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Night Shift

Lilith Saintcrow

  Night Shift


  Lilith Saintcrow

  Cities need people like us,

  those who go after things the cops can't catch and keep the streets from boiling over. We handle nonstandard exorcisms, Traders, hellbreed, rogue Weres, scurf, Sorrows, Middle Way adepts… all the fun the nightside can come up with. Normally a hunter's job is just to act as a liaison between the paranormal community and the regular police, make sure everything stays under control.

  Sometimes—often enough—it's our job to find people that have been taken by the things that go bump in the night. When I say "find" I mean their bodies, because humans don't live too long on the nightside unless they're hunters. More often than not our mission is vengeance, to restore the unsteady balance between the denizens of the dark and regular oblivious people. To make a statement and keep the things creeping in the dark just there—

  creeping, instead of swaggering.

  And also more often than not, we lay someone's soul to rest if killing them is just the beginning.

  The most terrible thing to face is one's own soul



  "Sit. There."

  A wooden chair in the middle of a flat expanse of hardwood floor, lonely under cold fluorescent light.

  I lowered myself gingerly, curled my fingers over the ends of the armrests, and commended my soul to God.

  Well, maybe not actually commended. Maybe I was just praying really, really hard.

  He circled the chair, every step just heavy enough to make a noise against bare floorboards. My weapons and my coat were piled by the door, and even the single knife I'd kept, safe in its sheath strapped to my thigh, was no insurance. I was locked in a room with a hungry tiger who stepped, stepped, turning just a little each time.

  I didn't shift my weight.

  Instead, I stared across the room, letting my eyes unfocus. Not enough to wall myself up inside my head— that was a death sentence. A hunter is always alert, Mikhail says. Always. Any inattention is an invitation to Death.

  And Death likes invitations.

  The hellbreed became a shadow each time he passed in front of me, counterclockwise, and I was beginning to wonder if he was going to back out of the bargain or welsh on the deal. Which was, of course, what he wanted me to wonder.

  Careful, Jill. Don't let him throw you. I swallowed, wished I hadn't; the briefest pause in his even tread gave me the idea that he'd seen the betraying little movement in my throat.

  I do not like the idea of hellbreed staring at my neck.

  Silver charms tied in my hair clinked as blessed metal reacted to the sludge of a hellbreed filling the ether. This one was bland, not beautiful like the other damned. He was unassuming, slim and weak-looking.

  But he scared my teacher. Terrified him, in fact.

  Only an idiot isn't scared of hellbreed. There's no shame in it. You've got to get over being ashamed of being scared if you're going to be a hunter, because it will slow you down. You can't afford that.


  I almost jumped when his breath caressed my ear. Hot, meaty breath, far too humid to be human. He was breathing on me, and my flesh crawled in concentric waves of revulsion. Gooseflesh rose up hard and pebbled, scales of fear spreading over my skin.

  "Here's the deal." The words pressed obscenely warm against my naked skin. Something brushed my hair, delicately, and silver crackled with blue sparks. A hiss touched my ear, the skin suddenly far too damp.

  I wasn't sweating. It was his breath condensing on me.

  Oh, God. I almost choked on bile. Swallowed it and held still, every muscle in my body screaming at me to move, to get away.

  " I'm going to mark you, my dear. While you carry that mark, you'll have a gateway embedded in your flesh.

  Through that conduit, you're going to draw sorcerous energy, and lots of it It will make you strong, and fast—

  stronger and faster than any of your fellow hunters. You'll have an edge in raw power when it comes to sorcery, even that weak-kneed trash you monkeys flatter yourself by calling magic."

  The hellbreed paused. Cold air hit my wet ear. A single drop of condensation trickled down the outer shell of cartilage, grew fat, and tickled unbearably as it traced a dead flabby finger down to the hollow where ear meets neck, a tender, vulnerable spot.

  "I'll also go so far as to help you keep this city free of hellbreed who might interfere with the general peace. Peace is good for profit, you know."

  A soft, rumbling chuckle brushed against my cheek, with its cargo of sponge-rotten breath.

  I kept my fucking mouth shut. "Stay silent until he offers all he's going to offer, milaya." Mikhail's advice, good advice. I was trained, wasn't I? At least, mostly trained. A hunter in my own right, and this was my chance to become… what?

  Even better. It was a golden opportunity, and if he thought I should take it, I would. And I wouldn't screw it up.

  I would not let my teacher down.

  So stay quiet, Jill. Stay calm.

  I kept breathing softly through my mouth; the air reeked of hellbreed and corruption. Tasting that scent was bad, as bad as breathing it through my nose.

  I just couldn't figure out which was worse.

  Something hard, rasping like a cat's tongue, flicked forward and touched the hollow behind my ear, pressing past a few stray strands of hair. If I hadn't been so fucking determined to stay still, muscles locked up tighter than Val's old cashbox, I might have flinched.

  Then I probably would have died.

  But the touch retreated so quickly I wasn't sure I'd felt it. Except that little drop of condensation was gone, wasn't it?

  Shit. I was now sweating too bad to tell.

  The hellbreed laughed again. "Very good, little hunter. The bargain goes thus: you bear my mark and use the power it provides as you see fit. Once a month you'll come visit, and you'll spend time with me. That's all— a little bit of time each month. For superlative use of the power I grant you, you might have to spend a little more time.

  Say, five or six hours?"

  Now it was negotiation time. I wet my lips with my tongue, wished I hadn't because I suddenly knew his eyes had fastened on my mouth. "Half an hour. Maximum."

  Bargaining on streetcorners taught me that much, at least— you never take the John's first offer, and you never, ever, ever start out with more than half of what you're willing to give.

  Sometimes you can pick who buys you, and for how much.

  That's what power really is.

  "You wound me." The hellbreed didn't sound wounded.

  He sounded delighted, his bland tenor probing at my ear. "Three hours. See how generous I am, for you ? "

  This is too easy. Be careful. " An hour a month, maximum of two, and your help on my cases. Final offer, hellbreed, or I walk. I didn't come here to be jacked around."

  Why had I come here? Because Mikhail said I should.

  I wondered if it was another test I'd failed, or passed. I wondered if I'd just overstepped and was looking at a nasty death. Bargaining with hellbreed is tricky; hunters usually just kill them. But this wasn't so simple. This was either a really good idea or a really bad way to die.

  A long thunderous moment of quiet, and the room trembled like a soap bubble. Something like masses of gigantic flies on a mound of corpses buzzed, rattling.

  Helletöng. The language of the damned. It lay under the skin of the visible like fat under skin, dimpling the surface tension of what we try to call the real world.

  "Done, little hunter. We have a bargain. If you agree."

  My throat was like the Sahara, dry and scratchy. A cough caught out in the open turned into a painful, ratcheting laugh. "What do you get out of this, Perry?"

>   That scaly, dry, probing thing flicked along my skin again, rasped for the briefest second against the side of my throat, just a fraction of an inch away from where the pulse beat frantically. I sucked at keeping my heartrate down, Mikhail warned and warned me about it—

  " Sometimes we like being on the side of the angels." The hellbreed's voice dropped to a whisper that would have been intimate if the rumbling of Hell hadn't been scraping along underneath. "It makes the ending sweeter.

  Besides, peace is good for profit. Do we have a deal, little hunter? "

  Christ. Mikhail, I hope you're right. I didn't agree to it because of the hellbreed or even because the thought of that much power was tempting.

  I agreed because Mikhail told me I should, even though it was my decision. It wasn't really a Trader's bargain if I was doing it for my teacher, was it?

  Was it?

  "We have a deal." Four little words. They came out naturally, smoothly, without a hitch.

  Hot iron-hard fingers clamped over my right wrist. "Oh, good." A slight wet smacking sound, like a hungry toddler at the breakfast table, and he wrenched my hand off the arm of the chair, the pale tender underside of my wrist turned up to face cold fluorescent light. My heart jackhammered away, adrenaline soaking copper into the dry roof of my mouth, and I bit back a cry.

  It was too late. Four tiny words, and I'd just signed a contract.

  Now we'd see if Mikhail was right, and I still had my soul.

  Chapter One

  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 like 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 whupass. 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 can look below the surface of the world—saw a sudden tensing of the strings of brackish 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 razor-blade pressed against the wrist, a thin line of red on pale skin, the frozen-blue face of a suicide.

  I moved. Boots silent 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 sudd
enly 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.