Hunters prayer, p.13
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.13

           Lilith Saintcrow
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  It is the Hunter’s Prayer. Several different versions are extant: Mikhail used to pray in gutter Russian, singing the words with alien grace; I’ve heard it intoned in flamenco-accented Spanish and spoken severely in Latin, I’ve heard the greased wheels of German clicking and sliding, I’ve even heard it chanted in Swedish and crooned in Greek, spoken sonorously in Korean and sworn languidly in French, and once, memorably, spat in Nahuatl from a Mexican vaduienne while cordite filled the air and the snarls of hellbreed echoed around us on every side. Me, I say it in English, giving each word its own particular weight. It comforts me.

  Faint comfort, maybe, that hunters all over the word had just said or were about to say this prayer at any particular time. Faint comfort that I was part of a chain stretching back to the very first hunters of recorded history, the sacred whores of Inanna who used the most ancient of magics—that of the body itself, with the magic of steel—to drive the nightside out beyond the city walls. The priestesses were themselves heirs to the naked female shamans of Paleolithic times; those who used menstrual blood, herbs, bronze, and the power of their belief to set the boundaries of their camps and settlements, codifying and solidifying the theories of attraction and repulsion forming the basis of all great hunter sorceries. They had been the first, those women who traced ley lines in dew-soaked grasses, drawing on the power of the earth itself to push back Hell’s borders and make the world safe for regular people.

  Faint goddamn comfort, yes. But I’d take it. Each woman in that chain had added something, each man who had sacrificed his life to keep the innocent safe had added something, and all uttered some form of this prayer. God help me, for I go forth into darkness to fight. Be my strength, for I am doing what I can.

  When I was finished I genuflected, candles shimmering on the altar; an old woman eyed me curiously as I dipped both hands in the holy water. She looked faintly shocked when I smoothed the water on my hair and the shoulders of my ragged coat, wiping two slashes of the cool blessed water on my cheekbones like Saul’s war-paint. I genuflected to the altar one last time, winked at the old woman, and met Saul in the foyer, where he was absorbed in staring at the stained-glass treatment of the Magdalene welcoming repentant sinners with open arms over the door. He dangled the obsidian arrowhead on its braided leather absently in his sensitive fingers, turning it over and over, smoothing the bits of hair and feathers.

  He said nothing, and drove the speed limit all the way out to the familiar broken pavement of the industrial district, where the Monde Nuit crouched in its bruised pool of etheric stagnation.

  He pulled up into the fire-zone, reached over, took my hand. Squeezed my fingers, hard. Let go, a centimeter at a time. Another ritual.

  He would come into the Monde with me if he could. But a Were in a hellbreed bar like this would only spell trouble, and something told me Perry would love to have Saul on his territory.

  That’s exactly the wrong thing to think at a time like this, Jill. I stared out through the windshield. The long low front of the Monde beckoned, its arched doorway glowing with golden light. One hell of a false beacon.

  “Stay here until I come get you, kitten. Okay?” If the words stuck in his throat, he didn’t show it.

  I nodded. The scar on my wrist was hard, hot, and hurtful, a reminder that Perry expected me. A reminder I did most emphatically not need. The silver charms in my hair tinkled uneasily.

  “He doesn’t own you.” Now Saul’s voice was thick. “He doesn’t.”

  “I know.” I barely recognized my own whisper. “He doesn’t own me. You do.” You’re the only man other than Mikhail who has ever owned me, Saul. You mean you don’t know that?

  “Christ, Jill—”

  But I had the door open and was out, the chill of a winter night folding around me. I walked to the door, my bootheels clicking on the concrete; there was a line as usual. Hellbreed and others stared at me, whispering, I reached the door. The bouncers eyed me, the same twin mountains of muscle, their eyes normal except for red sparks glittering in their pupils.

  Please, I prayed. Let it be one of the nights he’s bored with me. Let him have other business.

  Fat fucking chance. Last night he’d actually left the Monde Nuit and expended serious effort on me. Tonight I was probably going to pay for that.

  Probably? Yeah. Like I was probably breathing right now.

  I stalked between the bouncers, daring them to say anything; if they turned me away I could go back to the car and blame it on his own fucking security. But no, they didn’t make a single move. In fact, one of them grinned at me, and the thumping cacophony of the music inside reached out, dragged me into the womblike dark pierced with scattered lights, the smell of hellbreed, and the jostling crowd of the nightside come out to have a little fun. The ruby at my throat warmed, and Saul’s hickey pulsed.

  Was it shameful of me to hope Perry wouldn’t notice it?

  I kept my chin up and a confident swing to my hips as I stalked for the bar. Riverson was on duty again, and his blind eyes widened. He immediately reached for the bottle of vodka.

  Not a good sign.

  I reached the bar, and he poured a shot for me, slammed it down. “You’re supposed to go straight up,” he shouted over the noise. “He’s waiting for you.”

  I winced inwardly. Outwardly, I gave Riverson a smile, picked up the shot, and poured it down. It burned. “Not like you to give free drinks, blind man. But I guess my tab’s still good.”

  His mouth pulled down, sourly. His filmy eyes flicked past me, evaluated the dance floor. There was very little he didn’t notice. It used to be that a visit to the Monde would be during daylight, to visit Riverson and hear what he had to say, coming in as a hunter’s apprentice and watching Mikhail’s back. He’d never liked coming in here, even during the day. It was a very last resort, and one he hadn’t had to use too often.

  Perry had taken an interest the first time I’d covered Mikhail in this hole. Mikhail had nearly fired on him when he made that first appearance, leaning against the end of the bar and eyeing me.

  Stop thinking about Mikhail, Jill. You have other things on your mind.

  Of course, that was a losing battle. There wasn’t a day passing by that I didn’t think of him. After all, he’d rescued me, hadn’t he? Better than any other father figure I’d ever had.

  He had taken a shivering, skinny little girl in out of the cold, and he had trained me to be strong. Mikhail had pushed me, shaped me, molded me—and held the other end of my soul’s silver cord as I descended into Hell to finish my apprenticeship.

  Sometimes I wondered what he’d felt, watching my lifeless body on the altar, holding the silver cord steady with the ruby I now wore pulsing and bleeding in his palm, wondering if I was going to come back. Wondering if I would survive the trip down into the place hellbreed call home.

  Or did he not wonder? Did he know he’d trained me as best he could, and given me every weapon possible to use against the nightside? Had it been any comfort to him?

  “You should stay away from here, goddammit.” Riverson shook his head, his filmed eyes focusing past me. “You stink of Were.”

  “And you stink of Hell, Riverson. Keep your fucking advice to yourself.” I slammed the shotglass back down on the bar, turned again, and walked toward the back as if I owned the place. My tattered coat swung like the fringe on a biker’s jacket.

  Feets don’t fail me now.

  In the back, the tables were full of hellbreed—playing cards, drinking quietly, murmuring in Helletong that threaded under the blasting assault of the music thudding through shuddering stale air. Their glittering eyes followed me as I strode through, heading for the slender black iron door at the very back, behind its purple velvet rope.

  A chair scraped, audible even under the noise. When one of them half-rose, reaching under his bottle-green velvet coat, I barely blinked. The gun was in my hand, pointed at him; his sharply handsome fine-boned face was a pale dish under the warm bath of electric
yellow light. Cigarette smoke wreathed and fumed in the air. Yellow eyes glittered with the preternatural fury of a hellbreed, and a powerful one too.

  Well, hello, whoever you are. What’s your goddamn problem, you suddenly got tired of living? I kept the gun trained on him. The scar pulsed, hard and hot, on my wrist.

  Give me a reason. Come on, just one little reason. Oh, please. Come on.

  My finger tightened on the trigger. I could see the ether gathering, the black bruise of hellbreed swirling around him. I couldn’t believe my luck. If he moved on me, I was well within my rights to shoot him and leave.

  Then, out of nowhere, Perry’s hand closed around my right wrist. The scar turned so hot under the leather I almost expected to smell scorching.

  He said nothing, his fingers gentle, his bland interested face turned to the hellbreed who stood awkwardly, caught in the middle of pushing himself up to his feet and reaching under his jacket.

  Without warning, Perry’s fingers on my wrist turned to iron. He squeezed, I heard bones creaking, and he subtracted the gun from my grip with a negligent twist of his free hand. He leveled the gun, drew the hammer back, and pulled the trigger.

  The shot sliced through thumping music, black blood flew. The hellbreed’s head evaporated. The head is one of the surer places to kill a hellbreed—that is, if they’re not actively leaping on you, being spooky-quick fuckers. And my ammo is coated with silver. True silver bullets are a bitch when it comes to ballistics. Luckily you only need enough of the moon-metal to pierce the hellbreed’s shell and render them vulnerable. It poisons them as well; two for the price of one.

  Perry replaced the gun in my hand. Then he guided my hand down to holster it, his fingers still on the leather cuff over the scar, swelling up prickling and infected-painful to meet him.

  The music swallowed echoes of the gunshot. Nobody moved. The hellbreed’s body slumped to the floor, meat deprived of life, the mess of the head thocking wetly onto the laminate flooring back here in the inner court of the Monde Nuit.

  Oh, fuck.

  I didn’t know who the ‘breed was, or what his problem with me had been—hell, I was obviously a hunter, and he was probably wanted for something. But still, if Perry had wanted to make the point of just what I was here for, he could hardly have written it larger and underlined with neon. I was here because I had business with him, and I was under his protection.

  In other words, Perry had done the hellbreed equivalent of a Were leaving a big ol’ hickey on my neck. As if anyone in the room didn’t already know my face.

  Except the dead hellbreed in bottle-green velvet, that is.

  Perry indicated the door, and let go of my wrist. I swallowed, set my jaw, and stalked forward. My back ran with tingling cold awareness. He’s behind me. Behind me. Oh God he’s behind me.

  The door opened, a slice of blue light widening. I stepped behind the purple velvet rope, saw the stairs going up. My skin chilled all over.

  Christ. I wish Saul was here.

  No, no I don’t. I’m glad he’s nowhere near here. That means he’s safe.

  Behind me, Perry’s soundless step filled the air as the iron door swung shut. “A little touchy, aren’t we, my Kismet?” His tone was even, interested, calm. “I wonder why.”

  Let the mindgames begin. I swallowed. “Lots of people trying to kill me lately.”

  “Not in my house.” He didn’t sound amused, for once.

  “You can never tell when a hellspawn’s going to get funny ideas.” I kept my pace slow. This counted toward the two hours. Every moment I spent in the Monde counted toward the two hours.

  God, get me through this.

  “No. You never can.” The soft, meditative tone was new, and gooseflesh began to swell on my back. I was glad I had my coat on. “Are you wondering what I’ll ask of you tonight?”

  “Safer not to wonder. Bound to be unpleasant.” I reached the top of the stairs, pushed the wooden door wide. It squeaked a little on hinges I suspected he left unoiled on purpose.

  “If you relaxed a little, you might like it.” There was a chilling little laugh. “But tonight, you’re going to sit down and have a drink with me.”

  Oh, Christ. “What are we drinking?”

  “Whatever you like. And I am going to have your full attention, Kiss. It’s been too long.”

  Not for me. I stepped into the room, my boots sinking into plush white carpet.

  The room was large, and music from below thudded faintly through the floor. At the far end in front of a sheet of tinted bulletproof glass the bed stood—pristine, swathed in white, and loaded with pillows. The wet bar at the other end, to my left, gleamed with chrome and mirrors; artful track lighting showed the Brueghel on the far wall next to the bank of television monitors, some showing interior views of the Monde, others showing satellite feeds of news channels. The walls were painted white. The smell of hellbreed floated thick and curdled on still air.

  On the expanse of white carpet, two chairs: recliners in white leather. Which brought up the inevitable choice. Did I sit with my back to the door so I could pretend to watch the television images of death, destruction, and hellbreed dancing, or did I sit with my back to the bulletproof glass and have Perry be the only focus for my eyes?

  Choices, choices.

  “Sit down, take it off. What do you want to drink?” He moved to the bar, and I swallowed dryly again. He was being far too polite.

  Wonder if I should put a new strategy into play? Make him dictate every damn move. It was worth a try. “Where should I sit?”

  “Wherever you like, my dear Kiss. Just take that idiot cuff off. I like to hear your pulse.”

  I reached down, unbuckled the leather, and slowly drew it off. Tucked it in my pocket. Air hit my skin again; the scar tightened deliciously, and I choked back rising panic. What was he going to make me do to him this time? The whip again, or would it be the flechettes?

  And would I enjoy it? He liked the pain. And sometimes, dear God, I liked making him bleed.

  If there was a valley of darkness for hunters, that was it. You can’t live with the violence, blood, and screaming for long without getting a taste for vengeance. Every time I made Perry bleed it felt suspiciously close to justice.

  It felt good.

  “Sit down,” he said in my ear, hot too-moist breath brushing heavily and condensing on my skin. I gave a violent start, whirled away, my hand closing around the butt of my right-hand gun. I had to work to make my fingers unloose as Perry cocked his head, the light shining off his blond hair. He held two brandy snifters, an inch of glowing liquid in each. “Oh, come on, Kiss. Tonight’s not a night for those games. If you would only relax a little, we could be such good friends.”

  “You are not a friend.” My hands curled into fists. “You’re a hellbreed. Hellspawn. Just one step up from a goddamn arkeus, that’s all. One more type of vermin.”

  He shrugged, then held out the glass in his left hand. “And yet you keep coming back.”

  “I made a bargain. One that allows me to hunt more effectively.” My fingers avoided his, I took the glass like it was a snake. The silver ring on my left hand spat a single white spark, reacting to his closeness, the carved ruby at the hollow of my throat gave a single reassuring pulse of clean heat.

  The spark didn’t seem to upset him, as usual. “Mikhail warned you about me.” He pointed at the chairs. “Sit.” Incredibly, he chose the seat with its back to the bulletproof glass, settling down and bringing the bowl of the glass to just under his nose. He inhaled, his eyes half-closing.

  Almost purring with pleasure, as a matter of fact. He looked tremendously pleased with himself.

  Why the fuck is everyone talking about Mikhail now? The ring warmed on my left hand. My chest tightened. “He did.”

  “What did he say?”

  I swallowed memory, set my back teeth against it, and got ready to lie. He told me you wanted me for reasons of your own, and I’d best remember that. And that a woman al
ways has the edge in this situation. I believed him. I always believed him. “That nothing you could give me was worth what I’d end up paying for it.” I settled gingerly into the other chair. My heart beat thinly. I still believe him.

  “You didn’t listen to him.”

  “I evaluated the benefits and risk of the bargain.” I’m still alive, aren’t I? And still playing patty-cake with you. Still coming out ahead by a slim margin, I’d say.

  Just don’t mention how slim.

  “Just like a Trader.” He looked, of course, amused. And generous, so early in the night’s games. He could afford to be.

  “I’m not a Trader. I’m a hunter. And one day, Pericles—”

  “Spare me.” His blue eyes turned dark and thoughtful. I began to feel very uneasy. This wasn’t like the usual visit; he would normally be asking me slip the cuffs on him by now, strapping him into the iron frame. “I find I like you threatening me less and less, Kiss.”

  “Get used to it.” Silver burned against my neck; it was the chain the ruby hung on. And my left ring finger, the burning spreading up my wrist. My earrings were beginning to get warm too, the silver and steel of my jewelry turning against me as I sat in the hellbreed’s office with the scar uncovered.

  His smile was gone. Instead, he studied me with an interested, somber expression for the first time since our initial meeting. It was a good thing I was already sitting down, my knees were weak.

  I was also starting to sweat.

  He swirled the liquid in the glass once, precisely, and eyed me. “Oh, I am used to it. I console myself with the thought that eventually, you’ll beg me. It’s only a matter of time.”

  I decided to go on the offensive. Strobe lights flickered against the huge window behind the bed, red and green drenching the white coverlet. The television monitors buzzed, throwing out blue light. On one, grainy footage of a prison riot played. On another, bombs dropped from a plane’s sleek silver belly into a verdant green jungle, giving birth to bursts of liquid orange flame. “What are you, Perry?”

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