Hunters prayer, p.22
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.22

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  Christ. Well, you knew what he was when you struck the bargain, Jill. Don’t pretend otherwise. “Drinks all round, then.” I sank into the couch.

  The two cars full of naked women had made it to the police station; Montaigne had left a message on my answering machine, alternately swearing at me and thanking me, then swearing at me again. I’d sort it out later.

  Right now I had other things to worry about. A few clipped sentences in the Impala, with Perry’s limo right behind, had laid out the chain of events for me: Saul had gone into the barrio and poked around, not finding much of anything until Perry showed up with Melisande Belisa in tow and a long thin iron-bound case—the firestrike spear Father Guillermo knew was hidden under the altar in the seminary’s main chapel, a secret kept by Sacred Grace since its inception. Perry swore whatever was inside should kill the wendigo.

  The catch? He hadn’t actually opened the case yet. Both of them felt my wild plunge into the barrio, Saul had left Perry to corral the bruised and beaten Sorrow and set off as fast as he could to find me and either kill the thing chasing me or buy me enough time to escape.

  He didn’t want to talk about killing it, and he didn’t want to talk about how the spear had burned his palms. It doesn’t matter, was all he would say. It’s fine.

  Saul brought the bottle and four glasses. He poured, slamming the bottle down when he was done, and left two glasses on the table. He handed me a glass half-full of amber liquid. He took his own and settled on the couch, and I wished I could cuddle up next to him, feel his heat.

  But he was still angry, the musky fume of fury hanging on him. He was wound tighter than a clockspring, I knew enough to leave him to himself right now. Werecats are dangerous and unpredictable; if he snapped now I would have to calm him down the old-fashioned way. The thought sent a spike of heat through me, cleaner heat than the spoiled spillage of the scar, and I tossed down half my drink in one motion. I didn’t think Perry and Belisa were to be trusted poking around the warehouse while Saul and I attended to some demons of our own.

  Besides, there was this redhead bitch of a Sorrow to catch.

  But first things first. “So Rourke lied. It wasn’t Saint Anthony’s spear. I knew there wasn’t such an artifact.”

  Saul shrugged. Belisa leaned forward, took a glass, and handed it up to Perry, flinching. Then she took the last one for herself.

  I don’t think I like the looks of that. I eyed her over the rim of my own glass. Whiskey exploded in my stomach, another clean brief heat as my metabolism burned through it. I’m alive. Alive. Thank you, God. I’m alive.

  Saul’s tone was carefully neutral. “Gui didn’t want to lie to you, but he’d taken an oath to keep the secret. I wonder what else they’re hiding in there.”

  I don’t care right now. Sort it out later, too. I shivered. The thing had glowed, white-hot, and part of the smell of burning had been Saul’s hands charred down to the bone. “How are your fingers?”

  He wriggled them, almost fully healed. I caught a flash of pink scarring rapidly shrinking. “Hurts a little. But fine.” He spared me a tight smile, the corners of his mouth and eyes crinkling. Even though smoky musk rage pounded in the air around him, he still wanted to put me at ease.

  I love you. The words choked me for a moment. I looked back into my glass. Another piece of the puzzle fell into place. “So you were looking for the spear, too. And your brother.”

  Belisa hunched her shoulders, staring into her glass. The warehouse creaked and muttered around us. The ice crackled against her face; her other eye, black from lid to lid, seemed oddly unfocused. “The plan was simple. We were to find the spear, kill the creature, and bring back Inez Germaine. Use her to buy our way back into the good graces of our House. It was my inattention that allowed my brother to escape, and we were both due for punishment and liquidation once we were returned unless we achieved something … extraordinary, something that could be legitimately seen as needing an escape as part of the plan. I visited him, explained the plan; he was to bring me the firestrike once he found where it was hidden. The New Blasphemy priests hid it well, and we were running out of time. When I visited him he had still not located the spear. And our House sent the Chaser for my brother, and—”

  “And I got involved. So you decided a little mindfucking was in order?” I couldn’t help it. I should kill her right now. Goddammit, she killed Mikhail and she’s sitting on my goddamn couch. In his house, the house he gave to me. Goddammit.

  “I know you have reason to hate me,” she said evenly. “You’ve killed my brother. Tit for tat, we’re even. Are you happy? We have less than a day before the evocation of the Nameless will alter the balance of power in every Sorrows House in the world. Inez isn’t just playing in your little city, hunter. She will be a new Queen Mother above even the Grand Mothers, and we will—”

  I choked on my whiskey, my protest that he had cracked his own poison tooth with no help from me dying in my throat. “Wait just one goddamn second. Less than a day? But the end of the cycle isn’t until—”

  “It’s tomorrow. Your calculations are off. They usually are, when you add the Gregorian calendar to the mix.” Belisa’s shoulders hunched even further. “We are doomed. All of us, doomed.”

  Oh, for Christ’s sake. “I’m not going to give up yet. When exactly does the cycle end? Tomorrow, when?”

  “At 1:15 P.M. And thirteen seconds.” She eased the ice away from her face and took a gulp of the whiskey. She looked as dejected as it was possible for a Sorrow to look, but her black eyes were oddly empty. As if they were painted on.

  Perry took a small mannerly sip, raised his eyebrows, and took another. But he was crackling with awareness; he looked ready to leap on Belisa if she so much as twitched. I found that comforting—but still, seeing her flinch away from him rubbed me the wrong way.

  Hard.

  I finished mine and reached for the bottle. The bottle neck chattered against the mouth of my glass. I poured myself a tall one.

  “Jill?” Saul. Carefully, quietly, his you want me to kill someone or what? tone.

  “One in the afternoon.” I settled back on the couch, leather creaking. The charms in my hair chimed, shifting, the scar on my wrist pulsed as Perry’s eyes rose to meet mine. Why was I looking at him? Because he was right in front of me, and I didn’t want to look at Belisa. “Will freeing the human sacrifices help stop it?”

  Belisa shrugged. “For an evocation of this nature, she would keep them close at hand. The ones you freed were probably decoys, or only to reward her human tools. You said they had been used?”

  Used. What a pretty little euphemism. “They were raped.” My voice was flat, and loaded with terrible anger. “Probably repeatedly.” They’re probably going to need therapy for the rest of their lives.

  Belisa nodded. “And several of the victims were pregnant?”

  I nodded. The ruby nestled in the hollow of my throat was comfortingly warm.

  “Then it’s simple.” She took another gulp of whiskey. “The harvested fetal tissue is probably to provide a base matrix for the Unnamed’s entrance and physicality. She’s going to create a Vatcharak—an Avatar.” Admiration, probably unconscious, shaded her voice. “The other organs went for cash to build her new House, and still others went to feed the creature. Which was insurance, I would guess. The chain around its neck carried a powerful control spell. I wonder if she created it herself?”

  I don’t know and I don’t care. “Why dump the bodies?” Of all questions, that was probably the most useless, but the one I most wanted to have answered.

  “Probably because she had run out of places to hide them. And also, every place where a victim of this evocation lay slain would become a node-point when she succeeds in bringing the Unnamed through.”

  “A node-point.” I sound shocked. “Of course. So the Avatar could have ready-made taplines into the ambient energy of the city, draining it like an orange. Which would widen the psychic scar in the ether and give
it a hell of a lot of power.”

  She nodded, like a teacher pleased with a good student. “Very good. I begin to see why your file is red-flagged.”

  “Red-flagged? Forget it, I don’t want to know. Why did this bitch pick my city, huh?”

  “You allow no House here. No House, no scrutiny by other Sorrows who might discover her plans.”

  What, so it’s my fault? I swallowed the flare of temper and closed my eyes, tilted my head back against the couch, and swore inwardly. Blew out between pursed lips, not quite a whistle. “Jesus fucking Christ.”

  “I can get almost every Were in this city ready in a few hours,” Saul said tentatively.

  “And there are hellbreed who can be coerced—” Perry began, his voice a dark thread, for once not supercilious.

  Well, would you look at that. Even Perry’s scared. “Not enough time. And once this is dealt with, there’d be a free-for-all I’d have to sort out.” I sagged into the couch. Tired. So fucking tired. I need a vacation. God. How many other graves are there out there, do you think? And other bodies. God. Dear God. “Why a wendigo?”

  “I suspect she came across it in her travels and thought it could be useful. She was in the Alps, and there have been … stories.” Belisa shuddered. “Chutsharak.”

  Curse my curiosity, I had to know. “What is a chutsharak, anyway?”

  “It’s House slang, not the ceremonial shorthand-garbage you know. It means—well, the best translation is, oh fuck.” Belisa managed to sound amused. “Or something of that nature. It depends on inflection.”

  Well, one mystery solved. For a moment I was tempted to just curl up on the couch and go to sleep. Just let whatever was going to happen, happen. The animal inside me just wanted to bury itself in a hole and sleep off the shakes and unsteadiness that came from almost-dying.

  Silence crackled, tense and deadly. Unbidden, padding soft and clean into my head, came the sound of Mikhail’s voice. Not singing the prayer in Russian, but growling it out in his accented English, every word a slap against the gray cotton of shock and apathy threatening to close over me. My own voice following along, uncertain and tired, but strong enough.

  Cover me with Thy shield, and with my sword may Thy righteousness be brought to earth, to keep Thy children safe. Let me be the defense of the weak and the protector of the innocent, the righter of wrongs and the giver of charity. In Thy name and with Thy blessing, I go forth to cleanse the night.

  That is what you swore, Mikhail’s voice continued. That is what you prayed. And that is what you will do, milaya.

  I gathered myself. When I opened my eyes I found Perry and Belisa staring at me. Black eyes and blue, waiting avidly. For what? It was in Perry’s interest to keep me alive—at least, until he got tired of my resistance. And Belisa? If she could get me to distract this Inez bitch for long enough, she might have a shot at stepping into her shoes.

  I rolled my head along the back of the couch, looked at Saul. He was staring into his glass, the musky smell of anger draining away. Look at me, Saul. Please. Let me know what you’re thinking.

  He might even have heard the thought, because he glanced at me, his mouth pulled tight in resignation. No, he wasn’t happy at all. But he said nothing, merely giving the slight headshake that meant he would wait until we were alone.

  Uh-oh. I made up my mind. “All right. Perry, you can take the Sorrow back to the Monde and wait for me. If all hell breaks lo—”

  “No.” Perry leaned against the back of the chair. Belisa cringed away from him, and bile rose in my throat. Stop it. Don’t feel sorry for her. That’s like feeling sorry for the rattlesnake a bobcat’s playing with.

  But still, she cringed just like a hooker waiting for a pimp’s slap. And I knew what that felt like, didn’t I.

  Every blessed thing about this case seemed engineered to remind me what that fucking felt like.

  “Excuse me?” The temperature might have dropped a few degrees, or it might have been my tone. “Last time I looked, Perry, you weren’t the one in charge here.”

  “I brought you the Sorrow. You promised to stay in my sight for the duration.” The scar on my arm prickled wetly, as if he had just licked it, and I steeled myself.

  “I didn’t—” I began.

  Perry gestured languidly with the glass, his tone laden with flat finality. “The creature’s dead. Very well, very good. But you are my investment, dear Kiss, and I am not about to let another little viper such as this one interfere with my very interesting plans for your education. That wouldn’t be very wise of me, would it.”

  “You’re not known for wisdom, Perry. A certain type of cunning, maybe, but not wisdom.” It was out before I could stop myself. “Cut the crap. You want to go along? Why should I let you wander into a fire zone where I’ll have to split my focus between worrying about what’s in front of me and worry about you slipping a knife into my back?”

  Even I couldn’t quite believe I’d said it. Saul didn’t move, but I felt his attention sharpen, and reminded myself that he was Were. If Perry moved on me, Saul might try to stop him, and however fast and dangerous a Were was, a hellbreed who could produce flame in the blue spectrum was not my idea of a good time.

  And I needed Saul alive.

  Amazingly, Perry laughed. But Belisa was suddenly examining me, her mouth slightly open, as if a new thought had occurred to her.

  “There are more enjoyable things to do than slip a knife between your ribs, my dear Kiss.” He saluted me with his glass, then downed the rest of the whiskey, rolling it around in his mouth and swallowing. “Now, just tell us where the icky little Sorrows hidey-hole is, and we’ll finish this matter and turn our attention to other things.” He reached down and gently, delicately smoothed Melisande Belisa’s sleek dark hair. “Like what I should do to teach this viper some manners. We have a room at the Monde specifically reserved for—”

  White-hot rage boiled up. I snapped.

  I had the gun out, barely aware of drawing it. I was on my feet, my shins hitting the coffee table with a short sharp sound. Then I’d leapt on the coffee table, still forward, and ended up with my feet between Belisa’s, the gun pressed to Perry’s forehead.

  Oh, Jesus Christ, Jill, you stupid little prat.

  I didn’t look down. “Your services are no longer necessary, Pericles,” I informed him. Even, level, and with my unprotected belly less than three feet away from a Sorrow who probably wouldn’t cry too much in her coffee if I ended up with a serious case of dead.

  But she needs someone to take on Inez for her. That’s why she bothered meeting me at the hospital, that’s why she let Perry catch her, that’s why she’s still sitting here instead of trying to escape. Isn’t it?

  His eyes were so deeply, infinitely blue, indigo clouding the whites along traceries just like veins. His pale fingers tensed on the glass. “Put the gun down, Kismet.”

  You will not take a woman into that room at the Monde Nuit if I can prevent it. I have had enough of seeing women raped tonight.

  That room at the Monde … I knew what it was used for.

  I’d seen it used. I’d seen what happened afterward.

  My thumb reached up, pulled the hammer back. The sound of the 9 mm cocking was very loud in the sudden hush that seemed to have descended on the warehouse. “Get. Out.” I had to work to get the words out through the obstruction in my throat. “Of my house. Get. Out.”

  “I am losing patience with you, Jillian. Or should I call you Judith? Didn’t you prefer tha—”

  Shock slammed through me. How did he know that? How could he know that?

  I squeezed.

  Saul yelled, a short sharp cat-coughing bark of surprise. Perry fell, dropped like a stone. Blood gouted, so much thick black blood, shooting a hellbreed in the head is messy.

  No more. My hands shook and my breath came hard and harsh. No more.

  No more of it. No more women raped, no more mindfucking, no more of it, no goddamn more. I could take no fucking m
ore. And if it took killing Perry and slaughtering a houseful of Sorrows and an Elder God too, I would do it.

  It was that motherfucking simple.

  My hand dropped. The scar on my wrist began to burn, tearing in through my skin toward my bones. I looked down at Belisa, whose head was bowed. Her shoulders were shaking under the blue silk.

  Don’t worry, I wanted to say. I fixed it. I stopped him. He won’t hurt you now.

  The faint voice of rationality piped up. This was a Sorrow, the one who had killed my teacher. What the hell was I doing protecting her?

  She’s still a woman. And no woman deserves Perry, dammit. Or gang-rape by hellbreed. “Saul.” My voice cracked, my throat denying itself a killing scream. “Go get the car warmed up.”

  “Jill—”

  Goddammit, Saul, I’m not safe right now. I think I just did something stupid. “Do it.”

  He got up, I heard the couch squeak. Then he was gone. I heard the front door slam as I stepped back from the Sorrow who hunched in the chair, her hair falling forward over her face. The smell of rotting blood cooking in a gun barrel painted the air. My hands were shaking. Point blank, you shot him point blank, hope that’s enough. Pray that’s enough.

  And under that, the other thought, repeating like a bad record. No more. Not to another woman. No fucking more.

  “Belisa?” I still sound like a stranger. What have I done? “Melisande?”

  Her shoulders were still shaking. And God help me, but my fingers tightened on the gun again, and it was all I could do not to shoot her too.

  “Goddammit, get up. Let’s go. We’ve got a world to save, you Chaldean bitch.”

  Then her face tipped up, her black eyes meeting mine, and I saw she was laughing. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she smiled, a death’s-head grin that told me she was having a hell of a good time. Her hand stabbed forward, the broken glass ampoule spewing something that smelled oddly sweet; my body sagged, not hitting the floor because of her slim iron arms around my waist. Her fingers were at my throat, I heard a snap as she tore the ruby away and tossed it, its sweet chime as it hit the floor. I choked on the poison and heard her laughter ring in the rafters. She laughed as if she had just heard the world’s funniest joke.

 
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