By Kelly Meding
(continued from part 4)
A pair of teenaged girls had Jesse cornered near the side of the trailer. His ax lay on the ground just out of reach, and he stood in a half-crouch, sizing up his opponents. They were thin and bony, one dark-skinned and the other light. Yin and Yang, Ash thought with a mental snort. Five-foot-five was generous in estimation of height, but size meant little when dealing with newly infected half-Bloods–which she guessed from the still-fresh wounds in their necks–because they were controlled by bloodlust. Many fell into it and went insane. Some learned to control it, as Kearney apparently had.
These girls wouldn’t get the chance.
Ash lunged off the stoop, intending to introduce the nearest Halfie to Hex’s blade. Then Stone cried out, and Ash altered course instinctively. Kearney had tossed the smaller blonde against the windshield of the bird waste-covered car, cracking the glass and denting the hood. Stone flopped on her back, stunned. Kearney charged. Ash dropped her shoulder and rammed into the half-Blood’s gut.
Kearney wasn’t a small woman. Nearly as tall as Jesse and bulky without being obese; it was like tackling a rooted tree. Ash didn’t bounce off, but Kearney went down slower than expected. Clawed fingernails dug into Ash’s shoulders, shredding fabric and breaking skin. Ash didn’t have the momentum she was expecting in order to turn the tackle into a roll, and she landed somewhat awkwardly on top of Kearney. The angle put Hex flush against the ground, at an impossible angle.
Kearney’s grip on her shoulders tightened, digging in, drawing blood. She dragged Ash up, bringing Ash’s neck too close to fangs for her comfort. She drove her forehead into Kearney’s nose, snapping cartilage and drawing blood of her own. Kearney snarled without loosening her grip. She’d apparently set her sights on Ash as her next hoarded snack.
Hoping the skin on her back forgave her, Ash braced her hands on the ground, dug her knees into Kearney’s soft belly and pushed. She ignored the pain as flesh ripped, more concerned with getting out of the Halfies’ personal space–close-quarter combat with a half-Blood was a good way to get infected. Kearney came up with her. Ash tried another head-butt that left her forehead stinging. Kearney let go.
Ash dove sideways, tucking into a roll, and came up on her knees a few feet away. Adrenaline numbed the wounds that were sending hot blood tricking down her back. Kearney scrambled to her feet, only to land on her ass from a high-kick to the chin, courtesy of Stone.
Jesse came sailing over their heads–how those two teenage Halfies found the strength or shot-put expertise to literally throw him into the air like that, Ash would never know–only to land in almost exactly the same spot on the old car Stone had occupied moments ago. A tire popped and more glass shattered in a side window. He didn’t get up, and Ash’s heart tripped.
A body slammed into Ash and sent them both sprawling into the grass. She kept rolling, only to get tackled by Yang. Ash twisted hard and slammed her elbow into an ear. The girl shrieked. Her grip loosened. Ash wriggled away, spotted the shadow about to descend, and lashed her foot out. Yin caught it in the throat and stumbled backward.
In the periphery of her vision, Ash spotted Stone and Kearney engaging in an awkward dance. Kearney lunged with a punch, which Stone easily dodged, only to land one of her own. But Kearney was larger, with a Halfie’s higher tolerance to pain. Stone was skinny as a sheet of paper and fast as a bantam-weight boxer. All things considered, it was a matched pairing.
Hex still lay in the grass, undisturbed. As much as Ash craved the comfort of her favorite weapon, she was too far away. She plucked a small, curved-blade knife from its ankle sheath, turning it so that the blade rested down, against her forearm. She had to get to Jesse and make sure he was okay, but she had mismatched obstacles in her path.
Yin and Yang rose up together, their trendy clothes stained with blood and dirt, lipsticked mouths curled back over barely-there fangs. Ash stood, drawing up to her full five-foot-two, and fixed the teens with her best “come and get me” grin.
Yin took the bait first, a dark blur in the early morning’s darkness. Ash twisted into the tackle, her right arm arcing sideways. She drew the blade across Yin’s throat and felt a splash of warmth against her arm. Yang didn’t wait for her pal to fall, or give Ash a chance to change angles. All three of them hit the ground in a tangle of snapping teeth, slicing blade, and clawing nails. Yin’s blood slicked Ash’s hand and she lost her grip on the knife. It tumbled away.
Yang tried to bite her and got a mouthful of hair. Inspired, Ash grabbed a hank of dark-blond hair and pulled hard. She despised dirty fighting, but held back nothing if it meant living; dying with honor still meant you were dead. Yang shrieked like a high school princess, her bloodlust momentarily forgotten in favor of saving her hair from being removed by the roots.
A blond blur crashed into them. Yang toppled sideways. Someone’s foot connected with Ash’s jaw in a glancing blow. Positive Stone had just been used as a projectile weapon, Ash lunged across the scraggly lawn. Hex gleamed in the pale light. Ash’s hands closed around the katana’s custom hilt just as a shadow fell over her.
She ducked Kearney’s kick, swinging upward with Hex in the same moment. The katana caught the underside of Kearney’s meaty thigh and sliced through to the bone. Kearney screeched and yanked away, tangling over her own ankles to slam back to the ground. Ash didn’t wait. She hacked away, good sense and training screaming at her to stop, to consider her position, to go straight for the kill shot.
It wasn’t just adrenaline from the fight or worry for the still-immobile Jesse–they were not new things–that had her killing on instinct. It was a gut-deep revulsion for the monster beneath her, wearing the likeness of a human woman, who’d stored dead bodies in a backroom like a squirrel stores nuts for the winter. It was the smell of death and decomposition that had stained her inside and out.
Kearney had long ago stopped moving, and Ash finally froze, Hex poised for another strike. Blood dripped from the katana in a steady plink-plink. Her former target was…unrecognizable. Ash stared, mesmerized by the gore at her feet.
“Little help?” Stone shouted.
Ash turned. Her junior partner was on her back, grappling for control of a serrated knife with Yang. Ash was on them in moments, a single slice of her katana lopping off Yang’s head in a gout of blood. She kicked the body so it landed sideways, instead of on top of Stone, who was soaked in blood.
“You bitten?” Ash asked. Her voice sounded hoarse, as if she’d spent the last half-hour screaming. Or perhaps it was her ears, still muffled by the heavy thwap of Hex cleaving into Kearney. She didn’t know.
“No, you?” Stone replied.
Small favors for both of them. They’d live to fight another day.
Ash bolted across the lawn to where Jesse lay on the car hood. His pulse pattered steadily beneath her fingertips, and she exhaled a sharp breath. She explored gently and found a kiwi-sized knot on the back of his head, and no apparent Halfie bites.
“Who gets to tell him he got beat up by two little girls?” Stone asked.
“Be my guest,” Ash replied. “He’ll be pissed enough that he missed the end of the fight, so make sure you rub it in hard.”
“He’s a big boy, he can take it.”
Crickets sang distantly in the ensuing few minutes of silence. Somehow, the neighbors had slept through the ruckus–or if they hadn’t, they weren’t making themselves known. She didn’t blame them. Ash watched Jesse’s face, as though she could revive him through sheer will alone. Concentrating on him meant not facing her own screw up, soaking into the ground behind her.
Stone remained silent longer than Ash expected, and then said, “Shouldn’t we call Truman and tell him the target is neutralized?”
“Yeah.” Ash placed Hex on the hood near Jesse’s feet, then reached for her phone. Fingers closed around the slick plastic, but she didn’t pull. “Aren’t you going to say it?”
“Say what?” The question wasn’t sarcastic or feigned. It was genuine.
“That I’m a hypocrite.”
Ash gave the younger girl an assessing stare, unsure if she was being made fun of or if Stone was serious.
Stone, for her part, just looked frustrated. “Look, the schools at Juvie sucked ass, and I failed as many classes as I tried to take. Throw me a fucking bone here.”
“Hypocrite,” Ash said. “Someone who contradicts themselves? Do as I say, not as I do?”
“Okay, but what does that have to do with you?”
Ash stared, feeling a bit like the punch line in a practical joke setup. She waved her hand over her shoulder. “That, right there, Evy. I crawled up your ass earlier tonight about those goblins, and then I go and take this target apart piece by piece. I lost it.”
A flicker of understanding brightened Stone’s blue eyes. “Okay, so you lost it. Doesn’t make you a hypochondriac.”
“Whatever. It doesn’t make you a hypocrite, Ash, it makes you one of us. Makes you a fucking human being.”
Ash blushed. Was that the impression Stone had of her? A cold, inhuman robot who spouted off Triad codes and rules and didn’t feel? Ash acknowledged her humanity every time she killed a goblin or Halfie, every time she risked her life to protect the innocents of the city. And why did she care what Stone thought of her? She didn’t.
Except she did.
“And ‘crawled up my ass’?” Stone said, her lips quirking. “You’ve been hanging around me too long. Your language skills are devolving.”
Ash smiled. “You know devolving, but you don’t know hypocrite?”
Stone shrugged. “Like I said, I sucked at school. But I learned a lot at Boot Camp, including devolving, atrophied, exsanguinations, and anthropomorphic.”
“At least you paid attention to something.”
“Just not the self-control part, right?” she asked, with a hint of challenge.
Ash glanced over her shoulder, catching an eyeful of the kibbled remains of Mrs. Bettina Kearney, and shook her head. Training was one thing, and rah-rah speeches were another, but neither of them amounted to the quick learning done in the field. The kind of learning that graduated them from Rookie to Triad Hunter. After four years of Hunting, Ash had been separated from her anger for so long, she hadn’t understood Stone’s when it got the better of her and she julienned those goblins.
“No, self-control in the field is something I think you figure out for yourself,” Ash said. “And I think it’s something we’re both still learning.”
“People get pissed and they lose their minds for a little bit. But that’s why we work as Triads, right? So there’s always someone who’s got our back and can tell us when we’ve fucked up.”
Ash blinked. “Exactly.” Who was this intelligent young woman disguised as her trigger-tempered, hellcat partner? And would she stay around a while? She had the makings of a damned fine Hunter.
As she fished her cell phone out of her pocket, Ash wondered what Evy Stone would think of being tutored–enough to get her GED, or at least to be able to hold a passable adult conversation without resorting to profanity as a defense mechanism. She made a mental note to bring it up.
Later. Maybe when she had Jesse to act as a human shield, just in case Stone actively disliked the idea. She smiled at the thought, then auto-dialed their Handler to report another threat successfully neutralized.