The Killing Dance (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #6) - Chapter 37~38

37

Richard turned to me, wearing only the leather pants and the boots. Marcus had asked that they not strip down, said something about saving an old man's dignity. Bullshit. There was something in the air that I didn't like, as if Marcus had known what was coming and he was ready.

"As acknowledged Ulfric, Marcus gets to choose the form we fight in," Richard said.

"What form did he choose?"

Richard raised his hand in front of my face. "Touch my hand."

He made it sound so serious for such a small request. I touched the back of his hand lightly.

"Grip my palm, Anita."

I wrapped my fingers around the lower part of his hand. Before I could look to his face or ask a question, I felt it. Energy welled up his hand like oil up the wick of a lamp. His skin flowed under my hand. I felt the bones lengthening. I felt his body give as if the boundaries that confined him to skin and bone and flesh had dissolved. It felt almost like he would scatter himself outward like I'd done earlier, but it wasn't his essence that was reaching outward. It was his body.

He held up his other hand, and I took it. I locked my fingers in his and felt his bones grow across my skin, watched claws form as his flesh flowed like clay. Distant as a scream, I knew I should have been scared or sickened. The power flowed down his shifting hands to my hands, flowing between us like cool fire.

He stopped when his hands were human claws with talons that could have ripped me apart. The power didn't stop abruptly; it wasn't like turning off a switch. It was like turning off a faucet, slowing the flow down to a trickle, a drop, then nothing.

I was on my knees and hadn't remembered getting there. Richard knelt in front of me, hands still clasped in mine. It took me two tries to be able to talk. "How can you stop like that?"

He drew his newly formed hands carefully out of my hands. I shivered as the tips of his claws trailed over my skin.

"Controlling the change is what separates the sheep from the wolves," he said.

It took me a second to realize he'd made a joke. He leaned into me and whispered, "If I lose control in the fight, or if I'm losing, I'll shift completely. I want you to come touch me, if I ask you."

"Why?"

His breath was warm against my cheek. He wrapped his arms around me, held me in the circle of his body, claws playing along the leather straps of the outfit. "I want you to feel the rush of power. I want you to know what it can be like between us." His arms tightened. "If I'm losing, you can ride the power and use it to get my wolves out of here. The others will kill anyone they think is disloyal."

I pushed away enough to see his face. "How can I use the power to do that?"

"You'll know." He kissed my forehead ever so gently. "Save them, Anita. Promise me."

"I promise."

He stood, my hands slipping over his body as he got to his feet. I caught one of his hands. My hand slid down the long, curved claw. It was as hard and solid and unreal as it looked. I'd felt his body shift, and yet, staring up at Richard's handsome face and those monstrous hands, it was jarring. Still, I held on. I didn't want to let him go.

"Careful of the claws, Anita. I'm not in human form anymore."

He meant that a scratch might make me furry, might not. Hard to tell. But it was enough to make me let go. No matter how good Richard felt, I wasn't ready to throw humanity completely behind me.

Richard stared down at me, and there was a world in his eyes of things unsaid, things undone. I opened my mouth, closed it. "Do you have this much control over every body part?"

He smiled. "Yes."

I was so scared I couldn't speak. I'd made my last joke. The only thing left was truth. I raised up, putting my hands on his legs for support and kissed the back of his hand. The skin was still as soft, still smelled and tasted like Richard, the bones underneath felt like someone else.

"Don't get killed."

He smiled. There was a sadness in his eyes that was bottomless. Even if he won this fight, it would cost him dearly. Murder, that's how he would see it. No matter how justified. Moral high ground is dandy, but it'll get you killed.

Raina kissed Marcus good-bye, pressing her body so tightly against him, it was like she was trying to walk through him, part him like a curtain and slip inside.

She pushed him away with a rich, throaty laugh. It was the kind of laughter that made you turn your head in bars. A joyous, slightly wicked sound. Raina stared across the clearing at me, the laughter still sparkling in her eyes, on her face. One look was enough. She was going to kill me if she could.

Since I was pretty much thinking the same thing about her, I gave her a little nod and a salute. We'd see who was dead come morning. It might be me, but somewhere on the lists of the dead would be Raina. That I could almost promise.

Marcus raised his clawed hands over his head. He turned in a slow circle.

"Two alphas fight for you here tonight. One of us will leave this circle alive. One of us will feed you tonight. Drink of our blood, eat of our flesh. We are pack. We are lukoi. We are one."

Jason threw his head back and howled, so close to me that I jumped. Furred throats echoed him, human throats joining the chorus. I stood alone among the pack and did not join in. When the last echo faded off in the rolling, wooded hills, Marcus said, "Death between us then, Richard."

"I offered you life, Marcus. You chose death."

Marcus smiled. "I suppose I did."

Marcus jumped straight at him, no feinting, no practice, just a blur of speed. Richard rolled to the ground, up and away, coming to his feet. Three thin lines bled across his belly. Marcus didn't give him a chance to recover. He covered the distance between them like a bad dream. I couldn't even keep track of it with my eyes. I'd seen lycanthropes move before, and I'd thought they were fast, but Marcus was breathtaking.

He slashed Richard, forcing him back towards the edge of the clearing where Raina stood. Richard wasn't being hurt, but the flurry of attacks forced him backwards, kept him from attacking. I needed to ask a question. I looked down at Jason. He turned pale wolf eyes to me.

"If anyone else helps Marcus, it's cheating, right?" It felt vaguely stupid talking to something that looked like an animal, but the look in those eyes wasn't animal. I wasn't sure it was human, but it wasn't animal.

The wolf nodded its head. Awkwardly.

Richard's back was almost within Raina's reach. Jamil, the black werewolf from two nights ago, had joined her. Sebastian was already at her side. Shit.

"If they

cheat, can I shoot them?"

"Yes," Cassandra joined us, walking up through the pack like a warm, prickling wind. I got the first real brush of her power and knew she could have been lupa if she wanted to be.

I pulled the Browning out, and it felt odd in my hands, as if I didn't need it. I was channeling more of the pack than I knew if I didn't want my gun. A dangerous amount more. I wrapped my fingers around the butt of the Browning, digging my hand around it, remembering the feel of it. The sensory memory brought it back to me, pushed some of the glow of power away.

I didn't see a weapon, but Richard's back was to Raina and Sebastian. I raised the Browning, not aiming, not yet. I yelled, "Behind you."

I saw Richard's back spasm. He collapsed to his knees. Everything slowed down, carved in crystal. Sebastian's hand moved with a flash of silver blade. I was already aiming at him. Marcus's claw drew back for a downward swipe at Richard's unprotected throat. I pulled the trigger and turned the gun towards Marcus, but it would be too slow, too late.

The top of Sebastian's head exploded. I had a fraction of a second to wonder what ammunition Edward had put in the gun. The body started to fall backwards. Marcus's claw came sweeping down, and Richard drove his hand under the arm, into Marcus's upper stomach. Marcus stopped, froze for a second, as the claws dug into his stomach, up under his ribs. Richard's hand went into Marcus's body past the wrist.

I kept the Browning pointed at Raina in case she got any ideas about picking up the knife.

Marcus drove his claws into Richard's back. Richard tucked his face and neck against the other man's body, protecting himself from the claws. Marcus shuddered. Richard broke away from him, bringing his bloody hand out of Marcus's chest. He tore the still-beating heart out of his chest and flung it to the wolves. They fell on the morsel with small yips and growling.

Richard collapsed to his knees beside Marcus's body. Blood poured down his lower back where the knife had gone in. I walked to him, the gun still pointed at Raina. I knelt, still keeping a bead on her. "Richard, are you all right?" It was a stupid thing to ask, but what else was I supposed to say?

"Put up the gun, Anita. It's over."

"She tried to kill you," I said.

"It's over." He turned his face to me, and his eyes were already gone. His voice fell towards a growl. "Put it away."

I stared up at Raina and knew if I didn't kill her now, I'd have to kill her later. "She'll see us dead, Richard."

Richard's hand was suddenly there, faster than I could see. He hit my hand, and the gun went spinning. My hand was numb. I tried to back away, but he grabbed me, wrapping his clawed hands around my upper arms. "No more killing... tonight." He threw back his head and howled. His mouth was full of fangs.

I screamed.

"Ride the power, Anita. Ride it or run." His hands convulsed around my arms. I backpedaled, dug my heels in, and tried to get loose. He collapsed on top of me, too hurt for the struggle, too far gone to fight the change. His power roared over me, into me. I couldn't see anything but the glow of power behind my eyes. If I could have breathed, I'd have screamed again, but there was nothing but the force of his power, and it spread outward from him like a rock in water. The waves touched the pack, and where it touched, fur flowed. Richard shifted and took everyone with him. Everyone. I felt Raina struggle next to us. I felt her fight it. Heard her shriek, but in the end she fell to the ground and changed.

I held onto Richard's arms, and fur flowed under my hands like water. Muscle formed and shifted, bones broke and reknit. My lower body was trapped underneath him. Clear liquid gushed from his body, pouring over me in a near scalding wave. I screamed and struggled to get out from underneath him. And the power rode me down, filled me up, until I thought my skin wouldn't hold, couldn't hold it.

Finally, he rose off me, not a wolf, but man-wolf, covered in fur the color of cinnamon and gold. His genitalia hung large and full underneath him. He stared at me with amber eyes and offered me a clawed hand as he rose on two slightly bent legs.

I ignored the hand and scooted backwards. I got to my feet, a little unsteady, and stared. The wolf form was actually taller than his human shape, about seven feet, muscled, and monstrous. There was nothing left of Richard. But I knew how good it had felt to let loose the beast. I had felt it rise out of him like a second mind, soul, rising upward, outward, filling him, spilling out of his skin.

My body was still tingling with the brush of his beast. I could feel the thick softness of his fur under my fingertips like a sensory memory that would haunt me.

Marcus's very human-looking body lay on the ground at Richard's feet. The scent of fresh blood ran through him, ran through them all. I felt it thrill through my body. I stared down at the dead man and wanted to go down to my knees and feed. I had a strong visual image of tearing flesh, warm viscera. It was a memory. It jerked me back a step.

I stared at the man-wolf. I stared at Richard and shook my head. "I can't feed. I won't."

He spoke, but it was twisted and guttural. "You're not invited. We will feast, then hunt. You can watch. You can join the hunt, or you can go."

I backed away slowly. "I'm going."

The pack was creeping closer, gigantic wolves mostly, but here and there were man-wolves, watching me with alien eyes. I couldn't see the Browning that Richard had knocked from my hand. I drew the Firestar and started to back away.

"No one will hurt you, Anita. You are lupa. Mate."

I stared into the cool eyes of the nearest wolf. "Right now, I'm just food, Richard."

"You refused the power," he said.

He was right. In the end, I'd panicked and hadn't gotten the full dose. "Whatever." I eased through the wolves, but they didn't move. I walked out, brushing through fur like wading through a fur coat factory. Every brush of breathing, living animal scared me. Panic climbed at my throat, and I still had enough glow left to know that my fear excited them. The more scared I got, the more I smelled like food.

I kept the gun ready, but I knew if they went for me, I was dead. There were too many of them. They watched me walk. They stubbornly refused to move, forcing me to brush their furred bodies. I realized they were using me for a sort of appetizer, my fear to spice their food, the brush of my human body to flavor their chase.

When I passed the last furred body, the sound of tearing flesh brought my head around. I couldn't stop myself in time. Richard's muzzle was raised skyward, slick with blood, throwing down a piece of meat that I

tried not to recognize.

I ran. The woods that I'd glided through with Richard's help suddenly became an obstacle course. I ran, and tripped, and fell, and ran some more. I finally got back to the parking lot. I had driven because nobody but me was going home tonight. They'd stay here and have a moonlight jamboree.

Edward and Harley had watched all of it from a nearby hill with night scopes. I wondered what they thought of the show.

38

Edward made me promise to go back to the Circus for one more night. Marcus was dead, so there was no more money, but if someone else had taken the contract, they might not know that yet. It would be a shame to get killed after all the effort we'd put in to save me. I walked all the way down the damn stairs to the ironbound door before I realized I didn't have a key, and nobody was expecting me.

The clear liquid that had gushed out of Richard's body had dried to a sticky, viscous substance somewhere between blood and glue. I needed a bath. I needed clean clothes. I needed to stop seeing Richard's mouth while he ate pieces of Marcus. The harder I tried not to flash on it, the clearer the image got.

I banged on the door until my hands stung, then I kicked it. No one came. "Shit!" I screamed at no one and everyone. "Shit!"

The feel of his body on top of mine. His bones and muscle sliding on top of me like a bag of snakes. The warm rush of power, and that moment when I had wanted to drop to my knees and feed. What if I had swallowed the power whole? What if I hadn't backed off? Would I have fed on Marcus? Would I have done that and enjoyed it?

I screamed wordlessly, smacking my hands into the door, kicking it, beating on it. I collapsed to my knees, stinging palms pressed against the wood. I leaned my head against the door and cried.

"Ma petite, what has happened?" Jean-Claude stood behind me on the stairs. "Richard is not dead. I would feel it."

I turned and pressed my back against the door. I wiped at the tears on my face. "He's not dead, not even close."

"Then what is wrong?" He came down the steps like he was dancing, too graceful for words, even after an evening spent with shapeshifters. His shirt was a deep, rich blue, not quite dark enough to be navy, the sleeves were full, with wide cuffs, the collar high but soft, almost as if it were a scarf. I'd never seen him in blue of any shade. It made his midnight blue eyes seem bluer, darker. His jeans were black and tight enough to be skin, the boots were knee-high, with a trailing edge of black leather that flopped as he moved.

He knelt beside me, not touching me, almost like he was afraid to. "Ma petite, your cross."

I stared down at it. It wasn't glowing, not yet. I wrapped my hand around the cross and jerked, snapping the chain. I flung it away. It fell against the wall, glinting silver in the faint light. "Happy?"

Jean-Claude looked at me. "Richard lives. Marcus is dead. Correct?"

I nodded.

"Then why the tears, ma petite? I do not think I have ever seen you cry."

"I am not crying."

He touched my cheek with one fingertip and came away with a single tear trembling on the end of his finger. He raised it to his lips, the tip of his tongue licked it off his skin. "You taste like your heart has broken, ma petite."

My throat choked tight. I couldn't breathe past the tears. The harder I tried not to cry, the faster the tears flowed. I hugged myself, and my hands touched the sticky gunk that covered me. I held my hands away from my body like I'd touched something unclean. I stared at Jean-Claude with my hands held out in front of me.

"Mon Dieu, what has happened?" He tried to hug me, but I pushed him away.

"You'll get it all over you."

He stared at the thick, clear gunk on his hand. "How did you get this close to a shapeshifting werewolf?" An idea flowed across his face. "It's Richard. You saw him change."

I nodded. "He changed on top of me. It was... Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God."

Jean-Claude pulled me into his arms. I pushed at him. "You'll ruin your clothes."

"Ma petite, ma petite, it's all right. It is all right."

"No, it's not." I sagged against him. I let him wrap me in his arms. I clutched at him, hands digging into the silk of his shirt. I buried my face against his chest and whispered, "He ate Marcus. He ate him."

"He's a werewolf, ma petite. That's what they do."

It was such an odd thing to say, and so terribly true, that I laughed--an abrupt, almost angry sound. The laughter died in choking, and the choking became sobs.

I held onto Jean-Claude like he was the last sane thing in the world. I buried myself against him and wept. It was like something deep inside me had broken, and I was crying out bits of myself onto his body.

His voice came to me dimly, as if he had been speaking for a long time, but I hadn't heard. He was speaking French, softly, whispering it into my hair, stroking my back, rocking me gently.

I lay in his arms, quiet. I had no more tears left. I felt empty and light, numb.

Jean-Claude smoothed my hair back from my forehead. He brushed his lips across my skin, like Richard had done earlier tonight. Even that thought couldn't make me cry again. It was too soon.

"Can you stand, ma petite?"

"I think so." My voice sounded distant, strange. I stood, still in the circle of his arms, leaning against him. I pushed away from him gently. I stood on my own, a little shaky, but better than nothing.

His dark blue shirt was plastered to his chest, covered with werewolf goop and tears. "Now we both need a bath," I said.

"That can be arranged."

"Please, Jean-Claude, no sexual innuendo until after I'm clean."

"Of course, ma petite. It was crude of me tonight. My apologies."

I stared at him. He was being far too nice. Jean-Claude was a lot of things, but nice wasn't one of them.

"If you're up to something, I don't want to know about it. I can't handle any deep, dark plots tonight, okay?"

He smiled and gave a low, sweeping bow, never taking his eyes off me. The way you bow on the judo mat when you're afraid the person may pound you if you look away.

I shook my head. He was up to something. Nice to know that not everyone had suddenly become something else. One thing I could always depend on was Jean-Claude. Pain in the ass that he was, he always seemed to be there. Dependable in his own twisted way. Jean-Claude dependable? I must have been more tired than I thought.