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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:08

Normal phosphorus, or even thermite, grenades are designed to burn for a short time and then go out. They cause damage that would discourage vampires, ghouls, or even lycanthropes and humans, but not zombies. They don't get scared, they don't panic, they don't give up because you hurt them, because it doesn't hurt them. Scientists have tried to figure out how the nerve impulses keep zombies able to walk but not able to feel pain. If they could figure it out, then maybe they could use it as a way to get paralyzed humans walking, but so far it is a mystery, because once you've cut an arm off a body it should just lie there. They shouldn't even flop around like cut-in-half snakes, because the human nervous system works differently, and zombies start out human.

The pile of body parts that SWAT had helped us gather into the middle of the hallway burned. They burned because we'd piled the European grenades all around them. They weren't designed for a quick explosion and a quick burn like the American ones; they were meant to explode and cover whatever was near with fire. Fire that clung and continued to burn until there was no more flesh for it to eat.

Don't picture orange flames like a fireplace; it's white-hot flame, so bright that it will sear your retinas and steal your sight if you look too long. We'd warned everyone who had stayed not to stare. The heat was so intense it felt like it was shearing the skin off us, but we had the bodies in the pyre to compare to, and we weren't close enough to the fire to have our skin sheared. We all stepped back anyway.

Yancey asked, 'Do zombies always burn so bright?'

'No, it's the phosphorus,' I said.

The smell of burning flesh isn't always that bad; sometimes it just smells like cooking meat, but hair burning, and some of the internal organs that you normally remove before cooking a big piece of meat, that makes it smell ... odd. It didn't always smell bad, and zombies usually smelled better burning than not, so ... I tried to remember, but either I was finally nose-deaf to the smell of rotting zombies or these hadn't smelled bad. My zombies didn't smell bad, even if they looked rotten. I'd had an older animator explain to me that the magic that called it from the grave made it not rot for a little bit, and it was the rotting that caused the odor.

I touched Edward's arm. 'Did the zombies smell rotten to you?'

Edward seemed to think about it, then said, 'No.'

I looked past Edward to Dev, who was standing against the wall. His eyes looked too wide by the light of burning bodies. 'Did they smell like rotting corpses to you?'

He just shook his head, taking too long to blink. He looked shocky, but I'd worry about it later.

I turned to Nicky, on the other side of me. 'Were you able to smell them rotting?'

'No, but zombies don't smell like rotting corpses.'

'Mine don't,' I said, 'and those are the ones you've been around.'

'True, but you're scared; why?'

'Most zombies smell like what they are - corpses; the amount of smell comes from the amount of rot. My zombies don't smell bad because I'm powerful enough that they don't rot right away. But rotting vampires don't smell bad until they want to; they look bad, but they don't smell. The vampires and zombies in the mountains, they didn't smell bad, did they?'

'I'm missing something,' Yancey said. 'Why are you saying that like it's a bad thing?'

The fire alarm started to scream around us, but with our hearing still recovering from the shooting, it was like hearing it down a tunnel, as if it were echoing a long way off instead of just above us. The sprinklers kicked in, and suddenly it was raining.

Water pounded down on us and helped ease some of the battle fatigue, like a quick, sharp slap of ice-cold water. For the first time I wished I had the helmet I usually hated to wear when I enacted a warrant with SWAT backup. I had to look at the floor to keep the water from running in my eyes and had to wipe my face to keep the blowback of blood and other things from running into my eyes or mouth. Yeah, I knew to keep my mouth shut, but still ... there was just something about certain things touching your lips that was an ick, and zombie bits were an ick.

Dev made a sound that I heard above the water, the alarm, and the fire blazing up like a white-flame version of hell, which meant it was a louder sound that my ear could make out right now.

He was wiping at his face frantically, and I realized he didn't know the rule that plumbers and monster hunters know - keep your mouth closed.

He stumbled away from the wall, fell to his knees, and threw up next to the burning pyre, while the water rained down on him. I went and knelt beside him. I tried to smooth his hair back from his face, but it was so plastered from the water that I had to pick up the wet locks of it and put it behind his ear. His hair was short enough and fine enough that the water kept it back where I'd put it. He looked sideways at me, his eyes flashing too much white, like a horse that's about to bolt. Then his eyes tracked something behind me that made them go even wider, and fear was plain on his face. I whirled still on my knees, bringing the AR up to bear, and found nothing but the white flames and the writhing of the body parts like octopus tentacles trying to get out of boiling water.

I glanced back at Dev, tracked back where his sightline was, and found a zombie arm with a hand still intact enough to finger-crawl coming toward us. I let my AR swing back on its strap, unholstered my Browning, and shot the hand so it wouldn't move so well, picked the arm up, and tossed it back into the fire.

When I turned back to Dev, he was looking at me with something like horror in his face, as if I'd done something terrible. I started to touch his shoulder, then realized he might not want me to touch him with the same hand I'd just touched the zombie with, so I let my hand drop.

'Go, up top, check on the guard, Miller.'

Dev nodded, a little too fast, a little too often, and he mouthed, I'm sorry.

I didn't ask, Sorry about what? I knew the what. He was my bodyguard, but being at my side tonight had broken something in him. It remained to be seen whether the break could be mended or whether it was permanent. There'd been a time when I'd thrown up at crime scenes, but Edward had taken me into the thick of things at about the same time and I had managed not to break, but that had been me.

Dev got to his feet, steadying himself against the wall. He stumbled when he took his first step, and I caught his arm to help him. He tensed but didn't pull away. He smiled at me, weak and uncertain, but he tried. I took it for a positive sign that he could smile at all and hadn't pulled away from me. I'd had other friends and lovers over the years who had pulled away and never been able to close the distance again.

He went to the elevator, still a little shaky on his feet. I could have gone with him, helped him, but honestly I didn't want to. He was supposed to be taking care of me, and instead I was having to take care of him. It wasn't what bodyguards were for, and I wasn't getting enough out of my relationship with Dev to make up for this kind of loss. A loss of what, you might ask? Trust. I would never trust him to stay by my side and hold his own against the horrors in my life again. I would remember this moment and it would color things, just as he would remember.

Edward leaned over me and said, 'Why is it bad that the zombies and vampires don't smell?'

I smiled up at him; trust Edward to go right back to business. I followed his lead and said, 'It means that something, or someone, is controlling these things, or at least keeping enough power over them to keep them from rotting.'

Nicky leaned over us, talking into the roar of water and flame. 'But the vamps and zombies in the mountains were rotting. Bits fell off them.'

'I've seen rotting zombies lose bits off, but when they changed to their human form the parts they'd lost were still there, and whole.'

'How does that work?' Yancey asked.

I told the truth. 'I don't know. I just know it works that way, or can.'

'Are you saying sometimes it doesn't work that way?' he asked.

I wiped water and something thicker off my face before I answered. 'Rotting vampires are special; a lot of vamp rules don't apply to them.'

'So is the vampire that possessed the vamps in the mountains the one raising the zombies?' Nicky asked.

I started to say yes, then stopped myself. 'I don't know.' If Yancey hadn't been with us I'd have just brainstormed out loud, but I wasn't sure where the thoughts would go, so ...

Dev called out, 'The elevator won't work.'

'Once the alarms are triggered, it goes to the lobby and waits for the firemen to use a key to override it,' Yancey said.

'You could have said something before he went and pushed the button,' I said.

'I knew, too,' Edward said.

'And you didn't say something, why?' I asked.

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Edward just looked at me. It was an eloquent look.

I looked at Nicky. The water had plastered his hair to the right side of his face like it had been glued in place. 'And your excuse?' I asked.

'I'm a sociopath; I don't have to be nice,' Nicky said.

'You're mad at him. I can feel it, which means I really don't have to be nice to him.'

'I thought you were friends.'

'What part of sociopath didn't you understand?' he asked.

The water stopped pouring down and the sudden absence of it seemed loud, as if my body had gotten used to the pounding cold of it. I actually heard myself gasp; that meant my hearing wasn't permanently damaged, which was nice to know.

Dev leaned against the wall and slowly slid down it until he was sitting with his knees drawn up, and tears shone in the overhead lights. I looked at the men standing around me and realized that though they'd all help me kill monsters and burn the bodies later, they were so not helping me do the emotional stuff.

'Well, fuck,' I said, softly, and went to give what comfort I could. I spent a lot of that short distance trying to make my face more neutral, instead of irritated. I also upped my psychic shields, because Dev could feel my emotions sometimes, not all the time, but this was one moment I didn't want him to feel with me, just like I didn't want to feel his emotions with him.

I stood over him, debating what to do with him. He spoke without looking at me. 'You knew I was going to shoot at them. How did you know?'

It took me a minute to realize he meant SWAT. 'I've been in these kinds of battles before. It was Edward who saved me.'

'I'm good with a gun, and hand-to-hand, but I don't think I can do this, Anita. This isn't being a bodyguard, this is war.'

'Yeah, sometimes that's what I do.'

He looked up at me, fresh tears shining in his eyes. 'I didn't understand.'

I knelt beside him and debated on whether he wanted a hug, or if it would undo him completely, but he decided for me. He reached for me and I wrapped my arms around him. He buried his face against me and wept huge, racking sobs that shook every inch of that six-foot, three-inch body. He was strong and fast and brave, but I would never take him out again as my bodyguard. This had been killing zombies; what would he have been feeling if it had been humans, or shapeshifters, or vampires? Our Devil wasn't hard enough for my job.

Movement made me look up from murmuring sweet, comforting nothings into Dev's silky blond hair. Nicky was standing, talking to Edward and Yancey. He met my eyes and that one look was enough. He wasn't shaken. He'd been through battles like this before on his own job back when he was a mercenary, before the ardeur helped me tame him. We had the long look, and then he went back to talking to the other men, and I went back to holding Dev. Nicky and I both knew that we would never bring Dev out on a job again. He wasn't a soldier; there was no shame to that; we all have our strengths and weaknesses, but I needed someone ... harsher. Nicky and Edward turned and looked at me, as if they'd felt me thinking. Nicky could have felt it because he was my Bride, and Edward, well, best friends know what you're thinking sometimes. I looked at the two of them, and I knew that Edward would be fine with Nicky coming out to play with us again. It was a pure Edward look in his face; Ted was gone like a dream, and what looked out at me was the same man who had threatened to torture and kill me when we first met, and he'd have done it if the job called for it. Now I was his friend, he cared for me, would miss me, depended on me, but that killing coldness was still in there. Nicky's face held the same look: distant, cold, able to do what needed doing to survive and finish the job, whatever that job was, whatever it called for, no matter how terrible. Nicky was probably capable of things that even I wouldn't do, maybe even things that Edward wouldn't do, but sometimes a little bit of a sociopath was about right for my world. I'd told Nicky I loved him and realized for the first time just how much. Seeing him standing there, all stone-cold-killer calm, didn't make me love him less, it made me love him more. I hadn't been in love with Dev, but as I held him in his tears, I knew I never would be.