I sat down on the bed, reached into the nightstand drawer, and pulled out my phone. I thought about calling my parents, but…no. I hadn’t spoken to them in years, and it was probably best that way. I didn’t want them to have any clue about what I did with my life and didn’t want to potentially get them into trouble if a Hunter ever figured out what we were doing – it was safer if there was no direct connection to them.
My parents had moved out of the country about a year after I’d graduated. Sometimes they traveled the world, but mostly they seemed happy in their little corner of the whatever remote town they were living in. Cynthia kept tabs on them for me – making sure they didn’t start looking for me or anything like that – but apart from her updates, it had just made the most sense to let us drift apart. For their own safety. Sometimes I thought about having Cynthia mix up a memory potion for them to forget me, so they’d never even wonder about what happened to me, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to cut ties entirely. Sure, we hadn’t spoken in years, but maybe one day…no. No, my “job” would continue as long as there were Hunters on the planet or until I myself died, and even if we were able to purge them all from here, there were other countries infested with them. I was sure it would be a task that would exist long after I died.
Forced to actually take some time to relax and not hunt Hunters, I decided I might as well try to cook something for us. As it turned out, George had the same idea, so between the two of us we managed to get a fairly decent supper assembled and then Cynthia suggested we watch a movie, which we agreed to. It was pretty clear that none of us were deeply interested in the movie, but this was what normal people did with their evenings, right? We could be normal for a couple of days. Maybe.
I ended up spending most of the rest of the time off either sleeping – it was nice to be able to sleep without having to feel constantly on edge from sleeping in the enemy’s camp, as it were – at the shooting range for, you know, practice; or at the gym working out. Some just normal working out and some practicing karate. I tried to keep my skills brushed up because you never knew for sure when the ability to handle someone without using a weapon could be potentially life-saving.
I was fairly certain a couple of the people at the gym were supernaturals, but I made sure I didn’t give the slightest hint of it. If a human recognized that someone was a supernatural, there were two options. One, they knew because they were protected by a supernatural and accordingly provided with a protection mark. Two, they were a Hunter. There didn’t seem to really be a third category for people like me. I could recognize a lot of supernaturals because I’d been trained to, but I wasn’t a Hunter. I wasn’t protected, either, because while Hunters couldn’t see the protection mark, the problem was that other supernaturals would see it, and then they might see someone with a protection mark associating with Hunters, and that was just too dangerous for my supernatural friends, who could get in trouble for protecting a Hunter. Even if I wasn’t actually a Hunter. So I always had to be careful not to acknowledge that anyone was a supernatural even if I recognized that they were one. I’d rather not get killed by a supernatural just because they thought I was a Hunter.
I couldn’t exactly blame them for that, though – I’d seen firsthand what Hunters did to supernaturals. It was no wonder that, when faced with a human who knew more than they should but wasn’t protected, and therefore was most likely a Hunter, that most supernaturals would respond in fear and, well, self-defense. Most of the time, they’d be correct in that response. I happened to be one of the exceptions, but there was no need to scare supernaturals unnecessarily and put myself in danger in the process.
So I spent the three vacation days in relative quiet, but not exactly relaxing activities, either, until at last it was time to resume our own hunt.
“Right,” Cynthia announced to all of us, “I’ve located an odd clan. Odd because it seems abnormally wealthy, and I can’t seem to track down where the money is coming from, but more importantly, odd because they seem to have a prisoner.”
George and I exchanged confused looks.
“Prisoner?” George repeated. “Hunters don’t take prisoners. Or…is it a human?”
“I can’t tell. All I know is they transport equipment designed to contain someone and one of the facilities they stayed at in the past referenced a hole dug in the ground. Weird, and really concerning, because I can’t think of a single good reason for a Hunter clan to keep a supernatural captive.” Cynthia was frowning, her entire face pinched with worry. “Not sure if it’s maybe someone they’re planning to use as hostage or someone they want information from, but the bottom line is if it really is a supernatural, there’s nothing good that can come of them having it. Likely it’s being tortured, even. If it’s a human, well, that’s not great, either. The only reason to keep a human captive is because it’s a Hunter who betrayed them or a protected human they think can give them information. I’m personally inclined to think it’s a supernatural, because I don’t think most humans would have held out for what looks like years of captivity.”
I crossed my arms, thinking. “Hunters are allowed to leave their clans, it doesn’t seem likely that it’s just someone who betrayed them – not for that much work. And if they’ve had them for years, it doesn’t seem likely that they’re trying to get information out of them.”
Cynthia agreed, her expression serious. “Which leads to them most likely holding this person captive for some other reason. If a hostage, maybe they haven’t found whoever the person belongs to yet? And if it’s a valuable enough hostage to hold onto it for years on end, well…then it’s got to be a very powerful supernatural. Which is its own bundle of trouble.”
Jo’s fingers tightened on the back of one of the dining room chairs hard enough to start to splinter it. “Sitting around talking about it isn’t going to fix anything.”
“Agreed,” Cynthia said with somewhat more calm. She never seemed to be particularly bothered by Jo’s annoyance with her – Cynthia wasn’t active in the “battlefield,” as it were, which seemed to frustrate Jo, but I could understand that Cynthia was more of a strategy and thinking type of person and she already pulled more than her own weight in our small party. I was incredibly thankful to have her, but also that she didn’t let Jo’s annoyance bother her.
“We’re not going to get any more information on who this is, I think, which means it’s time for you.” She looked directly at me. “And this is going to be a different type of mission from normal, because you’re also going to have to figure out who this is, why they’re important, and how to get them safely away when the time comes for us to swoop in. We don’t want them getting killed in the crossfire.”
I nodded, briefly skimming the folder she’d handed me before pausing on one of the pictures. “I know this person. Sort of. Four years ago, the clan we had issues with?” That had been a bad mission. One of their people had suspected me and roused some of them at the last moment, earning all three of us – George, Jo, and me – some serious scars to show for our trouble. We’d won, but that had been the closest we’d come to losing one of ours. Usually we took enough precautions to make sure that wouldn’t happen.
“One of the girls there,” I continued, “was talking about how she was recruited by this Allen guy – some kind of hero to her. Several of the younger ones there seemed to view him like a celebrity. Near as I could gather, he’d been the only survivor to a Hunt on a pandemonium and they were all in awe of that.” I didn’t hide my distaste, but Jo looked even angrier at the mention. It wasn’t her pandemonium that he’d attacked – some of our first targets had been the Hunter clans that had individually killed each of our loved ones – but it didn’t entirely matter. It was just a reminder of the attack on her own pandemonium.
“Point is, this guy is tough. And there’s a possibility he might have heard of me.” I frowned a bit. “Zach or whatever he was – the guy who figured out that I was suspicious? He seemed to know this Allen guy, too. I can’t say for sure that he told him about his suspicions, because I didn’t get the impression that they were friends or anything, but Zach didn’t exactly open up about his relationships with me, either.”
Cynthia frowned again. “That’ll be a problem, but not one we can’t work around. Different name, different backstory. You know the drill on skin and hair.”
We’d perfected the art of changing my appearance as necessary. George was good at prosthetic makeup and sometimes made stuff for me, but we tried to go with easier changes that would be harder to catch – say, staining my skin and dying my hair so even if I got thrown in a river, it wouldn’t change anything. Yeah, I had to update them every so often but usually that was possible. The problem with prosthetics was the amount of time necessary to apply them, blend them into my skin, and then if I got thrown into said river – which had happened during one of my Hunter training sessions – there was always a risk that an edge might come up and show something. Other changes, even going with piercings or having me walk different, were a little less risky in the environment we worked in.
“Let’s show the tattoos,” George suggested. “Give you more of a biker air. That’ll line up with what Hunters want, and back at that other clan, you were pretending to be just a regular, boring 9-to-5 person shaken up by seeing someone die, so it’s a pretty different background. We change up the appearance, name, backstory, and persona, it should minimize the chance that even if you were mentioned to Allen, he’d realize it was you.”
“Just pretend to be Jo, or at least a demon,” Cynthia suggested demurely, ignoring the glare she received from said demon. “Surly, angry, and not willing to take any grief from anyone. Sounds about like a biker – and a demon, right?”
George helped me with selecting what pieces of my wardrobe to bring with me – we were always super careful not to have anything that could lead back to us or that wouldn’t fit in my current story – while Cynthia wrapped up my new backstory and prepared my cell phone. Not my real cell, of course, the one I’d use on the mission. Jo, meanwhile, grumbling while she did and shooting glares at Cynthia, reluctantly prepared the stain and hair dye I’d need. She also bothered to collect some rings, necklaces, and other pieces of jewelry she thought would fit my persona and tossed most of them into my bag haphazardly.
Soon enough, my transformation was complete and it was time to get to work. I grabbed my things, took George’s bike from the garage, and set out to point A.
It was time to hunt the Hunters.
I leaned on the bar and grunted an order at the barkeeper before wandering over to an empty table and sitting down. Supposedly, this bar was popular with the Hunters, but I wasn’t going to just run up to them tonight or anything. No, I needed them to approach me. And they would, if I played this right.
My transformation came complete with a couple of props that I hated to bring with me. Things we’d taken from Hunter clans after we’d eliminated the clan and recognized that they could be useful to help sell my story. I hated them, though. I hated bringing Hunter “trophies” with me that should rightfully be buried in the ground and let the supernaturals they originally belonged to rest in peace.
Cynthia, though, had calmly assured me that if those supernaturals knew what we were using these “trophies” for, they’d approve. They’d been brutally and unfairly murdered by Hunters and they’d probably be delighted to know that we were basically getting their help to stop other Hunters. I tried to think of it that way, but it was still distasteful to carry around supernatural remains that, to my mind, rightfully belonged buried.
Not that any of that dislike showed on my face now. The person who I was at the moment was instead proud of those trophies.
I took a while to just drink and watch the TV screen like I didn’t care in the slightest about what was going on. I’d brought my bag in and slung it on one of the other chairs, slightly unlatched but not fully. As I expected based on where I was sitting, the chair got bumped into several times and in the process, the latch came loose enough to show a bit of what was inside.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed one of the people in a group on the other side of the bar lean over to say something to one of his friends. The friend took a glance at me, and at the chair next to me – or, more accurately, what was in my bag – and murmured something to the first guy in response. I noticed they and the other people at their table seemed to keep an eye on me for the rest of the night, but I deliberately didn’t look in their direction, just finished my drinks, paid up, grabbed my stuff, and headed out.
No immediate contact from them, but that was to be expected. I caught sight of them a few more times during the week, deliberately drawing their attention once by getting into a fight with an overly aggressive misogynist jerk – I mean, I didn’t officially get into the fight for that reason, rather just testosterone stuff, but I needed to show them I could handle myself in a fight and the guy got on my nerves with how much he was harassing the female bar staff, so I selected him as my choice to prove that I wasn’t to be messed with.
That did get their attention, and I saw them talking heatedly amongst themselves, but it wasn’t until the following night when I pulled up on my bike, parked it, and began removing my helmet that they finally made their move.
“Hey, you seem to be new to the area.”
I cast him a glance that said I didn’t care and just grunted in response.
“I’m Joey,” he offered, unperturbed. “Kind of impressed with how you handled yourself last night – that dude has gotten into several fights in the couple of months I’ve been here, and he always comes out on top, yet you didn’t even take a hit from him and handled it all in seconds. Smooth.”
“Great, I got a fan club,” I remarked sarcastically. “Lovely.”