I awoke in agony. My vision blurred, and my head spun. With a painful grunt, I sat holding my knees. By the campfire before me sat the ginger-haired woman, a silver cross glistening on her pendant. Her clean, freckled skin suggested an age lower than I expected, no more than twenty.
The woman wore a black coat, high boots, leather pants and held a stick on which she was roasting a sausage. “Morning. I’m Katherine O’Connor.”
“Lucas.” Nearby, Sheriff Alejandro Alvarez and his deputy, Derek Norton, both from El Paso, were packing their tents. They were too high positioned to be hiking through mountains by themselves. So the woman had to possess the authority to command them around. “The bounty on that Amunite is mine, by the way,” I said
Katherine laughed. “That answers most of my questions. Aren’t you a touch too young to be a bounty hunter?”
“Guns don’t care how old you are.” I paused, realizing the holsters on my thighs were empty and that I was, in fact, not old enough to carry arms. Cold sweat covered my back. “I mean, I found these on the way and only carried them to return them to their owner.”
“Chill. I explained it to Alejandro, and he didn’t plan to arrest you, to begin with.”
Then why don’t I have them? My eyes darted around, finding my anacondas on the ground next to the woman together with my hunting knives. I cared little for the blades, but after last night, I felt naked without the guns.
“Don’t worry. I’ll give them back as soon as the sheriff calms down.” Katherine handed me the stick with the sausage. “Here, have breakfast.”
Saliva filled my mouth. I grabbed the food and almost dropped it as my right arm refused to obey at first try. The rapid-fire shooting took a toll on the muscles. With my left arm being bitten by the cougar, my colts suddenly felt less useful.
Katherine let me eat for a moment before she asked, “How did you see that thing?”
“What do I get if I tell you?”
“A chance to continue your hunt.”
Right, that. If she ordered the sheriff to take me back home, I would have no option but to obey. I conjured one of the most amiable smiles in my repertoire. “I know how to use aether enough to see aether of others.”
“Interesting,” Katherine murmured. “How many Amunites have you hunted down?”
“Six, but all were much smaller.”
Katherine nodded. “This is the largest Amunite I’ve ever seen. Anyway, I’ve got an offer for you. Come with me, help me hunt it down, and I will let you have the bounty.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Where’s the catch?”
“I’m here as the representative of the Order of St. Patrick. We don’t do catches.”
A religious nut with a sword. Great. I stopped myself from snorting. That wouldn’t have been smart since I needed both the bounty and more information. So far, I thought everyone capable of using aether could see the aether of others. But this woman looked like she couldn’t since she wouldn’t be negotiating with me otherwise.
As far as I knew, the existence of aether was never publicly confirmed or acknowledged as so few people could use it at all. One in a ten thousand, they said. Plus, my ability wasn’t something I could ever explain to a person oblivious to aether. Nor could I show it.
The Amunites were a similar matter. The official story was that they were a corporate experiment gone wrong. A weapon developer was supposedly creating a new generation of weapons, a blend of a machine and an artificial flesh. The subjects escaped, and the government paid a sweet bounty to recover their parts. Up to yesterday, I had no reason not to believe that narrative.
But the one we met last night was much larger than how they were supposed to be. And this woman was not surprised. “All right. I will help you.”
Katherine grinned. “Good. Let’s go.” She stood up, and I crawled to my feet. Once I stabilized, Katherine helped me return the knives into their sheaths and the anacondas to the holsters. While I used two cylinders to replenish the bullets in the barrels, Sheriff Alvarez and Deputy Norton joined us. After Katherine explained them the arrangement, they all followed me.
My aether allowed me to see the color-inverted world, where I could track the red and silver splashes of aether the Amunite left behind. Not that I had to since the one from last night also left behind blood. I limped forward, panting with a spinning head. Even with me building some immunity from my long history with rattlesnakes, the venom took a while to recover from. But my family didn’t have money for antivenin, so I gritted my teeth and kept going.
When the woman walked by my side, and the policemen were out of hearing range, I grabbed the opportunity to pry. “So, what exactly is it that you do?”
Katherine eyed me for a moment. “An excellent question. By now, you have probably realized that what we are hunting doesn’t fit the story of what the Amunites are supposed to be. Yet, I cannot answer.”
I gave myself a few seconds to think. The only useful skills I had were the ability to track aether and to shoot from my colts. Not the most employable skillset in the world. Plus, my last year of high school was approaching its end. Oh, and I excelled at getting bitten by rattlesnakes since this was bite number fourteen. “I don’t know what you do, but the way it looks like, you are hunting this thing. Are there any openings in this line of business?”
Katherine’s face turned serious. “Are you sure you would be interested in that?”
“What if I was?”
“Then we could talk after we are done with this hunt.”
The trail led us into the heart of the mountains. Gray cliffs surrounded the rocky path, the lone trees long gone. The blood of the Amunite stank of sulfur and burned upon touch. Black and thick, more akin to tar than anything else. Its trail took us to a cavern. I verified the splashes of aether led into the gaping hole in the mountain, but something didn’t fit. The large marks were mixed with smaller ones. I glanced around and focused. My vision cleared for but a moment and revealed other stains of aether weaving by the mountainside.
Katherine narrowed her eyes at me shifting uncomfortably, apparently sensing my tension. “What’s wrong?”
“I see other tracks, smaller, leading sideways.”
“We kill the big one first.” Katherine drew her longsword and braced it over her shoulder. “Stay behind me and do nothing unless you are in danger.” She stepped forward.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t call for backup?” the sheriff asked as he followed her.
“No need,” Katherine said.
I straightened and lowered my hands to my colts anaconda. The move itself hurt, especially my left arm, but I preferred a painful life to painless death. The deputy closed their formation. The amount of black blood spilled on the ground increased. I treated carefully not to get it on my boots.
The Amunite lay by the end of the cave, bleeding from eleven holes the bullets made into its body. As we approached, it shook and rose, stretching its four arms.
Katherine motioned us to stop. “I will finish this. Everything you will see is classified.” Before we could answer, she stepped forward, and grass green flame wreathed her long sword.
The Amunite growled and launched itself at her. Katherine weaved from the strike, severed its arm, whirled and cut off another one. The Amunite screeched and lunged. Katherine dodged and slashed off its head, releasing a fountain of black blood. Its body shook in a spasm for half a minute before going limp. The grass green flame disappeared from around her blade, and she returned it to the sheath on her back.
The sheriff and his deputy were pale and breathing swiftly while I was hoping I found my new occupation. For Katherine, this apparently wasn’t something unusual, but instead her daily routine. I stopped myself from daydreaming and followed Katherine outside.
From within her coat, Katherine fished a smartphone, thick in its black protective case. She dialed a number and spoke. “I need a recovery team at my location…. Yes… Yes… I still have some follow up to do.” She pocketed the phone and turned to the sheriff. “I will check around to see if there aren’t any smaller ones left in the mountains. You and your deputy can take Lucas to a hospital and pay him the bounty.”
Sheriff Alvarez gulped but kept an impassive face. “This is our territory, ma’am, and we cannot let you go alone.”
I eyed the man. This was uncharacteristic of the donut-eaters. I guessed that’s why he was the sheriff. Plus, I had no desire to go home. Yes, everything hurt and yes, my head spun, but I felt that if I allowed Katherine to leave me behind, I would never see her or anyone like that again. “I can help you find the rest.”
Katherine threw me a sour look. “We may have treated your wounds, but you need a doctor.”
“I don’t have enough money for a doctor.”
Katherine sighed. “Come here.” She walked with me away so the sheriff couldn’t hear us. His furrowed brows confirmed his disagreement, but he remained in place. When they were far enough not to be overheard, Katherine spoke, “Look, this isn’t a life you want to have.”
I glared at her. “I will be the judge of that. And what precisely do you mean by this life?”
“By now, I think you have figured out the Amunites aren’t an experiment-gone-wrong, but something that doesn’t quite belong in this world. I hunt these things and everything else that’s similar.” Her face slackened, and tone dropped. “It’s fun, yes, but it leads to people you know dying.”
“My little sister is sick and might die because we don’t have enough money to have her examined, much less treated. So, I will take my chances.”
Katherine gave me a long, appraising stare. She eyed me like a dress in a boutique as if she wondered if I would be a good fit for an acceptable prize. “All right. I will ask around if there wouldn’t be a job for you after we are done with this.”
I grinned cheekily. “Thanks.”
Katherine rolled her eyes and spun on her heel. In silence, we returned to the sheriff and his deputy. Another round of discussion led nowhere, and so their group remained together.
I used the moment to rest. My left arm throbbed, yet my vision cleared. All the times I got bitten by a rattlesnake were paying off because I recovered much faster than anyone else would. I could still use an extra day of sleep though.
When we were to go, I filled my eyes with aether and let the world’s colors invert. The marks of red and silver wove by the mountain, but this time, I noticed glistening, grass green splashes all over Katherine. Marks of her aether, which she used to kill the Amunite.
That brought a smile to my face. There was bound to be someone who would pay me for tracking down aether wielders. The smaller tracks led us to a ridge sideways to Mount Livermore. The gray peak stood gloriously against the clear sky, the green grass on its sides reminded me why I loved these mountains so much.
“Down, now,” Katherine snapped and dropped to the ground.
Without asking questions, the sheriff, I, and the deputy did the same. I looked around and saw why. In the secluded valley beneath the ridge lay a camp. Six tents, a small fence, and three jeeps parked outside. From a distance, I couldn’t see much else. Sheriff Alvarez pulled out a pair of binoculars. After a moment of looking, his face paled, and he whispered, “Mother of God.”
He handed the binoculars to Katherine.
I frowned and focused. I wanted to see more, and so I drew out my aether, forcing it into my eyes. The color-inverted world revealed marks of red and silver. As if someone spilled paint into the encampment. I tried to manipulate the power, focusing on precision rather than brightness.
After a few tries, my vision improved and zoomed in. A moment later I could see the insides of the camp. Men moved around, wearing black suits and bullet-proof vests. On their heads… Oh, God… on their heads, each of them had a small, insect-like Amunite. Wrapped by the neck, sitting atop the skull or straight entering the ears with tendrils.
My stomach had enough. My aether waned, and I contorted so as not to vomit on myself. My former breakfast entered the light of day while I retched like mad. Near me, Deputy Norton did the same, and Sheriff Alvarez looked as if he wanted to. Katherine withdrew a chocolate bar from her pocket and munched it down before the deputy, and I calmed down.
I stared at her with wide eyes.
Katherine stretched her neck. “Now, this is the classified part. I will need all three of ye never to tell anyone about this. If ye do, well, people less nice than me will come to make sure ye stop talking. Understand?”
My blood froze. That was a serious death threat, and I believed her every word. I, the sheriff and the deputy all nodded.
Katherine smiled and continued. “The Amunites’re a touch more complex than told. The big one we met was a warrior. These’re drones. They control corpses and use them to work so.”
“Work on what?” the sheriff asked.
Katherine motioned toward the center of the camp and handed him the goggles. I looked in the direction and focused my sight through the aether. Next to an old diesel generator stood what looked like a frame of a steel door. I had played enough video games to know what that was. A portal. Deactivated, sure, but why else would anyone build a door that led nowhere?
A quick glance at the sheriff and the deputy confirmed they realized. Yet what caught my eye was a woman that walked close to the portal. Her crimson hair shone in the sunlight, unmarred by an Amunite. By how she gestured with her arms, she commanded whatever this operation was.
“We need to call for backup,” the sheriff whispered. That snapped my vision back to normal.
Katherine shook her head. “I’m already breaching the protocol by involving the three of ye. Should’ve done this alone so. I cannot get more people involved. Ye’re free to leave though.”
The deputy’s eyes twitched. He wanted to leave. But the sheriff didn’t look like he did. And neither did I. Dangerous, yes, but a hundred times more interesting than anything else I could ever do in my life. I was about to finish high school and to go to a college was a dream that would never come true. After all, I didn’t have enough money for the application itself, much less for tuition. And my GPA was a lot of things, but not stellar.
Katherine crawled back from the ridge and motioned us to follow her. When they gathered behind a group of rocks, she spoke. “What I need to do is to go in, kill the Amunites, and capture the woman leading them.”
Sheriff Alvarez put on a brave face. “How can we help?”
“Ever played a zombie shooter?”
We stared at her, mouths gaping.
Katherine rolled her eyes. “I will kill the second warrior they have there and hunt down the leader, but ye could help me with the drones. Aim for the Amunite, not for the body. Since they are but controlled corpses, shooting them in the heart doesn’t impress them so.”
I gulped. I never shot at anything that had the shape of a human. By what Katherine said, they weren’t alive, but still, they were people once. My breath became shallow.
Sheriff Alvarez placed his hand on my shoulder. “You should go home.”
I didn’t want to. If I left, there would be no second chance. I raised my chin. “Just tell me how to learn to shoot at people.”
He smiled, his stern face relaxing. “They are not people. And to answer, well, my father used to tell me that shooting is always the same, no matter what the target is. What matters is the reason why you shoot. As long as you believe it, you won’t miss. You see, he was also a cop, bearer of the police medal of valor.” He swiped the sweat off his brow, apparently searching for the correct words. “What I meant is that whoever taught you to use guns did it, so you know how to shoot whatever or whoever you need to.”
My sweat turned ice cold. My father didn’t teach me to shoot for fun or for sport. He drilled into me how to draw a .45 caliber colt in under a second to instantly shoot a thrown coin. Or a vital spot since that would be easier. Why else would he have made me learn how to quick-draw and how to be precise from the hip? And why did he teach me these things at all?
Because he expected me to need these skills. The realization dawned upon me. The bastard knew I would be able to use aether and thus must, one day, be able to defend myself. For the first time in my life, I saw a chance to find him. Whatever secret society Katherine lived in contained aether wielders and, maybe, my father.
I had to do this, else I would never forgive myself. My breath steadied and my body heated. The sheriff formed a sad smile and walked to his deputy to give him a similar pep talk.
We prepared, strung together a plan and then slid down by the covered side of the mountain, descending to hide behind a pair of large rocks. The secluded valley greeted us with soft earth and green grass. The hillsides protected the place from the wind, which made the place eerily calm as if holding its breath.
Until I realized the sharp stench of sulfur the air carried would not leave. I stopped the urge to vomit. Katherine pulled out a field flask, emptied it into herself and crawled to one side while the sheriff prowled to the other one. They would go in first as the main distraction. By what Katherine said, her aether could shield off bullets, at least mostly, and Sheriff Alvarez would cover her.
I prayed it would work because I needed her to survive. Katherine was my ticket to the new life where my sister would have enough money to visit a hospital. After Katherine disappeared from sight, we exchanged awkward stares with the deputy. Sweat covered his pale face.
I forced out a smile at the deputy. “Why are you doing this, Derek?”
He gulped and then spoke in a stammer. “I have children… and my wife often takes them to the mountains. I can’t stomach the idea of these… things… moving around. So I have to do this…. I have to… for them.” He repeated the last sentence as if to convince himself.
An explosion thundered through the air. A screech of the Amunites replied, and the sound of gunfire filled the air. The sheriff and the deputy all rushed past their tents, disappearing from my view.
I needed to go. But I wasn’t ready for this. My heartbeat sped up. My hands trembled. I pushed aether into my eyes. The world of inverted colors had one huge advantage. It didn’t look real. A mere illusion, a side effect of using my power, but enough of a trick to steady my arms.
I sprung to my feet and whirled past the edge of the tent. Chaos devoured the encampment. At the other side, Katherine fought against the Amunite warrior and the leader of the camp. Her sword burned with grass green flame. The crimson-haired woman formed a snake made of pure darkness from her aether, which kept lashing at Katherine.
The drones skittered around, trying to find cover while returning fire as the deputy and the sheriff shot at them. I drew a deep breath and focused. One drone turned and aimed a rifle at me. Instinct took over. I clenched my thigh, drew my cold anaconda and shot the Amunite from the man’s head. With a screech, the creature exploded into black blood, and the body collapsed to the ground.
Monsters, not people. My eyes darted around. I printed the location of ten more drones into my mind and fired. One, two, three, four, five, click. Five bodies fell, released to afterlife from their captors.
I slid back behind the tent, opened the anaconda’s barrel and drew a full moon clip with my other hand. I reloaded, jerked the cylinder in and froze as I glanced left. Deputy Norton lay on the ground by the tent, sprinkled in crimson and not moving. Shit! I bolted toward him. As I ran between the tents, I shot at the Amunite drones. One, two, three, four, five, six. All hits, all into insects.
I slid to the deputy and ducked above him. He had a bleeding gash at the back of his skull but was still breathing. I exhaled with relief.
Sharp pain exploded from my nape. I collapsed atop him like a puppet with its strings cut. The last thing I saw before losing consciousness was Sheriff Alvarez towering above me, the handle of his gun sparkling with crimson blood. My blood.
Link to Demon Hunt – Part 3/3