The Iron Hunt
Living tattoos: demons of the flesh, turned into flesh, the only family demon hunter Maxine Kiss has left—and the only way she can survive, and fight, the imprisoned demonic army waiting to destroy humanity. Book 1 in the Hunter Kiss series.
When I was eight, my mother lost me to zombies in a one card draw.
It was not her fault. There was a blizzard. Six hours until sunset, lost on a twisting county road. Bad map. No visibility. Black ice, winds howling down.
I still remember. Slammed against my seatbelt. Station wagon plowing into a drift, snow riding high as my window. Metal crunching: the edge of the bumper, the front tire, my door. Beneath us, a terrible reverberating crack.
Lodged. Busted. Dead on our wheels. More than dead. My mother showed me spikes packed into the snow and ice. Tiny metal stars, so sharp the points pricked my palm when I bent to touch one. She pointed out the tires, torn into scrap, ribbons of rubber. Told me not to worry. Called it a game.
My mother cleared the road behind us. I watched from the car. Face pressed against the cold window, fogging glass. She juggled stars and spikes for me, and did not wince when the sharp points bounced off her tattooed hands. She danced in the falling snow, eyes shining, cheeks flushed with the blood of roses, and when I could no longer bear to sit still I joined her and she held my wrists and swung me in great circles until we fell down.
I remembered her laughter. I remembered.
I remembered that I did not want to go with her. I wanted to stay with the car. I wanted to stay home with the wreck. Listen to the radio. Play with my dolls. My mother would not let me. Too dangerous. Too many weirdoes. I was too little to handle the twelve-gauge stashed beneath the passenger seat, or even the pistol in the glove compartment; and the boys were still asleep. Anything could happen.
So we bundled up. Slogged backward in the dull silence of snow and the endless winter bones of the white forked trees. My mother carried me on her back. I can still see: silver clouds of my breath engulfing the tattoos on her neck; that lazy red eye, Zee, tracking my face in his dreams. I can still feel the bulge of knives beneath her black wool coat, too light and short for a blizzard, for anyone but a woman who did not feel the cold. I can hear, always hear, the song she sang over the crunching beat of her boots on the empty road. Folsom Prison Blues. Voice like sunshine and the rumble of a slow train.
A mile behind us, some local bar. Lonely way station. Out in the middle of nowhere, just a shed, neon lights shaped like a naked woman flickering on and off through the dirty tinted glass. Nipples winking. Pick-up trucks in the narrow shoveled salted lot. Scents of fried food and burned engine oil in my nostrils.
My mother hesitated when she saw the place, just as she had hesitated earlier when we passed it in the car. Wavered, shoulders hitching. Both of us covered in snow. I could not see her face, but I felt her tension. Breathed it. Looked down and saw Zee struggling sleepily against her skin. Tattoos begging to peel.
We entered the bar. My mother let the door slam shut behind us. I could not see: too dark, too smoky, loud with laughter and rocky music. Warm as an oven compared to the blizzard chill. I clung, face pressed to my mother’s neck. She did not move. She did not speak. She stood with her back to the door, so very still I could not feel her breathe, and all around us those voices faded dead within a hush, and the music, the low rolling wail of electric guitar, snapped, stopped. Silence descended. Slow, cold, heavy as snow. Pregnant – a word I would use now. Expectant, full, with something living and turning, gestating, in that dark smoky womb.
“Hunter Kiss,” said a deep low voice. “Lady Hunter.”
I peered over my mother’s shoulder, past the loose black curls of her snow-riddled hair. She squeezed my leg. I did not listen. I could not help myself. It was still difficult to see. Just one lamp on the bar, casting a glow, a ring of fire that did not touch the handful of men and women scattered like fleas in the smoky shadows. Still. Poised. Coiled. Dressed in flannel, jeans, weighed down with thick overcoats dull and torn. Hats pulled low. Eyes like old wells – dark, hollow, with only a glint of reflected light at the very bottom of their gazes. Auras black as pitch. Anchored and straining. As though crowns of ghosts rested upon their heads.
Only one man stood before my mother. He wore a blue suit and a striped tie that shimmered like the steel in his shadowed eyes. Wavy blond hair. Square jaw. Handsome, maybe. Handsome devil. Zombie.
All of them, zombies. Human shells. Living. Breathing. Possessed.
My mother made me slide to the floor. I clutched the hem of her coat. I tried to be small. I knew danger. I knew threats. I knew a demon when I saw one.
My mother raised her hand. Metal sparked between her tattooed fingers. A star from the road. Bristling with spikes. The zombie smiled. He also raised his hand. In his palm, a deck of cards.
“All we want is a look,” he said. “Just one. You know how it is.”
“I know enough.” Her voice was so cold. She could not be the same woman, not mine, not my mother. Her hand tightened around the spikes, which dug into her skin but did not puncture, no matter how hard she squeezed. I watched her hand, the straining tendons. I heard metal groan.
The zombie’s smile widened. “One card draw. Highest wins.”
“If I refuse?”
“Now or later. You know the rules.”
“You pervert them,” said my mother. “You pervert this world.”
“We are demon,” said the zombie simply, and stepped sideways to the battered bar, its surface scarred and mauled by years of hard elbows and broken glass. Ashtrays overflowed. Bottles clustered. Everything, sticky with fingerprints; even the air, marked, cut with smoke and sweat.
My mother watched the zombie. She watched them all and shrugged her shoulders. Her jacket slid slowly off, falling on the floor beside me. She wore little. A tight white tank top, a harness for her knives. Silver tattoos roped down her arms, glinting red. Eyes. Open and staring.
No one moved. Even the zombie in the suit went still. I watched their auras tighten, pulsing faster, harder. My mother’s mouth curled. She took my hand. Squeezed once. Led me to the bar where the zombie waited, leaning on a stool. His smile was gone. He looked at her tattoos. His eyelid twitched.
My mother tapped the bar. “Last time it was chess.”
“You were ten,” he replied, tearing his gaze from her arms. “And that was your mother’s game. You’re not her.”
Her mouth tightened. “Show me the deck.”
The zombie placed it between them and stepped back. My mother fanned the cards. Her gaze roved, flicking once to me.
She shuffled. So did the zombie. Three times each. The slap of the cards sounded like gunfire. My mouth dried. My heart thundered. I clutched her leg and her fingers buried deep into my hair. She held me close. The zombie tapped the deck and slid one card to the side. My mother did the same.
“Two of diamonds,” she said. Voice hard, like she wanted to kill. The zombie remained silent. He flipped his card and pushed it to her. My mother stared. Her hand tightened in my hair. Her jaw flexed.
“You run,” said the zombie softly, “and it will be worse next time. I think you remember.”
“I think you ask too much.”
“We ask for so little, considering. Just one glimpse. Painless.” The zombie leaned in. “Do not be your mother.”
She shot him a cold look. He slid from the stool and the rest of the room shifted, shadows crawling like worms – zombies scuffling from their chairs to cross the floor. Closing in. Eyes black. Auras writhing. My mother faced them. I did not see her hand move, but her fingers flexed and a knife suddenly glinted, held loose. No hilt. Just blade. Razor sharp. In her other hand, that barbed star.
The zombie loosened his tie. “You can’t kill us all. Not without injuring out hosts. Innocents, all of them.”
My mother said nothing. So still. Hardly breathing. Her fingers squeezed the blade and she turned, blocking the entire room from my view. She looked down at me and her gaze was hollow, impossibly grim. Her eyes, black as a demon’s tongue, and just as cold.
“Do not be afraid,” she whispered.
I tried to hold her to me but she slipped away and zombies took her place. So many. Shoulders broad as mountains. Packed tight. Breath hot. Stinking with sweat and winter wool. I could not see faces for shadows, but the zombie in the suit leaned close. Crooked his finger like a hook. I remember. Cold shock. Hammers in my heart. I had thought they wanted my mother, but it was me. They wanted me.
“Frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails,” murmured the zombie, his eyes glinting silver. “Sugar and spice, all that’s nice.”
He grabbed my jaw with one hand. Squeezed. Pushed down until I was forced to kneel. I could not breathe. I felt my thoughts bleed – for sunset and the boys, my mother. I wanted her to save me. I wanted it so badly, so hard, wished so much to understand.
I still wanted to understand.
I could not forget. Consumed and hunted – I know what it is to be hunted – feeding those creatures my fear and pain, dispensed like so much sour candy. Demons in their stolen human skins staring with darkling eyes, searching for weakness, a way into my mind. Wanting to make me one of them. Zombie. Infected with a parasite.
I fought. I must have. I remembered voices in my head. Whispers and howls. Zee and the boys, raging in their dreams. I remembered my heart. My heart, opening like a bloody mouth, tasting my terror.
And then biting it out of me. I remembered the sensation. My heart, shedding the fear and tossing it away. Letting something else slip into its place.
Something from me. Of me. Born in the roots of me. A darkness deep and vast, forever dead, forever cold – and in my soul a slow shuffling resurrection, a terrible yawning hunger, rising through blood and bone as though every cell of my body had been born empty and frozen and now – here – nectar and milk and honey.
Mine to take. Mine to steal. Mine to kill.
I had never felt so clear-headed as I did then. Never so strong. I could have killed those zombies. I could have killed them all. Eight years old. Ready to murder. Starving for it. Skin, pulling. Muscles stretching from my bones. All of me, reaching with my soul. Grasping at demons.
The zombie let go of my face. He let go and I grabbed his hands. I held him to me, and a gray pallor spread – like stone cracking beneath his skin, cold and dead – and I stole him, I stole him away and felt the taste of demon in my blood, rich and sour, like bitter bilious honey.
And the darkness grew, and I could see it – I closed my eyes to bear witness – and saw it was not a mere void, but a body, turning and turning beneath my skin – glinting like obsidian touched by moonlight, shiny and slick and sharp.
The zombie’s eyes rolled back. His friends grabbed him, hands appearing under his arms, across his chest, in his hair – pulling him, hauling hard. My fingers could not hold his wrists. He slipped free. Everyone stumbled back and I followed. Something inside me wanted to follow.
My mother slipped between them, catching me. Holding tight as I struggled, still trying to chase the hot stink of those zombies – those scared little demons – burning me blind and hungry. My mother said my name, my name – Maxine, Maxine – and placed her hands on my face, forcing me to look at her. The boys, those tattoos sleeping on her palms, kissed my flushed cheeks.
They swallowed the darkness. Wrapped themselves with treacherous tenderness around my soul and knitted shut my heart like a door – a door never opened, never seen. They ate the needle and thread, consumed the key. Murder and hunger and death – obsidian and moonlight – nothing more than a bad dream.
Still a bad dream. Less and more than dream, after all these years. I remembered my mother in that moment – her breathlessness, the softness of her face – and behind her, that zombie in his suit, stretched on the ground, his skin gray and his eyes open and staring. His whisper, the slow churning hiss of his breath as he said, “She passed. She’s strong enough to kill the others. She’s strong enough for them.”
My mother said nothing. She held me closer. I felt her heart pound. The other zombies backed away, lost in shadow – less flesh than shadow – and only that zombie with his shining hair and cracked skin tried to stay near, rising slowly to his feet, lurching one step closer. He watched me, and behind my heart, something rattled, wanting out. My mother’s arms tightened. She backed away, toward the door, carrying me. The zombie followed, bent over, holding out his hand. My mother shook her head. “I played your game. You had your test.”
“This was not part of the test,” he whispered, pointing at himself. “This was not part of anything that should be.”
My mother turned and he grabbed her shoulder. She let him. She stood still as ice as he pressed his mouth against her ear and whispered words I could not understand, whispered long and low and hard. I watched my mother’s face change.
The zombie pulled away. Skin peeled from his face in strips. Fresh blood dotted the corners of his eyes. He swayed, like he was weak. Dying. “Do it, Hunter. It’s not worth the risk. Kill her. Have another child. You’re still young.”
My mother’s mouth tightened. She set me down and rubbed my head. Gentle, reassuring. At odds with the death in her eyes.
A knife appeared in her hand.
She moved fast. Opened the door of the bar and shoved me outside, into the snow. I fell on my knees. The door slammed shut behind me. I tried to go back inside but the knob would not turn. Locked. I banged on the wood with my fists, screaming for her. Screaming and screaming.
Men screamed back. Women howled. I heard pain in those voices, terror, and now – now I realize – death. I listened to my mother murder. I stumbled back, breathless.
Silence was worse. I did not know who would come through that door. And when it opened and I saw my mother, I still did not know who had come through. Her hair was wild. Her face spattered red. Eyes dark and burning.
I did not know what I said. I did not remember. I was sure I stared. That much, I stared. I tried not to flinch when she knelt and looked into my face. She held up her hands for me to see. Blood glistened on her fingers. Blood that slowly disappeared into her tattooed skin. Boys, drinking up. Feeding.
“I don’t want you to remember this,” she whispered, touching my forehead. “Baby. My baby.”
She stole from me. Memories, hidden behind dreams. I do not know how I lost so much – how she did it – but I blame my youth. I was so young. I forgot it all – even later, when I saw more. So much more. Even then I did not remember those zombies, that bar – my mother and the darkness, caged.
So naïve. I thought I was wise. I thought I knew everything. But thirteen years after that moment in the snow I watched my mother get shot in the head. And I finally understood. I remembered. I got it.
I got it all.
Praise for The Iron Hunt
The boundlessness of Liu’s imagination never ceases to amaze; her ability to translate that imagination into a lyrical work of art never ceases to impress. (Starred review)
Liu is one of the best new voices in paranormal fiction…