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«Night Shift», Lilith Saintcrow

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For Nicholas Deangelo,

who never asked why.

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

— Anonymous

Prologue

"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.

"So."

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?


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