and trying not to be horribly killed.
Fortunately for the few straggling communities of the frozen wastes, the hounds were not on the hunt this evening. They were Gathering, a thing which had happened only a handful of times since the dawn of winter's reign over these lands. The hounds moved with purpose, drawn by the unspoken summon of their Queen, to Niagra.
The falls were no longer a tourist trap of any sort, and if they were a wonder, it was an unnatural one. Both sides of the great waterfall had been frozen in place, an impossible arcing of sheet ice where once majestic falling water held sway. All laws of nature said this halting of the river falls should have been disastrous... but magic was in many ways the opposite of plausibility. The former Lady Winter preferred her waterfalls still and silent, and so they were, even long after her passing from this world.
Upon the shores of this frozen river stood the Queen of Faerie, with her chosen Lion of Summer at her side. Normally, gatherings such as these were held in total darkness -- not a problem for a Winterhound or Lady Winter. Tonight, a simple gas generator hooked up to a floodlight kept the area illuminated. It wasn't a detail Emily was happy with... this would be hard enough without giving them reason to distrust her for relying on human technology. But Scout had a point; she couldn't spare concentration for a Light spell while reviewing the troops.
Honestly, this entire venture was a sketchy one, which she had little faith in. It was a thing that had to be done, that was certain, but its outcome wasn't clear to her. ...well. It WAS clear to her, in some respects. But the long term was another matter...
The shadows started to circle. A half mile away, and on the clear night they could be seen, as patches of not-night against the sky. Any mortal at the focal point of that many murderous revenants would be paralyzed with fear. As is, Queen Emily was deciding she was annoyed and irritated, because those were not as dangerous to her as fear.
"Remember what we discussed," Scout whispered to her. "You are the alpha. You lead them. They will obey, or face your wrath. Don't give them an inch, don't allow them any insult."
"I'm not that wrathful of a person. --scratch that. I don't want to be that wrathful of a person."
"I thought we had agreed that--"
"Yes, I'm still going through with it. Just don't ask me to like it. Now hush, I've got to deal with my... what do we call them? A flock? A murder?"
"I've always called them a hunt, personally."
And then, the hunt of Winterhounds was upon them. Silent as they appeared, some one at a time, some in clusters. Some leading along, much to Emily's disgust as much as she didn't want to tip her hand just yet, enslaved mortals bent to the iron will of the Great Hunt to serve as pets to their masters...
Their eyes were on her. On her head, specifically. This was a point of contention with Scout; he wanted her to arrive with the Crowns of Ice and Flame blazing away over her head, to show who was the bosslady around these parts. Emily refused and stuck with the illusion of her Nana's witching hat. It was who she was -- scratch that, who she wanted to be. They would either accept that or, well, wrath, presumably.
In addition to accepting the hat, they were going to have to accept her manner of speech.
"I'm not going to pour a flowery earful on you introducing myself as your new Queen," she began. "I'm not one for the faux elegance of the high court nobles and I'm not one for presenting myself as a vast and terrible goddess. For better or worse I've got the leadership stick, and I'm going to swing it however I please. Some of you may have misgivings because I'm not as graceful as the former Lady Winter, or because I am in fact of human stock. I don't honestly care how you feel. Lady Winter was cruel, as nature is cruel, and if you cross me I can take that leadership stick and ram it up your backsides. So, are we clear about that?"
One dangerous pause.
...then, various curt nods, some smiles. Acceptance. It may not have been as impressive a rage as Lady Winter was capable of, but they could sense that indomitable will inside this new queen that was familiar and welcome.
(Which was for the best, because one of the many advantages of very proper ankle-length skirts, Emily found, was that they concealed trembling knees.)
"...right. Now that we've got that sorted out, let me get on with why I called you here," Emily continued. "It's taken me two years to come up north and say hello to you. I hope you'll forgive-- no. It doesn't matter if you forgive me for that, frankly. I had work to do, and I wanted to study up on my new adoptive children as much as I could before making a visit. Don't think you're unknown to me; as much as you know my husband, I know you."
The former Winterhound at her side stood, arms folded, and offered the group a nod. The other hounds rarely interacted with him, and likely had never met him... save for the ones present when Lady Winter set them to the task of killing him in the first place, ages ago in a city named Austin. But all of them had at least heard of the Scout. It was hard not to, when he stood out of the crowd so effectively. A hound hunting in the sweat and boil of the south, tracking down those who violated moral codes, and restraining his Wild Hunt... it was simultaneously impressive and repulsive to a traditional Winterhound.
"Tonight, three of you are going to stand before me and before your peers," Emily continued. "You're going to tell us all of who and why you are. And then, what happens is what happens. You will bear witness and take back the lessons I will teach you tonight. I've no intention of dragging this out further, so we'll start with Rel'yn. Stand before your Queen."
There were puzzled murmurs through the assembled crowd... as the Winterhound clothed in filthy rags got to his feet, and walked up to the Faerie Queen.
He was hardly a prime example of a hound. Scrawny and weak, looking as wiry and malnourished as a Wendigo, he hadn't bothered much with personal hygiene and anybody downwind caught the worst of it. Despite his filthy nature, he retained some of the innate grace of a Faerie, from his pointed ears to his slim features... even if his deep blue eyes were shadowed, haunted.
Feral Winterhounds, ones given completely or near-completely over to the Wild Hunt, were pathetic little scrappers indeed. Hounds with enough sense of self to retain their personalities, even if they enjoyed the abandon of the Hunt, held greater sway within the small community of the Winter Court. It was one of the reasons why Scout was as respected as he was reviled by them... at least he wasn't as wretched and low as this Rel'yn character.
Emily, however, passed no judgment. Yet.
"Speak your name, and of how you came to be a Winterhound," she ordered. "And then speak of the day you awoke."
Rel'yn swallowed hard. "How... how did you know--?"
"I'm effectively Lady Winter. And I've done my homework, like I said. Now out with it, Rel'yn. This is going to be hard for you... but important. Follow his words, hounds. Follow and learn."
The feral turned to face the crowd... slowly, his feet, then twisting his torso, then finally his head. Every movement he made was tortured. "I... I was named Rel'yn," he explained. "A snow elf of the lower Winter Court. My family and I were brought to this world during the Pandora Event. L-Lady Winter needed... she wanted shock troops, hounds to use in battle against the humans. I don't know why she picked me. All I know is... years, and years of hunting. Running wild. I gave in completely to the Wild Hunt. I couldn't stop it from taking me. They, ah... they call it going feral, my lady Queen."
"You don't seem very feral now. You're a mess, true, but... you're stringing together complete sentences."
...the Winterhound shuddered, all over. From the tips of his ears down to his toes. It took three seconds to complete.
"One day I woke up," he explained.
The war was sliding from hot to cold, at least for the Canadian wastes.
By this point, humans realized they couldn't stand against Lady Winter. Even if she had few cards up her sleeve, they were all aces... with the cold trumping all. Humans weren't built to withstand the permafrosts the nature goddess had slathered over these territories. Soon, the Canadians and the American army troops sent to back them up were sent packing southeastward, towards the stable lands being called "East USA".
Now, this was Winter's domain, in full. Her hounds fed and hunted and were well kept, picking off the stragglers, and enjoying the spoils of war...
The hound once known as Rel'yn was quite content. He'd bathed in the blood of Lady Winter's enemies, tearing, gnashing, even devouring at times. It was a glorious freedom, found in pure simplicity... go. Kill. Kill. Nothing more than that was needed of him. Where once there was concerns over tending to his vineyards and ensuring he could obtain enough favor to find schooling for his dear little girl, now there was only the Wild Hunt. At first, it wrapped him like a straitjacket... now, it was a comforting blanket.
The Hunt had even given him rewards for his obedience to Lady Winter -- his slaves. The two women adored him, serviced him, ensured his comfort. He was rough with them, of course, because he was a rough thing now. A thing given over to brutality. And yet, they remained at his side, broken little things that would take anything he gave them and come back for more...
The hound languished on pelt made from some beasts he'd hunted a week ago, his two pets at his side. Life was good.
But you are not alive, are you?
Rel'yn sat upright. The voice in his head. The wonderful voice of his Queen, his owner, his benefactor...
You served well in the war. You have lost yourself in it, as I wanted from you. But now the war's flavor has changed, and I no longer need you as a mindless beast. Therefore, I free you from your conscription. I return to you your mind. Rejoice!
His head slammed back into the ground. Even the soft fur rugs weren't enough to shield him from the impact -- not just of falling backwards, but of his perceptions clearing, his memories returning. The feral hound was chased away, shooed gently away by the Lady of Ice... leaving behind the man Rel'yn.
Awake, and know what you are. Know what you have done. I open your eyes... because, to be frank? Your reaction will amuse me greatly, Rel'yn.
He'd murdered. He'd committed atrocities. He'd enjoyed murder and atrocity. This wasn't who he was! He was a simple man who just wanted his family to be well, and his farm to prosper. A moral man. A devoted father...
...who was sleeping next to the broken-down living dolls that were all that remained of his wife and daughter.
The screams that echoed from his cave didn't end for three days.
"I killed them," he explained, ignoring the tears that flowed down, that made him sputter. "I'd already killed their souls, making them the mindless thralls of a Winterhound. There wasn't anything left in there. I couldn't bear to let them endure that existence one more day. I killed them and I haven't killed anything since. ...I've wanted to. Oh, I have wanted to. But instead I focused on trying to kill myself. I've made three thousand, five hundred and seventy four attempts and had no success. Each time, Lady Winter brought me back. Each time, I heard her laughter..."
Unable to go on, the broken-down Winterhound fell to his knees, and buried his face in his hands.
...but Emily had to remain hard. She couldn't reflect the horror and disgust she felt. All eyes were on this formerly feral hound, yes, but they were also on her... waiting.
"Rel'yn... what's the one thing you want more than anything else?" Emily asked. Even if she already knew the answer.
The Fae looked up to his Queen, with a look of desperation.
And Scout stepped behind the Winterhound, smoothly grasping the sides of his head, and twisting.
The crack echoed across the ice. The body fell. And it did not stand up again.
Queen Emily had to give herself a moment, before she could continue.
"Pity on that man, for what was done to him, and what he has done," she spoke. "I can only hope he's found the peace he's sought after all these years. ...but know the lesson he teaches you. Those who would break down another's will and make them into thralls are just as pitiable as poor Rel'yn... and will share his fate. As of today, any who would keep such... 'pets' will no longer enjoy the benefit of a Winterhound's resurrection. You will die, and never return."
The Scout nodded to two Winterhounds... and without instruction, they carried away the broken form of Rel'lyn, setting him aside and outside the magical lights Emily had set up. Gone from the stage.
Emily rubbed her forehead, trying to will her headache away... her voice now low, and serious. "I can accept the cruelty of the seasons. I can accept the weight of these crowns. But I don't care how traditional it is... I am not going to condone the rape and enslavement of others. At all. I see some of you brought your victims with you... good. They're staying here when you leave tonight. Oh, they'll protest, because you broke their wills with the brutal willpower of the hound. Fortunately, I have... friends, who are skilled at dealing with brain damage. They will be tended to. And if you do this again, you will not see the kindness I showed Rel'yn when your end comes. That is your Queen's law. Are we one hundred percent clear on this?"
Now, the few that had brought their thralls with them were starting to look nervous. Good, Emily thought. They should be. They should fear me. ...I don't want to instill fear, but that is what I will do tonight. Now, on with the lessons...
"Taamusi," she called out, taking great care to get the name pronounced right -- it took some practice beforehand, when she and Scout were going over his intelligence reports. "Stand before your Queen. Tell them who you are and why you are."
The inuit explorer rose, and smoothly walked through the crowd. He showed no fear; no expression of any sort, despite one of his kind being slain only moments ago on the spot where he stood. After lowering the hood of his fur-lined parka, he spoke simply and quietly, without further prompting.
"My name is Taamusi, and I am over two hundred years old," he explained. "And I serve the Queen of nature in my own way."
The winter nights stretched on for weeks, this far to the north. The cold and bitter weather was not designed for humans, but nevertheless, humans needed to be here, Taamusi felt. This was the native habitat for so many species of animal, so many that they had little data on, and a scientist went where he was required. No matter the hardships. No matter the dangers.
When he returned to the arctic expedition site, without the supplies, he calmly and accurately described the danger they now faced. The inevitable doom. His partner wasn't taking it as well.
"Can't we just pull the sled out of the crevasse?" the junior researcher asked. "Taamusi, those were our supplies for the next eight weeks! We don't even have four more days of food and fuel. Without that gear--"
"We will likely die, yes," Taamusi explained. "We knew the risks when we signed on. We'll safely store the data we've gathered on the migration patterns of the endangered species, then send out the distress signal and set up a marker. When they find us, at least our work will have not been in vain."
"You can't be serious. We've got to abandon the post immediately! Haul ass to the nearest--"
"The nearest settlement is too far to reach. That was our best sled, and now it is gone. There is no way to escape this situation, Paul. We need to focus on safely storing our research so that the next team can continue where we left off. Piqujait, what has to be done."
"Screw you and your proud warrior race guy attitude, dammit! I'm only here to earn twelve credit hours in one go, okay?!" Paul shouted. "I don't even CARE about baby seals or whatever!"
Taamusi settled down onto the makeshift cot, lying back. He saw no reason to be uncomfortable, after all.
"If you like, you can take the secondary sled, load it up with supplies, and attempt to escape," he suggested. "You will not succeed, however. Your time would be better spent making peace with your affairs and ensuring the continuation of the project. There is more at stake here than you and I. The ecosystem is going to suffer long term damage, perhaps extermination, if those in power are not made aware of the truth--"
You may find those in power have other concerns right now.
Paul banged his head on a tent support pole, twisting left and right. "Who--?! Who said that? Rescue? We've been rescued!"
Have you, now? Perhaps you have. That depends on your definition of rescue.
The younger man tore open the tent flap, looking around wildly... and seeing only endless white. "...you're hearing this too, right? It's not just me?" he asked. "A woman's voice..."
"I can hear her," Taamusi confirmed.
And you know me, don't you? Your people know of the spirits of weather and air...
"The scientist in me may propose that this as a hallucination brought on by being very close to death," Taamusi mused. "But I am open to other theories."
Are you open to surviving this experience? Not just this frozen doom you face... but the doom that faces your entire world. You are isolated right now. You don't know about the strange incident that has transpired... the layering of worlds. My arrival here, in your land. You could take part in that battle.
Paul started to twitch. "Taamusi...? What... what the hell is she talking about? --how is this even happening? We're both hearing the same voice, right? Right?"
"Weather spirit, I am no warrior. I am a scientist."
I could make you an excellent hunter. But, so be it; I will "rescue" you whether you want to fight or not, because it amuses me. Rescue you and your friend. I will kill you both, and reanimate you to live forever in death. You will join the Wild Hunt. Would you enjoy that, scientist?
And he considered this, while his partner's jaw worked up and down in mute horror...
"On one condition," Taamusi agreed.
"That night, I died, and was reborn," the ageless scientist spoke. "But my companion was returned to the University by Faerie magic. That was the bargain, that she would not subject him to what I would endure. ...what I did not know at the time was that Anchorage would soon after become a forsaken city, and my colleague likely was not placed into a better situation than the one I faced. Nevertheless, the deal was made, and I became a Winterhound."
The Queen nodded, having followed every word of the story. "And now, what have you made of yourself? How do you experience the Wild Hunt, Taamusi?"
"I sat for many days, contemplating what I had become," he continued. "I felt the Wild Hunt within me. The drive to murder. But murder is tirigusuusiit, what has to be avoided. My life had been devoted to avoiding the extermination of endangered species, and the purposeless murder of any living creature was unacceptable. So, I continued my work... by applying the hunt to the cause of nature conservation. I already had the data on migration patterns, life cycles, and predator-prey relationships. When mankind abandoned Canada, some species such as wolves thrived too much, others such as caribou nearly vanished. So, I hunted. I thinned one population while cultivating another. At times I ran with the wolves, at times I stalked them. A good predator cares well for his prey; I am responsible for the flow of nature in this land, and I take this task seriously."
"And have you ever 'thinned' out a human population?"
This gave the man pause. "There were incidents," he spoke, deciding honesty was critical here. "I cannot call them hunters. Poachers. Sport killers. They threatened the balance with purposeless slaughter; not even seeking meat to sustain themselves. I tried to dissuade them, and was not taken seriously. Serious measures were employed. Examples were made. I will not apologize for my actions, nor do I expect you to condone them. I experience the Wild Hunt in my own manner."
"Nature is brutal," Emily agreed. "Justice can be brutal, as well. Particularly here in the wildest corner of the continent, where life and death and the ethics surrounding them are rarely simple things. The lesson I want the Winterhounds to learn here is that Taamusi has served his Queen well, in his own way. The Wild Hunt does not have to be about crazed, endless rampages. My husband similarly sought justice, even if he had to filter it through the bestial nature of the Wild Hunt. ...very well. You may sit down, Taamusi. Thank you."
This unsettled the crowd as much as the incident with Rel'yn did. Taamusi was... well, he was a nothing, among the Winterhounds. He hunted animals. He sat around calculating spreadsheets and taking notes. He had no glory, no trophies, no real standing in the community whatsoever. If he was going to be the type to easily earn the Queen's favor...
"Dylan of the Icepack. Stand."
...then this was going to be a very ugly incident, indeed.
Everybody knew Dylan. He was both opposite and identical to the ferals; totally in control of himself, but relishing in the Wild Hunt like a kid flopping around making snow angels in a playground. He had more kills to his credit than could be counted, he'd kept and used up and disposed of more pets than any other Winterhound, and he commanded the largest organized pack they'd ever seen. As far as they knew, he was Lady Winter's prized hound... but this wasn't Lady Winter, was it?
Dylan, for his part, showed no fear or concern. He wouldn't give an inch, as he waked up to face the Queen... and his entire pack came with him. Humans and elves and other stripes of Fae, all following their leader, no matter where he went. Even if it was on the chopping block.
"I don't think you're going to like me much," Dylan said. "Not if you think a softie like Taamusi is a terrific guy. Let me guess; you want to know how I became a hound, and hear why I do the things I do?"
"If you want to tell them, go ahead," Emily invited, without asking him directly to do so. "It's your soapbox. Tell them why you're a terrific guy and not a softie like Taamusi."
It was barely a town. It didn't even have an official name; just a ramshackle pile of cheap housing, to store the workers at a generic truck stop along one of Canada's many highways and byways. Everybody who lived there did some menial task, be it pumping gas or grilling steaks, for the transients and workers who drifted through. There was allegedly a school, and there, Dylan was beaten on a regular basis until he was old enough to quit and go take up a job.
Wiping down windows on semis didn't prevent the beatings, of course. The same boys who tormented him in school took up jobs at the same places he worked; there was nowhere else to go, after all. So, things carried on.
It wasn't like Dylan was weak. He gave as good as he got. He didn't cry and he didn't beg. He even bullied some of the younger kids, just to show that he couldn't be stepped on perpetually... but it never seemed to matter. Someone high above had stamped him since birth as a whipping boy, and that's all he'd be. It was a momentum that carried well in a tiny town.
Once, Dylan had seen some crime drama on TV, where a man who was beaten regularly by his father went on to beat his kids, and was beating up kids when he was a kid, and so on and so forth. He decided that made a lot of sense and it explained all the violence in his life perfectly, and that meant he had no responsibility for any of it. It was society that made him what he was; he was a victim and therefore he could pick on anyone he wanted because psychology said it was what he was supposed to do. That was quite a revelation, and gave him comfort with it all.
So, on one particularly cold evening, after cleaning out the mops in the janitor's closet at Bob's Gas-n-Go, when he was pegged from behind by a rock and then curbstomped by the same brutes who'd been on his ass since second grade, he died knowing this was just how it goes.
The surprising thing was getting himself off the asphalt after dying.
You are in the middle of the food chain, young Dylan. It's a foul place to be. You can hurt others as much as you like, but then you get hurt by those above you. Wouldn't it be better to be above all of them? Then no one is left who can hurt you.
Dylan certainly felt on the top of the food chain, now. He wasn't battered and bruised anymore. His heart didn't seem to be beating, but that didn't matter. He had strength in his bones, now. Cold strength...
Within a day, the forces of Winter will sweep across this land. I have come. I have been brought here. And I see inside your heart, young Dylan. You want to kill and dominate and destroy. I will turn you loose to do just that... until such a time as you no longer amuse the Crown of Ice.
"Cool," Dylan decided.
He began with the boys who beat him. And continued with the entire staff of the Gas-n-Go. And then methodically killed every single person in the no-name town. And then it was off to fight on the front lines with his new best friend, the Lady of Ice. Things only got more and more awesome from there on.
Sure, he was nothing more than a petty bully. He knew that. But it was okay. The TV said so. After all, they hit him first.
It brought a smile to his face, just thinking about those glory days.
"I hear you've gone and called off the war with the humans," he noted. "I'm obsolete now, eh? You'd rather have walrus huggers like Taamusi or spineless wrecks like Rel'yn in your crew."
"Oh, I'm not going to kill you," Emily said. "You're way too much of a hardass for that. Strike you down where you stand? What's the point?"
"Damn right. The Icepack and I, we run Canada. Pure and simple," Dylan spoke. "Frankly, way I see it? We've got more sway here than you do. Who're you? You're some upstart who stole the crowns. You know you're not going to last, so you come up here to kick some asses, but then you ran into me. The top of the food chain. I say come on and have a go, if you're hard enough!"
"Ah. A challenge," Emily spoke, pleased. "Good. Consider it accepted."
"As of right now, I'm revoking your resurrection," Emily explained. "You and the rest of your running buddies. But unlike Rel'yn, who I granted a painless and swift death in consideration of his repentance, you're going to become an object lesson. This is how the Wild Hunt is going work in the Second Age..."
Emily pointed to the horizon, distant and northward.
"You're going to run," she declared. "You and your buddies are going to run for their lives, because as of tonight, every single Winterhound is going to be on you like white on rice. THAT is the new Wild Hunt: the purge of the ferals, the unrepentant, and the utter bastards. There is no room in the future for your flavor of the hunt, Dylan."
...and the supposed alpha male's smile dropped.
"You'd turn a hound against a hound?" he asked. "You... you can't do that. Lady Winter would never--"
"Not the top of the food chain, Dylan. That would be me. Lady Winter didn't point that out, did she? She's like that. She sets traps for people to fall into. Just like Taamusi's friend, just like that poor bastard Rel'yn. You fell into this one hard, boy."
The hockey stick in his hands creaked, as a fistlike grip on its squeezed harder and harder. Rage. RAGE. The Hunt boiled in him, the need to assert himself, taking over reason as he swung back, and prepared to knock the head off this ridiculous farce of a "Queen"--
You were warned, Dylan. You were warned that you would hunt until such a time as you no longer amuse the Crown of Ice.
--the stick clattered to the ground. That wasn't Emily's voice. ...it WAS Emily's voice. But it was so much more than that...
The full fury of the crowns blazed over her heads now, as the Queen advanced on her disfavored son. And Dylan stepped backward, losing his ground... as the twin halos of flame and frost circling clockwise and counterclockwise respectively, more brilliant and alive and terrible than any simple floodlight could possibly be...
...until Emily caught herself, and doused them with a very forceful thought. But her words did not lose their rage, even if they lost the supernatural potency they briefly held.
"Any Winterhound who brings me the heads of Dylan and the Icepack will win great favor in my court," Queen Emily declared. "That is the hunt I give to the children of winter, to show that they are still loved... I give you the greatest Wild Hunt of all. The hunt of a hunter. You heard it from his own mouth -- come on and have a go, if you're hard enough. It will be the greatest hunt you're ever going to experience. It will be... legendary. ...but we'll be courteous and offer him a head start. Run, Dylan. RUN."
The Icepack fled. Shadows blurred and bent as they slipped between them, fleeing the scene as fast as inhumanly possible.
Odds were they'd never be seen again... except by those who now savored the opportunity to be the ones that would conquer them. The gathered Winterhounds did not have pleasant expressions, but were nevertheless pleased.
"...my winter lands will be lands of change," Emily spoke. "And you will be the agents through which change happens. I'll be gathering you more often, now. Together we will dominate this land, but see it brought back to life in the process. Those who follow me will thrive and hunt well, in a new way. Those that do not... well. I think you've had enough lessons today. Class dismissed. Good hunting."
Emily nearly sprinted at a flat out run through Esrever's domain, after that. Within minutes she was back in her comfortable bedroom in her comfortable palace in the comfortable heat of New Orleans. This did not in fact comfort her very much, however.
"I did the voice. I did the damn voice," she growled. "I was trying so hard to avoid that, Scout. The more I embrace it, the more I tap into what they dumped on me..."
Her husband's arms were around her, warm and welcoming. This, she took a measure of comfort from.
"We'll avoid the future," he promised. "Avoid your vision. I swear it to you."
"I'm still not totally happy with the situation, you know. Even Taamsi's murdered people..."
"I've murdered people, Emily. We aren't that different."
"I preferred being a wandering busybody with a simple line between good and evil. This business is ugly as hell -- and it has to be done, I know. I just hope we can put this world in a better shape than we found it. No matter what it takes. ...do you think they'll catch that little crapstain?"
"Dylan? Yes. In time," he said. "Could be some trouble, meanwhile. We should be cautious. ...take your mind off these things. Rest. Everything will work out. I swear... I won't leave you."
Emily let out a long breath... the last of the cold air from up north. Or perhaps the last of the cold air of the voice she boomed across the frozen plains...
"It's the other way around that worries me more."
copyright 2009 stefan gagne