Exclamations broke from the guests as they watched the man bolt out onto the landing. Some edged towards the door, perhaps considering giving chase, but most remained where they were. Gasps rose and the air seemed charged. Everyone’s focus grew sharper as they watched the man vault over the railings of the first floor. His legs and arms were thrown wide as though his body was pushing itself to bridge a gap, as if with effort he might leap across to a distant ledge. But there was none. He plummeted.
She turned around and stared at the black lenses and thought of the first time she’d seen her without them. The naked skin was a tracery of scars around deep hollows, where tattered flesh remained.
El had only been five years old when she’d asked her grandma the question that preyed on her, every minute of every day. Even then, she had known enough about her powers to realise that her life, and any life with their ability, wasn’t an easy one. She’d touched her grandma’s scars and asked her if she’d cut her power out.
Despite the physical warmth his gaze gave off, his tawny eyes were hard. There was something inscrutable about him. Yes, he was being guarded with her, but El got the impression that he never gave much away. Everything about him was dark: his hair like billowing smoke, his stubble like soot. His gaze was more like the tail end of a fire – its light and warmth choked by ash.
‘In the meantime,’ he said, going to a filing cabinet in the corner, ‘you can peruse these.’
He presented her with a handful of leaflets. El scanned the top one: So, you’re Arete. She opened up the inner sheaf and scanned the subtitle: 10 Things to Know About Being Arete.
‘Useful for those marrying into this stuff,’ Alex said, ‘which is rare, but it happens. Better they’re informed before their kids start flying.’
Everyone on this side of the street who approached halted and stood like statues. Amidst their immobile features, El’s smile grew as if she was imbibing their emotion. The number of frozen strangers increased as she locked eyes with everyone that came near. The confused expressions melted away, replaced with the same blandness as those of their neighbours.
Images of the emblems flashed through her mind. A man standing before a blank mirror, bearing the caption, “Quis es?” Who are you? Another bore a skull with a lily growing through one of its eye sockets, the motto, “Tam occulta, et manifesta.” Both hidden and clear. She remembered the picture of the sun in eclipse, “Nec moror videri.” Nor do I care to be seen. The old worn images seemed to grow more vivid in her mind’s eye as though they were materialising before her
The red-bricked building on Clerkenwell Close was illuminated by a series of black lampposts that rose up at their approach. Their warm glow drew the eye: gas powered. Adorning each post was an iron snake. El held onto the railings as they proceeded down some stairs, feeling hemmed in by the walls on either side. Her movement and the flickering light made it seem as though the snakes were shifting in the shadows.