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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:20

The cemetery was one of the largest and oldest in the city. You could see the years marching across in the changes in the tombstones from ornate angels and beautiful sculptures to the nearly flat stone markers that were easier to mow around. It was like visible archaeology: centur-ies in a glance, and the change from looking up to heaven to staying low to the ground, and worrying more about ease of maintenance than about God and all his angels. The sunset was a spectacular spread of pink and purple and pale crimson all done in neon-glow colors, as if some disco queen's lipstick had been spread across the western sky and set on fire. I don't know if I'd ever seen the sky painted so bright with the dying of the light.

I took Nicky's hand as we watched the sunset. I wasn't sure this plan was going to work, and I'd decided that if the other cops wanted to give me grief about being up close and personal with my guys, so be it. We were about to enter a night that could be like the hospital, except with more zombies, and no hallway to contain them. If hundreds of killer zombies rose we were going to be either one of the safest spots in town, or one of the most dangerous. We wouldn't know which until it was too late to back out.

'The sunsets are always like that out here,' Yancey said.

It made me turn and look at him, Nicky's hand still in mine, so that my turning turned the big man with me. It was a couple thing, that turning with the hands joined so that you spent most of your time looking in the same direction.

'You expect to get bored with another spectacular sunset, but you never do,' Badger said. They'd stayed with us in case our plan worked and the big bad showed up. Willy had found a vantage point and was waiting to do what snipers do best: shoot the bad guy on my signal. Machete was with him in case a zombie tried to sneak up and eat Willy while he was trying to shoot.

'How could you ever get bored of something that beautiful?' Dev asked.

'Most people stop seeing things they experience too often, even the amazing ones,' I said.

He shook his head. 'I don't understand that.'

'I like that you don't understand it.'

He smiled a little uncertainly. 'Do you stop appreciating the wonderful things in your life just because you see them every day?'

'No,' I said, and turned to Nicky, going up on tiptoe to kiss him gently. It earned me a surprised and very pleased look, which made me smile. He knew that I did not do public displays of affection when I was around the police often and especially not with my secondary lovers.

I walked over to Dev, put my hands on his arms, and looked up into that handsome face and those eyes with their ring of pale golden brown and blue around the outside. I went up on tiptoe and he leaned down so we could kiss.

I moved back from the kiss and stood flat-footed with my hands still on his arms. 'I don't grow tired of the wonderful things in my life, Dev. I value that you're afraid of the zombies and you're still going to stay here with us.'

'I'm your bodyguard, Anita; I would suck at my job if I left now.'

I smiled. 'I guess so.'

'I feel totally neglected,' Lisandro said. 'Aren't I wonderful, too?'

I laughed. 'I'm told your wife and kids think you're amazingly wonderful.'

He grinned at me. 'Yeah, they do.'

'I'm not married,' Yancey said. 'Do I get a kiss?'

'I know I started it, because of kissing more than one man at work, but don't let my PDA with my guys go to your head.'

'It didn't go to my head, I promise,' he said.

It took me a three-count to realize he'd made a double entendre. I laughed. 'I'd get mad, but that was clever.'

He grinned at me. 'Thank you, I'm pretty proud of that one myself.'

'You do throw the best parties.' It was Edward in his most cheerful Ted voice walking across the grass toward us. He had two SWAT officers with him, too. I knew that the other two were mirroring our sniper and spotter from a different vantage point. The local PD was allocating a lot of their best people to my very 'maybe' plan. I hoped we all lived.

Edward introduced the first one as Lindell, who was as tall as Dev, but so thin he probably had to fight for every ounce of muscle and every pound of weight. He was just built lean and willowy. Officer Shrewsbury was barely six feet, built solid, and moved in a tight coil of energy as if he were just waiting for someone to yell, Go! He was also a natural redhead, complete with the pale skin and freckles that usually went with it. Lindell's nickname was Paris. Shrewsbury's was Berry, as in Strawberry. No one offered to explain the tall, almost homely Lindell being named after the city of love, and I didn't ask. I'd learned that nicknames were personal, sometimes very personal, especially among the special teams.

Edward came up to me smiling broadly and radiating his alter ego, Ted.

'If you didn't bring your flamethrower, I'm going to be disappointed,' I said, smiling.

'It's in the car, Anita; you know I never tease unless I'm planning to come across.'

I smiled at him and gave a small eye flick behind him. He made the smallest eye-slide to the side Paris was standing on, which meant Paris was the guy who had been giving Edward enough grief about our supposed love affair that he'd begun to play with him.

'I know you're always good for anything you promise, Ted.' I put a smile to go with the teasing tone and looked up in time to see Dev puzzling down at me. I had totally forgotten about promising to help Ted tease someone, so had forgotten to mention it to my guys. Oh, well.

'Very important, everybody, when the sun goes down I will be having some vampires fly to meet us. They are my close friends and associates; do not shoot them thinking they're bad guys.'

'How do we tell one vampire from another?' Paris asked.

'Are you saying all vampires look alike?' I asked.

He frowned at me, then said, 'I'm saying that our main perp is a vampire, so how are we supposed to know the difference?'

'The three that are joining us will literally be flying in, as in coming from the sky on their own power. The bad vamp, as far as I know, can't fly.'

'I thought flying was just a story. You mean they can really do that?' he asked.

'A few master vamps can levitate; actual flight is a lot rarer, but these three can do it.'

'Who's coming to play with us?' Edward asked.

'Wicked Truth and one you haven't met yet, Jane.'

'A vampire named Jane?' Paris made it a question.

'I thought all vampires had cool names like Jean-Claude, or what was the other one you just said, Wicked True?'

'They're the Wicked Truth, think of it as a paired call sign,' I said.

I was beginning to think it wasn't personal with Paris; he just couldn't stop talking long enough to think things through. Maybe his nickname came from the fact that the mythological Paris had started the Trojan War.

Darkness came, and it wasn't the fading of the brilliant sunset that let me know, it was the feeling inside me as if a switch had been clicked over. It was as if I could breathe easier in the thin air, or as if I'd been holding some tension inside me all day that finally eased.

I felt Jean-Claude wake for the night. Knew when he opened his eyes and knew that he felt the cool night breeze against my face. I didn't envy Claudia explaining everything to him. I thought about Wicked and Truth and I could feel them, too. Feel them coming aware to the night and all the possibilities. Claudia would be telling them that they had been volunteered to stand at my back and be my metaphysical battery, and if Seamus showed up they, plus Lisandro, were probably the best chance we had at winning without just shooting him on sight. Since shooting him might kill Jane, too, and she'd done nothing, we'd try not to shoot him, but if we had to, we would.

Badger's radio crackled and he touched his mic on his vest. 'Roger that.' He turned to me. 'We're getting reports of packs of zombies.'

'Eyewitnesses are reporting anywhere from five to twenty, so probably somewhere in between.'

My phone rang and I knew the ring tone. I picked it up. 'Jean-Claude,' I said.

'Ma petite, what have you done?'

'I would stand by your side, you know that.'

'Claudia and I talked about it, but we learned from some of the older guards that if you are in person here, then the Lover of Death could make a direct challenge to you to try to take over as king of all the vampires here. It's too great a risk, and you know that.'

'I would be more power at your back.'

'Yes, but if I get hurt you have the ability to feed me energy and keep me alive. If we're both hurt, then we're screwed.'

He laughed, that wonderful touchable sound that seemed to glide down my skin as if he'd touched me with his hand. It made me shiver.

'Ma petite, you say the sweetest things.'

'You still know I'm right.'

'I would love to say I do not and fly to your side.'

'I love you,' I said.

'Je t'aime, ma petite.'

'Kiss Asher for me when he shows up tonight.'

'He will not be coming tonight. They have closed all the airports and roads into the city. The National Guard is being mobilized.'

'One little zombie apocalypse and they call out the big guns,' I said.

'You are the big gun, ma petite.'

'You can't see me smiling, but I am.'

'I can feel you smiling,' he said.

There was a prickly rush of cold that wasn't the night air. 'I sense vampire, gotta go. Je t'aime, mon fiance.'

'That is the first time you have called me so; I love you, ma petite.'

I made the sign we'd agreed upon when I sensed vampire and hoped that the snipers remembered that just because I sensed vampire didn't mean it was bad guys. I reached out toward that sense of power and found Wicked Truth. I concentrated and could feel the air against their bodies as they literally flew toward me; they were just above us. If they hadn't been blood-oathed to Jean-Claude, and my lovers, I wouldn't have been able to pinpoint them so accurately, but they were mine. What was mine I could sense.

It made me try to sense Jane. She was blood-oathed to Jean-Claude, too, and I got a flash of vampire. I'd have known she was close and a vampire, but other than that I'd have been blind. So it wasn't just the connection to Jean-Claude. Was it being my lovers, or that I fed the ardeur on them, that made me be able to know so much about the Wicked Truth? Later, when we got through all this, I'd experiment and see what made the difference between the vampires I could track and the ones I couldn't.

The SWAT officers all tensed and at least touched their guns as the vampires landed. Edward took it in stride; he'd seen the show before. Truth touched ground a few seconds before Wicked, so that they were both crouched on the ground letting the momentum of landing sink into the earth itself, and then stood together, tall and handsome, their faces as close to identical as any brothers I'd ever seen. Only the hair was different, one slightly wavy and brown, the other straight, thick, and blond, plus one had slightly bluer eyes, the other a bit more gray, and choice of clothing. Wicked wore a pale designer trench coat that flared around an equally beautiful tailored suit, and Truth was back in his newly repaired knee-high leather boots; they looked like something that should have been worn to a Renaissance fair, but they were the real deal, not a modern imitation. We'd finally convinced him that modern jeans were a good thing, and a black pair was tucked into the boots. Under his black leather jacket I caught glimpses of one of his new black T-shirts, the one that read, Don't Worry I'm Right Behind You, using you as a meat shield, the second phrase in much smaller type. They walked toward me smiling. Wicked's smile seem to promise naughty mischief; Truth's was open and just happy to see me.

I met them partway, and normally I didn't greet them with a hug let alone more, but I was about to ask them to risk their lives, not as my bodyguards, but as my familiars, like a witch might use a cat. So I went to them and held a hand out to each of them. They exchanged a quick glance between them, all the surprise they showed, and then took my hands. I put an arm around each of their waists, sliding my arms under the trench coat and the leather jacket, sliding my hands over the texture difference between Truth's cotton T-shirt and Wicked's silk dress shirt, until I tucked myself in close between them. They gazed down at me with those mirror faces, the deep dimples in their chins like an extra grace to those handsome faces. Their arms slid around me, one across my shoulders, the other lower.

'I'm not complaining,' Wicked said, 'but why the effusive greeting for us?'

'I'm asking a lot of you tonight.'

'We're your bodyguards, Anita; if you need our lives, they are yours,' Truth said.

I hugged him a little tighter. 'I don't want your life, Truth.'

'Whatever you want, it is yours,' he said.

'Whatever our lady requires,' Wicked said.

'And that's why you got hugs,' I said.

Jane landed in a fall of black hooded cloak. It would match her outfit, so that she looked like a movie ninja until she pushed back the hood to reveal the very blond hair and the large blue eyes. I'd seen men react to the delicate beauty of her, until they got a taste of her coldness. She was about my size, delicate but curvy, because she'd been recruited from a time when to be too thin meant you were poor or ill. She was as silent and self-contained as any of the Harlequin vampires, as cool and controlled as Goran and his master were hotheaded and uncontrolled.

She stood and came toward us, moving in a glide that caused the black cloak to billow and wave around her almost as if it were alive on its own. I wasn't sure how she did it, but she wasn't the only one of the Harlequin who could make the cloaks distractingly dramatic. As Seamus was Water, because of his grace, she was Ice, because she let nothing ruffle her, and she was as inexorable as a glacier, and as patient. There was something a little scary about Jane. She'd never done anything to me, or said an unkind word, but she was unnerving somehow.

I untangled myself from Wicked Truth and turned to face her. Did I apologize for taking her animal to call into harm's way? 'I'm sorry that Seamus has been compromised.'

'He was doing his job,' she said.

Okay, so much for pleasantries. 'Can you sense Seamus?'

'Is he still bound to you?' I asked.

'The Lover of Death has not broken our tie completely. It is almost as if we are sharing Seamus, which is not possible.'

'If Seamus comes, we will give you a chance to win him back to you completely, but if he tries to fight us ... we can't let that happen, Jane.'

'He is too dangerous, I understand,' she said.

'Do you understand the consequences?'

'If he dies, I may die. It is almost a certainty now that our Dark Mother is dead and no longer sharing her power with us. We, her guards, are much diminished.' Her voice never changed inflection. She might have been talking about what we'd do tomorrow if it didn't rain.

'I'm sorry for that, but I can't be sorry for why it happened.'

'Understood,' she said.

'Okay, then, I'll introduce everyone around.' I did, and Paris was the one who tried to flirt with Jane. She looked at him as if he were less than nothing, a pimple on the butt of the universe and she could have cared less. Wicked and Truth bothered the SWAT guys for the same reason that Dev, Nicky, and Lisandro did: SWAT wasn't used to meeting other men who made them for a moment think, Would I win this fight? They were friendly about it, but I knew that Wicked had picked up on it; I couldn't tell if Truth had, or if he cared. If we'd had more time Wicked would have played with them a little, gently, but he would have amused himself.

I was about to try to do something that most animators couldn't have attempted at all, and those who could would have needed a human sacrifice to even try, which was very illegal, but I'd had more than one zombie raising where the power wanted to spread outside the circle of power. The circle was to keep the zombie you raised inside just in case something went wrong, but it was also there to keep things out. There are things that will inhabit corpses, especially fresh ones, until the body starts to rot and then everything leaves it. I'd accidentally raised entire cemeteries before when people had died inside the circle of power. It had been enough energy that the circle had cracked and spread the power throughout the cemetery. One of the times that the energy had wanted to spread had been without a circle of protection and with a vampire at my back acting as my undead energy boost. I was going to try to replicate that, but this time I wasn't going to fight the power, I was going to indulge it. I was purposefully going to raise as many zombies as I could. I was chumming for the Lover of the Death to come play with me. He thought that having some of the power of the Mother of All Darkness inside him made him a bad-ass necromancer; I was going to do everything I could to show him that I was better at it. I needed him to come close enough for me to raise a circle with him inside it, and then all I had to do was keep him trapped in the body he walked in with, and give the word to Hatfield to burn the one on her end. She still hadn't found the body, but she had found the old mine that he'd been hiding in. Little Henry had been right that it was a maze. I prayed she'd find the body before he showed up on this end, because if not we were fucked. To kill him, the body he was in and the body he'd started in both had to burn.

We were in the modern open area of the cemetery. It gave the snipers the best chance. It left us open for the same thing, but long gun wasn't Seamus's strong suit, and the Lover of Death wouldn't shoot us. If he killed us tonight it would be death by zombie, or rotting vampire, nothing as clean and neat as a bullet.

Nicky came to me and spoke low. 'Why are you delaying?'

He was right. 'I think I'm afraid.'

'That you can't do it?'

'Why does that scare you?' he asked.

I took a deep breath and was honest with the gibbering voice in the back of my head. 'I've fought my necromancy for years to not do the very thing I'm about to do on purpose.'

'Create your own army of the undead?'

'What scares you about it the most?'

I looked up at him. 'That I'll enjoy it too much.'

'It's okay to enjoy what we're good at, Anita.'

'It's not okay to enjoy certain things, it's dangerous.'

'You mean how you're not supposed to enjoy killing people, or hurting them?'

I nodded. 'Yeah, like that.'

'Do you feel guilty about anyone you've killed?'

'Me either; now do this, Anita. Let your power out of its cage and see how far it runs.'

'What if it runs too far to put back in its cage?'

'If you're the one controlling the zombie army, I know it will be a good zombie army, because you are my moral compass and you always point true north, Anita. Don't let your doubts, or anyone else's issues, make you think otherwise.'

'Are you sure you're a sociopath?' I asked.

'Pretty sure, yeah; why?'

'Because somehow I didn't think sociopaths were good at being comforting.'

'We can be great at it, because we spend our lives play-acting, pretending so that we fit in and no one suspects that we have no idea why people are nice to each other.'

'You understand that was completely not comforting, right?'

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'Yes, but I don't have to pretend with you; you already know that I'm a sociopath, and you love me anyway.'

Edward came up to us. 'Sorry to interrupt, but what's the holdup?'

'Me, worrying about things I shouldn't be,' I said.

'Want some help clearing your head?' he asked.

I shook my head. 'I'm good, Nicky helped.'

Nicky looked at Edward. 'She's having one of those what-if-killing-feels-really-good, doesn't-that-make-me-a-bad-person moments.'

Edward nodded as if that made perfect sense. 'Then it feels good. We can't really control what flips our switch; don't judge it, Anita, and just accept it.'

I wanted to argue, but it would have been beyond stupid to argue with the two sociopaths in my life. 'Why do I have moral quandary questions with the two of you?'

'Because you don't really have moral quandaries about violence, Anita, but you're afraid of being judged for enjoying it, so you only bring it to the two people in your life who won't judge you.'

I wanted to argue with Edward, but I couldn't. 'Well, fuck.'

'Pretty much; now go raise zombies like the kickass necromancer we all know you are.' He actually petted me on the head, which he knew I hated.

'Don't pet me,' I said.

'Sorry, but if you need to stroke off, I can help you; otherwise do your job so that the evil necromancer's undead army doesn't eat all the nice people in Boulder.'

'Does that make me the good necromancer, or just the other evil one?'

'It makes you our necromancer; now go play with the vampires and raise us some zombies.'

'Fine, you guys go stand somewhere else.' I went to get my vampires and embrace my inner necromancer. I hoped I was the good one.