Hunters prayer, p.8
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.8

           Lilith Saintcrow
 

  Avery was decent, after all. He looked up, at my Were. “I’m sorry, Saul. I just—Christ. This thing’s awful. There’s talk going around.”

  My ears perked. “What kind of talk?”

  “Talk of a bounty on Weres. Someone’s saying that this is a rogue Were, and why shouldn’t the rest of them suffer for it? And there’s talk about you too, Jill, that you’re marked and it’s only a matter of time before the damned drag you back to Hell.”

  “Marked. By who?” I’ve been marked all my life, Avery. But if he was hearing whispers on the nightside, little bits of rumor from the occult shops and not-so-human stoolies that kept on the exorcists’ good side, it could only mean bad trouble.

  “I dunno. But you hear shit, you know. Something big is going down, and I can’t get more than whispers.” He hunched his shoulders, looking miserable. “You just be careful. We can’t afford to lose you. Or your furry friend there.”

  Well, at least that was something. “Guess not.” I bumped Saul with my elbow, but gently. Just to let him know I was there. He was still crowding me, a little closer than usual. Taking comfort in closeness. “We’ve got Sorrows adepts in town, Ave. At least one. I pulled an utt’huruk out of a kid the other day and there was a Neophym who gurgled something about chutsharak before biting his poison tooth. You know that term?”

  “I never was good at that prehistoric shit.” He shook his brown head, curls falling in his eyes. “I thought you didn’t let the Sorrows in.”

  “I don’t. When I find their bolthole I’m going to burn them. Just watch yourself. You hear anything that sounds like Chaldean, you run.”

  “You bet. Hey, be easy on this witness. He’s not bolted too tight, I guess. And he doesn’t want any police static, or I woulda met him and brought him to you.”

  Go easy? I’m an easygoing gal. “That goes without saying.” I lifted my beer bottle and he lifted his, we clinked the glass together. He suddenly looked a lot easier about the whole thing. “I’ll be gentle, I promise.”

  “Yeah, right.” His color began to come back. “Sure you will.”

  I could almost feel my eyebrow raise. “You’re a cynic, Avery. One day that’s going to catch up to you.” I lifted my beer again, and took a long hard swallow.

  It tasted a little more sour than I liked. Or that could have been the taste of bad luck in my mouth.

  Instead of research, we hit the street looking for Robbie the Juicer, the nervous witness. It was a cold night, clouds moving in from the river but not fast enough to give us rain before five or six in the morning; the hard points of braver stars pierced the veil of night and orange citylight. Outside the city limits, out in the near-desert, the waning moon would shine on yucca and sandstone. It was a night for sharp teeth and quick death. The air itself was knotted tight with expectation.

  We canvassed the easier places on Avery’s list first: the missions, Prosper Alley, the shooting gallery on Trask Street, the fountain in Plaskeny Square. Nada. Not a whisper of our target.

  Plenty of the people we saw that night had no idea we were there. I stayed close to Saul, and Were camouflage took care of hiding us both. Weres are traditionally hunters’ allies, and plenty of times a hunter has been grateful for the furkind’s ability to conceal. I was odd among hunters in that I actually slept with my backup, but by no means unique. Most Weres don’t like bedplay with humans; we’re too fragile.

  But with the scar on my wrist, I was no longer so fragile. It made things interesting.

  Just the way Saul’s initial distrust and distaste for me and my helltainted self had made things interesting. Sometimes I wondered why he had come back.

  You can find bums in any city. Looking for a particular homeless man in Santa Luz is needle-in-a-haystack frustrating. You just roll around a lot and hope to get stuck in the right place.

  We were casing the second large mecca of the dispossessed in Santa Luz, Broadway. I walked beside Saul carefully, occasionally glancing down at the cracked sidewalk, threading between groups of street kids gathering in doorways and sharing cigarettes of both legal and nonlegal origin. Quite a few had bottles in brown paper bags, and a good number of them were younger than Baby Jewel. Dreadlocks, dyed hair, piercings, layers of clothing as they struggled to stay warm in the desert night, gangs and streetfamilies drawing together for comfort and protection—it was enough, really, to make a cynic out of anyone.

  I caught sight of a thin, nervous-looking man with a scruff of brown hair, sharing hits off a bottle with a taller scarecrow of a black man in army fatigues. The brown-haired scruff wore a dun coat and a red backpack, black boots, and a shocking-blue T-shirt.

  Saul marked him a full fifteen seconds after I did. “That him?”

  “Coat, backpack, boots, and a serious case of nerves. Looks like it.” I started forward, but Saul’s hand closed around my arm. “What?”

  He tilted his head. “Someone else is looking.”

  I looked. There, tucked into a slice of shadow like a professional, a skinny man in a long dirty duster finished un-smoking a cigarette. The red eye glowed as he dropped it, and he was too clean-shaven to be a homeless man. And it’s not just strange to see a homeless man drop a smoke halfway to the filter, especially when he doesn’t take a drag before he does it.

  It rings every wrong bell in a hunter’s head to see something like that.

  “Got enough metal on him for me to smell, and he’s hunting,” Saul murmured in my ear. I barely nodded, letting him know I’d heard him.

  Mercenary? Or something else?

  I thought this over, examining our new player. Was he looking for Robbie or just for trouble? He didn’t seem to have the nervous witness in his sights, but he was certainly up to no good. And if Saul could smell gunplay and violence on him, he was probably someone I should have a nice little chat with.

  You can call me paranoid, but I rarely believe in pure coincidence. Usually coincidence gets a little help in a situation like this.

  “Get our witness. Question him if you feel like it.” I slid a slim, black-finished blade out of its sheath and reversed it along my arm. “I’ll see what’s up with our little friend over there.”

  “You got it. Where should I take the jitterboy?”

  I did a rapid mental calculation of location and distance. “Take him to Woo Song’s and buy him dinner, but don’t let him drink any more. I’ll meet you as soon as I can. Get every scrap of information you can from him. And play nice.”

  “I will.” He looked, again, like he wanted to say be careful. But he didn’t. He merely bent down, kissed my temple, and slid away, leaving me without a Were’s camouflage.

  I set off across the street at an angle calculated to bring me into our mysterious visitor’s blind spot.

  Unfortunately, I realized as I was halfway across Broadway, our friend wasn’t alone. His backup was on the roof, and as bullets chewed into the pavement behind me and the screaming started, I realized that this wasn’t normal at all. Nothing about this was usual. And that usually added up to one very fucked Jill Kismet.

  I rolled, taking cover behind a parked car. Glass shattered; whoever it was had a fucking assault rifle and was spraying the car. The knife vanished, and I spared a brief prayer for the civilians on the street. Let’s have no casualties, Jill.

  That is, except for the ones you want to inflict.

  11

  A running gunfight is not like you see in the movies. Most gun battles are over in just under seven seconds, and most end with nobody getting hurt. Or at least, among the normal dayside population, that’s what it’s like.

  A nightside gunfight is a different beast. We don’t engage in them often, mostly because a lot of hellbreed and other things hunters deal with are tough enough not to need guns most of the time. A hunter is armed with heavy firepower merely to even the score.

  These boys, however, were not nightsiders. They were human, and professional troublemakers unless I missed my guess. The one on the ground vanished a
s the one on the roof peppered the car I’d taken cover behind; I tore the cuff off my right wrist and stuffed it in my pocket, gasping as air hit the scar and a flush of chill heat slammed through my nervous system. I could have dealt with these jokers with the cuff on, but I was feeling a little unsettled. Besides, why not use near-invulnerability if you have it?

  It used to be I wouldn’t use it unless I had to. God, Jill, you’ve changed.

  My own guns spun out, and I gathered my legs underneath me. Sighed, blew out between my teeth, and whirled, skipping back two or three steps before pitching forward, legs burning as I pulled on all the etheric force the scar could provide. My boots smashed into the car’s hood, using the mass of the engine underneath to push against.

  Wind screamed as I flew, gravity loosing its constraints for one brief glorious second.

  The only trouble with doing this is a simple law of physics: the landing, once you’re going that fast, is a lot harder than you think.

  Impact.

  I smashed into the man on the roof, heard human ribs snap like green wood, the rifle went flying. Skidded, my boots dragging and heating up with friction, hitting the roof hard as I lost my balance, teeth clicking together. The man let out a choked burble, I bounced up to my feet.

  This is why I wear leather pants. Less goddamn road-rash when you hit a rooftop going faster than you should. Jeans would be shredded. It’s not just a fashion statement—though they do make my ass look cute, as Saul so often reminds me.

  I grabbed the man. He was in night-camo and streaky facepaint, and there was a whistling sound that told me one of his broken ribs had punctured a lung.

  Shit.

  “Who sent you?” I’m going to take you to a hospital and have them patch you up so I can break every bone in your body for shooting down at one of my streets like that. You could have killed a bunch of innocents, you asshole. My innocents. “Who? Tell me and you’ll live.” I held him up one-handed, my fingers tangled in straps that were some kind of harness to keep his weapons on, he was armed to the teeth. He even had a couple of grenades. Just the thing for urban combat. “Who, goddammit?”

  He would have screamed if he could have gotten enough air in.

  Then it smashed through his chest, spraying me with blood and chips of bone, I yelled and hit the ground for cover, hearing the clack of pulleys as well as the meaty thud of the body hitting the ground. What the bloody blue fuck?

  Silence. Sirens in the distance, screams and shrieks from the street below. Goddammit. What the fuck was that? I extended my senses, felt nothing.

  The man in camo lay slumped on the rooftop, something protruding from his chest. I took a closer look.

  It was an arrow. The head was heavy-duty, a nasty piece of work; the sound of pulleys suddenly made sense. Probably a compound hunting bow.

  It took some doing to yank the arrow free of the meat. I traced its path, both from sound and from instinct; came up with a rooftop due east, higher up—a perfect place to lie in wait and shoot. The bowman was gone now.

  Who used arrows anymore? This was getting weirder by the second.

  The scar on my wrist pulsed, ripe and obscenely warm. Silken warmth slid against my skin, under the dampness of fear-sweat and sudden chilled adrenaline gooseflesh. My breath came harsh, torturous, echoing in my ear.

  What the fuck was going on?

  The scar twinged. I let out a long frustrated breath. Laid the cuff back against my wrist. It was hard to cover the puckered, seamed mark back up. What if there was someone else out there with a bow trained on me? It might not kill me, but it would be a mite uncomfortable.

  Well, there are Sorrows in town. A bow is just their speed, the filthy little Luddites. But why? Don’t assume this is connected—but neither can you assume it’s not. Great.

  I stuffed the cuff back into my pocket. Hefted the arrow. Thought about it for a moment.

  A sudden bite of bloodlust swam across the current of darkness. More of them, moving in. Ah. More fun and games. I should have known an arrow wouldn’t be the end of it.

  I stepped to the edge of the building and leapt out into space. Just as I did, the secondary team moved in, and bullets smashed into my chest. Blood tore across the night sky as I landed, and if I’d been human it would have killed me.

  The knives slid into my hands. It was knives instead of guns this time because I wanted some of them left alive.

  I hit hard, rolling, wet splotch of blood on the pavement as my bleeding back pressed down briefly, made it to my feet. A hunting cat’s scream tore from my throat as I saw them, moving down the street in standard mercenary formation, with high-powered rifles and body armor.

  I took the first one with a knee to the midriff, snapping a few ribs. The street behind me roiled with screams. Get down and stay down, everyone, I’m on the job. Jill Kismet’s going to work.

  Knocked the gun out of his hand; another kick sent him careening away, crashing into the left flank guard. Punched the secondary through the faceshield of his helmet, a short kick dislocating his patella at the same time. The pounding of bullets didn’t stop, one flicked past my cheek. You boys are really starting to piss me off.

  “SURRENDER NOW!” I yelled, and threw my left-hand knife. It buried itself in on of the rear-guards. That left four of them on the left wing, they were moving in to surround me, bringing in the flanks. Well-trained, they’re well-trained, boys like this don’t come cheap, who’s paying for this?

  Oh, no. That isn’t a combat pattern. That’s a holding patte—

  And then, it happened. The thing streaked down the street, tearing through dappled streetlamp light and shade, and it hit me squarely before I could even begin to move.

  The massive impact smashed through me. Whatever it was, it was big, it was fast, and its claws tore through my right arm. The knife went clattering. “Move move move!” someone yelled. The mercenaries. They were retreating. The scar on my wrist gave out an agonized burst of heat.

  It stank. It stank, a titanic massive smell that tore through my sinuses and made me gag, bile rising hot and whipping through my throat.

  I hit the plate-glass window of a pawnshop, which wouldn’t have been so bad if this part of town hadn’t needed iron bars so badly. Agony as my ribs snapped, I fell to the concrete as it streaked for me, a low hulking shape that was wrong, my eyes refused to focus, even my blue eye refused to see what it was, blood hot and slick on my face, splashing against the pavement.

  Cold. It was cold, frost starring the pavement. Little curls of steam slid up from my skin, my breath pluming in the air as I gasped. It was so cold.

  I lay there as it roared, coming for me again, I had to get up, couldn’t, there’s a limit to the damage I can take even with the scar oh God oh God it hurts—

  The night turned peacock-iridescent with flame. The bolt hit it low on the side, hellfire crackling and fluorescing into blue, scarring my eyes. Holy shit, that’s hellfire in the blue spectrum! Who is it, a hellbreed come to dispatch me personally?

  The thing went flying, snarling. The sound was like adamant nails on the biggest fucking chalkboard ever. There was a crashing—metal and glass crumpled like paper. I choked on blood and tried to make my body obey me, struggling to turn over onto my side and push myself up. The frozen pavement burned my skin.

  “Keep still, Kiss.” The voice was familiar. Too familiar. “Let your body mend. This will only take a moment.”

  What the fuck is he doing here?

  The thing snarled again. I pushed myself up on my feet, ribs snapping out and crackling as they melded back together but too slow. Far too slow. I coughed, bending over, a great gout of blood and lung-fluid fountaining out of my mouth and nose, splatting and steaming on the ice-starred sidewalk.

  “Be still, Kismet.” Now he sounded irritated.

  I lifted my head.

  Perry, in a loose, elegant gray suit, stood with his hands in his pants pockets, the streetlamps shining on his blond hair like a halo tilted jus
t-so. He cocked his head as if listening, looking at the creature, which hunched in the middle of a shattered car. Hellflame dripped from its smoking hide, melting glass and metal, and I opened my mouth to scream.

  The gas tank ignited. Flame belched, and the thing’s squealing roar choked off midway. Glass whickered, metal shrapnel flew. I flinched, throwing up my unwounded left arm to shield my eyes. Grating pain tore all the way down my ribs.

  Soft padding feet with claws snicking, retreating so quickly the sound blurred. The sound was distinctive, and habit noted it; if I hadn’t had the cuff off I wouldn’t have been able to track it as the sound faded a couple of miles away to the south. I coughed again, spat blood. Pain ran up my right arm from the scar, throbbing and delicious, sinking into torn muscle and broken bone.

  His fingers sank into my left arm, a bolt of agonized heat going through me. Glass and metal groaned as the awful numbing cold retreated. “Idiot. Little idiot. Look at this mess.”

  I coughed again, choked on blood, bent over and vomited more blood. I didn’t know I had this much claret to lose. How many pints is that?

  I hate wondering things like that. But I usually only have time to wonder when the danger’s past and I’m still breathing, so I guess it balances out.

  Perry’s fingers tightened. He propped me against the shattered glass and twisted iron. I’d made quite a dent, must have been going at a fair clip when I hit. The sirens were closer now, and everything was creaking as the terrible devouring cold fled the air.

  Montaigne is going to have a fit. Pain ground through me again and I made a weak moaning noise.

  My right arm hung in strips of meat, the humerus snapped. “Look at this,” Perry repeated, warming to his theme. “You idiot. You fool. You stupid little idiotic featherbrained ninny.”

  The scar pulsed hotly, pleasure rising with the pain, a horrible writhing python smashing through my nervous system. His other hand closed around my bloodslick wrist. I tried to fend him off, he slammed me back against the jagged metal, grinding the edges of my broken arm together with exquisite care, at just the angle to produce maximum agony.

 
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