Hunters prayer, p.6
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.6

           Lilith Saintcrow

  “We all work for the taxpayers, baby,” Carp weighed in.

  Yeah. So do the hookers. I rolled my eyes, flicked a long, charm-weighted strand of hair back over my shoulder with a slight chime. “Eat up, boys and girls. There’s work to do today.”

  The abortion clinic on Quincoa was closed by the time we got there. I used the payphone on the corner to leave a message on Carp’s cell that we would try the doc tomorrow. Next we could either stop by the seminary or go to the Monde Nuit. I wanted to get the Monde out of the way first, and Saul just got that look again, so I drove. I left him in the Impala smoking a Charvil and staring at the building with narrowed eyes.

  I walked up to the door, fitting the silver over my right hand. It was technically a set of brass knuckles, but made out of alloyed silver with just enough true content to hurt anything damned but enough other metal to be twice as hard.

  The usual daylight bouncer was on duty, a massive guy with a tribal-tattooed neck; I nodded to him and strode past. My blue eye widened, taking in the flux of bruised hellbreed-tainted atmosphere.

  It was still daylight, never mind that the sun was fading fast; the Monde was almost deserted. One or two Traders were in there drinking whatever it is the damned drink, and Riverson was at the bar again; a couple janitors were cleaning everything up and waitstaff were getting ready for dusk.

  Perry was at a velvet-covered table in the back, three other hellbreed with him. They were playing what looked like a card game, and cigarette smoke fumed in the air. He didn’t even glance up at me, but the scar on my wrist ran with throbbing prickles, a hurtful bloom on the underside of my arm.

  I was glad it was covered.

  “Hey! Hey!” Riverson yelled. I ignored him. There were a few musclebound idiots in the shadows, too far from the hellbreed to be any help; my pace had quickened. By the time I reached the table they were converging on me. Perry’s profile was supremely unconcerned, bent over his cards. A low murmur like flies above a corpse filled the air.

  Helletong, the speech of the damned. The ruby warmed against my throat on its silver chain.

  I kicked the chair out from under Perry and punched, catching him across the cheek and flinging him down and away. The next kick shattered the table; oversized cards, cigarettes, and a half-bottle of Glenlivet went flying.

  I reached down, grabbed Perry’s shirt, hauled him up left-handed, and punched him again. Blood flew, the silver armoring my fist would hurt him more than the force of the blow. I drew back, silver suddenly hot on my fingers, and did it again, dropped him, and kicked him twice. The gun left its holster left-handed, a feat I practiced long and hard to achieve in the dim first days of my training, and I set my feet on the floor, turning in a complete circle to see what I was up against.

  Seven of ‘em, not counting the goddamn breeds I just interrupted. Splendid.

  Perry coughed, and the sound of his laughter cut the air into a thousand wet, shivering pieces. “Sweet nothings,” he managed through a mouthful of blood. “Kiss. So nice to see you again.”

  The muscles stopped, each leather-clad mountainous one of them. I drew in a deep soft breath, the gun held level. “Back off,” I told them. “Or I’ll fucking kill you all.”

  Silver in my hair rattled just like a diamondback’s tail.

  They backed off. I reholstered the gun, bent down, and hauled Perry upright again. “I put up with a lot of shit from you, Pericles. You and the rest of your hellspawn scum. But no underage cooch. The rule’s simple: no dabbling in the under-eighteen pool in my territory. Right?”

  As usual, he got cute with me. “Would we dare disagree?”

  I’d damaged one whole half of his bland pale face, his blood-masked eyes glared at me but he remained still, perfectly still.

  Inhumanly still.

  I let go of the front of his shirt. Blood dripped from his chin, the skin over his cheekbone mashed into hamburger, his lacerated eye puffing up. Never pretty in the first place, and a whole lot worse now. I discarded the thought, lifted my fist again.

  “Spare me your kisses, Kismet.” He raised his hands, loosely. But there was no shimmer of etheric force around them, he wasn’t getting ready to throw anything nasty at me. “We know this decree of yours. We obey.”

  Like shit you do, if you think you can get away with it. “Oh yeah? Someone’s breaking it. Using Diamond Ricky’s teenage whores to feed a few bad appetites. And right now my suspicion is squarely on the hellbreed population. I know how little self-control you bastards have.”

  His unwounded eye narrowed a little, that was all. I could tell nothing from his face, and he probably had the idea that I was just fishing.

  Still, it was therapeutic to bash his face in every once in a while. It was also good for my image. “Whatever escort service supplying underage cooch you’ve got your fingers in, get out. Now. Or next time I come back I’ll shoot you in the fucking face. And I’ll see this place loses its incognito appeal with the police.”

  His lip curled—at least, the half of it that wasn’t split and bleeding. “Human police?”

  And whatever nightside help I can beg, borrow, and threaten to erase you from the face of the earth. “I’m sure they can be given a little help.” I held his eyes, unblinking. The scar on my wrist sent waves of heat up my arm, each wave deep, soft, and deliciously warm. My heart rate rose a little, but I was trained too well to have a little sex magic distract me. “Don’t fuck with me, Perry.”

  “Someday you might want me to.” He reached up, touched his bleeding lip with delicate fingertips, and the smile in his blue eyes chilled my blood. “I’ll live to hear you beg, hunter.”

  Not if I have anything to say about it. “Dream on, hellspawn. Do we understand each other, or do I have to kick your ass around this cheapshit little shack?” The back of my neck prickled. I could feel them moving in on me. Got to think of something quick here.

  Perry waved them away. Thin black ichor spattered on the floor, the wounds closing slowly. Very slowly. Silver’s deadly to them, something about the Moon and how she rules the tides of both sorcery and water. We don’t fully understand why silver works, but no hunter I’ve ever run across cares. It’s enough that it works.

  Perry’s eyes burned laser-blue. The tip of his cherry-red scaled tongue flicked over the black ichor oozing over his lips like a tiny crimson fish. “I understand you perfectly, dear Kiss. Do you even understand yourself?”

  “Spare me the psychobabble.” I turned on my heel, my hand throbbing inside the silver weight. My back ran with electricity—a damned I’d just punched in the face was right behind me. Right behind me. In front of me, two mountains of muscle, both wearing sunglasses, both armed with assault rifles. “See you Sunday, Perry. Maybe I’ll ruin another one of your suits.”

  “I look forward to it. Try not to break anything next time.”

  “Don’t piss me off, and maybe I won’t. Keep your ears open.” I strode straight for the muscle, and they moved aside to let me pass.

  I let out a soft breath of relief, though I shouldn’t have. Perry’s voice floated through the air behind me, wet and chill with glee.

  “You could’ve just asked, Kiss.”

  You fucker. “You wouldn’t have told me jackshit,” I tossed over my shoulder. And I’m not so sure you don’t know anything. This was an exercise in futility, but at least I got to hit you. “Besides, maybe I like smashing your face in, hellspawn.”

  With that, I hit the door. Mercifully, he didn’t say anything else. Maybe he was getting smarter.

  My orange Impala gleamed at the curb, once again in the fire zone, Saul’s cigarette sending lazy whorls of smoke into the air out the passenger’s-side window. I got in, dropping down in the driver’s seat, and looked at the red fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror. Let out a sigh.

  Saul said nothing.

  “I think we’re fucked.” I stared through the windshield as the last of the daylight poured out of the sky’s cup. “He knows something, maybe, but
he won’t give it up. Yet.”

  Saul exhaled a long sheaf of smoke. I worked the silver knuckles off my fingers; they were grimed with Perry’s thin black blood.

  They don’t bleed red, Hell’s scions. No, they bleed silt-black, in thin runnels like grapeseed oil, and it stinks as it decays.

  “It isn’t Were,” Saul answered softly. “It isn’t hellbreed, at least not any hellbreed or damned Perry has control over. It isn’t a type of damned you’ve seen before. Whatever it is, it stinks of violence, and fur. I haven’t ever smelled anything like this, Jill. It’s definitely not human, but I don’t know what it is.”

  I turned my head, meaning to look at him, but instead staring at the front door of the Monde guarded by its huge bouncer. Why the muscle kept letting me in I don’t know, except for the scar on my arm and my bargain with Perry. Still, they should have roughed me up once or twice, just to keep things standard. “Something neither of us knows about. Something that attacks teenage hookers and divests them of their internal organs.”

  “It stinks of ice and rotting flesh. And magic. Bad, old, nasty magic.”

  I stared at the door as if I could will a part of the puzzle to come clear. “You think he’s involved?”

  “This isn’t his style. But I wouldn’t rule him out.” Saul flicked the Charvil out the window. “What next?”

  “The seminary. We need to figure out how an utt’huruk got into a nice corn-fed missionary boy. Then home to pick up a few things, and call Andy.” I gave him a tight smile. “No, I haven’t forgotten. And I want to pick his brains as well as ask him to send his apprentice down here to cover for me.”

  Saul looked troubled. I twisted the key and the Impala purred into life. Good old American heavy metal. “Jill.”


  “Do you like visiting him?”

  What? Saul had never directly referred to my bargain with Perry since coming back from the Rez after the rogue Were case two years ago. “What the hell are you talking about? One of these days, when I’ve figured out a lesser evil, I am going to kill him. He’s useful, Saul. Don’t start.”

  “I don’t like the way he looks at you.”

  You’re not the only one. I put the car in gear, released the parking brake, and pulled out. “Neither do I, baby. Neither do I.”


  I was on a hell of a run of bad luck, and more came in the form of information, as usual. The still-unconscious Oscar hadn’t had any visitors, but he had been in the room when another seminary student’s aunt had visited. The aunt had been tall, dark-haired, and nobody could describe her face; not even the priest who had signed her in and watched the visit—who just happened to be the heart-attack victim, Father Rosas. The kid who’d been visited was a transfer student from out of state, a thin ratlike teenage boy whose narrow eyes widened when I shoved the gun in his face and told him to strip.

  Red-nosed Father Rourke choked, but Saul had him by the collar. Father Guillermo stood up so fast his chair scraped against the linoleum floor. “Jillian?” He sounded like the air had been punched out of him.

  “Sorry, Father.” And I was. “But this kid might be dangerous. It’s insurance.”

  “You … you—” Father Rourke was having a little trouble with this. “You witch! Gui, you won’t let her—”

  “Paul.” Gui’s voice was firm. He backed up two steps from the teenager I had at gunpoint. “Remember your oath.”

  “The Church—”

  “The archbishop and the cardinal have given me provisional powers once there is proved to be supernatural cause,” I quoted, chapter and verse. “Keep yourself under control, Father, or Saul will drag you outside. Don’t make him cranky, I don’t recommend it.” I nodded at the kid. “Strip. Slowly. The cassock first.”

  The boy trembled. The whites of his eyes were yellow, acne pocked his cheeks, and I was nine-tenths sure there would be a mark on him. Maybe not on his back, but somewhere on his body.

  A Sorrow doesn’t leave the House, living or dead, without a mark. One way or another, they claim their own, from a Queen Mother down to the lowliest male drone.

  The question of just what a young Sorrow would be doing here in a seminary was the bigger concern, though.

  And just as I was sure the kid wasn’t going to strip, he slowly lifted his hands, palms out.

  Uh-oh. This doesn’t look go—

  The spell hit me, hard, in the solar plexus, I choked and heard Saul yell. The cry shaded into a Were’s roar, wood shattering, and I shook my head, blood flying from my lip. Found myself on my feet, instinctively crouching as the ratfaced Sorrow leapt for me; I caught his wrist, locked it, whirled, and had him on the ground. He was muttering in Chaldean.

  Saul growled. I spared a look at him; his tail lashed and his teeth were bared. In full cougar form, but his eyes were incandescent—and he was larger than the usual mountain cat. Weres tend to run slightly big even in their animal forms. He made a deep hissing coughing sound, the tawny fur on the back of his neck standing straight up and his tail puffing up just like a housecat’s. “Shift back,” I snarled. “I need this bastard held down.”

  “What is she—what is she—” Father Rourke was having a little more trouble with the program. Gui had his arm, holding him back; Rourke’s face was even more florid than usual. He was actually spluttering, and I felt a well of not-very-nice satisfaction.

  I leaned down, the boy’s wiry body struggling under me. “I can help you,” I whispered in his ear. “I can help you, free you of the Sorrows, and give you your soul back. You know I can. Cooperate.”

  His struggles didn’t cease; if anything, they grew more intense. He heaved back and forth, rattling in Old Chaldean like a snake.

  It was always a fool’s chance, to try to free a Sorrow. Hunters always offer, but they almost never take us up on it. The Mothers and sorceress-bitches have things just the way they want them, all the power and none of the accountability—and the boys are drones, born into Houses and trained to be nothing but mindless meat.

  The Sorrows worship the Elder Gods, after all. And those gods—like all gods—demand blood. The difference is, the Elder Gods like their claret literally, with ceremony, and in bucketfuls.

  Saul’s hands came down; tensed, driving in. Immediately, it became much easier to keep the kid down. Working together, we got him flipped over; I held down the boy’s hips while Saul took care of his upper torso. The Were’s eyes were aflame with orange light, he was furious. He slid a long cord of braided leather into the kid’s mouth, holding down one skinny wrist with his knee. “No poison tooth for you,” he muttered. “Jill?”

  “I’m fine.” I spat blood, he’d socked me a good one in the mouth. Thank God my teeth don’t come out easily. Sorcery is occasionally useful. “Hold him.” Where’s the mark, got to find the mark, got to find it; what’s a Sorrow doing in here?

  The boy’s spine crackled as his eyes rolled into his head. He mumbled, and I wondered what he was cooking up next. Goddammit, and he’s gagged. Christ. I tore the front of his shirt, ran my hand over his narrow hairless chest. No tingle. Where was the mark?

  “Jillian?” Father Guillermo, by the door. He sounded choked.

  “You witch, that’s one of our kids!” Rourke was still having trouble with this one.

  I snapped a glance back over my shoulder, checking. “Transferred from out of state? Your kid’s in a ditch somewhere, Father. This is a Sorrow. Probably just a little baby viper instead of a full-grown one, though.” Or he’d have tried to crush my larynx instead of socking me in the gut. I got his pants off with one swift jerk, breaking the button and jamming the zipper. “I suggest you wait outside in case he chews through the gag.” Blood dripped into my right eye, I blinked it away, irritably. “The question is why the Sorrows are so interested in this seminary. And when I find the mark we’ll find out.”

  I got lucky. It was on his right thigh, the three interlocked circles in blue with the sigil of the Black Flame where they overlapp
ed. He was a young soldier, not a man-drone only fit for sacrifice or a pleasure-slave. Of all the ranks a male could hold in a House, the soldiers had maybe the shortest life—but at least they weren’t tied down and slaughtered to feed the Eldest Ones. “Bingo,” I muttered, and held out my hand. The bone handle of Saul’s Bowie landed solidly in my palm.

  The Sorrow hissed and gurgled behind the gag. Saul reached down, cupped his chin, and yanked back, exposing the boy’s throat and making sure he couldn’t thrash his shoulders around.

  I laid the flat of the knife against the mark and the kid screamed, audible even behind the gag. Steel against Chaldean sorcery, one of the oldest enmities known to magic.

  The Elder Gods would have us all back in the Bronze Age if they could. They would have us killing each other to feed their hungry mouths as well. Still, there are some Elders the Sorrows don’t invoke, because their very natures are inimical to the worship of darkness. Belief is a double-edged blade, and a hunter can use it as well as any other weapon.

  “Thou shalt be released,” I murmured in Old Chaldean. “Thou unclean, thou whom the gods have turned their face from, thou shalt be released, in the name of Vul the Magnificent, the lighter of fires—”

  He screamed again. I paused. Next came sliding the knife up and flaying the skin to get the mark off. I could add it to my collection. Each little bit of skin, drying and stretching and marked with their hellish brand, was another brick in the wall between me and the guilt of my teacher’s death. Each time I killed a Sorrow, I felt good.


  I am not a very nice person.

  “Last chance,” I said. “Before you go to your Hell.” And believe me when I say that’s one place you don’t want to visit even for a moment.

  The kid went limp.

  There, that’s more like it. I looked up at Saul, whose eyes still glowed. No, he was not in the least bit happy. But he nodded, a quick dip of his chin, and released the pressure on the gag just a little.

  The rat-faced kid’s eyes met mine. A spark flared in their tainted depths, swirling now he had revealed himself. His skin began to look gray too, the Chaldean twisting his tongue and staining his body.

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