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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:01:07

"You don't think the clothes are like pieces of the body can be sometimes?" I asked out of earshot of the zombie in question.

He shook his head. "The missing pieces are only for raising a zombie, and only for low-level animators who need all the parts to raise a body. It's one of the reasons they can't raise older bodies, because too much has turned to dust. They need solid bits to work with; you never have."

"It never occurred to me: Do any animators need all the parts to put a zombie back in the grave?"

"I've known a few who couldn't lay the zombie to rest if a hand had rotted off and was lost, but I always wondered if it was really a problem, or if they just thought they needed all the parts."

"You mean they believed they couldn't do it without the missing part, so they couldn't?"

He nodded. "I've been called in on a few cases where the animators were powerful enough to do it, but they still couldn't."

"You think they psyched themselves out," I said.

"So, if I don't worry about the clothes, they aren't anything to worry about?"

I frowned at his logic, but in the end I wanted Warrington below-ground enough to try. He stood on his grave in a T-shirt advertising music that he had probably never heard, and a pair of jeans that whoever had lent them to him would probably miss, but it wasn't my problem.

Traditional wisdom was that you needed salt, steel, and will. I'd learned that the most important part was sheer force of will, but tonight I went old-schoolish, because I wanted to be sure that this zombie went quietly back to rest.

The blood circle had darkened and was smudged in places. "The circle isn't intact anymore," Manny said.

I looked at the ground, and he was right. The blood circle was there, black in the grass, but it was seriously smudged in places, and nowhere near complete.

"I don't really need it to put him back; it's only in raising the zombie that the circle matters to me."

Manny raised eyebrows at me. The look was enough to let me know he did need the circle to lay his zombies back. I forgot sometimes how little we'd worked together over the last few years. Once he took himself out of the vampire execution side of things, he and I had very different dance cards for work.

"Maybe an intact circle for laying the zombie to rest is like the missing body part; you only think you need it," I said.

He grinned at me, smile bright in the darkness. "The student becomes the teacher."

I smiled back and shrugged.

"What do you need, then?"

"I've done it with just will and word, but tonight--" I lifted a container of salt and the machete still sheathed out of the nice leather bag. Every time I used Jean-Claude's gift I knew it was just a matter of time before I got something bloody, or worse, on the nice leather, but I'd use it until I ruined it. Sometimes nice things don't last long, but they're pretty while they do.

"You don't need another sacrifice?"

"I should shadow you one night when you're on the job. I think you've changed a lot of the rituals I taught you."

I shrugged again. "I've streamlined some."

"It's all right, Anita. I knew you were a more powerful animator than I was the first week I took you out with me."

I let him see that he'd surprised me. "You never told me that."

"I didn't want you to get a big head about it, or put too much pressure on yourself as a new animator. I knew you'd figure out just how powerful you were."

"It took me a while, but yeah, I guess I did."

Domino called out, "Anita, you might want to get over here."

The tone in his voice was enough to make us turn and look toward him, Nicky, and the zombie by the graveside. Warrington was still standing on the grave nice and passive, but something had spooked Domino, and Nicky was standing ready, like he expected to be using the handgun at his side.

I handed the machete and salt to Manny and reached into the back for the shotguns and the AR.

"Why are you getting the big guns?" Manny asked.

"Not sure, but I trust my guys." I put the AR in its tactical sling over one shoulder and carried a shotgun in each hand, and headed for them. Manny came behind with the salt and steel I'd need to lay the zombie, but right that moment the guns meant more to me.

I heard Warrington say, "I'm so hungry, so hungry."

I handed one shotgun to Domino, kept one for myself, and tossed the AR to Nicky. He caught it and stepped a little away from the grave. I'd have preferred him with me for the close-in work, but he was a better shot with the AR than Domino, and they could both handle shotguns just fine. Honestly, I might have been the best shot of the three of us with the AR, but I couldn't back off the grave and let them take the close-in part. It was my zombie, and I wouldn't let them take the bigger risk.

I snugged the shotgun to my shoulder and got a bead on one of the zombie's knees. Yeah, a head shot would take away his ability to tear with his teeth, but I'd had enough large men run into me and just the force of that could hurt; take out one leg and he'd have to crawl to reach us. Crawling gave you more time to pick your shots.

"How hungry are you, Mr. Warrington?" I asked, voice very, very calm, as if I weren't standing beside Domino with both of us pointing shotguns at him.

"As hungry as you were in the mountains that winter?" I asked.

Domino didn't react to the question, which probably made no sense to him at all. He just kept his position and his aim, and did what I needed him to do. I didn't have to look behind us to know that Nicky was doing his part. I trusted him to have our backs, absolutely.

"Yes, and no," Warrington said. His face wasn't as human as it had been. The flesh seemed to be thinning down, so you could see the bones of his face, almost as if he were starving right in front of our eyes. His body was consuming its own flesh, so that the skeleton was beginning to show underneath the skin. I never seen anything like it, but then he'd been a surprise from the start.

"Explain what you mean, Warrington; how can it be yes and no?" I asked, and realized I'd taken my eyes off targeting his knee so I could see his face when he spoke. I went back to watching the target I'd chosen, but it was hard not to watch his face.

"I don't feel as hungry, but I'm looking at your two men here and I see them like I saw Charlie after he died."

"You see them as meat," I said, resettling the shotgun to aim at his face. I had to watch him talk; it was almost a compulsion. Those nice hazel eyes, grayed in the dark, were rolling in their sockets, because the flesh had receded enough that they weren't secure. What the hell was happening to him?

"Yes, they're meat, but I don't see you that way. Why do you still look like a woman that I should take care of and help out of carriages? The men are worse than any enemy on the battlefield to me now."

"You mean you hate them more?"

"No, but I don't see them as the same as me, as men. They're just something I want to tear into and devour. I've never even looked at a cow and thought these terrible things, and I do like a nice steak, but this is something far worse, Miss Blake, far more terrible than butchering a steer."

"I understand," I said, voice soft.

"Do you? Then please explain it to me, because I am mystified that I could look at another man and think such terrible thoughts, and be filled with such horrific longings." He looked at me with his eyes beginning to roll wildly in their sockets. He was having more trouble controlling the muscles that moved his eyes as the flesh that held them in place wore away.

"You're becoming a flesh-eating zombie, Mr. Warrington."

"I am so glad that you took me away from Justine before she saw me like this. Thank you for that, Miss Blake."

I was glad he hadn't been alone with her when the change came over him, because what I was seeing now would eventually tear her throat out while she screamed for help. I'd seen zombies do it before, just never talked to them

while they lost their senses and became a ravening thing.

"Let me put you back in your grave, Mr. Warrington."

"Please do, Miss Blake, and hurry, before I give in to these terrible images in my mind."

Nicky asked, "Do you mean you have pictures in your head of what you want to do to us?"

"Are they your thoughts, or is someone putting them in your head?"

"I do not know, but even speaking with you now, it's as if my pork dinner were talking back. I'd think I was mad, but I still want to eat it."

"Eat me, you mean?" Nicky said.

"Yes, very much." The southern drawl was thicker with every word, as if by the time he rushed us, or we shot him, he'd sound like Scarlett O'Hara.

"Interesting, Nicky, but save it," I said.

"There won't be a later for asking him questions."

He was right, of course, but only a sociopath could have stood there this close, watching the process, and asked the questions that might help us understand what was happening. It was good that we had Nicky with us, because I was so spooked my mouth was dry.

"I'm here," he said from behind us. He sounded a lot farther away than Nicky, but he was unarmed, so I was okay with that, but now I needed him.

"I need you to get some salt ready to throw and unsheathe the machete."

"Okay." I felt the machete's blade bare like a thrill of energy through me. I trusted that the salt was in his hand.

"Ready," he said, and just from his voice I knew he was much closer to me, just behind me.

"With salt, steel, and power, I bind you to your grave."