Hunters prayer, p.21
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.21

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  Hope clambered into the driver’s seat in the Humvee. Her second-in-command, a plump blonde girl with wide blue eyes and bruised, blood-crusted thighs, was already strapped into the driver’s seat of the Escalade.

  “Jesus, this is big.” Hope’s breathing was short and rapid, and I thought some of the girls were going into shock.

  “Go easy on the brake. If you get pulled over, it’s okay. Tell them my name and they’ll take care of you.” The garage door finished opening, I flinched as the sound of the creature’s footsteps—distinct from a thousand other sounds—pounded my ears, communicating itself up through my bootsoles. I’m sensitive to it now. Of course I am, it almost fucking killed me. “And for God’s sake be careful. It might help if everyone in there prays. Turn the heater up as soon as you can, you don’t want anyone going into shock. Okay?”

  “Who the fuck are you?” Her eyes were wide and haunted. “Jesus.”

  “Kismet,” I repeated. “Tell the cops I sent you.” I spelled it out for her again. “Now go. For fuck’s sake, go. There is no time.”

  The footsteps were very close now, drumming against the earth. The cars roused themselves, and the Humvee pulled out, slowly. The Escalade followed, torturously slow, and slid down the circular driveway. Oh, please, oh please …

  I saw them make the turn out onto the street, so goddamn slowly, the footsteps almost on top of us by now and coming from the north. Which made not much sense, if she was hiding out where I thought she was, where Jonte had told me he had “taken a few bitches.”

  It didn’t matter. I wondered if it had slipped its leash and come hunting or if the redheaded Sorrow had let it loose in another part of town.

  Then it howled, a long chilling spun-glass growl of bloodthirsty hunger rising from the north. My skin crawled like it wanted to run away from both me and the creature; I turned around, hitting the button to close the garage door. Fucking Christ. I could have been out of here already.

  I wanted to examine where they’d held the women, but it was enough to know that they were supposed to be kept alive and relatively unharmed except for rape. Opening up a door in the ether and bringing a Chaldean demon through requires a massive effort, and that effort could be fueled by harvested death. But something simpler was fresh death, done ritualistically; Traders sacrificed snakes, rabbits, dogs, horses, goats—anything they could catch and get rid of the husk afterward. But to bring through the Nameless, not even the death harvested from organ theft would do.

  And to bring him through and bribe him into doing something nice for a renegade Sorrow would take even more. It made sense. Appalling, wasteful, mad sense, but still, it was a pattern. It was a workable theory.

  Now I just had to stay alive long enough to figure out the rest of it and stop it. Brooding wouldn’t help—and the slight nasty thought that the renegade Sorrow might have killed Jonte herself for allowing his boys to play with her sacrifices was amusing and gratifying, but wouldn’t help me now.

  I ducked under the garage door and set off across the driveway, my legs aching with the need to run. Decide which way to go, Kiss. Move with a plan, for Christ’s sake don’t do anything stupid, taking off like a rabbit. This thing is fast, it’s deadly, and you’ve got the scar, your whip, your guns, your knives—all of which are fucking useless if it gets too close—and you’ve got your teeny little noggin. Which has to save you now.

  This was a bad part of town to be trapped in. But if I cut across the old highway and ran for a bit, I would be at the edge of the barrio’s dark, night-pulsing adobe warren. I knew that warren, knew some good hiding spots and shortcuts.

  Going into the barrio was a good way to end up dead. But still, given the choice between killing me and killing what was chasing me, I was comfortably sure self-interest might strike the deciding blow in my favor.

  It was getting close. Very close. Night wind brought the first threads of its scent, a noxious stink that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Gooseflesh prickled up under my skin.

  That thing almost fucking killed you. You have no staff now, goddammit, and it’s fast. It’s too goddamn fast. Oh, God. Oh, God.

  I told the rabbit-panicking part of myself to shut up, reached the street, and picked up the pace, my coat flapping and the sour taste of fear on my tongue.

  23

  I don’t mind being shot at. I don’t like it, mind you, and I don’t seek out flying lead. But I don’t mind it. I don’t mind knives, I don’t mind a bit of fisticuffs. I don’t even mind it when someone springs a trap on me and does their best to kill me.

  I am a hunter; it comes with the job.

  But Lord God on high, I hate to be chased. I hate to run with no other thought but the rabbit’s thought of finding a way to escape certain death.

  It was too fast. I paced myself, and drew on the cold, pulsing scar on my wrist as hard as I could. But even though I had the benefit of hellbreed-bargained strength, I was seriously flagging by the time I reached Merced Street and the Plaza Centro.

  The PC isn’t really a plaza. It’s a gutted five-story building full of tiny shops, botanicas, and bodegas, with a vast central well thronged with people at any time of the day or night. It takes up a whole city block and was once a train station before the barrio reached in from the slum edge of town and took it captive.

  It also has the biggest concentration of Weres in the city. Something that smelled this bad and was obviously intent on mayhem was likely to attract some notice. And while I didn’t like the thought of luring the wendigo right through a heavily populated area and risking some casualties, I also didn’t like the thought of meeting my death on a lonely street where there was no bloody cover. Weres mean smell, and smell was likely how this thing was tracking me. If I could confuse it, maybe I could escape.

  These considerations flashed through my mind as I turned down Merced and saw the lights of the Plaza Centro in the distance, glimmering like fool’s gold. My boots pounded the pavement, the scar no longer cold on my wrist but hot, so hot I expected it to steam in the chill night air. It poured pure etheric force into me, and I spent it recklessly—speed was imperative, since I could hear the thing behind me, and whenever the wind shifted I could smell it too. How it was tracking me through windshift I didn’t want to know.

  I didn’t even want to guess.

  At this point, I would settle for just keeping my miserable life. My breath rattled in my chest, my ribs heaving, it had almost caught me once on the top of a tenement on Colvert and Tenth. I knew my city, knew every dip in the streets, knew every shortcut and back alley, and it was only knowledge that kept me one scant sliver ahead of it, this thing—wendigo, whatever it was—that roared its glassine screech behind me doing its own personal imitation of a Wild Hunt.

  Christ I’m glad it’s not smart, if it was smart I couldn’t have fooled it and it would have me by now. I pounded up the slight slope, flagging badly now, headlights blurring past. If the normal humans sensed me at all it was only as a cold draft, a flash out of the corner of the eye, something not-quite-right but gone before they could take a second look.

  A ghost.

  Grant me strength in battle, honor in living, and a quick clean death when my time comes—The prayer trembled just at the edge of my exhausted mind. But don’t let it come yet. Please, God. I have served well; help me out a little here. God? Anyone?

  Then, the impossible, the smell of the thing gaggingly close, I had slowed too much, no alley in sight, no way to jag left or right, I was running for the PC and maybe an escape in the tunnels underneath but oh God, I was tired. So tired. And I was hit from behind, a massive impact that smashed through me as the thing collided with its prey and sent me flying.

  I heard the scrabble of claws and the screams as I flew, trying vainly to twist in midair, get my feet under me, something, anything, and heard the snarling crash into a wall behind me.

  Hit. Hard. Snapping and shattering glass, I’d gone through a window and fetched up against shelving tha
t fell over, bottles breaking, glass whickering through the air and the sudden smell of smashed vegetables all around me.

  Lay for a moment, lungs burning and heaving, legs and arms too drained to move, scar a burning cicatrice on my wrist. Oh God oh God, let it be quick, if it has to take me let it be quick, Saul, oh God Saul. Saul—

  Then, as if a gift from heaven, something familiar. “Get up. Jesus Christ, Jill, get up!”

  A familiar voice, a prayer answered. I levered myself up just at the thing smashed through the glass searching for me, a massive ball of hunger and gagging stench suddenly freezing the air. It moved too fast and I was tired, so tired, arms and legs weighted with lead.

  Crash. He hit the thing from the side, screaming his warcry, a roar halfway between man and cougar. Flame suddenly belched out, garish in the darkness and the fluorescent light of the grocery store, I heard screams and popping sounds as the fire, bright crimson-orange, speared through the night. More vital, more impossibly real than regular fire or hellfire, heat scorched the air so badly it stripped the hair back from my face, a holocaust of flame.

  More screaming, and the barking, coughing growl of more Weres. I heard chanting—a shaman’s voice lifted in the high keening screech of Were magicks, those bloody, animalistic, and strangely pure works of sorcery that are their peculiar heritage.

  Saul yelled his warcry again, moving with fluid grace as the shining thing he held glittered with heat. More glass smashed, the smell of mashed vegetables and fruit suddenly turning caramel-brown shot through with the disgusting stink of the cancerous thing that screeched and tried to bat Saul away.

  Seeing a Were fight in midform, dancing between human and animal, is … We never really think of how they shift to animal forms, forms that are precise and graceful. In most cases, far more graceful than human beings ever manage to be. And in their human forms they’re graceful too, blessed with quick reflexes, regular features, an uncanny ability to move economically and efficiently through space.

  Midform, they have the best of both worlds, a beauty that is so weird and alien it catches at the throat and dries the mouth. The movies don’t do them justice at all. And midform is not somewhere they linger, unless they are rogue—or unless there is no other way to fight.

  Saul was somehow not there as the creature swiped with its bloody claws, and seeing its speed and power up close I slumped to my knees, jaw hanging open in wonder and my breath rasping in my throat. It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fair, that I had to bargain with a hellbreed to get even a fraction of his grace and still I was so much less.

  So acutely aware of being so much less.

  Steam billowed. The thing Saul held, its flame liquid and hissing, broke the soul-devouring cold of the creature. Another scream from the shaman, and a massed snarling tide of power rode through the air. Were magic, tasting of nights out under open skies, black air against the back of the throat like champagne, hard crusted snow under feet no longer human, and the joy of running on four legs, the air alive with scent and the hard cold points of the stars overhead singing their ancient songs of lust and slow fire to those of us on the ground who had ears to hear.

  The glowing thing, a long slim wand, struck. Saul yelled, ducking aside as the wendigo clawed for him, slowed by the weight of furred heavy power smashing through the interior of the store. More glass shattered, cardboard exploded, and the smell of cooking food shaded through goodness and into burning.

  Saul kicked, a perfectly placed savate blow, then somehow twisted, using the kick to propel his body back and up, uncoiling to avoid the creature’s claws as it fumbled for him again. The slim shape, burning white-hot, scored through my eyes, I flung up a hand to shield them and heard a death-scream unlike any other. Clapped my hands to my ears and screamed as well, a little sound lost inside the massive wrecked howl like frozen mountains colliding.

  If glaciers feel pain when they rub against each other and split off whole mountainsides, they would scream like that. It … no, there is no way to describe the enormity of that cry. It broke whatever had not broken and flung me back; I hit the wall with my boots dangling six feet off the floor and slid down, landing in a medley of shattered glass and exploded packets of meat sizzling in the heat. Smelled my own hair burning as the silver charms heated up.

  The scream stopped just before my eardrums burst. I rolled free of the bubbling, steaming mess, gained my knees again, had to try twice before I could make it up to my feet. The air abruptly chilled, became the normal cold of a Santa Luz winter night.

  Steam and vapor drifted in the air. There was murmuring, the ancient words Weres mutter when they come across death from bad luck or humanity. A forgiving of the spirit, in the midst of clear red rage. They have never had to translate that prayer.

  You don’t need to, if you’ve ever heard it. No translation is necessary.

  My breath sounded harsh in the sudden silence. I was suddenly aware of my legs, strained and unhappy, making their displeasure known. My ribs, heaving, almost pulled loose by the demands placed on them. The scar, pulsing obscenely against the inside of my wrist, as if Perry was kissing my arm again and again. Pressing his hellbreed lips to human flesh, his scaled tongue flickering and his hot humid breath condensing on cooler human skin.

  Veils of mist in the air parted. Saul stood over the shattered body of the wendigo; he tossed the arrowhead with its cargo of leather, feather, and hair onto the mess. Now that it was dead, it was a twisted humanoid figure running wetly with icy gray fur and long bits of different colors where its victims’ scalps had been plastered to its mottled hide. Its face was tipped up, the eyes collapsing into runnels of foulness, its lipless mouth open in a silent blasphemous scream. And its claws, obsidian-tipped and deadly, lay twitching against the prosaic bubbling linoleum of a devastated grocery store.

  It looked strangely small now, its face like a wizened ugly child’s despite its frozen, rotted nose and nonexistent lips. Its genitals were pendulous, and black with frostbite.

  And around its neck was a thin silver chain, winking in the light, squirming with unhealthy black Chaldean sorcery. The chain was broken about a foot below its jaw. Had it escaped and come looking for me?

  Shoved through its heart was a spike of glossy black obsidian-like material, popping and zinging as it shrank. It had been white-hot just moments before. The steam whooshed away, evaporating into the night.

  I sounded like I was dying of pneumonia, my breathing was so hard and labored. I half-choked at the titanic stink in the air. Bile caught in my throat.

  Oh please don’t let me throw up again. Oh please.

  The hair of cougarform had melted from Saul; he stood straight and in profile, staring down at the defeated creature, his lips moving with the prayer of the massed Weres, their eyes bright and their mouths cherry-beautiful, crowded in through the window. I saw several different types: a kentauri tossing his long silvery mane, a were-spider whose face was gray and haunted under her mop of silken hair, another werecat who folded her hands and had closed her eyes, mouthing the ancient sounds. There were others, but I was too tired to see them. And then, in the back of the crowd, I saw a pair of familiar blue eyes, a sheen of pale hair. Perry. Had he found Belisa?

  At the moment I didn’t care. I closed my eyes. The breath that knifed into my lungs was not less sweet because of the stench it carried. No, it was air, and I was still alive to breathe it, no matter how foul it smelled. Oh, Saul. Saul. Thank God for you. Thank God.

  Then I stumbled away, looking for a place to throw up. There was nothing left in my stomach, but I felt the need to purge anyway.

  24

  I had never been so glad to see my own four walls again. The warehouse clicked and rang as I collapsed on the couch, keeping a wary eye on Belisa as she moved to perch on a chair opposite, glaring at me through her good eye while she clasped the pack of ice to the other side of her face. When she wasn’t avidly peering at the interior and the furnishings, that was.

  Storing
up little bits of deduction to mindfuck me with later, no doubt.

  Perry stood slightly behind her. He was immaculate, gray suit, the first two buttons of his crisp white dress shirt undone, his shoes shined to perfection. He looked very satisfied with himself, in his bland blond sort of way.

  Belisa was moving gingerly, and her blue silk shirt was crumpled, her slippers were battered. It had probably been a hell of a fight, but for tangling with Perry she was strangely unharmed. I wondered if it was because I’d threatened him.

  Not likely.

  Saul went straight for the kitchen. I heard the cupboard opening, glass clinking. “Anyone who wants whiskey better speak up now,” he said, calmly enough.

  “God, yes.” Oh, Saul. Thank God for you. I rested my head against the couch’s back, almost beginning to feel like I could breathe again. Leather creaked, I hadn’t bothered taking my coat off.

  “If you have anything decent, I’ll take it.” Perry’s eyes rested on me. Under the leather cuff, the scar ran with rancid flame, trailers of heat sliding up my arm. Smoky desire, sliding through the map of my veins as if he was touching me, running his fingers up the inside of my elbow.

  I didn’t look away, but I did clamp down on my self-control. I was vulnerable now, exhausted after expending so much power. And any time human animals get close to death, sex is the easiest thing to tempt them with afterward. “Belisa?” I kept my tone neutral.

  She almost flinched, recovered. “That would be nice.”

  Perry leaned on the back of the chair. “What?” It was a soft inquiry, and I saw the blood drain from her face.

  She looked terrified, and I couldn’t blame her.

  “That would be nice, mistress.” All the color had leached out of her tone too. She shivered, hunching her shoulders.

  Mistress. The term for a bitch-queen, a Sorrow higher in status than herself. What had Perry done to her? Abruptly, I felt sick all the way down into my stomach. He’d found her and brought her, and from the looks of it she’d resisted; and now he was rubbing it in. For her benefit, and also for mine; just to drive home that I owed him for bringing her in.

 
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