The Scent Of Freedom
For thirty years she’s killed demons to pay off someone else’s debt. Now only two more stand between her and her freedom. Freedom from this city, filled with humans and wretched concrete. Freedom to smell the snow-covered forests of home. Freedom to return to the family she left behind.
But then an old friend gets in the way and she must make a choice: to save him, or her family’s honour.
Do you believe in second chances?
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Winter is the perfect time to kill, although killing is really quite easy. Anywhere. Any time. The swoop of a blade, the flash of claw. A successful murder, on the other hand, requires planning and Lady Nature’s help is never a bad thing. Like snow, for example; tracks are filled in, ground scents distorted. Evidence washes away with the thaw. But not for me. Cold air holds the high scent clean and pure, far above the noses of dogs. Best of all, low temperatures maintain a perfect snapshot of scent auras, leaving a bejewelled carbon copy hanging in the air for hours, days or even weeks after the source has left the scene. Demon scents last briefly, though, sometimes only seconds. It’s a constant source of frustration.
And that’s what I was looking for: a demon. I wasn’t as happy about it as I should have been. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a Hunter. It’s what I do. But this park was too popular. Phantom auras flashed around me, several weeks’ of park traffic overlaid on itself. Dogs and their owners had already passed by this morning. The tang of oil and wet fur melded with sweat and boot leather, the darker, thicker scents overlaid with the owners’ emotions. Most were depressed. At least two were severely ill. I shook my head, attempting to dispel the feeling of wrongness that characterised the scent of major disease. Dark green tendrils coiled through the air, sweet beef and old babies.
Fox trails glittered bright orange around my ankles. Some of them were up to two months old. Foxes stuck to their usual trails and stank like you wouldn’t believe, dead bees and curdled milk. Last night’s trail was so sharp I could pick out individual paw prints. Someone else was in the habit of crossing this spot with a hot dog, most likely from the vendor on the far side of the park. Runners, cyclists, horse riders, cats, squirrels, badgers, drug addicts, prostitutes, and money launderers had also been through at some point in the last few weeks. The cold air was doing its job too well and sensory overload threatened to bypass my mind and cut straight to my instincts. My hackles were already straining to rise. Very uncomfortable when pinned down by a heavy leather coat. But in daylight I couldn’t take my coat off and the scents surrounding me clawed at my mind. The blades of my hackles shifted between my shoulders and the leather of my jacket cut into my armpits. I snarled softly and Detective Benton looked at me, dark eyebrows drawn together over dark eyes.
“What is it?”
“Nothing,” I muttered, scanning the clearing, swiping hair out of my eyes. It was almost like home, with the cold hardening the air to an edge that sliced my throat. The faint wail of a siren dispelled the illusion. That and the human beside me. I sighed, changing it to a snort. Self-pity was nothing but a distraction and I couldn’t afford to be distracted. I was too close to going home.
The pure pale scent of frozen grass rose as Benton dug his boot through the snow.
“Are we here for the view, or–”
“There.” I strode towards a glittering orb hovering inches above the snow which had drifted up at the base of an old rowan tree.
I stopped a few feet from the copy of a human aura. These always fascinated me. Hunter auras were much simpler, tending towards deep greens and blues. The colours of calm. Of killers. Human auras were a mess, red and turquoise, rotten green and black. This one had a lot of black, and a lot of deep, deep red too. He’d died in fear and dark, trembling, blood-soaked pain. The edges were ragged, something only caused by the soul departing the body at the same time the aura imprinted on the air. The corpse was right there, under two feet of snow, wreathed in the choking fumes of gunpowder and lead and blood. A lot of blood. My shoulders prickled with the scent of it, blades rasping against leather. The problem was how to direct Benton to it. He’d always said he was fine with the idea of demons and Hunters, but words were easy.
“Where is it?” Benton asked beside me, the top of his head level with my jaw. He peered at the ground, the tree, the falling snow settling on his shoes. “I don’t see anything.”
I looked around, growling quietly. I didn’t see anything either. At least, nothing I wanted to see. This human wasn’t my prey, wasn’t even related to my hunt. No self-respecting demon would use bullets. I kicked at the snow in frustration, feeling my boot scoot over something softer than frozen ground. As the snow moved, the faintest of scents reached me, so mild I couldn’t even see it. It simply translated into a feeling, like when an old chest is opened to reveal rotting apples. Old. Sweet. Wrong. And somehow familiar.
“Is that how Hunters treat their dead?” His tone of censure almost hid the faint whiff of curiosity. Knowing I wouldn’t answer the question, he squatted and started scooping snow away from the body. The pressure under my arms eased as I scanned the park. There were no demons here. The very faint scent I’d picked up meant only that one had been here and then moved on. A moment later, the stench hit me. Benton swore long and hard, falling over backwards in his hurry to get away from the body. As he scrabbled through the snow I looked down at the corpse. A vomit-green miasma rose around us, shot through with tendrils of muddy grey that coiled like ink in water. I trembled and heard a rip behind me as leather gave way before a razor edge. I willed myself to stay calm. Sweat sprang out down my back and my legs. It cooled instantly and I struggled not to shiver as my skin turned clammy. I hadn’t expected this.
The face was frozen in more ways than one, a rictus of terror holding the man’s features forever in an unnatural pose, lips pulled back and snarling, eyes bugging out. I doubted that was what had affected Benton so badly, though. He’d seen that look before. No, his attention had been caught by the ragged, rotting flesh of the man’s naked torso, the skin at the edges glistening pale green, almost liquid in the winter light.
The ribs were mostly gone, the left lung utterly destroyed. Shreds of spongy red honeycombed tissue showed beneath his heart, which was disintegrating before our eyes under green foam. A bullet hole was still visible through the heart and another one showed clearly in the pale skin near the base of the throat. What kind of demon killed a man with a gun, and then rotted his body away with corrosive saliva?
None. Not one. After all, like Hunters, demons had their pride.
“So it’s not a demon kill?” Benton had called it in and the park was now crawling with men in dark jumpsuits.
I watched them zip the body into a black bag and struggled to hold onto my temper. Benton was having a hard time getting his head around this. It was easily the fifth time he’d asked, maybe more. I wasn’t keeping count in an effort to not lose control and rip his head off his shoulders.
“No. Whoever killed him used a gun. No demon is going to waste time with firearms.”
“And the… stuff?”
I sighed. This was where it got complicated. And pissed me off. It used to be so simple. Demons showed up, killed people, and then I killed the demons. Why the theatrics?
“That’s demonic. What else do you know of that produces corrosive saliva?”
“Any theories about what it’s doing on the body? This is a new one for me.” His tone was the last straw, mainly because it voiced the same frustration I felt.
I rounded on him, but was brought up short by the tightness under my arms and the prickling in my upper back. His eyes flicked to my shoulders and I knew I was sporting a hump that hadn’t been there moments before. He swallowed and the fear on his face shamed me, my face cooling as the blood shrank from my skin. I suspected seeing the hump fade before his eyes wouldn’t ease his mind. Nothing I could do about that.
“No, I haven’t got any theories,” I bit out. “It’s acidic slime, for fuck’s sake. What do you want me to theorise? That someone shot your guy and then a demon turned up and spat on him?”
“Fucking demons,” I snapped to no one in particular. “Why can’t they just kill their own fucking prey and leave other people’s alone?”
“You can’t track this one, can you?”
I stared at him, then looked around the park. It was a mass of police tape and boot prints where the city’s finest had tromped all over everything. The snow had turned to slurry beneath their feet, interspersed with stones and chunks of ice. Even before they’d arrived, I’d circled the body in the pristine snow, reaching out in every way I knew how. No tracks. No scent. No aura. Not for this killer, anyway.
“No.” I shook my head slowly, trying to explain what didn’t even make sense to me. “There’s nothing to follow.”
He understood. I could see it in his eyes. Which made my failure even worse. He cared more about these nameless bodies than I did about the demons. For me the demons were simply a means to an end. Benton wanted more. Justice for the dead. Closure for their families. Maybe even for himself, too, as though finding those responsible would give him a reason for existence, a way to justify his life.
I just wanted to go home.