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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:13

There was a scream, and then Hatfield and Seamus fired at something I couldn't see. Even in the lightning flashes of their guns I couldn't see the vampire, but God, I could feel it like a pressured magic against my skin. Edward and I were moving, guns up, lights searching for what they'd seen to shoot. Where was it? Where the fuck was it? I could feel it all around in me in the dark, as if the air were turning into it. My chest tightened down, as if I didn't want to breathe it inside me.

I felt movement in the dark and knew before Lisandro yelled, 'Zombies!' They'd been scattered among the dead like spies. The vampire's power was animating them. He was a motherfucking necromancer, just like the Mother of All Darkness had been. Motherfucking son of a bitch!

I yelled, 'Retreat! Daylight, get to daylight!' Once we were out we could burn it all.

I retreated backward toward the stairs and hoped everyone would come with me, but they didn't. It was too late for a clean retreat. Hatfield screamed and fired again. I could see Seamus like dark on dark, wrestling with a zombie that had knocked her to the floor. Edward and I moved toward them, because they were closer to us. Nicky's and Lisandro's guns sounded like thunder as they fired into what looked like a moving mass of zombies.

I peeled off to the right for Nicky and Lisandro. I didn't have to tap Edward; we were aware of each other in combat the way you knew your partner on the dance floor. I did the shuffling, bent-legged walk that I'd learned with SWAT. My light showed a wall of zombies snarling and reaching. The snarling was the clue that these were flesh eaters; regular zombies were a lot deader. Three of them were headless already. Lisandro was a quick study: take out the mouth and they can't bite, take the arms and they can't grapple, take the legs and they can't move. We weren't going to stay here long enough to do it all like we had in the hospital, but Nicky was showing him the combat math of a zombie apocalypse, and Lisandro was learning it.

The three of us worked back toward the stairs, shooting zombies as we moved. Their heads exploded nicely, but they still kept coming, relentless as only the dead can be. We backed up until we touched shoulders with Edward. He and Hatfield were still firing with their rifles. Seamus was down to a handgun; something was wrong with his right arm, but I didn't have time to see what. We formed a half-circle around the stairs and sent Seamus and Hatfield up first. Sending the wounded and the rookie up first made sense, but I didn't want to go next, and Lisandro and Nicky wouldn't go either.

Edward yelled, 'Anita, go!'

I cursed, but I went, and there was no way to help them shoot zombies once I was in the covered area of the stairs; I had to go up and trust that they'd come after me.

I heard Hatfield scream, 'Blake!'

Shit, what now? I thought, and ran up the last steps into the small bedroom. They weren't there, so I ran out into the living room beyond, AR to my shoulder scanning for what had made her scream. Hatfield knelt on the far side of Seamus with a bare pillow in one hand and its pillow slip in the other. Seamus lay in the middle of the floor beside the bentwood rocking chair. There was already a pool of blood expanding out from the nice hooked rug, spreading dark and thick across the scrubbed wooden floor. His arm was a bloody mess where the zombie had torn at it with that more-than-human strength and the all-too-human teeth.

'Tourniquet him,' I told Hatfield, and turned to go back to Edward and the others.

'He won't let me touch him.'

'A cut on her hand and my blood could bring her over,' Seamus said.

I'd totally forgotten that, my bad. 'He's right. Hatfield, cover their retreat.'

She handed me the pillow slip. I let the AR hang by its strap and took it as she went for the bedroom. I turned to the big man on the floor. His skin was dark enough that the blood didn't show as clearly, but the torn muscle and bone glistened surrounded by the darkness of his skin like some macabre art piece. So much of violence is both beautiful and horrible.

'Shapeshift; it will heal at least part of the damage,' I said.

'I dare not,' he said.

I didn't ask why he dared not; I'd stop the bleeding and then play twenty questions, so I knelt above his head, out of the pool of blood. I wrapped the pillow slip around his arm and started looking around for a tool to help fasten the tourniquet.

'You're faster than this. How did you let it hurt you this badly?' I asked.

'I don't know,' he said.

I got up and went to the rocking chair. It was the only thing I saw in the room that might do what we needed. I tore one of the smaller curls of wood out of place. It came away with a sharp crack. Edward and the others were still shooting in the other room. Until we burned the zombies, they'd keep coming. Zombies didn't like daylight, but it wouldn't stop them with food - us - this close.

I wrapped the piece of wood in the pillow slip and tightened it until the blood stopped spurting out. 'Hold it tight. I'll call for an ambulance.' I wiped my bloodstained hands on my pants and fished my phone out of the pocket it rode in.

Seamus held the tourniquet tight but said, 'Don't call.'

'You're not dying,' I said.

'I can feel him inside me. He's telling me to change form. He wants me to kill you. That's why I don't dare shift to heal the damage.'

I stared at him with the phone half-dialed in my hand. 'Who wants it?' I asked, but I knew.

'He does - the vampire. It was a zombie that bit me, but somehow it was him, Anita. Somehow the vampire was using the zombie's body just like the Traveller and the Dark Mother used vampires. He bit me, do you understand, Anita?'

'I understand,' I said, and put my phone back in its pocket.

'I am Harlequin, and I am bound to my master. It helps me fight the compulsion, but I do not know if I will win this battle.'

I drew in a deep breath and let it out slow. I didn't feel anything. I was numb, as if I'd been numb for a while and just hadn't known it.

'The compulsion is that strong?' I asked.

'It should not be. I am fully bonded to my master. I should be proof against all vampires except for my master. The only one who could tamper with such bonds was the Dark Mother, and she is gone.'

'This master should not be this strong; no wonder Ares fell to him.'

'What do you want me to do?' I asked.

'If you kill me, then my master may die and never wake, but you cannot allow me to shift forms. If I do that, then you must kill me, because there is something in this power that wants me to kill things, not just you, but everything. He likes death, Anita, in all its forms.'

'Does the vampire have a name?' I asked.

'He does not tell me. I am an animal and he does not owe me his name,' Seamus said, and shuddered, his eyes fluttering closed.

'Is that your thought, or his?' I asked.

'You are not an animal,' I said, 'and he does owe you his name.'

Seamus smiled at me. 'I like your modern ideals, but it is too late for me to enjoy them.'

'No,' I said. I touched his arm, bare skin to bare skin, and a flash of warmth passed between us. I could feel his beast, could see it behind my eyes where dreams show themselves. The werehyena looked up at me, and I felt something stir inside me that was new. I had a new beast.

Seamus's brown hyena eyes stared up at me. 'You cannot be one of us.'

'A bullet went through Ares' body and into mine. I didn't think it would be enough.'

'His call is softer now,' Seamus said.

'Just from my touching your arm?' I asked.

I wanted to call out to Edward, because I wanted someone to be able to shoot Seamus if it needed doing, but I wanted to keep touching him, and if he went apeshit I didn't want to be this close to him while I was trying to shoot him. Out of reach would be really good. But I didn't want to distract Edward in case he needed all his concentration to stay away from the zombies that were probably trying to climb up the stairs and into the bedroom. I did the only thing could; I kept my left hand on his arm and drew the Browning with my right.

Seamus looked at the gun and then back at my face. 'Shoot me if you have to.'

I just nodded. I had every intention of it. I'd failed Ares by not shooting him sooner. I wouldn't fail again, not like that.

Someone called out, 'Police, hello in the house!'

I called back, 'Living room!'

Deputy Al walked in from the kitchen. The smile on his face changed when he saw us. 'What happened?'

'Zombies in the basement,' I said. More shots sounded, as if to make the point.

He drew his sidearm. He looked in the direction of the shots and then back to us. 'He's another shifter, isn't he?'

He started to point the gun in Seamus's direction. Sirens sounded in the distance. The rest of the backup was finally here. Al lowered his gun and looked uncomfortable, bordering on embarrassed. Until he'd made that movement toward Seamus, I might have asked him to help me guard the shapeshifter, but now ... I wasn't sure Al wouldn't be a little trigger happy. I couldn't really blame him, because I knew he'd seen the damage that Ares had done, but that wasn't Seamus's fault, and yet ... if I had to this time I would shoot him. I would not let another of my guards hurt anyone else. I couldn't. The cynical part of me thought, Well, at least I'm not as attached to this one. I hated that I thought it, but Ares had been my friend; I barely knew Seamus.

Seamus suddenly grabbed my left arm, too tight, his eyes flared wide. 'He doesn't want to burn.'

Edward and the others came running toward us, and only then did I smell the burning flesh. Nicky and Lisandro caught one arm and the opposite leg of Seamus as they moved through, lifted him, got him balanced, and kept going for the door. I followed them, because when the people blowing shit up start running, you try to keep up, just a rule.

Edward unlocked the door from this side and they carried Seamus through. Hatfield went after them. Edward said, 'Outside, now.' He followed his own instructions and I ran to comply. Al didn't ask questions, he just ran with me. The two of us were on the grass of the front yard when the first explosion rocked the world and staggered us. I kept moving away from the house, and when he got his footing Al followed. The second explosion was even bigger and made us all cower from the blast wave and the rush of heat.

'What the hell did you do?' Al asked.

'They had extra propane tanks in the basement. One of the grenades must have hit them.' He made it sound like an accident.

I looked at him, but his face was mild and unreadable. He held out a hand to wave at our backup with their lights and sirens. I wondered if they'd stop a safe distance back or drive up to the house. Another explosion made the ground shiver and the air smack into us like a giant hand. Al fell to the ground on all fours.

A third explosion rained down burning bits and pieces.

'How many tanks were down there?' I asked.

Then Nicky yelled, 'Anita!'

Seamus was beginning to writhe on the ground. I still had the Browning naked in my hand. Damn it, the vampire should have been blown up, dead, and when he died Seamus should have been free. Which meant the vampire wasn't dead. Fuck!

'The vampire isn't dead,' I said, and went to put my hand on Seamus. Either I'd help him control his beast until the vampire burned up, or I'd shoot him before he could change. Either way, my place was beside Seamus. Edward had his rifle up and was watching the house. If anything crawled out, he'd shoot it. Enough of the house had blown up that we could see if anything went out the back now, but the vampire could have run out that back basement door before the biggest explosion. Shit, if we'd waited for backup they could have had men back there to shoot him as he ran.

Seamus cried out. Nicky and Lisandro were holding him down, pinning him to the ground. I jogged the last few yards and fell to my knees beside them. I laid my hand on his arm again. His skin was hot to the touch, and his beast snarled up at me. It wanted to come out and play. My new beast growled up at me, or maybe at him.

'If he shifts we have to kill him,' I said.

Nicky said, 'Understood.'

Lisandro said, 'There's got to be another way.'

Seamus spoke through gritted teeth. 'She's right.'

'You smell like hyena,' Lisandro said, 'but you don't carry that beast.'

'Let him smell your skin,' Nicky said.

I had to stop touching his arm to put my arm in front of his face. His eyes rolled back into his head, and his energy calmed. When he opened his eyes they were peaceful, he was in there again.

'He's not trying to control me anymore.'

'I don't know. It's like he's gone. I would have said dead, but I don't think that's it.'

'Gone is good enough,' I said.

Al said, 'You've set a fire over in the trees there. It's been a dry year; we need to put that out.' He looked tired, as if something about the last few minutes had taken a lot out of him.

'You okay?' Hatfield asked.

'I knew the couple who lived here. I don't want to tell their kids in town that their folks got eaten alive.'

'Tell them they were murdered,' I said.

'The families always ask how, always, as if that will make them feel better.' Al shook his head. 'Some truths don't make you feel better. Some truths just hurt more.'

No one argued with him; we'd all been around violence and death too long to argue with something that true.