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Huntress

RELEASE DATE: JUNE 2009
PUBLISHER: St. Martin’s Press

Welcome to a post-apocalyptic world where where humans are fed on for their life forces. Now it’s up to Maggie, one of the last survivors, to hunt down and destroy an army of darkness…

Excerpt

CHRISTINE WARREN
“Devil’s Bargain”
Supernatural bounty hunter Lilli Corbin made a pact with the Prince of Hell: She agreed to recover a book of prophecies. When she learns it could trigger the apocalypse, Lilli is forced to make the ultimate choice: save her soul, or the man she loves?

MARJORIE M. LIU
“The Robber Bride”
Welcome to a post-apocalyptic world where where humans are fed on for their life forces. Now it’s up to Maggie, one of the last survivors, to hunt down and destroy an army of darkness…

CAITLIN KITTREDGE
“Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go”
Ava is a demon slayer who needs help from mage Jack Winter to reach the demon underworld—a place of dark seduction…and, maybe, one of no return.

JENNA MACLAINE
“Sin Slayer”
London 1889. Jack the Ripper is killing off the city’s vampire population, and now it’s up to Cin Craven to hunt him down—and save the infected Michael, the love of her undead life.

Excerpt

Maggie was too young to remember life before the Big Death, but she had a brain for books, access to books, a great deal of uninterrupted time on her hands with which to enjoy those books – and so had, over the years, pieced together a history of the world that she knew was, in part, fiction – but that, like most good lies – rang true.  Not that anyone else was privy to her secret history:  Maggie knew better than to draw attention to her eccentricities.  It was enough that she ran the junkyard for Olo Enclave, and lived alone, and was twenty years old without a husband or prospect.

She had been on her own for years.  Her junkyard lay on the outskirts of Olo, which bordered what had been, and still was, the Ohio river.  It was settlement number six in the government grid – six out of several thousand, scattered across the former United States – located smack dab in the new territory of Inohkyten, an abbreviation for all the states thrown together after the Big Death:  Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  Other territories had their own odd collective names, but when folks in Olo talked about the rest of the country, they just called those places as they had become:  the South, North, East, or West, with the Rockies, Dakotas, and Alaska thrown in, all on their own.

It was spring when the motorcycle man came looking for Maggie.  Blue sky morning with the dew glittering like diamond drops on the tips of the green grass, and the cardinals and magpies lilting full-throated on the naked branches of the oaks and maples—which threatened any day now to burst bud-first with leaves.  Maggie, in the old barn workshop, had a clear view of the meadow.  Junkyard business stayed on the other side of the building, but when Maggie worked the foundry and tinkered with her machines, she liked a bit of the world in front of her: the old world, the world she figured had almost reclaimed itself less than two decades past; a world that undoubtedly would swallow humanity, again.

That very morning Maggie was experimenting with old clay flowerpots, which she had found years ago while scavenging for scrap in the burned out garage of a home not ten miles south.  Up until now she had used the pots – in vain – to grow miniature roses and small pepper plants.  But as no seed she touched ever seemed to reach the sprout stage, there was no loss in finding other ways to take advantage of the unique shape and material of a flowerpot – such as turning it into a furnace for smelting brass.

So far, success.  Just some brick to stand the pot upon, a hole drilled into the base and fitted with a long copper pipe – at the end of which Maggie had tied the balloon of an old turkey baster to make the draught – and voilà (a word she had appropriated from the tattered pages of her dictionary, and that seemed to fit her mood, most days).  Charcoal was burning, the heat was intense, and the scrap of brass pipe she had tossed inside was quite obviously melting.

I am, she thought cheerfully, a clever girl.

Outside, the gate bell jingled.  Maggie thought about not answering – brass was much more interesting than flesh and blood—but out here, folks would come inside anyway and start poking around until they found her.  She never liked that much.  Her grandfather hadn’t, either.  Territory was a precious thing.  Especially now.  Word of mouth carried far.  You had to keep reminding people of what was yours, until the knowing went so deep it twined and twisted into the fabric of a place.  Until it became part of your identity.  Something no person could ever steal.

The bell rang again.  Maggie maneuvered an old steel lid on top of the flowerpot foundry – caging the raging heat – and walked quickly through the barn.  She shed gloves, goggles, and her heavy leather apron along the way, running fingers through her short-cropped hair, and picked up one of the old sledgehammers hanging neatly against the wall.  She slung the tool over her shoulder, and ambled out of the barn into the yard.

A man stood just inside the gate, fingering the string of steel bells hanging from the barbed wire wound around the old wooden rails.  Maggie stopped in her tracks when she saw him, and not simply because he was a stranger.  He was big and lean, dressed in black dusty leather that matched the color of his long hair and eyes.  He wore no shirt beneath his open jacket, and his skin was impossibly pale.  Colder than ice, she thought.  Cold as winter sun, or the river at dawn.  His presence cut, and for one moment Maggie knew him, in the same way she had known her grandfather was dead before ever seeing his body:  with certainty, and dread, and vast terrible loneliness.

The man looked at her sideways, tilting his head just so, away from the bells: an odd, graceful movement that affected only his head, so that the rest of him remained perfectly still.  He had a piercing gaze, sharper than anyone Maggie had ever met; sharp as a hook in her gut, drawing her toward him.  She wanted to take a step, worse than anything—almost as bad as breathing – but she was good at holding her breath, and did so now, forcing herself to stay rooted in one spot as sweat trickled between her shoulder blades and down her breasts.  Her eyes burned from holding his gaze.  She felt naked.  But after a moment, the strange compulsion to walk toward the stranger eased, and she allowed herself to breathe again.

The man frowned.  “You are the fixer.”

“You have something broken?”  Maggie asked, surprised at how calm her voice sounded.  Her hand felt broken – aching fierce from squeezing the handle of the sledgehammer.

His frown deepened.  “On the road, yes.”

Maggie hesitated.  “Show me.”

He had to think about it, which only made her more uncomfortable.  She imagined her sledgehammer swinging toward his perfect face: heels dug in and ready, ready, ready for anything.  Maggie had not yet found cause to kill a man, but she had scared several since her grandfather’s death.  She had a feeling this one would not take a fright all that easily.

But work was work, and when strangers showed up on her doorstep needing a fixing, it never seemed right to tell them to go away.  Nearest Enclave was over a day to the south, across the river – and the Eclaves in the north were a bit farther out than that.  This was the only junkyard in the region to service all those folks looking for spare and rare parts – and she could not in good conscience tell anyone desperate enough to make the journey to mosey the hell off her spread.

So Maggie waited, clear-eyed and tense until the man finally backed away, around the gate.  She followed at a safe distance, walking down the short overgrown drive toward the cracked paved road.  Watching him carefully.  Finding it hard to determine his age.  He had flawless skin, as though he had never spent a day beneath the sun – and was effortlessly graceful, footsteps light as air.  He did not move like the men from Olo or other Enclaves, whose feet seemed part of the earth; and as solid.  Watching him made her afraid – but she spied a glint of silver through the young oaks, and then passed around the bend and saw the machine the man had brought to be fixed.

It was a motorcycle.  Maggie had never seen one in real life; only in bits and pieces, wreckage, bent scrap; and in pictures from magazines.  Like comparing fossils to paintings.  But this was real.  Onyx, obsidian, made of night; metal polished and shining like some reckless mirage of the past.  For the second time in as many minutes, Maggie stopped breathing.  She would never breathe again, if it would keep the machine genuine, and whole.

“Oh, my,” she said, unable to look away – knees locked, heart racing.  Aware, dimly, that she deserved what she got if the stranger decided to take advantage of her distraction with a good wallop over her head.

He remained near the motorcycle, though, regarding her with a thoughtfulness that continued to unnerve.  Sunlight splashed against his hair and clothing, but only served to make him seem more like a shadow.

“It is a small problem,” he said, his voice a slow rumble; a rubbing purr against the air.  “A torn tire, and nothing more.  But I am…far from my tools.”
Far from home, she imagined he would say instead. Far from everything known.

“You need a replacement,” she replied, finally looking past the dazzle of chrome to find the ripped tread, so badly torn there was little doubt he had lost the most of the tire while moving at some considerable speed.  “I have something.”

“And is it right?” asked the man.  “Will you serve me well?”

An odd question – or perhaps just odd phrasing – but it irritated Maggie, and before she could stop herself, she replied tartly, “If you plan on paying.”
A cold smile touched his mouth, and though the road was bright and the sky blue, and the morning sun shining, the light seemed to dim around him for just a moment; and the spring chill worsened with a snarl of wind.

He reached inside his jacket, and then held out his hand.  Small flecks of color sparkled against his gloved palm: rubies, emeralds, diamonds.  Gemstones.  Or plastic.  No way to know for certain, though Maggie couldn’t imagine anyone parting with the real thing.  Not for a tire.

Maggie did not touch the jewels – afraid that doing so would constitute a bargain sealed.  She studied them from a distance, marveling at their glitter, but finally shook her head.

“I have no use for them,” she told the man.

“Then, what?” he asked dangerously.  “What do you want?”

“My life,” she said, without thinking – and froze in embarrassment, and fear.  But the words sat on her tongue, and could not be shook loose, and part of her wanted to say them again, louder.  My life.  Do not take my life.

Because she thought he might.  Maggie thought he would be able to, if he wanted, no matter how fast she moved, or how hard she fought.  He had a way about him.
A cold gleam filled his eyes.  “I heard of you.  Miles away, I heard of you.  The woman who fixes machines.  But you are more than that, I think.”

“Am I?” asked Maggie carefully.  “Where did you come from, that you heard such things?”

But the man did not answer her.  He hid away the gems inside his leather coat, and inclined his head so that his long hair fell around his pale face, sharpening and hiding his features until he resembled a fox more than a man – nothing but a pointed chin and high cheekbones, and eyes that glinted golden.  Maggie found herself unable to look away from his eyes, and though he studied nothing but her face, she felt him as though he was all over her, touching her body in places she did not want to be touched.

“Your life,” he said.  “I believe that will be an interesting trade.”

And then he moved – blindingly quick – and kissed her mouth.  Maggie could not fight him.  He was too strong.  His lips were cold as ice—so cold, dunking her face into a raging winter river might have felt warmer – and in one dizzying moment it seemed that all the air in her lungs was sucked away, drowning her.  She screamed, but heard her voice only in her head.  She tasted blood.