“You’ve lost it.” Eli sidestepped, keeping his back to the wall. “Put the knife down. It’s not like you can hurt me.”
Victor smiled at the challenge. A quick step forward, and Eli tried to step back on instinct but met the wall and Victor met him. The knife slid in. It was easier than he imagined. Like a vanishing act, one moment the metal glinted and the next it was gone, buried in Eli’s stomach to the hilt.
“You know what I figured out?” Victor leaned into him as he spoke. “Watching you in the street that night, picking the glass from your hand? You can’t heal yourself until I take the knife out.” He twisted it, and Eli groaned. His feet went out from under him and he began to slide down the wall, but Victor hoisted him up by the handle.
“I’m not even using my new trick yet,” he said. “It’s not as flashy as yours, but it’s rather effective. Want to see it?”
Victor didn’t wait for a response. The air buzzed around him. He didn’t worry about a dial. Up. That’s all he cared about. Up. Eli screamed, and the sound made Victor feel good. Not in a sun-is-out-and-life-is-wonderful way, of course, but in a punishing way. A controlling way. Eli had betrayed him. Eli deserved a little pain. He would heal. When this was over, he wouldn’t even have a scar. The least Victor could do was try to make an impression. Victor let go of the knife handle and watched Eli’s body collapse to the floor.
“A note for your thesis,” he said as his friend lay there, gasping. “You thought our powers were somehow a reflection of our nature. God playing with mirrors, but you’re wrong. It’s not about God. It’s about us. The way we think. The thought that’s strong enough to keep us alive. To bring us back. You want to know how I know?” He turned his attention to the table, looking for something new and sharp. “Because all I could think about when I was dying was the pain.” He cranked the dial up in his mind, and let the room fill with Eli’s screams. “And how badly I wanted to make it stop.”
Victor turned the dial down again, and heard Eli’s screams fade as he reached the table. He was looking over the various blades when the room exploded with noise. A very sudden, very loud noise. Drywall crumbled a foot away, and Victor turned back to find Eli clutching his stomach with one hand and a gun with the other. The knife was on the floor in a satisfying amount of blood, and Victor wondered with a scientific curiosity how long it would take Eli’s body to regenerate itself. Then the second shot rang out, much closer to Victor’s head, and he frowned.
“Do you even know how to use that?” he asked, thumbing a long, thin knife. Eli’s hands were shaking visibly around the gun’s grip.
“Angie is dead—” said Eli.
“Yes, I know—”
“...but so are you.” It wasn’t a threat. “I don’t know who you are, but you’re not Victor. You’re something that’s crawled into his skin. A devil wearing him.”
“Ouch,” said Victor, and for some reason, the word made him laugh. He couldn’t stop laughing. Eli looked disgusted, and it made Victor want to stab him again. He felt behind him for the nearest knife, and watched Eli’s fingers tighten on the gun.
“You’re something else,” he said. “Victor died.”
“We died, Eli. And we both came back.”
“No, no, I don’t think so. Not entirely. Something’s wrong, missing, gone. Can’t you feel it? I can,” said Eli, and he actually sounded scared. Victor was disappointed. He’d hoped that maybe Eli felt it, too, this calm, but apparently he felt something else entirely.
“Maybe you’re right,” said Victor. He was willing to admit that he felt different. “But if I’m missing something, then so are you. Life is about compromises. Or did you think because you put yourself in God’s hands that He would make you all you were and more?”
“He did,” growled Eli, pulling the trigger.
This time he didn’t miss. Victor felt the impact, and looked down at the hole in his shirt, glad he’d bothered to turn his pain off. He touched the spot and his fingers came away red. Distantly, he knew this was a bad place to be shot.
Victor sighed, looking up. “That’s a little self-righteous, don’t you think?”
Eli took a step closer. The wound in his stomach had already healed, and the color was back in his face. Victor knew he needed to keep talking.
“Admit it,” he said, “you feel different, too. Death takes something with it. What did it take from you?”
Eli lifted the gun again. “My fear.”
Victor managed a dark smile. Eli’s hands were shaking, and his jaw was clenched. “I still see fear.”
“I’m not afraid,” said Eli. “I’m just sorry.”
He fired again. The force nudged Victor back a step. His fingers closed around the nearest knife and he swung, digging it into Eli’s outstretched arm. The gun clattered to the floor, and Eli lunged back to avoid another blow.
Victor meant to follow it up, but his vision blurred. Just for a moment. He blinked, desperate to refocus.
“You may be able to turn the pain off,” said Eli, “but you can’t stop the blood loss.”
Victor took a step forward but the room leaned. He braced himself against the table. There was a lot of blood on the floor. He wasn’t sure how much of it was his. When he looked up again, Eli was there. And then Victor was on the ground. He pushed himself to his hands and knees but couldn’t seem to force his body farther up. An arm buckled beneath his weight. His eyes unfocused again.
Eli was talking, but he couldn’t quite make out the words. And then he heard the gun scraping across the floor as it was lifted, cocked. Something hit him in the back, like a soft punch, and his body stopped listening. Darkness crept in at the edges of his sight, the kind he’d wanted so badly when the pain on the table had been too much.
A thick darkness.
He began to sink into it as he heard Eli moving around the room, talking into his phone, something about medical attention. He was twisting his voice to sound panicked, but his face, even the blur that was his expression, was calm, composed. Victor saw Eli’s shoes walk away before everything faded.
TWO DAYS AGO
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
Mitch led Sydney back to her room, and closed the door behind her. She stood in the dark for several minutes, dazed by the echo of pain, and the photo in the newspaper, and Victor’s pale eyes, dead before he came back to himself. She shivered. It had been a long two days. She’d spent the night before under an overpass, tucked into the place where two concrete corners met, trying to stay dry. Winter had dissolved into a cold, wet spring. It had started raining the day before she’d been shot, and hadn’t stopped since.
She tucked her fingers into the cuff of the stolen sweatshirt. Her skin still felt strange. Her whole arm had been on fire, the gunshot wound a blazing center in a web of pain, and then the power had been cut. That was the only way Sydney could think of it, like the thing connecting her to the pain had been severed, leaving in its place a pins-and-needles numbness. Sydney rubbed at her skin, waiting for the feeling to come back. She didn’t like numbness. It reminded her of cold, and Sydney hated being cold.
She pressed her ear to the door and listened for signs of Victor, but the bathroom door stayed firmly shut, and finally, as the prickle left her skin, she crawled back to the too-big bed in the strange hotel, curled in on herself, and tried to find sleep. At first it wouldn’t come, and in a weak moment she wished Serena were there. Her sister would perch on the edge of the bed, and stroke her hair, claiming the gesture made thoughts quieter. Sydney would close her eyes and let everything hush, first her mind and then the world as her sister’s touch dragged her down into sleep. But Sydney caught herself, twined her fingers in the hotel sheets, and remembered that Serena—the one who would have done those things—was gone. The thought was like cold water, sending Sydney’s heart into rapid fire all over again, so she decided not to think of Serena at all, and instead tried a counting trick one of her sitters had taught her. Not counting up, or counting down, just counting one-two-one-two as she breathed in and breathed out. One-two. Soft and steady, like a heartbeat, until finally the hotel room sank away, and she slept.
And when she did, she dreamed of water.
Sydney Clarke died on a cool March day.
It was just before lunch, and it was all Serena’s fault.
The Clarke sisters looked identical, despite the fact that Serena was seven years older, and seven inches taller. The resemblance stemmed partly from genes and partly from Sydney’s adoration of her big sister. She dressed like Serena, acted like Serena, and was, in almost every way, a miniature version of her sister. A shadow, distorted by age instead of sun. They had the same blue eyes and the same blond hair, but Serena made Sydney cut hers short so people wouldn’t stare. The resemblance was that uncanny.
As much as they looked like each other, they bore little resemblance to their parents—not that they were often around to provide comparison. Serena used to tell Sydney that those people weren’t their parents at all, that the girls had washed ashore in a small blue boat from some faraway place, or been found in the first-class compartment on a train, or been smuggled in by spies. If Sydney questioned the story, Serena would simply insist that her sister had been too young to remember. Sydney was still fairly sure they were just fantasies, but never entirely sure; Serena was very good at telling tales. She had always been convincing (that was the word her sister liked to use for lying).