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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:01:10

"What do you mean, Manny?"

"Shoot his head off and hopefully blow his brains out so he's not aware, and then let the fire team turn him to ashes."

"There's got to be another way, Manny."

"Legally, we can put the dirt back and just leave him as he is."

"No," Zerbrowski said, "we can't do that."

"If we can't put him back with voodoo, then what choice do we have but to treat him as we would any rogue zombie?"

"Manny, there's got to be another way."

"I would be glad to hear it, Anita. I liked Warrington, he seemed a decent man, but what's in that grave is not him. It was never him."

"Then what was it, Manny? What the fuck did I raise from the grave tonight?"

"I don't know, but it's rotting like any zombie; you know that sometimes the mind is the last thing to go. It is the cruelest way for them to rot, but it happens, we've both seen it before. This is no different."

"They don't have this much mind to begin with, Manny, and you know it. Don't stand there and tell me it's not different this time."

He just looked at me.

"I'm sorry, Anita, truly, but we must do something before dawn. If that happens first then he could fall back into death, but it might last only until nightfall and then he would be trapped again, drowning in the dirt of his own grave. Can you not feel how close dawn is, Anita?"

I had been feeling it, but finally acknowledged it. It was still as dark as it had been all night, but there was a softness in the air, a breath of dawn. All the animators I knew who had survived for any length of time as vampire executioners had been able to feel the rise and setting of the sun, even underground in the dark. We just knew, as if the sun traveled not just across the sky but through our bodies.

Zerbrowski checked his iPhone in the dark. "We've got an hour until dawn, though I never understand how both of you always know that."

"It's a gift," I said, but I was already turning toward the grave. The zombie had stopped screaming.

"When did he stop screaming?" Zerbrowski asked.

None of us could answer him. Into the strangely eerie silence came not a sound, but a feeling, as if the air had changed. "What is that, Manny?"

We looked at each other and without a word started walking back toward the grave. I pointed the shotgun skyward, but my hands were now in position so the gun could be brought to bear immediately. I was no longer holding it safely, but idly.

"What are you guys sensing that I'm not?" Zerbrowski asked.

"It's not vampires," I said softly.

"I would not know that for certain," Manny whispered.

"Is it more zombies?" Zerbrowski asked.

"It's too . . . active for that," Manny said, voice still soft, but there was no reason to whisper when we could hear everyone else ahead of us talking normally.

Nicky was motioning to the extermination team. He was wanting them closer in with everyone else. "I didn't think Mr. Muscles was sensitive to this stuff."

"He's not, but he felt me sense it."

Zerbrowski frowned at me. I had a moment of wondering just how much I'd told Zerbrowski about Nicky. Did he know absolutely that he was my Bride? No, I hadn't burdened my fellow cop with that knowledge. If the police understood just how connected I was to the "monsters" they'd be sure my loyalty was compromised. They already mistrusted me because I was with Jean-Claude and Micah. Zerbrowski didn't care, or I didn't think he would, but his bosses would, and I didn't want to put him in a position that could hurt his career.

"We're very in tune with each other," I said, and knew it sounded lame.

He gave me the look the weak comment deserved, but his gun was in his hand in a more serious way, just like my shotgun. He didn't know what was going on, but he was following my lead just like Nicky. I glanced at Manny.

"Are you armed at all?"

"You know I don't carry guns."

"Stay safe, stay behind us, or out of the way, or something."

"You'd send me to the car if you could."

"Yes, you're unarmed."

"This feels like a matter for magic, not mayhem, Anita, but because you carry a gun you think about shooting before you think about using your necromancy."

That made me hesitate and look at him. Was he right? Well, yeah, but most bad things weren't bulletproof, and a lot of them were necromancy-proof. I went with the sure winner in an emergency, but he was right about one thing: This was something that hit my power, and his.

Susannah and her father were beside the grave but still on the opposite side of it from the others. The grave diggers were already close to Domino and Nicky. Domino was staring out at the night, shotgun held pointed at the ground, but ready. Nicky was still trying to get the last two people with us around the grave so we'd all be on the same side of it.

I heard Eddie say, "Fire scares everything; bullets don't." Translation: He trusted their flamethrowers more than the guns.

Susannah said, "Dad, just do what they say."

I saw movement, but it was more an impression, and then something was leaping out of the darkness onto Eddie. I had a moment to see silver-gray skin, a humanoid face, and then I'd brought the shotgun up and knew that Nicky and Domino were doing the same.

Manny yelled, "Don't shoot!"

Domino yelled, "Anita!" I knew he was asking for orders. I had a heartbeat to decide whether we were shooting the ghoul, or I was using magic. It was one of those moments when being the cop, the psychic, and the person in charge crashed headlong into each other. I hesitated and knew that was the biggest mistake of all.

"MAGIC, ANITA," MANNY said.

Susannah was yelling, "Shoot it!"

Eddie was on the ground covering the back of his neck and head; he'd made his decision that he'd give the ghoul an arm to chew first. It was the right decision; I wasn't sure about mine.

"Give the word," Nicky said. I didn't have to look to know he was aiming at the ghoul's head just like I was from my angle.

The ghoul had flattened itself to Eddie's back, the darker gray of its skin looking less silver than usual against the shininess of his fire suit. It was mostly nude with only remnants of pants clinging to it like some comic book hero that had to get by the censors. Muscles corded in the back of its body as it pressed itself against Eddie and the tank of fuel on his back.

"Domino, stand down, no shotguns." I lowered mine to show I meant it.

The ghoul hissed at us, flashing red eyes that seemed to glow in the dark. It made a high chittering sound and was answered from farther back in the trees.

"There's more of them," Zerbrowski said.

"Ghouls always run in packs," I said.

"Nicky, do you see the problem?"

"Fuel," he said, voice tight and controlled.

"What does he mean?" Zerbrowski asked.

"He doesn't have a shot without risking hitting the fuel on Eddie's back." If we'd had a clean shot, would I have tried Manny's suggestion? Probably not, but we didn't have a shot and this ghoul wasn't acting normal.

"They're cowards, they don't attack like this," I said, more to myself than anyone else.

"It hasn't attacked," Manny said.

"What do you call it then?" Zerbrowski asked. He still had his gun out, just pointed two-handed at the ground.

The ghoul hissed again, kneading long curved talons against Eddie's back. I knew there'd be matching talons on the bare feet. They might look like gray-colored people, but they had teeth and claws like your worst predator nightmare. It chittered again, and the others answered it from the woods. I caught pale glimpses of other figures, but they were staying back out of range. The only other time I'd seen ghouls this active and thinking, a murderous necromancer had been controlling them. It was the only time I'd ever known anyone to be able to control ghouls. They were the wild cards of the undead; no one knew why they rose from their graves, but they were scavengers, cowards, skulkers in the dark eating buried corpses and bones of the long dead if they couldn't get fresh.

"Eddie was right, they are afraid of fire," Manny said.

"Ghouls don't strategize, Manny."

"If we can't shoot it, try magic," he said.

"Do something fast," Domino said. "They're trying to surround us."

"If you see anyone in the woods that isn't ghoul, or us, shoot them."

"Because the last time I saw ghouls act like this, another necromancer was controlling them."

"Shoot the wizard first," Nicky said.

I'd never tried to use my necromancy on ghouls. One, they were rare; two, they usually minded their own business and hid from people. You were only called in when they tunneled from an older cemetery into a new one where people got upset about their loved ones' bodies being eaten by them, or when a drunk passed out and got eaten by them, just like we'd told Zerbrowski earlier.

I didn't so much lower my shields as just let my necromancy go. It was like opening a fist that you've kept tightly closed; suddenly you can spread your fingers and let the tension go. My necromancy flowed out from me like a seeking wind. Once it hadn't been a real wind; that was just the closest analogy I'd had for it when I searched a cemetery for hot spots, ghosts, ghouls, and such, but it wasn't a metaphorical wind anymore, and hadn't been for years.

Manny shivered next to me. He said something in Spanish too fast for me to catch it all, but he called on God in there somewhere. I wasn't sure if he was asking for help, or afraid of what he was feeling; maybe I didn't want to know.

That seeking wind touched the grave and the zombie first. It curled around him, knew him, so that Warrington said, "God"; again I wasn't sure if it was a cry for help or I'd become his god. Again, I didn't want to know. My magic swirled out just a little farther and found the ghoul sitting on top of Eddie. It stopped snarling and looked at me. Ghouls' eyes were usually like looking into the eyes of wolves or other wild animals--no one home that we could understand or talk to--but there was more there in this look; not a lot more, but it wasn't just animal looking back at me. I knew then that it hadn't been accidental, him jumping on Eddie and compromising the fuel tank. That was a fuckton of reasoning for a ghoul.