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Chapter 1

Most of the things Las Vegas has to offer to its hordes of tourists don’t hold much appeal for me. Having been an accountant, I am way too good at math to enjoy gambling. As a former bouncer, I’m not big on the party scene. Strip clubs? Happily married to a total babe who could kill me from a mile away with her sniper rifle, so no thanks. Sure, there were plenty of other things to do in Vegas, like overpriced shows, taking your picture with Elvis, and that sort of thing, but as a professional Monster Hunter, I’m pretty jaded when it comes to what constitutes excitement.

However, there is one thing in Las Vegas’s extensive, sparkling arsenal of tourist-from-their-dollars-separating weapons that I’m absolutely powerless to resist, and that is a kick ass buffet.

The flight in had taken forever and I was starving. So first thing upon arrival at our hotel, I had called up every other hungry member of Monster Hunter International that I could find and we’d set out to conquer the unsuspecting hotel buffet.

This was a business trip. Normally, business for us meant that there was some horrible supernatural thing in dire need of a good killing, but not this time. Las Vegas was the site of the first annual International Conference of Monster Hunting Professionals.

The conference was a big deal. Sponsored by a wealthy organizer, the ultra-secret ICMHP 1 had been billed as an opportunity to network with other informed individuals, check out the latest gear and equipment, and listen to experts. There had never been an event like this before. Every member of MHI that could get away from work had come, and though we were the biggest company in the business, we were still outnumbered five to one by representatives of every other rival monster hunting company in the world. In addition, there were representatives from all of the legitimate supernaturally attuned organization and government agencies, all come together here to learn from each other. Despite just oozing with all of that professionalism, we had all taken to calling it Ick-mip for short.

The conference started tomorrow morning, which for most of the Hunters meant a chance to party or gamble the night away, but for me, it was buffet time. As a very large, high-intensity-lifestyle kind of guy, I burn a lot of calories. I may lose at the gambling table, but I never lose at the dinner table. Plus the food at the upscale establishments tended to be above average, and since Hunters made good money, my days of eating at the dumpy places were over. Besides, all of the ICMHP guests were staying at the new, ultra-swanky, not even totally open to the public yet, Last Dragon hotel. The Last Dragon’s buffet had actual master chefs from around the world, and was supposed to be one of the best new places to eat in town. The internet had said so, and who was I to argue with the Zagat survey?

My team had just gotten back from a grueling mission and most had simply wanted to crash. I’d only been able to coerce Trip Jones and Holly Newcastle into coming, though Holly had complained about watching her figure and said that she was going to take it easy. When it came to food I had no concept of easy. Despite his aversion to being around humans, Edward had been tempted by my wild tales of hundreds of yards of glorious meats, none of which needed to be chased down and stabbed to death first. However, his older brother and chieftain, Skippy, had forbidden it. Turns out that it is really difficult to eat in public with a face mask on. It is tough being an orc.

There had been an incoming flight due shortly with a couple of Newbies onboard, and Milo Anderson had volunteered to stay and be their ride to the hotel. Earl Harbinger had said these particular recruits were especially talented, so they’d earned the field trip. Lucky them. My Newbie field trip had been storming the Antoine-Henri and fighting wights.

Last but not least for my team, my lovely wife Julie had said she was tired, encouraged me not to hurt myself at dinner—she knows how I can sometimes be over-enthusiastic for things that come in serving sizes larger than my head—and then went to bed early. She had been feeling a little under the weather during the trip.

After ditching our luggage, which mostly consisted of armor and guns, we’d snagged a few of the other Hunters staying on our floor. Most of the floors of the Last Dragon hotel were still in the finishing stages of construction, so the place hadn’t even had its grand opening yet. Officially, the hotel wasn’t ready yet, but since ICMHP was supposed to be secret anyway, it was a perfect place for several hundred Hunters to stay, and the ICMHP organizers had even gotten us a killer discount. ICMHP would be the first ever event for its conference center, but luckily, the casino, shops, and—most important—restaurants were already open to the public.

“Wow…” Trip whistled as he looked down the endless food trays of the top-rated all-you-can-eat place on Earth. “That’s one impressive spread.” It really was. Lots of everything, cuisine from a few dozen cultures, all of it beautiful, and the smells…They were absolutely mouthwatering, and that wasn’t just because I’d spent most of the day squeezed into a helicopter smelling avgas fumes and gun smoke, this place was awesome. “This is how Vikings eat in Viking heaven.”

“Valhalla,” Holly pointed out. “Viking heaven is called Valhalla.”

“I know that,” Trip answered. “Surprised you do, though.” It was a lame attempt at teasing her, since everyone present knew that Holly just worked the dumb blonde angle to manipulate people who didn’t know her well enough to know that she was an encyclopedia of crafty monster eradication.

“Sure I do. I had this really sexy valkyrie costume one Halloween,” Holly answered, completely deadpan. “The chain-mail bikini was so hot…Though it did chafe.” And then she started to describe it in graphic detail. Watching the always gentlemanly and borderline prudish Trip get too embarrassed to respond coherently was always fun for the whole team, but luckily for him, the hostess called for Owen Pitt and party of ten, and seated us before it got too bad.

I’d managed to gather several other Hunters who hadn’t been too distracted by the pretty flashing lights and promises of loose slots to forget dinner. The Haight brothers were from Team Haven out of Colorado, and though Sam was dead and Priest had been promoted to be their leader, they would always be called Team Haven. Cooper and my brother-in-law, Nate Shackleford, were from Paxton’s team out of Seattle. Gregorius was from Atlanta, and since the last time I’d seen him he’d decided to ditch his old military grooming standards, and I had to compliment him on the quality of his lumberjack beard. My old buddy Albert Lee was stationed at headquarters in Alabama and he was always fun to hang out with. VanZant was a team lead out of California and Green was one of his guys. I’d worked with all of them at one point or another, either from Newbie training, battling Lord Machado’s minions at DeSoya caverns, or fighting under the alien insect branches of the Arbmunep.

The Last Dragon’s buffet was in a large, circular glass enclosure inside the casino’s shopping mall. The whole place slowly rotated so that the view out the windows was constantly changing murals, gardens, and fountains. The diners got to watch as one story below us, hundreds of consumers blew all their money on overpriced merchandise. It was kind of neat if you liked people-watching as much as I did. Inside the restaurant there were even ice sculptures and five different kinds of chocolate fountains.

After heaping food on our plates, we took our seats. It had been a while since I’d seen most of these particular coworkers, and in short order my arm had been twisted into talking about the case we had wrapped up just that morning. In fact, my team hadn’t even thought we’d be able to attend ICMHP at all, because we’d spent two fruitless weeks trolling the crappiest parts of Jackson, Mississippi looking for our monster. It was January, and we’d gotten rained on the whole time. Bagging that aswang at the last minute had been a stroke of luck, giving us an excuse to pack right up and hightail it to Las Vegas where we could be much warmer and dry for a bit. I like telling stories, but whenever I started exaggerating to make the monster even more disgusting, Trip would correct me. He always was good at keeping me honest. Besides, since the damned thing had been an imported mutant Filipino vampire with a proboscis, you didn’t need much hyperbole to make it gross. This was not the sort of dinner conversation that you would have with polite company.

MHI tended to be a noisy, boisterous, fun-loving bunch, and as you filled them with good food and drinks they just got louder. Soon, everyone else was cracking jokes and telling stories too, interrupted only by the constant trips back for more food. Green was skinny, and VanZant’s nickname was “the hobbit” because he was maybe a stocky five foot four, but even our small Hunters had appetites, not to mention that Gregorius was about my size, so we were putting a hurting on the place. However, as Nate pointed out, at seventy bucks a head, we were darn well going to get our money’s worth. Luckily, they had seated us far enough to the side that we weren’t bugging the other, more normal patrons.

They had stuck together a few tables into a long rectangle for us. I was sitting at one end across from Green and next to VanZant. Green was bald, hyperactive, and had been a San Diego police officer before MHI had recruited him. I’d accidentally broken his collarbone back in Newbie training, but he’d never seemed to hold a grudge about it. Green was a scrapper, one of those men that wasn’t scared of anything, so getting severely injured in training was no biggie. I’d lost count of how many beers he had drunk, and apparently he’d already hit the minibar in his room before coming down. The waitress just kept the refills coming, because since we had to walk past slot machines to get out of this place, the management probably wanted their guests as incapable of making good decisions as possible. His boss, VanZant, just frowned as Green got into a noisy argument with bomb expert Cooper over the proper use of hand grenades.

VanZant was a courteous man, so he waited until there were several different conversations going on before leaning in to ask me quietly, “So how’s Julie doing?”

The question was understandable. VanZant had been with Julie when she’d been injured during Hood’s attack on our compound. He was one of the few who knew something about how she had survived, her lacerations sealed by the lingering magic of the Guardian, leaving only black lines where there had once been mortal wounds. “Pretty good. Mostly we don’t think about it.” Which wasn’t true at all. The thought that she had been physically changed by magic from the Old Ones was always there, gnawing away at our peace of mind, but there wasn’t much we could do about it.

VanZant’s concern was evident. “Has there been any…change?”

He meant to the supernatural marks on my wife’s neck and abdomen, reminders of things that should have killed her. “Still the same as before.” The marks had saved Julie’s life three times, from Koriniha’s knife, a flying undead’s claws, and even the fangs of her vampire mother, but there was no such thing as gifts when the Old Ones were concerned. Everything from them came with a price. We just didn’t know what that price was going to be yet. “We’ve been trying to find more information about the Guardian, who he was, where the magic comes from, maybe even how to get rid of it, but no luck yet.”

One of the Haights was telling a story about parking his truck on a blood fiend when the hostess led another big group into our section of the restaurant. There were a dozen of them, they were all male and all dressed the same, in matching tan cargo pants and tight black polo shirts that showed off that they all really liked to lift weights. Every last one of the newcomers was casually scanning the room for threats. It was obvious that the half of them that couldn’t sit with their backs to the wall were made slightly uncomfortable by that fact.

They were Monster Hunters. A Hunter gives off a certain vibe, and these men had it. Wary, cocky, and tough, they were Hunters all right, they just weren’t as cool as we were. VanZant scowled at the gold PT Consulting embroidered on the breast of every polo shirt. “Oh, no…” he muttered. “Not these assholes.”

“Friends of yours?” I whispered as the hostess seated them a few feet away. I noticed that most of them were studying us the same way we were studying them. Apparently my table gave off that Hunter vibe too. There was a little bit of professional curiosity and sizing up going on from both sides.

VanZant wasn’t happy to see them. “They’re a startup company headquartered in L.A. They’ve been around about a year. Loads of money, all the newest toys. They’re professional, but…”

From the look on Green’s face, he didn’t like PT Consulting much either. He spoke a little louder than he probably should have. “Their boss is a real prick and they’ve been weaseling in on some of our contracts. They’ll swipe your PUFF right out from under your nose if you aren’t careful.”

A few of them seemed to have overheard that, and there was some hushed conversation from the other table as they placed their drink orders. “Easy, Green,” VanZant cautioned his hotheaded friend before turning back to me. “PT Consulting is prickly. They’ve got this modern bushido code of the warrior culture going on. They take themselves real seriously. Their owner is a retired colonel who got rich doing contract security in Iraq. When he learned the real money was in PUFF, his company switched industries, lured away a bunch of MCB with better pay, and set up shop in my backyard.”

“You don’t sound like a fan…”

“He gives mercenaries a bad name, and MHI is mercenary and proud. I’d call him a pirate, but that’s an insult to pirates.”

“Prick works,” Green supplied again. “Thieving pricks, the bunch of them.”

I noticed a couple of angry scowls aimed in our direction from some former Monster Control Bureau agents sporting PT shirts. They recognized us too. It probably didn’t help that I was wearing a T-shirt with a big MHI Happy Face on it. Oh well, not my problem. I just wanted to enjoy my second plate of steak, sushi, and six species of shrimp.

The oldest of the PT men got up and approached my end of the table. He was probably in his early fifties, but built like a marathoner, sporting a blond buzz cut and suntan lines from wearing shades. His mouth smiled, but his eyes didn’t. “Well, if it isn’t Monster Hunter International. What an unexpected pleasure to run into you gentlemen here. Evening, John.”

VanZant nodded politely. “Armstrong.”

Armstrong scanned down our table, sizing us up. Unlike his company, my guys were dressed randomly and casual, except for Cooper and Nate being dressed fancy so that the single young guys could try to pick up girls later, and the Haights looking like they were on their way to a rodeo. Armstrong saw Gregorius sitting toward the middle and gave a curt nod. “Hey, I know you from Bragg…Sergeant Gregorius, right? I didn’t know you’d joined this bunch.”

We had recruited Gregorius after the battle for DeSoya Caverns, where he’d been attached to the National Guard unit manning the roadblock. Apparently he knew Armstrong in a different professional capacity, but judging from the uncomfortable expression on Gregorius’ face, he shared VanZant’s opinion of the man. “Evening, Colonel. Wife didn’t want me sitting around the house retired and bored. This sounded like fun.”

Armstrong’s chuckle was completely patronizing. “I didn’t recognize you with that beard. You look like Barry White. Staying busy, I hope,” he said as he scanned over the rest of us. He paused when he got to me. I was pretty sure I’d never met him before, but I am rather distinctive-looking and had developed a bit of a reputation in professional Monster Hunting circles, some of which was even factual. So it wasn’t surprising to be recognized. “You’re Owen Zastava Pitt, aren’t you?”

“In the flesh.”

“I’m Rick Armstrong.” He said that like it should mean something. Rick Armstrong. Now that was a proper superhero secret-identity name. “I’m CEO of PT Consulting.” I stared at him blankly. I looked to Trip, but my friend shrugged. “PT Consulting…”

“Potato Tasting?” I guessed helpfully.

“No. It’s—”

“Platypus Tossing?”

“Paranormal Tactical,” he corrected before I could come up with another.

“Nope.” I shrugged. Armstrong seemed let down, but tried not to let it show. What did he expect? I was too busy battling the forces of evil to pay attention to every new competitor on the block. Julie took care of the marketing, I was the accountant. “Doesn’t ring any bells.”

“Oh, it will.” He smiled that fake little smile again. “I’m sure we’ll have some teaming opportunities in the future.”

I didn’t know this Armstrong character, but something about him simply rubbed me the wrong way. Plus, VanZant’s opinion was trusted, and if one of our team leads said that they were assholes, that was good enough for me. “You should leave me your card, you know, in case we’re too busy doing something big and important and a little case pops up that we don’t have time to pay attention to.” I can be a fairly rude person when I just don’t give a crap.

“Well, MHI is established…” Armstrong said, meaning old. So that was how it was going to be. “But we’re the fastest growing Hunting company in the world. We’ve got experienced men, a solid business plan, financial backing, the best equipment, and top leadership.”

“Nifty. I should buy some stock.”

“Speaking of leadership, there’s a rumor going around about MHI’s.” The way he said that sounded particularly snide.

“Oh?” I raised a single eyebrow. This conversation was cutting into my precious shrimp time. “What about our leadership?”

“Word is that Earl Harbinger’s been off his game lately. I heard he disappeared for a few months, came back depressed and missing a finger. Rumor is that he had something to do with that incident up in Michigan. You know, that mine fire”—he made quote marks with his fingers—“that killed half a town in their sleep, or so the MCB said. I’d hate to think that was one of his cases that went bad.”

Sure, Earl hadn’t been the same since Copper Lake, but that was none of Armstrong’s business. I didn’t know all the details about what had happened in Michigan, but I knew enough to know that Earl wasn’t off his game, he was angry. A government agency that he didn’t want to name had put his girlfriend into indentured servitude.

“Maybe Harbinger’s thinking about hanging it up? That would be such a shame. A real loss for our whole industry.”

“I’ll be sure to pass along your concern. Because, wow, if Earl Harbinger were to retire, who would men like you look to for inspiration?” I gave him a polite nod that I intended to say shove off, dirtbag. “See you at the conference.”

“Tomorrow then. Looking forward to it. I’ve got work to do. You boys have a nice supper.” He went back to his table to say goodbye to his men. I swear half of them had to resist the urge to salute.

“I hate him so much,” Gregorius said softly, but didn’t elaborate further.

“Well, you do sorta look like Barry White,” Cooper told him. He flinched when Gregorius thumped him in the arm.

Soon enough our conversations had picked back up, and if anything, were even louder than before. Milo called my cell to tell me that he would be here soon, and that he and some of the Newbies he’d picked up at the airport would be joining us for dinner. I’d met the crazy elf girl, Tanya, when she’d impersonated an elven tracker to tag along on one of our jobs. She and Edward had saved some kids that had blundered into a pocket dimension filled with telepathic fey monsters. She was the first elf MHI had ever hired, which I still wasn’t convinced was entirely a smart move, but Milo assured me that she would easily be able to pass for human in public. The other Newbie was named Jason Lacoco, a name I recognized as the Briarwood Hunter Earl had recruited during the Copper Lake incident, but who I hadn’t met yet. I told Milo I’d have the hostess pull up another table.

By the time I put my phone away, Green was telling a very animated and inappropriate story, and using a cream puff for special effects purposes. Most of my group was laughing loudly at him. The PT men were all stoically chewing, glaring his way occasionally. Apparently the modern warrior code meant you weren’t supposed to carry on in such a manner in public.

I was filling plate number three with nachos, potstickers, and mozzarella sticks when Nate came up beside me. He had been sitting at the far end of the table, so had missed my chat with the PT leader. “Hey, Z. I need your help with the black-shirt dudes.”

“What do you mean?”

“They keep eyeballing us.”

“It’s because we’re so damned handsome, Nate. They just can’t help themselves.”

“You say so, but they seem angry.”

I looked over as Green downed another beer, belched loudly, and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but Trip seemed distressed and everyone else was amused. Trip, ever the voice of reason, seemed to be trying to get Green to quiet down. VanZant’s seat was empty. He’d probably gone to the bathroom and left our drunken vice cop momentarily unsupervised. A few of the PT consultants were looking fairly belligerent at this point. “Is Green trying to pick a fight?”

Nate sighed. “He’s still mad about a job his team did all the dangerous work for, but PT swooped in and claimed the PUFF at the last minute. Green was personally out twenty grand and one of their team almost got drowned by a giant squid in the process.”

“So you don’t need my help with Pontoon Tactical, or whatever their name is, you need help controlling some of our men. Look, why don’t you go tell Green to chill out? You are a Shackleford. This is your family’s company.” I know Earl was expecting a lot from Nate, as he was the one expected to carry on the Shackleford family name. That was a lot of pressure, especially since his big sister pretty much ran the nuts and bolts of the operation already. Nate was tough and enthusiastic, but still trying to figure out his place in the company. The tall young man looked sheepishly at his shoes. “But you won’t…Because you don’t want to come off as the boss’s grandson and annoying wet blanket on everyone’s good time…”

“Reverse nepotism is a hell of a thing. I’m still low man on the totem pole. I say anything and I’ll just come off as a whiner trying to throw Julie’s weight around.”

“If you imply Julie is heavy, she will shoot you.” I knew that wasn’t what he meant. Besides, Julie was in great shape. My wife was a 5'11" Amazon warrior southern belle art-chick sniper. “And you know she doesn’t miss much.”

“You know what I mean,” Nate pleaded.

“Ask Holly. Nobody will mess with her.”

“Are you kidding? I think she finds the whole thing amusing. Please, Z, I don’t know all these guys very well, but they respect you.”

“I’m no team leader.” Some of us had headquarters duties above and beyond being on Hunter teams, but as far as the actual MHI org chart went, I was only the finance manager. Which put me at about the same level as our receptionist, only Dorcas had been around longer and was scarier.

“You’re also the God Slayer.”

Valid point. Travelling to another dimension and blowing up a Great Old One did earn you some cool points with this bunch. “Leadership sucks sometimes, Nate. You’re going to have to get used to it.” His older sister would have simply kicked everyone into line, but the youngest Shackleford hadn’t found his groove yet. He’d been a Hunter longer than I had, but it was tough to grow up in the shadow of legends. “All right, fine. Just let me grab some more fish sticks.”

By the time I’d plopped back down in my seat, I could tell that Green had clearly egged the two nearest PT Hunters on to the point that they were itching for a confrontation. The man certainly had a gift. I could sense there was ugly in the air. Normally that wouldn’t bother me too much, but we were supposed to be professionals, we were outnumbered, and I was pretty sure that I recognized one of the PT men from watching Ultimate Fighting on TV.

“Z, that one dude keeps looking at me!” Green exclaimed, voice slurred. “He must think I’m sexy!” Then he looked over at the Ultimate Fighter and licked a cream puff suggestively.

The Ultimate Fighter got up quickly, and Green, being stupidly fearless at this point, did too. Trip intercepted Green, and one of the PT Hunters grabbed the Ultimate Fighter’s arm. I, and my tray of goodies, stepped between the two sides as I tried to play peacemaker. “Whoa! Easy, man.”

The Ultimate Fighter bumped me and I got Thai peanut sauce on my shirt, and most of my food landed on the floor. It says something about how much I’ve matured over the last couple of years that I didn’t knock him the hell out for wasting such precious cargo. About half of the PT Hunters got up quickly. On my side the Haights and Gregorius jumped up, looking eager, while the rest of my side had that inevitable resigned look of I’d better help my idiot friends on their faces. Say what you will about Hunters, they always have your back. “Everybody, relax. No harm meant. My friend’s just had a few too many.”

Trip dragged the sputtering Green back into his chair. Luckily, Trip was the stronger of the two.

I tried to defuse the situation. “I’ve seen you on TV, right? Light heavyweight. You were great. I love that stuff—”

“Keep your idiot on a leash,” Ultimate Fighter snarled as he was guided to his seat. “Uncivilized Alabama rednecks.”

I thought that Green was a Californian, but saying so probably wouldn’t have helped matters. In fact, I think Nate was the only native Alabaman at the table, and he was well spoken and wearing a tie. I sat down. “Green, you dumbass. Chill the hell out already or I swear I’ll break another one of your bones.”

“Sorry, Z. It isn’t my fault they’re such jackasses. I was just telling everybody about how PT is a bunch of no-good, backstabbing, lying cheats, and Armstrong is a thieving sack of—”

“Dude, use your inside voice,” Trip suggested as he studied the table of muscle and testosterone growling at us. “I don’t want to get beat up.”

Green giggled. “I’m not worried. We got Z. Just hide behind him. That was my plan. He’s huge.”

“Thanks,” I muttered. “I’ll remember that when I’m getting my teeth kicked in.”

A server came by, and I quickly apologized for the mess and slipped her a twenty. Luckily nobody had called security, and it looked like everything was going to be cool. VanZant got back, saw that some of the staff was cleaning up my spillage and everyone looked tense, and asked what he’d missed. I jerked a thumb at Green. “I think he needs to sleep it off.”

VanZant shook his head sadly. “He gets spun up sometimes. I’ve got him. Come on, man. Why don’t you go splash some water on your face or something.” He dragged Green up by his collar.

“But I didn’t finish my creampuffs!”

“My apologies, Z. He is a really good Hunter when he’s sober.”

Crisis averted, I went back for replacement food as VanZant led our most inebriated Hunter away. I caught sight of a small man with a gigantic red beard waving at me from the entrance, and so I pointed Milo in the direction of our table. The last of the MHI dinner party had arrived.

Plate partially reloaded, I was preoccupied with using tongs to pick up some crab legs when somebody bumped into my arm. Another solid fellow had been reaching under the sneeze guard at the same time. “Pardon me,” he said politely.

“Sorry about that,” I answered as I moved a bit to the side. “Didn’t see you. Easily distracted by crab legs, you know.”

“Thanks.” He scooped up several pounds of crustacean and dumped them onto his plate. Crouched, he still barely fit under the sneeze guard. He straightened his back and towered over me. I’m 6'5", was wearing thick-soled combat boots, and he still had me beat by a few inches.

“If you’ve seen that show about how hard these are to catch, that just makes them taste even better…” I trailed off. The man seemed strangely familiar. Probably thirty, he was thickset, with biceps like hams stuffed under his black T-shirt. His enormous head was stubbly with short, dark hair, and there was a crease running down the middle where he’d had a severe skull injury or maybe brain surgery. Beady eyes narrowed as he got a better look at me. One of his eyes wasn’t pointing in quite the same direction as the other one. A look of confusion crossed his wide, flat face.

Where did I know this man from?

Of course I hadn’t recognized him at first. He’d aged. After all, it had been several years, and he hadn’t had that scar on his head nor the bad eye. Plus the last time I’d seen him I’d been kneeling on his chest and dropping elbows against his bloody and unconscious face until his eye had popped out and his skull had broken in half.

“You!” we exclaimed at the same time.

His tray hit the floor with a clatter. The other patrons around the seafood area were suddenly quiet. The giant’s mouth turned into a snarl and his hands curled into a fist. “Son of a bitch!”

The final illegal, underground money fight I’d ever participated in had been against this monster. All I’d known going in was that he was a killer, a prison-hardened, brutal machine of a fighter, and then he’d beaten the living hell out of me until I’d finally taken him down, lost control, and nearly beaten him to death. I’d never even known his name.

I took a step back. He was right to be mad. I’d lost it. It was the worst thing I’d ever done. “It was an ac—”

“Accident?” Veins were popping out in his neck. “I was out, and you didn’t stop hitting me until they dragged you off! You put out my eye!”

“Sorry.” Man, that sounded pathetic.

“You ruined my life!” And with a roar, the giant charged.

I lifted the metal serving tray like a shield just in time for his fist to bend it in half. The tray went flying and a waitress screamed. Dodging back, I thumped hard into the table with the ice swan. An instinctive duck kept my head attached to my body as the giant threw a massive left hook that decapitated the swan. Then he lowered his shoulder and rammed into me, taking us both onto the table. The ice swan toppled, hit the floor, and exploded, sending bits everywhere. The table collapsed beneath us and we went rolling off in separate directions.

There were a few seconds of shocked silence, and then fight-or-flight kicked in for everyone in the buffet. For the regular people, it was flight from the two very large men crashing about. Sadly, flight wasn’t the normal first reaction for a Hunter. There was a battle cry from near the exit. “That PT guy hit Z!” Green shouted as he shoved his way through the people. The man that had attacked me was wearing a black shirt…Green sprinted across the restaurant yelling, “Fight! Fight!” Then he dove and tackled a random PT employee who was getting a piece of pie from the desert bar.

“No! It’s not them.” I got up, but the giant was already coming my way again, and then I was too busy protecting my vital organs from his sledgehammer fists to communicate.

The occupants of the MHI table had all stood up to see what was going on, and so had the Paranormal Tactical crew. The two sides looked at each other for just a moment…and then it was on. The last thing I saw was one of the Haight brothers clubbing a PT Hunter in the jaw, because then I had to concentrate on my own problems.

The giant was coming my way, hands up and loose, protecting his face. Even enraged, he was moving like a pro. The last time we’d squared off had been a close one. This was the toughest human being I’d ever fought, at least now that I knew Franks didn’t count as human.

“I don’t want to fight you,” I warned.

“Should’a thought of that before you tried to murder me.”

He came in quick, but this wasn’t a ring, and I wasn’t fighting fair. I kicked a chunk of ice and he instinctively flinched aside as it zipped past him. I yanked a cloth off a table and threw it over his head like a net. I’d like to say that I did it dramatically and all the plates and pitchers stayed in place, but they didn’t, and most of them shattered on the ground. Temporarily entangled in the tablecloth, he couldn’t defend himself very well, so I charged in swinging. I slugged him twice in the stomach, and when his hands went down, I reached up and tagged him with a shot to the mouth.

But then he threw the tablecloth back over me, and I think it was an elbow that got me in the side of the head. I was seeing stars when he slung me around and put me into the meat area. Ham broke my fall. The meat-slicing buffet employees ran for their lives. Getting up, I hurled a pot roast at the giant and he smacked it across the room.

We clashed. There wasn’t any finesse at all; it was just a slug fest. We went back and forth, trading blows. Too busy trying to protect my face, I got hit in the ribs, which sucked, and then he nailed me in the stomach, which really sucked, and suddenly I was regretting the several pounds of food I’d just consumed. His shoe landed on a piece of ice, and as he slid off balance, I snap kicked him hard in the thigh of his grounded leg.

He went to his hands and knees. “Stay down!” I ordered.

The restaurant patrons were evacuating. Green had someone in a choke hold and another PT man on his back. I’d forgotten that VanZant had used to be a champion welterweight, and he was knocking the snot out of a PT man twice his size. The Haights seemed to be having a jolly time, until one of them got hit with a chair. Gregorius was wrestling a PT Hunter next to the soda machines. Ultimate Fighter had Cooper in an arm bar. Albert, despite the cane and leg brace, was a shockingly tenacious fighter, and he was facing two PT Hunters at once, which apparently Trip didn’t think was very sporting, because he slammed one of them through a corner booth. Even Holly had gotten into it. A PT man hesitated, not wanting to strike a girl, until she groin-kicked him like she was punting a football.

Turning back to the giant, I didn’t see that my opponent’s hands had landed on another serving tray, which he promptly swung and clipped me in the temple. That one rocked my world. I landed flat on my back. The giant came over to stomp me, but Nate body-checked him into the soft-serve ice-cream machine. Too bad the Shacklefords were from Alabama, because the kid showed a lot of promise as a hockey player.

The vanilla spigot had broken off, and soft serve came spooling out. “Got no problem with you,” the giant said through gritted teeth. “Just him. Get out of my way.”

“You mess with MHI, you mess with all of us!”

The giant cocked his misshapen head to one side. “What? MHI?

Nate tried to punch him, and though he was fast and relatively skilled, the giant was simply out of his league. He effortlessly slapped Nate’s hands aside, grabbed my brother-in-law’s tie to hold him in place, then slugged him. One, two, three solid hits before Nate’s brain had even recorded the first impact. Nate went down, out cold.

That really pissed me off, and I came off the floor, ready to kick some ass.

Hotel security guards were pushing their way inside. Since the restaurant rotated on a platform, the whole place was shaking badly under the stampede. The other ice sculpture fell and broke, and somehow somebody had managed to throw something hard enough to break one of the chandeliers. There was some screaming as Green got pepper-sprayed, and more screaming as Lee shoved a rival Hunter into the chocolate fountain.

One of the PT men got in my way and I dismantled him. I didn’t have time to dick around with these chumps when there was a real enemy to fight. I stepped into the clumsy swing and drove my forearm and all my mass into him so hard that he went spiraling over a table. Another of the black polo-shirted Hunters had gotten between us, so the giant simply picked him up and tossed him over the sushi bar, not even bothering to slow his pace. We met in the middle and proceeded to beat the crap out of each other.

He was fast for a big man, and so was I, but he had a reach advantage, so I had to keep moving to stay ahead of him. I wasn’t used to being the smaller and lighter fighter. We locked up on each other as we hit the far end of the buffet, both of us throwing knees and elbows. Between the two of us we probably weighed close to seven hundred pounds, and the furniture broke around us like someone had turned loose a herd of enraged wildebeests. I didn’t realize we’d gone too far until my shoulder hit the cold glass of the restaurant’s bubble. The glass cracked.

I caught my boot against the railing, heaved the giant back, and managed to hit him with a staggering overhand right. That slowed him down.

“Lacoco! Stop! Z! Owen! What the heck? Quit hitting that Newbie!” Milo was running our way, just ahead of a bunch of casino security and a Las Vegas police officer. “You’re on the same team!”

The giant must not have heard Milo’s words, because he bellowed, launched himself into me, caught me around the waist, and we hit the interior window. The glass shattered around us and then we were falling, briefly. We hit water, but it wasn’t particularly deep, because right after the water came tile. And the tile was very hard.

Groaning, I lay there, flat on my back in half a foot of water, covered in sparkling shards, the wind knocked out of me, staring up at the hole in the buffet’s glass wall one story above, as cold water from a dragon-headed fountain spit on us. The giant was on his side next to me. He had a few nasty cuts on his face and arms from the glass. I probably didn’t look much better. I realized then that his not-quite-in-the-same-direction eye was fake, because it had popped out and was sitting at the bottom of the pool between us.

A huge crowd of gamblers and shoppers were standing there, gaping at us. Many of them started taking pictures.

At least the fall had finally knocked the fight out of him. The giant looked over at the MHI Happy Face on my tattered shirt with his good eye and groaned.

“Jason Lacoco?” I gasped.


“Owen Zastava Pitt.” I coughed. “Nice to meet you. Welcome to Monster Hunter International.”

Then several police officers converged on the fountain to arrest us.

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