CHAPTER NINE: HETEROCIDE
As water, sky, and flora rose, so did other elementals. But only a few beings may rise before they also cause one another to fall.
Things became more than a little tense after the training exercise. Cal was clearly upset about something, and my best guess was that it was how Finn had started acting when he’d tapped more deeply into his powers. It had been a bit frightening, sure, but it had also been exactly what I’d needed, so I had no problem with it. Plus, Finn had to defend himself from me when I wasn’t in my right mind.
But I saw how Cal’s whole body was shaking afterwards. I’d never seen him scared before, and it worried me. Finn kept his gaze down, avoiding eye contact with Cal at all costs. The silence hung, thick and stifling, in the air while I was driven home. I filed all of this information away for later, deciding not to get involved in things I didn’t understand yet.
As we approached my house I couldn’t stop glancing at my watch. We had taken way longer than I’d expected, but it was still early enough that the house should be empty. I went in alone and left Finn and Cal to sort out their problems alone.
I only got about four steps in before Stephanie caught me.
She stepped into the living room with me and her face split into a wide grin that could have been genuinely happy or just incredibly smug, and I couldn’t tell which. “Sick, huh?” she said.
I gaped. “What, uh…” I cleared my throat and tried again. “What are you doing home from school?”
Stephanie raised an eyebrow, and her smile somehow became even wider. A tiny little part of me felt some tension release when I heard the suppressed laughter in her voice. “Why were you wandering around sick?” she fired back at me.
I grinned back at her. “Depends on how well you can keep a secret.”
“You’re dating Maya, aren’t you?”
The grin dropped off my face so fast it may as well have had a lead weight on it. I blinked at my cousin, who was now laughing outright. My entire train of thought derailed, tipped into a canyon, and caught fire.
“What?” asked my mouth without any real permission from my brain.
Stephanie rolled her eyes at me. “Come on, Jeremy, I’m just messing with you. Although if you were, that’d be cool, too.”
I stood there with my mouth hanging open.
Stephanie sighed. “Earth to Jeremy. Don’t worry, whatever you were actually doing, I don’t actually care, it’s fine. It’s not like I haven’t faked sick and snuck out plenty of times myself.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said. “So what, no interrogation? No paranoid demands to know where I was?”
“Nah,” said my cousin, brushing her blonde hair over one shoulder. “I’ll just follow you around everywhere you go from now on until I figure it out.”
I breathed in relief. Humor. That was a good sign. “Thanks, Stephanie,” I said, “I think I’m going to carry on my charade of illness.” I moved past her to the stairs.
“Jeremy,” she said. I turned, frowning at the distinctly unhappy tone in her voice. When I saw her expression, it was completely different.
Stephanie frowned at me. Her normally-cheery blue eyes stared into mine as if searching for something. “You’re going to tell me what kind of trouble you’re in,” she said. “Not now, I don’t want to pressure you. But soon.”
My blood froze, and not in the way that gives me superpowers. “I’m not in trouble,” I lied.
The corner of Stephanie’s mouth twitched upward towards a smile, but just barely. Then it vanished a moment later. “You know,” she said slowly, “you have this one expression on you almost all the time, like you’re worried. It makes it look like you’re always on your guard, always ready for the worst possible things to happen.”
I tried to swallow a lump forming in my throat. “What do you mean?”
“Your face looks like a mask, Jeremy,” said my cousin, frowning at me. “And it didn’t used to, growing up. Like I said, you don’t need to tell me right now, I want you to do it on your own time. But I’m going to keep asking you what’s wrong until I find out.”
I took a step backward, up the stairs. “I’m fine,” I lied again. I could hear in my own tone that it wasn’t true. No way would Stephanie believe me. I took a deep breath. “I’ll tell you,” I said. “Not right now, but I will.”
Stephanie nodded, and her smile returned, full and bright and genuine. “Alright. I’ll be waiting. And try not to get caught by Blake, by the way. He’s not as respectful of secrets as I am.”
“Thanks, Steph,” I mumbled before trudging to my room.
I was relieved that my secret would be safe for the moment, but obviously it wouldn’t forever. I just wasn’t a good enough liar, apparently. I tried to take my mind off of my problems by spending the afternoon doing homework and browsing the internet on my laptop. Monster hunter or not, I was still a senior in high school. I’m allowed to slack off sometimes.
The normality of being able to just scroll through Facebook and YouTube without having to worry about fighting for my life or keeping secrets from my family let me lose some of the tension that had built up inside of me. It also allowed me to handle it better than I otherwise would have when Aunt Marlene and Uncle Timothy came home and announced that everything was blowing up quite soundly in our faces.
I was beginning to suspect that these false senses of security were going to be a recurring phenomenon for me.
Once everyone had gotten home, I started hearing their voices drift upstairs. I went down to find my aunt, uncle, and cousins all sitting in the living room.
“He wasn’t just dead,” Aunt Marlene was saying, her tone severe. “He was shredded to pieces and encased in ice. It was just barely starting to melt when the police found it.” My heart plummeted straight down to my stomach. Someone had finally been murdered. And worse, they were iced. All signs pointed to yetis so far.
“So what you’re saying,” Blake said slowly, “is that he was killed in cold blood?”
Everyone gave him disapproving looks for a second before Stephanie punched him in the shoulder so hard that he fell off the couch.
“The guy died,” said Stephanie, “I know this is what we do, but show a little respect, at least.”
Blake got back in his seat and grinned impishly at his sister. “I thought you liked this kind of thing, Stephanie.”
Stephanie glared back at him. “Liking guns and martial arts and hunting is not the same as liking it when people get murdered.”
Blake rolled his eyes at her. “Whatever.”
I watched silently from the doorway. Apparently none of them had noticed me, but I was drinking in every detail. I remembered what my mentor Gary had said about my family being, essentially, sociopaths. At least Stephanie and her parents showed common decency and respect for the dead. I didn’t have any idea what Blake’s problem was.
“So what are we going to do?” I said aloud.
They all turned to look at me. Aunt Marlene moved over to me and felt my forehead to make sure I wasn’t running a fever. “How are you feeling?” she asked. “You seem better than this morning.”
“I’m fine now,” I said. “Not sure what was wrong with me, but it didn’t last long.” I glanced at Stephanie, who smiled back at me. She didn’t seem intent on revealing that I’d snuck out, so that was a relief.
“Good,” said Uncle Timothy. His expression was gravely serious. “We’re going to go see the scene for ourselves, and all of you should be there. If you’re going to hunt with us, you should understand what you’re in for.”
We went, and my aunt and uncle filled us in on what happened as we piled into their minivan and drove. The police had received a 911 call about a burglary. However, when they’d arrived at the house, they’d found the homeowner dead. He was sliced open as if an animal had done it, though they couldn’t tell what it might have been.
Plus, his body was encased in ice and laying in the middle of the living room, slowly melting. Somehow, the ice had appeared despite the man having been inside a well-heated room. One of the officers was a friend of the family, and he’d alerted my uncle and aunt.
The house was one of those nice, perfectly typical suburban things that had everything except the white picket fence. It made me wonder if the guy had a wife or kids. As we pulled up, I saw that it had already been sealed off with “Do Not Cross” tape, but there was only one police car sitting outside, and only one man sitting in it.
Uncle Timothy and Aunt Marlene got out first and went to talk to the officer. Apparently this was their friend, and he was high-ranking enough that he got the rest of the force to back off for us.
We were ushered quickly inside and into the living room. The house was well-furnished with plush couches, a plasma-screen TV, and bookshelves lining most of the walls. There was a large, simple maroon rug over the hardwood floor, and there was a dead body in the middle of it.
Fortunately, the stench of blood was faint enough that I couldn’t detect it in human form. The man really was encased in ice, and apparently it had happened only after the blood had been given enough time to seep into the carpet. In fact, the pool of blood was also frozen solid. I could see through the ice well enough to notice the deep, clean gashes all over his torso. The worst one had nearly decapitated him.
Blake let out a low whistle when he saw it. “So we’re not up against anything small, then.”
“No kidding,” I agreed. “Who was he?”
“An informant,” said Uncle Timothy, frowning down at the man’s body. “He was a griffin by the name of Richard Hawkins. He should have been more than powerful enough to defend himself, even from us unless we caught him off-guard.”
“So then why do we care if he’s dead?” asked Blake, frowning at his dad. “Sounds like someone just helped us out.”
“He wasn’t dangerous, son,” said Aunt Marlene, frowning a bit in disapproval. “Like your father said, he was an informant. He’d tip us off when there was anything suspicious or dangerous.” Blake just rolled his eyes at the chastisement.
“If he was so powerful, what could have killed him?” I asked.
“A yeti,” said my aunt. “One of the most dangerous creatures we’ve ever encountered.”
I felt anxiety spread within of me, feeling like an itch under my skin. Every single one of my instincts told me to get out of there – I was surrounded by enemies. I forced my expression and posture to remain normal, but I must not have been very good at it, because I saw Stephanie glancing at me with eyes full of concern. Geez, I had to get control of my emotions around my family.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“Three things,” said my uncle. “First, the claws. See how smooth the injuries are? Only a few creatures have claws that cut that smoothly, even among monsters and elementals. Second, the ice. We’ve seen attacks like this before, where the victims are frozen after they die, and stay that way much longer than should be possible. We think it’s to make sure that we find them. They want us to get the message.”
“What message?” I asked.
At the same time, Stephanie asked, “What’s the third thing?”
“The message is the third thing,” said Aunt Marlene darkly. “Look at this.” She waved us over and pointed straight down at the man’s shredded torso. We all gathered around, trying to see what she was pointing at. I grimaced when I saw it.
There was a word carved into the man’s chest. It was very, very clearly legible, and it had obviously been made by the same smooth claws that had killed the man.
None of us spoke for a long time. This changed everything and we all knew it. This wasn’t just a beast trying to feed itself. This was actual murder, motivated and most likely premeditated.
“The yeti who does this is named Blood-Shard,” said Uncle Timothy. “He’s a fanatic. He hates us hunters, and by extension all of humanity. He kills hunters when he can, but he’s much more effective at hunting down our informants.”
I couldn’t look away from the word cut into the late Richard Hawkins’ body. No wonder the elementals were suspicious of the hunters. Not only were they often treated with hostility in spite of their cooperation, there were apparently other elementals who were more than willing to do them in if they talked too much.
“So we’ve got a homicidal yeti,” said Blake. “Fantastic.”
“Well, he’s not really homicidal,” I said, “he’s heterocidal.” Unfortunately, drawing attention to myself with the joke made my anxiety worse, not better. Now there were dangerous people who were likely to start shooting at me eventually, and were all looking at me. At least Stephanie was grinning at the joke instead of frowning in confusion like the rest of the family. I was beginning to suspect that she was, at least academically, the sharpest member of this branch of the family.
“What do you mean?” asked Blake.
“Well, homicide is when you kill a member of your own species,” I said, “This is heterocide.”
Aunt Marlene pinched the bridge of her nose and Uncle Timothy chuckled.
“They’re both elementals,” said Blake with a scowl.
“Really?” I said, “That’s the argument that you’re going with? Not the fact that I blatantly just made up a word? Besides, one’s a griffin and one’s a yeti. Being an elemental doesn’t automatically make them the same thing.”
“Yeah, it kind of does.”
“It doesn’t,” I said, my voice hardening. “Not all elementals are the same, Blake. They’re not all murderers, and they’re not all identical. They’re as diverse as humans. Even more, really. You just can’t see it because you’re not one of them.”
I think everyone in the room must have realized that there something deeper being communicated than just the conversation we were having. They also saw that Blake and I were about to have a problem, so the subject was hastily changed and we were escorted towards the door. As we were leaving, my uncle talked about each of us being assigned to a different elemental in town. I could tell, though, from the way my uncle gave the instructions that he was much less concerned with protecting the informants’ lives than he was with killing Blood-Shard.
My mind was running on overdrive as we started back out to the cars. There really was another yeti in town. Maybe that was why I’d ended up here. Maybe he’d summoned me somehow. Either way, I wasn’t alone and I had to be extremely careful. I was both a yeti and a hunter, and I was helping to track down another of my own kind. And that yeti would likely kill me himself if we were ever to meet. After all, he’d murdered elementals just for keeping the peace. What would he do to me?
I was walking absent-mindedly behind Stephanie. She stopped dead in front of me, almost causing me to knock her over. I blinked at my family. Everyone had stopped on the front steps of the house, and they were staring down at –
I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Finn was standing by our minivan, watching us with narrowed eyes.
No one said anything for over a minute.
“Checking to see if your accomplice did his work properly?” asked Uncle Timothy.
I screamed internally. The accusation was completely unfounded. It was outright stupid, and my uncle should have known better.
“Checking to see if I can find anything to help me hunt down my old friend’s murderer,” said Finn. “Blood-Shard will regret the day he decided to venture near me.”
“And we’re supposed to just take you at your word?” asked Blake with a scoff.
Finn’s eyes turned from blue to a glowing crimson. “I don’t care what you believe, Blake. You can’t do anything to stop me, anyway.”
Blake put his hand to his gun. “Wanna bet?”
Uncle Timothy put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Not in public, Blake.”
“In private, then,” I suggested.
Blake glowered at me. Stephanie glared at him.
“Does anyone else notice how illogical it is to accuse Finn of helping Blood-Shard?” I asked to everyone present.
“It wouldn’t be the first time he’s worked against us,” Timothy growled.
My mouth fell open. I looked at Finn.
“You were going to kill an innocent woman,” said Finn calmly. “I have spent centuries helping to prevent and defuse conflicts between humans and elementals. I wasn’t about to let you bring another war on yourselves.”
“She killed my friend.”
“She did not. And I would never work with Blood-Shard. The man is a lunatic.”
“Have you met him?” asked Stephanie.
Finn’s lips pressed together tightly, and he nodded. “Once, years ago. He’s insane. It’s like he’s stuck in the ancient war, still caught in the idea that elementals own the world instead of just living here. And he’s angry at humans for ‘taking our world away from us’ as he puts it.”
“Gee,” said Blake, “Who do we know who’s old enough to have picked up a grudge against humans for running the world?”
Finn fixed his burning eyes on Blake. “Stop picking fights where you don’t need to, Blake.”
“So let me get this straight,” said Blake to his dad, “Finn helped a murderer escape, and we haven’t shot him yet?”
My uncle glanced at Blake. “Things aren’t always that simple, son. He’s often too valuable a resource for us to – ”
“To do this?” asked Blake.
Faster than any of us could react, Blake drew his handgun, aimed, and fired.