Every city has a pulse. It’s just a matter of knowing where to rest your finger to find it, throbbing away as the sun bleeds out of the sky and night rises to cloak every sin.
I crouched on the edge of a rooftop, the counterweight of my heavy leather coat hanging behind me. Settled into absolute stillness, waiting. The baking wind off the cooling desert mouthed the edges of my body. The scar on my right wrist was hot and hard under a wide hinged copper bracelet molded to my skin.
The copper was corroding, blooming green and wearing thin.
I was going to have to find a different way to cover the scar up soon. Trouble is, I suck at making jewelry, and Galina was out of blessed copper cuffs until her next shipment from Nepal.
Below me the alley wandered, thick and rank. Here at the edge of the barrio there were plenty of hiding places for the dark things that crawl once dusk falls. The Weres don’t patrol out this far, having plenty to keep them occupied inside their own crazy-quilt of streets and alleys around the Plaza Centro and its spreading tenements. Here on the fringes, between a new hunter’s territory and the streets the Weres kept from boiling over, a few hellbreed thought they could break the rules.
Not in my town, buckos. If you think Kismet’s a pushover because she’s only been on her own for six months, you’ve got another think coming.
My right leg cramped, a sudden vicious swipe of pain. I ignored it. My electrolyte balance was all messed up from going for three days without rest, from one deadly night-battle to the next with the fun of exorcisms in between. I wondered if Mikhail had ever felt this exhaustion, this ache so deep even bones felt tired.
It hurt to think of Mikhail. My hand tightened on the bullwhip’s handle, leather creaking under my fingers. The scar tingled again, a knot of corruption on the inside of my wrist.
Easy, milaya. No use in making noise, eh? It is soft and quiet that catches mouse. As if he was right next to me, barely mouthing the words, his gray eyes glittering winter-sharp under a shock of white hair. Hunters don’t live to get too old, but Mikhail Ilych Tolstoi had been an exception in so many ways. I could almost see his ghost crouching silent next to me, peering at the alley over the bridge of his patrician nose.
Of course he wasn’t there. He’d been cremated, just like he wanted. I’d held the torch myself, and the Weres had let me touch it to the wood before singing their own fire into being. A warrior’s spirit rose in smoke, and wherever my teacher was, it wasn’t here.
Which I found more comforting than you’d think, since if he’d come back I’d have to kill him. Just part of the job.
My fingers eased. I waited.
The smell of hellbreed and the brackish contamination of an arkeus lay over this alley. Some nasty things had been sidling out of this section of the city lately, nasty enough to give even a Hell-tainted hunter a run for her money. We have firepower and sorcery, we who police the nightside, but Traders and hellbreed are spooky-quick and capable of taking a hell of a lot of damage.
Get it? A Hell of a lot of damage? Arf arf.
Not to mention the scurf with their contagion, the adepts of the Middle Way with their goddamn Chaos, and the Sorrows worshipping the Elder Gods.
The thought of the Sorrows made rage rise under my breastbone, fresh and wine-dark. I inhaled smoothly, dispelling it. Clear, calm, and cold was the way to go about this.
Movement below. Quick and scuttling, like a rat skittering from one pile of garbage to the next. I didn’t move, I didn’t blink, I barely even breathed.
The arkeus took shape, rising like a fume from dry-scorched pavement, trash riffling as the wind of its coalescing touched ragged edges and putrid rotting things. Tall, hooded, translucent where moonlight struck it and smoky-solid elsewhere, one of Hell’s roaming corruptors stretched its long clawed arms and slid fully into the world. It drew in a deep satisfied sigh, and I heard something else.
Someone was coming to keep an appointment.
Isn’t that a coincidence. So am I.
My heartbeat didn’t quicken; it stayed soft, even, as almost-nonexistent as my breathing. It had taken me a long time to get my pulse mostly under control.
The next few moments were critical. You can’t jump too soon on something like this. Arkeus aren’t your garden-variety hellbreed. You have to wait until they solidify enough to talk to their victims—otherwise you’ll be fighting empty air with sorcery, and that’s no fun—and you have to know what a Trader is bargaining for before you go barging in to distribute justice or whup-ass. Usually both, liberally.
The carved chunk of ruby on its silver chain warmed, my tiger’s-eye rosary warming too, the blessing on both items reacting with contamination rising from the arkeus and its lair.
A man edged down the alley, clutching something to his chest. The arkeus made a thin greedy sound, and my smart left eye—the blue one, the one that can look below the surface of the world—saw a sudden tensing of the strings of contamination following it. It was a hunched, thin figure that would have been taller than me except for the hump on its back; its spectral robes brushing dirt and refuse, taking strength from filth.
Bingo. The arkeus was now solid enough to hit.
The man halted. I couldn’t see much beyond the fact that he was obviously human, his aura slightly tainted from his traffic with an escaped denizen of Hell.
It was official. The man was a Trader, bargaining with Hell. Whatever he was bargaining for, it wasn’t going to do him any good.
Not with me around.
The arkeus spoke. “You have brought it?” A lipless cold voice, eager and thin, like a dying cricket. A razorblade pressed against the wrist, a thin line of red on pale skin, the frozen-blue face of a suicide.
I moved. Boots soundless against the parapet, the carved chunk of ruby resting against the hollow of my throat, even my coat silent. The silver charms braided into my long dark hair didn’t tinkle. The first thing a hunter’s apprentice learns is to move quietly, to draw silence in tight like a cloak.
That is, if the apprentice wants to survive.
“I b-brought it.” The man’s speech was the slow slur of a dreamer who senses a cold-current nightmare. He was in deep, having already given the arkeus a foothold by making some agreement or another with it. “You’d better not—”
“Peace.” The arkeus’s hiss froze me in place for a moment as the hump on its back twitched. “You will have your desire, never fear. Give it to me.”
The man’s arms relaxed, and a small sound lifted from the bundle he carried. My heart slammed into overtime against my ribs.
Every human being knows the sound of a baby’s cry.
Bile filled my throat. My boots ground against the edge of the parapet as I launched out into space, the arkeus flinching and hissing as my aura suddenly flamed, tearing through the ether like a star. The silver in my hair shot sparks, and the ruby at my throat turned hot. The scar on my right wrist turned to lava, burrowing in toward the bone, my whip uncoiled and struck forward, its metal flechettes snapping at the speed of sound, cracking as I pulled on etheric force to add a psychic strike to the physical.
My boots hit slick refuse-grimed concrete and I pitched forward, the whip striking again across the arkeus’s face. The hell-thing howled, and my other hand was full of the Glock, the sharp stink of cordite blooming as silver-coated bullets chewed through the thing’s physical shell. Hollowpoints do a lot of damage once a hellbreed’s initial shell is breached.
It’s a pity ’breed heal so quickly.
We don’t know why silver works—something to do with the Moon, and how she controls the tides of sorcery and water. No hunter cares, either. It’s enough that it levels the playing field a little.
The arkeus moved, scuttling to the side as the man screamed, a high whitenoise-burst of fear. The whip coiled, my hip moving first as usual—the hip leads with whip-work as well as stave fighting. My whip-work had suffered until Mikhail made me take bellydancing classes.
Don’t think, Jill. Move. I flung out my arm, etheric force spilling through my fingers, and the whip slashed again, each flechette tearing through already-lacerated flesh. It howled again, and the copper bracelet broke, tinkled sweetly on the concrete as I pivoted, firing down into the hell-thing’s face. It twitched, and I heard my own voice chanting in gutter Latin, a version of Saint Anthony’s prayer Mikhail had made me learn.
Protect me from the hordes of Hell, O Lord, for I am pure of heart and trust Your mercy—and the bullets don’t hurt, either.
The arkeus screamed, writhing, and cold air hit the scar. I was too drenched with adrenaline to feel the usual curl of fire low in my belly, but the sudden sensitivity of my skin and hearing slammed into me. I dropped the whip and fired again with the gun in my left, then fell to my knees, driving down with psychic and physical force.
My fist met the hell-thing’s lean malformed face, which exploded. It shredded, runnels of foulness bursting through its skin, and the sudden cloying reek would have torn my dinner loose from my stomach moorings if I’d eaten anything.
Christ, I wish it didn’t stink so bad. But stink means dead, and if this thing’s dead it’s one less fucking problem for me to deal with.
No time. I gained my feet, shaking my right fist. Gobbets of preternatural flesh whipped loose, splatting dully against the brick walls. I uncoiled, leaping for the front of the alley.
The Trader was only human, and he hadn’t made his big deal yet. He was tainted by the arkeus’s will, but he wasn’t given superstrength or near-invulnerability yet.
The only enhanced human being left in the alley was me. Thank God.
I dug my fingers into his shoulder and set my feet, yanking him back. The baby howled, emptying its tiny lungs, and I caught it on its way down, my arm tightening maybe a little too much to yank it against my chest. I tried to avoid smacking it with a knife-hilt.
I backhanded the man with my hellbreed-strong right fist. Goddamn it. What am I going to do now?
The baby was too small, wrapped in a bulky blue blanket that smelled of cigarette smoke and grease. I held it awkwardly in one arm while I contemplated the sobbing heap of sorry manflesh crumpled against a pile of garbage.
I’ve cuffed plenty of Traders one-handed, but never while holding a squirming, bellowing bundle of little human that smelled not-too-fresh. Still, it was a cleaner reek than the arkeus’s rot. I tested the cuffs, yanked the man over, and checked his eyes. Yep. The flat shine of the dust glittered in his irises. He was a thin, dark-haired man with the ghost of childhood acne still hanging on his cheeks, saliva glittering wetly on his chin.
I found his ID in his wallet, awkwardly holding the tiny yelling thing in the crook of my arm. Jesus. Mikhail never trained me for this. “Andy Hughes. You are under arrest. You have the right to be exorcised. Anything you say will, of course, be ignored, since you’ve forfeited your rights to a trial of your peers by trafficking with Hell.” I took a deep breath. “And you should thank your lucky stars I’m not in a mood to kill anyone else tonight. Who does the baby belong to?”
He was still gibbering with fear, and the baby howled. I could get nothing coherent out of either of them.
Then, to complete the deal, the pager went off against my hip, vibrating silently in its padded pocket.
Copyright © 2008 by Lilith Saintcrow