Page 24

Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:00:55

"Once I come back from the car we'll get started, but first, which of you is going to stand by the grave so the zombie will answer the questions you want to ask it?"

MacDougal and the young guy, whose name seemed to be Patrick, though I wasn't sure if it was his first or his last, looked at each other. "You mean we'd have control of the zombie and you wouldn't?" Patrick asked.

I sighed; if only they'd read the literature we give them, they wouldn't ask stupid questions, because they'd know already, but I didn't say that out loud. "No, the animator who raises a zombie controls it. It will always answer to me before it answers to anyone else, but this way it will answer your questions without me being present, so which of you wants to hold the leash, so to speak?"

They looked at each other again. Patrick took a step forward. I added, "Just so we're clear, and don't have any more misunderstandings, I will have to put some of the cow's blood on the face and body of the person who controls the zombie."

Patrick's eyes got a little bigger, and he shook his head. "Not me, sorry, but I don't want to do that."

MacDougal stepped up. "I guess it has to be me. Where do you want me to stand?"

"Behind the tombstone, so you're not on the grave, will be dandy, but I have to get the rest of my equipment ready, so just relax for a few minutes, and then we'll get started."

He nodded. "Just tell me what to do."

I turned for the cars, because what I wanted to say was, Read the damned handouts!

IT'S HARDER TO kill a cow than a goat or a chicken. First, it's a much bigger animal, which is both more difficult to kill when the only acceptable method is a blade, and a hell of a lot more dangerous. Normally, Nicky, Dino, and the other guards kept us safe from bad guys, but tonight I'd want them to help me with the sacrifice. I hadn't lied to Mrs. Willis; a Guernsey is a big cow.

When I'd asked the guards if any of them knew about handling big livestock, only Dino and Nicky had stepped up. Turns out that Dino had started life on a cattle ranch in Mexico. His grandfather had owned it and he'd grown up around cows. I'd had no idea, but I'd also had no idea that Nicky had grown up on a ranch out West in this country.

"Really, I had you pegged for a city boy," I'd said.

"I like cities, but I can lay fence, do carpentry if something breaks and I have the right tools. About the only thing I never got very good at was wiring, and I can do some of that, but I'm not an electrician."

I'd stared up at him and realized just how little I knew about his past. Of all the men in my life, Nicky had come to me with the least "getting to know you" period, because we met when he helped kidnap me. His original lion pride had been mercenaries, oh sorry, private contractors. They'd done everything from assassinations to information gathering, and probably things I didn't even know to ask about. They'd been paid a lot of money to kidnap me so I could raise a zombie that I'd already refused to raise. They'd threatened to kill Micah, or Nathaniel, or Jason. Nicky thought of Nathaniel as family now, but in the beginning Nicky would have killed the other love of my life without a second thought. Nicky was a sociopath, made not born, but the effect was the same. Weaponless, with a witch having closed off my metaphysical powers so I couldn't contact anyone for help, I'd turned to the powers of the vampire marks that were a permanent part of me now, and to my own necromancy. Thanks to Jean-Claude I fed off sex the way other vampires fed off blood. The ardeur was originally supposed to keep a vampire fed on a long sea voyage or in a small group where taking blood would be noticed; fucking around was more sociably acceptable. Some vampire lines could feed off fear and pain, and they would cause that so they could "drink" it down. I'd learned to feed on rage, too, but it had side effects on the victims that I hadn't learned to control yet. The ardeur had side effects, too. I'd addicted people to me by accident, but by the time I'd met Nicky I could stop that from happening, most of the time, but Nicky, him I mind-fucked on purpose. To save the men I loved I'd taken everything I could from him, including his free will, and turned him into my Bride, as in Bride of Dracula. It's always that term in vampireland, brides, not grooms, regardless of their gender--so sexist. Nicky had turned against his lion pride, been willing to kill his friends and what had been the closest thing to a family he'd ever known, because he was mine in a way that slave doesn't even cover. If I was sad, it made Nicky anxious, and he was driven to make me happy again. We'd worked hard to give him as much of his autonomy back as he had, but he could never be free of me. He would adore me forever, while I hadn't given a damn for him at first. Brides are walking, talking batteries for their creators, which can be drained of life when the vampire needs it, though most of the time they are just the ultimate servants, read "slaves." That old saying about love meaning that another person's happiness is more important to you than your own was true for Nicky. The fact that I had fallen in love with him, too, was either irony or God being kind.

Nicky led the cow to the foot of the grave. He rubbed its forehead and it seemed to respond to him the way dogs do to other people. Well, as much as a cow can behave like a dog; I think this was one animal I just was never going to understand, but since the only interaction I had with them was killing them to raise the dead, it was probably just as well. Theoretically it didn't have to be livestock. I knew some animators who used cats instead of chickens, but I just couldn't do it. I liked cats.

Dino came to the other side of the cow but didn't touch it. He was only there in case the cow complained. If I was fast enough the cow wouldn't have time to be scared or feel pain; it would be over in seconds. If I hit the jugular right. If I didn't, then it could get messy and dangerous, and it would frighten the cow. She'd been headed to the slaughterhouse because she'd stopped producing enough milk, or butterfat, or whatever, which they'd had to disclose when they sold it to us. I'd been doing pretty good at thinking of the cow as it, until Nicky started scratching its head and it--she--liked it. Now she seemed more real, and I was still going to have to kill her. The historical society had paid for me to raise over two hundred years' worth of corpse. I was about the only animator in the country who could guarantee a zombie this old that could remember its past and answer questions without a human sacrifice. There were definitely worse things that could be dying on this grave than a walking milk machine. Human sacrifice was illegal, but you heard rumors, there were always rumors; in fact, some of them were about me. But anyone who had died on one of my graves had been trying to kill me at the time. You should never attack a necromancer in a cemetery; it's like chasing Rambo into a building full of loaded guns. Some people seem to help you kill them.

If it's a chicken, you behead it. A goat, you slit its throat ear to ear. A cow is too big for either if I wanted a clean kill. I stroked my hand down the side of its neck while Nicky continued to scratch its head. Its neck was surprisingly soft to the touch, or the hair was. I found the big pulse, thudding thick and sure against my fingers. A bigger animal seems to have a bigger pulse; maybe it's just because the heart is bigger, but this was sure and certain. I had a moment to think, I could do this without killing the cow. I could cut my own flesh, use my own blood, but the zombie wouldn't be as solid. Over a hundred years was too old to be brought back by just a few drops of my own blood and guarantee it could answer questions. The historical society had questions and they were paying for answers. I could have cut Nicky's arm and had him walk the circle with me. It would work, and the zombie would be very, very alive, or that had been what happened the only time I'd used Micah's blood to walk a circle. The zombie had been too alive. It had almost killed me trying to break the circle of my power. Of course, with Micah by my side the whole cemetery had been more alive. He was my Nimir-Raj, my leopard king, and our bond was more intimate than Nicky being my Bride. But that zombie had only been weeks dead, so probably even Micah wouldn't be able to help me this time with just a cut to drip blood on the grave.

Even if I took the cow back, they'd simply kill her there. It wasn't a choice of the

cow living; it was a choice of how she died. Here she would die to raise the dead and help clear up historical inaccuracies. At the slaughterhouse she'd die just to be animal food. There, I'd called her she again. It wasn't like me to be sentimental about the sacrifices. But the pulse under my hand was so certain of itself. She might be past milk production, but this was a healthy animal and she'd live for years if someone gave her the chance. I shook my head, hard. Stop it, Anita, just stop it. But I was beginning to remember why I preferred chickens. I never seemed to feel as sympathetic to them.

"You all right?" Nicky asked.

I glanced up at him and nodded. "Fine," I said, and wasn't sure if it was the truth, but whatever my feelings I knew my job. "Shield her eyes on this side so she doesn't see the blade flash in the moonlight."

I didn't have to ask him twice; he handed the halter rope to Dino and put his free hand near her eye, cupping it so her vision was obscured. He kept scratching her forehead the whole time, and she lowered her head so he could reach more spots. For a cow, there are worse ways to go.

I knelt by my leather satchel. It was a leather overnight bag, vaguely in the shape of a gym bag. Once a real gym bag had been what I'd carried my zombie-raising equipment in, but for last Christmas Jean-Claude had gotten me this. It was a nice bag, a really nice bag, too nice a bag for all the blood and death it was surrounded with. I'd taken it graciously and used it religiously, but I didn't like it. The things you do when you're in a committed relationship. Sigh. It was a really nice bag.

The leather smelled rich and warm in the summer night as I opened it up. I realized it was the final product of another cow. I wasn't sure if that was ironic or disturbing. I got two things out of the satchel: a bowl and a blade. The bowl was smooth ceramic, handmade by an artist here in Missouri. The color was shades of blue from pale to almost black. The finish made it gleam in the moonlight. I could have caught the blood in anything, but it seemed respectful to use something special. The bowl was bigger than my normal one but was just a nicely made bowl. There was no magic to it. My machete was wrapped in its newly made sheath, so that the blade didn't slide around and damage the nice cloth and leather interior of the new satchel. I thought about having Dino hold the bowl for me, but I wanted his hands free in case the cow got frisky. I placed the bowl on the grass at the edge of the grave.

I unfastened the blade catch and drew the machete out. It was as long as my forearm, dull silver gleaming in the light of the moon. The moment it was bare there was a pulse of power from it, as if it had its own heartbeat. It didn't keep beating, though, just that one pulse. It had never done that when it was loose in my bag. Something about sheathing it and unsheathing it made it happen. I'd talked to my spiritual mentor, Marianne, who among other things was a practicing witch, as well as Wiccan. You can be a witch and not be Wiccan, but you can't be Wiccan and not be a witch, sort of like all poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles, or something like that. Marianne wasn't sure why the machete was reacting to being sheathed. She'd asked me to bring it with me next time I visited her in Tennessee, so she could look at it in person.

I found that thick pulse again with my free hand. I didn't need to test the point or edge of the machete; I sharpened it myself and knew it was razor ready. I picked up the bowl and balanced it in the flat of my hand, holding it where the blood would pour into it. I said a brief prayer, thanking the animal for giving food all its life and for this moment, for being a sacrifice and helping us raise the long dead. With the prayer came a sense of calmness for me, and I drew back the machete, eyed the point that was my target on the thick neck, and plunged the blade in fast, hard, and deep. Hesitation was disastrous for the sacrifice's sake. The magic didn't care how the animal died; slow death raised the dead just as easily as quick.

I drew the blade up and out, so the cut was wide. Blood poured out of the wound, splashing and dripping into and around the bowl, and over my hand and arm. It was very warm, hot even, because a cow's temperature is hotter than a human's. It makes most fresh animal blood hot to the touch at least for those few seconds before it hits the air and begins to cool, but there was so much blood that it just stayed hot.

The cow went down without a sound, its knees buckling. The front of it sank to the ground first. Dino kept the halter rope tight and Nicky continued to shield its eye, so it wouldn't see the blood. Dino was a huge shape on the other side of the animal, waiting to see if he was needed for more. I knelt with the wound, catching as much blood as I could in the bowl. We didn't need this much to draw the circle, but blood is always precious and if you take something's life you should treat the blood with respect. The cow's back end just seemed to collapse all at once, and I had to move backward on the balls of my feet as the big animal slid to one side toward me. Blood splashed over the edge of the already bloody bowl, soaking the front of my coveralls. That was why I wore them.

I got to my feet, bloody machete in one hand and the blood-drenched bowl in the other. The front of me was black with blood, and there had been enough of it that it felt like it was trying to seep through the coveralls and onto my clothes. I hoped it didn't soak through, but there was nothing I could do about it until the ceremony was complete.

"Well done," Dino said.

"I do my best," I said, but my voice was already growing distant. I was only half paying attention, because I was about to lower my metaphysical shields so I could raise the dead, and I wanted to do it. My necromancy was like a horse that had been in its stall too long. It needed to run. It needed to use all that muscle and sinew and run! I was one of only three animators in the country who could have raised something this old without a human sacrifice, which was illegal in almost every country in the world. It was a seller's market and I was the seller.

NOW THAT THE cow was safely dead and not going to trample anyone, I had Dino get MacDougal and stand him behind the tombstone, so he'd be in the circle but out of the way while we cast it. The tombstone wasn't much to look at, just a weathered white chunk of marble, softened by the centuries until it looked like a piece of candy spit out of a giant's mouth with the lettering worn away. I'd seen all the paperwork assuring me this was the right grave, but if I'd had to rely on the stone for name and information I'd have been out of luck; all the readable info had been sucked away by time and weather. Normally I just take the much smaller bowl of blood, or even the whole beheaded chicken, and walk the circle by myself, but I was going to need help to carry this big a bowl. I could have brought the much smaller bowl that I used when I killed a goat, and that would have been plenty to sprinkle for casting the circle, but it had seemed wrong to waste that much of the cow's lifeblood on the ground. If I needed a bigger death to raise the older dead, then wasn't part of that using more blood? I wasn't sure of the metaphysical logic, but I was stuck with the huge bowl now and I couldn't carry it in one hand with the machete in the other, so I had needed a lovely assistant, or in this case a handsome assistant.

We'd lost another two history lovers, apparently overcome by the sight of more blood than they'd ever seen before, or maybe it was seeing something slaughtered in front of them. People will eat meat, like Mrs. Willis said, but that's nice, safe meat in plastic wrap at the grocery store, or behind the butcher's window. It's not real, not a dead thing, just meat, just food. One of them had run off into the gravestones and was throwing up rather noisily. At least they'd moved far enough away and downwind so the rest of us couldn't smell it. I really appreciated that. The rest of the huddled group had exclaimed everything from "Cool" to "Oh, my God," but they didn't argue when I had Dino and Nathaniel move them back to the gravel road. I didn't want anyone drawn into the circle by accident. I'd given the orders distractedly, already staring down at the grave. My necromancy pushed at the boundaries I'd set around it like it wanted to expand to fill all available space. Usually it was like opening a tightly closed fist, a relief to let go, but it didn't push at me like this. I hadn't been raising as many zombies as in y

ears past, because Bert, our business manager, could get more money for my time than anyone else at the firm, which meant I didn't always raise the dead every night. I spent a lot of time doing police work now, so that worked out, but it meant that my necromancy wasn't getting as much use as normal. Like Manny and I had discussed, if you don't use it on purpose it finds other ways to leak out. Raising the dead wasn't a choice for me. The only choice was how and when I'd do it.

The bowl didn't look so big in Nicky's hands. He carried it easily; now all I had to decide was, did he walk backward or beside me as I dipped the machete in the blood and sprinkled the circle into being. I chose beside me, because walking backward carrying a big bowl of blood seemed to be asking for a mess.

I was used to using a beheaded chicken to walk the circle--that sprinkled blood along my blade--but when I dipped my machete in the bowl it came out black, coated like some kind of evil candy apple. The last time I'd tried dipping into a bowl half this size I'd ended up sprinkling myself as much as the ground, so I was cautious as I dripped the blood onto the grass.

"Hmm," Nicky said, more an involuntary sound.

"What?" I asked, glancing up at him.

"You usually use more flourish."

"If I do my usual body English we'll both be wearing cow blood. Trust me, when there's this much blood on the machete you have to be careful swinging it."

"Yeah, you can get really messy when you use a machete," he said.

I studied his face for a second. "You're not talking about using a machete for casting a circle, are you?"

We looked at each other for a few seconds. He gave great blank face, but then most sociopaths do. I debated whether to ask, or how, and finally said, "Animal, or person?"