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Biting the Bullet
By Jennifer Rardin Orbit
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One Gunfire boomed in my ears, the sergeant crouched next to me yelling with triumph as his target fell.
"You were right, ma'am," he told me. "They drop like stones if you hit 'em in the forehead."
I nodded, appreciating the fact that he'd listened. Not all of them had.
My boss, Vayl, and I had just finished unloading our supplies with the help of our three-person crew. As we'd watched our Chinook fade into the night sky the monsters had attacked.
The situation looked dire. We stood a hundred yards from the tiny white farmhouse at which we'd arranged to meet the elite troops who would help us complete our next mission. Most of our gear was still packed, including the new high-tech weapons Bergman had brought for the Special Ops guys - which would've come in pretty damn handy.
My gun, Grief, the Walther PPK Bergman had modified for me so it could take down humans or vamps, rode in my shoulder holster. I also carried my usual array of backup weaponry. A syringe of holy water nested in the spring-loaded sheath I kept strapped around my right wrist. I'd tucked three throwing knives up my left sleeve just in case, and a bola inherited from my great-great-granddad rode in a leather pocket that ran down my right thigh. Everything else sat in the worn black case I wore on my back. In other words - inaccessible.
Vayl held the cane he always carried, an artisan's dream that hid a sword as lethal as its owner. Though he looked a lot more vulnerable than I did at first glance, his opponents were never deceived for long. The tall, broad-shouldered vampire who'd been my boss for eight months and my sverhamin for two carried within him an arsenal so formidable it had allowed him to survive nearly three hundred years, eighty of which he'd spent with the CIA. That made my four-year pin look kinda pathetic. But if you consider what I've done in that time, I'd argue that you should count them in dog years.
As consultants, Bergman and Cassandra weren't armed, so we'd stuck them in the center of our small circle, which we'd completed with our newest recruit. Cole Bemont had joined our ranks when his private investigations business burned as a direct result of his involvement with one of our missions. Vayl and I provided plenty of muscle for this one, and Bergman supplied all the brains we needed, but Cole displayed a gift for languages none of us could match. It had come to him, along with his Sensitivity, after he'd drowned in the icy waters of his family pond as a young boy and been revived long minutes later by rescue personnel.
His Gift had made him indispensable on our last job, when neither of us spoke Chinese, and this one, when nobody knew Farsi. It also helped that he could shoot with the accuracy and icy calm of a sniper. His weapon of choice was a 9 mm Beretta Storm, which he'd pulled and held steady in his left hand. His Parker-Hale M85 still rested in its carrying case across his back.
"Night vision!" I'd yelled to him as the creatures came roaring at us from the blackness of the desert, their noise and the suddenness of their attack making them seem like an army. As Cole obeyed, I squeezed my own eyes tight for the couple of seconds it took to activate the special lenses Bergman had engineered for us. They corrected any problems we had seeing far away, up close, or in the dark. The extra visual acuity I'd already gained from donating blood to my boss on a couple of occasions paired with Bergman's green-laced eyeball enhancers to show me a chilling sight.
At least twenty men swarmed us from all sides, their tattered robes and sand-caked hair flying back in the breeze caused by their movements. The sharp black outline surrounding their forms clued me in to their identities as did the third eye blinking wildly in the middle of their foreheads. Part of me stomped, swore, and snapped, "Are you kidding me? Already?"
"Reavers!" I yelled, glad my curls were caught inside the black scarf I wore, unable to impair my vision. "Aim for their foreheads!"
Most of the members of the Special Ops unit had been standing outside the farmhouse waiting for us when we touched down. They'd begun moving toward us as we unloaded, and two of the guys were within ten yards when the attack came. They reacted with admirable speed, riddling the nearest enemy with M4 fire. They seemed to heed my command, but I realized quickly they weren't aiming high enough. Their shots were landing pretty much between the ears. Made sense on anything but reavers, which only backed up at the onslaught, didn't even go down.
"They're shielded!" I screamed. "Their only weak point is that third eye!" Then I was too busy to worry about the men. The reavers were everywhere. I suddenly knew what it was like to be a tremendously popular rock star. We were about to be stampeded. Smothered. Except this mob wasn't after autographs - they wanted blood.
I took a deep breath. No room for fear here, where every shot had to count. I pumped bullet after bullet into the monsters attacking us as Cole's gun echoed mine and Vayl slashed and parried so quickly his hands were a blur. Behind me Cassandra was on her knees, the abaya she wore puddling around her feet like an oil slick. Was she praying? Well, she'd been an oracle once. If she had any pull left, now would be a great time to call in her favors.
Beside her Bergman clutched big tufts of his lank brown hair with both hands, his sparse beard seeming to tremble as he yelled, "Give me a weapon, goddammit! A rock! A screwdriver! Anything!"
Suddenly the Spec Ops guys were beside us, holding off the reavers when they weren't actually taking them out.
"Fall back!" I heard the commander say, his voice so familiar in my ears I had to force myself not to turn and look. A massive black dude knelt in front of me and started firing, so I took advantage of the break to hand Bergman my knife and reload.
Slowly, fighting all the way, we backed into the farmhouse. At some point I realized the two men who'd been out in front of the rest were being helped along by their buddies. A couple more had taken damage as well. They'd all been raked across the arms and chests by the reavers' harpoonlike claws, but the body armor they wore under their light-colored thobes seemed to have averted total disaster.
As the medic attended them, the rest of us took our posts at the windows and the open door. The reavers bombarded the house with no regard to the lead we poured into their bodies. But they dropped pretty fast when I repeated my call. "Target the third eye!" I yelled.
The sergeant hunkered next to me, chortling as he dropped yet another one. "I love my job!" he said. He couldn't have been much older than me, a mid-twenties adrenaline junkie whose Asian ancestors had granted him an exotic beauty set off perfectly by his square-jawed American side.
"Me too, pal," I said as I took my turn at the window. There were only a couple left. I decided to leave them for the others. I'd only brought a limited amount of ammo and I was a long way from home. I began refilling my clip as my neighbor introduced himself.
"Don Hardin," he said, holding out his hand, "but you can call me Jet."
I shook it, doubting I'd experience a wimpy grip in his ten-person unit. "Nice to meet you," I said. "I'm Jaz Parks."
You know how they say silence is golden? Not always. At the moment I'd have colored it orange. The hue of those construction lights you see on the highway, warning you to hit the breaks before you clip the poor schmuck who's holding the stop sign.
The last shot rang out. The final reaver fell just as I said my name and the farmhouse fell quiet. I looked around. The single stone room wasn't lit. The troops wore their night-vision goggles. Vayl could see in the dark. The rest of us had Bergman's contact lenses. I suddenly realized how completely we depend on being able to see the expressions on people's faces in order to interpret everything from feelings to appropriate conversational gambits.
"Somebody cover the windows. Give us a light, Cam," ordered the commander in the gruff voice I was sure I'd recognized before. All of us made the necessary adjustments so we wouldn't be blinded as a tall, broad-shouldered woman closed the door and hung blankets over the window openings, and one of the guys across the room pulled the hood off a surprisingly bright lantern.
I blinked as the commander stepped forward, looming over me like Albert used to right before banishing me to the yard, usually for talking when I should've been shutting up. Once there, I was required to run laps until further notice. Generally he had to reseed a three-foot path all the way around our property line every time we moved, since I usually figured whatever I'd pulled was worth the punishment, my brother felt the same, and our sister, Evie, ran with us to keep us company.
Dave had grown since then, and I'd never seen him so fit. But I didn't think he'd appreciate me oohing and aahing over his amazing abs in front of his unit. My suspicions were confirmed when he asked in a demanding and somewhat annoyed tone, "What're you doing here?"
That's the CIA for you. Don't even tell your partners who's coming until they get there.
I was tempted to strike a dramatic pose, hands on hips, hair floating on a well-timed breeze as I declared, "We have come to vanquish the Wizard!" But there would be no awed intakes of breath if I took that approach. According to our pentagon briefers, these guys had been chasing the bastard for a year. But he'd been killing long before that.
The Wizard had caused more U.S. and allied soldier casualties in the past decade than entire countries during official armed conflicts. He'd murdered thousands of innocents during terrorist attacks - his own people and ours. He made few distinctions. Anyone who denied his god, Angra Mainyu, as the Big Kahuna, made himself a target. And the Wizard, well, he didn't exactly call Angra Mainyu Daddy, but he'd begun to drop hints. Frankly, it did seem as if he had some divine assistance at times. He'd slipped so many traps locals said he ate shadows and drank starlight.
He also made the dead walk.
Which meant our training for this mission had included a crash course in necromancy that had left me with a bad case of the gag-a-maggots. Cassandra, of all people, had been our instructor. Pete had set us up in an empty meeting room around a scratched table with a fake wooden top on which she'd gently set the Enkyklios. The size of a makeup case, it held hundreds of years' worth of histories and lore gathered by Seers from across the world. Though I'd seen it work several times before, I still marveled at the unseen power that moved its parts, which resembled rainbow-colored glass balls. The kind hip women put at the bottom of vases. Don't ask me why. I've never been hip.
Bergman had still been buried in his lab, so only Cole, Vayl, and I had watched as Cassandra whispered, "Enkyklios occsallio vera proma," triggering the marbles to change, rearrange, and reveal their zombie-making secrets.
Out of a grouping of orbs shaped like a bell came a hologram so clear I was tempted to reach out and touch the weeping woman wearing a faded flower-print housedress. She strode down a narrow dirt path, her sensible shoes raising small clouds of dust with every step. Her wheat-colored hair had begun to escape from the bun she'd arranged at the nape of her neck. Tendrils of it brushed across her shoulders, pointing down to the dead girl she carried in her arms.
She headed toward a thatch-roofed cottage, the garden of which was so wild and dark it looked like it belonged in a painting by van Gogh. When she got to the door she kicked it twice. "Lemme in, Madame Otis!" she cried in a harsh cockney accent. "I need your help! I'll pay, I will!"
After she'd kicked a couple more times the door flew open. "What -" A narrow-eyed, stringy-haired woman took in the scene before her and crossed her arms. "Go home and bury that girl," she said flatly.
"She's my only child," the mother replied, desperation making her voice crack. "I know you can bring her back."
The woman spat into the tangle of weeds and hollyhocks next to the doorway. "I won't." We exchanged interested looks around the table. Not "I can't," but "I won't." Madame Otis was a necromancer.
"I need her!" wailed the mother. "I can't live without her! You can't imagine the pain!"
"What's your name, woman?" demanded Madame Otis.
"Hilda Barnaby, and this here is Mira," she added, nodding to the burden in her arms.
"Don't imagine you're the first woman to fall to her knees under the crush of a child's loss," snarled Madame Otis. "What you're asking me will bring you horrors beyond imagination. Wrap up that child, shoulder your grief, and move on. Because, believe me, you cannot be rejoined to her on this earth without conjuring yet more pain and an eternity of regret."
The women stared each other down. Almost at the same moment Hilda got that aha! look on her face, we realized Madame Otis had experienced a much similar loss and a parallel reaction. With one exception. She'd become a necromancer so she could raise her own dead. The nightmare of that experience still played across her face, though instinct told us it stood many decades in her past.
The picture faded as Hilda's voice came in unrelenting monotone through the misty gray fog that replaced the images. "I convinced Madame Otis to raise Mira in the end. All it took was everything I had. And it seemed so little to give. Even though Madame Otis explained to me that Mira would not be the same, I couldn't bring myself to care. My little girl would walk and talk once more. I would be able to hug her. Cook for her. Watch her walk down the aisle." Bitter laugh. "I couldn't have been more wrong."
New picture now, of Mira lying on a bed of rose petals on the floor of Madame Otis's cramped living room. Hilda's job seemed to be to keep the wood stove in the corner packed full. Every few minutes she'd pull open the black cast-iron door and throw in a foot-long piece of maple. Hilda spoke again. "Looking back, I think most of this was for show, or just to keep me busy. The important part was something I never could have grasped and should have stopped before it began."
I could've keeled over when Madame Otis went to her knees beside Mira and began speaking the words Raoul had taught me. "I recognize that chant!" I said. "She's going to separate from her body!"
Within moments she proved me right, though I was the only one who saw her rise, a jagged red crystalline dagger shot with black hovering over her inert and uncaring body. An unearthly scream filled my ears, as if the first violinist in the New York Philharmonic had taken a saw to her strings as a tiny piece ripped from the whole of Madame Otis's soul. It shot straight into Mira's body, making it spasm.
Hilda screamed and ran to her daughter, snatching her limp hand off the floor along with a few stray petals. "Mira, baby! Speak to me! Speak to me!"
Madam Otis quickly recalled herself, grimacing deeply as her two halves reconnected. She sat hunched over for a good thirty seconds before straightening. The expression on her face when she finally lifted it made me shudder. I recognized it. Had seen it on a few of my foes when they thought they had me cornered. Pure evil triumph.
"She's my child now, Hilda. Get out of this house before I decide she needs to strangle you." She fixed Mira's mother with a malevolent glare, one that made Hilda shiver and sit back on her heels. But she wasn't ready to give up. Not when her darling had finally reopened her lovely blue eyes. Even if they were, well, vacant.
"Mira, mine. Come home now. We've got so much to do."
But Mira, the part that mattered, had already gone home. The bit that remained marched to the drum of a new master. That part opened its mouth wide, sank its teeth into Hilda's wrist. And chewed. Hilda screamed, shoving at Mira's forehead, trying to get her to release her hold as blood began to spurt from her deepening wound.
Mira growled with irritation as Hilda pushed her away, shoving her half off her tasty treat. She released the wrist but snapped right back to target. Hilda recoiled, but not fast enough. This time Mira had her by the hand. I glanced down at my own hands, marked forever by the talons of a pissed-off reaver. And that's when I really began rooting for the underdog.
After a brief tug-of-war backed by Mira's growls, Hilda's screams, and Madame Otis's delighted cackles, Hilda finally broke free. She ran out of the cottage, trailing blood as she went. Again the picture faded.
Excerpted from Biting the Bullet by Jennifer Rardin Copyright © 2008 by Jennifer Rardin. Excerpted by permission.
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