Hunters prayer, p.9
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       Hunter's Prayer, p.9

           Lilith Saintcrow
 

  I screamed, my ribs creaking. Choked on more blood. The ferocious cold was gone as if it had never existed.

  He lifted my right hand, giving it an extra savage twist. Bone ground and I screamed again, weakly.

  “Damage my fine work, will you? How is this, Kiss? Do you like the pain? Do you?”

  I collapsed, panting, hanging onto consciousness by a thread. My lips were hot and slick with blood. “F-f-f-fuck … y-y-you …” I could barely shape the words.

  “Promises, promises.” His breath touched the scar, and the jolt of maggot pleasure that slid through me dipped me in fiery slime. It even drowned the pain for a moment, and I moaned. “Someday, Kismet. Some fine day, when I’m getting a little bored. We’ll play a few games.”

  His lips met the scar, and mercifully it was pain again. Great roaring waves of pain as hellfire tore through my body, each wound rubbed with acid and ash, sadistic waves of agony as he took his time melding my shattered body back together. The scaled, hot, slick-wet touch of his tongue against the puckered tissue coated the roaring agony with slime, burrowed into my hindbrain, and ripped at the roots of my sanity.

  When it was done, he dropped me. I hit the pavement hard, weak as a newborn but whole. Blood soaked into what clothes I had left. My coat was a mess. The charms in my hair tinkled, and my carved-ruby necklace sent waves of warmth spilling down my chest.

  Perry turned on his heel, surveying the street. Smoke billowed up from the burning car, and condensation rose into the air as merely-chill met freezing and mixed. “This is highly unpleasant.” His tone was too mild to be called anger. Distaste was as far as it went.

  What, you think I’m having a ball? I lay against chill hard concrete, gasping like a landed fish.

  ”Highly unpleasant,” he continued, meditatively. “I might almost suspect …” He seemed to remember I was at his feet. “You make this so fucking difficult, Kiss. I’ve broken stronger Traders with ease.”

  As usual, he picked exactly the right thing to say to piss me off and break the spell of lethargy. “I’m … not … Trader.” Strength returned, the mark sending a wave of fiery pleasure up my arm. Flush, again. Full. Ripe. I could feel the warming trickle between my legs. My hips jerked forward. I gasped. “I’m hunter,” I managed to say it all in one breath. “And some … day … it’s going to be … you.”

  “Pray it never reaches that point, Kiss. You won’t like being hunted.”

  I’m going to be the one hunting you, you bastard. “What was … that thing?” Blessed air whooped into my lungs. I was going to live. Thank you, God. I was going to live.

  I can’t explain the feeling. If you’ve ever been close to the edge of leaving the world entirely, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I’m glad for you. But don’t expect to understand. It’s like every Christmas and every disappointment in your life wrapped up in cold air and set on fire with a napalm strike while your bones tremble inside the meat.

  Something like that.

  “How should I know?” Perry said, thoughtfully. Fog gemmed his blond hair with tiny jewels. “You’re lucky it didn’t kill you. Is this about your latest visit to the Monde?”

  As if you can’t guess. But Perry just liked to pretend he had his fingers in every pie; he really might have no idea. Strength returned, slowly. I pushed myself up to sitting, broken glass grinding against shredded leather. Levered myself up, balancing on unsteady feet. The sirens were getting closer. “Kind of.” I had my breath back now. “What are you doing here?”

  “Watching out for my investment, Kiss. I’ve put a lot of effort into you, and you’re coming along quite nicely.” The faint obscene happiness tinting his bland blond voice reminded me of maggots squirming in bloated meat.

  Fuck you, Perry. God, I wish I could shoot you now. “Leave the mindfucks at home, Pericles.”

  “No mindfuck, Kiss. Strictly fact. Now, are you waiting around for the cops? I have other business to conduct tonight. You know, places to go, people to kill.”

  “Go bother someone else.” I coughed, rackingly, my ribs reminding me they weren’t designed for this kind of thing. The mark pulsed, wetly. Pleasure slid up my back like fevered sweating fingers, married to skincrawling loathing, like having a scaled tail run across your skin while you’re dreaming safe in your bed.

  He showed no sign of leaving. “Where’s your pussycat? Have you finally sworn off bestiality?”

  Lord, I wish Saul was here right now and there was a bullet or two in your head. That would make me very happy. “Lay off, Perry. I’m warning you.”

  “I only ask out of curiosity. See how patient I’m being? A good little hellspawn.” He was smiling. I have only seen that smile on him once or twice, and each time it chills my blood. He looks so damn happy and interested, as if he’s examining a fine piece of art—or ass. Something he knows he can pick up and is just stretching out the anticipation of. It makes his bland, nondescript face into the picture of “terrifying.”

  Especially when his eyes sparkle.

  I finally felt as if I had enough air. “That was a trap for me.” I didn’t sound choked, but I was beginning to feel it.

  “Gee, you think?” He didn’t bother to weight the words with much sarcasm. But there was a ratty little gleam in his eyes I didn’t like, though I was too tired and sore to think much about it.

  Besides, there’s always a gleam in Perry’s eyes I don’t like. I rolled my eyes. Dragged more sweet air in. “What are you really doing here?”

  “I told you, looking after my investment. You think you can go for a few hours without getting shot or torn up? I really do have important things to do.”

  I waved my right hand experimentally. It worked just like it always had. The fog was retreating, evaporating up from the street in long white trails. “Thanks, Perry. Now get the fuck away from me.”

  “Sweet talk will get you nowhere.” He grinned, his chin tilting up slightly. “I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

  My heart thudded, my body too drained to even produce adrenaline. Still, the bite of fear just under my skin was sharp as a new blade, and hard to hide. “Midnight.” I kept dragging in deep healing breaths. “I haven’t forgotten.”

  The first cop cars arrived on-scene. I braced myself. When my eyes flicked back to where he had been standing, Perry was gone.

  I hate it when he does that. I swallowed, tasting blood and bile, and peeled myself away from the twisted iron bars. Monty is just going to die, I thought, as flashing blue lights converged. The burning car smelled awful, and the stink of the creature still hung in the air. Gah, that’s foul.

  The shakes had me. Beating under every thought was the same sentence, repeated in frightened panicked-rabbit jumps across my brain.

  I could have died. I could have died. Oh God, my God, I could have died.

  12

  Woo Song’s is a little hole in the wall, a neon dragon buzzing over a single door, no windows, and the smell of foreign cooking belching out each time someone entered or left. Since I was battered, bloody, and generally not in a good mood, I stood outside across the street until Saul appeared, shepherding our nervous witness. Once more I was grateful to have a good partner.

  Robbie’s eyes widened as he took me in; Saul himself barely raised an eyebrow. His gaze did flick to the leather cuff on my right wrist, which was conspicuously not blood-soaked. His hand was over Robbie’s shoulder, and he moved with an awareness and grace that, as usual, comforted me and unsettled me a little at the same time.

  Sometimes I wondered what would have happened if I’d still been just a human hunter when I met Saul. The scar was Perry’s claim on me, true … but it also meant I wasn’t so easily damaged during bedplay. And there were several times I could have died if not for the fact that I was tougher and quicker now, which would have put a distinct crimp in our relationship.

  Go figure, I meet the perfect man after I’m in hock to a hellbreed, and if I wasn’t tainted I couldn’t have had a relati
onship with a Were.

  Sometimes I don’t just think God has a sadistic sense of humor.

  I kept to the shadows, beckoning them into the alley across from Woo Song’s. I suspected Robbie the Juicer would be a lot more comfortable where he couldn’t see the bloody rags I wore. Half my left breast was peering out, my shirt was never going to be the same, and the tough leather of my pants was shredded. My long leather coat wasn’t ever going to be the same either.

  Clothes get expensive when you’re a hunter. I was going to have a hell of a time getting the blood out of my sodden boots, if it was possible at all.

  Dammit.

  Monty hadn’t been happy, but at least the Feeb on duty—sleek, dark Juan Rujillo—was actually a decent sort who wouldn’t make any problems. Both of them were a little pale when I presented them with the scenario that scares everyone the most: something out there a hunter doesn’t know about, and hasn’t had any luck stopping.

  Rujillo had promised to get me a list of all the professional operators in town, even if he had to twist a few interagency arms. That is one thing about being a hunter, you’re usually assured of getting cooperation from even the stingiest intelligence agencies. Turf wars end up with a lot of dead civilians and uncomfortable media attention, and that’s two things no intelligence or law enforcement agency wants. Especially the latter. There are very few spooks, Feebs, ghosts, or rubber pencils who want to interfere. The FBI has its own hunter division, the Martindale Squad, and it’s whispered that the CIA has a few operatives that are a little more than strictly human.

  I wouldn’t know about that, though.

  Though strictly speaking, a list of mercs in town wouldn’t do much good. This had been a one-time shot; now I was wary and whatever mercenaries they’d set on me had suffered horrific casualties. It would be inefficient to send another mercenary cadre after me and expect it to delay me or hold me for the creature, whatever it was. And whoever was pulling the strings here wasn’t stupid or inefficient.

  That, at least, I was sure of.

  Ruji had once again accused me of being a menace to property, but he’d done it with a twinkle in his eye. Monty was chewing Tums by the bucketload; he was the one who had to deal with the media showing up in droves and demanding an explanation.

  And I was ready to explode from frustration.

  “Start at the beginning,” I said, and Robbie shot a nervous glance at Saul.

  “You wanna come in and eat something?” Saul looked down at the alley floor, his shoulders hunching. It was a show of submission, almost shocking in a Were much taller and bulkier than me.

  I must have been wearing my mad face.

  “I don’t think Wu-ma would like it if I showed up all bloody.” I was trying for a light tone. She’d probably feed me MSG just to express her displeasure, too.

  His nostrils flared. “You stink.”

  “Thanks. I just had a run-in with something big and hairy that looks like a Were on steroids and reeks to high heaven.” I eyed Robbie the Juicer, who was beginning to tremble. “Relax, Robbie. I’m not going to hurt you. As a matter of fact, I’m your new best friend. I’m going to keep you alive.”

  “Very goddamn kind of you.” Robbie’s voice was thin and reedy. His shock of dark hair was greasy, and he smelled like dumplings. “What the fuck happened?”

  You do not want to know, civilian. Trust me. “Who did you tell? About the other night?”

  His shoulders trembled. He stared at me like I was Banquo’s ghost. “Couple people. Shit, man, after that I was happy to be alive. Got a cigarette?”

  “I suggest we take him somewhere safe.” Saul straightened, his eyes reflecting green-gold for a moment in the dimness. “I don’t like this.”

  “I heard that.” Even this alley wasn’t likely safe. “Micky’s? The bar, not the front?”

  He nodded, the silver shifting in his hair; the little bottle of holy water at his neck sparkled summer-blue once, maybe reacting to the scar still pulsing hard and heavy under the cuff. Or maybe it was because I smelled of hellbreed, Perry’s etheric fingerprints all over me from the work he’d done patching me up. “Good idea,” he said. “I’ll drive.”

  I didn’t argue.

  Robbie stared into his coffee cup while I scrubbed at my hands with baby wipes. I’d changed in the bathroom, into fresh pants and a T-shirt kept in the Impala’s trunk, but my coat was still tacky-wet with blood and my boots were squishy. It had dried under my short bitten nails and crusted in my hair.

  Thank God it was only my blood. One thing to be happy about: no civilian casualties. I’d managed to keep anyone innocent from being hurt.

  It wasn’t as comforting as it should have been, but it was enough for me.

  The bartender, Theron, brought me a stack of damp washcloths and a beer. Ther was tall, lean, dark, and intense. He also happened to be a Werepanther. I’d only seen him shift once, during a fight with a nest of Middle Way Chaos-worshipping wannabes out on Chartres Street. I didn’t want to see it again. Panther jaws can crack bones, and Theron was big; Weres tend to run bulkier than both humans and beasts but some of them just look too huge to be real. He was good backup but extremely unpredictable; not someone to call unless you wanted to play it his way. Still, he was a good sort, and part of the reason why nobody stepped out of line in Micky’s.

  “Stinks,” he said, giving a nod to Saul.

  Who visibly bristled. “I know, Theron. Thanks.”

  “Want a shot, Saul?”

  “No. Thanks.” Saul was extraordinarily still, his shoulders spread wide and his eyes luminous. Theron gave him a toothy smile, and retreated. In the dominance game between Weres, Saul and Ther were roughly equal; sometimes Ther pushed it a little, moving in on me, getting a little too close. It was a Were’s version of social game-playing, and I didn’t like being a chit in the middle. Another night I might have been amused.

  Not tonight, though. Getting almost-canceled will cut your sense of humor dead short.

  “Why don’t you start at the beginning, Robbie?” My temper was fraying badly. Saul’s arm pressed against mine; I stopped wiping at the blood on my hands and leaned my head against his shoulder. He leaned back, subtly, then turned his head, his chin rubbing across my still-damp hair.

  My chest eased a little bit. The shaking in my hands began to go down.

  Robbie glanced up, looked hurriedly back down at his coffee. “I got ta the field at about ten-thirty. I wasn’t drunk, but I was tired. So’s I wanted a place where I could think, right? I pissed about back and got my sleeping bag all set up, got my stuff situated. Then I settled down and I was almost asleep, man. I thought of lighting a J to get myself all nice and mellow, but I was finally warmin’ up. It was a cold fuckin’ day, I tell you, out on the streets.”

  Well, yeah, we’re past New Year’s and in the chilliest part of the year. I sighed. Saul slid his arm around me, pulled me into his side. I wiped at my face with the first wet washcloth, scrubbing the wet terry across my cheeks, digging at my closed eyes. I can be covered in filth, but I like my face clean.

  Call it a quirk.

  The silver charms in my hair shifted, chiming softly. Saul’s braid bumped my cheek as he turned his head, taking in the bar.

  “So I dunno what time it was, but I heard an engine. And not a cop car or anything, just a very soft, nice purring engine.” Robbie’s dark eyes were wide, his spotted cheeks pasty. He was sweating, and he smelled like too few showers and too much drinking, with a healthy dash of fear-sweat on top. His fingernails were brutally short but still grimy.

  The scar on my wrist tingled. Perry. What had he been doing out there? He didn’t usually leave the Monde, preferring to sit in the middle of his web like a big fat waxy-pale spider.

  That mental image made me shudder, and Saul kissed my temple.

  “I got this weird feeling. Just a weird feeling. You live on the street long enough, you start to get a kind of feel for the nutzoid things. Like when the crazy shit is gonn
a start going down. Sometimes you don’t get no warning, but most of the time there’s this feeling before crazy shit starts up. Y’unnerstand?”

  I certainly understood that. One of the things a hunter looks for in an apprentice is a certain amount of psychic ability; I wouldn’t have survived to become an apprentice if I hadn’t had more than my fair share to begin with. “Like instinct,” I supplied.

  His face brightened a little. He grinned into his coffee, with yellow teeth. “Yeah, instink. Thatza word. I just got that feeling. So I got up, and I went to the end of the dugout, real low-like. Creeping. And I looked out.”

  His fingers tightened on the cup; dirt grimed into his knuckles and under his short-split nails. “I saw this black van sitting there. Just sittin’. And then I notice it ain’t got no license plate, and I think maybe the cops are doing a sting, and I’m getting ready to get my ass out of there nice and quiet-like. Then the door opens up, and out jumps this thing. And damned if it don’t look like a goddamn ape, but it hunches down—like them things you see in movies. You seen that movie, where there’s these things, they look human, but they don’t move no human way?”

  Honey, I don’t need movies. I see them in living color. “I guess so.” I didn’t want to lead the witness, so to speak, so I didn’t give him more.

  “Like this movie where guys change into werewolves, and they run on their hands and feet, but their shoulders are all funny. And they’ve got weird-shaped heads. Lots of teeth. Anyway, the goddamn thing hopped out, and started snuffling. And I started thinking maybe it could smell me, ‘cause I could smell it. Smelled like a wet dog puking its guts out in a whorehouse.”

  That was a revolting but extremely apt way of describing it. I leaned into Saul’s side, for once not caring that my hair was crackling with drying blood and my toes were damp inside my boots. “Okay.”

  He continued. “Someone’s gotten out, and they’re moving around. A woman. Light hair, but not blonde. I can see her haircut, she’s got it cut like that bitch on Channel Twelve—”

 
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