CHAPTER THREE: THE WITCHING HOUR

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There were great ones, in those days.  They dwelt in solitude, for each time they gathered, storms raged.  Wrath poured upon the earth, covering the land in ice and snow.

 

The day before I would start my senior year of high school in a completely new town while also hunting some kind of dog-eating monster, I elected to just sit in my room, alternating between writing in the journal I’d just started and staring at the light drizzle of rain outside.  I frowned as I reached up and felt the window.  It was chilled, and there was a layer of fog that dissolved at my touch.  I’d lived in Missouri before, and it shouldn’t have been anywhere near this cold in August.

I sighed, acknowledging to myself that I was stalling my train of thought so I didn’t have to deal with the problem that had been bothering me.  What I’d seen at the gas station kept replaying over and over in my head.  Two different things were eating away at me.

First, Blake and Uncle Timothy.  The callousness worried me.  To me, it had looked like Finn was tired of being harassed, and my uncle had kept doing it just because Finn had the potential to be dangerous.  But being born as a monster wasn’t really enough to actually make someone a threat.  Normal humans were some of the most destructive creatures in history, but not all of them were dangerous.  There were certain mindsets, habits, and motivations necessary for the average person to become violent.  If any of them were present in Finn, based on the limited observation I’d done, then my family had put them there.

The second thing I was worried about was, ironically enough, Finn himself.  I was way out of my element.  A non-violent werewolf, a gorgon laying low, and…that was about the extent of my exposure to the supernatural.  Finn was something else.  Phoenixes were rare, even in the supernatural community.  In some circles, I’d heard that it was considered a huge honor to be able to meet one ever.  People thought of them like some kind of angel – they brought light, and hope, and life.  They were healers.

But they didn’t have to be.

I blinked, noticing the way I’d been staring at my frosted window without really seeing it.  I stood, stretched, and then went to flop down on my head, my eyes falling closed.  I was out of my league, and I had a feeling that I was either about to grow up or die trying.

I don’t know how long I stayed like that, drifting halfway between sleep and the waking world.  But eventually, there was a knock at the door – apparently nothing more than a formality, since my cousins walked right in without waiting for a response.

“Please,” I said, rolling my eyes, “Come right in.  Make yourself at home.”

“We are at home,” Blake noted.

“Told you to wait for him to let us in,” said Stephanie.

Blake frowned at her.  “Why?  It’s not like he was busy.”

“They’re called manners, Blake,” Stephanie huffed.

“Hey,” I said, drawing their gazes towards me.  “Something you wanted?”

Instead of actually responding to me like normal people might do, Blake and Stephanie looked at each other.  This was one of those moments that I was sure had given our ancestors the idea that twins – especially magical ones – could speak to each other telepathically.  The silent conversation lasted for a couple of seconds, but when it was finished, the twins turned narrow-eyed looks on me, appraising me silently.  I frowned at them.  I was familiar enough with those looks.  We were about to do something that would get us in trouble with their parents if they found out.

“How well can you keep a secret?” asked Blake.

I leaned back and stared at the ceiling.  “This family’s built on secrets,” I said.

“But how well can you keep a secret from our parents?” said Stephanie.  I could hear the smile in her voice.

I sat straight up and stared at them for several seconds.  “What in the world could you possibly need to keep secret from them?”

“We need to sneak out, meet up with someone mom and dad wouldn’t approve of, and then sneak back in without them noticing,” said Stephanie.

“You make it sound so boring,” I told her, “If I wanted to do stupid teenager crap, I could’ve done that in Oklahoma.  I’m here to hunt.”

“This is hunting,” said Blake, giving Stephanie his own personal I told you so look.  “We’re going to go meet up with one of our own sources for info.”

“Oh,” I said, “You guys really should’ve led with that.  When do we leave?”

“Probably around midnight,” said Stephanie, glancing at her phone.

Blake grinned and murmured to his sister, “Wouldn’t it be better if we waited until three in the morning?”  Stephanie hit him in the arm with a solid thump.  I grimaced.  Surely Blake would learn one of these days to stop saying things that would make Stephanie do that.

As I leapt out of bed and got my equipment – shoes, my jacket, and a couple of concealed knives that Aunt Marlene had sent me for Christmas last year – Stephanie shot off a series of rapid-fire texts and Blake double-checked his handgun.  I eyed the weapon warily as he did so.  Under no circumstances did I want to go somewhere we’d need handguns without my aunt and uncle.  I am, after all, one of those rare teenagers who’s willing to admit that I’m still just a kid, even at age seventeen.  Eh, maybe especially at age seventeen.

Before long, we were checking that Uncle Timothy and Aunt Marlene were asleep as we crept downstairs, through the kitchen, all the way to the backdoor.  Of the three of us, I was making the most noise.  I tried to copy Blake and Stephanie’s steps, though, and I got a little bit quieter.  Those crooks had memorized all the creaky floorboards in their house.  How often did they do this, anyway?

The house had a decently-sized backyard, with a high wooden fence and a gate in the back where they’d take the trash out to the gravel-strewn alley between homes.  The twins both seemed to know exactly where we were going.  They moved without talking to each other except to make lighthearted jibes, teasing one another about being loud in the middle of the night, occasionally mentioning stories of what they’d done with their friends.  I listened to the sound of gravel under our feet and wondered what it would be like to have a twin.  Or any siblings at all, for that matter.  I wondered, just for a second, why my parents had stopped after having me.  I guess it wasn’t all that unusual these days, though.

After a block or two we moved out of the alley and onto the normal sidewalks.  After another three blocks, a turn, and two more blocks, we reached a park.  Stephanie whipped out her phone and started texting again, turning down her screen brightness so it didn’t blind her.  I watched how Blake scanned our surroundings, his hand twitching towards his gun.

As we neared the center of the park, I saw a small playground and a girl roughly my age sitting on a swing-set, swaying gently.  Blake, instead of relaxing, seemed to grow more tense as we approached.  Though he faced the girl, he kept his eyes shifting all around us, watching for trouble.  Stephanie, on the other hand, just grinned and waved, a gesture the other girl returned.  I just…well, I may have stared at the girl.  Just a little.

She was pretty.  Like, really pretty.  She looked like she might have been Latina, with long, flowing black hair and incredibly smooth, soft-looking tan skin.  She was wearing a weird combination of normal clothing with excessive golden jewelry.  Earrings, necklaces, bracelets, rings.  Somehow, she managed to pull off the look.  Even in the dark, I could see her eyeliner drawing attention to her bright, amber-colored eyes, almost as golden as her accessories.

As we got closer, she looked at us, her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open in surprise.  Her gaze fixed on me, staring right through me.  I was suddenly hyperaware of my every movement.  I forgot how to walk, suddenly struggling to remember as my every motion felt unnatural and forced.  I clenched and unclenched my hands.  Then, abruptly, her gaze turned into something harder, more calculating.

“This your cousin?” she said, not taking her eyes off of me.

“Maya, meet Jeremy,” said Stephanie, glancing over her shoulder at me.

Maya nodded to me, her stare still intense.  “Nice to meet you, Jeremy.”  She turned to Stephanie with a small grin.  “I like him.”  Blake’s vigilance vanished as he lapsed into a coughing fit.  I did not blush, no matter what Blake says.  He lies.  I do not blush every time a beautiful…never mind.

Maya motioned for us to sit.  Stephanie and I sat on the swings to either side of her while Blake opted to sit at the bottom of a nearby slide, where he’d be able to keep a better eye on us.  I heard Maya whisper a few words I didn’t quite understand, and –

I nearly jumped out of my skin as the strangest feeling of my life came over me, like electricity rippling through my skin.  I felt it in the air around us, like the feeling of being in the room with a TV while it’s turned on.  Especially the old ones, that would make an almost imperceptibly high-pitched whining noise.  Only this was about a hundred times more intense.

Stephanie tilted her head to one side and frowned at me.  I glanced over at Blake, who’d been looking away and didn’t seem to notice.  But Maya was staring at me again, now grdinning wolfishly.  Stephanie glanced over at Blake with a frown and then looked back at me, but she didn’t say anything.

I took a deep breath, in and out.  They were wards.  Protective spells.  Maya was a witch of some kind.  Then I frowned.  Shouldn’t Stephanie and Blake have been able to feel it, too?  If they had, Stephanie wouldn’t have looked at me like my surprise was unusual, she would have just realized that I hadn’t been expecting the wards.

“I’d ask what brings y’all back to town,” said Maya, staring up at the stars, “But I think we all know.”

“Any idea what’s actually happening?” Stephanie asked.

Maya shook her head.  There was a quiet jingling noise when her shook, like there were more golden ornaments in her hair.  “No.  Finn says he’s got a couple of ideas, but he’s not sure of anything.  And Cal’s no Sherlock.”

“Good in a fight, though,” said Blake quietly.  He scowled at Maya, his gaze unflinching.  His every muscle was tense, like an animal ready to pounce on the nearest possible prey.

“True,” allowed Maya, leaning slightly against her swing’s chain.

“What about any…y’know, adults?” I said.

Maya looked down, glaring at the grass.  “Sad as it is, Finn, Cal, and I are the only ones with enough backbone to actually do anything around here.  Everyone else is too busy running for cover.  They don’t want to be around when crap hits the fan, just in case people are shooting first and asking questions later.”  She sent a dirty look over at Blake, whose scowl remained stubbornly in place.

“Personally,” Maya continued, looking back up to the stars, “I think it’s some kind of winter spirit.  There are no traces of spell-craft, so it’s not a witch, but there’s obviously something messing around with the weather.”

“Couldn’t it be some kind of talisman?” asked Stephanie, “They don’t leave the same kinds of traces that spells do, right?”

“Doubt it,” said Maya, looking at my cousin.  “Unless someone brought it here recently.  And to bring something that can change the weather this suddenly – ” She waved a hand around us.  I noted that the dew on the ground looked like it was starting to turn into frost.  “ – I would have felt something when it got close.  You can’t make changes this big without someone noticing.”

“Plus the missing animals,” said Blake.

“Right.  Something is feeding.  Which is another reason I think it’s an elemental.”

“Elemental?” I repeated.

“Anyone connected to nature is an elemental,” said Maya, turning her intense amber eyes on me.  “Even witches like me, kind of.  All magic comes from nature, and nature’s made up of the elements, so…elementals.  It’s kind of a blanket term.”

“So what kind of spirits could do this?” asked Stephanie.

“Not very many,” said Maya.  “There were gods and goddesses of winter, but not very many.  The Greek goddess Khione, all of the Norse Jotun.  But I don’t think any of them would be influencing us here.  Any of them would be way stronger than this, plus there’s been no sign of them for centuries.”

“So what else is there?” I asked.

Maya shrugged.  “Honestly?  Not a whole lot.  Some minor ice sprites, the Qiqirn, yetis, we’re way too far inland for it to be a tizheruk, I guess it could be a migratory wendigo.”

“What about the barbegazi?” asked Blake.

Maya shook her head.  “Nah, we have a treaty with them.  It might be an amarok, though.”

“Did you say not a whole lot?” I asked, my voice on the verge of cracking, “Because this sounds like a whole freaking lot.  And I only recognized like three things you said.  Wendigoes I only know from watching Supernatural.”

Stephanie grinned at me.  “Welcome to the hunt, Jeremy.”

“Yeah, thanks for that,” I said, my tone coating my words in sarcasm.

Blake rolled his eyes at me.  “So what you’re saying, Maya, is that it could basically be anything at all.”

Maya shrugged and gave him an apologetic half-smile.  “Yeah, basically.  Sorry I can’t be much more help than that.”

We fell into silence, each absorbed in our own thoughts.  I felt like I was stretching farther above my paygrade with every passing hour.

“What did Finn say, exactly?” asked Stephanie.

“He was vague, as usual,” said Maya, tossing a jingly lock of hair over her shoulder.  “He said that the cold felt wrong, somehow.  That it felt oppressive.  He says that something is definitely doing this on purpose, but he can’t tell what.”

By some unspoken accord, we all stood.  Stephanie and Maya hugged and said their goodbyes.  Blake’s hand rested closer to his gun that I was comfortable with.  The guy was seriously paranoid.  Maya whispered a few unrecognizable syllables and the electric current in the air vanished.  I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.  I’d honestly forgotten about the spell until she dropped it, and suddenly it was like a huge knot of tension unwove itself somewhere within me.

As we started walking away, Maya said, “I’ll keep an eye out, let you know if I find anything.  And Jeremy?”  I stopped and turned to look at her while my cousins continued a few paces ahead of me.  Our eyes met, and it was like the electric current of magic was running through the air again.  “Be careful,” she said quietly, “I’ll see you in school tomorrow..”

“Hey, you two can make out later,” said Blake loudly.  I winced, thinking about all the people asleep in the houses around us.  “We gotta go before mom and dad – OW!”

I turned and saw Stephanie cracking her knuckles menacingly and Blake rubbing at his shoulder, scowling at his sister.

I grinned at them.  Gotta love family.

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