Authors: Levi Black
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Things happen behind the scenes with every book. There are movers, and there are shakers, and without both the moving and the shaking there would be no book for you to read.
Here is a woefully inadequate bit of thank-you to some of the ones who helped bring this one to you.
Lucienne Diver: The baddest of badass agents. You rock so hard, and I am much appreciated in your faith in me.
Greg Cox: Editor extraordinaire. Thank you for loving this story as much as you do.
Melanie Sanders: Copyediting ninja extraordinaire. You really did bring the extra polish this book needed.
The Tor Books team: Thank you for all your most excellent work. You kick all the ass.
The Writers of Metro Atlanta: You critiqued this one. Thank you for your kind words, and thank you even more for your harsh ones.
The Missus: I appreciate how you let me go and write when I need to. Your support gets me through.
H. P. Lovecraft: You started this whole Mythos thing and let other people play in your universe. I appreciate that. Literally, without your Mythos this book would not exist.
Robert E. Howard: You, sir, have taught me so much about writing. Thank you. Rest easy in your Valhalla.
Thank you to all the women throughout my life who have trusted me with their pain. I am humbled by you all.
HE CHEAP ALCOHOL
burned as it splashed down my throat.
Fumes roiled up the back of my esophagus, making me choke. It felt like getting punched in the tonsils with a fistful of kerosene.
I sucked in a breath, swallowing hard.
Dammit, DanielÂ â¦
I really like you.
Holding the dented, plastic bottle of vodka, I smeared my arm across my face, wiping away hot tears.
The first guy IÂ â¦ and he knew. He
I fumbled keys out of my pocket and held them up, jangling them in front of my face. They woozed and blended in a fuzz of eyestrain, tears, and alcohol.
Now you know there's nobody in this crappy world you can trust.
My rage had cooled on the walk home, devolving into a ball of hurt and anger and drunken fog. The
stairs to the townhouse I shared were treacherous, threatening to throw me back down them with each step, but I wasn't going to let them get the best of me.
I'm stubborn that way.
Besides, it was cold outside.
The key in my hand stabbed at the keyhole, brass clicking on brass. I had to lean my forehead against the door frame to get the key to slide into the lock. It turned in a smooth motion, barely a click to tell me it had unlocked. I stumbled across the threshold, slamming the door closed behind me, harder than I meant to.
At least the night is over. Just go to bed and try again in the morning. You've got jujitsu at ten. You can take it out on the mat.
My keys hit the table by the door with a metallic clatter, clashing against my roommates' keys.
Keep it down, or you'll have the whole house up. Shasta'll want to know what's wrong, and you do NOT want to get into that. Not tonight.
I looked up the stairs to my room.
Just get to bed.
I'd taken only a few wobbly steps when the first skinless dog stepped from the shadows.
Y MIND STUTTERED,
jut-jut-jittering around what I saw.
I didn't have a dog. None of my roommates had a dog, and no one I knew had ever had a dog that looked like this.
It stood on the hardwood floor in four slowly widening puddles of goo. Wet ran in rivulets down its legs, the musculature of it strung tight over a rack of bones. It stood by the stairs leading up to my room, watching me with a low-slung head. Skinless hackles bunched over its neck in knotted cables of raw meat.
Adrenaline slammed through my bloodstream, driven in a stampede by my heart suddenly trying to pound its way out of my chest. It burned away the fog of alcohol, shocking me sober. The jug of cheap vodka slipped from my fingers, tumbling to the floor. It bounced, spun, and lay on its side, spilling astringent alcohol over my shoes in a splash.
The dog stepped closer, a low growl rumbling from its vivisected chest.
The growl echoed in the stairwell, doubling, then tripling as two more hounds trotted out of the shadows. These two were leaner than the first, their rib cages hollow and caved in. They stalked toward me, the three moving in unison with the same squelching lift of paws, then the same
of crescent razor claws as descended again. Their shoulders moved up and down; heads swinging side to side, panting rib bones expanding and contracting in time with harsh snuffles as long, blister-pink tongues lolled out of jaws over-filled with bone-cracking teeth. The rasping sound of their breath scraped my ears like a nail file on the membrane of my eardrum, dragging down and flicking up with just enough pressure to never
Clickety-clack squelch, clickety-clack squelch, pant-pant-pantÂ â¦
My mind screamed at me.
Move! Get out! Don't just
I wanted to turn, wanted to run. Panic clawed at the front of my throat. Somehow I knew that if I took my eyes off the hounds they would take me. They would lunge and snap and latch and drag me to the ground where they would rip me open and bury their snouts inside my shredded body. My mind bounced around, unable to latch on to any one thing, unable to focus, desperate for a way to escape.
You didn't lock the door.
I stepped backward, slowly, carefully. The hounds matched me step for step, their baleful eyes pinned me, glowing the color of rotten squash. Lidless, they stared at me from deep sockets of raw gristle.
I stuck my hand out, fingers twisted in a ward against the evil eye my grandmother always used on a neighbor she accused of being a witch. I don't know why I did it. It was just instinct, a fetish from childhoodâworthless and, worse, ineffectual. I used the same sign whenever I thought a car might not stop for its red light when I crossed an intersection. A tiny, stupid, reflexive habit.
My keys still sat on the little table in the center of the foyer. I snatched them up. The weight of them hung familiar in my fingers, a sliver of comfort, the merest ease to my jangled nerves.
The first hound growled again. It stepped quicker, trotting closer.
My throat closed, the pounding of my pulse throbbing through each side. Tension stabbed inside my lungs, stilettos sliding in.
Breathe. Remember, you have to breathe.
The air between me and the hounds became a plucked string singing with tension. They stopped, raw haunches crouching, front paws
ing against the floor as they spread apart, preparing to lunge.
Grabbing the table, I yanked it around me, tipping it over, letting it crash to the floor between me and the hounds. I turned to the door as they pushed off, leaping over the table. My hand had closed on the door knob when I felt the hot, sharp slash of claws down the backs of my legs. I was driven to the floor, knees banging
pain shooting up my thighs. My fingers scrabbled as my hand slipped off the slick brass knob.
A weight slammed into my back, smashing my face against the door. Pain blasted across my forehead, flaring white behind my eyes. My ears closed, turning the snap and snarl of the hounds all tinny and hollow. A blow knocked me sideways, scraping my cheek raw on the wood of the door. I tumbled across the floor, banging knees, elbows, and hips until the wall stopped me.
My body went numb, skull stuffed with cotton. Nothing worked. Panic screamed.
Get up! Get the hell up or you are
My eyes were the only things I could move. I rolled them around, watching the dogs as they circled. The big one lunged, snapping at my face. Its teeth clacked together, its lips pulled back in a snarl. A string of brackish saliva slung off those raw lips, slapping across one of my eyes. It hit, itching and burning like jalapeÃ±o juice on steroids.
The hound pulled back.
It shook its head, jerking from side to side. Its jaw distended with a loud
dislocating to take a bigger bite. Cold, baleful eyes were pinned on my throat. My fingers flexed, scratching the floor. Striated muscle on the hound's shoulders quivered as it prepared to lunge and tear my throat out in a spray of hot arterial blood.
I couldn't close my eyes. Couldn't look away.
My eyelids were glued open, eyes stuck wide in their sockets as the door slammed open and a tall man in a long black coat strode in with amusement in his glittering eyes and death in his red right hand.
HE HOUND JERKED
around, its skinless head still looming over and dripping on me. The rumble in its chest shook loose fat droplets of slick liquid that drizzled across my arm, my shoulder, my neck. They splattered, as warm and thick as fresh milk. Its brother hounds moved back as the Man in Black filled the doorway.
The wind swept in behind him, blowing and billowing his long coat around a slender frame. The black leather
ped around his legs, the sound reminding me of bat wings. The wind cleared the air of the moist, green-rot smell of the hounds, filling my nose with the scent of woodsmoke and blackberries.