CHAPTER FIVE: THE GREAT ESCAPE

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Dark things roamed the earth in those days.  Things formed of fire, ice, stone, and sky.  They ravaged the land and sea.  They fed.  They killed.  They made war with each rise and fall of the sun and moon, breathing death.  These are the elementals’ ancestors.

 

I woke up unable to focus on anything but the searing pain in my head.  I swear, it was like someone had jabbed hot knives right into my eyes.  I think I was screaming, but my brain was so foggy that afterwards I wasn’t sure.  What I definitely remember is that after the pain had died down to a sharp throbbing in my skull, whatever sounds I’d been making had also been lowered to a deep growl in the back of my throat.  I clenched my teeth and breathed hard, trying to ignore the pain and think.  Time had lost meaning completely as I sat there, my senses slowly – almost reluctantly – giving me information on my surroundings and my current situation.

I was sitting in a hard metal chair, my hands pulled uncomfortably behind me and tied the bars of the chair’s back.  There was no light around me.  At all.  Even though weirdly-colored splotches swam in front of my eyes, my surroundings were pitch black.  From the growling in my throat, I could hear the sound echoing back at me.  I whistled and heard it bounce around the air in the room.  Wherever I was, it was big and mostly hollow.  A long time passed before the pain in my head really subsided, replaced by the cold air stinging my skin.  Whatever we’d been planning to hunt must have really been messing with the weather, because there was no way on earth that Missouri should’ve been so cold in August.

“Alright,” I mumbled to myself, “No big deal.  Just trapped in complete darkness, whatever.”

I started pulling and twisting against the ropes that held me.  As the minutes passed, the dropping temperature made the air start biting painfully into my skin.  I was shivering and my teeth were chattering by the time I heard Stephanie start screaming.

I screwed my eyes shut on instinct – yeah, I know it was stupid since there was no light – and I wish I could have covered my ears.

Stephanie kept screaming.

I guessed that she had just woken up later than me, and was experiencing the same pain I had.  I realized that I wasn’t sure how we’d been knocked out, I just remember that one second I was conscious and the next I wasn’t.  I gritted my teeth as the pain of Stephanie’s scream in my ears was added to the sensation of frozen air scraping across my skin.

I have no idea how long it was before her screams died down.

When silence finally fell and I heard Stephanie making small moaning sounds, I decided to speak.

“Stephanie,” I said, “It’s Jeremy, I’m here too.”

There was a tiny pause before Stephanie, her voice shaking, said, “Jeremy?  Where are we?”

“I don’t know,” I said “Can’t see.  You?”

“Nothing,” she replied.  Her voice was already becoming firm.  “Can you tell if we’re alone?”

“No id-d-dea.”  As the cold continued seeping in, my teeth chattered violently enough to make it sound like I was stuttering.

“Jeremy?  You okay?”

“J-just cold.”

Stephanie hesitated again.  “Jeremy, it’s pretty warm in here.”

My breathing was becoming heavy, and the sound of rushing blood began to fill my ears.  “What’s wrong with me?” I said quietly.

“We need to get out of here fast,” said Stephanie.

From the same direction as Stephanie’s voice, somewhere off to my left, there was a small click, almost deafening in what was otherwise a silent room.  I grinned in spite of the pain assaulting me.  Stephanie always had weapons hidden on her.  I could hear her sawing her knife against the ropes at her wrists.  She’d probably had it fastened around her wrist.

Pain lanced through my core.  There was definitely something wrong besides the cold.  I couldn’t even tell anymore if my skin was freezing or overheating.  As the fiery agony jolted through my eyes again, I let out a short yelp of discomfort.

“Hang on,” said Stephanie, her voice soothingly calm.  Nice to see one of us was on top of things.  “I’m almost out.”

The ropes around my wrists began to itch and burn.  I yanked at them, pulling and twisting, my throat producing more growling noises of its own accord.

Sensations like fire and ice exploded inside of me.

Light seemed to flood the room as I suddenly saw everything in sharp detail, but the colors were so muted that they were almost imperceptible.  Everything had a strange silver-white tint to it.  We were in a warehouse, and the room was empty except for us and a few crates and boxes.  Each of the windows had been boarded up to prevent light from coming in.  Stephanie sat to my left, about forty feet away, almost done cutting herself loose from her bonds.  Across the warehouse, close to a small side-door – which I noticed was the only door visible from where I sat – was another steel chair like the ones we’d been tied to.  What caught my eye, though, were the ropes, lying on the ground around the third chair.  They’d been slashed apart.  There had been another prisoner.  Blake.  Stephanie and I were alone after all.

“Jeremy are you okay?”

I tried to speak, but my voice came out as a guttural rumbling, completely incoherent.  I could smell metal and rotting wood in the room around me.  I could hear every sawing scrape of Stephanie’s knife against the ropes, and I was acutely aware of every fiber of my clothing, every sensation against my hands and wrists.  The cold was no longer uncomfortable, and the air felt warm against my skin.  I let in a deep breath, feeling completely calm.  I let the growl build – more out of some instinctual rush of power than out of anger – as I began to pull at my restraints once again.

They ripped apart like they were forged from warm butter.

“Jeremy, what’s wrong with your eyes?  They’re…reflecting light, I think.”

I ignored my cousin as I bent down and ripped the ropes off of my legs, still enjoying the gift of my sight.  I rushed over to Stephanie, moving so fast that my surroundings should have turned into a blur, but somehow didn’t.  I felt exultant at my newfound strength and speed, at the feeling of the air rushing past me as I moved, at this…I didn’t even understand what was happening.  I didn’t need to.

Stephanie sucked in a sharp breath as she heard my steps approach so quickly, but apparently she was well-trained.  She kept her eyes up, focused on my own eyes – I wondered what light they could even be reflecting in such complete darkness – in order to track my location.  And even though I could see the way her whole body had tensed when she’d noticed how fast I’d moved, she kept her knife moving.

I reached down to free her legs, but then I stopped, blinking at my own hand.

That was not a human hand.

My heart began to beat wildly as I stared, not answering Stephanie’s confused queries.  My hands had grown in size and changed shape.  They’d become something bestial, more like a paw than a hand, though I could still use my thumbs.  Each appendage was covered in what seemed to be snowy-white fur, and each finger was tipped by a smooth black claw.

I licked my lips, an impulsive move born of nervousness, and I tried to ignore how sharp my teeth suddenly felt, and how long they’d become.  I closed my eyes, breathing deeply.  There were so many scents clamoring for my attention, so many sounds and sensations flooding in, threatening to bury me beneath them.  Dirt, rust, steel, rotten wood, the sound of the saw, the hardness of concrete beneath me, the movement of air as I breathed, the thrum of power in the air.

Magic.  That one was hardest to define.  That feeling wasn’t quite a sound, and it wasn’t quite tactile, either.  It felt like when you can almost hear the whining and almost feel the vibration of a television that’s left on in the room.  But it was deeper, more vast, and more subtle.  It felt comforting, like it was a part of me.

I inhaled and smelled Stephanie, and although her scent was faint I could tell it was some kind of floral perfume.  I focused on that aroma.  Stephanie, my cousin.  She was my family.  Family.  The people who make you who you are.  I was a hunter, not a monster.  We needed to find Blake, and he was gone.  Obviously I wasn’t human, but I could deal with that later.  There was a real monster, a dangerous one, that we needed to track down.

Though my thoughts were still a bit jumbled, I opened my eyes.  My vision faded to black, the pale light vanishing from the room around me.  Just before everything went dark and my senses reverted to their normal intensity setting, I saw and heard Stephanie snapping through the last bits of rope around her arms.

“I’m here,” I said quietly, trying not to startle her as I reached out and untied the ropes around her ankles in the renewed blackness.

“You okay?” she asked, her tone obviously concerned.

I swallowed.  “Yup,” I lied, “I’ll be fine.  But we really do need to go.  Need to find Blake, too.”

Stephanie made a small noise of agreement in the back of her throat and she pulled forcefully on the knots.  Her hand brushed against mine, and I jerked my fingers back, gasping.  Her skin was searing hot.

“Geez,” she said, “You’re freezing.  You sure you’re okay?”

“Just help me get you out,” I hissed.  I did not want another thing to deal with at the moment.

She did.  We got her out in a matter of seconds, and we carefully made our way to the door I’d seen.  I pretended that I was just guessing; as if I’d just chosen a direction for us to go until we hit a wall so that we could feel around the edges of the room until we found a door.  We actually missed the door by a few feet, but we found it soon enough.  Stephanie insisted that she lead, hesitantly opening the door.

Moonlight filled the room, bright enough to make us squint for just a moment or two.  I was grateful that it wasn’t daylight.  The sun would have been unbearable after that darkness.  Stephanie stepped out into the night before me, her shoes crunching on gravel, but stopped after barely a moment.

“Mom?” said Stephanie.

I blinked and took in the scene in front of me.  The door led to a gravel-covered parking lot, and another building stood on the other side.  I really wished I’d had any weapons with me.  If I even needed them, that is.

I stared, hardly able to process what I was looking at.  The adrenaline should have been leaving my system, but…now I was just plain confused.

Ahead of us was a black minivan.  An extremely familiar black minivan.  No one, and I mean no one, could look as threatening as my Aunt Marlene while sitting calmly behind the wheel of a minivan.  No matter what she did, that woman always looked like she was about to assassinate somebody.

Physically, she was a lot like Stephanie, though her features were a bit stronger and sharper.  There were the beginnings of crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes, and her pale blonde hair was cut to shoulder-length.  Her blue eyes surveyed us coolly.

Blake gave us a cheery wave from the passenger seat, and motioned for us to join them.

For a few seconds, Stephanie and I just stood there, gawking.

I was a little disappointed, to be honest.  My first time being knocked unconscious and it turned out to be nothing but a training exercise.  Then again, if this was what our training was like, I didn’t think my enthusiasm for field work would last much longer.

I’d heard a little bit about the family’s training methods from my dad, although he’d been pretty quiet about his upbringing.  He’d talked about it like they’d tried to murder him.  I was starting to wonder if maybe they actually had.

“Well,” I said to Stephanie, “Let’s go say hi to your mom and brother.”

Stephanie started breathing out some rather colorful words I’d never heard her use before, but she also started walking across the gravel.  She crossed over to the driver’s window and I walked to the passenger’s.  As we approached, both windows rolled down and Blake grinned out at us.

“So,” I said, “It was a test, huh?”

“You did well,” said Aunt Marlene, looking down at her watch and then up at me.  “All three of you made it out within just a few hours of being knocked out.”

“Do you do this to everyone?” asked Stephanie.

“Of course, honey,” said Aunt Marlene with a smile.  “When I did it, they would gag us, too, so that if no one else happened to wake up at the same time, we wouldn’t be able to help each other.”

I suppressed a shiver.  “How did you knock us out, anyway?”

“An artifact that makes you lose consciousness,” said my aunt.  “Sorry about the pain.”

I made a sound to acknowledge the apology and asked, “Is it alright if we get in the car now?”

Aunt Marlene unlocked the doors and nodded.  We got in quickly, and I wrapped my jacket tighter around myself.  Every one of my muscles unclenched as I relaxed against the seat, though my heart was pounding.  My mind was going haywire trying to figure out what had happened, so I just sat back and let Stephanie ask the same questions I would have.

“What about you, Blake?” said Stephanie, “Did you get tied up?”

“Yep,” said her brother.  “I made it out about an hour before you did.  Neither of you were awake, so I didn’t realize you were in there with me.”

“And why didn’t you check?”

“I was going to.  When I opened the door to let some light in, I saw mom and she waved me over and explained things to me.  Obviously she couldn’t have me helping you once I knew.”

Aunt Marlene spoke up as she started the car and pulled out onto the road.  I noticed we were still on the outskirts of town.  “Part of the test,” said my aunt, “is to see how you react under pressure.  If you lose your head, you won’t be able to function clearly enough to escape.  And I’m willing to bet that you, Stephanie, got out the same way Blake did, with those wrist-knives of yours.”

“Yeah,” said Stephanie, “But Jeremy actually got out before me.”

“Oh really?” said Aunt Marlene, “How’d you manage that, Jeremy?”

I glanced down at my wrists and saw that they’d turned red where I’d been straining against the ropes.  I held one up so she could see it in the mirror.  “Brute force,” I said.

Aunt Marlene’s eyebrows rose.  That was the first time I’d ever actually seen her surprised.  “I’m impressed,” she said, “I don’t think anyone’s ever done that before.”

“Must have been the adrenaline,” I mumbled, leaning back against my seat and feeling the rumble of the car’s engine.

“Must have,” said Aunt Marlene.  She smiled at us.  Her smile was broad and sweet and genuine, just like her daughter’s.  “I’m proud of you three.  You displayed preparedness, capability, and teamwork.  All of you.  Tomorrow, the real hunting starts.”

That sentence shot a jolt of energy through my body.  I sat straight up, as did Stephanie and Blake, all of us wearing similar grins.  That was one of the oddest things about us that could be called a family resemblance.  We could go from exhausted and scared to happy and ready to make with the killing in under a second.

“So what are we doing tomorrow, exactly?” I asked.

“Each of you will be assigned to a mentor,” said Aunt Marlene, “You’ll split up, and three different hunters will teach you.  You’ll start by patrolling with them, seeing if you can find anything around town.  I recommend that each of you get plenty of sleep tonight, get your homework done early and take a nap tomorrow afternoon before you go.  You’ll be out late.”

Another first.  Aunt Marlene wasn’t much for talking.  Of course, that had been less talk and more information download.

“Just remember,” said Aunt Marlene as we pulled up to the house, “try not to die.”

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