I woke to the sound of screaming.
My blaster hit my hand, darted from beneath my pillow, and roared.
The bathroom door slammed against the wall, a new hole punched in its chest.
My datcom rang again.
It didn't sound so much like shrieking this time.
I groaned and shoved myself up from the mattress. The blaster stayed in my grasp. It took two steps to reach my desk, and the datcom cried out a third time while I read the screen.
Section One was calling.
What could the Seekers want?
"Hello?" I said. It sounded like a growl.
"Sven Nulis?" the voice on the other end asked.
Who else? "It's me. What do you want?" I said.
"Do you recall the infestation of werewolf parasites we had last year?"
I'd worked cleanup on that case. The crystal-flame ribbons in my aura crackled, and I asked a question I already knew the answer to. "What about it?"
"We found another one."
"And you want me to eliminate the hazardous material." It wasn't a question.
"Have you cleared it with Chivahli?" I asked.
"The Head of Section Seven has been notified, and there's an Execution Order ready for you."
Good. I couldn't hunt without an Order, and my boss still doubted my psyche could handle the strain of real work. I scraped my finger over the blaster's trigger guard and was rewarded with the sound of metal caressing metal.
"Where am I going?" I said.
"Classified," the Seeker said in that sharp, defensive tone. "But all the information you need is at the check-in desk."
"Fine. See you at the scene." I hung up.
I shoved my tired self into my gear.
Main blaster under my left arm. A backup laser at the small of my back. And a knife at each ankle. My usual hunting attire was black on black. A jacket went over my rig, boots slid onto my feet, and I was out the door, arming my wards when I crossed the threshold.
I crossed the steel on steel hallway to the elevator and took it to the lobby. A decorator of softer tastes had hidden the cold reality of Headquarters from fairer eyes.
At the desk across the way, I exchanged my name for an Execution Order and the keys to a shuttle programmed with the coordinates of the infection scene.
From the loading dock to planet's surface, I rode for an hour.
Close to home, then.
A crowd of armor-plated local police met me outside the shuttle's hatch. The ribbons in their aura told me why each one wore a full face mask.
Werewolf parasites were blood borne and aided the shifters in removing waste from the blood. Inside the body of a human, they became rampaging predators, devouring their host in a matter of weeks. During that time, it was possible for the parasite to be spread via droplet transmission, thus the face barriers. But it was the psychological and physiological changes accompanying an infection that required the intervention of an Executioner.
"Ease up. He's with me." A man in armor made his way over the field. A metal band with the words "Section 1" engraved in it circled his left bicep.
The crowd parted for him.
"Good of you to join us, Nulis," the Seeker in charge said.
I shrugged. "Not like I had anything better to do." The Empire didn't give many missions to Executioners who got their partners killed.
Tension writhed through the assembled locals, as evidenced by their flailing aura. More than one blaster crept in my direction. Not enough to alert even their bearers, but the response was there. This group didn't seem to appreciate sarcasm.
The Seeker shook his head. "Let's get this thing over with."
I followed him into a village bordered on three sides by forest. It was deserted.
Caught early enough, the parasite could be purged. All the asymptomatic locals were probably being subjected to treatment just in case.
Leaving me to deal with the obviously infected.
"We set up an electrified perimeter to keep her within a hundred yards of the village," the Seeker said.
One of my eyebrows crawled into my hair. "Her?"
"The only known infected is a sixteen-year-old local girl. We're investigating to find the method of exposure," he said.
I forced myself not to smile and pat his head. If she really was the only victim, the method of infection was most likely the obvious one.
"Have you sighted her recently?" I asked instead of inciting an argument.
"Not since she fled into the trees," he said.
My nose wrinkled. She had a hundred yard radius to hide in, and it was dark. I much preferred urban hunts. There were more open spaces to herd prey. And the landscape didn't try to attack you.
But the Empress had spoken, and I went where she bid, making war regardless of the location. That was my duty as an Executioner.
I drew my weapon. "See you when the hunt's over." Then I let the trees fold around me.
For the moment, I forgot my sight. Instead pushing my other senses into the dark.
My ears picked up the crunch of boot-shoed feet moving over gravel, the gentle rattle of armor moving against itself, and breath hissing through a respirator. But the trees were silent. Not even a leaf moved. The forest knew something was here.
I took a deep breath, testing the air.
The scent of soil and foliage caressed my nostrils. I smelled fur, and chill, and fear. Stirred in with all that was a darker odor. Pennies overlaid with things gone sour.
My prey was close.
I slid farther into the forest, boots touching the ground in silence. I played a game of hot and cold with my nose even as I kept my other senses open for new information.
A twig snapped.
My head darted in its direction.
Aura flickered across my vision, fleeing farther into the trees.
I hate it when they run.
I threw myself after her.
Branches leapt out of the dark, slashing at my face and neck. My body took the sloppy terrain as if I could see every dip and obstacle.
The demon half of my sight scraped away the darkness, allowing me to see the pale, misshapen form I was chasing. The ribbons in her aura were tattered and decaying, the rot most prevalent around her left shoulder.
Under normal circumstances, no human could have outrun me.
But one werewolf parasite made the paranormal half of my blood irrelevant.
Which is why I carried weapons.
My blaster came up and roared.
Only a lucky dip in the terrain saved her from a head wound. Instead, the round sliced through the tumor of flesh claiming her left shoulder.
Black blood splattered.
It was a cross between the shrill shriek of a frightened girl and the roar of a wounded werewolf.
Her pale form darted to the right, tripping over something in the brush, and tumbling down an embankment.
I followed in a more graceful fashion.
She scrambled to her feet, hitting the edge of the water as my boots touched level ground.
"No, no, no," she whispered. Frightened trembles crawled up her spine and through her aura.
I leveled my blaster at her head. The moon was light enough to see by, even with my human sight.
The tumor-esce protrusion pulsated, wriggling as if something lived just beneath the skin. Dark blood vessels pressed against the ivory flesh, crisscrossing the rivers trickling down from her wound. The shifting mass had ripped out of her dress, leaving the garment in tatters.
She spun to face me, eyes grown too large for her face. More vessels crawled up her neck and cheek. The rotting blood had blown the vessels in her left eye, staining the white with darkness.
"I don't want to die," she said. Her voice had the edge of the whine a submissive wolf will give a belligerent alpha.
I had about as much sympathy as the alpha. There were reasons humans and paranormals shouldn't mix that had nothing to do with tradition. "No one cares what you want," I said, pressing back the trigger.
She darted fully free of the round this time, fury lighting her eyes on fire. Tissue bubbled down her left arm, doubling it in size. Claws split her fingertips, spraying dark blood onto the sand.
Her scream was all rage.
I crushed the trigger. My blaster barked out a series of rounds. She swept past them as if they didn't exist.
Bloodied claws raked at my face.
I ducked to the side.
Metal screamed as her claws scraped along my bicep, taking a hunk of leather jacket and shirt with them. I was still in motion when I pulled my blaster back to firing position. Rounds peppered her right side.
She roared again, and lashed out with her great, clawed hand.
The blow took me in the sternum. I heaved out the air in my lungs. Fiery pain erupted across the front of my body, angling up toward my neck. Its force threw me into the water on my back.
She was only a moment behind.
Her clawed hand circled my throat, pressing me into the muddy bottom. There was barely a half-inch of water between the tip of my nose and the surface. But it might as well have been a mile as far as my animal brain was concerned.
My body flailed, primal panic overriding all my training. I punched and kicked out at her, but the extra weight given to her by the parasitic mass kept her body firmly seated above mine.
Metal screamed as my will transformed my fingertips into claws. I raked the new weapons down the arm pinning me. The water went black with her blood.
My lungs screamed for air.
I dug my claws deep into the meat of her arm and ripped with all the strength left in my body. She jerked away, making that screaming roar as the flap of tissue tore the rest of the way off in my grasp.
I shoved myself out of the water, air tearing at my lungs as I forced it into my chest. The howling beast that was my prey thrashed about. Its human half kept trying to cover the wound with the opposite hand only to incite fresh pain and send it screaming again.
Even as my chest heaved, I brought up my blaster.
The weapon steadily tracked its prey at the skull level.
I pulled the trigger. She went down.
I shoved to my feet, moved to examine the body, and added two more shots to the ventilated skull. With her gray matter splattered over the sand, I said, "No one tries to fucking drown me."
The cleanup team was waiting for me when I stepped out of the trees covered in the evidence of my battle. Giving them a description of where the scene was located earned me a shower, change of clothes, and bandages.
"Thanks for the help, Nulis," the Seeker in charge said.
I shrugged. "Just doing my job."
"Most people wouldn't be able to take on a job like this," he said.
"That's why they called in the Reaper," I said. "I'm more than most people."
I'd also done more than my fair share of mercy killings since my partners passed through death's door. With cases like this, it was hard to tell my boss thought my mind was fragile.
Official work done, I returned to Headquarters and my bed.
A few days later, the results of the investigation came back.
With a few taps on the surface of my desk, I brought up the report on a holoscreen and felt an ugly little grin cross my lips as I read. People couldn't possibly be this stupid.
My prey had had a werewolf lover who was now subject to an Executioner's blaster for almost starting an epidemic. I leaned back in my chair, shaking my head.
One night of rough sex, and he'd lost his girl and his life.
I guess love really can kill.
I still prefer a blaster. Less collateral damage.