Hunters prayer, p.16
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.16

           Lilith Saintcrow
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  “So why did you bail out on Ricky?” I tented my fingers and leaned forward, bracing my elbows on the coffee table. Saul’s slippers lay neatly underneath, and my knee touched one of them. I found it absurdly comforting.

  She actually blushed. Her cheeks turned red, and she looked down at the package of Oreos.

  I caught the message. I should have smelled it on her, but under the fume of hellbreed and fury from my own skin and yeast-alcohol beer from hers, it would have been a miracle to catch it.

  Christ. “Okay. Please tell me you haven’t been out to Quincoa.”

  “I haven’t,” she whispered. “But Ricky called the doctor to make the appointment for me. I said I wouldn’t go. He …”

  “That’s when he got all nasty on you.” I nodded. Great. It must have been the last straw.

  “I told him I’d go after he hit me. But I … there are people who know stuff. I went to this head shop on Salvador Avenue, I told them I was looking for you. That I needed help. The woman there said to come here. I walked the whole way.”

  And if I’d checked my messages, I’d probably have heard one from Jordan letting me know someone in need was heading my way. Dammit. “All right.” I stared at the tabletop, my finger tracing an invisible sign on the wood. “The best thing to do—”

  I stopped. Tilted my head a little. What was that?

  The sound came again. A scrambling, and a stroking of claws on cold concrete. Far away, but growing closer, coming from the east.

  Oh shit. The sensation of danger was immediate, palpable, and hair-raising. My head snapped up, my right hand automatically blurred for a gun, and Cecilia gasped.

  “Get up,” I snapped, leaping to my feet, barking my knee a good one on the coffee table. Wood cracked, but I hardly noticed the brief burst of pain. “Get the fuck up. Come on.”

  “What’s happened? What’s going on?” She flinched, her eyes getting even rounder as she saw the gun. I stalked for the recliner by the small table where I did tarot card readings, scooped up my battered leather coat, and shrugged into it, passing the gun from hand to hand.

  “Something’s coming. I just heard it. It’ll trip the first line of defenses and alarms around my house in, oh, ninety seconds.” I couldn’t restrain a hard, delighted grin. “You don’t think I’d sit in here helpless, do you? Move, girl. You’re going to play mousie and hide in the hole.”

  It was probably a good thing she was trained to immediate obedience, even if I could have cheerfully ripped Diamond Ricky’s nuts off for the beating he’d given an underweight girl. She scrambled up the rickety wooden ladder, her breathing coming short and hard. Her bruised ankles were terribly thin. When she reached the top, her battered face peered down at me.

  “Pull this up.” I helped her get the ladder up. “Now close that fucking trapdoor and lock it. Stay up there until I come get you, or until dawn. If it takes me out, go to the precinct house on Alameda and ask for Montaigne. He’ll take care of you. I know you don’t like cops, but he’s all right.”

  She nodded, biting her lip. Tears rolled down her pale, bruise-mottled cheeks. “Why are you doing this?”

  What the fuck do you mean, why am I doing this? I’m a hunter. I protect the innocent. “This is what I do. Now close that door and lock it, bitch!”

  She scrambled to obey. The heavy lead-sheeted trapdoor closed; the little hidey-hole was in the bedroom, where the mixed scent of Were and hellbreed hunter would help mask her fear and human smell.

  I’d also wanted the bedroom for the extra ammo stash, and it took a few seconds I didn’t have to load up on silverjacketed lead, each full magazine slid into the loops sewn in my coat. Better to have the ammo and not need it, especially if what I had in mind didn’t work. I wished I could use the bullwhip, but that was for Traders. The little distance a thin bit of leather would give me, critical for facing down a full hellbreed, wasn’t going to be any frocking help against something this fast.

  So I ran for the practice room, my breath coming hard and harsh in my chest. Skidded against the hardwood and reached it just as the front door shuddered under a massive impact. It had taken the thing two and a half minutes to reach my home; maybe they’d let it out in Percoa Park or down on Lucado somewhere?

  I shelved the question as the door shuddered again. Wonderful. Didn’t your mother ever teach you to knock? I ran along the side of the room, each step seeming to take forever, toward the long shape lying under its fall of amber silk on the far back wall, its shape reflecting in the eight-foot mirrored panels.

  The silk slipped in my fingers as it crashed onto the front door for the third time. I hear you knockin’, a lunatic Little Richard screamed inside my head, but you cain’t come in!

  “Shut up,” I gasped to myself, and tore the silk free.

  There, humming with malignant force, was the long, fluidly carved iron staff. A slim dragon head snarled at either end. The leather cuff I tore from my right wrist, gasping as air hit suddenly sensitive skin. I felt the humming of etheric force begin to cascade around me as my right hand closed around the staff’s slim length.

  The iron burned, pain jolting up my arm. “Thou shalt serve me,” I whispered. “By the grace of the Destroyer, thou shalt serve me!”

  The staff subsided as I lifted it down, my knuckles white against its oiled metal gleam. It had tested my will only once, in a massive struggle inside a consecrated circle, the final test before my Hell-descent, before I was a full-fledged hunter in my own right. It rumbled in my hands, restive—too much blood and violence swirling in my aura and way too long since the last time I’d used it, even to drain off its excess charge. I would have to drain it to about half-strength soon, and deal with a couple of days of nosebleeds.

  That is, if what I was about to do now didn’t drain it, and if I survived.

  I really wish I could use the whip. My hands tightened. I whirled, testing the heft, the dragon heads clove the air with a sweet low whistling sound. Then I gathered myself and ran for the front door.

  The etheric protections in the walls screamed and tore as the physical structure gave way too. I dug my bootheels in, skidding to a stop in the living room, the staff held slightly tilted in front of me, both hands aching where they gripped its coldness. Then it began to warm, vibrating with eagerness, and the scar on my wrist turned hot and hard again.

  “Come to Mama, you hunk of shit,” I whispered, and the creature slammed through the crumbling wall. Rebar snapped, chunks of concrete and wooden paneling flying, and the staff jerked up in my hands, coming alive. There was a soft snick, deadly curved blades springing from the dragons’ mouths. Warm electric light drifted down as the thing came for me, a faint silver glimmer showing at its low unhealthy neck.

  As usual when I was holding the staff, things seemed oddly slow. Shift the weight, throwing the hip forward—in both whip and staff work, the hip leads. A sweet low sound as the blades cut the air, the complicated double-eight pattern becoming a blur of motion.

  Then, impact.

  It smashed into me again, the low, fluid somehow-wrong shape that my eyes hurt straining to see. The staff jerked in my hands, supple and alive, singing its low tone of bloodlust as it clove both air and preternatural skin. Fur flew, and the gagging stench of it enveloped me, can’t breathe can’t fight but I was going to give it an old college try, something black and foul exploded and the cold smacked through me, a cold like a razor burn with the bile in my throat, good thing I hadn’t eaten anything because the Scotch boiled in my stomach looking to escape the hard way.

  And as always, when the staff was in my hands and time blurred around me, the dragons beginning their long bloodthirsty moaning and the blades slicing the air as I retreated, shuffling, I felt it. The cold clear chill of the world falling into place, everything stark and simple.

  Kill or be killed.

  Another gagging, retching breath, pluming in the frozen air as the staff executed a complex maneuver, going so fast it almost seemed to turn on itse
lf, Mikhail’s voice screaming in my head and the entire world narrowing to don’t get dead move move move, no time for thinking, only time for pure trained reflex that is nonetheless informed with a great deal of thought. The fastest fucker in the world can still do something thoughtless and end up dead. Moving is not enough; one must move correctly.

  The creature howled and came at me again. It was vaguely humanoid despite the claws. Which clanged off one blade—but the staff was working hard, humming to itself contentedly as if it had finally found something to wake it up and exercise it a little. My arms ached, especially the scar that was a knot of fire against my wrist, etheric energy humming through it; but the fierce high excitement beating behind my breastbone didn’t let up, and I knew who was making that terrible sound under the snarling and foul nails-on-chalkboard howling of the creature.

  It was a high chilling giggle, clear as crystal and cold as midnight in a moon-drenched room. It was my own voice, laughing, crazed with bloodlust. The scar turned blood-warm, strength like wine flooding my limbs, and the charms in my hair rattled and struck together with cracks like lightning.

  The creature backed up and snarled. I snarled back, almost twitching in my eagerness to kill, ice painting the air as my breath froze. It was human-shaped, and I was so far gone by then that I peered underneath its scrim of hair and blinding blur. Only for a moment, trying to decipher the silver glimmer at its throat—a chain? A leash? Who knew?

  Then it backed up, holding its front left limb up as if I’d wounded it. Black sludge dripped on the floor, smoking in the cold.

  I laughed again, that chilling tinkling sound that broke glass and shivered the wooden flooring into splinters. Kill it. Kill. Kill.

  A crackling bolt of blue hellfire lanced through the shattered air, splashing against the thing’s side. It howled again and streaked away, its footfalls heavy and off-kilter now. I heard it drumming the surface of the earth as I whirled on the balls of my feet to meet this new threat.

  The scar turned hot and hard. I felt Perry like a storm front moving through, a change of pressure that meant lightning. But that wasn’t what made me freeze. Standing amid the shattered wreckage, his eyes dark and infinite, Saul shoved his hands deep in his coat pockets and regarded me. Steam drifted up from his skin. The couch was a shambled mess, the kitchen was torn all to hell, every mirror and window in the place was shattered and crusted with ice.

  And still, my hands tightened on the staff. The blades hummed, alert, vibrating with bloodlust. Kill? the slim length of iron, old when Atlantis was young, hummed in its subsonic language. Kill? Kill? Destroy?

  What civilization the staff was an artifact of, I didn’t know. Mikhail hadn’t known either. But ever since that highly advanced people had shaped this length of steel into a long wand with stylized dragon heads at either end—and don’t ask me how we know they’re dragon heads, we just do—it has been used for one thing.

  Bloodshed. Destruction. The secret to handling it has been passed down from hunter to hunter in an unbroken line since its creation—or so Mikhail told me.

  I had no reason to disbelieve him. Once, and only once, I think I saw what the world had looked like when the staff was created. The fact that I wasn’t howlingly insane meant I had passed the test and was ready to descend into Hell—and come back, a full hunter.

  My muscles spasmed. The terrible battle began, me trying to wrench my fingers free of the iron, the staff screaming to be set free, to whistle through the air again, to cleave flesh and anything harder, anything at all, to maim and rip and tear. Blood trickled hot down my side, down my leg, down my arm from my left shoulder, turned into hamburger by the thing’s claws.

  But Saul’s eyes were dark, and he didn’t look away. He didn’t move. The electric current between us—the thing in him that saw past every wall I’ve ever built to defend myself, the thing in me that recognized him—went deeper than all the bloody raw places in my head, deeper than my breath and bones and blood, and deeper still.

  He knew me, even now.

  It seemed to take forever but was in reality only a few seconds before I could make my fingers unloose. The staff slid toward the floor, I spun it, turning with a scream of agonized muscles and a cry that shattered each iota of broken glass into smaller shards and tore the scrim of ice into steaming fragments. The staff tore free, taking the skin on my palms with it, and smashed into the wall. Stuck there, sunk six inches into the concrete, quivering.

  I let out a low harsh sound. Swayed, the small spattering sound of blood hitting the floor very loud in the stillness. I suddenly became aware that I had been moving in ways a human body hadn’t been designed to move, even one with the help of a chunk of meteoric, pre-Atlantean steel and a hellbreed scar on one wrist. Everything hurt, a scalding fiery pain.

  But my heart still beat, so fast the pounding in my wrists and throat was a hummingbird’s wings. I was still taking in great ragged breaths, panting, my ribs flickering as they heaved, fiery oil spreading up my left side. My shoulders felt dipped in molten lead and my legs felt like wet noodles and my head, my God, my head felt like it was going to crack down the middle, like some demented dwarf was driving glass pins through my brain.

  I swayed again, sour taste of adrenaline in my mouth. Heard someone else moving and knew it wasn’t Saul approaching me, knew it wasn’t him, and moved without thought.

  My fingers had turned into claws, and I screamed as my nails tore through Perry’s face, the scar on my wrist giving an agonized flare of pleasure. Then Saul had me in his arms, was talking to me as I struggled, he had me caught in a bear hug and took my legs out from under me, we hit the ground among debris and melting ice and I struggled, getting wood dust, glass, plaster, water, all sorts of crap in my hair before Saul snarled at me, burying his face in my throat, and I went utterly still. The sharp edges of his teeth could open my carotid in a moment.

  I made a low sobbing noise, gongs clanging inside my head. “Si-si-si-si—”

  I was trying to tell him there was a civilian in the house, someone I had been protecting, when I passed out.


  I woke up with one hell of a hangover.

  Using the staff does that. It’s not something to be done lightly, as Mikhail had reminded me until he was blue in the face. But really, I was just happy it had worked.

  I opened my eyes, saw something hazy that qualified (maybe) as light, and let out a low moan. Immediately, someone slid an arm under my head and held the foulest concoction in the whole wide goddamn world to my lips.

  The best cure for a bad case of overstrain goes like this: nuke room-temperature Coke until you get the fizzies out, about ten seconds in the microwave on defrost will do it. Then mix it half and half with Gatorade. You dump about a quarter of it and fill up the huge old mug with very strong valerian tea. Mikhail always used to spike it with a little vodka, but he was crazy.

  It tastes unspeakably foul, especially when your stomach is trying to crawl out through your throat without so much as pausing to say goodbye. But it works. The Gatorade settles your electrolytes; the caffeine and sugar in the Coke bring your blood levels back up and the nixed carbonation settles the stomach, and the valerian if strong enough is almost as good as Valium to calm down a hunter who’s just gone through the wringer.

  The vodka, of course, was because nothing medicinal could be without a touch of that finest of elixirs. I heard Anja’s brews involved imported absinthe, but I’ve never had the dubious pleasure of having her mix up a concoction. God willing, I never will.

  I took down four mugs of it before swearing at Saul and thrashing, trying to get up out of bed. “Calm down,” he told me, in a tone that brooked no argument. “Or I’ll strap you down, goddammit. You stupid bitch.”

  “Fuck you,” I flung back. My head was splitting. My stomach sloshed. I felt like I’d been put together sideways.

  “I told you to fucking stay with Perry.”

  He was right. And he was furious.

p; “Si-si-si-civilian!” I managed to get the word out.

  “She’s okay. She’s with Avery. Just settle down, Jill. Come on.”

  I went limp. Lay with my breath whistling in my throat. Thank you, God. Thank you.

  He stroked my hair back from my damp forehead. “I told you to stay with Perry.” But this time, less anger. He sounded worried.

  I squeezed my eyes shut. Found I could speak. “I couldn’t.” My voice cracked.

  “Guess not. What’d he do to you?”

  How could I answer that? He suddenly found his way in, Saul. He got to me. “The usual m-mindfucks.” I dragged in a deep breath, let it out. “Saul.” It was so hard to think through the dragging pain in my head.

  “Right here.” His fingers threaded through mine. “You want more backlash brew?”

  Oh, God, no. “Shit no. What’d you find out?”

  “Interesting stuff. Just rest, okay?” His hand was warm, and he leaned in, his lips meeting my cheek. “I’ll kick your ass later.”

  “Promises, p-promises …” But I passed out again.

  When I surfaced, I felt better, the brew had done its work and my head no longer felt like something monstrous was trying to birth itself from the center of my brain. Late afternoon sunlight fell in through the window; I was in my bed. Plenty of space all around, so nothing could sneak up on me.

  Saul was a warm weight on the other side of the bed. His dark head rested on his arm, because as usual he’d thrown off the covers and ditched his pillow. Unlike usual, however, he was clothed, boxers and a T-shirt. He smelled of Were and sweat and musk, and the charms in his red-black hair gleamed under the light.

  I sat up slowly. My head felt tender and my body was a little sore, but other than that, I felt surprisingly good. It was the first time I’d used the staff since striking my bargain with Perry, and I didn’t feel like I’d been run over by a truck.

  I stretched, yawning. First order of business is to get that goddamn doctor and throttle him until he squeals. And then a quick visit to Jimmy Rocadero, and—

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