Read an Excerpt
By Christine Warren, Marjorie M. Liu, Caitlin Kittredge, Jenna Maclaine
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Christine Warren
All rights reserved.
Sitting at the right foot of the devil could give a girl a complex about her pedicure. At least, that's what Lilli Corbin had to assume when she walked into the designated meeting place and surveyed the tableau laid out before her. The small strip-mall nail salon had five nail stations ranged along the right wall and an equal number of pedicure chairs opposite. While three of the pedicure chairs were currently occupied, only two of the customers in them appeared to be availing themselves of the services of the frighteningly efficient nail technicians. The third lounged in the high, faux leather chair as if it were a carved and gilded throne.
Rounding the front desk, Lilli leaned back against the black laminate surface and crossed her arms over her chest. "Busy night, Sam?"
Neither of the female patrons glanced up from their toes or the workers bent over them, but the man between them moved his mouth in a smile as dark as envy.
"Lillith," Sam purred. "I'm so glad you could make it. I was afraid your schedule might place too heavy a burden upon you."
His voice was as smooth as velvet, sweet as honey, warm as affection. And as deceptive as his fair, angelic features. Lilli gritted her teeth and ignored the instinctive tug in the pit of her stomach. She couldn't stop herself from responding to him — no living woman, and very few men, could — but she could use her knowledge of him to nip that response in the bud. When she got home, she could try to shower off the memory of it.
"I suppose I could say something about how I've always got time for old friends," she said, "but you're not my friend, and we both know why I made it a point to rearrange my schedule for this."
His smile never wavered. "You would consider it a matter of honor, of course."
"That, and after this one, I'm done. I'll be off the hook for good. That's way too good to pass up."
"You're certain you wouldn't like to sign a longer-term contract?"
Lilli leveled a sardonic stare at the devil. "Thanks, but I'm afraid I'm using my soul at the moment."
She left the bait alone. She'd already had almost twenty-four hours to revel in the idea of finally fulfilling her bargain with Samael and being free of his influence; there was no way in Hell she would risk that freedom now. Not when she could already taste it.
Seven long years ago, Lilli had made a deal with the devil: in return for his permission to enter his portion of the underworld and bring out a fugitive she'd been hired to apprehend, she agreed to do him three unspecified favors in the future. He could not ask her to kill anyone, nor to maim, torture, or deliberately injure or scar anyone. He couldn't ask for a task beyond her abilities, and he couldn't bind her soul in any way, shape, or form. He also could not demand or require any sexual favors from her, nor ask her to procure them on his behalf. Beyond that, Lilli agreed to grant Samael her assistance three times between the date the bargain was struck and the date of her physical death, without the option of refusal.
She'd regretted it immediately, of course, but at the time she'd had very little choice. The fugitive she'd been after had been a particularly nasty one, but then, when weren't they? When you specialized in the identification, tracking, and apprehension of visitants (as the polite world liked to call the kind of preternatural things she dealt with, in spite of their inconveniently native origins), you learned that "nasty" could be a disturbingly relative term.
In the end, Lilli had caught up to the visitant — a goblin that time, one who had decided to branch out from the usual mischief-making to more fatal activities — and turned him over to the proper authorities. Without Samael's help, the goblin's killing spree would have been ten times worse, and Lilli would have had ten times the number of souls on her conscience, so she supposed the bargain she'd struck had been worth it. It had saved lives, and so far it had cost only one week's duty as a personal bodyguard during a council of devils, and a thirty-six-hour imp hunt that had left her with nothing worse than a small scar on her left ankle and a four-day headache.
Judging by the glint in Samael's eyes today, "so far" were likely going to be the key words in that particular thought.
Lilli knew better than to look directly into those eyes, though. She focused on a spot just between the devil's toffee-colored eyebrows and decided it was in her best interest to move this little interview along.
"I'm a busy girl, Sam," she said, her tone even and business-like. "Why don't you just cut to the chase and let me know what you need from me this time?"
"Now don't be hasty, my dear." Samael accepted the hand towel a technician handed him with absent grace. "You'll make me think you're overeager to end our association."
"That's because I am."
"I'm hurt." He pressed carefully buffed fingertips to his chest. "But hardly surprised. You always were a stubborn little thing, so determined to draw a line in the sand between you and me."
Lilli reflected that she'd actually have preferred a line in the reinforced concrete, but she kept the thought to herself. If he really was going to request his third favor tonight, she didn't want to jeopardize her chances at freedom.
"Personally," the devil continued, "I've always thought we had more than a few things in common. Our determination, our focus ... the sense of pride each of us takes in our work." His sharp obsidian eyes sliced toward her, hooked deep into her face. "Our ancestry."
Lilli flinched beneath her mask of indifference. She knew better than to let Samael see a reaction. Exploiting weaknesses was his bread and butter, and she had no desire to satisfy his hunger.
It shouldn't surprise her that the devil would bring up her heritage, or even really that he'd been able to dig up the truth she normally kept hidden. Few people outside of the underworld felt comfortable face-to-face with the daughter of a devil, even if her mother had been a completely average human. Being half Hell-blooded was enough to make most distrust her on principle, and she couldn't blame them. If she were human, she'd probably distrust someone like her, too. It would be hard not to, considering her line of work. Bounty hunters routinely dealt with the dregs of humanity, but since Lilli specialized in hunting visitants, she saw the dregs of that population as well. She wouldn't trust a devil farther than she could throw him, and a devil's spawn only an inch farther than that.
On bad days, she even wondered if she could trust herself.
"It's not like we're cousins, Sam," she said, forcing her dark thoughts back into the mental closet they'd escaped from. "We're in no danger of meeting up at the next family reunion." She had no desire to think about the rest of his comments, or to contemplate things they might have in common. If she did, she'd end up collecting a bounty on her own head. "You might have guessed as much if you'd thought about the fact that the only way you can get me in the same room with you is to call in one of the favors I owe you."
The devil's eyes narrowed. "You sought me out first, Lillith Corbin. Remember that. I would have remained in blissful ignorance of your existence if you hadn't sought me out."
Lillith saw a spark of genuine anger in his eyes and fought the urge to shift her weight to the balls of her feet. Fight or flight. Either way his mood shifted, she wanted to be ready; but in the meantime, maybe focusing him back on the business at hand would diffuse the situation long enough for her to walk out with her intestines and her dignity intact.
That was her definition of a win.
"And here I am, seeking you out again," she said, "only this time I heard that you wanted to see me. Any truth to the rumors?"
Samael's fingers tapped out a wave on the arm of his chair. His black eyes studied her from beneath narrowed lids. Lilli could feel the air pressure increase as he weighed whether or not to let her disrespectful demeanor go for now. She knew perfectly well she should have curbed her tongue, but that was a skill she'd never managed to master. The only excuse she could muster was that her mouth was just as sharp around those she did respect as those she didn't. It wasn't like she was playing favorites.
Maybe she'd have that engraved on her memorial.
"A possession of mine has gone missing," he answered abruptly. "You will determine where it is and retrieve it for me."
That didn't sound so bad, which immediately made Lilli suspicious.
"What kind of possession? I collect bounty on bodies, not souls, remember."
"Yes, you are quite the puritan, aren't you?" He swiveled in his chair and snapped his fingers. Immediately, the basin at the foot filled with water that begin to froth and churn even though the motor for the built-in jets remained silent. Samael slid his feet in and leaned back. "You needn't worry, however. This is merely a book — a folio, actually. Early medieval, I believe. Vellum, illuminated, and bound in leather. It looks something like this."
A wave of his hand and Lilli found herself blinking at an image of a large volume hovering in the air near her head. It looked old, the leather scuffed and cracked in places, worn smooth and slick in others. The image revolved slowly, showing her the thick spine, the uneven, hand-cut edges of the thick, vellum sheets. When the cover turned back, she could see the ancient, golden color of the animal skin pages, the still vivid red and blue inks of the illustrations, the faded black of the careful, stylized script. She could just imagine the robe-clad scribe, bent over the pages, carefully copying line after line of text in the light of the unfiltered sun and smoky tallow candles. She could almost smell the smoke.
Shaking her head, she looked away from Samael's spell and lifted an eyebrow. "What kind of book is it?"
The devil's brow mirrored hers. "Does that matter? It's not ensorcelled to imprison a human soul, if that's what your suspicious nature wants to know."
"What about other kinds of souls?"
Samael made an impatient sound. "It's not ensorcelled at all. Not cursed, not bespelled, not warded. For all I know, it's not even charmed. It's just a book."
"Then why do you care about getting it back?"
His black eyes fixed on her, and Lilli had to struggle not to meet that gaze. She focused hard on an angelic golden curl of hair that tumbled over his temple and curled an inch above his cheekbone. Her life would have been easier if she could have looked into his eyes and read the truth of his statements for herself, but even if she had possessed that kind of gift (which wasn't one generally passed on to offspring by generals in the armies of Hell), Lilli knew better than to attempt to use it on Samael. She already knew what she would see if she looked into his eyes — seduction, pain, pleasure, death. Lucifer, his master. The great abyss of evil of which Samael was only a small, pretty part.
She swallowed hard, counted the strands that made up the golden curl, and waited.
"It was mine," he said, anger and avarice tangling in the rough silk of his voice. "I keep what is mine, and I do not allow it to leave me. No one steals from me."
Chains, hot and black and heavy, rattled in the back of Lilli's mind. She pushed the sound away and closed her nostrils to the smell of brimstone. Suddenly, only one more question mattered to her, so she asked it without artifice.
"And if I get it back for you, our bargain will be fulfilled?"
"Once the book is in my hands, you'll never have to see me again, dear Lillith." A smile slithered across his face. "Unless, of course, you discover you miss me."
Lilli caught the snort before it escaped. Fat chance. She'd miss a cancerous tumor before she'd miss this dysfunctional little relationship of theirs. The glimpse of freedom he dangled before her tempted her like nothing she'd ever seen, and he promised all she'd have to do was return his book to him.
Just a book.
It was too easy, a voice inside her whispered. Much too easy, and too uncomplicated. Why would he be willing to use his last favor on so trivial a task? And for something as mundane as a book? No matter how old or rare, could there possibly be any book valuable enough to matter to Samael this much? But did she really care? After all, if she did this, her bargain would be fulfilled. She'd be free of the devil and the weighty stain their association left on her conscience. Could she afford to overlook that opportunity?
Was she overthinking this?
"Fine," she said, pushing aside the doubts and straightening away from the counter. "I'll get your book back. And when it's done, I'll expect to see our contract dissolved. Burning it works for me."
His smile taunted her. "You know how I feel about fire, sweetheart. It always turns me on."
Lilli grimaced against the wave of nausea that rolled in her stomach and turned toward the exit. "I'll contact you tomorrow for the details on when and where the book was last seen and who else might be interested in it. You'll have it as soon as I can get my hands on it."
"Excellent." His voice followed her as she pushed open the door and gulped the fresh, un-devil-tainted air. "You have three days. Always a pleasure doing business with you, Lillith."
He tossed something at her, and she caught it reflexively even before his words managed to sink in.
Lilli stopped dead, her feet seeming to sink into the pavement as if it had turned to quicksand. She shrieked out the words before her brain could catch up with her mouth. "Three days?!"
Eyes wide, she spun around and pushed hard at the nail salon's etched glass door, determined to let Samael know what she thought of that ridiculous deadline. The only problem was that the door refused to budge. Probably because it no longer existed.
In the place of the nail salon's entrance, Lilli found herself facing a solid brick wall with a rather crude and physically implausible suggestion scrawled across it in bright blue spray paint. The door, the salon, and the devil were nowhere to be seen. She cursed a blue streak.
In her hand, the thing he'd thrown at her seemed to throb mockingly.
Lilli looked down. She'd caught it when the devil had thrown it, more out of reflex than intent. God knew she didn't like to take gifts from Hell-spawn like that, but when she studied the small pewter pendant suspended from a thin, silver chain, she knew this was most definitely not a gift. It was a hangman's noose.
Formed in exquisite detail was a miniature hourglass. The pewter casing had been etched to look like scales on every surface, but the clear glass inside was pristine and perfect, showcasing every single grain of crimson sand that fell from one chamber to the other.
A line from her favorite movie musical popped into her mind, and Lilli guessed her expression probably mirrored the one she'd seen a dozen times on Marlon Brando's as she slipped the chain around her neck and let the clock start running.
"Daddy," she quoted on a groan, "I just got cider in my ear."CHAPTER 2
Aaron Bullard's hands shook as he turned from the photo in the text on his left, removed his glasses, and polished the lenses on the tail of his rumpled shirt. They continued to shake as he shoved his already mussed brown hair away from his forehead and replaced the rectangular frames before his wide, bewildered, muddy-green eyes. They didn't even stop when he stared down at the delicate ancient volume spread out on the desk before him.
Could it possibly be true?
For a minute he wondered frantically if he'd just been working too long, as usual, poring over lists and catalogs and books for an hour or four too many. He couldn't possibly have just made the discovery of his obscure and geeky career in the basement of his Uncle Alistair's dilapidated old house.
But he had.
His secret hope and worst nightmare had just been simultaneously confirmed — the leather-bound tome he'd found secreted behind a collection of inconsequential eighteenth-century herbals on the bottom shelf of his late uncle's occult library was indeed the world's only surviving copy of Valterum's Praedicti Arcanum.
Arcane Prophecies. The legendary playbook for the end of the world. The script that told how the devils of the underworld would start a war that would bring humanity to its knees and enslave the mortal population into eternal torment.
Excerpted from Huntress by Christine Warren, Marjorie M. Liu, Caitlin Kittredge, Jenna Maclaine. Copyright © 2009 Christine Warren. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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