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       Fated, p.18

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  That's all. She knew it was true as he said it. He did take away her fear but she doubted very much he knew what scared her. Never in all his imaginings would he believe the things scaring her had tails and fangs and could disappear into the darkness at will. It didn't matter, though - it was enough that he could make her feel fearless, even if only temporarily, and even if total fearlessness came only when he had his arms around her, which kind of made it an impractical state of affairs.

  'Where did you learn? To ride, I mean. In Iowa?' she asked.

  'Yes, on my grandma's farm. We moved there when I was five.'

  'So that's where you're from.'

  'Yes, there and around. I went to high school in LA for a bit. It was safer in Iowa.'

  'Safer?' Evie looked up questioningly.

  Lucas was busy, facing in the other direction 'Safer than downtown LA.'

  She watched him swing gracefully from the branch he was perched on over to the next tree. High school. She could only imagine how many girls must have lusted after him. A stab of jealousy shot through her.

  Just then he turned with a grin and threw something her way. She held up a hand to deflect it and felt the squish of a bruised peach slime through her fingers. She screamed out loud and he laughed, then she reached into the box and lobbed a peach straight back at him. He ducked and it flew past his head.

  'You'll have to do better than that,' he said, his grey eyes daring her. There seemed to be a trace of sadness in them still, beneath the surface.

  She tipped her head in his direction, her eyes flashing, a spark igniting in some deep part of her body. 'You want to fight?' she laughed. 'I can take you any day of the week.' She reached into the box, feeling for the squishiest peaches she could find.

  When she looked back up he was smiling right at her.

  24

  'What are we doing out here?' Evie demanded to Victor's back.

  He ignored her and kept walking, along the path she'd taken with Lucas a few days before, following the river. It was pitch dark, the moon still rising, far from full. There was the black static sky and then the solid black of the overhanging branches overlaying it. It was like walking through a collage entitled Woods at Night. She could hear only the occasional owl, a faint scuffling in the undergrowth which she supposed must be an animal and not a Scorpio demon or a Thirster because Victor didn't seem particularly on guard.

  Or maybe it was just a test for her and it actually was an Unhuman and he was waiting for her to figure it out before she got sliced into pieces and served up on a plate.

  'Where are the others?' she asked.

  'They're not required today,' Victor answered.

  Ever since their little showdown in the training room he'd been acting a little stiffly with her. She chewed on the news that it was just the two of them out here in the woods. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? She was relieved there would be no Risper but worried that Jocelyn wasn't going to be there. One friendly face was better than none.

  'Where are we going?'

  'Stop asking questions and start focusing, Evie,' he came back with. 'What do you hear? What do you feel?'

  'I hear the voice in my head asking me whether I'm insane to be following you out here in the middle of the night and I feel tired and pissed off - how's that for focusing on my feelings?'

  'Fine. Be pissed off. But listen to what I have to say and learn it, Evie, because time is running out. The Brotherhood will be back for you. They'll want you dead before you're fully trained. So you have weeks if you're lucky, days if you're not, to be able to defend yourself. And to learn how to attack. Are you ready?'

  Evie swallowed. 'Ready for what? To kill someone?'

  'Something, Evie. They're not human.'

  'Yes,' she said, rolling her eyes. 'Whatever, yes. I'm ready.'

  They had arrived by the swimming pond. It was a black mirror, reflecting the starless sky, a faint silver gleam the only sign that water lay in front of them.

  'What are we doing here?' Evie asked, suddenly anxious.

  'Endurance, Evie, and desire - those are your lessons tonight,' Victor said, looking at her calmly.

  'Huh?' Evie looked up at him.

  'There are going to be times in the future when you're going to be faced with things that you will feel are beyond your endurance - both physically and mentally. I think you've been dealing with the mental over the last week and you seem to be holding up OK, so now's the time to test you physically.'

  Evie glanced at the water, suddenly seeing where this was going. 'You want me to swim?'

  'Yes.' Victor nodded.

  'And the desire part? Because I have no desire to swim.'

  Victor laughed quickly and pulled something out of his pocket. He held it up to her. She peered closer. It was a gold ring. Her eyes flashed to his face.

  'What is it?'

  'It's your mother's wedding ring,' he said.

  Evie reached out to take it but Victor just spun it out of his hand and skimmed it into the pond with a flick of his wrist.

  'What the hell did you do that for?' she screamed at him.

  'Desire. You need to remember, I think, what you need your endurance for. What you're fighting for.'

  She felt her mouth drop open. She slammed it shut and ground her teeth, pulling her sweater off and ripping the belt of her jeans open. She kicked off her shoes, struggled out of her jeans and then waded straight into the water wearing only her underwear, without so much as a backwards glance in Victor's direction.

  The shock of the water hit her hard, almost winding her, causing her muscles to lock and go into spasm. She kept wading deeper though, until the water came over her hips and her feet started to sink into the slime of the bank. She slammed her mouth shut to cut the urge to swear, refusing to give Victor the satisfaction. One more step then she took a deep breath and dived.

  She swam down into the darkness, her hands outstretched. Down and down until she felt icy fingers stroking her arms. She brushed the pondweed aside, suppressing a shudder, her breath starting to burn in her lungs. Her fingers sank into the mud at the bottom and she kicked against the spongy feeling, making the water turn even murkier as the mud swirled like dust motes around her. She twisted around. How was she going to find it? It was pitch black here and so freezing she could feel her legs turning to lead.

  She burst up to the surface, her teeth chattering violently, the air hitting her bare skin and making her gasp. 'I can't find it,' she yelled at Victor's silently indifferent form, leaning against a tree.

  'Best keep looking then,' he answered.

  She gritted her teeth. She knew she should get out of the water before she froze to death but she couldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing he'd beaten her, and she wanted that ring. She needed to find it. Goddamn Victor. She took a deep breath and then duck-dived down again, this time struggling to reach the bottom as her legs had started to seize up from the cold. She tried to still the panic and to focus - to follow her gut and let it hopefully lead her to the ring - but what if she couldn't find it? What if it lay buried beneath the sand and mud she'd kicked up on the bottom? She twisted around and around, kicking out at the icy fingers tangling in her hair, stroking her lips. She swiped at them but she just got more tangled. And now they were wrapping around her legs, gripping them tight, tugging her down, slowly but surely.

  She floated for a moment in the warmth, the cold having completely dissipated suddenly - her body felt warmer, the mud beneath her toes soft as cotton. She glanced upwards, saw the shadow of something - probably Victor - just above the water line. If she could just kick once and slip from the bind of the weed, she'd break the surface and be able to curse him out about trying to kill her yet again, but the weed had a good grip of her now, was winding up her thigh and was pulling her downwards. She kicked. She couldn't break free.

  25

  Lucas had been watching from the trees. He'd heard Victor's little speech about desire and endurance and seen the glint of me
tal as he tossed Evie's mother's ring into the deepest part of the water, and he'd taken a step forwards, wanting suddenly to confront Victor there and then. He was getting really tired of watching these daily attempts to kill Evie. And these were the very people who were supposed to be protecting her! Did they not see the irony? And here he was, oath-bound to kill her himself yet hell-bent on protecting her from every last psychopath out there. Victor included.

  His eyes settled on Victor and he felt the anger peel back the wounds, almost relished it. Then came the flashes through his mind. Victor's face through the windscreen. The car flipping and spinning, much like the ring Victor had just tossed, through the darkness, landing wheels upwards. His mother's fractured face. The blood dripping onto him from the tree branches overhead.

  Victor was standing just a metre away from him right now. It would be so easy to come up from behind and kill him. To end all this.

  And he should do it. This second, while he had the chance, while Victor's attention was on Evie.

  He took another step. This is what his father would have wanted him to do. But suddenly Evie was tearing off her sweater and kicking off her jeans and all thoughts of revenge were temporarily suspended.

  He watched her pull her T-shirt off over her head and toss it to the ground and he stood motionless, unbreathing, as she waded into the pond.

  Then she was gone, under the water, and the immediate bolt of panic he felt when he could no longer see her grew with every second she stayed under. He was on the point of diving in after her, had kicked off his shoes, when she resurfaced gasping, glowing in the thin moonlight, her hair slick, her lips almost blue and her teeth chattering so hard he thought they might shatter. He wanted to wade straight in and haul her out but Victor was telling her to go back down and keep looking for the damned ring.

  By the time she'd dived again, Lucas had his shirt off and was standing barefoot and bare-chested in his jeans. He slid into the water unseen, melting into the cold darkness, leaving not a trace of a ripple across the surface.

  It was coffin dark, deathly cold, silence pressing in on him. He felt the cold only as an afterthought. He swam blind, pushing downwards, his fingers sinking into the mud on the bottom in just a few strokes. He turned, trying to peer through the murk - there, something white gleaming. He kicked and swam towards it.

  Evie's eyes were shut, her hair streaming out behind her in black ribbons. Her skin so pale it was translucent, glowing like something unnatural under the water. She was floating suspended in the black water, lulled with the current. Then he saw the weed wrapping its tendrils around her legs, holding her in place. As he swam towards her, an eruption of bubbles burst from her mouth and her lips stayed parted, water rushing in to take the place of the air. He grabbed her wrist and pulled against the weed.

  Lucas burst through the surface with her in his arms and heard her gasp, choke and cry out. Her arms flailed at the surface, at him, in bewilderment. He was invisible but still solid. He let her go and dived back down, letting the weight of the water press him to the bottom. He swam fifteen metres to the far side of the pond and quietly broke the surface. Evie was still standing in the water, thigh deep, bent over, gulping down air. She whipped her hair back off her face and stumbled forwards, falling to her knees on the bank.

  Damn it. Why wasn't Victor helping her? Lucas glanced over at him.

  And found Victor staring right back at him. Not through him or behind him or in his general direction, but straight at him. And he was smiling.

  26

  Lucas was out of the water before Victor could take a single step towards him. His jeans were plastered freezing against his legs. He was barefoot and the night air whipped his skin as he ran. He wove in and out of the trees, listening for Victor bearing down on him, alert to the whisper of an arrow or the sigh of a blade through the still air. He had no weapons, had left his shirt and his father's knife in the grass by the side of the pond. He ran as though he had the devil on his heels, tearing through undergrowth, his feet ripping on stones. He tried to keep invisible, stick to the darker parts of the wood - those stripped of all moonlight - but he knew Victor could see him now anyway.

  He had to get back to the Mission. To the others. But he was heading in the direction of the house. He needed the car. It would be quicker. But how could he leave Evie?

  What choice did he have? He swore at himself. He could hardly hang out, put the kettle on and sit back with his feet up waiting for her to return from her night-time swim.

  He couldn't protect Evie if he was dead. And once Victor told her who he was - then what? She was hardly going to throw herself into his arms, or look at him the way she'd looked at him in the orchard. No, she was going to plant a bullet between his eyes. Which was what he wanted her to do, wasn't it? To kill him?

  Damn it. He swore again. How could he win this thing? He didn't even know the rules any more. Or what team he was on.

  No, he thought. He'd never been on any team. He'd always been playing the game alone.

  So Victor knew about him. It would only be a matter of time before the Hunters came looking for him. His mind flew frantically through the possibilities, thoughts crowding in on him even as he jumped over fallen branches and skidded over rocks. Did they know he was staying at the Tremain house? Had Jocelyn told Victor about him? Or had he given himself away just now, slipping into the water? Why had Victor smiled at him? Why hadn't he been tearing his throat out? Why hadn't he shot at him? He'd had the chance but he hadn't taken the shot. It was as if he'd wanted Lucas to see him.

  Lucas stole through the orchard, his heart rate one rapid single beat, water dripping off his hair and running down his chest and back in rivulets. His jeans were sodden and heavy, squelching with every step. His feet were encased in blood-streaked mud. He circled the house, keeping to the darkest shadows, trying to feel whether anyone besides Mrs Tremain was inside - if he would be walking into a trap.

  He paused suddenly, put his head to one side and concentrated. Where was Lobo? Where was the damn dog? He was always on the back porch - a canine sentinel. But he wasn't there now. Lucas listened harder and caught a low whining noise coming from the other side of the house. He slipped around the corner, following the noise, his senses straining, certain he was walking into something.

  Lucas rounded the corner and the whining became louder. It was coming from the basement. He jumped down the few steps to the recessed door and turned the handle gently. It opened and he peered in. Inside he could make out the shape of the dog curled up in the corner of the room, whimpering. Lobo barely lifted his head to look at him before sinking his head between his paws.

  Lucas stepped quickly into the room, scanning the space. It was a workshop, probably Evie's dad's old space; a workbench ran around two sides of the room, with tools suspended from hooks on the walls. A hunting rifle hung over the door.

  The dog nudged him with his nose when he crouched beside him.

  'What happened, boy?' Lucas asked, feeling along the dog's legs and shank with his hands, checking for breaks or open wounds.

  The dog howled when Lucas's hands closed on his neck. Lucas bent closer. The skin around the collar was burnt, the hair singed off. He could smell the acid burn.

  He swore under his breath, patting the dog on the back. 'It's going to be OK, boy.'

  He stood up. He could feel her now all right. All the time his senses had been alert for a Hunter and the real danger was right here in the house - and it wasn't even human. It was Shula.

  Her presence was palpable - more than the smell, wafting in acid notes off Lobo's coat. Now he could really feel her and it was making the hairs on his arms stand on end, sending rivers of revulsion up and down his spine.

  'I'll be right back,' he told Lobo, bending low to whisper in his ear.

  He retraced his steps out of the basement, jogging up the veranda steps and pushing open the back door, which was only on the latch. He took the stairs two at a time, listening for any signs tha
t Mrs Tremain had woken up, but he could hear the rhythmic sound of her breathing coming from the other end of the hallway.

  The door to Evie's room was slightly ajar, the light off.

  He pushed open the door. Shula was lazing back against the pillows on Evie's bed, one fishnet-clad leg crossed over the other, hands clasped behind her head. She beamed at him when he appeared in the doorway, though he was sure he also detected a vague disappointment in the tightening of her mouth. Probably, she'd been hoping that Evie would arrive back before him.

  'What the hell are you doing here?' he shouted in a whisper.

  Shula pouted. 'My, my, Lucas, what a charming welcome.' She swung her legs off the bed and stood up, swaying on three-inch heels. 'I was waiting for you,' she whispered, walking towards him, her eyelids glinting metallic.

  Her finger danced a centimetre above his chest. He stood his ground. If Shula touched him, she'd be regretting it for a long time.

  She dropped her gaze, her tongue darting out to wet her lips, and took in his sopping jeans. Then she looked back up at him questioningly. 'Been swimming?' she asked.

  He ignored her. 'Why are you in Evie's room if you're waiting for me?'

  'Oooh, Evie's room,' she said mockingly, turning her back. She marched to the window and yanked the curtain back.

  Lucas glanced around the room to see if anything was out of place. It looked untouched - but it was such a mess, he couldn't really tell. He looked back at Shula, huffing by the window. What was she doing here? He needed to get her out of the house before Victor and Evie got back. He needed to get himself out of the house. They couldn't find either of them here.

  Shula suddenly whipped around to face him. Her nostrils were flaring, her teeth bared in a snarl. 'I just don't get it. I don't get what it is about her.'

  He felt his heart start to pump again, as furiously as when he'd been running. He wiped his hand across his face, trying to buy time.

 
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