“But you did keep hunting them?” Lynn sounded curious, but when I looked over at her, she also gave me a sympathetic smile.
“We didn’t plan to, and we hadn’t even figured out if we were just going to quietly part ways or what yet,” I admitted. I hadn’t entirely wanted to do that, because Cynthia had helped me a lot, but I wasn’t sure I could ask her to just stick around when it was probably time for me to find a regular job and stuff. “But then we met George.” I could never forget the first time I met George. George wasn’t as tall as I was, but he was muscular and stocky and running into him – even taller than him and as a fairly buff guy myself now – felt like running into a wall. George had a motorcycle, had a couple of tattoos – nowhere as many as I had now – and my first impression of him was he looked like a genuine tough guy. Maybe not a gang member, because he looked too nicely dressed for that, but someone you didn’t want to cross. Ex-military, probably. Yet here this tough looking guy had been, sitting on a curb, looking completely lost and broken and holding onto a tiny teddy bear.
“George had just lost his wife and son,” I said slowly, “and their unborn baby. He hadn’t even processed what happened yet, but he came home from work to find his house so grisly the police wouldn’t even let him in. He found one of his son’s toys under a bush in the yard and basically that was all he had left of them.” He still had that toy. I knew he treasured it, the only memory he had apart from some pictures on his phone. I still caught him looking at those sometimes, the grief fresh in his eyes.
“Initially we just helped him because he needed it and we didn’t have any particular thing we were doing. We just gave him someplace to stay while he was trying to process what happened and waiting for police to figure out who murdered his family. Then they called him in one day, and when he came back, he was like a different person. Angry. So angry.” He hadn’t said anything for a long time, just pacing back and forth, looking like he wanted to smash everything around him. “Then he asked us for our help. Cynthia had told him about the clan we’d dealt with, and he’d discovered that Hunters had killed his family. He wanted revenge. We sort of looked at each other, but we both knew exactly how he felt and by that time we were friends with him and would have wanted to help him if it was within our power. We did talk to him first, warn him about the risks – mental and physical – but he was adamant. They’d been willing to murder a three-year-old and his seven-months-pregnant mother, again, brutally. He couldn’t just ignore that, and neither could we. So we hatched a plan to basically do what we’d done with the first clan, only this time I was more prepared for dealing with the consequences.
“I also put my foot down about trying to avoid killing innocents, even innocent Hunters, because I didn’t want to be like them. Cynthia got it – maybe because she’d watched me walk the edge of a breakdown – and George was hesitant, but agreed that if any of the members genuinely weren’t involved in his family’s deaths, or other supernaturals’ deaths, then there wasn’t any reason to include them. Basically, that clan was our first real attempt at the scheme we’ve used since then, repeatedly. Let them recruit me, give me time to earn their trust while also finding out if anyone deserved a second chance, then use Cynthia’s potions to knock them out at the right time and George would help me with the, uh, cleaning up. There were things we had to finesse, and when Cynthia found Gil and got his help, that smoothed out some parts. We also adjusted our plan a bit to account for Jo and to try to avoid letting any supernaturals get killed from the time I was recruited, though sometimes we couldn’t avoid it if I wasn’t able to learn about the plans in advance.”
That had always sucked, when I’d learned that they’d gone on a Hunt I hadn’t been privy to. Then I regretted my choice to not just deal with them sooner instead of trying to find people to give a second chance to first. That balance could be hard sometimes.
“Over the years, I got better at acting and knowing how to be convincing to Hunters. Cynthia handled our technology end while Jo and George dealt with the actual killings, for the most part. They’d also sometimes work part-time jobs while I was spending months with the Hunters to earn some extra cash.” We’d managed well enough over the years to afford what we needed, and that was all that had really mattered.
Lynn waited until she decided I wasn’t going to continue. “Why did you decide to keep going? When you knew you hated it?”
“They needed me,” I answered instantly. Then I took a moment to try to figure out how to word it better. “For our plan to work, it needed me, or at least a human who was sympathetic to supernaturals, hated Hunters as much as they did, had no close friends or family that could potentially be used against them, was willing to commit to months undercover at a time, was willing to risk their lives if they were caught, and was either good enough at acting or could learn to be and a quick enough thinker that they could survive the undercover job. I’m not saying there aren’t more humans out there that would fit that bill, because I’m sure there are, but finding them is the problem.”
“But it didn’t have to be you doing all that, especially when it makes you feel so bad about it,” she persisted.
I hesitated. “I also stayed because I knew if it was me in that role, I could guarantee that there would be some ethics about it. The second chances and all. That there wouldn’t be someone helping them who was just as bad as the Hunters and enjoyed killing them. There were times someone could have taken advantage of our grief and used that to basically urge us to kill all the Hunters, but even when I was furious and sickened by what they did, I always hesitated at actually ending their lives. Trust me, I learned to hate them even more over the years, learning more and more of their stories of murdering supernaturals, and with the wrong person, I was afraid that could just turn into a vendetta against Hunters in general. I’m not saying the others wouldn’t hesitate if that happened, but, um,” I paused again.
“You’ve always been the driving force for the second chances,” Lynn finished for me. “Cynthia told me. She said you repeatedly kept them from doing things they would regret because you are the conscience of the group.”
I didn’t realize she looked at me that way, but I hesitantly nodded. “It feels kind of weird to say that, but I was worried about that sometimes. Jo when she first joined us was so focused on revenge, I was really worried she wouldn’t listen, but she did. We all hate Hunters, but I suppose I held them back sometimes when I thought someone was innocent and deserved that second chance. I didn’t know if someone else would have the same conviction and make the same choices.”
I leaned my head back and looked up at the ceiling. “And I was kind of worried about leaving them in the lurch, if they didn’t have someone else already who could help them, and even just…trying to pass that burden on to someone else.” I felt a little uneasy suddenly, before it hit me why. “Which I guess I’m actually trying to do now with having the phoenix step in for us. I don’t like the idea of asking someone else to carry the weight of those deaths, but I don’t know – I don’t know if I can keep carrying the weight, either.” I really didn’t think I could. It had become such a burden, and now that I’d spent time thinking about stuff other than just how to kill the next clan? I’d realized all the more how much I really didn’t want that burden.
“Um, August, Cassie came in,” Lynne interrupted awkwardly.
I hadn’t noticed, of course, because I couldn’t even see or hear Cassie anyway, but then, I’d also been looking at the ceiling, so I hadn’t noticed any responses Lynn might have had to realizing someone else had entered the room.
I sat up and sort of shrugged in the direction that Lynn was looking. “Sorry, kind of a rough talk to walk in on, I guess.”
“Hang on.” Lynn focused on a spot in front of me, and then turned to translate. “Cassie says you should realize that not everyone will view the burden the same, and to some, it may not even be a burden. She says for Cyra, she appreciates life and would never take it on her own, because she sees how short most people’s lives are, but at the same time, she also knows the danger Hunters present to shortening other people’s lives. And, um,” she paused, listening some more, “she says it wouldn’t be the same for Cyra anyway, because for her, the only way the Hunters would die is if they literally killed her. They’d be bearing the consequences of attacking a supernatural, and in this case, a supernatural who wouldn’t be attacking them back. Sure, she’d be putting herself in a position to let them do that, but at the end of the day, it’s still their choice to decide to kill a supernatural who isn’t harming them or anyone else. So the burden you feel wouldn’t even be the same for her. They’d actually be killing her and dying in the process. It’s not nearly as much of a gray area as what you’ve been doing, it’s actually pretty straightforward.”
I blinked a little, processing that. She wasn’t wrong, a lot of the questionable areas of what we did would actually be removed from the equation. The only people who would die would be ones who deserved it.
Lynn glanced at the space again before nodding and looking back at me. “She says she agrees that sometimes people deserve a second chance, and Cyra would, too, because like she said, Cyra does actually appreciate life. So they wouldn’t want to kill the innocent people any more than you do and would do their best to avoid that happening. So she wants you to know that if they do decide to take over for you – all of you – that the responsibility is in good hands, you know?”
“You still wouldn’t have to do it alone,” I stated firmly. “We might not be involved in the field if you agree to this, but you’d still be part of our team. We’d help with the second chances, at least. Or I would, and I bet Jo would want to help counsel them once she goes to school. We wouldn’t just ask you to do this and then cut you loose and never see you again.”
Lynn chuckled a bit. “Cassie’s laughing,” she explained to me. “Apparently she finds that funny since you can’t see her to begin with.”
“Fair point,” I conceded, a little embarrassed. “But the others can, so my statement still mostly works.”
Then I grew more serious. “I still kind of feel bad about asking, though, because it’s a big commitment to ask from someone. Not just the ethical side, but even the time involved. You’ve been doing other things, right? Traveling? I don’t know how often towns would end up needing help, but at minimum, it would interfere with your life somewhat.”
“I’m not sure that’s an issue,” the phoenix’s thoughtful voice broke in on us from the entryway, where she was leaning against the arched entryway. “Phoenix tend to be more withdrawn from other supernaturals. Observers of the world, almost. It can lead to us being lonely and isolated, not to mention we rarely get involved when probably we should. I’m not saying I want to jump into supernatural wars or anything, but I don’t think it’s entirely a bad idea to help fellow supernaturals for a change. Plus, I suspect we can still travel around to wherever the Hunter clans are, so that’s not that limiting.” She smiled wryly. “Not to mention, I’ve lived for centuries. To me, devoting several decades to something like this is really not that long of a time, and maybe by then if your plan to destroy their weapon source works out, there will start to be fewer of them and less of a need for my services.”
Maybe it was because I was merely human, but thinking of time in terms like she did was a little mind-boggling.
“Does that mean you’re thinking of helping?” I asked cautiously. I didn’t want to be pushy about this, especially when it was such a big thing we were asking of them.
But she just shrugged almost carelessly. “Probably. Cassie finds the idea interesting. She didn’t know about Hunters until she became a ghost and she gets very worked up on the subject now.” She chuckled softly and rolled her eyes at what I assumed was a protest from the ghost. “It is protecting supernaturals and actually involves relatively little risk to myself, so…probably. I’ll wait to give a final answer until we see how this thing with Ian’s clan goes, but I’m leaning in favor of it myself.”
That was a relief, even if it wasn’t a final answer. It meant we could actually retire and get to do things we actually wanted to do. It meant we could still keep supernaturals safe – safer, even, than we had been – and yet the second chance Hunters would still be given their chance and only the guilty would die. All in all, it seemed like the best solution for us, and if the phoenix and Cassie were on board with it, I was more than willing to let them take the role I hated so much.
But first, the clan hunting Ian. We needed to stop it.