But when I went to pass through the living room, Mom spotted me and came almost running over.
“Oh, August, I was worried you might have – are you okay? I can’t imagine what you’re feeling right now.”
Dad appeared, too, his expression equally as worried. “Maybe we should get out of town for a bit? Would that help?”
Once again, I was utterly confused. “Um, what’s going on?”
They paused and both exchanged a very meaningful look.
“August,” Dad asked slowly, “have you seen the news today? Or, um, tried to contact Ollie?”
For some reason I felt fear start to grab at me, but I tried to shove it back. “No, I’ve been out – shopping.”
The look on their faces was really starting to terrify me. Without waiting for another word, I reached for my phone and pulled open the most recent local news.
My eyes widened and I could feel the disbelief, the prayer that this wasn’t real. Without another word, I dashed for my room, where I opened up more news articles, each one confirming what I didn’t want to be true.
Pictures of a house on fire. Of body bags being removed from the house. Of police and firefighters.
Of Ollie’s address.
I scrolled through the articles desperately, trying to find more information than just that a residence had caught on fire and an unknown number of people had died. I tried dialing Ollie’s number, but it wasn’t just no answer – the phone on the other end wasn’t connected at all.
Then a new article popped up, barely a couple minutes old, and this one had more answers.
One of the worst crimes ever committed in our small town, it read, last night appears to be the work of an arsonist and murderer. An entire family of six died in the flames, including Alexander and Eleanor and their children, Oliver, age 18, Brent, age 13, and twins Kelly and Gabby, age 5. The worst part about this crime, though, was the sadistic nature of the murder or murderers. Police have verified that the family members were all bound in their beds, unable to leave. The medical examiner will have to confirm whether they were alive when the fire started or were already deceased, but police indicate they believe the older family members were most likely alive, but badly beaten. Given the nature of the crime, as well as the ability to subdue this many people, police are speculating that a group was likely involved. Anyone with any information is encouraged to step forward.
The article went on, but I stopped reading, staring at the horrific description and then back to the names, stopping on Ollie’s.
This…this couldn’t be real. Someone had murdered Ollie’s entire family? Why? Who would even do that? Who would do something as awful as what was described here?
As if in answer, the business card the woman gave me slipped out of my pocket and fell onto the floor. Slowly, I went to pick it up, and the pieces started to fall into place.
She said they were monsters. That they were all dangerous. That her group helped protect humans. That they “removed the threat.”
They killed them. I was pretty sure of it. But…I was also becoming increasingly sure that it was because of me.
The woman knew who I was, where I lived. She’d apparently found news articles on Lori’s accident, but if she’d been able to track me down, then it wouldn’t have taken much digging – just looking at school yearbooks posted online – to figure out that I mostly hung with one person. Ollie. And I’d mentioned on the forums that a friend – though I hadn’t said his name – claimed to be a shapeshifter.
This…this was all because I asked that question, wasn’t it? This woman and her people had figured out who I was referring to and, in accordance with their idea that all inhumans were monsters, had murdered Ollie and his entire family. And it was my fault. Unintentional, but with far worse consequences than anything Ollie had done. If anyone was the monster between the two of us, it would probably be me.
No, no – neither of us were. Both him and me, what we did was by accident. I didn’t mean to get him in trouble, I only wanted some answers, and I’d thought I protected his identity. The real monsters here were the people who would kill an entire family, including Ollie – Ollie, my best friend who had never hurt anyone, other than Lori by accident; Brent, who’d hoped to become a professional soccer player one day; the twins, who were so excited to start kindergarten next year; and their parents, who’d always been so kind to me. They were all gone, killed in a horrible, horrible way. All because some people assumed that anyone who was inhuman should be killed.
I started shaking and reached for my phone, planning to call the police with what I knew, when I stopped. No, that – the police wouldn’t believe me about all this inhuman stuff, would they? I couldn’t explain about these people being responsible without bringing that up. And it was really only a hunch I had that the lady and her friends were responsible. I couldn’t prove anything. All that calling the police would achieve was to make people think I’d lost it after my sister’s death and then my best friend’s.
I bowed my head, my hands tightly clenched in a fist as I struggled against the tears. Ollie didn’t deserve how he died. I couldn’t just let his murderers go free, but I didn’t know how to stop them, either. How could one 18-year-old prove these people were responsible if they deliberately worked under the radar?
Maybe…maybe the answer was more complicated. I looked at the business card, turning it over in my hand. Ollie’s family weren’t the only ones, were they? There were others out there, probably hundreds or thousands of innocent victims like Ollie and his family. These people needed to be stopped, but the traditional methods wouldn’t work.
I guess it was time to consider non-traditional methods, then.
14 years later
I dropped down into the reclining desk chair, groaned, and leaned as far back as it would go without breaking. “You got our next target yet, Cynth?”
Cynthia barely glanced over at me. “You need to take a break sometimes, August. We can’t afford to have you run down on us – without you, we’re kind of stuck.”
George straddled one of the chairs backwards, frowning. “We could still do it, it’d just be…harder.”
It helped a lot to have a human on the team, we all knew it. Without me, infiltrating a Hunter clan would be pretty difficult.
Cynthia, George, Jo, and I were our own team. Anti-Hunters, we called ourselves. We had a specific agenda that involved killing any guilty Hunter clans.
But we didn’t want to be like them, killing innocents, so we’d figured out our tactics over the years – things like making sure the clan had, indeed, murdered innocents; that only those who’d actually had a hand in their deaths were held responsible; and that by me infiltrating the clan first and earning their trust, I could not only make it easier to get my associates inside when it was time to strike, but I could also figure out if any of them deserved a second chance. If any of them had doubts about what they were doing.
If they did, we didn’t exactly just let them walk free. That was part of Cynthia’s job. She was a powerful dark magic witch, full of hatred against Hunters after they wiped out almost all of her coven – including her family. She made memory potions, and once I’d identified people who deserved a second chance, we would take a piece of my hair and a piece of every single clan member’s hair before making them drink the potion – that way, they wouldn’t remember me, but they also wouldn’t remember anything any of the other Hunters ever told them. Wiping their lives clean, if you will. I’m sure it was terrifying for them to wake up with no memory of their lives for potentially years on end, and some of them doubtless had questions, but we had a way to work with that. A friend of ours ran a special wing in the hospital for our “second chance Hunters” and would inform them they were waking up from a coma, first asking them what the last thing they remembered was before answering how long they’d been out. It seemed to work somewhat, or at least reduce the potential to totally destroy their lives, but we figured this was the kindest thing to do for them while also ensuring the safety of supernaturals.
The other part of Cynthia’s job involved trying to locate a Hunter clan that needed our personal investigation. She was good with computers and kind of into hacking and kept track of any reports of families, in particular, dying under suspicious circumstances that pointed to Hunters. If she found a potential clan, or one that we knew was responsible for atrocities, then step two would start.
Step two involved the only human in our group – me – infiltrating the clan. I had to learn their trust to discover who should be given a second chance but also to confirm who exactly was involved in murdering supernaturals. I’d gotten better at this over the years, with more practice. The last clan we’d taken down marked nine since we started; it wasn’t uncommon to have to take months or even more than a year with one clan. We went slow, if we needed to, trying to subtly disrupt their efforts while I was there at the same time to try to prevent anyone else getting murdered. Cynthia was right, I was important to the group because without the direct involvement, it’d be harder to determine who was genuinely guilty or innocent and who might deserve a second chance. It wasn’t like any of them could do it – the Hunters would recognize them as supernaturals and kill them. No, it had to be a human. It had to be me.
George and Jo came in to do most of the actual dirty work. George was a shifter, a rhino whose wife and child had been murdered by Hunters while he was out getting ice-cream for his pregnant wife’s cravings. Even after years, I could always see the grief echoing in his eyes. I didn’t think he’d ever get over the loss of his family – just like the rest of us.
Jo, on the other hand, was a demon. Her pandemonium had been small until Hunters had killed most of them and thought they killed her, too. She survived, but she was never quite the same. Apparently she used to love playing the violin and was a fairly happy, quiet girl, but now she was so full of anger sometimes she’d break things because she couldn’t hold it in. She didn’t talk much, but she listened to George and me – less so to Cynthia – and we knew we could count on her.
It wasn’t pretty work that we did. I was under no illusions of that. We were vigilantes as much as Hunters were, and the only difference between us and them was that we made efforts to confirm the guilt of our targets before killing them and were willing to give people a second chance if it seemed they deserved one. I was adamant on keeping those rules because I didn’t want to be the same as them, and the others all agreed – even despite their hatred for Hunters. They agreed because we’d all seen kids of Hunters whose only fault was being born to the wrong parents – no way we could do what Hunters did and just kill them for that. If we knew kids were involved, sometimes we’d just use the memory potion on the parents instead of killing them, but it kind of depended on how bad the adults were. Point was, we tried to have some ethics about it. Even if we were just glorified vigilantes.
Sometimes I wondered what Ollie would think if he saw me now. I’d been big into martial arts in school, and it wasn’t like I was set on following the rules, but deliberately planning to kill a bunch of people – even to serve as justice for them killing innocent people or to prevent them from killing others? That was something he’d probably never expect from me. I had no idea if he’d be happy to know I was hunting down Hunters or if he’d be appalled at what I’d become.
It didn’t entirely matter, unfortunately. This was my path now, and while I still missed Ollie and the thought of the way he and his family died still filled me with fury and despair, I couldn’t go back to who I’d been in high school. That person was too far gone.
“Cynth,” I repeated, “you got our next target yet?”
She sighed, sounding very put out. “I have a possibility, but I still think we should take a few days off first. You’re not the only one who could use a break,” she pointed out, glancing at the others. “We’re all obsessed with this, not gonna pretend otherwise, but you’ll run out of steam sooner. Don’t push yourself until you collapse.”
I wanted to disagree, but she was probably right. Days off, though…I couldn’t even remember how to spend them. Back before all this started, I’d probably have gone to hang out at the park with Ollie, or practice karate or something, but now everything revolved around hunting Hunters. I didn’t exactly have hobbies anymore.
Cynthia was old enough to be my mother and sometimes I felt like she had assigned herself the role of “mother hen.” Not generally the warm, caring, maternal type of mother hen, more of the type that was willing to kick you out into the cold if she thought it was for your own good.
I glanced over at the others and heaved my own sigh. “Fine, let’s take a break for three days. Rest, recharge, contact old friends, I don’t know. Whatever everyone needs.”
I got up without another word and headed back to my room, pulling off my boots at the door and glancing around.
The apartment we rented was simple, one of several we kept up with as our “safehouses.” Rented under fake names, all the normal stuff, making sure it would be next to impossible to track us down, at least if Cynthia had anything to say about it. She’d informed me that there was a type of supernatural who could break her protections, but was very vague about it and also promised me that whatever that supernatural was, they wouldn’t be working for Hunters, so we didn’t need to bother about them.
We generally lived together, for simplicity and for safety. I was the most common exception because any time I was infiltrating a Hunter’s clan, I had to live alone to make sure that, if they followed me, they didn’t spot supernaturals coming in and out of my place. It also allowed us to help keep our actual apartments secret.
I didn’t have much stuff in my room. Given how often we moved, we didn’t really have a set home, more of just stuff at each place so we could travel light – clothes, bedding, all that stuff, available here whenever we needed it. Oh, and weapons, we had several of those.
The only computer in the place was Cynthia’s, but I was no longer that interested in browsing social media or forums like I had been as a kid. Mostly, I left it up to her to keep up to date with the news and anything that could be of interest for us. Our world pretty much revolved around finding and taking out Hunters.