Good, a weakness: it was clumsy. Some of my most lethal foes had possessed enormous strength but moved with such heaviness of limb, I’d danced around them as they’d died.
I bent and drew a six-inch military knife from my boot with my left hand, releasing the switchblade with a nearly inaudible snick. Since I hadn’t blown up my bike when I’d grasped the handlebars on the way back to Dublin, I figured I was safe wielding a weapon. Apparently, I only blew up living things. Lovely. Still, I wasn’t willing to put my sword in that dangerous hand, so I was going to be fighting handicapped. I eased the long gleaming sword free with my right hand and crept forward again.
There was another softer grunt that ended on a slobbering sigh and sounded…pained?
Was my enemy already injured? Perfect. I could end it fast. I had more important things to do tonight. I knew my left arm was deadly—bare flesh to bare flesh—but I needed to know if, wrapped in layers of clothing, that killing touch was neutralized. If so, the solution was simple: sleeve and glove up. I needed to hunt tonight, and not a blasted animal. I required a human to test my theory.
Sounds of a heavy body moving on…I listened intently…four feet, followed by another thud then the console table in my foyer crashing to the floor, taking vases and a crystal lamp with it.
Followed by a long, shuddering groan of agony. A ragged exhale.
Two possibilities: it was either a trick to lure me near, sucker me into believing my enemy wounded and helpless; or a massively powerful creature had, for reasons unknown, come to my flat to die and was going to wreck my furniture in the process. Sanctuary was the only flat I’d furnished myself, and the truest reflection of my taste. Bloody hell, as if there wasn’t already enough blood in my kitchen to clean up!
Often on distant worlds I’d been so exhausted from prior battles, I’d learned not to rush into future ones. Waiting frequently yielded more information, or goaded an increasingly bored enemy into rash action.
I leaned back against the wall and bided my time. Three minutes passed, then five. I could still feel its presence but it hadn’t made a single move. I listened to faint, irregular, shallow breaths and counted between them. The thing, whatever it was, breathed once every two minutes or so.
By ten minutes I was bored out of my skull and had decided it was definitely option two. Something was dying or dead in my foyer and I was growing increasingly chafed by the thought of it bleeding out on my floors, staining the grout and probably soaking into my walls. I hate cleaning. It’s something I can’t do in the slipstream. I have to slow-mo Joe around my flats and dust and mop like everyone else. Blood on grout takes bleach and a scrub brush. Bleach on marble is a bad idea.
Peeling away from the wall, I glided soundlessly forward. When I reached the corner, I inhaled deeply and ducked my head several feet lower in case unfriendly fire was coming, focused hard (isolating a single part of my body is difficult, if I’m not careful I can sprain every tendon and ligament attached to that part), put myself in freeze-frame from the neck up, snatched a hasty look and retreated.
Then, rubbernecking wildly, I did a double take.
“Oh, shit!” I exploded.
An enormous black-skinned beast was collapsed on the floor of my foyer and, from the looks of it, was dying!
It was one of the Nine.
I couldn’t believe one of the immortals had finally surfaced in Dublin for the first time in years and, holy hell, I’d been crouching around the corner listening to him die!
I scanned the creature for identifying features but found none. As beasts, I can’t tell them apart. I’m not sure anyone could. Was this Barrons? Did that mean Mac was injured? Ryodan, Lor, or one of the others? What was wrong with him?
I approached with care. Before I’d met Shazam Silverside, I’d had to trap my own kills. I hate killing animals but I had to eat. One night I’d caught a beautiful llama-like creature in a trap I designed for a small boar. By the time I’d found it, it was mortally injured but still alive, and nearly insane with hunger, pain, and fear. I’d wept while I battled its great, thrashing hooves to get close enough to slit its throat and end its suffering.
The beast on the floor reminded me of that half-mad creature, tormented past endurance. I paused half a dozen paces away. He didn’t weigh anywhere near the four to five hundred pounds I’d thought. Perhaps he once had but now his ribs were sharp-edged razors beneath a black hide. Nine feet tall, dangerously thin, sprawled on his side, stomach caved in, barely breathing, he weighed maybe three hundred pounds. I’d thought he was heavier because it sounded like he’d been nearly collapsing with each step.
His face was sharp-planed, primitive with a ridged forehead and a tangle of long dark hair. Three sets of lethal horns flanked his enormous head, with the rear set curving toward his back. Deadly fangs as long as my fingers protruded from a mouth limned with spittle and foam.
As I inched closer he dragged his head from the floor to gaze at me.
Burning crimson eyes with vertical pupils locked with mine, and I jerked from the sheer intensity of his gaze. When he unhinged impossibly large jaws and growled, revealing long sharp fangs, I nearly inched backward, despite his weakened condition. Even dying, he saturated the foyer with fury, hunger, madness.
I said, “I know you’re one of the Nine. You came to me for a reason. Let me help you.” I could see no wounds on this side of his body. Would he roll over for me? Would he let me touch him; was he strong enough to stop me if I tried? Holy composite, rational, perfect square numbers, one of the Nine was finally back! Kaleidoscopic colors gushed back into my world again with the force of an unchecked fire hydrant.
The beast growled again but tapered off to a whimpering moan as he dropped his head to the floor with an audible crack of bone on tile.
My eyes narrowed. Five days in a cage. Five days my mother didn’t come home to feed me. I’d collapsed the same way. Although she’d wept as she finally fed me, her tears hadn’t moved me like they used to. My hands fisted. I can’t stand to see anyone starved, helpless.
“I’ll be back with food,” I said, although I doubted he understood me. His gaze was dimming, his head lolled to the side, eyes closing, then a single one snapped back open and a flash of crimson fire tracked me as I left.
Thanks to Shazam, my flats are amply stocked with meat. He hunts only once a day but he’s incessantly hungry, binge-eating like a bottomless black hole. I get him pig blood from the butcher on Parnell Street; keep some frozen, some thawed. That’s another reason I don’t have guests. The contents of my fridge are difficult to explain.
I grabbed a container of blood and a package of ground beef, a bowl from one of the shelves, and dumped it together then hurried back to the beast. He didn’t move a muscle as I approached this time so I placed the bowl near his head and waited for him to slide one of his massive appendages with long cruel talons around the bowl. Though his nostrils flared slightly and he exhaled with a low, rattling sound, he made no move for the food. He was too weak.
Cursing whoever had done this to him, I scooped up a handful of the bloody meat and leaned in. My hand was inches from his face when I realized I was using my dominant, dangerous left hand and yanked it back in horror. I dropped the food into the bowl, scraped meat off my palm, scrubbed the blood from my hand on my jeans, stuck my killing hand in my back pocket then scooped again with my right.
“Don’t bite my hand off,” I said sternly as I drizzled more blood on his muzzle. I’d seen what those deadly fangs could do in the heat of battle. I needed at least one good hand.
He still didn’t move. I’d just begun to contemplate how I might force apart his mandibles and feed him with only one hand when he twitched weakly and licked the blood with a long black tongue.
I dropped the beef back into the bowl and scooped up only blood. He could barely lick; he certainly couldn’t chew. I couldn’t imagine the formidable strength of will he possessed to manage to shatter my door in his condition.
I scooped and repeated again and again as he lapped weakly.
By the tenth cupped handful of blood he was licking with a whisper of animation and a murmur of life flickered in his crimson eyes. By the twentieth fistful the bowl was empty, but the beast was deeply exhausted from his meager effort.
Still, when he dropped his head to the floor this time, it met the tile more gently.
“I’ll be back with more,” I promised as I hurried back to the kitchen.
* * *