I am excited to welcome author Marjorie M. Liu, who’s celebrating the release of her latest Hunter Kiss novel, Labyrinth of Stars.
Tattoos with hearts, minds, and dreams. Created to be the armor that protects my body, these obsidian shadows come alive at night—demons made flesh.
After the Aetar nearly kill Maxine’s unborn child, and a betrayal within her own ranks leaves Maxine’s husband, Grant, poisoned and dying, Maxine is forced to attack a race of beings that possesses almost unlimited power. Doing so will require she make a deal with the devil—the devil that lives inside her—risking both her sanity and her soul as she slowly transforms into something more than human.
But even that might not be enough to save Grant, because the very thing that Maxine is becoming is destined to destroy the world.
Labyrinth of Stars: Chapter 5
I touched Zee’s head, my other hand already closing into a fist, armor oozing white-hot. Raw and Aaz bounded close, hugging my legs. Dek and Mal curled tight around my throat, burying their heads in my hair. My boys, warm around me: family, protectors, friends. Five hearts, connected to mine, bound to each of my ancestors: a line of women who had borne the burden of being hunter and hunted, mother and daughter—lives lost, to time. Just as I would be lost, one day. Lost, except in the memories of the demons at my side.
I looked at Grant one last time, and dread rippled through me. It was just an illusion, it had to be . . . but for a moment his gaze seemed flat, empty as death.
And then the link between us—the very real bond that kept him alive—flared golden hot. Grant flinched, blinking hard—swaying a little. Like watching a man come awake; I could almost see his heart rising to the surface of his eyes, with sadness, and too much pain.
I slammed my armored right hand against my thigh and fell backward into the void.
From Texas into oblivion. Dropping, like Alice into her rabbit hole. Only, there was no Wonderland at the bottom, no bottom at all, just an endless darkness where nothing existed. Not even my own body. Barely my mind. Reduced to some fluttering, desperate flicker. If there was any place that could eat a soul, it was the void between.
Mahati, I thought hard. Now.
The void spit me out.
I staggered, drawing in a deep, wheezing breath. After the void, the sensation of air on my skin felt too raw; the hard surface beneath my feet as solid as mountain rock. I could have been standing on a mountain at the top of the world; the feeling of weightlessness, of just touching down, was the same.
No real mountain. Just a hard, flat sidewalk. It was still night, but barely; in my bones, I could feel the sun, and the horizon held the pale wash of a dangerous light. Too much light: that dim city glow, rising from streetlamps; falling from the electric, rising rush of distant skyscrapers.
Less than thirty minutes until dawn, and I stood on a long street that looked like strip-mall hell. Nothing but parking lots and battered signs, and miles of concrete cut into blocks separated by roads and scrawny bushes. Some cars in the road, but not many. Skyscrapers glittered in the distance, but what caught my eye was a familiar-looking diner just down the road, windows lit.
House of Pies. Practically a landmark in Houston, open all night. I’d been here before, while my mother was still alive. The endless roads and cities, all the violence, always took a breather when we were in a booth, with pie. It was one of the few times I ever saw my mother relax. Which meant I always wanted pie.
I started walking toward the diner. If the lone Mahati demon was in this area, she’d be close to people. It wouldn’t just be the temptation to hunt—curiosity would pull her in, a need to be near other living creatures. The Mahati had been locked away for ten thousand years in a dimension that made the Gobi desert look like an oasis. Coming to our world was like living your whole life in a mud hut, only to discover Blade Runner outside.
Raw and Aaz prowled through the shadows beneath the parked cars, dragging teddy bears behind them. Zee closed his eyes, tasting the air with his long black tongue.
“Fresh,” he rasped.
“Find her,” I said. “Hold her for me.”
Zee dragged his claws against the concrete, sparks flying. Raw and Aaz bared their teeth in a hot grin and disappeared from sight, taking the bears with them. Zee stayed with me.
I could see inside the diner. This hour, not too many warm bodies in the booths, but there were some men, and two teenage girls. No one was talking. Their gazes were locked on the television hanging from the ceiling in the corner. Even the waitress was watching, clutching the front of her blouse. Her face was so pale.
She was also a demon. Possessed by one, at any rate. I could see the shadow of her aura flickering like a storm above her head.
I looked, too, at the television. It was terrible. One image, replayed over and over. My heart died a little.
“Good times end,” Zee whispered, as Dek and Mal hummed the melody to Bon Jovi’s “Story of My Life.”
“I was the idiot,” I told him, as a tremor raced through me: bone-deep, teeth-rattling chills. “Believing they could act against their natures.”
“All at fault.” The little demon touched my hand, and the sadness in his eyes made my heart break again. “Us first. Us, their Kings, who made them.”
Nothing I could say to that. It was true. Demon was a human word, steeped in religion: a mythic depiction that had nothing to do with reality. My demons, those demons living on my land, were not from hell. They were from another world. A collection of worlds that had harbored different species of sentient life. Peaceful worlds. Peaceful people. Where no one ever hunted each other or ate their own flesh to survive.
Until war had come, destroying it all. Those who survived were forced to change. Lives, generations, altered to become killing machines. And the dark entity that had remade them—long ago possessed by Zee and the boys—was now living inside me. Making me an unwilling part of this legacy, in more ways than one.
I looked again at those people in the diner. The news program cut to commercials, and everyone’s shoulders sagged. I imagined my mother in there—both of us—and I could see the booth we’d sat in, years before. When life, as well as the killing, was so much easier.
The possessed waitress tore her gaze from the television and stared through the window—directly at me. Normal human eyes couldn’t see me—too much glare from inside. But demons, especially the parasites, had better instincts. They knew when something was around that wanted to kill them.
I waited for a moment, and the waitress tightened her lips and walked to the counter, out of sight. I kept waiting.
Five minutes later, she appeared from behind the restaurant. Her gait was tired, unsteady, her stolen human body bulging at the seams. She smelled like grease, not pie, and her aura flickered like a caught bird when she neared me. Zee bared his teeth. Her stride faltered.
“We’re fucked,” she said, stopping ten feet away, an old pickup between us. “At least, you and the others are. The humans never did pay attention to us.”
“Congrats,” I replied. “Once again, the rats survive.”
“Despite your best efforts. How many thousands of years did you women slaughter us? And for what? We shall still inherit the earth.”
“Now you sound like Blood Mama.”
“Mother knows best.” The demon gave me a tight smile. “Are you going to kill me?”
“I should.” I also smiled tightly. “But it seems a little useless now, doesn’t it?”
“Poor Hunter Kiss. Being a Queen isn’t what you thought it would be, is it?” Her gaze flicked to Zee. “Not if you don’t have the stomach for the old ways.”
Zee leapt over the truck bed. The demon staggered, bravado disappearing—and a soft cry escaped her throat as she disappeared from sight, dragged down to the concrete. I walked around the truck, found her sprawled flat on her stomach. Zee sat on her shoulders, claws gripping her hair—pulling her head so far back her breath wheezed. I knew he wouldn’t break her neck—hosts were innocent. But the demon wouldn’t be able to leave its human without Zee snatching it up. And the boys always liked a good snack.
I crouched. “You didn’t come out here to chat. What message did Blood Mama pass on to you? I’ve already seen her once tonight, but I thought she was holding back.”
The demon’s aura, wispy and black as smoke, shrank from me and Zee until it was nothing but a dense, tight ball. “She was only aware of the massacre at the cabin. She didn’t know about the humans who died on your land. Our sentinels didn’t see them until it was too late.”
“I don’t care. And I’m sure that’s not all she wanted you to tell me.”
Tears leaked from the demon’s eyes. “You’re the last, Hunter. You are the last of your line. That’s what she wanted me to tell you.”
Cold splintered down my spine. Dek and Mal jerked from my hair, snapping their jaws at the possessed human’s face. She couldn’t even flinch—Zee’s grip was too tight.
“Is that so?” I whispered.
“The Aetar will never allow the child of a Lightbringer to live. Not a child who also holds your power. They’ll destroy this world first before that happens.”
Zee and I shared a quick look. It was true. I knew it. The Aetar were made entirely of sentient energy, capable of possessing and manipulating human flesh with the ease of a thought. They could be anywhere. And yes, it was easy to kill their mortal shell. But it was impossible to kill them.
Unless you were Grant. Or me. Which meant we had targets that could probably be seen from the moon painted on our backs.
But our daughter would have the boys as her protectors and guardians. An entire Reaper Army at her feet. The same army that for millions of years had razed and destroyed Aetar-controlled worlds.
And she would have the power of her father. A Lightbringer. The last of his kind. Born with the ability to heal, to harm, to twist and alter the very fabric of a soul, with nothing but his voice. His voice, which could manipulate the deepest, smallest, bonds of all the energy that consumed, and created, life. The same energy that gave the Aetar life.
Our daughter. One strong girl. And very dangerous.
But still . . . we had pretended that our secret was safe.
In the distance, I heard police sirens. Zee tilted his head, listening to something else.
“Cutter,” he said. “Mahati.”
I let out my breath and stood. Zee released the possessed waitress, and she slumped into the concrete, breathing hard.
“Thank you,” I said. “Save me some pie.”
“Go fuck yourself,” she whispered. “All of you are going to die. The humans will find your . . . army. And if by some miracle they don’t . . . you know that the Aetar already have.”
I needed a ginger beer, bad. My mouth tasted like shit. My heart felt worse.
I didn’t look back as I walked across the parking lot, taking no precaution to hide in the shadows. I breathed in the grease-bitter exhaust pumping from the diner’s kitchen, along with the lingering scent of strong perfume—probably from one of the teenage girls eating pie. I wanted to go inside and sit down. Order some pecan, or lemon meringue. Maybe peach, which my mother loved. It was so normal in there. Another world.
Behind the diner were two Dumpsters and a parked van with house of pies emblazoned on the side. No perfume here. Only the scent of rot. Dek licked the back of my ear. Mal slithered down my arm, winding around it like armor. I crossed between dried-out brown bushes, into the parking lot of a strip mall that looked like a bomb had hit it sometime back in the seventies. The police sirens got louder.
I heard another noise, too: a low, chopping motor, coming from the sky. Helicopter.
I walked faster.
Raw and Aaz peered over the edge of the strip mall’s roof, waved their half-eaten bears, and gave me little thumbs-up signs. Seeing that didn’t cheer me up in the slightest. The sky above them was giving way to light, and the heavy, unrelenting pound of the helicopter rotor shook the air. I could see it coming, half a mile away and closing. Whoever was in there probably had binoculars with a long-range camera.
The sirens were equally grinding. Maybe the possessed waitress had called the cops, but it seemed more likely that some human with sharp eyes had seen something. Right now, people were probably paranoid enough to take potshots at their own shadows.
I glimpsed a flash of red and blue at the intersection, heard the squeal of tires as a squad car turned hard, speeding toward the strip mall. Maybe it had nothing to do with us—and maybe there weren’t two demons hanging off my neck, humming “Jive Talkin’” at the tops of their lungs.
“You love this,” I muttered to Dek and Mal, and tapped Zee’s bony shoulder. “Are we being watched?”
He was silent a moment, head tilted. “Only eyes us. But quick.”
“Quick” meant we might only have seconds. I tapped my right hand against my thigh and slipped into the void.
A heartbeat passed. A lifetime. When I reentered the world, it was almost in the same spot I’d left—except I was thirty feet higher, on the roof of the strip mall, and the sun was going to rise in less than ten minutes.
My skull rattled with the helicopter’s approach; the churn of the rotors made my entire skeleton vibrate. The siren wail was just as earsplitting; the police car pulled into the parking lot beneath us.
I started running across the roof. I didn’t know if I could be seen and didn’t care. My focus was on the demon kneeling in front of me: the Mahati, head bowed. I glimpsed breasts beneath those massive coils of silver chains; and a bloodstained dagger strapped to her arm.
She looked up at the last moment. Her pale eyes were wet with tears.
I slammed into her and carried us into darkness.
Excerpted from Labyrinth of Stars, a novel by Marjorie M. Liu. Copyright © 2014 by Marjorie M. Liu. Published by Ace, an imprint of the Berkeley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. You can pre-order Labyrinth of Stars here.
Meet Marjorie M. Liu!
I was born in Philadelphia, spent my formative years in Seattle, and then attended Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin for my undergraduate studies, majoring in East Asian Languages and Cultures, with a minor in Biomedical Ethics. I went to law school at the University of Wisconsin. For more than 16 years I studied and traveled throughout Asia, working briefly at the US Embassy in Beijing, China — and in 2004 I gave up practicing law to become a full-time writer. I divide my time between the American Midwest, Boston, and Beijing, China.
Want to purchase Marjorie’s novels?
- Hunter Kiss
- The Iron Hunt
- Darkness Calls
- A Wild Light
- The Mortal Bone
- Armor of Roses and The Silver Voice
- Labyrinth of Stars
Dirk & Steele