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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:59

We were in the Arapaho National Forest. The air smelled like pine, with the ghostly paleness of aspens scattered throughout the darkness of the evergreens. The air hadn't felt that thin down in Boulder, but up here it did. It made me wonder how those of us who had just stepped off a plane from St Louis, which was four hundred fifty feet above sea level, would do above eight thousand feet if we had to run, or fight.

We'd planned on Nathaniel changing shape and just going after the missing men, but I'd forgotten that these were officers who had never worked with shapeshifters before, and they had the western state attitude that allowed varmint laws to still include people like my lovers and friends in the same list as any nuisance animal. Which meant instead of looking for the lost men, we were reassuring the locals that Nathaniel wouldn't eat them the moment he shapeshifted.

'Everyone knows that werewolves have to eat fresh-killed meat as soon as they shapeshift. None of us want to be that fresh kill.' This from Ranger Becker, who was as tall as Nicky and Ares; with her pale brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and the bulky jacket hiding her figure, she'd looked just like the other three forest rangers until I heard her voice.

'It's an old wives' tale that all shapeshifters need fresh meat after they shift,' I said.

'Was that "old wives" comment aimed at me?' she asked, her voice belligerent.

'You can make all the girl comments to me you want, but I'm not the one standing on the mountain in the woods in hose and high heels.'

'I've got jeans and boots in the back of the car with my execution gear.'

'And why did you bring your execution gear if you were just here for emotional support for Sheriff Callahan's son?'

'Legally, I have to keep my kit reachable even when I travel for personal business.' I turned to Al, who was standing beside me. 'I thought you cleared this before we came up here.'

'Then these guys didn't get the memo,' I said.

'Look,' Al said, 'do you really think if I didn't trust Mr Graison to shapeshift and help us that I would have brought him up here? He's our best chance at finding the Crawfords tonight, and I don't know about you, but I want to know what could have taken out Henry and Little Henry.'

'Ask Mr Graison,' one of the uniforms called out.

'Who said that?' I called out.

There was a shifting among the men in the dark clearing, and then one of them stepped forward. He was tall, maybe six-five, or even six-six. 'I said it,' and there was that arrogance in his voice that some really big men have, because they've spent their life being the biggest dog everywhere they go.

'What's your name?' I asked.

'Okay, Travers, do you really think that my men had anything to do with this?'

He mumbled something.

'I'm sorry, when you're making unfounded accusations you're loud enough. If you're going to admit you're wrong, that should be loud, too.' Yeah, I'd about had it with the attitude.

I didn't have to see his face clearly to know he was glaring at me. He stood up very tall and gave me the look that went with the deep, unhappy voice. 'I said, I guess not.'

'Since we have two men lost, maybe hurt, or worse, maybe you should stop wasting time saying shit you don't mean.'

Nathaniel touched my back, lightly, reassuring and probably trying to help me calm down. I didn't always like to be touched when I was starting to get angry, and I had to fight the urge to step away from his hand. When I realized I was thinking about stepping away from Nathaniel's touch for any reason, I knew I had to calm down. For so many reasons I couldn't afford to lose my temper.

'Little Henry and I go back a long way. I want to find him and his dad,' Travers said.

'Then help us find them,' I said, and my voice was calmer now, less likely to up the ante on the attitude.

Sergeant Michael Horton, one of the state troopers we'd met at the hospital, stepped out of the group and said, 'If you'd brought Mike Callahan, then he'd be Sheriff Callahan's son and the head of the Coalition. We've all seen him on TV and know that he has control of ... the animal inside him, but Mr Graison here is an unknown. I trust your reputation, so if you trust him for this, I'll just go with it, but some of the other men here need a little more reassurance before he changes into something big and carnivorous. He's not one of us. He's not even ex-military like Mr Ares.' Apparently, Horton had assumed that I'd introduced the guards by last names. 'Mr Nicky's haircut isn't regulation, but he's a guy-guy.'

'Are you objecting to Nathaniel on grounds that he's not masculine enough or because of his sexual orientation?' I asked, and didn't try to keep the incredulity out of my voice.

'No, that is not what I meant,' Horton said, big hands spread wide in front of him as if trying to ward off the sensitivity lecture that someone would make him take if he didn't backpedal pretty damn fast.

'Horton,' Al said, stepping up again, 'just stop trying to explain that comment, okay? If you stop now, maybe we can all pretend you didn't say it.'

Travers said, 'Horton may have said it wrong, but why should we trust Graison? He's a shapeshifter, he's not a cop, he's never been military; how do we trust that he has any control over the animal inside him?'

'Tell them what his day job is,' Nicky suggested.

Ares spoke low. 'You say his job and he'll lose all credibility with these guys.'

'You got a better suggestion?' Nicky asked.

Ares seemed to think for a minute and then shook his head. 'No, sorry.'

'I just need them to let me change and start tracking,' Nathaniel said. 'They don't have to like me or respect me as a person.'

Ares frowned and there was enough light from various flashlights and car lights that I could see it. 'Stripping is what chicks do, not men.'

Ares looked embarrassed for just a second, and then he grinned back. 'Hey, you knew I was a misogynistic pain in the ass months ago.'

'Misogynistic,' Nicky said. 'I didn't know you knew any five-syllable words.'

Ares flashed him his middle finger, using his hip to hide it from the other men. Nicky gave that deep, appreciative guy chuckle.

I raised my voice to the assembled men and said, 'Nathaniel's control is as close to perfect as I've seen.' In my head I added, Except for Micah's. 'He dances on stage and shapeshifts within a few feet, down to a few inches, of the audience. If he couldn't control his beast just after the change, he'd need a different day job.'

Travers said, 'Dances on stage? What does that mean?'

Someone near the shadowy back of the crowd called out, 'He's a stripper.'

The woman, Becker, said, 'Oh, my God, he works at Guilty Pleasures.'

'How do you know that, Becker?' one of the other rangers asked.

She looked embarrassed even in the dark.

There were more calls of, 'How do you know, Becker? Did you take a road trip? ... You seen him without his clothes?'

I raised my voice to be heard over it all. 'Yeah, he dances at Guilty Pleasures.'

'Why doesn't he speak for himself?' one of the Boulder officers asked.

Another officer said, 'I heard some wereanimals lose the ability to talk like a person.'

'If that were true, then Anita would have to do all the talking for everybody,' Nicky said.

Ares sighed. 'Great, now they all hate us.'

'It's what we are,' Nicky said. 'I'm not ashamed of it, are you?'

Ares gave him a very serious glare. 'No.'

'Then stop complaining.'

The two tall men looked at each other, and I was reminded that they didn't partner each other much. In fact, I couldn't remember ever having the two of them as a team. Nicky had broken Ares' arm once in a fight. Ares hadn't held a grudge, because Asher had used his ability to control hyenas to force the guard to attack Nicky. It had been one of the things that led Jean-Claude to exiling Asher.

Nathaniel said, 'I hadn't heard the rumor that we lose the ability to talk. It's not true.' He stepped a little ahead of me, with a glance to make sure I was okay with it; I was. 'If I were going to shift to leopard form and eat somebody, it wouldn't be any of you guys. I see beautiful, hot women every night at work. They're worth eating. You guys are so not my type.' They laughed; some of it was a little nervous, but they laughed.

Someone in the back called out, 'Should we be insulted?'

Nathaniel flashed that brilliant smile, the one he used to charm the men who brought their women to the club. 'Yes.' More laughter, and this time it was that deep, rumbling male laughter. 'I could never do your job, but I can trail the Crawfords for you. Anita will put me on a leash just like the dog that was up here.'

'Why put you on a leash if you aren't dangerous?' Travers asked.

'Because I'm going to look like a big-ass black leopard and I don't want to get shot by some hunter. With a beautiful woman leading me around on a leash, they won't shoot me. They may think they're hallucinating, but they're less likely to shoot me by accident.'

They couldn't argue with him, and they stopped trying after a little while. Nathaniel charmed them, kept making them laugh, and we got our way.

'Since when did you get to be this charming?' Ares asked.

'I've always been charming,' Nathaniel said, 'but I've learned how to talk to guy-guys thanks to hanging around with all the guards.'

Ares nodded and sort of shrugged. 'Wow, not just a pretty face after all.'

Nathaniel smiled. 'If I tease you for noticing I'm pretty, it might give the other tough guys the wrong idea, so I'll just strip instead.'

Ares rolled his eyes and turned his back, acting as a barrier to help block everyone else's view. Nicky did the same on the other side. I stopped Nathaniel with his jacket off and the shirt halfway unbuttoned. He looked at me.

'Let me change into my other work clothes, before you strip down.'

'Because if you're naked at the same time that I'm out of that much of my clothes I may get distracted.'

His smile broadened, and he wrapped his arms around me, drawing me in against his body. We were mostly hidden by the car and Nicky and Ares, but ... 'Not a good idea to get all romantic on the job, honey.'

'I know, but I love that you can admit how much my body moves you now. You fought so long to not want me.'

I shook my head. 'I wanted you; I just wouldn't let myself admit it out loud even in my own head.'

'Then kiss me now, before we get nude, and maybe you'll be able to resist my charms.'

I laughed, and then he kissed me, and there was no more laughing. I changed clothes and once I was securely in jeans, combat/hiking boots and T-shirt, it was time for me to put on my whole kit.

I started with the vest, specially made to hold the curves that men didn't have. I put on the two wrist sheaths complete with silver edged-blades, but honestly once I put my jacket on they'd be hard to reach. They were for emergency use and had saved my life more than once, but tonight was all about the guns. The Browning BDM moved to a thigh holster, the Sig Sauer P238 .380 went in a MOLLE-rigged holster on the front of the vest for a cross draw if I needed it. In a tactical sling I had my AR-15 M4-styled carbine, which had replaced my MP5, which had replaced the mini-UZI before it. The AR was chambered in 6.8 SPC for literally more bang for my buck. It was also frangible, which meant it shattered once it entered a target, so if I shot bad guy A, the round wouldn't go through him and into good guy B. Frangible did mean that if you missed the bad guy and accidentally shot the good guy first, they were going to have a very bad night, but I didn't plan on missing. Normally when I wore the Browning in its shoulder rig, I had a knife sheath attached to the back of it so that the hilt was hidden under my hair. The blade was almost as long as my forearm, but tonight I had something else at my back. It was called a sock, or a sleeve, but it attached to MOLLE straps on the back of my vest and held my Mossberg 500 Bantam. The shotgun was originally designed with the idea that it would fit a tween-age boy's arms and hands better, and it probably did, but it was great for us shorter women, too. I carried the sleeve angled diagonally across my back for a right-hand cross draw over my shoulder. I'd tried it riding straight up my back, but having something tall at the back of my head had just bugged me, so I'd changed it. If I'd been in an urban setting with buildings, I could have had the shotgun and the AR on tactical straps and just pushed one behind me while I carried the other, as needed, but with trees and other vegetation there was too much of a chance of the guns catching on something if they were hanging semi-loose. I needed to be able to run without worrying about getting caught on the trees, and with the butt of the Mossberg just a little above my shoulder it was out of the way until I needed it. My cross was tucked inside my shirt for much the same reason, so the chain couldn't get caught and broken as we moved through the forest. I'd probably feel if my cross got knocked off, but I might not find it if it fell to the leaf-covered floor in the dark. We were hunting preternatural creatures tonight - if they were zombies, the cross wouldn't do a damn bit of good, but if they weren't zombies ... holy objects were good things to have. Extra shotgun shells were strapped to the stock, and in a pouch on the vest, more shells, extra rifle magazines, and a small flashlight. My off-hand thigh had extra magazine pouches for the pistols. My phone went into a pocket on the pants that I could fasten down. I put a heavier leather jacket over all of it, because it was colder here in the mountains. Someone had said we were over nine-thousand-feet elevation. Yeah, that'd be colder.

Ares and Nicky put on their vests and dangerous toys, too. Once we were dressed and armed to the teeth, it was Nathaniel's turn to take off his clothes, all of them. When he was gorgeously naked, standing in the chill mountain air as if it weren't cold at all, I just stared.

Al called from the front of the SUV, 'Blake, don't get distracted back there, okay?'

I said, 'When I don't get distracted by Nathaniel nude, I'll be dead.'

Nathaniel smiled at me and then said, 'Unless you want your clothes ruined you'll have to step back.'

It took me a moment to realize what he meant, which said just how distracted I was. I nodded and stepped back far enough to be out of the splash zone. With new wereanimals there was blood and clear fluid with the form change. With practice the blood stopped and the clear liquid was less, but there was always some, as if the clear fluid helped grease the works as the man became beast or the beast became man. Though it was almost always less messy to go from animal back to human than the other way around. I'd asked all my wereanimal friends why that was, and they didn't know either. It just was.

Nicky and Ares moved out from the car, too, so they'd be outside the splash zone. Nicky stayed turned outward, watching the dark, but Ares turned around. I might have asked why, but Nathaniel chose that moment to release his beast.

It was a wash of energy so strong it hit me like heat, as if I'd opened the door to an oven I didn't know was there. I'd never felt his beast like this, a wash of heat, energy, power that swept over me, through me, and I felt the beast inside me that matched his rise and snarl white fangs in the coal-black of its fur. My leopard's eyes were a dark gold, like antique coins filled with life and heat. I tried to ground the energy the way I'd been taught, sending it into the pine-covered ground underneath my boots, but my leopard didn't want that rush of energy shoved into the ground to help make the trees grow better. My leopard wanted to come out and play with that heat. I couldn't change shape, but that didn't mean my beasts didn't want me to.

I was breathing hard as if I'd been running, my heart thudding in my throat, pulse pounding in my ears. I was suddenly very aware that I might never have been at this high an altitude. I felt a little light-headed, and then I heard the purr, impossibly loud, as if it thrummed along the air spilling against my skin, sinking into my body until that deep, vibrating purr played along my spine and provoked a higher-pitched echo from between my human lips. I was staring down at a black leopard the size of a large pony, three, maybe four times larger than a natural leopard. He sat there, shaking his fur, kneading the flash of white claws into the ground as if trying to ground himself into the new form. The blackness of him was almost lost to the shadows behind the truck; if he'd been still enough you might have looked right past him. He raised the graceful, rounded head upward and looked up at me with eyes that were blue and gray, an unusual color in leopards, so I'd learned. It was as if his human eyes had bled over into his beast so the eyes had begun to come closer to the lavender of his human eyes rather than have the animal eyes travel to his human face. He moved toward me and I got a gleam of muscled fur in the moonlight. He purred again, and my knees buckled. Ares had to catch me or I'd have fallen. 'What's wrong?' he asked.

Nicky turned around and asked, 'What happened?'

'Not sure.' My voice sounded breathless. My leopard was snarling at me, it just happened to be inside me while it was doing it. It felt as if my body vibrated with the sound that couldn't really be a sound. I purred sometimes, an involuntary happy sound, but I did not snarl, and yet ...

'She's fever-hot with her beast,' Ares said.

'She shouldn't be,' Nicky said.

'I know that,' Ares said, his voice lowering.

It wasn't until Al peeked around Ares' shoulder that I realized why he'd been whispering. 'What's wrong?' Al said, echoing Ares' question. Al gave wide eyes and was a little pale when he got a good look at Nathaniel in full cat form.

'We're not sure what's wrong,' Nicky said, his voice calm, empty even.

Nathaniel padded forward, giving me worried leopard eyes. He couldn't talk in this form, but we'd counted on me being able to feel, or hear, what was going on inside him, right? The moment his furred cheek rubbed against my hand, my knees gave completely. Ares was holding all my weight. What the fuck was going on? I'd never had a reaction like this to Nathaniel's leopard form or anyone's animal form.

Ares tightened his arms around my waist and stood up. He was strong enough to give the illusion that I was standing, but my feet were taking no weight. Nathaniel sat back on his haunches, looking perplexed at me. I wasn't sure how I could tell he was perplexed; the full leopard form's face didn't move or express the way that even his half-man form did, but somehow I was reading his expressions better than I'd ever been able to do.

Nicky smiled at Al. 'Can you give us a minute, Al, thanks.' As soon as Al was out of sight, the smile vanished as if it had never been. Nicky was a sociopath; it made him the ultimate actor. He whispered, 'Where are you in your cycle?'

I fought to focus on him, my arms wrapped around Ares, trying to hold on as if the werehyena needed my help to hold me effortlessly. 'Cycle, what cycle?' I asked.

'Girl cycle, menstrual cycle?'

'I'm not having that,' I said.

'I know that; what I mean is if you were doing rhythm method, would you be fertile right now?'

I frowned at him. 'What? I'm on the pill, you know that.'

He started to touch my face, then stopped short and rubbed his hand against his pants as if trying to scrape off something he'd touched. 'God, the energy is so thick. How can you stand to touch her like that?'

'She doesn't carry hyena as one of her beasts, remember?'

'What is happening to me?' I asked.

'Have you ever been this close to Nathaniel in full leopard form when you were at your most fertile?'

I was regaining some use of my body, and I used it to tighten my arms around Ares' waist, so that I was finally helping him hold me up. 'I don't know, I don't keep track of my fertility. I'm on the pill, and I use condoms with most of my lovers, so it doesn't matter.'

'In all the time I've been with you, I've never seen Nathaniel or Micah in anything but leopardman form. Have you ever been around them in full cat form before?' Nicky asked.

I tried to think about it. I wanted to say, Of course I've been near them in full leopard form, but the longer I thought about it the more I couldn't remember. Nathaniel had gained the ability to be in leopardman form after he'd become my leopard to call. He was proud of having three forms instead of just two. Had I ever seen him like this before? No. Had Micah ever done the full kitty-cat on me? No. Chimera had forced him into his leopard form so long that he'd lost his human eye color. He'd told us both that he hadn't enjoyed being in full leopard form since that time.

'No, I haven't,' I said.

'None of you change to full animal form around her,' Ares said. His arms were secure around my waist, but he wasn't holding as tight, and my legs were working again.

'Because in full animal form she won't have sex with us, can't have sex with most of us.'

'It does cross that bestiality taboo thing,' Ares said.

'That's not it,' Nicky said. 'In full cat form the wereleopards are set up to fuck a leopardess in full cat form.'

'That means more than it sounds, doesn't it?' I said.

'I thought you had the biology degree,' he said.

Nathaniel made a low, disgruntled sound. We glanced back at him, and then back at Nicky. 'Just tell me what you've figured out,' I said.

'If a female is at her most fertile, sometimes changing to full cat form can make her react more than half-form. Theory is that we give off more of the right pheromones in full cat form.'

Ares started to let me go, and I swayed. He went back to holding me, and I went back to holding on. 'I can't do my job like this.'

'Your human mind will think its way out; just give it a few minutes,' Nicky said.

'How do you know all this?' Ares asked.

'Lions are more social than the other big cats. Anita, if you're reacting this strongly to his full leopard form, I'd be careful later back at the hotel; don't be tempted with sex.'

The leopard growled low and deep.

Nicky looked at Nathaniel and said, 'Penis spines.'

I'd never seen a cat look so dismayed, but he did. I had a minute to think it through. 'Crap, in full leopard form he'll have penis spines like most cats.'

Nicky nodded. 'If you're reacting this strongly to him now, I would be careful being alone in the hotel with him. Pheromones can be like being drunk. I know you like it rough, but I'm not sure how rough it would be in this form with you in human form.'

'I wasn't going to,' I said.

'The human part of you wasn't, but the leopard inside you likes the idea a lot, or you wouldn't have reacted.'

I couldn't argue, though I really wanted to. 'Okay, no sex with anyone in full animal form, I got it.'

Nicky looked down, avoiding eye contact.

'Lions don't have full spines like the other cats.' He looked up and he smiled, but his single eye gleamed. His eye had shifted to the rich yellow of his lion form. Something had stirred his own beast. He looked at me with his lion looking out of his eye at me and said, 'Male lions are more ribbed for her pleasure than spiked.'

I looked at that golden-yellow eye set in that handsome face and realized that the idea excited at least part of him, maybe all of him. I didn't know what to say to the eagerness I saw in his face, so I said nothing. We all stood there while the question was raised, and we all ignored it as hard as we could. In a few minutes I could stand on my own.

I fastened the heavy leather collar around the muscled velvet of Nathaniel's neck. It had a flat silver plate attached to the front of the collar. There was a word carved into the metal in swirling letters.

Ares said, 'Pussycat? Does that actually say Pussycat?'

'Yes,' I said, as I attached the heavy leather leash to the collar. It was my turn not to make eye contact.

'Pussycat?' he said, again.

'It's her nickname for him,' Nicky said.

'And Asher's for him, too,' I said.

'Asher mind-raped me like I was nothing and made me try to hurt you guys.' He shuddered. 'I've never had anyone roll me like that.'

'There aren't a lot of vampires that can call hyena.'

'Good,' he said. Then he looked down at the shiny silver plate and grinned. 'Pussycat. The cops are going to love it.'

I frowned at him. 'It was supposed to be private; at best he'd wear it at a fetish event. It wasn't supposed to be used around the police - ever.' Nathaniel rubbed his cheek against my thigh, and I petted the thick fur. I pushed my fingers through the thickness and found his skin underneath fever-hot to touch. Most animals run hotter than human-normal 98.6-100 degrees or higher usually. I hadn't touched that many wereanimals in full animal form. Were they all this much hotter?

I sent Nicky to bring Al around so we could finally get started hunting for Henry and Little Henry Crawford.

Ares stayed beside me, grinning ear to ear.

'What is so damned funny?'

'Does everyone have a cute nickname?'

'Aw,' he said, 'come on. Micah must have one, or maybe Sin?'

'Drop this topic,' I said.

Nicky came back with the police and it was time to introduce them to the big black pussycat at the end of my leash. I knew we'd won the day when some of them petted him, as if he were a big dog. But there were still more of them who wouldn't approach too close, let alone touch the huge leopard. Al had a jacket and a used rag from the Crawfords' truck so that Nathaniel could know what scent he was trying to follow. I saw Ranger Becker mouth the word Pussycat silently to herself as she read his collar. Her eyes flashed up to me, and she smiled, eyes shining so hard with suppressed humor that it showed in the odd light.

It was Travers who said, out loud, 'Pussycat?'

I rolled my eyes at him, and Nathaniel scented the wind and went very purposefully toward the trees. 'He's got the scent.' Nathaniel pulled against the leash hard enough that I started jogging to keep up. He moved faster, and so did I. He gave a small, eager noise, and we started running.