Hunters prayer, p.24
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.24

           Lilith Saintcrow
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  “The bodies were to draw me out and create taplines.” I sounded steady. Steady enough for being chained naked to a rock. “Belisa was just to spice the mix, draw me in, keep me around. But why the wendigo?”

  She laughed, a marvelously soft sound. I sucked in a deadly breath as her warm fingers continued to stroke my breast. “You think I’m going to make the mistake cartoon villains make and tell you my plans while you work on burning away that ridiculous leather bracelet?” She tweaked my nipple with her fingertips, I kept a straight face. Heard more soft moans.

  Oh, God. They’re starting the second sequence.

  “I see the lamb’s voice disturbs you more than mine does, hunter. The wendigo was a useful tool, and its habits kept you looking in the wrong place. But your first encounter with it was carefully scripted.”

  “You were on the roof with a bow.” I sounded bored. But I wanted to look past her to the curving altar. Controlled myself. “Killing your own employees.”

  “They were men, my darling. Useful, expendable, but overwhelmingly useless—”

  “I’m female, and just as expendable.” Interrupting a Grand Mother is a good way to piss her off; they were the rulers of their Houses. Big egos and big brains, not to mention enough sorcerous ability to power a blimp. Her eyes were so black, from lid to lid, infinite holes in her pleasant face. Deep. So deep.

  The scar on my arm was growing hotter by the moment, as if Perry had breathed on it, turning it to lava. I could almost feel acidic saliva trickling down my wrist, too. The pain scored up my arm, jolted me out of the sticky web of her eyes.

  “You, ma belle, are not expendable. You are my greatest achievement. The pregnant victims were selected for fetal tissue, yes, but that tissue has already been harvested and sold to the highest bidder. They paid for the vault over your head.”

  Well, that’s a fucking relief. Thanks for giving me that wonderful piece of news. I was beginning to get a very bad feeling about this. “You’re doing an evocation,” I said flatly. “And you want me to be the host for your psychotic little fucknut of a—”

  The blow came out of nowhere, smashing across my cheek, my head rang and I saw stars again. Then her fingers were back on my breast, caressing, kneading my flesh. I felt a warm trickle of blood trace down my chin and rolled my head back to look at her. “Damaging the merchandise, bitch.” My voice was husky.

  “You are merely required to be whole, not undamaged. Think of it. One of the Old Ones, the summa of negation, inside a body—a female body, a body capable of creation and destruction, a body strengthened with a hellbreed mark and possessing a soul gifted with murder and mayhem in the finest degree? You are a fit vessel, and once you are filled there will be enough blood, enough destruction, to remake this world as it once was. The Elder Gods will live through you, hunter.” Her smile was calm, beautiful, and so sane it was crazed, and I began to really get a bad feeling about this.

  I heard the last breathless sigh of the drugged woman near the door. Oh, God. Please, God. No. Then a terribly final cessation, the act of slitting the throat down to the vertebrae. And the gurgle of life and blood leaving the body.

  The golden marks on the ceiling writhed, a fresh humming charge flooding them. “Try again, you bitch,” I whispered. “I’m a hunter. Your Chaldean filth won’t stick to me.”

  “A hunter who has just killed a dozen men.” Inez Germaine’s smile broadened. She stroked my breast once more, lovingly, and I jagged in a sharp breath. The gentle touch reminded me of Saul, something I couldn’t afford. “You slaughtered them like pigs, bebe. You heard the screams for mercy and you disregarded them. You were judge, jury, and executioner, you took your God’s place.”

  It wasn’t like that. “I did not.”

  “You killed them, didn’t you?”

  “They were your accessories. Willing, in Jonte’s case. Unwitting in others. But they were—”

  “We’re all aware of your feelings about pimps, Judith.”

  That name again, the name of a dead girl. The air left me as if I’d been punched. Oh, Belisa had gotten her money’s worth when she’d rifled Mikhail’s private papers.

  Stop it, the voice of reason said, desperately. Stop it. Of course she’s dug that up. You aren’t her anymore. That girl died and you came back from Hell. That’s not you.

  But my voice was ragged. “Cogs in a wheel, bitch. One steps out, the next steps in. Try another sticky-finger attempt to get inside my head. You’ve failed.”

  “Pas necessaire.” The smile that broke over her face now was a marvel of sincere serenity. I heard more velvet shushing and another slow, disoriented moan. Another victim. The second sequence.

  The touch on my breast gentled. “The ritual will proceed, cherie belle. And when you look in the face of the Old One who will inhabit you, we will see how much your protests avail you.” A final gentle tweaking of my nipple and she was gone, shushing back in her long velvet robe. The sound of the candles hissed, and there was another soft gurgle as blood spilled, steaming, into the air. The copper reek thickened.

  I looked up at the ceiling. Golden marks revolved in their stately dance, thick gold wire scoring new channels through the concrete, twisting and healing their former runnels without a sigh. And as soon as Inez Germaine cleared the square around the altar, the golden border of the square flushed with etheric force and began to move too.

  By the end of the second sequence of sacrifices the pentacle would be revolving as well. Then the third sequence, but that one would be the harvested death Inez was carrying behind her black eyes, ready to release with a Word. A Word in Chaldean, which would charge the Nine Seals and the triple circle, containing the psychic force and enforcing the collective will of the Sorrows hive on the space inside.

  After that, the final sequence, which would rip open a hole in the fabric of reality. And I was right at ground zero. A tasty little snack.

  Her voice was soft and utterly merciless, dropping into my head like a bean into a furrow. Ready to germinate, the seed of doubt. You slaughtered them like pigs, bebe. You heard screams for mercy and you disregarded them. You were judge, jury, and executioner, you took your God’s place.

  And what had I told Saul? Told him to go to the barrio, because I didn’t want him to see what I was capable of. What I could do, once I decided it was necessary.

  My breath hissed in my throat. Hopeless. It was fucking hopeless. Nothing left to do but pray.

  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—

  I balked, sheer stubbornness rising up under the words, shunting the prayer aside. It would work when I was gearing up to face Perry, but not now. Not now. Oh God, not now, I didn’t want to die like this, stretched out like bad fantasy-novel art on a moldy old twenty-five-cent paperback.

  I was going to die.

  Fury rose in me. Shit on that, Jillian Kismet. Shit all over that. You’re a hunter, there’s work to do and your city to save. Think up a way to get out of this one, you stupid whore. You didn’t even tell Saul where her little bolthole is. How could you be so stupid? Assuming, of course, that Belisa left Saul alive.

  Another breath, this one deeper and smoother.

  You’re chained naked to an altar and they’re killing people over there, and there’s a Sorrows Grand Mother who is crazy as a bedbug with a thumb in your door. And all hell’s about to break loose.

  It wasn’t working. Panic set in. I thrashed, once, twice, the chains jangled.

  I heard it again, the gurgle of another life wasted. Women, probably, the reserve Inez had kept here in this place, a Sorrows House hidden so wonderfully well in my own city. Hidden so well I hadn’t had a clue—but I’d been busy since spring, hadn’t I? Dreadfully busy. A spike in violence and crime that was a clear sign of Sorrows moving in, with twenty-twenty hindsight I could solve every fucking problem, couldn’t I?

; They were killing people. People from my city. My people.

  But why should you care? You killed eleven of them last night. Not twelve, like that bitch said—unless you count Perry and he’s not a pimp, he’s a hellbreed. Just one step up from a pimp in my personal pantheon of evil, but still.

  The voice was soft, seductive, stroking me. Why should you care, Jill? Why should you care how many they kill?

  “Mine,” I whispered, and closed out the sound of the candles burning and the sudden hiss as someone threw a gout of incense into another brazier. “My city. My city.”

  Santa Luz was my city; and whoever was in it—especially anyone a Sorrow would want to sacrifice—was under my protection. I kept the law in my city, goddammit, and if this jumped-up praying mantis thought she was going to kill pregnant hookers and Mob bosses in my town and without my say-so, she had another think coming.

  But doesn’t that make you just like them, Jill? Doesn’t it? You decide who lives, who dies? Judge, jury, executioner?

  The scar on my wrist turned excruciatingly hot. Pain rolled up my arm, a great golden glassy spike of pain. The scream burst from me, raw, wrecked, and agonized, like the dying scream of the wendigo. I’d killed it too, hadn’t I? No matter that Saul had held the spear, I had caused its death.

  Who was I to decide that?

  I am the law, goddammit! I protect them, the innocents. I am the sword of righteousness.

  But I’d murdered, hadn’t I? Eleven pimps. Eleven men, never mind that they’d given me the information I needed. Never mind that the world was probably better off without them.

  Cogs in a wheel, bitch. The world is not better off without them. More will rise to take their place.

  And with every pimp I killed I bought some hooker on a corner a little breathing room. Not much, not ever enough—but some.

  It was worth it.

  I sagged against the altar’s cold unforgiving glass at my back. The chains clashed. The golden marks on the ceiling were twisting madly now, running with the black crackling lightning of Chaldean sorcery.

  Another gurgle. Guilt slammed through me, a hot steamy nauseous guilt. I had fallen right into the trap, and people were dying for it. Innocent people.

  I tilted my head over, tucking my chin, and looked.

  Black lightning ate the body whole once the blood had been spilled. Where there had been a pale human form, veined in black fire, now there was nothing; the etheric discharge of death, visible through my blue eye, was trapped and funneled, the soul tearing itself free and disappearing, the etheric strings holding it to the body snapped. Cleanly severed. The wendigo’s violence and reek had covered up the signs of theft on the other bodies. How many of them? How much death was the blood-haired bitch carrying?

  No wonder she’s fucking mad, I thought, and it was like a slap of freezing water.

  They dragged another drugged naked form in, and ice slammed through me. Pure, clean, marvelous ice, the little click as I disconnected again, taking off, rising. Becoming that other person, the Jill Kismet who could go from house to house like the Angel of Death, sparing and striking according to her will.

  The girl had long sandy hair, and was drugged out of her mind. She didn’t struggle, but suddenly it wasn’t her I was seeing. It was another girl, with long brown hair and a severely bruised face, whose ankles were thin and bruised too, who flinched when I yelled.

  Oh, dear God. I knew it wasn’t Cecilia; she was with Avery. Or at least, so I hoped.

  But goddammit, the light wasn’t good, and when I looked at the pale body they bent back over the curved altar all I could see was Cecilia’s face. The face of a tired young hooker who had once been a bright needy little girl, who had escaped from Hell between four walls of a home and found a different hell out in the cold world, in backseats and hotel rooms and up against walls and wherever a dark corner could be found and sometimes, not even then.

  And under Cecilia’s face, I saw another face. A face of a girl with dark hair and brown eyes, a very intelligent but terribly crippled child who had grown up too fast.

  She’s dead, Jill. The only one left alive is you. She went into Hell and you came back.

  I struggled, but silently. Pulled. Pulled.

  I pulled against the chains, my breath coming out in a long huuuuuungh! of effort, veins popping out and muscles protesting. The scar turned white-hot, agony bolting up my arm, and I heard a slight groan of overstressed metal.

  I was still looking when they tipped her head back, the vulnerable curve of her throat glaring-white in the smoky dimness. More incense had been thrown on the braziers. The air crackled with humming etheric force, the thick golden wires whispering now as they remade themselves, livid lurid golden fire writhing and undulating through granite floor and concrete vault.

  They use curved knives, the Sorrows. Curved black obsidian blades, with hammered gold in the blood groove.

  I screamed as the knife descended, my cry taking on physical shape and smashing through the incense smoke, my back arching as if in the throes of orgasm. I convulsed with every iota of strength, mental, physical, everything, straining, tearing at the prison of metal around my wrists. My left shoulder popped, tendons savagely stretched, almost dislocating itself, and I heard a scream of metal stretching and stone bubbling hot. Heat blasted up, reflecting from the altar’s surface and careering across the cold vault in a gunpowder flash.

  Inez Germaine Ayasha laughed, and she pronounced the Word in Chaldean that set loose the third sequence and tore the three circles into screaming life.

  Then everything broke loose.

  I think I passed out. At least momentarily. But that moment contained a lifetime.

  Darkness enfolded me, smothered me, pressed down deep upon me. A bulging pressed obscenely against the fabric of the physical world. Spacetime curving, the black curved mirror slanting, a pregnant hollow of cancerous pus as something, sensing its time was near, strained to be let out. Strained to rip through etheric and physical reality, strained to unzip the barrier of the world and step through. There had been much work to prepare for this, much toil and suffering, and there was a body ripe for the taking. A matrix of probabilities meshed, caught, turned … and tipped.

  It dropped like a baby’s head into the waiting hollow of the pelvis, descending preparatory to labor. The mother draws a deep breath, relieved for the moment, unconscious that around the corner lies the straining of birth.

  And then, it pushed.

  Screaming, torn past rationality, an animal shriek as if my guts were ripping out on glassy sharp claws. Screaming as if the veil had been torn away and I’d seen the naked face of existence leering down at me.

  Maybe I had.

  The howl was an animal’s, yet it shaped words, a language that had not been spoken since the War between the Chaldean gods and the Imdarak, the Lords of the Trees. The Imdarak were gone, their victory in banishing the Chaldeans from this plane Pyrrhic in the extreme, something only whispered faintly of between hunters, passed down in the dead of night as part of a hunter’s inheritance. Yet I screamed aloud in that language, tearing my vocal cords until the screaming trailed off in a long rasping gurgle as if my throat was cut.

  It bore down on me. An immense weight, seeking to get in, to crush me and fill me, boiling wine trying to shatter the cup it was poured into. Or lava, forcing its way through a brittle stony crust. Forcing its way into me, to possess me.

  Something in me resisted. A hard piece of tinfoil between the teeth, a small germ of irritation, a pinprick to a creature this mighty. Every exorcism I’d ever done—had it felt like this to the victims? Locks smashed, drawers pulled out, mental furniture reduced to matchsticks, personality shredded, breaking, the essence that was me stretching in a thin film over something too horrible to be described, like the shape of a monster under a blanket that is so instantly wrong you know it cannot be human.

  Is nothing even close to human.

  Then, pain. Fresh pain, a slice straight throu
gh the middle of me. A fist curled in my hair and yanked, metal snapping at my wrists and ankles, and I spilled off the altar in a boneless heap, my head hitting granite with skullcracking force. The gurgle died in my throat, giving way to a whimper.

  Like a beaten dog, whining in the back of its throat.

  “No,” Perry’s almost-familiar voice said, and the scar on my wrist suddenly turned blowtorch-hot again under the metal of the broken cuffs. And every pain in the world was suddenly a thin imitation of this agony, excruciating because it was physical and yet a relief because it wasn’t the soul-destroying violation of my innermost self.

  “She is mine,” the voice continued, calmly but with a terrible weight of anger. “Signed, sealed, and witnessed, Elder. She is not for you.”

  The world stopped on its axis, though I could now hear other sounds. Crimson sparks danced behind my eyes, and I heard clashing, screams, and the coughing roar of a Were in battle-fury. Saul? My dazed brain staggered.

  The thing spoke again, a long string of those horrible, horrible alien sounds. I cowered, chains clashing as I clapped my numb hands over my bleeding ears and huddled against something solid. Something absurdly comforting, twin hardnesses poking into my ribs, as if I was at the foot of a statue. I choked on blood and bile, drew in a shuddering breath, and the scar turned to liquid on my arm. Pleasant oiled honey, sliding under my skin. Soothing.

  OhGodplease let it be over, please let it be over. I sobbed without restraint, huddling down and making myself as small as I could.

  “Let’s ask her, shall we?” Perry’s voice turned cheerful, razor-edged with sheer goodwill, and I flinched. I knew that tone. I knew that voice, though I had never heard it unveiled in its full aching power before. “I think she likes me better. But then, I’m handsomer.”

  More screams, more sounds of bloodshed, the steady roar of an enraged Were doubling, trebling. How many were there? Saul? Is that you? Oh, God. God help me.

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