CHAPTER ELEVEN: THE EX-INFORMANT

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[Author’s Note: I wrote two characters into this story, one named Cal O’Connor, who is friends with Jeremy, Maya, and Finn.  Another is Calvin Hawkins, a griffin murdered by Blood-Shard.  Due to the confusion of  having both a “Cal” and a “Calvin,” the dead griffin has been renamed Richard Hawkins.  And yes, he has a bird name.  Ha stinking ha.]

 

The humans themselves kept poor writings, and if they knew whence they came, they refused to share their knowledge.  For not all of them took as kindly as did their witches to the magic of the elementals.

 

After the next day of school, my aunt and uncle divvied up the names of all the elementals in town who had helped them in the past.  Blake did end up getting included in the work, though no one was really happy about the necessity.  Each of us went into the snow-covered town with our mentors to track down two or three different people, warning them about Blood-Shard’s arrival.

The first person Gary and I visited was a little mousy guy who was constantly glancing over his shoulder.  He couldn’t have been older than twenty.  As soon as we told him that Blood-Shard had killed Richard the griffin, he cut us off in the middle of our offer to keep an eye on him, insisting that was going to skip town within the hour.

We got back into Gary’s car and he drove towards the next elemental.  We rode in silence until we were about halfway there, when Gary shot me a frown and said, “Mind if I ask what’s bothering you?”

“Me?” I asked.  “Nothing’s bothering me.”

Gary scoffed.  “It’s plain as day, bud.  You couldn’t be broadcasting it any louder if you were shouting it from the rooftops.”

I groaned and dropped my head back against my seat.  “Stupid observant hunters,” I muttered.  “I’m mostly just stressed out by the job.”

Gary nodded in understanding.  “That’s normal,” he said, “Kind of hard not to be stressed when you’re going looking for a giant, murderous, blizzard-summoning fanatic.”

I eyed him.  “If that was supposed to be comforting,” I said sourly, “you failed.”

“It wasn’t,” said Gary, smirking.

We fell silent for another minute or so of driving.  I stared at the snow blowing across the road while I thought about a question that had been germinating in my brain.  Finally I said, “Do all hunters eventually start hating elementals?”

Gary grimaced and gave me a pained look.  “Not all, but enough that it’s something to worry about.”

I looked at him, studying his face.  I actually didn’t spend much time around Gary.  He was my mentor, but among the hunters that meant little more than me following him around on the job and him making sure I didn’t get myself killed.  Gary seemed like a good guy, though.  He was a family man, a father.  Plus, he felt strongly enough about being a father that he was  willing to go out risking his life every night to make the world a better place for his daughter.

“What do you think about elementals?” I asked him.

“I think they’re people with huge amounts of power,” said Gary, keeping his gaze steadily fixed on the road.  He pulled the car against the curb in front of a house.  “This is it.”

“You said that you think my family goes overboard, when I first asked you about it.”

“I do,” said Gary.  He sighed and took off his glasses to rub his eyes.  “Look, my problem with your family is that they treat elementals like ticking time bombs, like they’re all just natural-born killers and there’s nothing else to them.  They forget that elementals are just people with power.”

“Some of them have predator instincts,” I pointed out.  Even thinking about them brought out the itch under my skin – the urge to kill, to rip apart the hunter sitting beside me.  I forced it down.

“So do humans,” said my mentor.  He looked at me, and there was iron in his eyes.  His voice was firm.  “People are really, really good at killing each other.  The only reason elementals are more dangerous is because they have more readily-available tools to work with.”

I nodded.  “Alright.  I get that.”

Gary narrowed his eyes at me, putting his glasses back on.  “It’s not good to keep secrets in this business, you know.”

I felt little bits of ice were forming in my chest as my heart started pounding.   I definitely had secrets to keep.  “What do you mean?” I asked.

“This business runs on secrets,” said the man, his gaze intense.  “But if you don’t have at least one person that you trust, one person you can talk to, who you know has your back no matter what, this business is going to kill you.”

I nodded, and noticed that my motions had become jerky and spastic.  “Okay.  I’ll, uh…I’ll remember that.”  Had he figured it out?  Had I given too much away?

I didn’t get a chance to keep wondering, because we were interrupted.  There were a couple of taps on my car window, and I turned to see a woman in her thirties standing there.  She had long waves of red hair, and her eyes were a light shade of brown.  In spite of the snow, the only protection from the cold she’d bothered with was a denim jacket.  As Gary hit the button to roll the window down, the woman didn’t look at me at all.  She kept her no-nonsense gaze on Gary.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, Mr. Reyes?” asked the woman.

Gary flashed her a bright smile, but it was a bit too wide, making it somewhere between patronizing and playful.  “Thought you could use some company, Miss Snyder.” said Gary in a voice as sarcastic as his smile.

The woman’s lips curled gently into a half-smile.  “Now Gary, I know you didn’t come all the way out here in the dead of night just to keep me company,” she said.  “Though if you ever wanted to bring your wife, I’d certainly never turn the two of you down.”

I frowned at the two of them and tried to sink backwards into my seat.  They’d obviously known each other for quite a while, and I didn’t want to get in the middle of the conversation.  As I watched the new elemental, though, I felt the cold flow of my magic spread through me, from more than just the chill of the air.  Then I saw something – not quite as intense as when I’d seen my friends’ auras before, more like images flashing through my head.  Golden wings, the starry night sky, and blood.  More blood than I ever cared to see again.  I shivered and wondered what, exactly, this woman could be.

“Maybe after things settle, Sandra,” said Gary with a more genuine smile.  Then the expression vanished, and his face turned serious once more.  “Not now, though.”

Sandra’s face darkened as well.  “I heard about Richard.  Was it really Blood-Shard?”

“It was.  He had the clean cuts, the ice, and the carving.”

Sandra shook her head sadly.  “It’s a shame.  He was a good man.  Always there for you when you need him.”

“And he was strong, too,” said Gary.  “If Blood-Shard’s still here, and if he’s going after people who’ve helped us, you’re in danger, too.”

I saw the tiniest glint of anger in Sandra’s eyes before they went neutral again.  “I don’t need a babysitter,” she said coolly, “and I certainly don’t need to be used as bait.  You’re better than most, Gary, but you and I both know why you’re really here.”

Gary shrugged, not trying to deny it.  “If we can lure him out and take him down, then a lot of lives will be spared.”

“And if we’re all in one place, then Blood-Shard will leap at the chance to come after us.”

I finally spoke up, ignoring the intensifying feeling of ice within me.  “Does he really think he could take all of us out at once?” I asked.

Sandra turned her golden-brown eyes on me.  “He’s proud, but he’s earned his pride.  He’s been in the serial killing racket for over a couple of decades, now.”

Gary frowned at Sandra.  “You have a point, there.  It’d be just like him to try dealing a blow like that, wouldn’t it?  Showing us that no matter how many of us there are, he can still take us all on.”

“It sounds like you two have run across him before,” I observed.

“He used to be a prominent figure in elemental politics,” Sandra told me.  “Always calling for us reassert the old ways.”

“He’s a traditionalist,” agreed Gary.  “And he’s a militant one.  He caused trouble for hunters even before he vanished.”

“He vanished?” I repeated.  “Why?”

“Decided to take a more direct approach,” said Sandra, her voice bitter.  She brushed snow out of her hair.  “About sixty years ago, he stopped showing up.  There aren’t any other representatives for the Yeti Remnant Nation, so they’ve been absent from the Elemental Conclave ever since.”

I blinked.  “Okay, what?  Yeti Remnant Nation?  Elemental Conclave?”

“The Conclave is the governing council of elemental nations,” Gary said.  “Kind of like a magical U.N.”

The cold stabbed through me so powerfully that I squeezed me fists together and all of my muscles tensed up.  Was it just because I’d been around too many elementals?

“And the Yeti Remnant Nation is made up of all the survivors of the ancient yeti wars,” said Sandra.

I let out a frustrated grunt.  “You just explained it by dropping another new concept into the conversation.  Is there any way that you – ”

I’d never seen anyone going from comfortable conversation to drawing their gun in as little time as Gary did.  As we’d talked, an enormous white blur twice the size of Gary’s car tackled Sandra with incredible speed.  Gary and I both tumbled out of the car, drawing our weapons and aiming for the snowy-white mass that latched onto Sandra.  I tried to breathe through the building shockwaves of magic that pulsed through me.

The two rolled on the ground for one rotation, then Sandra got her legs beneath her and pushed away from the white beast, which leapt backward to face her.

Once they were standing, I saw the creature in full.  When I did, I was afraid that my heart would shred itself into pieces from its nervous rhythm.  I couldn’t decide whether the thing was more apelike or canine – it looked like a combination of different creatures.  The monster was almost ten feet tall, with thick muscles rippling underneath its full-body coat of white fur.  Two smooth ebony horns curled above its head, and it had curving claws to match.  As I looked, I decided that the rest of the being’s physique looked more like a bear.  He had thick, powerful legs that ended with the same black claws as his hands, and I saw doglike pads on his hands, though they were pure black.  His face was slightly lengthened as well – not enough that it had a real snout, but enough that it no longer looked human.  The being’s eyes were a vibrant, icy blue.  Ice and frost spread across the ground beneath it, and when it bared its teeth and growled I saw that it could probably fit my entire head inside of its maw.

I kept my gun trained on the beast I assumed was Blood-Shard while he and Sandra circled each other.  As they did, Sandra changed as well.  I hadn’t even paid attention, but she’d been wearing a jacket.  Now, she threw it off to show a shirt that left her shoulders and much of her back exposed.  A moment later, a pair of enormous golden-feathered wings that seemed to glint in the dim streetlights erupted from her back, and her eyes turned a bloody shade of crimson.

“Blood-Shard,” said Sandra, her voice a quiet hiss.  “How unfortunate that we meet like this, ancient one.”

Blood-Shard growled, deep in his throat, and lunged toward Sandra.  Sandra brought her wings down once.  The motion was unbelievably powerful, and the resulting gale buffeted Blood-Shard so hard that it stopped him dead and knocked him to the ground, and Sandra went soaring several yards backwards before landing again.

That was enough time for Gary.  He pulled the trigger a lot, all at once.  I wasn’t sure how many times because he was so quick about it that it all sounded like one blast.  The bullets slammed into Blood-Shard, mostly into his shoulder, and one in his chest as he started to turn towards us.

Blood-Shard faced us, planting his clawed black-and-white hands on the ground.  He let out a roar that I could feel through the ground beneath us as well as hear for several seconds after it ended.  Then his icy, ferocious gaze fixed on me, and his entire body went still for a second.  Frost continued to spread across the ground, emanating from him.  His eyes went wide and startled when they saw me, and my mind finally got itself into gear.

Two things happened in my brain when I locked eyes with the other yeti.  First, I realized that he must be able to see my aura and must be extremely confused as to why there was another of his own kind pointing a handgun directly at him.  Second, some part of me finally remembered my training and seized control of my hands.

I emptied half a dozen rounds directly at Blood-Shard’s face.

Blood-Shard, unfortunately, was much quicker than the bullets this time.  He moved with that same blinding speed with which he’d attacked Sandra, and my eyes lost track of him.  I saw a flash of black claws and white fur, and Sandra started bleeding from gashes across her entire torso as she cried out in pain.  Another flash of movement, and Gary was forced to dodge out of the way to avoid being eviscerated.  The claws still left his right arm a crimson-stained mess.

Then a mass of white fur and ice magic slammed into me and knocked me to the ground.  The gun flew out of my hand and my back scraped on the pavement for a couple of feet.  I was lucky that Blood-Shard chose only to use one hand to hold me down, because he could have collapsed my chest just by leaning a little bit harder.

My head spun as I stared up at the face of an apparently very angry and very confused yeti.  His eyes stared into mine, searching and imploring.  I felt the waves of cold ripple across my skin, and I felt his confusion as deeply and clearly as though it were my own.

Why?

Then bullets started slamming into Blood-Shard again, and in a blur of superhuman speed, he vanished entirely.

Jeremy!” shouted Gary as he rushed to my side.  His eyes raked over me, scanning for injury.  “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I grunted, “He just knocked me down.  You need a hospital, though.”  I looked around.  Snow had started to fall again, and the wind was starting to pick up.  On the ground where Blood-Shard had been there was a sheet of smooth ice more than an inch thick.  I tried to suppress the impulses in my head to chase the other yeti.  To join him.  I could hear the howl of a winter gale and wanted to run with it.

“No one’s going to ask how I am?” called Sandra.  I looked over to Sandra, and I saw her pushing herself up off of the ground.  The snow around her was stained with her blood, though I saw that it wasn’t just red.  There were veins and pockets of golden fluid within it, as if there were two substances that hadn’t mixed.  As I watched, though, I saw Sandra using the snow to clean off her wound.  They had almost healed.

“I might ask what you are,” I shouted back.

Sandra barked out a laugh and rolled her still-red eyes at me.  Her golden, faintly shining wings folded behind her back, and then vanished altogether.  “I’m a strix.  Look it up.”

Gary retrieved a first-aid kit from the trunk of his car and beckoned me over to help him.  “You’ll heal fine,” he said to Sandra before turning to me.  “A strix is a vampiric owl.  You’ll find them in a few Roman stories, but not many.”  As he started trying to wrap up his own wound, I heard him mutter under his breath, “Hate this freaking job.”

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