CHAPTER SIX: SNOWFALL
Little by little, their caution became their downfall. Their solitude bred desolation, for no being can survive without companionship, nor can any race survive without children.
I tried to stay alert on patrol, I really did. But I couldn’t stop my mind from running wild. More than once, I caught myself just sitting in the passenger seat of the car, staring down at my hand as I flexed it. I imagined it had the fur and claws again. I didn’t even know what I was. I wasn’t altogether human, that was for sure. I hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask my parents about it, though I felt that I suddenly understood why they’d stopped hunting.
My dad was a full-blooded hunter and my mother had married into the family. She’d never told me much about her side of the family. Most of them had passed away, and the rest kept their distance. I was willing to bet that whatever was going on, it came from her. But I wasn’t even sure that it had affected her. There were no signs of it that I had ever seen.
I squeezed my hand into a fist and opened it again. What was I?
“Hey,” said a deep voice from the driver’s seat, “You okay, kid?”
I looked up at my newly-assigned mentor, and saw that he was frowning at me. He didn’t look angry, though. He looked worried. Gary seemed like a pretty chill dude. He was maybe in his mid-thirties, with jet-black hair and a pair of glasses over his brown eyes. He was more serious than the hunters I’d met, though.
Blake and Stephanie always seemed excited at the prospect of hunting. I’d even seen it once or twice in Uncle Timothy, while Aunt Marlene seemed serious all the time except when she was with her kids. Gary was different. He’d smiled when we met and gotten to know each other, talking about his wife and his infant daughter. But he showed no sign of happiness or excitement when it came to hunting.
“I’m fine,” I told Gary, “Just thinking.”
“Try to keep an eye out,” said Gary, keeping his eyes on the road and on the houses around us. “One of the reasons we think this thing may get to be a real problem is that came into areas like this. Normally things that feed on other animals don’t come into town. It’s brave, and that’s dangerous.”
I nodded and looked at the painfully normal suburban houses around us. “You don’t treat this gig like my family does,” I noted aloud. “Well, except my dad maybe. But he hates it completely.”
Gary grunted. “No offense, Jeremy, but your family’s nuts.”
I turned and blinked at him. “How so?”
“They enjoy this crap. This is what they live for. I’ve been hunting with your uncle for a few years now, and he’s never happier than when he’s killing something.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, but then looked back out at our surroundings. “They’re kind of raised like that, I think. What about you? How did you get into this?”
Gary was silent for a moment. It was kind of eerie, actually, how he’d been so friendly at first and he was so stone-faced now. “When I was in middle school,” he said quietly, “My dad died. Hunters came through town – two brothers pretending they were FBI agents – and they talked to my mom and me, and the families of a few other victims.”
I couldn’t even pretend I was paying attention to whatever was outside. I just stared at him.
“The hunters weren’t counting on my mom piecing together what was going on. I guess she’d been close friends with a witch. That was why my dad had died, actually. Someone wanted revenge, and they were thorough about it. Cause pain to the loved ones, torture them, then kill them. Work through everyone before you go for the person you really hate.”
“What was it?” I asked, “What would do something like that?”
“A demon,” Gary said, “Something from another dimension that was possessing people on earth. My mom’s witch friend exorcised it, and it got mad. Came back for her.”
We fell silent, and I looked outside again. Still nothing but boring houses. “And yet you started a family.”
Gary smiled, then. It wasn’t like the psycho smiles I’d seen my uncle pull when he was hunting. This one was genuine and happy. “The best revenge is living well,” he said. Then his smile faded. “That’s why I don’t like hunting. It’s a necessity, to keep my family safe, and to make sure other people can be safe, raise families, be happy. It’s not fun. It’s a responsibility.”
I nodded. “Makes sense,” I said. Then a thought occurred to me. “So then how do you feel about the way my uncle does things? Does he go a little overboard against witches and elementals and stuff?”
Gary snorted and turned to give me a look, his eyebrows raised. “A little overboard?” he repeated, “You’re kidding, right? Look, I’m glad that you’re his nephew, not his son, because I’d never say this to the other two. When I said your family is nuts, I meant it. They are psychotic. Even with other hunters, they have a reputation.”
“Dangerous. Most hunters are really more like peacekeepers. The Rosses are who you call in when there’s something big and it needs killing. Your dad was the only one that had any sense in him. Seriously, kid, your family’s full of professional sociopaths.”
I let out a low whistle. “That’s…well that makes sense, actually.”
“Even hunters think your aunt and uncle are scary,” said Gary.
We didn’t talk a whole lot after that. There was a little bit, here and there. I learned that Gary had a job as a customer service representative, and that most hunters had jobs like that, in addition to committing credit card fraud under a multitude of fake names. I’d never really thought of how hunters actually make their living before. Apparently Uncle Timothy and a few other hunters also owned a national chain of firearms stores, inherited from their parents and grandparents.
The rest of the night was pretty tame. We didn’t find anything, and the weirdest thing that happened was when the temperatures dropped below freezing. Gary said something almost the same as what Maya had told us about the temperature. He said that something was definitely messing with the weather, because August in Missouri was supposed to be hot. I acted like it was new information.
I met up with Stephanie and Blake when I got home, and they said their nights were pretty much the same as mine – cold and boring. Blake’s mentor was a middle-aged woman from another hunting family, and Stephanie was apparently partnered up with Gary’s younger brother. We slept, we went to school, and everything went like it normally did for a while. I was finally becoming a real hunter, and everything was good.
Naturally, my entire life fell apart the next day at lunch.
Things started normally enough. Maya batted her eyelashes and invited me to eat with her, Cal, and Finn. When I got my food and went over to them, Cal suggested that we eat outside, which Finn and I objected to, but Cal and Maya overruled us somehow.
“It’s f-freaking cold out here,” I said through chattering teeth.
Finn nodded vigorously, scowling at our surroundings as if they’d personally offended him. “No kidding, dude. I hate the cold.”
Cal flashed a lopsided grin at us as he sat down at one of the school’s picnic tables. “Finn’s more of a warm-weather creature,” he said to me. Maya and Finn, in flawless unison, each punched Cal in the arm as he snickered at his own joke.
As lunch started, I shivered and zipped up my jacket. As I ate, I felt a dull headache spread through my skull. I only caught small portions of the elementals’ conversations.
“All I’m saying is that they need more ketchup,” said Maya, pointing a french-fry at Cal.
Finn leaned over to Cal and whispered, “She’s talking with her hands again.”
“She’s very passionate about her ketchup,” Cal said.
I wondered if the elementals could see that I wasn’t human. I’d seen their auras before, so maybe they could see mine. In fact, they were all fully aware of their powers. There was a good chance that they would be able to see mine all the time. What if they’d known since I’d first met them? I felt my heart start beating faster. Maybe they were inviting me to hang out with them just so that they could keep an eye on me when I finally blew my top and my powers woke up completely.
“Geez, it got even colder,” said Finn. I refocused on the world around me. The icy wind was slicing right through me. I could feel something cold and wet hitting my skin, like tiny droplets of rain.
“It’s snowing,” said Maya. “In August.”
“Definitely winter spirits,” said Cal.
Maya nodded. “None of the local artifacts could do this.”
“Jeremy?” said Finn’s voice, “You okay, dude?”
I wasn’t, and this time I recognized what was happening. My skin had started to go hot and cold at the same time, and it felt like something was in my gut, eating my organs one by one. My vision was starting to change again, light colors turning paler and dark colors turning darker. I couldn’t concentrate on what was happening, but I could make out just a little bit of what everyone around me was saying.
“Look,” Cal was saying, “His aura’s blown a fuse.”
“We need to get him out of here,” said Maya firmly.
Cal and Finn lifted me off the picnic bench and started pulling me along towards the school’s parking lot. Halfway there, my body started convulsing and my knees buckled beneath me. Cal hauled me off the ground entirely and bolted towards a car – I wasn’t sure whose. Cal threw me into the backseat and Finn’s face swam into my field of vision, his eyes full of flames.
“Hey Jeremy, we’re taking you to my house, okay?” said the phoenix. There was something wrong with his voice. It was like there was a second voice speaking in sync with him.
The pain continued as the car soared down the road. “The snow’s getting heavier,” I heard Cal muttering. My head throbbed. Everything was too loud, and the car was too full of different smells and sounds. The engine’s roar had become painfully loud and the car pulsed with magic. Somewhere in the vehicle, I could smell traces of old blood.
“Jeremy, you’re going to be okay.” The pain started fading when I heard Finn speak in his odd double-voice. There was a screech from the brakes as the car jerked to a halt. Barely a second later, Cal was seizing me and lugging me up the steps to Finn’s house.
“You’ll be okay,” repeated Finn. He was definitely doing something magic, I could feel it pulsing in the air, redoubling every time he opened his mouth.
Another tremor shot threw my body.
“You’re going to be fine.”
I was dragged up a large flight of stairs.
“It’ll be okay.”
The world turned white as a guttural roar ripped itself out of my chest, shredding my throat and blasting in my ears. I tore away from Cal’s grasp and landed on my feet in a crouch. Then everything was still.
There was no pain, no nausea. I could feel the magic thrumming through my body, as deep within me as the blood in my veins. It was powerful, cold, and exhilarating.
I blinked at the three forms in front of me. I could see them, now. I could see them as if there were two worlds lying one on top of the other. There was an athletic redheaded boy, but there was also the vast expanse of a bird whose body was enthroned in its own flames The firebird was deep and ancient, and its mass seemed to sink inwards, as though he were a window into another dimension. I’d seen diagrams showing the mass of a black hole before, where it plunged inward even though there was no space to hold it. This was the first time I’d ever been able to see something like that in real life.
I saw a frowning girl in golden jewelry, and I saw her clothed in starlight. Shining threads of power wrapped around her, forming a web that glimmered into invisibility as it spread through the room, merging with the elements that were present. There was a stout teenager with floppy brown hair and there was a great horned humanoid coated in black stone that covered him like scales. The beast rolled its muscled neck and cracked its knuckles menacingly, though the boy did nothing.
I growled and crouched, bracing my claws against the ground so I could propel myself forward. The witch would be the easiest to kill, if I struck her first. Witches were powerful, but they usually needed time to prepare for a fight.
“Jeremy,” said the firebird and the redheaded boy in unison.
That voice sent a lance of warmth through my mind. It was beautiful. Musical.
“Jeremy Ross,” said Finn in voice with layer after layer of sound.
I blinked and stumbled backward. I kept my eyes fixed on my three friends. They stared back at me with wide eyes. “What?” I said. Then I frowned. The words were slurring in my mouth. My teeth had become elongated.
“Jeremy,” said Finn quietly, “Look in that mirror.”
Finn pointed at a full-sized mirror in the corner of the room, and I looked.
“Oh. I, um…” I coughed. “I’m the abominable snowman.”