Chapter One Excerpt Copyright 2017 Paula Altenburg
Hunter slapped the toe-grazing length of his leather duster, sending showers of fine red silt into the dry air around him. It was a habit learned from his mother a long time ago in another life, and one he’d never seen the need to break—removing the desert dirt before entering an establishment.
Even an establishment in a place like Freetown, where niceties weren’t the rule of the day.
Dusk was settling in and the saloon would soon prepare to close. No honest man stayed out after dark. If they weren’t afraid of thieves, they were terrified of demons. Hunter wanted this meeting over with so he, too, could be on his way.
With his hat dangling between his shoulder blades by its straps, Hunter pushed open the swinging door. The dim interior of the saloon meant anyone framed in the doorway was backlit by the setting sun and virtually blinded. Sidestepping to the right, he brushed back his duster, keeping his hand close to the six-shooter at his hip. The short sword strapped to his back came in handy for those times when a gunshot might attract too much unwanted attention, but in a saloon, loud weapons made the better deterrents. And faster, cleaner kills.
A sword, however, worked best against demons if a man was willing to fight them up close. And Hunter wasn’t known as the Demon Slayer for nothing.
The smells of ale-soaked pine, smoked meats, and stale tobacco thickened the air. He remained with his back to the raw wooden wall while his eyes adjusted to the change in the light. When they did, he nodded to Blade, the tall, stone-faced man behind the bar.
Blade, polishing the glass in his hand with a pristine white cloth, acknowledged Hunter with the slightest drop of his chin. Hunter let his gaze drift around the near-empty room, searching for the one he’d been summoned to meet.
The women who worked in the saloon had already retired to the second floor. Blade didn’t encourage overnight business, and anyone who wanted it paid a significant price. A man with a long, ugly red scar down the side of an even uglier face slouched on a stool at the bar. Hunter noted and dismissed him. A few stragglers sat at well-spaced tables, showing signs of imminent departure. Once the front door was locked, it was locked for the night.
A lone woman sat in the single booth in one shadowed corner of the room. Twisted and misshapen, dressed in a man’s greatcoat and coarse woolen trousers, she hunched in her seat, unbothered by the other patrons. It wasn’t her appearance that kept her from harassment. Being a priestess protected her far better than simple ugliness ever could, for priestesses served as the only law this side of the Godseekers’ mountains. They were all that stood between the people and the demons, and in their own way, they were far more ruthless than the basest of cutthroats.
This one was the worst of the lot—and the client Hunter had come here to meet. Mamna was her name, and he didn’t like her. He didn’t like that she’d made a deal with the Demon Lord, one that put her in her current position of power. He didn’t like the way laws were being written by a woman who had no use for other women.
And he didn’t like being summoned.
The nails in his boot heels echoed on the whitewashed floor as he walked to the priestess’s table. A sneer of disgust twisted Scarface’s lips as Hunter passed him. Men knew better than to show open contempt for the priestess, but anyone who dealt with her was another matter. Hunter committed Scarface to memory. It was good to have an idea of who might try to plant a knife in his back. Or die trying.
He slid onto the bench across the battered table from the priestess. The amulet around his neck warmed, but Hunter ignored it. It indicated the priestess had been in recent contact with a demon, a fact that didn’t surprise him as much as it left him with a bad taste in his mouth.
Hunter knew why Mamna wanted to meet with him in a public place. She wanted everyone in Freetown aware that she was conducting business with the Demon Slayer, and that there were certain laws in the land even the Slayer could be made to respect. That was why Hunter had kept this meeting to a time when as few people as possible were likely to see them. He respected the law, such as it was. But he hated demons and all who associated with them, the priestess included. He wasn’t about to help boost her image.
With watery, pale blue eyes lodged in an aging face withered and burnt from a hard life in a harsh desert, the priestess examined Scarface at the bar before acknowledging Hunter.
“If he takes offense to your speaking with a priestess, try not to kill him,” she said. “But go ahead and hurt him a little.”
Hunter allowed his own eyes to turn to ice. “I never kill men unless I have to.” It was a less than subtle reminder that, while Hunter might be persuaded to take a contract from the priestess, he would do so on his own terms. He rested one palm on the table, keeping his other hand out of her line of vision. “Why have you summoned me here?”
Scarface continued to watch him, but Blade, Hunter knew, would be watching Scarface on his behalf. It paid to have good friends.
“There’s a thief at large on Goddess Mountain,” Mamna said.
Hunter shrugged. “There are thieves everywhere. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Besides, the goddesses are long gone and their temple is abandoned. What difference will one thief make to anyone?”
Another subtle jab on Hunter’s part. The priestesses—Mamna in particular—didn’t like to be reminded of the goddesses’ departure. It represented betrayal.
“The mountain is forbidden,” Mamna replied. She rubbed a gnarled hand over her shaven head.
“Then this thief does your work for you. If he’s successful at his chosen profession, people will learn to leave the mountain alone and he’ll have to move on.”
“The thief is a woman.”
Hunter laughed out loud. “More power to her.” At the bar, Scarface tightened his grip on his drink and Hunter lowered his voice. “If she thieves on Goddess Mountain, she’s more than likely one of your own.”
“She’s not a priestess.”
Mamna sounded definite about that, and Hunter had to admit he was growing intrigued. A woman on the mountain who stole from trespassers? What kind of woman would she be?
A hideous one, no doubt. Probably bitter as the priestesses about it, too. Women judged themselves far harsher than men, although from what he’d seen beauty didn’t earn them much in this world.
Mamna pulled a small pouch from a pocket in her greatcoat and slid it to Hunter. He lifted the pouch. It was heavier than it looked, meaning it contained mostly, if not all, gold coin.
Which also meant he was being overpaid.
“There’s more to this story,” Hunter said flatly.
Mamna had the nerve to feign righteousness. “She’s ambushing innocents, most likely supplicants to a temple that no longer has any purpose. All you have to do is capture her and bring her here to face justice.”
The last thing Hunter wanted was for Mamna to think his reluctance in accepting this task sprang from not wanting to bring a woman to so-called justice. It would give her a weakness to use against him in future negotiations. He tossed the pouch in the palm of his hand. The coins clinked dully.
Gold. Definitely gold.
Hunter intended to have an explanation he believed, or at least one he was willing to accept. “This is a great deal of money for bringing in one woman.”
At the bar Blade made a production of putting glasses away. “Closing time,” he said to Scarface.
Scarface grunted. “There are two others still here.”
“Those two have no need to fear demons.” The shutters on the windows rattled to emphasize Blade’s point. Everyone knew demons rode the night winds. “I require a great deal of cash upfront if you want to spend the entire night here. A great deal. So my next question is, how much do you need to fear them?”
Scarface tossed a few coins on the bar, hitched up the back of his dust-crusted trousers, and left through the swinging doors.
Mamna cleared her throat, drawing Hunter’s attention back to her. For the first time, she appeared uneasy. “This is no ordinary woman.”
Hunter regarded her for a long moment. “Rule number one—no surprises.”
“There won’t be any,” she reassured him, which offered no reassurance at all.
He dropped the pouch on the table. It landed with a heavy thud. He pushed it toward the priestess with his fingertips. “Rule number two—don’t lie to me.”
Mamna ignored the pouch. She held his eyes. “It’s claimed she has demon blood. If that’s true, she must be turned over to the Demon Lord to be dealt with.”
Only a great deal of discipline kept Hunter from allowing the revulsion that shivered up his spine to show on his face. Men hated demons, and demons hated men, but spawn, who carried the blood of both, were hated by all. They belonged to no world. Let the demons deal with a problem they had created.
But before Hunter would hand anyone over to demons, the claim that the thief was spawn had to be true—and he didn’t believe it was. Any spawn he’d ever seen or heard of were male.
“Impossible,” he said. “She’s a woman.”
Mamna’s wrinkled face smoothed as her eyebrows lifted. “Is it impossible?” she asked. “Can you know this for certain?”
All he could say for certain was that Mamna hated women more than demons hated spawn, and for whatever reason, she wanted this woman dead. He should walk away from this job.
But if he didn’t take it, someone else would. And to think of an innocent woman being handed over to demons was more than his stomach could handle. Was Mamna testing him somehow? Could he afford for her to suspect a weakness about him that she would, in all likelihood, use against him in the future?
He scanned his memory for anything he might have given away in the past. He’d left behind everything of value to him years ago so that he would have no such weaknesses to betray. Only Blade could be considered a true friend, and Hunter had no concerns over his safety.
No, Mamna had no hold on Hunter. He intended to keep it that way.
He reclaimed the money pouch and slipped it into an inside pocket. He rose to his feet, wanting this meeting to be over and done with so he could think. “How much time do I have?”
“As long as necessary.” She shrugged. “No longer.”
Which meant not much time beyond what she thought it would take him to travel, two or three weeks at most, but Hunter wasn’t concerned about that. He’d take whatever time he deemed necessary, then a little more. It never paid to seem too cooperative.
Mamna hopped from her seat without a word of goodbye and shuffled from the saloon, the hem of her ill-fitting greatcoat dragging on the floor.
Blade closed the heavier exterior doors behind her. He then dropped an iron bar into place, barricading them in.
“Thirsty?” he asked Hunter.
The wind picked up, and Hunter hoped the townspeople had gotten themselves locked up in time. On nights like this demons sought pleasure in their demon forms, and pleasure, to them, meant killing men and violating women.
While Blade slung a kettle on a hook inside the large fireplace to heat water, Hunter went around the room and latched all the shutters in place.
“Do the women have their windows closed?” he asked Blade. Three whores called the saloon home. They worked when they wanted, and with whom they pleased. Blade offered them protection and a roof, and in return, they helped with the cooking and cleaning.
The kettle hissed as it began to steam.
“One of these days,” Blade said, “that ugly little priestess will pay someone to plant a knife in your back.”
Hunter grabbed a broom from behind the bar to sweep the floor. “Dying of old age is overrated.”
“Perhaps. But you seem to have forgotten that living to an old age is not.”
Blade knew a thing or two about death. Hunter had found him in the desert some years ago, fighting a fierce but losing battle against a demon driven wild by the taste of blood. Hunter had killed the demon and saved his life, although not before the demon had taken a large chunk of flesh from Blade’s right leg. While no longer as agile as he’d once been, Blade was still quite capable of taking care of himself against men. Tall and lean, dark-haired and fierce-eyed, he had the ruthless air of a killer about him. The few times he’d been challenged, that impression had proven correct. Word had spread.
He dropped a metal ball filled with fragrant loose tea into the hot water, then lifted the kettle from the fire with a long hook. He carried the kettle to the bar. “What did the evil little troll want from you?”
Hunter told him, and he frowned. “Did she say she’ll hand the woman over to the Demon Lord, or was it implied?”
Mentally, Hunter dissected the conversation. “Implied,” he admitted. “But what else would she do, particularly if the woman does have demon blood in her?”
“Who knows? She’s made it no secret that she no longer serves the goddesses. She has no reason to do demon work either. Neither do you. She’s lying to you for some purpose of her own. You shouldn’t take her work.”
Hunter leaned on the broom and faced his friend. “If I don’t take it someone else will, and they might not care whether or not this woman truly is spawn. At least I’d guarantee her a merciful death. What would you have me do—abandon those who are still innocent in this goddessforsaken world?”
Blade produced two sturdy mugs and set them on the bar. “I wouldn’t have you abandon anyone. But how do you determine who lives or dies? That kind of choice does something to your soul.” He took a cloth and wiped a spill on the varnished surface. “Sometimes I wonder if you’ve forgotten what true justice really is.”
Hunter often wondered the same thing himself. He’d grown hard over the years, to the point where he did not always recognize the man who looked back at him from the shaving mirror.
Speaking of shaving…
He scratched at the scruff on his jaw.
“People are asking questions about you,” Blade continued, interrupting Hunter’s thoughts.
“That’s nothing new.” He was the Demon Slayer. That inspired questions. There was always someone trying to take his place. Some days, he’d gladly let them.
“These questions are. They have to do with your family.”
As Hunter finished sweeping the saloon floor, he tried to think if he had ever let anything slip and couldn’t come up with a single instance. He had never visited his sisters, nor spoken of them. Not in all the years since he’d fled from the Borderlands. Not even to Blade. “They won’t find any answers.”
“No? Everyone comes from somewhere.”
Hunter put the broom away and took a seat near his friend at the bar. Blade passed him a steaming mug of fragrant tea brewed from desert lavender. Hunter blew on it, watching the ripples crease its mud-brown surface, then took a slow sip to savor the taste. Neither he nor Blade touched alcohol. In their businesses, men who drank didn’t live long.
“I have something for you,” Hunter said.
He reached in his pocket and withdrew a thick chunk of plastic, an artifact that predated the demons to a time when the world was filled with large cities and millions of people. While the wind had buried most of the ruins, it often turned up little things such as this—and these items were worth money to the right traders. Whenever Hunter found any in the desert, he brought them to Blade, who in turn, sold the artifacts and split the profits between Hunter, himself, and the women.
Blade took the artifact from him, rolled it around in his long fingers, then dropped it into a box hidden behind the counter. He continued to stand, taking a sip from his own mug of tea, his dark eyes brooding as he returned to the original topic of conversation. “I’ll try and get to the bottom of whoever’s asking questions about you.”
Hunter felt himself relax. If there was anything for him to worry about, Blade would find out.
“Anything new since the last time I was in town?” he asked, ready for a change in subject.
“A few murders. Some shifts in fortune. More migrants from the border regions, seeking their fortunes on this side of the mountains. Overall, no.”
Weariness crept over Hunter. Not much ever changed in Freetown in that respect. The rich got richer and the poor served the rich. Migrants came to Freetown seeking quick fortunes and often found servitude instead, assuming they survived the trek across the desert. One would have thought the priestesses, who’d once served the goddesses, would have a greater sense of philanthropy, or even basic kindness. Yet any gold they parted with came at a rate of exchange even the wealthy would shudder to pay.
The bag of coins weighed heavily in his pocket and on his conscience. That Mamna could so easily turn a woman over to the demons without proof of her being spawn bothered him. The possibility that the priestess was right bothered him more. If the thief did turn out to be spawn, what might that mean?
He finished his tea. “I should go.”
Blade cocked his head. Sand, driven on the howling wind, rang like raindrops against the exterior walls and shutters. “It’s going to be a rough night. You’re welcome to stay.” He frowned, and Hunter knew he was still thinking of those questions about his past and who might be behind them. “In fact, I recommend you do. The women won’t mind. You might even be able to talk them into letting you use their bath.”
“They’d do that for me?” Hunter’s surprise was sincere. Even though Freetown was built on an oasis, its water was tightly controlled. By Mamna. Baths were a luxury.
Blade’s eyebrow shot up. “You’ve paid for it a dozen times over. Besides, it has a lot to do with your odor. They prefer their men clean. Sapphire especially.”
Hunter spent most of his days in the desert alone, so he was used to his own smell, but a bath was always welcome and it was hard to turn one down. But he was more uneasy about those questions regarding his past than he cared to admit, and while Blade could look out for himself, Hunter didn’t like the idea of bringing any danger to the women. He was already too fond of them.
And he got Blade’s unspoken message that he might have spent more time with Sapphire than he should. The girl might be hard, and used to this life, but she was young enough to have dreams and he had no urge to crush them.
That alone was a good reason for him to refuse to stay. “Thanks, but I’d better go.”
Blade unbarred the back door, the one that led from the kitchen to a small yard behind the saloon, and Hunter slipped like a shadow into the dark and deserted street beyond. Blowing sand stung his cheeks, and he pulled a heavy cotton kerchief over his mouth and nose. He settled his hat back on his head, tugging the wide brim low to shield his eyes.
Mamna and her priestesses had founded Freetown on the outskirts of the ruins of a buried city. The ruins stretched across several miles of desert, and although they undoubtedly contained many treasures, no one dared enter them to find out—the shifting sands left them too unstable, and riddled with deadly sinkholes.
Whoever the original inhabitants of that lost city were, however, they had done their part against the demon invaders before falling. It was rumored the demons had once numbered in the tens of thousands. Now, there were scarcely a hundred.
Even in the gloom of a storm, the streets of Freetown weren’t difficult for Hunter to navigate. He knew them well. A market served as the town center. Radiating from it, like the spokes of a wagon’s wheel, spread the other main areas—the wealthy, the not so wealthy, the poor, and the various trade shops that serviced them all. Blade’s saloon sat at the outer tip of one spoke, near the high wall surrounding the city. The wall wasn’t meant to keep demons out. That was impossible. Rather, it allowed Mamna to be selective in the people who came and went.
Most people. Not Hunter. He came and went as he pleased.
He headed for a hidden tunnel that burrowed beneath the outer city wall, more distracted than was probably wise, but the storm should have kept even the bravest of lowlifes indoors. He felt safe in letting his thoughts wander. Only demons would be out tonight and he’d have plenty of warning. The amulet around his neck, tucked beneath his shirt, lay cold against his skin.
His mind kept returning to those questions about his family Blade claimed people were asking. He hadn’t thought of his sisters in a long time. It was pointless to do so. When he’d left the Borderlands he’d gotten as far away from them as he could, covering his tracks and not looking back, because only they knew why he’d killed that first demon. No one else cared as long as he continued to kill them. Few men survived an encounter. Blade, one of the toughest men he knew, had almost died.
He caught a slight movement from the corner of his eye, an unnatural shift of shadow off to his left. Someone was following him.
He stopped, not bothering to pretend he wasn’t aware. His amulet remained cold and silent, so it wasn’t a demon. He unholstered his six-shooter, praying his stalker was alone, then pressed himself against the false front of a nearby shanty in an attempt to keep the wind-whipped sand from blinding him completely. He disliked using a gun inside the town where it might draw more unwanted attention to him, but tonight, the storm would drown out any sounds of a gunfight.
The attack, although expected, nevertheless took him by surprise, more because of its professionalism and choice of weapon than its aggressiveness. He sucked in his stomach as the knife in his assailant’s hand slashed a six-inch gap in his shirt. He brought his gun up, fired, and was rewarded with the hiss of an indrawn breath. He drew his short sword from its sheath with his left. He didn’t want to kill his assailant just yet.
Dead men didn’t talk.
Lightning-quick, the man came at Hunter again, but Hunter was better prepared this time. He slid to the side to avoid the thrust of the knife, and from behind his back he drove his sword’s blade through the other man’s extended arm.
Rather than jerk away, the expected reaction, the assailant fell forward. A heavy knife handle protruded from between his shoulder blades.
Hunter holstered his gun, reached down to jerk the blade free, and wiped it clean on the assailant’s ruined shirt.
“Thank you,” he said. He handed the knife hilt-first to its owner.
You’re welcome.” The knife disappeared into the sheath Blade wore strapped to his mangled leg.
“Not that I wasn’t managing just fine on my own,” Hunter added.
“You were doing okay.” Blade rolled the dead man onto his back with the toe of his boot. Enough light remained for them to identify him as Scarface. “But increasing the odds in your favor never hurts.” His eyes met Hunter’s. “Why would anyone risk angering Mamna by killing someone she’s just hired?”
“That’s what I was hoping to ask him.”
Blade rifled through the man’s pockets and came up empty-handed. “Nothing. The man’s a professional.”
“Maybe he’s poor,” Hunter guessed, without any real hope.
“Even poor people keep things in their pockets.” Blade patted down the man’s arms and legs and came up with an assortment of weapons, difficult to obtain and worth double their weight in gold. He held them out. “See anything here you want?”
Hunter waved him off. “You killed him. It’s all yours.”
The weapons disappeared into Blade’s clothing.
“How did you know he’d follow me?” Hunter asked.
Blade shielded his face from the stinging sand with the crook of an elbow. “His hands were too clean.”
That was a detail a man like Blade would notice it right away. An assassin’s hands were his greatest asset, and Blade took pride in his own despite the fact he no longer worked for hire.
“Why didn’t you warn me?”
“Because it was something you should have noticed yourself.” Demon howls carried on the wind now, still far off in the distance, and Blade checked over his shoulder. “Fresh blood is going to draw them here. Sure you don’t want to come back to my place for the night?”
“I’m sure.” Hunter grinned at him. “Scared?”
“Stiff,” the other man admitted without shame. “While I don’t mind being killed, the eaten alive part continues to bother me. I’m heading for home. If I were you I’d search this guy for markings, but I doubt you’ll find anything. He’s your problem now.”
Blade left, and Hunter took a few extra minutes to search for any tattoos or markings that might give some indication of where the would-be assassin was from. He found nothing, but that could have been because of the poor light and blowing sand.
Or it could have been because Blade was right. The man had no markings on him because he was a professional.
Then, because Hunter didn’t feel like confronting blood-frenzied demons either, he headed for shelter.