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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:00

The leopard tracked, and Ares found actual tracks periodically, or branches broken, or moss disturbed. He was all very Indian scout, which was probably the scout part of scout sniper, but it was all impressive and surreal in the dark on the mountain with the big leopard padding at his side. We moved slowly, because Ares was trying to gauge how many zombies, or people, or whatever, lay ahead of us. I just wanted it over. The tension between my shoulder blades was tight and tighter. I'd suggested to Al that we call for SWAT, but we were in the middle of nowhere, and technically the small municipality had no SWAT. Unofficially they could call Boulder for help, or even the FBI hostage rescue team (HRT), but in reality we were it.

Was it Nathaniel being here like this that was making me nervous? Maybe, but I didn't like not knowing what had killed Crawford senior. If it was just humans gone crazy, then we'd be fine, but what if it was something else? The only flesh-eating zombie that I'd had to track down before had damn near killed me. But it had been like a disorganized killer, slaughtering wildly and eating more of the bodies. The bites on Crawford's body had been neat compared to that. How had they kidnapped the two men within yards of the rest? We had too many questions and no answers, but if we could save the son ... if we could get there in time to save Little Henry ...

I stumbled, and Nicky had to catch my arm or I'd have fallen.

'You okay?' he whispered.

I shook my head. 'We don't have enough information. I don't know what we're tracking.'

He kept his hand on my arm and leaned in to whisper. 'If Nathaniel weren't involved you'd be fine.'

I looked ahead of us to see Ares' blond head almost ghostlike above the dark leather of his coat. The leopard was like a thicker piece of the shadows under the trees as it moved at his side. 'It's not just Nathaniel.'

'Then what is it?' he asked. He was leaned over me, close enough to kiss, and I realized I wanted to, that it would have made me feel better. Touching any of the animals that were part of my list of beasts was like touching a great big living comfort object, but I didn't usually get this distracted in the middle of potential action. What was bothering me? Was it just Nathaniel being here? Was I so worried about him that it made a coward of me? No, the feeling between my shoulder blades was saying, It's more than that.

I stopped walking and just stared up at Nicky. 'Why leave the body on display? Why not hide it?'

'They wanted us to find it,' he said.

'Why take two men and kill one of them so quickly?'

'They may both be dead, Anita.'

'I know that, but if they wanted us to find the body, why? What did it gain them?'

'Zombies don't plan things.'

'I never said this was zombies. What did it gain them?'

'We're following them,' he said.

'Or they're leading us.'

'They couldn't plan on us having Nathaniel or Ares with us.'

'I've used shapeshifters to track killers before and it made the news.'

'You're saying it's a trap.'

'Maybe, or I'm overthinking it because of Nathaniel.'

'Don't doubt yourself; what does your gut tell you?'

'The tightness between my shoulder blades tells me they're leading us where they want us to go.'

'Then I could cost Little Henry his life.' I looked up and couldn't see Ares and Nathaniel anymore; that was unacceptable. I started to move, half-jogging through the trees, falling back into the woodcraft I'd learned as a child in the country. You let go of trying to see everything the way you did in daylight, and you sort of felt the trees, felt the ground. There was no undergrowth in these high pine forests; it was so much easier to run through them than it would have been in the eastern woods. I ran, half crouched over to avoid limbs. Nicky stayed at my side, though I wasn't sure how the bigger man was missing the lower limbs, but it didn't matter. We could live with some scrapes and bruises. I wasn't sure I could live if something happened to Nathaniel.

The tightness in my shoulders eased with the run, and that let me know that I was doing the right thing. Horton saw us running and slowed to ask, 'What's wrong?'

I didn't have time to stop and explain. I needed to see Nathaniel and Ares. I needed them in my line of sight; I'd worry about everything else later. The two of them must have started their own run to be this far ahead. Damn it!

The first scream echoed on the thin mountain air. I ran faster. Nicky pulled ahead of me; the nine inches of extra height meant I couldn't keep up. He slowed down, and I said, 'Protect Nathaniel, go!'

He was my Bride; he did what I told him to do, because he had to. I was left alone in the dark running as fast as I could toward the screams of men. The leopard's snarling scream cut through the yells from human throats. Fear tore through me in a burst of adrenaline and I ran faster.