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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:02

Other good deeds, not so much. The inside of the Black Hawk wasn't that big. We had a pilot, copilot, room for three stretchers, and two small seats for the medics. One of the medics stayed behind to help Perkins with the wounded still on the ground. We put Travers and Ares stacked to one side and strapped a third wounded officer between the medic seats and the stacked stretchers. By the time everyone was secure it was crowded. Did I mention I'm also claustrophobic?

My view was the stretchers, so no seeing outside, which usually helps with the claustrophobia. I was strapped into the seat, though I had to adjust the AR and the shotgun to sit back in it. The vibration of the chopper beat through my body in a steady, punishing rhythm. The nausea that had hit in the woods after the run came back, and I was left breathing deep, even breaths, trying to control it. I also tried to pretend I wasn't in a whirling machine of death hundreds of feet in the air. There was a gasp that must have been a scream for me to hear it through the earphones and the noise of the blades. I looked up and found Ares trying to sit up. The chopper medic, who had just been introduced to me as Lawrence so I didn't know if it was his first or last name, unbuckled and tried to force Ares back down, but one flailing arm sent him crashing, and only me putting a hand against his back kept him from falling on the wounded man in the middle. Neither he nor Travers moved.

I called out, 'Ares, it's okay!'

Lawrence sat down in his chair, so I could see past him to Ares. His wide, frightened eyes turned and found me. I watched his face get calmer as I unbuckled and moved carefully so I wasn't standing on the third wounded man. I used the other stretchers as part of my handholds, but everyone else was unconscious so they didn't mind.

Lawrence spoke into my headphones. 'Can you calm him down so I can check his vitals?'

'Yes,' I said. The helicopter hit a little turbulence, and I didn't really have my helicopter legs yet. Ares grabbed at me, and I gave him my left hand to hold, our arms bent at the elbow like we were going to arm-wrestle. I felt a spasm that ran through his arm. He writhed on the stretcher, face grimacing in obvious pain. He was mouthing something, saying something, but I couldn't hear it through the headset. I took off one earpiece and bent closer.

'Something's wrong,' he said.

I turned so I could yell into his ear. 'You're hurt.'

'No, it's more, it's ...' He writhed again, hand convulsing on mine until I almost had to tell him, too tight, but he loosened it on his own.

I touched his face, got him to look at me, and said, 'Medic needs to check you. You gotta let him do that, okay?'

His eyes rolled with the pain, but he said, 'Okay.'

I turned and motioned to Lawrence. I started to let go of Ares' hand, but he held on tight, as if he were afraid for me to let go, so I kept hold of him, just moving his arm back with me. It also meant he couldn't accidentally hit Lawrence with it again. If Lawrence needed me to sit down and give him more room, I would, but if it helped calm Ares and I could stay where I was, I'd do it.

Lawrence worked around me, but he'd barely touched him when Ares' body convulsed so violently that if I hadn't had his hand in mine his arm would have swung out again. I held on tighter and yelled next to his face, 'Ares, it's okay. He's helping you.'

'I just need to check you, no needles, nothing bad,' Lawrence said in a voice raised over the noise.

'No,' Ares said in a strangled voice.

'Let him do his job, Ares,' I said, bending over his face. From inches away I watched his eyes turn to hyena gold. The energy of his beast crawled up our joined hands and down my spine. 'No, don't you dare shift in here!'

'Can't help it ... he wants me to shift.'

'Vampire, her master, it's ... he can control my ... beast.'

'Not through a bite he can't,' I said.

'Land,' he said, 'land, I can't hold on. He's ... it's ... calling me.'

'Not possible, not like this.'

'It's like the bite, the rot ... it carries a piece of him with it. It's not just a disease, it's him ... it's him.'

He screamed full-throated, wordless, and then he found his voice again. 'Hurts, God, it hurts!'

He used our joined hands to pull me close and I was left looking at his face from inches away, upside down, as if I'd put his head in my lap. His hand was almost crushing mine. 'I won't be me when I shift. Do you understand? I won't be ... me. He ... will control. He will control ... me.'

'Shit.' I whispered it, but my face must have let him know that I understood, because some tension went out of him. He trusted I'd take care of it. I only hoped I could.

Lawrence said, 'Does he mean what I think he means?'

'We land now,' I said.

Lawrence shook his head. 'We can't.'

'We have to get Ares out of here before he shifts.'

He hit the microphone and said, 'Is there any place to land now?'

The pilot's voice came over the headset. 'That's a negative.'

Ares convulsed again, and the energy of his beast raised the hair on my body. He growled, and the sound vibrated loud enough that Lawrence could hear it over all the other noises. He gave me wide eyes and got back on the headset. 'We've got a problem and we need to be on the ground ASAP.'

The copilot turned in his seat just in front of us and asked, 'What the hell was that?'

'Shapeshifter,' Lawrence said.

'Landing would be good,' I yelled.

'Negative, repeat negative, there is nowhere to bring us down safely,' the pilot said.

I got on the headset. 'Shapeshifter is about to lose his shit, we need him out of here before that.'

'We were assured the shapeshifter had control of himself, or we wouldn't have let him on our bird,' the copilot said.

'Normally he does, but trust me. You want him out of here before it happens.'

'We got no landing site for at least the next ten minutes. Can he hold it together for that long?'

He looked at me with his hyena eyes. His body convulsed and I almost had to cry uncle. He was going to crush my hand if he didn't stop.

'Ares, can you hear me?'

'Yes,' but his voice had that edge of growl to it.

'Ten minutes, hold on for ten minutes and then they'll land.'

'I don't think ... not sure.'

'Hold on, we'll get you out of here, but you gotta hold on.'

He writhed again, and I had to pry my hand out of his, or he was going to break me. 'I'm sorry,' he said, and then he screamed again, but the scream ended in a gibbering howl.

Lawrence backed up and had only his little seat to go to. The pilot looked behind at us but spoke through the headset, because of the noise. 'What the hell was that?'

'We need to land,' I said.

'We got nothing for another seven minutes.'

Ares yelled, 'Anita!'

I moved back where he could see me more easily, but didn't offer my hand to hold. 'I'm here.'

'Shoot me, before I shift.' He writhed on the stretcher, and screamed in pain again, and then said, 'There's nowhere for you to run in here.'

'Seven minutes, just seven minutes, hold on.'

He screamed, and the gibbering call filled his throat. 'I will attack you. I will not be me ... I can feel it. Oh, God! God! Shoot me!' He turned wild eyes to Lawrence, pointed at him. 'Shoot me!'

Lawrence shook his head. 'I'm here to save your ass, not kill it.'

'Don't let him ... use me ... like this ...' And he just started screaming over and over again as fast as he could draw breath. His body began to jerk and convulse. I could see the muscles and ligaments under his skin popping and moving in ways that they were never meant to move. He was fighting the change, which meant it was slower and a lot more painful. He was trying to give us time.

Lawrence asked, 'Does it always hurt this much?'

I shook my head. 'He's fighting it.'

'To give us time,' he said.

I nodded. 'Can you move the other men farther away from him?'

'To where?' he asked.

He was right. There was nowhere to go. Travers was trapped above Ares, and the third wounded man whose name I hadn't even caught was strapped in the middle of it all. Shit, shit, shit!

The screaming gave way to that skin-crawling gibbering, laughing sound. Fur flowed, bones shifted, and it was as if some giant hand crushed the human form and remade it by pulling it apart. I'd never seen anyone change like this, as if they were being dissected and put back together. It wasn't just clear liquid that ran out of Ares. Blood poured from his body and spattered across the inside of the chopper as he fought to hold on. They only bled like that when they fought the change. Blood was hitting the man on the floor of the chopper, and I had a moment to worry about the lycanthrope blood getting in his wounds and then we had other things to worry about.

Ares popped the straps that held his body down and tried to sit up, but there wasn't room with Travers above him. He rolled so his back was to us and the blankets they'd put on him and the shadows hid most of him. We could still see the muscles and bones of his body moving under the blanket like a nest of snakes. I heard the copilot on the radio yelling, 'Mayday Mayday Mayday!'

Lawrence strapped himself into the seat. I stayed standing, got a death grip on the edge of one of the stretchers, and used the other hand to unholster my Browning BDM. Yeah, the AR or the shotgun would be a surer kill, but they would also go through Ares and through the helicopter. The Browning would just shoot a hole in Ares. I didn't want to do that, but I'd had the air marshal training so I could carry on planes, and they'd covered helicopters. They didn't like being shot, even more than airplanes. No matter what the movies showed on screen, damage the rotor blades and it's coming down. You damage the motor and it's coming down. Planes could fly on only one engine, or glide with no engines for a while; once the blades stopped rotating, helicopters just crashed. If I was going to have to shoot Ares anyway, I'd just as soon not kill us all while I did it.

The Black Hawk shuddered and started down. The pilot yelled, 'I found a clearing, but it's gonna be tight. Strap in!'

I debated on sitting down and strapping in, but I wasn't sure I could shoot Ares before he took out the pilot and copilot. The space was that tight. I had assured them that he wouldn't lose it in the air, and I had been wrong, so I stood between them and what was lying on the stretcher in the dark. A low, evil growl trickled through the cabin.

I tightened my grip, braced my legs as best I could, and aimed into the shadowed pile that was Ares. The only comfort I had was that in hyena form Ares was too big to move well in the close space. What made it a nightmare for us made it harder for him, too, or that was what I told myself as I felt something hit the bottom of the copter.

Lawrence yelled, 'Treetops!'

Now that I knew what was happening, I heard and felt the trees hitting the bottom of the copter. I felt the pilot fighting to make a very tight landing. We could skim a few trees as long as the blades weren't compromised. We shuddered, and I could hold on with one hand, but I couldn't keep my feet. I fought to not fall onto the third wounded man and tried to be ready to aim at Ares if I had to. He rolled over and tried to spill out, but he was trapped for a second between Travers's weight on top of him and the frame of the stretcher below him. I had a second to see the werehyena like a pale furred nightmare pressed in the space. I was still half-fallen, only one hand keeping me from the floor, and every angle I had risked Travers just above him.

Lawrence yelled, but I didn't have time to look at him. I had to find a better angle. But the hyena pushed forward with all the power he had, cracking the stretcher underneath him and raising up Travers's stretcher, and the hyena scrambled free and went for Lawrence across from him. He'd gotten his gun out, because it fired before mine did. I got him in the chest, but I knew it wasn't a kill.

I heard Lawrence scream. I was left half-straddling the wounded man on the floor, pushing my gun into the furred body, and fired twice more, but I was just hitting midbody; I didn't have a kill! But apparently I'd irritated him, because he turned and came for me, his weight in the small space pinning me to the wounded man below. I saw the huge bloody jaws, the mad eyes, and I fired into that mouth, as two more guns sounded. I felt like someone had hit me in the side with a baseball bat hard enough to knock the breath out of me, but I knew if I didn't kill the thing on me I'd never get another breath.

An arm showed, and the hyena bit the hand, gun and all. Blood poured over my face, and there was screaming. There was a bump hard enough that it jarred, and we were on the ground. Someone fell into us, and the hyena pushed off me and tore into the man. I thought it was Lawrence, but someone opened the big door on his side, and wasn't that Lawrence, too-

I was trapped underneath the hyena's hindquarters; he was literally sitting on me. I emptied the Browning into what I could reach of him. Even if it wasn't a kill it should have hurt, crippled, but the next thing I knew he was pushing off me and gone.

I pulled myself to sitting and saw Lawrence collapsed in the doorway, his shoulder torn away so badly that it had pulled the jugular vein out with it. He was dead, or dying. I saw lights and a house. We'd landed in a fucking neighborhood and Ares was out there with families, kids - Fuck!

I looked back at the pilot and copilot, but the pilot was putting a tourniquet on the copilot. His hand had been the one torn away, his blood all over my face, mostly.

I used the side of the now-still chopper to steady me; I didn't still my breath, I stopped breathing. I heard Ares' voice in my head from the shooting range. He was a sniper. I did most of my shooting within twenty-five to fifty yards. The hyena was more than a hundred yards away and still moving, shot to hell and still moving well. A hundred, a hundred and fifty yards, it didn't matter, the head was there, I had it in my optics, just like he'd shown me. 'Lead the target, where's the wind.' I always had trouble with wind. I pulled the trigger.

The hyena somersaulted and fell into a pool of darkness on the edge of the woods. I had to know, had to be sure. I stumbled out of the Black Hawk. My side wasn't right, numb, and it seemed like it took a long time to cross the yard with the AR held at the ready at my shoulder. There was a spotlight sweeping over me, following me. I heard another helicopter, but I kept my eyes on the place where he'd fallen.

The pilot was beside me now, his own rifle at his shoulder. He said something, but I couldn't understand it. The spotlight stayed with us so that the harsh white light showed Ares lying in the grass. He was human again, but it looked like he'd been decapitated. Fingerprints, fingerprints would be the way they'd ID him, because it was too late for dental.

I stood over what was left of him and let the AR swing back on its strap. I dropped to my knees beside him. The pilot asked, 'Are you hurt?'

I shook my head and then I realized my side hurt. I put my hand down and came away with fresh blood. 'Fuck,' I said.

'You're hit,' he said.

'Yeah,' I said, 'I am.' I slid slowly to the grass and was on my back staring up at the second helicopter and its spotlight. It was a news chopper. We were going to be live on the local news. Fuck, again.

The pilot was back with the med kit. He was holding pressure on the wound low in my side. I was betting it was the copilot's bullet when he'd been shooting down at the hyena. Damn friendly fire.

I looked at the body just a few feet away. I looked at the man just a few feet away. I looked at Ares just a few feet away. I looked at what was left of Ares. I looked at what my bullet had done to him. He'd have been so impressed that I made the shot. He'd have been so proud that he'd finally taught me to read wind direction. I might have even let him believe I'd calculated the wind that fast, but I hadn't. The truth was I still couldn't read wind direction and make the change in a long shot, but I wouldn't have told him that. It was a guy thing, and for some reason that made me start to cry. I heard the distant whoop-whoop of ambulance sirens. The pilot pressed too hard, and I half rose up, saying, 'Ow, damn it,' but it was too much movement. The night swam in streamers of color and shadow, and when the darkness reached up to swallow the world I didn't fight it.