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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:01

My vision was spotted with gray-and-white starbursts, my breath strangling in my throat; my chest was so tight I felt like I was having a heart attack, but I could feel the vampires close. I saw the dull gold of the hyena first, and then the blackness beside him moved and I knew it was Nathaniel. The vampire was in front of them, standing with her back to a huge, dark tree. They had run her down and bayed her like a pair of hounds.

I slid to my knees in the pine litter, the AR snugged to my shoulder, cheek resting against it as I fought to see through the exhaustion miasma enough to aim. The world swam in streamers. Apparently, my psychic abilities did not make me immune to altitude sickness. If I hadn't had to threaten a vampire with a gun, I would have been happy to throw up.

I felt the energy of the second vampire and tried to see where the hell it was, but my ruined vision was barely able to keep track of the one against the tree. 'There's a second vamp, I can feel it.' My voice was breathless and panting, but Nicky heard and understood, because he scanned the darkness under the trees for another figure.

'I don't see anything else,' he said.

'Nathaniel, Ares, do you smell another vampire?'

Nathaniel growled at the vampire in front of him but then raised his head and scented the wind. Ares did the same. I kept most of what I had left looking at the vampire, but had swimming glimpses of the panther and hyena sniffing up into the air. The panther drew its lips back from its teeth in a flehmen, to get as much scent as possible to the Jacobson's organ in the roof of his mouth. He'd described it to me as tasting the scent.

Nathaniel lowered his head and made a sneezing sound and shook his head. He was letting me know that he didn't smell a second vampire. So why did I still feel it?

The vampire stood up straight, pushing away from the tree. Her entire demeanor changed; even in the dim light she looked different. Her long, dark hair seemed fuller and moved in the breeze, except there was no breeze.

My cross burst into light like a white beacon. Now my night vision was ruined on top of the exhaustion miasma. Fuck. 'Cut the vampire powers crap, now!' I said.

'But it will be so much more fun if I don't.'

'Nicky, let her know I'm serious; aim just above her head,' I said.

'You usually do your own shooting,' he said.

'I can shoot her, but I don't trust myself to shoot close to her.'

He didn't argue, just did what I asked. The bullet buried into the tree above her head. The shot wasn't as loud as it could have been, a combination of my pulse in my ears and too much gunfire all night. My ears were a little dulled.

The hyena began to pace, and the leopard screamed. Their hearing was way more sensitive than mine. I couldn't imagine how loud everything had been to Nathaniel during the fight.

The vampire's scream was nice and loud. 'Please, please don't kill me!' She had her hands out in front of her as if to ward off a blow, or as if her spread hands would protect her from bullets. They so wouldn't.

My cross began to fade. 'Then stop trying to fuck with us,' I said, my voice still breathless. Stupid altitude.

There were flashlights swinging through the trees. Some of the police were running toward the dying glow of the cross and the sound of gunfire. I like that about cops; they run toward the problem, not away from it.

'One more vampire trick and I'm telling him to shoot you,' I said.

'Shoot to kill, or shoot to wound?' Nicky asked.

I'd rather he not have asked it out loud, but I guess it was an important difference and a misunderstanding would be bad. 'Wound. We can always kill her later, but once you kill someone, wounding seems a little pointless.'

'True,' he said. He kept his AR snugged against his shoulder, his face settled against the stock. He looked very natural, as if he could aim at her all night.

The police were up to us in a whirl of flashlights and noise. Some of them joined Nicky in aiming at the vampire. Others came to check on me.

Bush asked, 'You hurt, Marshal?'

'Then why are you sitting on the ground?' It was Becker.

'Too much running like hell in this altitude,' I said.

'You have altitude sickness?' she asked.

She gave a small laugh. 'Too funny, that the big, bad Anita Blake has altitude sickness.'

My vision had finally cleared. Yay for that. I got slowly to my feet, still feeling a little shaky. Bush started to reach out to steady my elbow, but then dropped his hand back. He was treating me like he'd treat any of his fellow officers, and I took that as the compliment it was.

I walked over to join everyone gathered around the vampire. They hadn't moved in and tried to cuff her. I realized that they were waiting for me to tell them it was safe. Then I realized that most of the officers in the night-dark woods had been part of the group that I had dragged out from under the killer zombies, or who had joined us when they fought free themselves, and saw that we seemed to have a plan. I had helped them, and now they were willing to chase vampires in the dark with me. Cool.

I stopped at Nathaniel's leopard and Ares' hyena so that I was framed between the two big animals. I trusted Nicky to keep his gun on the vampire. I let the AR hang free on its tactical strap and started to pet Nathaniel's dark fur and laid a hand on the hyena's back. He was taller than the leopard, big enough that I could have leaned my elbow on him like a light pole; he was a big damn beast.

The vampire looked at the two beasts with wide eyes. Someone had put a flashlight on her face like a spotlight so that we could see that one of her eyes was clear and brown and very alive, but the other had that white film that happens after death. Nathaniel's claws had sliced open her face from the edge of the dead eye to the jawline. The wound wasn't bleeding much, as if the flesh had really been dead so long there was no blood to find, but the wounds on her chest had bled a lot. Blood had soaked into the pink A-line dress so she looked like a macabre Valentine. One shoulder had rotted so you could see tendons and bone, but the other one was smooth and perfect. Why hadn't she used her vampire powers to make all of her body whole? Rotting vampires had two forms, human and rotting. Most of them spent the lion's share of their time looking as human and perfect as they could, though most seemed to enjoy the effect their other form had on their victims. This vampire wasn't enjoying it.

'Please, don't hurt me, again,' she said.

'You hurt Henry senior,' I said.

'The other man that you left up in the aspen grove.'

She looked away from me. 'I didn't want to hurt him. I'd finally gotten strong enough to cloud their minds and make them see me as beautiful. I wasn't done with the first man, but he made us hurt him. He made us hurt him in front of the other man.'

'You killed the father and made the son watch,' I said.

She looked back at me and the fear was naked in her face. 'I didn't want to.'

'No one held a gun to your head,' Becker said.

'Worse,' she whispered, 'so much worse.'

I could feel the other vampire. It was close. 'What's worse?' I asked.

'He is,' she whispered.

'Who is he?' I asked.

She shook her head and a piece of her hair fell down the side of her face. She grabbed at it and started to cry. 'God, maybe I should make you kill me. It's got to be better than being like this.'

'You should be able to make yourself human looking, at least at night,' I said.

She looked at me, the lock of her hair still in her hand. 'What did you say?'

'If I were able to do that he would have told me. He would have rewarded me. I've done everything he asked.'

'Who would have rewarded you?' I asked again.

She looked up at something I couldn't see and said, 'No, please don't.' She looked at me and said, 'It's not me, don't kill me. He controls me and I can't refuse him.'

'What can't you refuse him?' I asked.

'Anything.' Her voice had gone distant, as if she were listening to something we couldn't hear. I felt the energy flare through her like a cold wind. Her face turned to us, and it was a different person in there looking out of her face. I knew only one vampire that could possess other vampires this completely.

'Traveller,' I whispered.

'No, guess again,' and it was the same voice, her voice, but the tone was so alien that I wanted to say male, though I wasn't sure why.

'Who are you?' I asked.

'Guess,' he said, and managed to make that one word hiss, and then my cross flared to life again, and so did every other holy object around us.

'Don't do it, we'll kill her!'

'I'll make more,' the voice said.

'More vampires?' I asked.

'More everything,' and it was an evil whine that didn't match the ruin of the woman he was using.

'Do not look her in the eyes!' I yelled.

'Someone always looks,' said the voice.

I held my cross out in front of me on the end of its chain. 'Leave her.'

'Are you trying to save her?' The voice sounded amused.

'She's got rights, and you possessing her counts as kidnapping and physical invasion.'

'No, she's not,' I said, and started forward with the light of my cross held in front of me. Nicky was at my side, gun at the ready, just in case. The beasts growled and chattered at our sides.

'She's mine!' The voice screamed it at us.

'No, she is not!' I yelled back at him.

'Whose then? Who does she belong to, if not I who made her?'

'She belongs to herself,' I said.

The vampire had closed its eyes against the holy light. 'All vampires belong to someone, Anita Blake. If she's not mine, then whose?'

'Mine,' I said, and shoved the cross into her arm.

The vampire screamed, and then I saw it look at me through the white-hot glow, such hatred on its face, and then it was gone. I felt it go, felt it leave her, as she screamed high and hopeless.

I drew the cross back and she collapsed against the tree and slumped to the ground. No one tried to catch her, not even me. She blinked up at us as the holy objects faded like dying stars. She started to cry. 'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.'

'You chased him away. You chased him away, thank you, thank you, thank you.'

Did she think he was gone forever? That one holy-item burn had chased the monster out of her for good? The relief on her face said that was exactly what she believed. I didn't tell her different, because we needed to interrogate her and if she thought I'd rescued her she'd probably tell me anything I wanted to know. Besides, you shouldn't crush someone's hope if you haven't got anything to put in its place.

One of the other police had a set of the new cuffs, too. She let me put the cuffs on her with no protests. She just kept saying, 'Thank you, and I'm sorry, so sorry.'

Ares collapsed to the ground, still in hyena form, but his legs had gone out from under him. I shoved the vampire at the cop with the cuffs and said, 'Do not look her in the eyes.'

Nicky and Nathaniel, still in leopard form, were crouching by Ares. I went to them. 'What's wrong with him?'

Nicky raised his hand up to the flashlights. His hand was covered in blood that had strands of yellow in it. The smell hit me next. I'd smelled it at the hospital. Shit. I dropped to my knees beside the hyena. 'No,' I said, 'damn it, no!'

The hyena shivered, convulsed, and then the fur melted away, as if his human body were something trapped in ice, revealed by the energy that spilled off him as his body shifted back. He should have been trapped in hyena form for at least four hours, maybe ten. You only changed back early if you were powerful enough to will it, or too hurt to hold form, or dead.

I searched his neck for a pulse, holding my own breath, as I waited to feel it against my fingers. There, there it was, he was alive. I yelled, 'Man down! Medic!'