Noah Walker looked both ways before walking out his front door. Noah balanced to and fro on his tiptoes like a cartoon cat burglar. Noah grabbed the handles of the garbage bin and the recycling bin. With a quickness of a football player doing sprints, Noah hauled the bins out onto the curb.
Noah took a breath and stopped to notice his own weird behavior. There are only one conclusion to be reached from Noah's actions. Noah Francis Walker was still afraid of the dark. The same sixteen-year-old boy had done battle with the stuff his ancestors once cowered from was afraid of a little darkness.
Noah stared at the lawn. The front yard at this hour of the night was the same front yard it was this morning. If he looked closely, he could still make out the jack-o'-lantern Mom and Alyssa had carved on the night before Halloween, still rotting away after two weeks and some change.
Being afraid of the dark used to be a product of ignorance. Some wise-ass once said that nothing in the light was as scarier as what one could imagine in the dark. Whoever said that obviously never ventured into the underground city of Agartha or had his body possessed by an angry ghost.
Even amidst the things he could pinpoint as the definitive characteristics of his front yard, the front yard of the evening hours had a dozen shadows tossed about like discarded clothes. Each shadow, in lieu of any meaningful shape, translated in Noah's mind as the shapes of monsters.
One shadow resembled Red, the redcap disguised as a teddy bear who could kill in the blink of an eye and had cost him his best friend's sanity. The shadow taunted and teased him about his "victory" and how Jason had to sacrifice his grip on reality to finish the hunt Noah had started.
Looking back, the redcap should have been the easiest hunt. Despite having superhuman speed, the redcap had a weakness none of the other monsters had. The redcap had fought alone. Even with a brainwashed Jason Newton at his beck and call, he was the last of his species for a reason.
Noah could still taste the blood and sinew of the asura whose head he had bitten clean off. The fact that he was a wolf at the time granted little solace to Noah. Not only did it taste bad, biting into an asura rested in an awkward divide between full-on cannibalism and eating something raw.
For all his experiences with the darker elements of things, Noah didn't consider himself a brave little boy. Noah knew he had an impressive track record. Even with Alyssa's help, facing a monster blind was a remarkable feat. Especially a poltergeist, of which very little was known.
Noah thought his shoulder would break with how hard Mom and Dad were patting him on the back. Ejecting Mortimer Macready's kill-happy soul from his body was a fluke. Under slightly different circumstances, Alyssa would have become another victim of that cannibal murderer.
Cowardice. Noah often wondered if his highly resilient strain of cowardice was the reason he didn't have a girlfriend. While girls might actually go for duds, the duds were at least brave enough to make their intentions known in the first place. Noah was too afraid to do even that.
Noah might have been beating himself up over nothing. Take his sister Alyssa for example. She never noticed the guys at their school. Whether it be nerd, jock or some miscellaneous other, Alyssa could care less about them. He knew all too well that just wasn't impressing some girls.
Noah still walked with his eyes down. Throughout the entire episode of grabbing the bins and hauling them to the curb, Noah's eyes never felt the relative safety of his sneakers. Noah didn't know if it was a self-esteem thing or willful ignorance but he always kept his eyes down.
Dad had warned him about the eyes down thing. He said it was a bad habit and could have mortal consequences on the field. A true hunter always came his senses attuned to his surroundings, staring headlong into the things others looked away from. Plus, his shoes weren't that interesting.
Noah jumped back when he looked up to see a black girl about his age standing at arm's length from him. "Whoa." Dad might have a point about the whole eyes down thing. "I didn't see you there." Noah suppressed the urge to ask the girl if she was human or not. Not polite conversation.
Aside from being about his age, the black girl was about his height and build. The girl kind of reminded him of Taylor Swift, all the characteristics of mouse that could fit on a human female. She wasn't drop dead gorgeous but she ever looked his way, Noah would not have refused her.
The girl shrugged. "You're kinda jumpy." This was an almost universal first observation most people made about him. Noah was jumpy around strangers. "I'm Samantha." Samantha took a step closer. "My friends call me Sammy." Sammy held out a warm hand. "What's your name?"
Noah gave her three different names before arriving at his true Christian name. "You're funny," Sammy observed as she shook Noah's hand. Noah suppressed the urge to ask what kind of funny. Sammy pointed at the next house next door. "My family just moved in last week." Noah nodded.
Noah had been through this before. He knew the ins and outs of falling in love. First came the deception. Noah caught himself believing that him and a girl were connecting on a deep personal level. Second came the part where reality kicked his dumb heart in the ass for such stupid ideas.
Still, as much as Noah knew he was deceiving himself, he couldn't help it. As he stepped closer, Sammy didn't coil or shrink away from him. If anything, she circled around him, trying to keep the dance interesting and prolonging the courtship. Noah was a masterpiece of self-deception.
Still, despite his Pepe Le Pew re imagining of their first encounter, the fluid grace with which Samantha moved was very real. Sammy must have been a ballet dancer or something. Her feet skated over the cement like an ice rink. Noah could get spellbound following her movements.
Whatever the meaning the moment had conveyed, it had passed. Samantha had said her piece and returned to her side of the fence. Noah couldn't remember the words that had been exchanged. Once he had focused his attention on her feet, their whole conversation vanished from memory.
Sammy disappeared inside her house. Even if Sammy was sending out signals, there was no evidence that they were genuine. Samantha could just be pulling a Jacobsky on him. Lots of girls took a sadist glee in riling up the hopes of a geek and then smashing them between a rock and hard place.
Noah gave himself a stiff slap to the face. Just for good measure. There was no time to be thinking about women. Any minute of any hour or any day now, something could crawl out from under its rock and ambush him. Did he really want his last thoughts to be juvenile fantasies?
"Walkers." The name sliced the air. " Come out and play." Like the gunshot at a starting block, the words rushed him to the finish line of his front door. Noah dove onto the love seat. It didn't help that when he opened the door again, only the stillness of night greeted his eyes and ears.
Noah was kind of cute. Too bad he had only days, maybe hours, left to live. Whether he knew it or not, Noah was the object of a stalker. This stalker wasn't an obsessed schoolmate or a serial killer. This stalker was a something rather than a someone. This boy's stalker was a monster.
Samantha Hilson walked up to her older sister Deanna. Turning to her for dating advice was a dicey decision. Deanna's first instinct was the family's strict isolationist policy. "No friends. No problems." "Don't get involved." "Just walk away." Deanna honestly believed those sad tag-lines.
Of course, Deanna's situation was different from Sammy. Deanna had only been out for a year now. Mom and Dad were still adjusting to the revelation. Even if they would not come out and say it, the parental units were also glad that Deanna wasn't out cruising for lesbian sex partners.
Sammy wanted to make friends and live like a normal girl her age. While, theoretically, she could make friends, her parents would monitor them with the scrutiny of an electron microscope. It wasn't easy growing up in a family of hunters. A boyfriend for Sammy was out of the question.
Sammy must have looked weird to Noah. Her feet were stuck in kung fu mode. As such, they had an odd bounce to them. Sammy had went outside to investigate a strange noise in the middle of sparring. It was a stupid mistake but, at least, it gave her an excuse to talk the boy next door.
"Ready?" Deanna stanced off. Sammy nodded. "Alright." Blows and counter-blows were transmitted between them. Their moves were like those of a dance. Monsters often had superhuman power but lacked martial training. The Hilsons endeavored to exploit that weakness.
"It's a were-hyena, by the way," Deanna mentioned as Sammy dodged wide from her last punch. Sammy's eyes widened. "You're not usually this distracted during practice." Deanna stopped her fist an inch from her solar plexus. "That kid next door is going to get you in trouble."
Though Deanna meant it as a tease, her words cut deep. It was no secret that Sammy was often why their family broke cover. She'd always find a reason to apply her hunting skills in a public fashion and before the neighbors could say, "Van Helsing," the Hilsons were onto another state.
For lack of an appropriate euphemism, their parents were con artists. They mastered a hundred and one ways to rid people of excess money. In turn, those appropriated funds were put towards buying weapons in their eternal battles against the various fiends haunting this innocent world.
"I sure hope you remembered your promise to Mom and Dad." Sammy nodded. It wasn't so much a promise as a deal she had struck with her parents. In exchange for them getting to attend a public school (instead of resorting to home-schooling again), Sammy would stay out of trouble.
Deanna's comment about the were-hyena would have been a strange one in any other city in any other year. Were-hyenas were rarities among rarities and resided on the African continent. To live just next door to someone getting stalked by one would have been a one-in-a-million chance.
This city in this year was different. Someone was drawing in the freaks. Vermin of every shape and size were drawn to this newly lit beacon of paranormal phenomena. From what she could gather, Dad had brought the family here on business related to the uptick in supernatural activity.
Sammy didn't doubt for a second that Deanna was right about the were-hyena. Deanna was a world-class tracker. She could spot a wendigo on a moonless night. She knew her monsters. If she thought a were-hyena was in this city, then it was so. "What is it doing this far from Africa?"
Deanna smirked. "I bet some people would ask us the same thing." Sammy responded to her attempt at humor with apathy. Sammy looked out the window. Deanna sighed. "Listen, I know you like the whole good Samaritan thing but small hunts will only scare away the bigger game."
Samantha Hilson had heard this speech a dozen times. To Mom, Dad and Deanna, hunting was supposed to be about precision strikes to key players in the supernatural underworld. Monsters were less dangerous without structured leadership. Her family were here to take out the big boss.
As Sammy tuned away from Deanna, her mind focused on the safety box in the hallway closet. It contained three high silver content .22 Short rounds for a palm pistol. Shifters were allergic. If Sammy could somehow get to them after everyone else fell asleep, Noah might have a fighting chance.
Noah Walker couldn't sleep. Everyone else in the family was asleep. Everyone's long night had come to an end hours ago. Noah couldn't sleep. He knew what he had heard. Looking back, he should have told someone what was happening. At the time, Noah didn't want to worry anybody.
According to Dad, insomnia was a major concern among hunters. Sure, the creatures they fought could (and often did) inflict horrible deaths but those were not chronic issues. A hunter could only die once but unrelenting psychological strain often manifested as nightmares and sleepless nights.
So when Noah heard the laughter, he didn't know this time if he had actually heard anything or if his sleep-deprived brain had manifested hallucinations without the benefit of being asleep. His shifting eyes searched through the living room. Only horror movie victims assumed it was safe.
Ian Rockwell. From what his parents told him, Ian had tried to finish him off while he was in a coma at the hospital from a beating he had given him. Only Mom's quick thinking with a knife spared Noah a horrible death. Ian had survived but the doctors were certain he would never walk again.
Obviously, Ian Rockwell could no longer command the sheer physical power of his glory days but that didn't make him powerless. Ian still had his share of friends. Friends who just might take exception to Noah being more or less the reason Ian could no longer walk under his own power.
The thing that made him most dangerous wasn't even the hordes of thugs he still had access to. The thing that made Ian Rockwell a legitimate threat was what Noah referred to as the Norman Osborn Factor. Like the Green Goblin from Spiderman, Ian had learned Noah's secret identity.
Ian's temporary stint as a berserker had clued him in on Noah's non-human status. It was a trump card he could play in any number of ways. Noah shook his head. That was ridiculous. Ian wasn't Einstein but he wasn't stupid. A failed home invasion would only end in his arrest. Game over.
No, this person or this creature didn't care about getting caught. The beast was beyond such things. Like any good monster (or monster hunter), the beast would not be deterred from his hunt. Noah finally knew what he was up against and made a run for the cabinet with Dad's knife in it.
The creature broke through the back-door. It ran through the kitchen and into the living room. It stood still for a moment. Noah's channeling compensated for the darkness. He was right. It was a were-hyena. That fact that he thought he had killed the last one didn't change the fact that he was here.
This were-hyena was smaller than the other two. It looked like the runt of the litter. The beast snarled at Noah. The truth of the creature hit him all at once. Monsters tended to travel in groups. This particular monster's group was, in fact, his family. Noah had killed the creature's parents.
Noah felt a dry heave come over him. He had helped in the extermination of a monster family before. The asuras they had fought must have been a family too. It made sense. Two big ones, one male, one female, and a little one. This creature wasn't hunting for food. He wanted revenge.
That explained why it was toying with him. He wasn't hear to kill Noah. He was here to even the score. He had watched as Noah butchered his parents and he wanted him to experience the same pain. Noah would die for his many sins but his parents were off-limits. The beast charged at him.
Noah swiped him across the face. Dad's knife burned him where it touched flesh. According to Mom, were-hyenas had a much higher tolerance for silver immediately following a fresh kill. This were-hyena was smart. He had come prepared to do battle with a family of monster hunters.
Even with Dad's silvered knife, it'd take more than a few scratches to the face to put this one down. The beast licked his wounds, almost amused by their presence, and resumed his attack. Noah jutted the knife out in front of him. The hot stink of the monster's breath burned his eyes.
Somewhere amidst the chaos of pitched combat, the creature's jaws wrestled the knife from his grip. He then unceremoniously swallowed the knife, hilt and all and prepared to pounce. Without a silver weapon to finish him with, he was a goner. Noah closed his eyes, trying his best to turn.
A gunshot rang out. A second one followed close on the heels of the first. The wounded were-hyena and Noah shared the same look of shock as they looked at the gunman. It was Sammy from next door, pulling the trigger of a tiny gun, undaunted by her lack of bullets to finish the job with.
The wounds in his back burned with the presence of silver. If not for the two magic bullets buried in him, the were-hyena might have summoned the strength to attack them. Instead, he ran back out through the broken door with injuries that would have been mortal to a lesser shifter.
Noah limped into the kitchen and grabbed the butcher knife from its holster. "What the Hell was that?" Noah circled Sammy as she dropped the empty gun to the floor. He didn't mean to sound ungrateful for what she had for him. Sammy's stunt had saved his life. Sammy had saved his life.
Noah's right hand had gone into a were-hyena's mouth and came out intact. It would have been a wasted miracle if she hadn't shown up. But her rescue only raised more questions. How did she know to use silver bullets? How did she know that he was even under attack? How? How? How?
The lights came on in the kitchen. Two gunshot wounds woke the dead a block away, let alone the three people sleeping in the rooms adjacent to the fiery explosion of noise. Mom, Dad and Alyssa staggered into the lit kitchen, mumbled questions spilling out of their mouths like drool.
Noah could only think of one thing to say. "Mom." Noah looked around. "Dad." Alyssa yawned. "Sis." Noah spread his arms in Sammy's direction. "This is Sammy," Noah introduced. "Her family lives next door." Noah paused. "She's a hunter ... I think." Her eyes widened. He was right.
Lying to the police seemed like a mutant power all hunters had in common with each other. Of course, technically, neither Bernard Walker and his new best friend Robert Hilson were lying when they said they had scared off a wild animal who had broken down his home's back-door.
They just removed any reference to a were-hyena or a sixteen-year-old discharging a firearm.
As far as half-truths went, this one served its purpose well. The cop who had arrived at the front door to investigate the neighbors' complaints of gunfire didn't take more than ten minutes to fill out a report. Their bizarre story had the advantage of not being a total lie.
That helped convince Officer Gregory Sherman, a tired and overworked cop nearing the midpoint of a graveyard shift.
Bernard tried not to notice the shy sideways glances being exchanged being his son Noah and a girl his age. This was a lot bigger than the love life of his only son. These Hilsons, their new next-door neighbors, were part of a very minute minority who knew the secret history of human civilization.
In such tales, heroic guys like Robert Hilson butchered people like Bernard Walker.
Bernie wasn't being racist. It was a fact. Hunters of the human variety tended to side with racist rhetoric. Right and wrong was secondary to the fact that the enemy wasn't even human. Bernie wasn't sure if the tiny girl of their clan would have saved Noah if she had known what he was.
Bernie was still heated out about his encounter with Ulric Eriksson last month. Benandanti hated monsters as much as a human hunter would but the moment he pleaded for the safety of other-than-humans he got branded a race traitor.
Even before the city of Rome had been founded by the progenitor of his subspecies, humans treated all other-than-humans like ravenous monsters.
Not being human does not a monster make. A monster had to earn its title by sinking its teeth in human flesh and bathing in the blood of the innocent. In that respect, Benandanti were actually the opposite of monsters. They were anti-monsters, cure-all antidotes to the common monster.
Still, against every instinct in his body, Bernie chose the route of diplomacy. If he could convince Shirts and Skins to kiss and make up, maybe he could plead his case with this man. To say the least, Bernie was shocked by Robert's response.
"Benandanti?" Bernie channeled for a moment, knowing that it would light his eyes with refracted light. "I never met one before." Robert held out his hand. "It's a honor." Bernie gave the hand a weary look.
After a pregnant pause, the two patriarchs shook hands as their two respective families served as witnesses to the covenant.
Robert looked at his daughter with a parental look of embarrassment mixed with disappointment. "I'm sorry about my daughter Samantha." Robert gave Bernie a weak half-smile. "She gets carried away sometimes." Bernie shook his head dismissively.
Depending on how one chose to interpret the situation, Samantha might have saved Noah's life. A were-hyena cub fresh off a kill was orders of magnitude more dangerous than the starving adults Noah had killed in the desert.
Bernard had once dealt with a four-hundred-pound Gold Gym bodybuilder cursing obscenities over a traffic ticket without batting an eye.
This was different. This was a devastating blow to the status quo. He couldn't just shake it off and move on with his life like nothing happened. Paul Utah was miles away in another city. These Hilsons were going to be their neighbors for a long while.
Bernie hoped he could insinuate the possibility of them moving away without offending their new neighbors. "You know, this city is not safe anymore. Even for hunters, it's not safe. This city is about to explode. There are monsters active here we haven't seen since in centuries."
Bernard always used the pronoun we when talking about Benandanti. It was an odd affectation to say the least considering the fact Bernard had met a total of six of them in his lifetime. A third of them were his own children. And another third were MIA. "It might be safer to hunt somewhere else."
Robert smiled and looked over at his wife Patricia. The thought of leaving amused Robert. "The increase in supernatural activity is why I brought my family here." A glint appeared in Robert's eye. "It means a demon's nearby."
Bernie laughed when he heard the word demon. "What's so funny?" The jovial air about Robert receded as he caught his breath between stuttering laughs.
"It's just been a long time since I met one of you guys." The demonologists were like the hillbilly cousins of the hunter family tree, embarrassments who didn't really get the joke that was their sorry lives. It never occurred to those basket cases that the thing they feared the most didn't exist.
"Look." Bernie choke back a laugh. "Every time somebody somewhere has claimed to see a demon, it always turns out to be something else. Something we can kill."
Monsters often used the threat of summoning demons to scare gullible humans. Demons were scary enough badasses to make any hunter nervous.
"Isn't strange that no hunter has ever reported an encounter with one?"
Robert shook his head and fielded the question. "Not at all. It would be hard to report on something if you didn't survive it." Dead men tell no tale was the recourse of a weak storyteller. Surely, someone, by some mixture of luck and fortitude, would have lived long enough to speak his peace about a demon.
"Besides, the demons aren't allowed on Earth. It's the rule. As such, they are careful to cover their tracks." Robert smirked. "In other words, no witnesses." Bernard Walker was amused by how little evidence Robert's conspiracy theory needed in order to fit within the established facts.
Robert Hilson was a true believer. A demonologist who wouldn't be swayed in his beliefs. "But I'm not here to talk religion." Robert removed a strand of fur from the broken door frame. "You have a time-sensitive hunt on your hands and my family is willing to assist in any way possible."
Noah Walker tried not to notice Samantha Hilson checking him out. Or her older sister Deanna checking out his older sister Alyssa? Or Alyssa returning the gesture with some checking out of her own. We're hunters, Noah reminded himself. A grade-school melodrama was beneath them.
Still, despite his disdain for his sister's suddenly lesbian reaction to being scoped out by a girl-friendly girl, Noah had to admit that the whole celibate hunter thing wasn't a good fit for him.
Noah had all the normal urges of a kid his age and even if he never acted upon them, having a girl checking him out was doing wonders for his ego. It wasn't an act or a ploy or a put-on.
Sammy really liked him. Sammy wouldn't have drawn down on a beefed-up were-hyena in the middle of night with that sad little pistol if she hadn't felt something for him.
It was flimsy hypothesis but it made sense to him. People could say or intimate or emote anything they wanted to for whatever reason they wanted to. It was their actions that pinned them down to an exact set of realities.
Noah had been curious about the existence of demons for a long time now. For parents willing to talk about every supernatural being, real or imagined, under the sun, the lack of even throwaway comments about demons was glaring omission of an Orwellian variety.
Judging by Dad's little immature dressing down of Mr. Hilson, the existence of demons was disputed among hunters. If this were a movie of his life, Noah would be wise to listen to the believing crank. Nine times out of ten, they were the ones who knew the most about what was really going down.
Still, that was the curse of growing old and getting set in one's ways. New ideas, even simple ones, were harder to digest. The weight of years of experience filtered out what on the surface seemed like a very reasonable notion.
In a world where teddy bears could be killer fairies in disguise or a gang war could be the cover of an occult war between warring subspecies, calling foul on demons was infinitely and grotesquely stupid.
While he would never say so to their faces, Mom and Dad were dumb-asses for discounting the possibility off-hand.
"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," a wise science-fiction writer once believed. They would be wise to follow his advice.
The two families of hunters turned the living room into a war room. Apparently, the Hilsons had a lead on the were-hyenas' domicile.
The Hilsons weren't like Noah's family. First and foremost, they were here to hunt a demon. Everything else was a distant second. The Walkers were the opposite. Everything they fought might be the reason they were summoned.
Someday soon, one of them might plunge a silvered blade into a werewolf's skull and this stint as a family of super-powered monster-hunting wolf-people would be over. Noah would regret that day when it came. For all the madness, murder and mayhem, monster hunting still trumped the life he used to lead.
As far as the Hilsons could figure, the were-hyena's home was in neighborhood park doubling at a storm basin right between their home and the desert park where Noah and Dad had tracked them down to. Robert Hilson wasn't kidding when he called the hunt time-sensitive.
The were-hyena knew it would be hunted and was making every effort to recover from his injuries to return to their home for a second attack. Were-hyenas were crafty. They never used the same tactics twice. If the were-hyena had a second chance, it would make the first look like a dress rehearsal.
Time was his friend. The more time he had, the more tactics he could dream up and implement. The two families needed to strike hard and fast before the were-hyena could get his head together and decide on a plan of attack. After the brainstorming session finished, the two families piled into Robert Hilson's red Hummer.
"Holy crap," Noah and Alyssa said in unison as they squeezed between caches of military grade hardware. These Hilson were a different breed of hunter altogether. The Walkers relied on nothing more sophisticated than a couple crossbows and knives due to their innate supernatural abilities.
Hilsons were believers in victory through superior firepower.
The detonation of the storm drain in the park in the hours before dawn set the clock ticking. It was a distraction to catch the enemy off-guard but it was also a noisy way to start a fight. It would be minutes before police arrived with their handcuffs and uncomfortable questions.
Noah lead the charge, carrying his Dad's silvered hunting knife with him. Sammy followed behind with her mouse-gun trained on the darkness in front of them.
Noah had a million things he wanted to say to her, least of which involved thanking her for saving his life. But these were the amateur mistakes that got people killed.
Somewhere in the darkness, a were-hyena was desperate for a chance to kill him. A blur of movement occurred to Noah's left. Sammy fired a shot.
Out of instinct, Noah stabbed into the darkness to his right. A black girl dressed in rags left over dead from the blow. This were-hyena in a human form wasn't the one that had attacked him. It was, in all likelihood, his sister.
Noah looked down at the shiv in the girl's left hand. She was aiming to kill him while her brother provided the distraction. The sound of sirens echoed in the distance. The part where the gunslinger drew down on his opposite numbers wasn't going to happen tonight.
Worse yet, Noah had given the beast another reason to hate him.
Noah cursed under his breath. It wasn't supposed to end like this. The bad guy living to fight another day. Noah tried to race into the sewer after the beast while the combined strength of seven people pulled him back into the light of lampposts and the pre-dawn tendrils of light.
Noah wanted to finish this but it was too late.
Noah thought to turn and give chase but it would be pointless. Were-hyenas were faster than Benandanti and this one had a head start on all of them.
The hunt was over. The quarry had gotten away.