Page 24

Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:58

Nathaniel's suitcase was in the back of the SUV, and so was my extra armament. The guards had kept my extra gear where I could get hold of it on purpose; that Nathaniel's stuff was with us, too, was a happy accident, but it meant we didn't have to go to the hotel for anything. I realized I hadn't even seen the hotel yet. There was a chance I wouldn't see it before dawn, but if we found the two missing Crawford men it would be worth losing sleep.

We followed Al's marked police car, though really it was an SUV, which made more sense for the area. Ares drove our SUV, Nicky rode shotgun, and Nathaniel and I had the backseat to ourselves. I was holding his hand, so warm and real in the dimness of the car as we drove away from the city and farther into the mountains. I wasn't worried about the two men in the front seat. I loved Nicky, but he could take care of himself. Ares was a good guy, but again, he could take care of himself. I'd insisted that Nathaniel go to the range with me until he shot well with almost any gun I could give him. After the bomber in the club, Nicky and I had insisted that Nathaniel learn self-defense. If the bomber had been as well trained as the rest of us we might not have won, but lucky for us he'd been an amateur. If he hadn't been, the man sitting beside me would have died.

I let the hard lump in my gut make me scared. I was taking him into the mountains, the forest, and trusting to his beast, his leopard, to keep him safe. It seemed like a bad plan suddenly. He meant more to me than two strangers. Funny, risking me was one thing, risking him was another. Even though because he was my leopard to call, when I was injured I drained his life to heal mine. For most 'vampires' if you killed their human servant they usually died with them, and vice versa, but animals to call were rarer even among the master vampires. The death of your animal to call could kill you, too, or just weaken you enough to make you easier prey for the hunters. So technically I endangered Nathaniel every time I endangered myself, but that was more abstract than him sitting here in the dark beside me. This felt way more real.

'You don't have to do this,' I said, my voice low not because I didn't think the men in the front seat would hear me but because something about a car at night always made me feel quieter.

He turned to me in the dimness of the car. I couldn't see his face clearly; more the outline of it, and some points, but most of him was lost to shadow. You always forget how dark it is without electric lights, but now he was just inches away and his face was almost blacked out. There was nothing but trees on either side of the road, with almost no lights of any kind but the headlights that plowed ahead into the darkness.

'I want to help,' he said.

'It's not your job,' I said.

'Anita, in leopard form I'm better than in human form.'

'Fighting, surviving.'

It was Nicky who answered from the front seat, turning so his yellow hair was a ghost-pale fall covering the shadow of his face. 'The beast lets us react more selfishly. We don't think of the better good or shit like that; we react, we survive. In leopard form Nathaniel will take care of himself more.'

'Really?' I asked, and I was caressing his hand with my fingers as I held it, as if just holding hands weren't enough.

'Yes,' Nicky said. 'It's one of the reasons we're so dangerous in beast form. We don't reason as well. It makes us more dangerous.'

'Half-man form helps you think better,' I said.

'But I'll need to be in full leopard form for this,' Nathaniel said.

'Your sense of smell is better,' I said.

'I understand,' I said.

'You think because Nathaniel can strip on stage and change into his leopard form but not attack the crowd that somehow it's still him in there, but it's his beast with a layer of him in it.'

'So his human form has a layer of beast in it?' I asked.

'Because you carry all beasts inside you, but you don't shift, it makes you miss some things about the rest of us,' Nicky said.

'That we are our beasts, and our beasts are us.'

'I don't think I understand.'

'I'm still me in leopard form,' Nathaniel said, 'but I'm also still my leopard in this form.'

I frowned. 'Micah doesn't talk about his beast like that. Neither does Richard.'

'Don't even compare us to St Louis's local wolf king,' Nicky said. 'He's too conflicted to truly integrate his two halves.'

'What about Micah?' I asked.

'He fights hard to be civilized, human,' Nicky said.

Ares added, 'Micah is still dealing with the trauma of surviving the attack. Those of us who come over involuntarily have more issues.'

'Yeah, I hated being a werehyena. I mean, if I had to be attacked by an enemy shapeshifter, why couldn't it be something with a cooler reputation, like a lion or a leopard. Big cats and wolves, now that's sexy.' He laughed, but not like he was actually pleased, more self-deprecating, which I'd never heard from him.

'Are you saying you'd have hated it less if you'd been a different animal?' I asked.

'Yeah, at first, yeah.'

He glanced in the rearview mirror. I got a flash of his eyes as a car passed us on the narrow road. Human eyes didn't reflect like that, which let me know that even in human form his superior night vision was part of his beast.

'I'm a hyena. It's a rougher, more violent world than any other shapeshifter society. We earn our stripes, no pun intended for my stripey brethren. No one, not even the lions, demands the level of toughness that hyena society does. There are many clans of us, but the few that do exist in this country rule whatever city they're in if they go old-school.'

'What do you mean, old-school?' I asked.

'Back before shapeshifters were mainstreamed into human society we handled things less civilized, more naturally.'

'What does that mean?'

'It means the different animal groups would have wars,' Nicky said.

'I thought most animal groups left one another alone outside St Louis and the Coalition.'

'Wereanimals were made legal before vampires were,' he said, 'so you missed the old days when we were able to go into a city and just destroy everything in our path. As long as there weren't any bodies for the cops to find, people just disappeared and my pride and I got paid, and we moved on. Other animal groups hired us to take out their rivals, and we did it without mercy.'

'Wereanimals have been legally humans with a disease for ten years, longer in some states. You can't be that much older than me.'

Nicky leaned into his seat in the dark, his face lost in shadow, only his hair gleaming to show me where to look. 'Lycanthropes age slower than humans, Anita; you know that.'

'Thirty-one,' he said.

'So only a year older than me.'

'Yes,' he said, his voice low and strangely intimate in the darkness.

'You don't look older than twenty-five,' I said.

'You look early twenties, too,' he said.

'Good genetics,' I said.

'Are you sure it's just good genetics?'

I looked at his shadowed face as we drove farther into the night-black mountains. 'What's that supposed to mean?'

'I've made you uncomfortable. I can feel you're unhappy and I have to stop. I'm your Bride, which means I'm all about you being happy.'

'I'm not her Bride, or her animal to call; hell, she doesn't even have the ability to call hyenas, so I'll say it,' Ares said.

Nathaniel started petting my hand, soothing me.

'You try to ignore Damian, Anita, but he is your vampire to call. He's your vampire servant, and you did fourth-mark with him and Nathaniel.'

'By accident,' I said, and even to me it sounded defensive.

'Doesn't matter how, just matters it happened. I know that Jean-Claude has been waiting to see if Damian starts to age, or if you stop aging, before he brings up sharing the fourth mark with you and Richard.'

'Traditionally, you can't have more than one fourth mark from more than one vampire. You're the human servant of just one vampire,' I said.

'Traditionally, but you're human, not a vampire, and you have a vampire servant, not a human one. There's nothing traditional about you, Anita.'

'What's your point?' I asked.

'You're the first true necromancer in over a thousand years. The rules don't apply to you, Anita.'

'So?' And I sounded sullen. I fought wanting to hunch in the seat. I wanted to take my hand back from Nathaniel and just sulk. I fought the urge off, but just wanting to do it meant this was hitting an old, old issue for me. I wasn't sure which issue it was hitting, but the fact that I wanted to stop touching Nathaniel meant it was something that pre-dated me letting myself love him and all the people in my life.

I forced myself to sit up very straight and keep touching Nathaniel, but his hand had gone very still in mine. I made myself take a nice, even breath and let it out slow. 'Do you have a point, Ares?'

'Jean-Claude's triumvirate with you as human servant and Richard Zeeman as his wolf to call is crippled because Richard won't man up and be the Ulfric we all need him to be.'

'He's doing better,' I said.

'As Ulfric, our wolf king, yes, but as the other third to Jean-Claude's triumvirate he blows. He uses you and Jean-Claude as a booty call and he misses dominating Asher. He can say he doesn't, but it met a need for him to torment Asher. I think Richard misses the bondage games with Asher as much as Nathaniel and you do. He just won't ever admit it.'

'I'm still waiting for your point; so far you're just telling me shit I already know.'

'You have a triumvirate of power with Nathaniel as your leopard to call and Damian as your vampire servant.'

'Again, shit I already know,' I said.

'Do you?' Ares demanded. 'Because the whole time I've worked for you guys I wouldn't know it. You almost never interact with Damian.'

'He's monogamous with Cardinal, and I'm respecting that.'

'I don't mean just sex and feeding the ardeur with him, Anita. I mean using him to really make a triumvirate of power, the kind that Jean-Claude wanted to forge.'

'I don't know what you mean.'

He glanced in the rearview mirror again, but this time there was no car to reflect in his eyes, so there was just a shadowed outline of him. 'Nathaniel, is she lying to me or to herself?'

'I would say leave me out of this, but ...' He sighed, heavily.

I looked at him. 'What's wrong?'

'I feel how drawn you are to all your animals to call and to Jean-Claude. I know how tight we are wound metaphysically, but Damian is always left out. I feel the lack of him, Anita. I can't describe it any other way, but sometimes when you raise power it's like there's a link to him, but it's less. It's ...' He looked out the window as if searching for inspiration.

'It's what?' I asked.

He turned back to me, and even in the dark I could feel the weight of his stare. 'It's broken. I don't know how, or what, but it's damaged, and that break keeps the three of us from being everything we could be as a power.'

'It's not just me,' I said. I pulled on my hand, but he held on, and I wasn't upset enough to force the issue. 'Damian doesn't want to be bound closer to you and me. He's afraid of being consumed by the ardeur, and he's damn near homophobic.'

Nicky gave a harsh laugh. 'Homophobic, really? That's too funny.'

'Why is it funny?' I asked.

'Because if you're not at least comfortable sharing Anita with another man and sleeping in the bed afterward in a big kitty pile, then you are out of fucking luck.'

'London doesn't like other men, or an audience,' Nathaniel said.

'Is that why he's been sent visiting other vampire territories?' Ares asked.

'Part of it,' I said. What neither Nathaniel nor I shared with our two newcomers was that London was addicted to both the ardeur and gained power from every feeding. Belle Morte, Beautiful Death, the maker of Jean-Claude's sourdre de sang, had addicted London, not me. He had freed himself from her hold and gone cold turkey, running away to England until he'd come to us, and the old addiction had risen again. He was the perfect food for me, but he was already a few centuries older than Jean-Claude and a master vampire. The fact that London had gained power levels from being my food meant that he'd rapidly approached Jean-Claude's own power level, so I'd had to back off. We had sent him to four different territories out of state hoping he'd find a good fit and become someone else's second-in-command. He was powerful enough to be a master of his own territory, but he wasn't good enough at the modern politics needed now. He was still at his last trial run. I couldn't even remember what state he was in this time.

'Damian doesn't want to join with us as deeply as he could, for a lot of the same reasons that Richard fights,' I said.

'I think that if you would take the lead, Damian would be more comfortable sharing a bed with the two of us with you in the middle. He's not as strong as Richard. I don't think he could fight free of us, the way the Ulfric can.'

'You're basically asking me to mind-fuck Damian and forge a stronger triumvirate between him and us, even if it's a kind of metaphysical rape.'

'Put that way, it sounds wrong.'

'It doesn't just sound wrong,' I said.

'You didn't have any trouble doing it to me,' Nicky said.

'You and your pride of lions had kidnapped me and had snipers ready to kill Nathaniel, Micah, and Jason. I was out of options when I made you my Bride.'

'If it's any consolation, I've never been happier,' he said.

It was some comfort, but out loud I said, 'For someone who's supposed to want my happiness and comfort above all else, you say some of the most uncomfortable things.'

He shrugged as much as the muscles would allow and said, 'Sometimes what you need to hear isn't comfortable.'

'Are you saying that you tell me things I need to hear?'

'Which make me uncomfortable, and it makes you anxious if I'm uncomfortable?'

I frowned at him and didn't know if his night vision was good enough for him to see it, but I had to frown. 'I'm not sure that I really understand what a Bride of Dracula is supposed to be.'

'We're whatever you need us to be,' he said.

'That you actually mean that,' Ares said, 'makes me glad Anita can't call hyena as one of her animals.'

Nicky turned and spoke directly to Ares. 'Master vampires turn normal humans into Brides of Dracula. Theoretically, it should work on you.'

Ares shivered so hard I could see it in the darkened car. 'Let's not test that theory, okay?'

The red brake lights on Al's car flared and it turned onto a narrow, unpaved road. I'd thought it was dark, but as the trees closed on either side of the car I realized I'd been wrong. This was darker, and I knew it would be even darker under the trees themselves. I'd been raised in the country going camping and hunting with my father. I knew night in the woods. I'd never been afraid of the dark in the woods as a child, only in the house at night. The monsters of my imagination had lived under the bed and in the closet, not in the woods. As a grown-up, I could think of few things I hated more than hunting rogue shapeshifters, or vampires, in the woods. I was just glad we weren't on a hunt tonight. The thickness of the night on the road where there was still some moonlight and starlight overhead let me know that under the trees was going to be thick black night.

I wasn't the only one thinking it, because Ares said, 'It's going to be damn dark under the trees.'

'You have better night vision than I do,' I said.

'Better, but in human form not that much better.'

'You can be the kitty on a leash, then,' Nicky said.

'Hyenas aren't cats.'

'More closely related to cats than dogs,' I said.

He glanced in the rearview mirror again. His face was just a darker shape this time. 'Most people think we're related to dogs.'

'Actually, more closely related to mongoose, meerkats, and civets, isn't it?'

'Yes, it is. How do you know that?'

'Biology degree, and honestly, I read up on hyenas when I realized that it was the second or third largest animal group in St Louis.'

'Better to know your enemy,' Ares said.

'Yes, but you said it yourself, Ares, I don't have metaphysical ties to the hyenas. I don't ken them the way I do lions, or leopards, or wolves, or any of the wereanimals that I can call as mine, or carry a piece of their beast inside me. The werehyenas and wererats are what taught me that a lot of my way with shapeshifters is just another flavor of vampire power. I have to study harder on the beasts I don't carry.'

'Why study? Why not ignore the groups that aren't yours?'

'That's a politician's answer,' Ares said.

'Maybe, but it's still the truth.'

I got another of those dark glances in the rearview mirror, and then Nicky said, 'I think we're here.'

Ares and I both looked ahead. Al had parked his cruiser. We were here, wherever the hell 'here' was.