Hunters prayer, p.25
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.25

           Lilith Saintcrow
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  It was my first coherent thought, and I welcomed it, even as I clung to someone’s feet. My eyes cleared, bit by bit. The air was full of ambergris, clove, copal, and a horrid, foul, rotting stench; a smell so alien the brain shuddered each time it drifted across the nasal receptors. Oh, God. God, thank you. Thank you.

  It spoke again, that sound tearing at the world. With it, quiet seemed to envelop us, the choking quiet of a nuclear winter.

  A laugh like a flaming steel sword to the heart. “How very crass, Elder. Wherever you have been, you have not learned manners. No wonder they banished you. Did you not hear me the first time? I said no. This one is mine. See?”

  The scar bloomed hotly again, and I moaned against his feet. Spilled over onto my back, my body not obeying me but I had to look, had to see. He was hellbreed, and he was dangerous, but he was better than that … that thing.

  Perry stood, his hands in his gray trouser pockets, immaculate as always. There was an angry red healing mark on his forehead, perfectly placed, and his blue eyes blazed with holocaust flame over the indigo spreading through the whites like a cobra’s hood. I was looking from beneath, from the floor, so he seemed taller than he should have, and thinner, and his face was full of a wasted light like the dying of the sun on a knife-cold winter day. His pale hair had become a halo, and a breeze touched my face, choking with the smell of dusty feathers and spoiled, rotten honey. I heard buzzing—wasps? angry hornets? flies?—and couldn’t tell where it came from. He stood straight and slim as a sword, and his face was no longer bland but terribly, sharply beautiful.

  Beautiful in the same way a mushroom cloud or the sterile white light of reaction is beautiful. A devouring beauty.

  Above the altar, darkness pulsed. Only it wasn’t darkness. It was like the wendigo, shapes running like ink on wet paper. Shapes that were so completely divorced from the geometry of our normal space that I tried to throw up again, seeing them twist and try to leap free.

  If that carnivorous thing broke through …

  It spoke very softly, the words still dimpling and scoring the fabric of reality. But it was fading, drawing away like the cry of a distant train. It was no less menacing and alien.

  Perry shrugged. It was a marvel of Gallic fluidity, that shrug, expressing resignation and uncaring disinterest. “Perhaps. But you are there, and I am here, and I own this.” His foot moved slightly, nudging my hip now since I had turned onto my back. The scar boiled with spiked honey, pleasure creeping up my arm and spilling down my chest. Soothing, calming. I heard my own shapeless, helpless moan again.

  Just like one of the drugged victims they had slit open.

  Oh, God. God help me.

  The thing replied with a thick burping chuckle, like poisonous mud boiling. I twitched against the sound, the raw places inside my head stinging under another salted lash.

  “Empty threats bore me, Elder. Go contemplate cold eternity elsewhere. It is our time now.”

  Reality closed together like a camera lens shutter, and I convulsed as it tried to drag me, but Perry’s foot came down on the skein of my hair, nailing me in place with a jolt. A soon as the telescoping hole closed I shuddered again, strength spilling back into my bones.

  But not enough. Nowhere near enough.

  Perry glanced over his shoulder, gauging the situation. Then he squatted, his left hand dangling, his right reaching down to thread through my hair. There was no silver for him to avoid. He made a fist, pulling my head up. My throat curved helpless, and the cold floor scorched my hip, my back, my buttocks, my heels. “Look at this,” he said softly. “My poor darling.”

  His blue eyes burned into my brain, even as the scar writhed with curdled pleasure. “Here.” A jolt smashed through me, as if I was in cardiac arrest and had defib applied. I cried out, weakly, the cuffs on my ankles and wrists chiming and clattering against the floor.

  Just like a newborn screaming.

  “My poor, poor Kiss,” he whispered. “Look at this mess.”

  I was getting very tired of him saying that. I couldn’t help myself. “Saul,” I whispered in reply.

  Perry’s face didn’t change, but I flinched nonetheless. “Oh, stop it.” He sounded annoyed. “You’ll tire of him soon enough. Can you stand?”

  I’ll sure as hell give it a try. “No … dancing,” I managed, in a thick choked voice sounding not at all like myself. “For a … while.”

  He actually laughed, a chilling, happy little chuckle. “Brave to the last. Stand, I’ll help.”

  The growling of Weres had subsided. Now I heard only moans and the soft low thunder of still-angry shapeshifters; the battle was evidently won. He slid his arm behind my shoulders and picked me up as if I weighed less than nothing. I’m tall for a girl, and muscular, but he handled me as if I was made of straw.

  Or spun glass.

  “One moment.” His fingers curled around the metal of the cuff over my right wrist, sank in and twisted. He tore the metal as if it was cardboard, freeing my hand. Then he closed his warm fingers over my wrist, the scar pulsing in his palm. My head lolled, resting against his shoulder. “There. Isn’t that better?” The fabric of his suit was expensive, rich, soothing against my cheek, and I felt muscle flicker underneath as he stroked my hair. Warmth spilled through me, strength like wine flooding through my abused flesh. Unhealthy strength, like the jitter of a drug smashing through my system—but I’d take it.

  Perry sighed. “Just relax.”

  Delicious, wonderful safety spilled down my skin. “Saul,” I whispered against Perry’s suit.

  “The cat is in fine form, little one. No worries. We have averted a little unpleasantness. I think we shall renegotiate your visits to me, no? Come. Walk. You can walk.”

  “Ch-chains—” I was trying to tell him to take the other cuffs off.

  “Let them be a reminder,” he replied, inexorably. “You should have listened to me, Kiss. You’ve racked up a heavy debt.”

  “Fucking … romantic.” Humor would help, I decided. My brain shivered, jagging between the unreality of the Chaldean obscenity straining to break through into our world and the sanity of a normal day.

  Normal for a hunter, maybe.

  “I’ve never been accused of romanticism before.” Perry’s fingers dug into my upper arm as he steadied me. Just short of bruising.

  Broken bleeding husks in velvet robes lay scattered, the fluid golden wires of the Nine Seals and the three circles pale and still, useless. There was a blackened path—Perry’s passage through the circles and the pentagram, breaking into the center, slashing through the careful work Inez had done.

  All that work, all that life, wasted. I slumped against Perry, metal anklets clinking and the broken bits of chain chiming sweetly against the floor.

  There were Weres in the shadows, a whole contingent of them. Among them I saw four lionesses from the Norte Luz pride, and two ‘pards, both shamans, from the Anferi confederation, and then there was Saul and two more werecougars—and, oddly enough, Theron from Micky’s, his dark eyes luminous orange in the candlelit dimness. Some of the candles had been knocked over, and someone was snuffing the braziers. Of course, the smell would make the Weres nervous. I also saw a werefalcon, his feathery hair ruffling as he checked the borders of the room, passing his hands over the walls, checking for hidden doors.

  Where did they come from? I didn’t want them in on this, Sorrows are dangerous for Weres.

  Saul approached, rage crackling in the air around him. He didn’t pause, shucking his hiplength leather coat as he walked. He had recently shifted, I could see the glow swirling through his aura. The deepest thrumming snarl was coming from him. Muscle slid under his T-shirt; he was armed to the teeth and had a dark streak of warpaint on each high, beautiful cheekbone.

  He took me from Perry with a single scowl, his lip lifting. But he didn’t fully bare his teeth, Perry didn’t protest, and in short order Saul had the metal cuff off my left wrist and the coat closed around me. The clean musky s
mell of him rose, and warmth flooded me. I felt like I could stand up, but I leaned into him. The coat swallowed me whole, sleeves hanging far below my fingertips and the hem coming down to my knees. “Christ,” he whispered into my hair. Then he swore, vilely, in deep guttural ‘cougar. “Are you all right? Are you?”

  No, Saul. I’m very far from all right. But there was work to be done. “How many bodies? Theron? How many?”

  “Ten dead, hunter.” Theron sounded grim. “The other two are unhappy, about to be worse.”

  “Show. Show me.” I coughed, rackingly, my throat afire. I wanted to sink into Saul’s arms, shut my eyes, and scream. I wanted to black out, flinched away from the screaming well of darkness threatening to swallow me whole. “There’s another one. Find her. There are probably prisoners, too. Search this hole, but for God’s sake don’t do it alone. Go in pairs. How many do we have on our side?”

  “Twenty or thirty, Boss. There’s already a group scouring for survivors. Let us work.” Theron waved one long-clawed hand in an elegant brushoff.

  Saul lifted a silver hipflask to my lips. Brandy burned my throat and exploded in my empty stomach, I retched, managed to swipe at my lips with the back of one hand while he picked me up and hugged me with ribcracking force. “Jillian,” he whispered into my hair, his breath a warm spot against my skull. The butt of a gun poked into my ribs, a blessed sensation. I felt a little better now.

  A little. Not much. The scream boiled under my skin, I pushed it down. Trembling weakness settled into my bones. Alive. I’m alive. “Show me.” I have to see. I have to.

  Perry laughed again, a bitter little sound. “Have no fear, little one. These vipers are most dangerous in darkness. Fiat lux, and they are vulnerable as maggots.” He stood a little distance away, his hands back in his pockets and his shoulders slumped. “Belisa is not here. But the head viper is.”

  Saul half-carried me to the crumpled bodies; two of the Weres were methodically checking them. Wet crunches came as the necks were snapped, Weres believe in being thorough. They were searching for marks once the necks were snapped; all of them were Sorrows, probably Adepts.

  Dear God. It had been close. Very close.

  I could have died. Or worse, definitely worse. That was definitely worse.

  “Casualties?” My voice was husky, a ruin, I’d broken it screaming on the altar. The inside of my head echoed with the filthy squealing of Chaldean; I pushed it away with an effort that left me shaking again. Please God, be kind. Tell me nobody died rescuing my stupid ass from this.

  One of the ‘pard shamans looked over her shoulder. “Not on our side. They were all looking the other way, didn’t even have a guard.” She was a lean, rangy female, gold earplugs dangling as her head moved; her sleek short spotted hair was chopped and feathery. Like most Were shamans, she kept her arms bare, cuffs closed around her smoothly muscled biceps. The tattoo on her left shoulder slid under the skin, its inked lines running almost like the gold wire had in the ceiling and floor.

  Nausea rose sour under my breastbone. I wasn’t sure I was still alive, after all. Saul was warm and solid and real, but everything else wavered, dreamlike. The world was retreating into the fuzziness of shock, dangerous if I passed out now. Holding on to consciousness with teeth and toenails; I had to make sure.

  Two Sorrows left alive. One of them was Inez Germaine, her red-dark mane draggled and slicked with blood, chewing at the leather gag as Theron finished tying her legs together. He snarled at her, lifting his lip, and I saw the other ‘pard shaman—this one a male, his spotted hair pulled back in two high crests—reach down to cup the other Sorrow’s face in his hands, tenderly.

  “Go in peace,” he said, huskily, and made a sharp movement. The crack echoed through the room.

  My gorge rose hotly again. More killing. Christ.

  Theron reached for Inez’s head.

  “Stop.” This was from Perry. “Give her a gun, Saul.”

  “You’re out of your fucking—”

  “He’s not talking about Inez.” The weary huskiness in my voice cut through Saul’s automatic protest. My head lolled, I gathered my shattered strength. Heard movement, stealthy cat feet padding; they were searching this place, however big it was. Be careful. There could be little traps set in here, it is a Sorrows House. Right under the Santa Luz garbage dump. Perfect, absolutely perfect. No wonder everything reeked so bad. How did they find me? “He means give me a gun, and I agree.” I stopped to cough, a deep racking sound I wasn’t sure I liked.

  I am really going to feel this in a little while. But for right now, I was in shock, standing just outside myself, watching as a hollow-cheeked, almost-naked woman with bruised wrists and long tangled dark hair missing its usual silver stood next to Saul, swaying. He steadied me before reaching down and unholstering a Sig Sauer.

  “This do okay?” he asked, and tears rose in my throat.

  I denied them. Oh, Saul. Thank God for you. If I started to cry I was going to laugh, and if I started to laugh I was going to scream, and if I started screaming now I wouldn’t stop until I passed out or battered myself senseless. I nodded, reached up with my right hand. Closed my fingers around the heavy gun.

  The scar throbbed, and cold air kissed my exposed skin. My legs shook, Perry’s borrowed strength not covering up the deep well of exhaustion underneath. With the gun weighing down my hand, I eased Saul’s arm aside and made my way, unsteady as a newborn colt, to the spill of black velvet and draggled slicked-maroon hair.

  Her black eyes stared up into mine. Her wrists were working against each other, trying to loosen the Were-tied bonds. Good fucking luck—when a Were tied something up it stayed tied.

  At least, most of the time.

  I shook. Tremors spilled through me, each wave followed by another feverish-warm tide of false strength from the puckered, prickling mark on my wrist. I looked down at her, the broken bits of chain from the anklets making sweet low sounds against the floor.

  Lifted the gun. Sighted. Right between those fucking black eyes, just below where the colorless gem glittered at her hairline.

  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.

  Her soft, merciless voice chattered inside my head. So close to being outplayed. I wondered who had tracked me here, Saul or Perry, and I wondered just how deep into debt with Perry I’d gotten.

  The thought of paying off that debt made me shiver.

  Maybe she mistook it for weakness, or indecision. Her eyes lit up, sparks dancing in their infinite black depths, and her mouth curved up despite the distortion of the cruel gag. The Weres learned a long time ago not to take chances with a Sorrow.

  So did I. I should have killed Belisa on sight. But I hadn’t.

  “Judge, jury, executioner,” I said, harshly. The rest of the world fell away, leaving us enclosed in a bubble of silence. “Just like you, you fucking Sorrows bitch.”

  Her eyes widened.

  “There’s just one difference, Inez.” My mouth was dry, I wanted another swallow of that brandy. I wanted to start screaming.

  Most of all, though, I wanted to stay in that clear cold place where nothing mattered but the job at hand, the killing that had to be done. Everything there was so fucking simple. It was mercy that fucked things up; it was kindness and compassion that tangled everything together.

  The smile spread razor-cold over my face, and watched as her struggles to free her hands intensified. She began to move on the floor, velvet whispering and a thin choked sound bubbling up from behind the gag.

  I took a deep breath, air so cold it burned going down. “I’m a hunter. I am the fucking law in this town, bitch. Sentence pronounced.”

  I squeezed.

  The muzzle flashed and her body jerked. Her head exploded—Saul had loaded with the hollowpoints, and as tough as Sorrows become, they are still human at the bottom. Not like Perry.

  Did th
at make them bigger monsters, or smaller?

  I lowered the gun slightly. Squeezed the trigger again. Again.

  He must have had a full clip. I kept squeezing, firing into her body again and again and again as it twisted and jerked. Then there were only dry clicks, two, three, four, five of them before Saul twisted the gun out of my weakening hand, took me in his arms, and dragged me out of there. I wanted to stay, to find Melisande and kill her with my bare hands, I raged in my cracked and unlovely voice that I was going to do just that. I did, until the shakes got so bad my teeth chattered and cut the words into bits.

  Then I screamed, again and again, in Saul’s arms until he carried me outside, where the reek of the garbage piled around was overwhelming but at least there was sunlight, thin and sad through high clouds. But it was Perry who clapped a hand over my mouth, finally, and hissed a word in my ear. It was Helletong, a long sliding subvocal whisper, and it sent me into a sleep that was, again, like death.

  And I went gratefully.


  I‘d been wrong. It had been Perry who had tracked me, through the scar, disregarding the wound in his head. It had been Perry who suggested spreading the word among the Weres about the trouble I was in. They had stopped by Micky’s and made Theron their first contact.

  The Weres had come because I was a hunter, and because I was Saul’s lover—but, more important, because they respected me. It was nice, I supposed, to know I was regarded so highly among them. They’re notoriously hard to impress.

  I spent the first two days in a deathly daze, dealing with one thing after another in between passing out and having Saul threaten to tie me down in bed if I didn’t stop and take some time to heal. Belisa had escaped, her trail led out of the House underground in the very heart of the Santa Luz garbage dump and then … vanished.

  There were no surviving sacrificial victims. They recovered eight bodies, Belisa had stopped long enough on her way out to slit a few throats herself. They were all vanished prostitutes, not a one over twenty, and they were folded into the murder statistics for the year. Five of them had family, but I wasn’t able to attend any of the funerals. I wanted to, but I just … I had my hands full with other fallout.

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