Saint City Sinners dv-4Lilith Saintcrow
Saint City Sinners
( Dante Valentine - 4 )
Dante Valentine has just about had it. First, she's hired by the Devil to hunt down four demons who escaped from Hell. Then, she finds out one of those demons is Eve, a child she swore to protect.
To top it all off, her lover Japhrimel thinks that the Devil is right. And that all the demons, including Eve, belong in hell.
It doesn't matter what she thinks is best for Eve. Because once you make a deal with the Devil, there is no going back.
Saint City Sinners
Dante Valentine series, book 4
For Maddalena Marie. Never forget who loves you, baby.
A woman always has her revenge ready.
In revenge and in love woman is more barbarous than man.
The rate of success for female bounty hunters, once one takes into account the statistical weighting of the X chromosome carrying psionic markers more often than the Y, is still two and a half times that of their male compatriots. More male psions go into bounty hunting, but female psions are better at it, bringing in their bounties quicker and with less destruction of lives and property.
This is balanced by the fact that male psions are embarrassingly better than their female counterparts at assassination. There are very few female psions operating in the assassination trade. Morley's quip that perhaps they are better at keeping their identities from authorities need not be mentioned more than once.
However, when comparing female assassins to male, one fact stands out with crystal clarity: the psionic females who do deal in assassination are by far the most thorough, tending to engage far less in messy «personal» kills (Datridenton, On Criminal Justice, pp. 1184–1206) in favor of getting the job done efficiently with whatever tool is best. This very thoroughness necessarily means they are higher-priced and far less likely to be indicted.
What conclusion can we draw from this? Morley, tongue-in-cheek as usual, concludes, "It may be well for men, especially men married to psions, to speak softly to their wives and girlfriends." This researcher would submit differently: that we are indeed lucky, given how good psionic women tend to be at coldly planned bloodshed, that most appear uninterested in it…
— from Ethics and Gender Differences in the Psionic World, by Caitlin Sommers, Amadeus Hegemony Academy of Psionic Arts
Japhrimel stood in the middle of the wrack and ruin of the Haunt Tais-toi,his long wet-dark coat lying on his shoulders like night itself. Lucifer faced him, the Prince of Hell's lovely face twisted with fury, suffused with a darkness more than physical. Japhrimel's hand closed around Lucifer's right wrist, muscle standing out under Lucifer's shirt and Japhrimel's coat as the Devil surged forward-and Japhrimel pushed him back.
If I hadn't seen it, I would never have believed it possible. But Japh's entire body tensed, and he forced Lucifer back on his heels.
The Devil stepped mincingly away, twisting his wrist free. Retreated, only two steps: But it was enough. Lucifer's aura flamed with blackness, a warping in the fabric of the world. They looked at each other, twin green gazes locked as if the words they exchanged were only window dressing for the real combat, fought by the glowing spears of their eyes. The two hellhounds wove around them, low fluid shapes. Lucifer's indigo silk shirt was torn, gaping, across his midriff, showing a slice of golden skin-and as I watched, a single drop of black blood dripped from one torn edge. More spots of dark blood smoked on the silken pants he wore.
I'd cut the Devil.
One dazed thought sparked inside my aching head. Jado must've given me a hell of a good blade.
Then another thought, ridiculous in its intensity. Here. He's here. Everything will be all right now.
Childish faith, maybe, but I'd take it. If it was a choice between my Fallen and getting killed right this moment, I'd settle for Japh, no matter how much of a bastard he'd been recently. Funny how almost getting killed radically changed my notions of just how much I could forgive.
Japhrimel's eyes didn't flick over to check me, but the mark on my shoulder came to agonized life again, Power flooding me, exploding in my belly. White-hot pokers jerked in my viscera. My scalp twinged, I tasted blood and burning. My sword rang softly, the core of the blade burning white, blue runic patterns slipping through its keen edge and painting the air. I managed to lift it, the blade a bar between me and the Devil facing his eldest son.
The red lights were still flickering, sweeping over the entire building in their complicated patterns, eerie because there were no dancers. "You would have me believe-" Lucifer started. Stone and plaster shattered at the sound of his voice, dust pattering to the wracked floor.
Japhrimel interrupted him again. I felt only a weary wonder that he was still standing there, apparently untouched, his long black coat moving gently on the hot firebreeze. "We were told by the Master of this city-your ally and Hellesvront agent-that you wished to meet Dante here alone. Did you lure your Right Hand here to kill her, Prince? Breaking your word, given on your ineffable Name? Such would conclude our alliance in a most… unsatisfactory fashion."
I could swear. Lucifer's face went through surprise, disgust, and finally settled on wariness. He studied Japhrimel for a long, tense thirty seconds, during which my throat burned and tickled but I didn't dare to cough.
Japh clasped his hands behind his back. He looked relaxed, almost bored. Except for the burning murderous light of his eyes, matching Lucifer's shade for shade.
I stayed very still, my left arm cramping as my belly ran with pain and my right trembling as I held my sword. A small part of me wondered where Lucas was. The rest of me stared at Japhrimel with open wonderment.
If I survive this, I'm going to kiss him. Right after I punch the shit out of him forlying to me. If he lets me. The nastiness of the thought made me suddenly, deeply ashamed of myself. He was here, and he was facing Lucifer. For me.
He had given up Hell. He had also taken me to Toscano and let me heal from the psychic rape of Mirovitch's ka, protecting me from dangers I hadn't had the faintest idea existed. He was loyal to me after all.
In his own fashion.
Lucifer finally seemed to decide. The flames among the shattered wreckage twisted into angular shapes as some essential tension leached out of him. "I rue the day I set you to watch over her, Eldest." The darkness in his face didn't fade, however-it intensified, a psychic miasma.
The tickling in my throat reached a feverish pitch. I had to cough, shoved the urge down, prayed for strength. Anubis, please don't let me attract their attention. Both of them look too dangerous right now.
Japhrimel shrugged. "What is done, is done." His voice pitched a little higher, as if he imitated Lucifer. Or was quoting him.
The Prince of Hell set his jaw. I saw one elegant hand curl into a fist, and perhaps the other one was a fist too, but I couldn't see it. I think it was the first time I saw the Devil speechless, and my jaw would have dropped if I hadn't clenched it, trying not to cough. I took a fresh grip on my belly, trying not to hunch over. I wanted to see, neededto see. My sword held steady even though my hand was shaking, the blade singing a thin comforting song as its heart glowed white.
He finally seemed to regain himself. "You deserve each other," he hissed. "May you have joy of it. Bring me back my possession and eliminate those who would keep it from me, Tierce Japhrimel, or I will kill you both. I swear it."
Japhrimel's eyes flared. "That was not our bargain, my lord."
Lucifer twitched. Japhrimel didn't move, but the mark twisted white-hot fire into my shoulder, a final burst of Power. The urge
to cough mercifully retreated a little. I blinked drying demon blood out of my eyes. I wanted to look for Lucas.
I couldn't look away from my Fallen. He stood tense and ready, in front of the Devil.
"I am the Prince of Hell," Lucifer said coldly.
"And I was your Eldest." Japhrimel held Lucifer's eyes as the air itself cried out, a long gasping howl of a breeze coming from them, blowing my hair back I felt the stiffness-blood and dust matted in my hair. I was filthy, and I ached. I stayed where I was. "I was the Kinslayer. Thus you made me, and you cast me away. I am yours no longer."
"I made you." The air itself screamed as the Prince of Hell's voice tore at it. "Your allegiance is mine."
"My allegiance," Japhrimel returned, inexorably quiet, "is my own. I Fell, I am Fallen. I am not your son."
One last burst of soft killing silence. I struggled to stay still.
Lucifer turned on his heel. The world snapped back into normalcy. He strode for the gaping hole torn in the front of the nightclub. Red neon reflected wetly on the street outside. A flick of his golden fingers, and the hellhounds loped gracefully after him, one stopping to snarl back over its shoulder at me.
Well, now I can guess who sent the hellhounds. You bastard. You filthy bastard. I sagged. My sword dipped, and the urge to cough rose again. It felt like a plasgun core had been dropped into my gut.
The Prince stopped, turned his head so I could see his profile. "Japhrimel." His voice was back to silk and honey, terrible in its beauty. "I give you a promise, my Eldest. One day, I will kill her."
Lucifer vanished. The air tried to heal itself, closing over the space where he had been, and failed. He left a scorch on the very fabric of existence.
Japhrimel was silent for a moment, his eyes fixed forward. He didn't look at me. I was glad, because his face was full of something terrible, irrevocable, and devouring.
"Not while I watch over her," he said softly.
Cairo Giza has endured almost forever, but it was only after the Awakening that the pyramids began to acquire distinctive etheric smears again. Colored balls of light bob and weave around them even during daytime, playing with streams of hover traffic that carefully don't pass over the pyramids themselves, like a river separating around islands. Hover circuitry is buffered like every critical component nowadays, but enough Power can blow anything electric just like a focused EMP pulse. There's a college of Ceremonials responsible for using and draining the pyramids' charge, responsible also for the Temple built equidistant from the stone triangles and the Sphinx, whose ruined face still gazes from her recumbent body with more longforgotten wisdom than the human race could ever lay claim to accumulating.
Power hummed in the air as I stepped from glaring desert sun into the shadowed gloom of the Temple's portico. Static crackled, sand falling out of my clothes whisked away by the containment field. I grimaced. We'd been on the ground less than half an hour and already I was tired of the dust.
One worn-out, busted-down part-demon Necromance, sore from Lucifer's last kick even though Japhrimel had repaired the damage and flushed me with enough Power to make my skin tingle. And one Fallen given back the power of a demon pacing behind me, his step oddly silent on the stone floor. The mark on my left shoulder-his mark-pulsed again, a warm velvet flush coating my body. My rings swirled with steady light.
My bag bumped against my hip and my bootheels clicked on stone, echoing in the vast shadowed chamber. The great inner doors rose up before us, massive slabs of granite lasecarved with hieroglyph pictures of a way of life vanished thousands of years ago. I inhaled the deep familiar spice of kyphii deeply as my nape prickled. My sword, thrust through a loop in my weapons rig, thrummed slightly in its indigo-lacquered scabbard.
A blade that can bite the Devil. A cool finger of dread traced up my spine.
I stopped, half-turning on my heel to look up at Japhrimel. He paused, his hands clasped behind his back as usual, regarding me with bright green-glowing eyes. His ink-dark hair lay against his forehead in a soft wave, melding with the Temple's dusky quiet. Japhrimel's lean golden saturnine face was closed and distant. He had been very quiet for the last hour.
I didn't blame him. We had precious little to say now. In any case, I didn't want to break the fragile truce between us.
One dark eyebrow quirked slightly, a question I found I could read. It was a relief to see something about him I still understood.
Had he changed, or had I?
"Will you wait for me here?" My voice bounced back from stone, husky and half-ruined, still freighted with the promise of demon seduction. The hoarseness didn't help, turning my tone to granular honey. "Please?"
His expression changed from distance to wariness. The corner of his mouth lifted slightly. "Of course. It would be a pleasure."
The words ran along stone, mouthing the air softly.
I bit my lower lip. The idea that I'd misjudged him was uncomfortable, to say the least. "Japhrimel?"
His eyes rested on my face. All attention focused on me. He didn't touch me, but he might as well have, his aura closing around mine, black-diamond flames proclaiming him as demon to anyone with otherSight. It was a caress no less intimate for being nonphysical-something he was doing more and more lately. I wondered if it was because he wanted to keep track of me, or because he wanted to touch me.
I shook my head, deciding the question was useless. He probably wouldn't tell me, anyway.
Was it wrong, not to hold it against him?
I heard Lucas Villalobos's voice again. Take what you can get. Good advice? Honorable? Or just practical? Tiens, the Nichtvren who was yet another Hellesvront agent, would meet us after dark. Lucas was with Vann and McKinley; Leander had rented space in a boarding house and was waiting for us. The Necromance bounty hunter seemed very easy with the idea of two nonhuman Hellesvront agents, but I'd caught him going pale whenever Lucas got too close.
It was a relief to see he had some sense.
Then again, even I was frightened of Lucas, never mind that I was his client and he'd taken on Lucifer and two hellhounds for me. The man Death had turned his back on was a professional, and a good asset… but still. He was unpredictable, impossible to kill, magick just seemed to shunt itself away from him-and there were stories of just what he'd done to psions who played rough with him, or hired him and tried to welsh. It doesn't take long to figure out so many stories must have a grain of truth.
"Yes?" Japhrimel prompted me. I looked up from the stone floor with a start. I'd been wandering.
I never used to do that.
"Nothing." I turned away, my boots making precise little sounds against the floor as I headed for the doors. "I'll be out in a little while."
"Take your time." He stood straight and tall, his hands clasped behind his back, his eyes burning green holes in smoky cool darkness. I felt the weight of his gaze on my back. "I'll wait."
I shook my head, reached up to touch the doors. The mark on my shoulder flared again, heat sliding down my skin like warm oil.
He was Fallen-no-more. I would have wondered what that made me now, but he hadn't even told me what I was in the first place. Hedaira, a human woman given a share of a demon's strength. Japhrimel just kept saying I would find out in time.
With Eve to save and Lucifer looking to kill me, I just might die before I found out. Wouldn't that be a bitch and half.
I spread my hands-narrow, golden, the black moleculedrip polish slightly chipped on my left fingernails-against rough granite, pushed. The doors, balanced on oiled mag hinges, whooshed open easily. More kyphii smoke billowed out, fighting briefly with the burning-cinnamon musk of demon cloaking me.
The hall was large, all architectural space focused on throned Horus at the end, Isis's tall form behind him, Her hand lifted in blessing over Her son. The doors slid to a stop. I bowed, my right hand touching heart and forehead in the classic salute.
I paced forward into the house of the gods. The doors slid
together behind me, closing Japhrimel out. Here was perhaps the only place I could truly be alone, the only place he would not intrude.
Unfortunately, leaving him outside meant leaving my protection too. I didn't think any demon would try to attack me inside a temple, but I was just nervous enough to take a deep breath and welcome the next flush of Power spreading from the scar.
Another deep breath. Panic beat under my breastbone. I told myself it was silly. Japh was right outside the door, and my god had always answered me before.
Still, ever since the night Anubis had called me out of slumber and laid on me a geas I couldn't remember, He had been silent. Losing that compass left me adrift in a way I'd never been before. If I'd ever needed direction and comfort, it was now.
Cairo Giza had been Islum territory in the Merican era, but Islum had choked on its own blood during the Seventy Days War, along with the Protestor Christers and the Judics, not to mention the Evangelicals of Gilead. In a world controlled by the Hegemony and Putchkin Alliance, with psions in every corner, the conditions that gave rise to the Religions of Submission have fallen away. After a brief re-flowering of fundamentalist Islum during the collapse of petroleo use, it became just another small sect like the Novo Christers-and the old gods and state religions had risen again.
The single biggest blow to the Religions of Submission had been the Awakening and the rise of the science of Power. When anyone can contract a Shaman or Ceremonial to talk to the god of their choice, and spiritual experiences becoming commonplace-not to mention Necromances proving an afterlife exists and Magi definitively proving the existence of demons-most organized religions had died a quick hard death, replaced by personal worship of patron gods and spirits. It was, in all reality, the only logical response on humanity's part.