Joey took a step back when I started towards the door to allow me to pass, but then his words stopped me. “I was wondering about what you have in your bag. The horns,” he clarified. “I saw them the other day. Kind of unusual, aren’t they?”
I stopped and turned slowly to look at him, keeping my face hostile. “Goat horns,” I snapped. “Not that unusual.”
“Hmm.” Joey nodded a bit, like he was considering playing along. “Thing is, I’ve seen horns like that before. I know what they’re really from.”
I crossed my arms and took a step towards him, taking advantage of my height, build, and current appearance to make him swallow a bit in the face of my hostility, though he tried his best to hide it.
“Is that so.” My voice was low, edged with danger he couldn’t miss. “You absolutely sure you know what you’re talking about? You sure you are?”
He instinctively took a step back. “I’m on your side, dude!” He hurried to say, his tone now a bit defensive. “I mean, we are. There’s a group of us who deal with these things. You can handle yourself in a fight and already proved you know about them – and how to kill them. You seem like someone that would be handy to have around.”
I gave him a sneer. “Some kind of recruitment, eh? I’m on my own. I don’t join other people’s teams.” I gave him one last withering glance, like I found him something contemptable. “Least of all when those people don’t even have backbone.”
I didn’t so much as acknowledge him when he slunk into the bar later to talk to his friends, but I didn’t miss the way their eyes went to me thoughtfully.
Joey wasn’t the one who would convince me. He was too soft, that was clear just by looking at him, not to mention how easily he’d been intimidated. For someone with my current persona, I would only be convinced by someone I could respect. No doubt he’d wanted to gain some points with his peers to bring in a promising recruit, but I wasn’t here to make his day – I was here to destroy his entire clan, and him being able to convince me would not put me in the position I needed for that.
One of the girls tried next, and she was tougher – at least she didn’t get scared as easily – but she still offered me nothing of interest to make me listen to her, so she was a wash, too.
But the third try, I hit gold. In a manner of speaking. Allen was there, waiting for me when I drove up. On the one hand, there was concern about him being able to link me to my past persona, but on the other hand, if this guy who was supposedly a hero for Hunters actually wanted to recruit me, well, this was the kind of person my persona would listen to.
“Hey there,” his voice was low, calm, and self-assured. “Got a few minutes to talk?”
I groaned and made no secret that I was annoyed. “More recruitment efforts?”
“Tell you what,” he offered, “you give me 10 minutes, we talk, and I’ll buy you a drink – several, if you want. If after that, you don’t want anything to do with us, we’ll stop. No more talks, no more recruitment.”
I considered this, then nodded gruffly. “Fine, if it’ll stop all this nonsense, you can have your 10 minutes.”
Before long we were seated in a corner of the bar, no one else within earshot when he began talking quietly while I slowly drank my beer. Maybe he thought he could have an advantage if I was drinking and he was not, but I had a really high alcohol tolerance – something I’d deliberately trained over the years because I couldn’t afford to get drunk near Hunters. If he was counting on my defenses dropping, he was going to be sorely disappointed.
“I hear you’re good in a fight and that you’ve apparently had a bit of success in the past dealing with certain pests.”
I gave him an impassive stare. “All of which I know. Then that leads to you wanting to recruit me for your little team. Get to the point.”
Allen seemed almost amused. “Little team isn’t quite how I’d put it. You see, we’re a clan – like a military group, almost. We train, we work hard, and we deal with the threats most of the people in this world never realize exist. We protect people, but also,” he smiled slyly, “we get to, well, be a little aggressive in the best way. You strike me as the kind of guy who enjoys a little violence in your life – I’m going to guess following the rules isn’t really your thing.”
I took another drink and just stared at him, waiting. Anyone could tell that much – that was my persona, deliberately. I was supposed to look like someone who liked violence. Someone who didn’t mind getting into a barfight because someone bumped into him. Someone who wouldn’t mind punching a guy who annoyed him. For the character I was right now, joining the Hunters wasn’t about protecting people or justice or anything like that – it was about being able to be violent in the right setting.
“Look at it like this,” Allen went on smoothly, “you have certain…tendencies…which can be hard for your average person to understand and can make it hard for you to fit into normal society. We understand them, but more importantly, we help you direct them in a useful fashion.” He pulled something out of his pocket and set it down on the table. A horn, not unsimilar to the ones I carried, only this one was smaller – a child’s.
It made me want to vomit. And punch him. Neither of which I was allowed to do.
“There are monsters in this world,” he stated. “Monsters most people don’t even know exist. You do. You’ve seen some of it, I know. You know how dangerous some of them are, I’m guessing, but some require groups to take down.” He nodded pointedly at a scar on my forearm. “Sometimes you can’t deal with stuff alone, you need other people you can count on. Joining us isn’t about trying to control you or make you conform to society’s expectations. It’s about finding likeminded people, people who can help you do even more.”
I thought about how he was actually the monster here, he and his friends, but I channeled my dislike into the general feel of the character I was instead. “Right, and you can convince me that wimps like that Joey kid are people who can help? If he’s what your team has to offer, I can’t really see the benefit to me.”
“Joey’s one of our newer recruits, he’s still…learning.” Allen made a face like he was trying to be tolerant of a child. “A little overeager and not exactly prepared for combat yet, but sometimes the idealists are useful. We have to whip them into shape a bit, but he’ll get there. Eventually. People like you,” he deliberately gave me an appraising glance, “well, you can use some help knowing exactly how to deal with some of these things, but you start out years ahead of someone like Joey. Yeah, he’s in the same group, but look at it this way – you can be one of the people to help bring out the best in him. I’m guessing you wouldn’t mind a little…instruction…towards Joey?” He gave me a smile like he knew what he was suggesting I basically bully Joey and he’d be fine with it.
I tapped my fingers against the table. “I’m not into some dumb philosophy about protecting people. I’m in it for myself, I’m not going to run around picking up other people’s messes. If they can’t protect themselves, they don’t deserve my help.”
“Fair enough.” Allen leaned back in his seat. “But wouldn’t you enjoy getting to face off against some of these things and have the right tools for the job? And know that if you do need help – which maybe you never will – there will be people there who will back you up? Even the toughest person can’t face an entire gang of monsters on their own. It doesn’t hurt to have backup.”
I acted like I was considering this. “I’m not big on organizations.”
“Ours isn’t a normal organization. I think you’ll find it’s not nearly as much an organization as a tool. Besides,” he added with a shrug, “if it turns out it’s not for you, you can always leave. We don’t force people to stay.”
I finished off the last of my beer. “One week,” I told him. “I’ll give you one week to prove you’re everything you claim.”
One of the hard things about every time I joined a new Hunter clan was pretending I didn’t know all the Hunter techniques. I knew how to use their weapons, I knew how they said to fight supernaturals, I knew all this stuff already – but supposedly, my only knowledge right now was my personal experience and gut instinct and I couldn’t really admit that I could probably wipe the floor with 3/4 or more of the Hunters using their own techniques. Instead, I had to deliberately forget anything I’d learned from Hunters in the past and instead use a mixture of karate, judo, and street-style fighting. Brutality, even, if need be.
For example, biting one of the Hunters when he got me in a headlock – briefly – wasn’t exactly traditional fighting methods but did seem to amuse Allen, which at least served that purpose, I guess. The Hunter I bit wasn’t quite as entertained as Allen and seemed pretty pissed off that I had resorted to underhanded methods to beat him, but Allen was publicly cheering me on, so he couldn’t say much about it.
“Yes!” Allen clapped his hands together. “This is why we need fresh blood – so many of us are stuck in the same old, same old, and you come along and just blow us out of the water, remind us there’s new ways to do things. Something unexpected – and unexpected is good. Unexpected can tip the balance in our favor.”
I grabbed a hand towel to wipe off some of the sweat. “Your people don’t know true desperation or they would try harder. They’re too busy following the rules.”
The Hunter I’d just sparred with glared at me. “That’s because we’re not trying to actually hurt each other!”
I shrugged carelessly. “If you’re not willing to risk getting hurt, you’ll never be ready for the real thing.”
Allen seemed to be quite in agreement with me, but with the other Hunters, it was a bit of a mixture. I was narrowing down which ones were straight-up sadistic, which were the idealists like Joey, and which were something else.
I still hadn’t seen the prisoner, yet, but I figured that made sense. They wouldn’t tell a new guy that they were keeping someone prisoner unless they knew they could trust me. Good news, though, was that even if half the clan disliked me, Allen seemed to think I was a new secret weapon and his word was law, so gaining his favor was working out for me.
I was still somewhat concerned that he might realize who I was – presuming Zach had even mentioned me to him, which was a bit of a guess anyway – but the longer I was there, the less likely that seemed. Allen, I’d learned, enjoyed watching people suffer, he just hid it better than my current persona bothered to do. He seemed to even get some amusement out of watching his Hunter recruits get beaten up by me – err, lose in a sparring match – but he particularly enjoyed stories about killing supernaturals. Especially if the deaths involved torture. I was fairly certain, given his personality, that if he knew who I was, he’d have been interested in applying some of his sadism to me rather than befriending and praising me.
Cynthia had set me up with backstories for the supernaturals I was supposed to have killed on my own before now. Stories about how I encountered them, how I killed them, and so on. When Allen managed to talk me into telling the stories, he seemed to gain great delight in the idea that I’d mocked my imaginary victim before it died, letting it attempt to crawl away while I followed after, adding more injuries until I got bored and just killed it. He’d laughed and slapped my back, telling me that’s the best these monsters deserved, while my blood boiled.
Good thing I was an expert at masking my emotions in these situations or channeling them into something else – like appearing like I, too, was enjoying the memory – rather than showing off exactly how much I hated people like him. Not just because he liked to watch and hear about people suffering, but because he saw supernaturals as less than animals and therefore it was perfectly acceptable to torture them if he wanted. Because it wasn’t like they “deserved” better.
I knew not every supernatural was a great person, but I could strongly disagree with the idea that any of them deserved what people like Allen wanted to do to them. Even the worst of them didn’t deserve his cruelty.
I was kind of glad we were planning to take Allen’s clan out. Allen, in particular. He was one of the worst monsters I’d ever encountered.