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       Fated, p.7

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  Evie froze. Her breathing stilled.

  'I can read you,' Victor carried on. 'Not your mind - we're not telepaths - but I can read your body language: the expressions on your face, the way you cross your arms over your chest when you're feeling defensive, the way your breathing goes shallow when I mention your father, the way your jaw sets when you're angry and the way your nostrils flare when anything or anyone annoys you - which is most everyone in this town, myself included.'

  Evie swallowed and tried not to flare her nostrils. She uncrossed her arms and willed herself not to move.

  'You'll learn to listen to the voice in your head,' he said, tapping the side of his shaved temple, 'and to heed it, because that voice is going to be what keeps you alive.'

  Evie sank into the seat. 'It didn't keep my parents alive though, did it?'

  Victor's face fell, his lips pursed and a crease line took up residence between his eyes.

  'How did they die?' Evie asked in a broken voice. 'I want to know. I need to know. I need to know everything. How do I fight these things? When are you going to tell me?'

  Victor drew in a deep breath. Then he turned on his heel and walked over to a battered leather trunk that Evie had noticed standing in the corner of the room. He opened the padlock on it and she slunk closer for a better look - wondering if it was going to be full of medieval-looking weapons or something more modern, like guns - but Victor's broad shoulders hid the contents from view. He snapped it shut before she could get a look and turned around holding something in his hands.

  He offered it over to her and she saw it was a book. An old, stiff-paged, heavy-as-a-brick book.

  'Everything you need to know is in there,' he said, handing it to her.

  8

  Victor disappeared off to Joe's Diner for lunch, leaving Evie manning the fort. No one had stepped foot inside since Mrs Lovell. They'd watched two dozen or more townspeople stand slack-jawed in front of the window, gaping and pointing at the price tags that Victor had assembled by the mannequins' feet. Then they'd watched every single one of them wander off down the street shaking their heads and laughing. One person even stopped to lean against a lamp post, bent double and heaving with laughter until Evie thought she was going to have to call the paramedics. But Victor had just watched happily, coffee cup in hand, from the door.

  Evie sat cross-legged and rested her hands on top of the book as though she could read it through her palms. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then opened her eyes and turned the first page.

  It was a handwritten book. The ink was red and so faded that it looked to Evie like someone centuries ago had run out of ink and decided to open a vein. The pages were warped and dry as tinder. She had to peer closely to figure out if it was even written in English because the words were so curlicued and ornate they looked like pictograms. Her finger traced the first line, deciphering the letters one by one.

  The lore of the Hunter, she read.

  O-K, she thought.

  Hunters are the defenders of the human realm. Since the early 900s we, the descendants of the Hunter family, have fought to keep this world safe from demons.

  Hah! Evie thought, they called them demons back in the day! Maybe she'd stick with that rather than this postmodern Unhuman nonsense. And then she noticed that her hands were trembling.

  Taking a sacred oath to protect all humans, Hunters have sacrificed their lives in the name of the oath throughout the last thousand years.

  Evie could feel the earthy taste of panic filling her mouth.

  To be a Hunter is to be chosen from among the many. It is an honour.

  Honour schmoner. Evie swore out loud and turned the page. She'd had enough of her ancestor and his talk of death and duty.

  The next page was covered in an intricate drawing of a man in funny-looking clothes - puffy trousers that ended at the knee, a top that looked like a woman's blouse and a long dark cloak that trailed behind him. She peered closer. That wasn't a cloak behind him. It was a tail. She felt her stomach tighten into Medusa knots. The ink had dried to a dull orange but the eyes had been carefully drawn and once upon a time they had been bright red.

  Above the picture were the words Scorpio Demon. In the corner were a few scratch marks and the number 23. Evie ran her finger over the marks, wondering what they meant.

  On the facing page was another page of script. Evie scanned it quickly.

  Scorpio Demons are marked by their blindness in this world - we were able to hunt them almost to extinction.

  Evie guessed that since the invention of sunglasses they'd been brought back from the brink. But why did they even want to be in this world in the first place? Evie didn't understand why any demon would want to come here. Demon realms must really suck if they were willing to fight a war over centuries just so they could hang out in Riverview. What was so good about here? She made a mental note to ask Victor once he was back from lunch.

  She turned the page, anxious to swallow as much information as she could before he came back.

  A picture of another man, this time slighter and slightly greener. Someone had obviously redone the colour at some more recent point in time because the green shade of the skin leapt off the page. Once more she noticed the fine strike lines at the bottom of the page - about twenty or so. And the number 17 next to them.

  Mixen Demon, she read. Do not engage in hand-to-hand combat.

  'You don't say', Evie muttered, glancing at the handprint on her arm.

  She flipped the page.

  Here was a normal-looking demon for a change. Actually quite a good-looking one, if she was allowed to think that, despite the medieval fashion and the glowering face. It looked like someone had taken an eraser to the picture because it was smudged in places, fainter in others, as though it was disappearing off the page, and the ink for the eyes had yellowed somewhat. There was one strike line in the corner of the page, and next to it the number 33. Above the picture it read:

  Shadow Warrior.

  She could remember Victor mentioning Shadow Warriors but to her knowledge she hadn't come face to face with one yet.

  Shadow Warriors are among the most lethal demons in the realms. Their speed and ability to vanish into the shadows makes them a formidable opponent in battle.

  Maybe that was why she hadn't come face to face with one yet. Evie kept reading, hoping to find something positive, perhaps a way to avoid meeting one, but there was nothing else except for the comforting words that only one Shadow Warrior had ever been killed or captured by a Hunter. She wondered if the text had been updated since it was first written or if this was the only edition. Another question for Victor. Along with how the hell was she supposed to pick a fight with any of these demons and actually win.

  She flicked through the pages until her eyes fell on a page with what looked like a poem written on it. Written in large letters over it were the words, White Light Prophecy. She drew a breath and started reading out loud. 'Of two who remain, a child will be born.'

  The doorbell jangled. She looked up. It was Tom.

  'Whose child will be born?' he asked, looking at her slightly fearfully.

  Evie pushed the book under the seat cushion and stood up. She glowered at him, standing there in his slouchy jeans and marl grey T-shirt with his brown hair ruffled just so and his mouth twitching in a nervous smile.

  'English assignment,' she mumbled, 'it's nothing, just some stupid poem.'

  She waited as he hovered there, refusing to smile back at him. When was he going to take the hint and leave her the hell alone?

  'Joe told me where to find you,' he said, by way of explanation, even though she wasn't interested. She noted though that the gossip about her new job had wended its way to Joe, which at least saved her a conversation, she supposed.

  She rested a hand on one hip. 'Feel free to browse. If you don't see something in your size just ask and I'll see if we have it in stock.'

  Tom looked around the store, then back at her, his brown eye
s both amused and wounded at the same time, though she wondered how that was physically or optically possible.

  'Ev, when are you going to give me the chance to explain?'

  She turned her back on him and headed to the nearest rack where she started shuffling hangers around and rearranging dresses. How many times could she say never? How much longer could she keep up the stonewalling?

  She felt him come up behind her, his breath warm on the back of her neck, and for the time it took her heart to beat just once she fought an epic battle against her better instincts not to lean back into his chest. Then Anna's face flashed in front of her, her big, wide smile and her crazy tumble of auburn hair and she saw her clear as day in her mind throwing her head back, clutching one hand to her chest as though she was stopping her heart from bursting out, and heard her laugh, a loud, cackling eruption. A laugh that Evie would never forget, not for as long as she lived, though now when she remembered it she imagined Anna laughing at her. Laughing at her for being so stupid and not seeing what was happening right under her nose between her boyfriend and her best friend.

  It kind of soured the memory.

  She swung around and pushed Tom away. 'Stop harassing me.'

  Tom stood his ground. 'No,' he answered, shaking his head. 'Not until you listen to what I have to say.'

  Evie grimaced. 'I wasn't interested then and I'm not interested now. I don't need to hear your lies.'

  'I'm not lying. Ev, for God's sake. Is that honestly what you think?'

  His voice was strained. She regarded him coolly, trying to stay objective, but it was hard when her body was insisting she walk over to him, take his hand and tell him it was going to be OK. God, she wished her brain and her body would connect more cohesively. He looked thinner than he used to, his solid football physique gone. She refused to allow the pang of worry to surface on her face. She didn't care how much weight he lost or how genuine he looked. In fact, overall, it was better if she didn't look at him. She turned back to the clothes she'd been rearranging and started randomly arranging them again, this time by price, her eyes going fuzzy over the zeroes as she tried to concentrate while simultaneously ignoring Tom's breath on the back of her neck.

  'Ev, I'm not lying to you,' he said. 'I'm sorry about Anna. Her and me, it was nothing, a mistake. A one-off. I never meant to hurt you.'

  She felt her blood starting to boil. A crimson streak flashed up her throat like fire, searing its hotness into her cheeks. All her feelings of tenderness and worry evaporated with the heat. She turned to face him. God, how could she ever allow herself, even for a split second, to look at him again in that way? She loathed him. She absolutely, utterly and completely loathed him.

  'I'm sorry for everything that happened,' he said, his voice barely above a whisper, 'and I can't bring her back and I'll regret that for the rest of my life. But I didn't kill her.' He took a step towards Evie and she felt her stance harden, her arms locked across her chest. She struggled to keep her face impassive.

  'I wasn't drunk, Ev, believe me,' he pleaded. 'Something jumped in front of the car. Some kind of animal.'

  The doorbell jangled. Evie dragged her eyes away from Tom's face, away from his begging, haunted expression and over to the door.

  'I'm thinking of opening a menswear boutique just next door once Mrs Milner decides to retire. What do you think? Will it do well?'

  Evie watched Victor as he dropped a take-out bag onto the counter by the till and then turned to study Tom. Tom's eyes still hadn't left Evie's face, his expression begging her to answer him, to show some sign that she'd heard him or even forgiven him. When her expression didn't soften he let his gaze move off her unwillingly. He turned to Victor.

  'Yes, I'm sure it'll do great,' he said quietly.

  He ducked his head and left quickly, throwing one last glance in Evie's direction. She couldn't be sure but she thought she saw resignation in it. A turning point - as though he'd finally given up. On her, she realised. He had finally given up trying to persuade her. He'd figured out forgiveness was never going to happen. A well of sadness sprang up in her as though a stopcock had broken. It took her by surprise and she turned away from Victor. She didn't want him to see how she was feeling. She was furious with herself for feeling anything at all. She had sworn to herself no more: no more boys, no more forgiveness. If she stuck to that she'd make it out of here. If she didn't, if she gave in to her sadness or her anger, to Tom's lies and pleading eyes, and forgave him or, worse, believed him, then she'd never leave.

  For six months she'd held it together and now Tom had gone and tugged at a loose stitch and all her resolve was in danger of unthreading.

  'What was that all about?' Victor said.

  Evie spun around. 'Don't act like you don't know,' she snapped.

  Victor opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it and took a sip of coffee instead. 'What makes you most angry? That your friend betrayed you? That she died?'

  'Yes!' Evie cried. 'No!' She shook her head. 'I'm angry that he lied. I'm angry that he got away with murder. I'm angry that he killed my best friend and he gets to walk around town still flirting with girls that are way too young for him.'

  'Did he lie?' Victor interrupted.

  Evie looked up, startled. 'Yes.'

  'He lied about Anna, sure. He betrayed you. But is he lying about the accident?' Victor pushed.

  'I . . .' She faltered, feeling as though the ground had just given way under her. She stared at Victor. What was he trying to get at? Why was he staring at her so intently? 'I - I don't know,' she finally stammered.

  He took a step towards her, his voice dropping in its urgency. 'Listen to your instinct, Evie. It's been trying to tell you something this whole time. Is he lying?'

  'No,' she answered, unthinking. She shook her head, trying to think straight. The words were becoming tangled. 'I mean, yes. I mean . . .' She paused, her stomach lurching. It was as if the view had suddenly become clear. 'I don't know,' she murmured.

  'He's telling the truth. You know it. If you listen to your instinct you'll know it too.'

  'What?' Evie demanded. 'How do you know?'

  'Six months ago, when the Brotherhood first became aware of your existence, they came here looking for you.'

  Evie stared at him, a wave of shock riding through her body. 'What?'

  'They came here looking for you. To kill you,' Victor said, scrunching his paper coffee cup into a ball and chucking it over his shoulder into the bin.

  He almost didn't need to continue. The pieces were sliding sickeningly into place.

  'We don't know how they found you. But they did - and they came after you,' Victor said with a sigh. 'And we stopped them.'

  'So what?' Evie asked, praying silently that the pieces were sliding into the wrong places. That she was wrong. Her voice shook when she finally managed to find it. 'What's that got to do with Tom or Anna?'

  'We stopped them from getting to you,' Victor said, watching her closely.

  There was a silence so steep she felt she had vertigo and was going to fall into it.

  'But you didn't stop them from getting to her?' The tears welled out of nowhere, spiking her eyes. An image of Anna on the last day she'd seen her, waving at her through the window of Joe's Diner as she worked, flashed through her mind. 'It wasn't an accident. Is that what you're saying?'

  'No,' Victor answered. 'It wasn't an accident. And we weren't in time.' He shrugged. 'The Brotherhood didn't know what you looked like. They thought it was you in the car with Tom. As it probably would have been if the two of them hadn't been . . .'

  Oh God. Oh God. She sucked in a breath, and then another, felt like she was falling, reached out an arm to steady herself and banged into the rail. She felt sick. She was going to be sick.

  'Evie. It's not your fault.' She felt Victor's hand on her back and shrugged it off.

  'How can you say that?' She whipped around. 'Of course it's my fault.' Her yell broke into a sob. 'It should've been me. And
all this time, all this time,' she shook her head, her eyes automatically moving to the door through which Tom had just left, 'I've been - blaming him. Not believing him. Why was she in the car? It should have been me.' She slammed her fist into the couch as she collapsed down onto it.

  'Well, it wasn't you. Fate has other plans for you,' Victor said. 'And you can't go forward blaming yourself, either. You have to let it go.' He knelt down and took her hand in his own enormous one. 'You will learn to only blame the Brotherhood for her death. Do you understand?'

  She frowned at him, not comprehending. There was only one thing she could focus on, one thing that her brain kept tripping over on.

  She looked at Victor. 'Tom wasn't lying?' she asked again, like a simpleton.

  'No,' Victor replied, like she was a simpleton. 'Evie,' he continued slowly, 'the score was settled. What the Brotherhood did was kick-start a battle, the worst battle I've ever been in. We came after them in numbers - we needed to protect you. We fought them and we killed them. All except for one - Tristan - a Shadow Warrior. For the last six months the Brotherhood has been finding and training a new generation to replace the lost ones. And now they're back. They're who you met in the parking lot.'

  'Well,' Evie yelled, 'why didn't you stop them when you had the chance? When they were weak? Why didn't you go after them and finish them off? Why didn't you stop them from recruiting more?'

  Victor shook his head at her before answering. 'We couldn't find them.'

  Evie stood up and crossed to the window, looking out at the half-empty street. Just a handful of farmers going about their business. Some high school students messing around outside Joe's Diner. A woman pushing a child in a stroller across the street. How could all this still be going on? How could the whole world be oblivious to the reality of what was happening around them? Unaware that there were other realms in the same way that there were other planets? She scrunched her eyes shut but when she opened them again the street was exactly the same, the sun still shining, her beaten-up pickup still parked with one tyre up on the sidewalk, Victor still standing behind her, ominously silent.

 
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