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       Severed, p.7

           Sarah Alderson

  When she opened her eyes again, the head was still there, the mouth still open in a rictus of terror, the teeth still glinting moistly with saliva while the skin turned slowly black and fizzled.

  In the next second Evie was on her feet, stumbling backwards, away from the head. She’d made the mistake before of thinking a Thirster was dead when it hadn’t been and it had come back quite literally to bite them. Even a decapitated head that was slowly cooking wasn’t something she was going to get too close to.

  She glanced around, blinking away the harsh lights that were making her eyes water. The warehouse had emptied in the few seconds it had taken her to open her eyes and stand. A few stragglers were dragging unconscious friends who’d been trampled in the stampede through the exit at the top of the stairs. Six Thirsters lay in heaps around the dance floor, steam rising from their bodies as if they were drying themselves over heating vents.

  A hand on the back of her neck made Evie jump.

  Lucas steadied her, his hands coming to rest on her shoulders. His eyes were searching hers frantically, as if he was looking for something in them. Evie realised that he was probably just checking that she was the right Evie and not a Shapeshifter. She took hold of his hands and realised he was shaking. No. That was her shaking.

  ‘Are you OK?’ Lucas asked, his hands suddenly cupping her face, pushing back her hair. Ouch. She let out a yelp and put a hand up to her forehead, which was suddenly stinging like crazy. She pulled it away and stared at the blood on her fingertips.

  ‘It’s OK, you’ll live,’ Lucas said, as he checked her carefully for other bruises and cuts, his hands running the length of her body. She wanted to stay like that for ever, feeling the gentle pressure of his fingers, letting them anaesthetise her body and her mind. But Flic was suddenly looming between them, tugging at Lucas, pulling him away. She was handing him something. Lucas took whatever it was and followed Flic across the dance floor. The two of them started dropping things onto the heaps of hissing Thirsters and Evie frowned for a moment, not understanding, until the flames started whooshing and she realised they were dropping matches. Jamieson kicked the Thirster’s head towards Lucas who caught it with the edge of his foot and then dropped a lit match into its open mouth. The head burst into a ball of flame.

  Through the black smoke that had started billowing over them, Evie saw Issa reaching for something stuck in one of the far pillars. She was tugging at it, trying to get it free, and when she did and turned back towards the light, Evie saw that it was Lucas’s blade. She kept staring at it, glinting blue, as Issa walked towards her.

  ‘Are they coming?’ Evie asked her when she got near. ‘The rogue Hunters? Are they coming?’

  ‘Yes,’ Issa nodded, handing Evie the blade before turning on her heel.

  Evie stared down at the blade in her hand, wondering why Issa had given it to her and not to Lucas.

  ‘Incoming,’ Issa suddenly shouted.

  The door at the top of the stairs flew open. Evie had been expecting the rogue Hunters, but it wasn’t them. It was the two Scorpio doormen. They came bursting through the door, coats swinging, tails lashing behind them, as if they’d only just figured out that the screaming exodus from the club might require investigation. They skidded to a stop at the top of the stairs, staring down at Evie and Lucas, their mouths making odd gurning shapes, which Evie read as surprise.

  Evie glanced over at Lucas. He hadn’t bothered to fade, he was just standing there waiting, watching the two Scorpio with a weary expression on his face. He cricked his neck and shook out his arms like a boxer readying himself for the next round. Flic had paused only briefly to look up at them but had already gone back to flinging matches at the Thirsters, whose bodies were squealing and popping in response to the flames.

  Evie watched the two Scorpio exchange a look, as if silently agreeing their next move. And then she saw what they were planning to do and swore under her breath. Because, even to her, it was obvious that they were going to lose. Why be heroes when they could live to be doormen another day? Obviously this thought hadn’t occurred to them because they launched themselves down the stairs anyway and straight towards them.

  Flic sighed as the first one came flying off the bottom step. She moved almost lazily to one side as he skidded past her and then jump-kicked him from behind, sending him sprawling to the floor. The second one, the one called Jules, dived left, his tail flicking out behind him.

  Evie felt herself shoved backwards and realised that Lucas was pushing her, trying to force her out of the way. She saw his head turn left, searching the pillar for his blade, which he didn’t realise that she was now holding in her hand. And in that same second she caught a flash of the future. She saw exactly what was about to happen and she hated Issa.

  Before she could even open her mouth to yell, Evie watched Issa step calmly and deliberately forward into the path of the oncoming Scorpio. Evie registered Jules’s tail arching over his head, and vaguely she heard Flic screaming at Issa to move. She was aware of Lucas turning and she knew that nothing he or Flic could do would be fast enough to save Issa. She watched as Jules’s tail slashed down in an arc towards Issa and in the same instant Evie, knowing she had no choice, sent Lucas’s blade flying like an arrow into the Scorpio’s chest, just below the ribs, exactly where Victor had taught her to aim.

  She watched Jules falter and stagger sideways, his hands grasping at the hilt, trying to pull it out, and she felt a vicious stabbing pain in her own chest, as if the blade had impaled her as well. The Scorpio fell to his knees, still clutching at the knife, a funny gurgling sound erupting from his throat. Thick black liquid started pouring out of his mouth, dribbling down his chin, and then the Scorpio finally fell face forwards, his head smacking the concrete with a crack. Evie raised her eyes and looked at Issa who was still standing exactly where she had been, unmoving, her eyes locked onto Evie, the faintest of smiles playing on her lips.

  Evie felt like she’d fallen into a tar pit. Her limbs were suddenly so heavy she couldn’t move them. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from Issa. And there was just silence all around, as if everyone had breathed in and was now too frightened to breathe out. Even the Thirsters had stopped hissing and spitting. She could feel everyone staring at her, Lucas’s gaze burning the back of her neck.

  And then, an electric shock against her skin. She looked down. Lucas had put his hand on the back of her arm. She stared at it, feeling every millimetre of contact as if he was stroking her with feathers. Her head flew up. She heard Issa stepping towards her from across the room, her foot crunching on broken glass. Then came the sound of Flic and Jamieson breathing out in unison.

  Issa stopped in front of her, a foot away. Evie’s gut tightened, her blood seemed to rush faster through her veins, the metronome beat of it pulsing in her neck. She could feel every point of contact Lucas’s hand was making against her skin, the heat washing up her arm.

  ‘Why did you give me the knife?’ Evie asked in a voice that didn’t sound like her own.

  The smile that had been threatening to vanish grew bolder. ‘Why d’you think?’ Issa answered.

  Evie didn’t respond.

  ‘I did it to make you who you were meant to be, Evie. And believe me, things will work out better this way.’

  Evie let the words sink in and then frowned at Issa, shaking her head. ‘How did you know I’d do it?’

  ‘I’m a Sybll,’ Issa answered. ‘I saw it.’

  Evie stared into the two pale-blue abysses in front of her. Had Issa seen the future, or had she created it? There was a difference. A big difference.

  Evie opened her mouth to ask her, but Issa had already turned away. ‘Time to go,’ she announced, stepping over the dead Scorpio’s tail and heading towards the stairs.

  Flic and Jamieson followed her without a word. Evie watched them all disappear through the fire exit, only Jamieson turning and lifting his hand in farewell.

  Chapter 15

  Lucas walked straig
ht to Jules’s body, rolled it over with the tip of his boot and then crouched down beside it. Evie watched him, with the continuing sensation that a plasma screen divided them and that this wasn’t happening in real life but in some alternative universe that she was observing on celluloid. The sounds around her were amplified, as if coming at her from speakers set into the corners of the warehouse. The colour of the blood pooling at Lucas’s feet was brighter than blood ought to be, as though someone had mixed additives it. She could smell it from here, a rotting meat smell that smacked the back of her nose. She gagged and then vomited onto the ground, narrowly missing emptying the contents of her stomach onto the smouldering remains of a Thirster.

  She wiped the back of her hand against her mouth and lifted her head. Lucas had one knee on the chest of the Scorpio and was twisting the hilt of his blade trying to pull it free. She heard the cracking snap of a bone breaking and then a squelching, sucking noise as Lucas yanked the blade out.

  He paused to wipe the worst of the blood off on the side of the Scorpio’s sleeve and then he stayed crouching as the body vanished, leaving just the pool of blood it had been lying in as evidence that it had ever been there in the first place. She had seen this happen before – unhuman bodies disappearing right in front of her eyes – but she still blinked in disbelief. One minute there. One minute gone. It was so neat. All evidence of what she’d done removed. Except for the blood. And the knife Lucas was holding. And the image indelibly stamped on her mind of the Scorpio’s face as the knife sliced its way through his shirt, through skin and bone, and plunged straight into his heart.

  Lucas stood slowly and turned to Evie, and she felt the air suck out of her own chest as if he’d just pulled the knife from her body. His expression was furious. His mouth, usually soft even when he was sad, was drawn into a long hard line. His eyes were blazing with anger. She felt a rage of her own flare in response, though it was instantly muted by the voice in her head that was screaming at her about what she had just done. What had she done? She tried not to let her gaze fall back to the floor, to the pool of blood that she could see out of the corner of her eye. She kept her gaze firmly on Lucas instead. Why was he looking at her like that? It wasn’t as if she’d had any choice – or had she?

  Her heart was now beating in her mouth. She could feel it – a solid object, pulsing thickly against her tongue. And her skin felt as if it had been coated in metallic paint. The air around her was charged as if a storm was about to break, making her skin tingle and itch.

  Her head flew up at the same time as Lucas’s, both of them turning towards the stairs. Without thinking, Evie moved, so astonished at her own speed that she stumbled to a standstill, her arms flying out to balance herself. The doors at the top of the stairs burst open and the rogue Hunters appeared.

  In that first second she took in all three of them – their height, weight and clothes, what weapons they were holding and what weapons they were carrying concealed. She clocked the girl as the one to watch, the boy at the front as the leader and the boy standing just behind him as an expert in hand-to-hand combat.

  The three of them stood on the landing, their eyes flickering over the scene below, taking it in as quickly as Evie had taken in them. Then, as one, their eyes flew back to her and Lucas, who had stepped out from her shadow and was standing beside her, his blade at his side.

  The one at the front, the one Evie had marked as the leader, strode forwards and rested his hands on the balcony in front of him. ‘Six dead Thirsters,’ he said, his voice carrying easily across the empty warehouse. ‘From the looks of it, two dead Scorpio. And the two most wanted people in the realms. This is a pleasant, yet unexpected, surprise.’

  Evie looked up at him, studying him properly. He was in his early twenties, she guessed, maybe younger, well built, definitely well trained by the look of his arms under the close-fitting white T-shirt he was wearing. He had brown hair streaked with blonde and it was tousled – but carefully; he’d probably had to use a protractor to angle all the tufts that perfectly. Evie made a mental note to throw a lighter at his head in the event of any falling out. With that amount of product in his hair he’d undoubtedly go up in a big ball of flames. Before either she or Lucas could answer, he was suddenly on the stairs, halfway down them, heading straight towards her and Lucas. The other two were hot on his heels, fanning out as they hit the last step so that they formed a triangle around them.

  The leader stopped in front of Evie, examining her as if she were some prize animal at a barn-raising, about to be taken off to slaughter. His gaze flitted over her body, weighing her, assessing her in a way that made her feel he wasn’t only checking her for weapons. Then he looked up. His eyes were the first thing she noticed. They were deep-set. Green-blue in colour, with a slash of brown cutting across the iris of the left one.

  ‘Interesting place for a date,’ he said. ‘Don’t you two have some balcony in Verona to be hanging out on?’

  ‘We were trying to get your attention,’ Evie said, by way of explanation. ‘We needed to find you.’

  ‘Well, you found me,’ the one in charge said, stretching his arms out wide. ‘Here I am, baby. I’m all yours.’

  Evie felt her nostrils flare in response.

  ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked, coming closer until his chest was filling her field of vision. Evie held her ground, refusing to step back, tipping her chin up instead. She found herself staring at his jaw. It was blunt, what some people – her mother for example – would call chiselled.

  ’You don’t like the familiarity?’ he asked, stepping backwards so he could see her properly, or maybe he just wanted to give her the chance to check him out properly. ‘How about Evie – or just plain Ev? No?’ he said, taking in her glowering stare. ‘Cupcake?’ He smiled mockingly and then sidestepped swiftly so he was standing in front of Lucas. ‘And you, what do we call you? Lucas, Luke, Lukey-baby? Dead unhuman walking?’

  ‘You can call me anything you like,’ Lucas responded evenly. ‘Just depends if you want me to answer. Or if you want me to finish wiping off the blood on this blade using the inside of your throat.’

  The leader turned his head sideways to look at Evie, his expression puzzled. ‘Friendly guy – you actually dig this?’ he asked, jabbing his thumb at Lucas. ‘For real?’ He shook his head in amazement but stepped back nevertheless and started studying her again, more carefully this time.

  Evie felt her impatience growing. Her eyes slid downwards. Two could play this game. He was wearing scuffed-up jeans she noted, but brand new sneakers and had a tattoo on the inside of his wrist, though she couldn’t quite make out what it was of. He was an inch or so shy of Lucas in height and maybe a few pounds heavier, though all muscle, testified by the ridges of his stomach, clearly outlined through his T-shirt. He bore several scars – one visible on his neck that looked like it could be a Thirster bite, another on his forearm that looked like a Mixen burn. She recognised it because she had a similar scar on her own arm in the shape of a hand. There was a battered leather sheath on his waist, the hilt of a knife visible, but otherwise no other weapons.

  ‘You seem to know all about us,’ she said, raising her eyes and forcing herself to look indifferent. ‘So are you going to bother introducing yourself?’

  ‘We’re the rogue Hunters,’ he said, flashing her a smile.

  She arched an eyebrow. ‘Is that what it says on your driver’s licence?’

  The boy on her right snorted through his nose.

  The leader tipped his head to one side, his eyes narrowing, but the smile remained on his lips. ’I’m Cyrus,’ he finally said. ‘This,’ he indicated the girl on his left, ‘is Vero.’

  Evie glanced over. The girl was short and slight, with a shock of black hair sticking straight up on her head, shorn at the sides. She was wearing a floral dress with a lace frill, a studded collar, and fourteen-hole Doc Marten boots with bright green laces. Evie frowned. There was something weirdly, disturbingly familiar about her. She tri
ed to think what but her focus was distracted all of a sudden by the shiny silver thing poking over the girl’s shoulder, which at first sight she’d thought was a rucksack. Evie now realised with a start that it was in fact a sword. A scimitar to be precise – the word slinging itself unannounced into Evie’s brain. It had a curved blade and a long handle, had probably been forged during the Crusades and looked to weigh more than the girl herself did. Evie glanced at the girl again, more nervously this time. The girl was glaring back at her, her tiny white teeth bared. Now, that was familiar too – where had she …?

  ‘And this is Ash,’ Cyrus said, nodding at the boy to his right.

  Evie dragged her eyes off the girl. She saw immediately that she had been right about the boy. He was narrow-shouldered and slight but he looked like an anatomy project of a body sculpted from wire that someone had then thoughtfully draped skin over. He was all sinew and muscle. And the way he was standing, one leg forward, bent slightly at the knee, arms hanging loosely at his sides with fingers curled into fists, only confirmed her first impression that he was some sort of martial artist. She had seen enough Bruce Lee movies with her dad to recognise the look of someone who could kill with one kick.

  ‘And now we’re through with the introductions,’ Cyrus announced, ‘are you going to tell us why you were looking for us or shall we just get on with killing you?’ He paused, leaning into Evie, ‘Well, maybe not you, but definitely him,’ he said, nodding his head in Lucas’s direction.

  ‘He’s on our side,’ Evie burst out. ‘I mean … he’s …’ She stopped. She wasn’t sure whose side they were on. Were she and Lucas on the same side as these three now?

  ‘I’m on Evie’s side,’ she heard Lucas say before she could figure out how to finish her sentence.

  Cyrus’s eyes darted to Lucas. ‘Hmm,’ he said, ‘that’s not what I hear. I hear you’re one of the Brotherhood. And let’s see, that would mean you and her aren’t on the same side at all. It would make you and her sworn enemies, wouldn’t it? Oh, and us.’ He shrugged, rolling back his shoulders, his hand reaching for his knife and pulling it free from its sheath. ‘So maybe we should ready ourselves for a fight to the death.’ He spread his legs wide, pointing his knife at Lucas’s throat. ‘Your death that is.’

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