CHAPTER TWELVE: THE WITCH’S LAIR
The only certain thing was that they were not elementals, for they had no magic of their own but witchcraft – grasping the magic around them and bending it to their will.
After our encounter with Blood-Shard, Uncle Timothy called for a meeting of all the local hunters. There were about a dozen of us in all, with my family making up almost half of the hunting force. Gary and I ended up giving every detail we could remember of the encounter, analyzing it for anything that could be useful.
Personally, I was wondering why Blood-Shard had acted so much like an animal. He was effectively a supernatural terrorist, and according to the people I’d spoken to about Blood-Shard’s history, he was good at it. He’d been attacking hunters and elemental informants for decades without being gunned down, which made him either much more clever than he’d seemed or immune to bullets altogether. Neither would be a good thing for us.
Somewhere around the third time we rehashed our story, Uncle Timothy asked me, “Why did he run?”
“I don’t know,” I lied. Of course, Blood-Shard had been too surprised to keep fighting. Yetis were supposed to be solitary, and moreover we were elementals. But here I was: a hunter. Someone clever enough to survive as a serial killer like the other yeti had wouldn’t do so by charging on through his battle despite meeting an unexpected elemental. He certainly wouldn’t keep going when I was new, untested, and potentially his equal. Blood-Shard had no way of knowing to what extent I had mastered my powers, but he knew that I’d managed to keep myself human during the encounter in spite of his presence.
“Maybe they surprised him,” Aunt Marlene suggested. I choked back a laugh at the irony of her theory. “He probably wasn’t expecting them to stay calm and fight back when he opened with such a strong offensive.”
“I think so,” said Gary, “Jeremy did a good job, too. Emptied half his magazine right at Blood-Shard.” Gary had been allowed to sit in the meeting only after they’d treated his injured arm and completely wrapped it in bandages. As he spoke his agreement, his eyes shifted over to me. He did it so subtly that no one else was likely to have noticed unless they’d been looking for it. I kept my expression very carefully neutral and looked away from him. Gary knew something was up. I hoped he hadn’t figured out what it was.
One of the main purposes of the gathering was evidently to get Gary’s assessment on how dangerous Blood-Shard would really be in combat, as well as to assess any possible weaknesses. By the end of the discussion, all we’d managed to agree on was that he was very dangerous. He was powerful enough that we really didn’t even slow him down, and he was smart enough to bug out when it started to look like he might be in a fair fight instead of an assassination. At the end of the meeting, my aunt said that she’d called in reinforcements as soon as we’d learned who we were hunting. The other hunters would be arriving in the morning.
I was grateful when we were finally allowed to sleep, and my aunt and uncle told me that I’d had enough excitement for a day or two. I had a Saturday to myself. My plans to sleep in were interrupted, though, when my phone rang at about eight in the morning.
I glared at the display, showing an unknown number, for a couple of rings before answering. “Hello?”
Maya’s voice rang out from the other end of the line. “Hey Jeremy, I found something that might be important. You free today?”
I blinked up at my ceiling. “How did you even get this number?”
“You have it listed in your own contacts under ‘My Number.’”
“And when would you have – never mind, you probably took my phone the first time I transformed, didn’t you? I was too distracted to notice.”
“Cal’s a good pickpocket,” said Maya. The witch’s tone was perfectly effective at giving me a mental image of her grinning smugly at me. “So anyway, are you free or not?”
“I guess, yeah. Where should I meet you?” Maya gave me directions to her house, and I told her I would be there after I’d showered and gotten ready.
When I walked outside, I was suddenly very glad that I’d listened to her about the coat. I had to shield my eyes from the reflection of sunlight on the snow. Everything was covered in a blanket of pure white, even the roads, and the snow was still falling, though there were almost no clouds in the sky.
I took a deep breath and imagined a massive fire burning inside of me, warding away the cold that would otherwise transform me. I was human, I was a hunter, and I couldn’t afford to change into a yeti in broad daylight. Definitely not when I was standing three feet away from my yeti-hunting family’s front door. When I was sure that I would be able to keep my skin on, I set out into the unnatural August winter.
Maya’s house was just a few blocks from mine, and looked much the same. Both were old Victorian-style houses, though Maya’s was set up on a hill so the front yard was in two tiers, with the second tier held up by a miniature brick wall. The closer I got, the easier it was for me to sense the pulses of energy running through it.
I might have imagined it, but I thought I saw glowing runes on the bricks of the low yard wall out of the corner of my eye. There was nothing there when I looked directly at them, though.
Maya opened the front door just moments after I knocked. I was caught a bit off-guard by how bright her smile was. I couldn’t help but smile back at her. She seemed more comfortable than normal, as though she weren’t thinking quite so intensely about business. Her loose curls of hair were tied back into a ponytail, and she only had one golden bracelet on each wrist – no other jewelry to be seen. Plus, the sweat pants were a dead giveaway.
“Hey, Jeremy,” said the smiling witch, “C’mon in.”
As expected, the inside of the house was in something of a classic style. There was a small chandelier in the entry way, and every room was lined with white-painted wooden trim. The trim was more intricate than I’d seen in most houses, though, with minute depictions of battles and wars, and of dragons and other creatures. I thought about how much time it must have taken to carve all of it, especially since I couldn’t see any place where the carvings repeated themselves. I wondered how much of it was made from actual history, and made a mental note to ask Maya about it later.
Maya led me through the entry way and living room to a library. The place was lined from the floor to the twelve-foot-tall ceiling with bookshelves, and each shelf looked like it was stacked two rows deep with everything from economics textbooks to The Lord of the Rings to fragile leather-bound grimoires that had gently pulsating sigils on their spines. In the middle of the room was a carved wooden table that appeared to have been buried under an avalanche of literature.
“Well I’m jealous,” I said, staring at the books around me.
Maya laughed. “If you ever get a craving for a good read, you’re welcome to come over,” she said. She gestured for me to take a seat in a heavily-cushioned chair that I was certain hadn’t been there a moment earlier.
I eyed it. “Did you just…”
Maya smiled, and I noticed her hand sliding along the surface of one of her bracelets.
“Witches,” I muttered as if exasperated. I grinned as I did, though, and her shoulders shook with a suppressed chuckle.
An unfamiliar voice in the doorway behind us said, “Maya, have you seen – ” I turned towards the source and saw a woman standing there who looked startlingly like Maya – caramel skin, long dark hair, and bright amber eyes. The biggest differences I noticed was that her hair was straightened rather than curled like Maya’s, that her face had very subtle smile lines across it, and that despite those lines there was something grave and serious about her bearing.
She turned her amber eyes on me, her eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Ah. You must be Jeremy,” said the woman. “Maya said you were coming.”
I smiled and we shook hands. “You must be Maya’s mother,” I said, “It’s very nice to meet you.”
Maya’s mother smiled. “You too, Jeremy. Maya’s told me a lot about you.” She cast a sly grin at her daughter and added, “Especially for a boy she’s only known for a week.”
Maya groaned. “Mom, why does everything have to be about that?”
“About what?” I asked her innocently. Of course I knew that Maya’s mother was teasing her about liking me, but joking along seemed like a much better option than blushing and stammering.
Maya narrowed her eyes at me. “Et tu, Jeremy?”
Maya’s mother laughed. “I’ll let you two get on with it, then.” As she left the room, she winked at her daughter and gave her a double thumbs-up. I blushed.
Maya gave me a level look and waved an arm at the door through which her mother had retreated. “My mother, ladies and gents, Miranda Arellano.”
I grinned at Maya. “You didn’t call me over to socialize, right? What’s up?”
Maya’s brow furrowed. She sat down next to my chair, and another chair identical to my own materialized under her before she’d completed the motion. “Take a look at this,” she said, pulling out her phone, finding a picture in its memory, and handing the device to me.
I examined the picture: a snapshot of a large stone by the base of a tree. There was a glyph apparently burned into the stone that looked completely unfamiliar. I couldn’t even guess what language it might have been.
“What am I looking at?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” said Maya, “Except that it’s obviously magic. I could feel the energy stored in it. It’s how I found them, actually.” She reached over and repeatedly flicked a finger across the screen, moving from one picture to the next. Each photograph showed variations of the same symbol. Each was subtly different, and each was clearly burned into a different stone in a different location.
My muscles twitched at the feeling of having another elemental so close to me. I felt a vibration in the skin of my arms and face, where she was closest. I took deep breaths as her hand brushed against mine. The touching of auras was an intense sensation – they weren’t metaphors made by people’s brains, they were actual manifestations of energy being slowly released from an elemental’s body.
I was pretty sure that the feeling was helped along by how attractive Maya was.
I leaned towards Maya as she continued showing me more photos, making sure that our arms pressed against each other. I felt her body tense for a moment, but then she relaxed and leaned more heavily towards me, until our faces were just a couple of inches away from one another, though we kept our eyes fixed on her cellphone.
“So you don’t know what these are for?” I asked.
Maya shook her head, and a few strands of hair from her ponytail brushed against me. She had a sweet, floral smell about her. “No clue,” she said, still not looking up from the photos, though she’d stopped scrolling through them. “They’re set in a circle all around town, and they’re all connected to each other.”
“So someone’s preparing a huge spell, and we don’t know what it does,” I said.
“Or how to dismantle it,” Maya added, turning her head to face me.
I turned and found that she was barely even an inch away from me. My heart started thudding, and for once it had nothing to do with fear.
I kept my mouth talking about business while another distinct part of me wanted to stop talking, lean forward, and see what Maya’s lips would feel like against mine. “So do you think Blood-Shard could secretly be someone already in the elemental community here?”
“I doubt it,” said Maya. Her voice had dropped to a low whisper, and I could feel her breath on me. Her golden eyes flickered down to my mouth and back up to my eyes. “Yetis are generally solitary, especially old ones like him. He’s probably just hiding out in the woods, keeping to himself.”
I licked my lips, and Maya’s gaze tracked the movement. “So how come you, Cal, and Finn are the only elementals doing anything about stuff like this?” Around seventy-five percent of my brain screamed at my mouth to shut the heck up.
Maya shrugged, her eyes now fixed on mine. “People are too afraid to get involved – a lot of them have families to take care of, and they don’t want to risk themselves. Finn and Cal are old, though. Really old. Both of them have gone through wars.”
“Wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t do something,” Maya said. Her amber eyes were hard and fierce, now. “People vanish all the time because of monsters. People die and families are slaughtered and it’s not right.”
There was a crackle of energy in the air around us, and in my peripheral vision I saw golden sparks in mid-air, apparently spawning from nothing but Maya’s power.
I ignored the pounding of my heart and kissed her. That energy intensified as I did, buzzing through my skin and sending a wave of warmth through me. I heard her phone clatter to the floor, but it didn’t matter because she was kissing me back. She wrapped an arm around my neck and I silently cursed the arms of the chairs between us, preventing us from getting closer.
Maya’s mom cleared her throat from the doorway. Maya and I leapt back from each other as if we’d burned one another, and Ms. Arellano gave us a wolfish grin.
“Not always about that, huh?” she said. She didn’t stick around for a response, and I wasn’t sure either of us would have done more than sit there with our mouths hanging open. So Ms. Arellano just walked away, snickering.
I cleared my throat and looked at Maya. She sat back in her chair. Her eyes were wide, and her lips were parted and curled into an open-mouthed smile. “That was…awkward,” she said, her words at odds with her bright expression. “Although the first part was nice.”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. I nervously tried to smooth out my hair, for no other reason than so that my hands had something to do. “It was.” In its madness, my brain caught on something Maya had said. “Wait a minute,” I said with a frown, “Did you say that Cal and Finn are both among the oldest beings here?”
Maya nodded, huffing out a laugh at how suddenly I’d changed the subject. “We’re not sure how old Cal is,” she told me, “Finn found him a few years ago, completely amnesiac and wandering in the middle of nowhere, finding monsters to fight. He says he has at least a hundred years or so of memory, and he hasn’t aged as long as he can remember.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Huh. And he still doesn’t remember anything?”
“Not a thing. Finn still tries to help heal his mind, sometimes, but it looks like someone actually stole his memory, instead of him sustaining brain damage or someone blocking off a part of his mind with magic.”
“You can steal memories?” I asked.
Maya’s eyes darkened, and she seemed to be calming down. “It’s pretty dark stuff, and insanely dangerous for the people having them removed, but yeah, it’s possible.”
We sat in silence for a few moments. I coughed. Maya shifted in her seat.
“So,” I said, “Um. That happened.”
Maya rolled her eyes. “An accurate assessment, Mr. Ross.”
“I wouldn’t, uh…” I scratched at the back of my head and focused on a bookshelf behind Maya. “Y’know, I wouldn’t mind if…”
“If it happened again?”
“Maybe we can arrange that after the whole yeti-trying-to-kill-us thing.”
“Nah, I think we can do this first.”
Maya chuckled. “By the way, have you been looking for information about yetis?”
“Uh, not exactly, no,” I said with a grimace. “Do you think I need to?”
Maya’s face went blank. “You’re kidding, right?”
I sighed and settled back in my chair, rubbing at my eyes. “I just didn’t want to…”
“Didn’t want to call my parents,” I said. I stared at the books on the shelves. “None of this is likely to help as much as just calling my mom and talking to her.”
“You need any edge you can get,” said Maya, “Especially when it comes to controlling the change. If your family finds out what you are, they might assume you’re helping Blood-Shard, willingly or not.”
I frowned. “Willingly or not?”
“Sometimes if you get more than one of the same kind of elemental together, they can form a kind of bond and influence each other.”
“Yikes,” I sighed. “Fine. I’ll call them.”