You can learn a lot about a person by how they react in the moments before their inevitable death. Some tighten their lips to face the great unknown with dignified silence. Others curse God, their fate, or their killer. The result is the same. A tiny gasp of air escapes their lips as the life in their eyes fades away.
Murder isn’t the addiction I expected to wind up hooked on. In another life, I sat in the front pew every Sunday morning and bowed my head for every prayer. People around town referred to me as ‘the Reverend’s daughter’ if they noticed me at all. I doubt anyone from my father’s church would even recognize me now.
I perch myself on the roof of the hotel and wait to discover which category the notorious Treznor belongs to. A warm breeze whistles through my hair, doing nothing to stifle the intense Miami heat. The rooftop offers a clear vantage point of the street below. People the size of ants shuffle between restaurants and nightclubs. Waves crash against the beach somewhere behind me. I block out the noise of the traffic and people, focusing on the target I’ve come for.
He sits at a circular bar in the swanky lounge across the street, his back facing the massive bay windows wrapping around all sides of the building. Against the all-white decor of the nightclub, his dark suit and inky hair stand out like the black hole he is. His skin is ashen, but not in a sickly way. Even from this distance, it’s obvious he’s handsome. Probably one of the perks of sustaining immortality by drinking the blood of unsuspecting women.
The brunette seated beside him throws her head back and laughs at something he said. She touches her hand to his wrist and bats her eyelashes up at him. Her little black dress clings to her curves the same way she hangs on his every word. If I didn’t know about the dagger strapped to the inside of her thigh, I might even believe she adores him.
I never tire of watching Jade in her element. Where impulsive or impatient could be synonyms for my name, Jade’s approach is a subtle slow-burn. The two of us together create a lethal combination no evil can escape.
She leans over and cups a manicured hand around Treznor’s ear. He stiffens, but his expression remains unchanged. I can’t hear their conversation, but I can imagine the naughty things Jade is whispering.
I shift my weight between my feet and wait for Jade to lead the target outside. The night is warm, the air thick with humidity. Fireflies dance through the starless sky above. Latin music drifts out of one of the nightclubs. My mind wanders to all the ways normal girls spend Friday nights–at parties or on dates or waiting for the room to empty to snort Adderall and study. Only those touched by darkness surrender our lives to slaying monsters.
Treznor thinks he’s lucked into an easy meal with Jade. Everything from his posture to the smug smirk on his face conveys his confidence in his plans to drain her dry. My grip tightens around my pistol. If I have any say in things, he’ll never come closer to her than he is right now.
Jade, affectionately known to most in our circles as Siren, is one of those ‘cute without makeup’ types it’s hard not to hate just a little. It might be easier to tolerate if she sucked with a weapon, but I’ve witnessed her slice through demons like paper. It’s not fair to envy her as much as I do. Jade’s life is in far more danger than mine on most hunts.
She rises from her barstool and beckons for Treznor to do the same. Showtime. Looping her arm in his, she glides towards the door, exaggerating her wobbly steps until even I question if she’s had too much to drink. Of course, I doubt I could walk in her tall stilettos without stumbling even sober.
I raise my weapon into position and hold my breath. The Exorcist is heavy in my hands, the steel warm with the heat of my touch. One well-aimed shot will send Treznor back to the depths of Hell where he belongs. But if I miss, Treznor won’t let me live long enough to try again.
Luckily, I’ve yet to come across a monster The Exorcist couldn’t handle. Legend says the pistol was hand-crafted by one of God’s Archangels, one shot can take down any of Hell’s most powerful monsters.
It’s hard not to pity Treznor at least a little. He smiles at Jade as if he’s a lucky man who’s won some great prize. He has no idea she’s leading him to destruction. I can relate to that better than most.
I grew up on the same fairy tales as every other kid my age. The characters changed from story to story, but the message never varied. The prince saves the princess. True love saves the day. And what little girl doesn’t dream of a handsome prince whisking her away from all life’s problems and rescuing her with his unfaltering love?
But real life is nothing like books or movies. Love doesn’t turn monsters into men or save anyone from shit. Sparks of chemistry, like any other fire, can burn an entire life to the ground in seconds.
My pulse throbs in my neck. I focus on slowing my breath. Steady aim is crucial to success tonight. I won’t get a second shot at Treznor.
This is not the time to dwell on the mistakes of the past. Never again will my emotions blind me. Instead of the victim, I became the victimizer.
My breath hitches as Treznor and Jade step onto the sidewalk, his arm looped around her waist. A bead of sweat drips down my face. A bead of sweat drips down my face. I can’t shoot at him with Jade so close. Too many things could go wrong.
He leans down and smashes his mouth against hers. My stomach lurches, but to Jade’s credit, she throws her arms around his neck and throws herself into his embrace. Her ability to slip into a role and play it so flawlessly is both terrifying and impressive. Hollywood is missing a star.
Playing the drunken slut is part of Jade’s role within the Dark Hunt. Nothing gets either of us higher than the adrenaline of a challenging job. She’s not exactly the type to sit around braiding hair and talking about her feelings, but something tells me the only way Jade leaves the Hunt is in a body bag.
Time slows around me. I remain frozen in place, watching as Jade pulls away and whispers something into his ear before giggling. Slipping her fingers through his, she leads him across the street and into the designated kill zone, the alleyway between the hotel and a sports bar.
The moment they’re out of public view, Treznor grabs Jade by the shoulders and slams her against the wall. Her gasp of surprise echoes over all the other noise pollution. He licks his lips as they pull into a devilish grin, ready to move in for the kill.
Not today, fucker. I pull the trigger and fire two shots into the center of his skull. The gunshots rip through the night like fireworks, followed seconds later by panicked screams from the people on the streets. He staggers a few steps and drops to the concrete with a thud that feels like Christmas morning. Jade tears out of the alley and onto the street, soon disappearing in the crowd of people searching for victims or scary men with guns.
Sirens whoop in the distance. Time to go. There’s no way to explain to Miami Metro Homicide how we did them a favor by taking out Treznor. Murder is murder in the eyes of the law, even if the monster I killed didn’t have a drop of humanity in him.
Jade waits for me in front of the abandoned church with an open bottle of rum. A cigarette dangles from her pouty lips. Thin curls of smoke float towards the inky midnight sky above. She sits at the top of the massive stone steps leading up to a set of double doors all but rusted off their hinges. She pats the spot next to her and extends the bottle towards me, silent as she exhales another cloud of smoke through her nostrils.
From the outside, the forgotten house of worship is nothing to stare at. Thick patches of weeds scattered throughout the overgrown lawn sprout in all directions, the worst of it is tall enough to tickle just above my knees. Faded paint peels from the sides of the weathered building. The arched roof supporting an iron cross appears weeks away from caving in. Even if someone drives by and spots us loitering around the parking lot, they’ll assume we’re a couple of teens sneaking off to hang out away from prying adult eyes.
I scurry up the steps and snatch the bottle from her hands, dropping next to her. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Inside. Along with a nasty little surprise.” She points her cigarette at the booze. “You’ll need a few shots for this one.”
I turn away and take a small sip, trying to hide the way my entire face wrinkles. My throat burns as I struggle not to gag. Alcohol isn’t my favorite way to numb emotions, but it’s the only one available most nights. The rest of the guys love to drink away their losses or toast to their victories. They’ve mastered the art of drinking cheap booze from the bottle as if it were water in the desert.
I pass the bottle back to Jade. “Someone dead?”
“Not this time. But I have a feeling shit’s about to become a lot more complicated around here. I promised Zeke I’d let him fill you in.” She rolls her eyes and flicks what’s left of her cigarette over the chain-linked fence surrounding the parking lot. “For whatever reason, he’s sweet on you.”
Rolling my eyes, I can’t help but laugh. “Come on, you know Zeke better than anyone but Michael. He doesn’t flirt.”
“Shame.” Jade takes another swig of booze, then gestures towards the doors. “Ready?”
I rise to my feet and roll my shoulders. “How pissed will this make me?”
“About as pissed as the time I got us both arrested.” Jade jumps to her feet and grins. “Michael lost his shit, too.”
Peachy. As if the life-and-death nature of our work isn’t enough excitement.
It takes both of our weight combined to convince the doors to groan open enough for us to slip inside the shadowy lobby. I follow Jade through the hallways of the abandoned house of worship and into the main sanctuary where the rest of our posse is scattered with various bottles of liquor. Candles scattered throughout the pews illuminate the walls covered in patches of black mold covered by rainbows of graffiti.
It’s probably a health hazard for us to stay here. If the monsters don’t kill us, or abysmal living conditions might. Even the air smells polluted. Dismissing my paranoia, I scan the room for Zeke. I need more from him than information tonight.
I find him near the pulpit, hands clasped behind his back while he supervises his flock. Sage and a pair of lanky twins, Nightstalker and Nova, chatter animatedly beside him, but his attention is elsewhere. Zeke and Michael never drink or party with the rest of the hunters. As the leaders of our little ragtag group of misfit vigilantes, it’s rare to see them lower their guards for more than a moment.
Jade isn’t the only hunter with a schoolgirl crush on Zeke. His charms seem to work on everyone from seasoned hunters to bitter old busybodies who spot us lurking around their neighborhoods. One smile and a few kind words and women everywhere melt for him.
It isn’t as if I don’t understand why. Zeke is the embodiment of perfection for broken girls like us. He’s careful to award more compliments than criticisms to all the hunters, and his sense of humor is surpassed only by Jade’s. He’s as skilled in battle as he is with words, and his rugged good looks are difficult to ignore. In another life, even I might’ve fallen for him.
Instead, I fell for a demon. My stomach twists as I remember the way my heart fluttered every time Kane said my name. Zeke warned me he was bad news. My mother, too. But my schoolgirl crush left me blind to Kane’s true colors. The few times I caught glimpses of his dark side, I told myself he’d never hurt me the same way. We cared about each other, or so I foolishly believed. The entire thing makes me sick to think about.
Head down, I make my way across the sanctuary to the pulpit. I reach him just in time to hear Nova tell her brother, “Quit pretending you’re some hotshot to impress Sage. Everyone knows who did the heavy lifting tonight.”
“Screw you,” he fires back, pushing his stringy dark hair away from his face. “No one else damn near died.”
Zeke notices me and steps away from the others. He places a hand on my shoulder and steers me away from the group towards the exit. “Good work out there, Starfall. Siren tells me you took Treznor down in two shots.”
I shrug. “Jade fed him plenty of liquor first. He never saw it coming.”
The entire thing was almost anti-climatic. Not that I’ll admit that to Zeke. I don’t even want to imagine the judgmental glances he’d throw in my direction if he knew how much I enjoy the more dangerous parts of my job.
“Still, one less monster lurking in the shadows. Miami can sleep a little safer.” He leads me out and asks, “How is everything else?”
I don’t need to ask what he’s referring to. “I’m not due for another dose until the next full moon.”
“And a single injection is still lasting a full cycle?”
“I told you, Zeke, I’m fine.” I sigh and rub my arm, trying not to think about the six-inch needle waiting for me in a week. “Between the injections and the vitamins, I haven’t had a problem. Is this what you wanted to talk about?”
He chuckles. “Not entirely. How much do you know about the Knights of Hell?”
Not much. Zeke and Jade have probably told me plenty about the structure of Hell’s armies, but I pay little attention to that sort of thing. The only monster lore I care about is the kind that helps me kill them better. I couldn’t care less about how important a monster is in its social circles. Given enough time, The Dark Hunt will eliminate them all.
“Is this little pop quiz leading somewhere?”
He frowns. “Somewhere important, actually.”
We stop in front of a rusted metal door at the end of an unlit corridor. Zeke grips the handle, then turns to me and adds, “This son of a bitch can help us track down Kane.”
A shiver runs down my back despite the hot and humid night. At the mention of Kane’s name, dozens of memories I’ve worked my ass off to suppress come flooding back. His face comes to me as clearly as a photograph, his devious smile and dark eyes permanently etched into my brain. But his smile is soon replaced by wide eyes and hands covered in blood. My mother’s blood.
“Open it,” I demand, shaking my head as if it might shake the darkness from my thoughts.
Zeke reaches into his pocket and produces a small gold key. He unlocks the door and pushes it open to reveal a storage closet converted into some sort of prison. A man in an expensive pinstripe suit and tie stands in the center of the room. Thick steel shackles and chains pin his arms over his head, his body forming an awkward Y. Dried blood covers the left side of his face. He hisses when we enter, thrashing and twisting against his restraints.
“What the fuck.”
Zeke chuckles. “That’s about what I expected. Relax, little lamb. He can’t hurt you. We’ve neutralized his powers.”
But his temporary impotence doesn’t comfort me much. “Why the hell is he here? We kill demons. We don’t take them prisoner.”
“Usually, yes. But this bastard isn’t just any demon. This is Marax, otherwise known as Hell’s Messenger.”
I raise a brow. “Hell has errand boys? I thought they handled everything with blood magic.”
“He’s not some pathetic postal worker,” Zeke says, lowering his voice. “Lilith herself sends Marax to Earth with weapons and instructions for the Legion’s next attack on humanity. We found him too late to confiscate the weapons, but this bastard knows exactly where to find the Knights of Hell. Sources say he spends a lot of time with Leviathan and Lilith.”
He must read my disappointment on my face. He places a hand on my shoulder and adds, “My gut tells me that’s where we’ll find Kane. Your vengeance is close.”
My mouth goes dry. “Has he said anything so far?”
“Nothing yet, but we’ll make him talk.” He pulls the door closed, leaving the demon trapped inside. “After your injection, that is. The Knights won’t react well when they realize we have Marax. We need you sharp for what’s to come.”
I groan, but there’s no point in resistance. The few minutes of burning pain the shot brings are well worth the peace that follows. No more chilling visions or whispers infecting my thoughts. I won’t have to choose between insomnia and gut-wrenching nightmares. With one little prick, everything fades away. For another few weeks, darkness won’t suffocate my thoughts.
“Fine. But remember what you promised me, Zeke. Kane is mine.”
His lips twitch into the ghost of a smile. “Relax, I haven’t forgotten. Let’s get you fixed up. You’ll need all your strength if you plan to take down one of Hell’s top commanders.”