The debate raged on about what could possibly be lurking near Brazil, but Rider sat silently, just looking out of the limousine window. He hated not knowing the lay of the land, and felt handicapped by not having fluent knowledge of the language. He felt trapped, could feel the sensation rising within him fast, threatening to suffocate him. He studied the dark, mountain road. Mist surrounded the vehicle, and there was no other traffic. The limousine bounced along the uneven asphalt, and the moon shimmered overhead. They were going down another dark path that felt like one more blind alley. He had been down too many in his life, and this was the last one he was willing to explore.
"Let me out," he said, his voice low. The walls of the vehicle seemed like they were closing in on him.
The group stopped talking and looked at him.
"I have to get out," he said again softly. "Please let me out." He looked at the team's stunned expressions. "This is where I get off," he said, his voice beginning to become strained, rising as he spoke, each word becoming louder and louder. "I don't want to go see some fellow guardian team in the hills. I don't want to make another goddamned choice about shit. I'm exhausted - mentally wrung out. I do not care if it's demons or vampires or a fucking drug dealer, just as long as the bastards kill me quick!"
He drew a ragged breath and placed his hand on the door, and nodded toward the driver. "Tell that motherfucker to open the door before I shoot the window out!"
"Rider, man, be cool," Shabazz said, his voice low and comforting, but steady. "I know you're tired. We all are," he said, trying to reach some rational part of Rider's mind. "Marlene's been getting wild visions just from the land we're on. My reflexes have been hair-trigger, like I'm about to go off any minute, which ain't good in a foreign joint where there's no such thing as parole. Feel me? There's so much stimuli here that Mike is picking up everything and nothing at the same time. The young bucks are wigging, and are overextended after the concert. Your nose is off, 'cause you're exhausted."
"Right now, you could light a Cuban cigar next to me, and I wouldn't know it."
Shabazz kept his gaze on Rider's, waiting for him to remove his hand from the door. No one else spoke. All that could be heard was the drone of the motor. "Man, it's gonna be all right."
"It's not going to be all right!" Rider drew his Glock and pointed it toward his window. "She looked like Tara."
Big Mike exchanged a glance with Shabazz and Jose, then sent a warning glance around the team. No one said a word and Marlene swallowed hard.
"It's all right, man," Big Mike said slowly, his voice low and steady. "That was a gift."
"It was not a gift," Rider said, now looking at Big Mike, but his hand was no longer on the door handle. Angry tears shone in his eyes and his gun trembled as he lowered the weapon and pointed it toward the floor. He shook his head. "That chick in the club... she looked just like her." He breathed in a shaky inhale. "It was a curse that just brought it all back, Mike. I shouldn't have taken her back to the room."
Quiet enveloped the group as Rider's breathing steadied.
"There comes a point in a man's life where he reaches his limit," Rider said, his voice just above a murmur. "When you gotta let something go, no matter how much that shit hurts. Then you start over, and try not to look back." His gaze sought the window again, and he stared out past the blackened windows. "That's all Rivera is trying to say. I can dig it. Been there. This bullshit going down over here is part of his territory - let him handle it. Damali isn't in any danger from him, she's in danger from not letting go when she should."
Shabazz slowly reached out and put his hand on Rider's shoulder. "Gimme your gun, man. Let me hold it for you tonight... I wouldn't want you to get hurt."
"Yeah, man," Jose said, his voice dropping to a soothing octave. "Give 'Bazz the gun, me and you can talk this out... just like old times, just like we always do around this time of year. It's gonna be all right."
Rider chuckled. But the sound of it was distant as he lifted his Glock, ignored Shabazz's open hand and Jose's pleas, and put the weapon to his temple. "I wouldn't want anything else to happen to me, either," he said, his gaze never leaving the window. "There was only one person I'd take a bite from, and she's history."
"Rider," Marlene said, her voice quiet and strained. "Baby, listen. If we're dealing with demons, one just got to your head... remember I told you that you and Dan were more susceptible on this mission... Dan has German in his line, you've got European, and whatever's out there has an ax to grind. Put the gun down, honey. We love you. We've all got a past that haunts, and you're right. The past is hard to live with. Why don't we go home, figure this all out, huh? Let's just live through one more night, and when this child comes back to the hotel, she'll be baptized by the experience of a broken heart, too. And every one of us in here can testify, one by one... Carlos will be able to, as well."
"We'll let the man clean out his own territory," Big Mike said, reaching across Shabazz and putting a gentle but firm hand on Rider's biceps to lower the gun away from his skull. "There's a hundred and forty-four thousand guardians on the planet, brother. We're just one team of seven that happened to get the hard task of guarding a Neteru. We can let a couple of vamps get smoked by the other teams. And in those other teams, who knows... there might be somebody worth taking a bullet for. You understand, man?"
Rider nodded, swallowed hard, and put the safety back on his gun before putting it in his shoulder holster hard. "That's all I was saying," he whispered, and looked at the stricken expressions of the younger guardians. He could feel the muscles in his jaw pulse as he blinked back tears and they burned away. "Rivera is a good man," he said, his voice steadier as his gaze went back to the window. "Had a tough choice - one of his own, or one not like him... didn't matter where his heart was. He could do this quick and draw that knife out of the wound in one hard pull, or drag this shit out for seven years in fucked-up increments." He nodded again, just staring. "Quick is always better." Then he sat back and slung his arm over his eyes and took a deep breath.
No sooner than he'd sat back, the window shattered, the limousine swerved, and then hit a tree. The team tumbled out of their seats and scrambled to right themselves, their nervous gazes shooting around to see if anyone had been hurt. Rider yanked an arrow out of the upholstery by Marlene's head, his hand shaking. Two seconds earlier, if he hadn't sat back, it would have gone through his temple.
The fractured radiator hissed, and the entire front of the limo was an accordion of crumbled metal. The tree didn't even lean. The driver was slumped over the wheel.
"Incoming!" Rider hollered, as another arrow whizzed through the missing windshield and hit the empty front passenger seat.
Big Mike quickly looked at the driver through the partially broken separation window. He kicked out the remaining glass, reached over the seat, and forced the man back. He looked down and pulled a bloody arrow from the center of the driver's chest with a rip. "We got a major problem, people."
The limo rocked as something landed on the top of it. Mike adjusted his shoulder cannon, aimed at the ceiling, and fired, opening a large hole in the roof. "We've gotta get out, or we're sitting ducks in here."
Rider put his head up through the gaping hole, cocked his gun at the blackness, and ducked down again fast. "I didn't see anything," he said, breathless.
"You won't," Marlene told him in a flat tone. "Look at this arrowhead. Amazon. Shaped just like an Isis blade point. Just like you'd find on a guardian team's weapons."
"Oh, shit..." Rider was about to go up through the hole again when the vehicle rocked from sudden weight. A jaguar peered down through the blown-out steel, snarled, and vanished.
The group stared at the drip of saliva that was now sizzling a hole in the limousine floor carpet.
"I smell it now, if I didn't before - sulfur." Rider looked at his junior tracker partner for confirmation.
Jose concurred. "Demon with a heavy animal tracer. Gotta be a were."
"We've got one choice," Shabazz said. "We can sit here while they pick us off one by one, or get out and go down swinging."
"We swing, dude," Rider agreed. "On three?"
The team looked out the missing windshield through to where the divider used to be.
"We'd better swing hard, because I count several pairs of green glowing eyes dead ahead." JL glanced over his shoulder as six jaguars materialized out of the dense mist.
"There're too many of them to go out there," Dan whispered.
"Shit," Marlene whispered, clutching Damali's sword. "The only way we can - "
But her words failed her as a hand punched through the driver's-side window and yanked the dead driver out. Shabazz opened fire and missed the black hooded entity. It snarled, brandished a battle-ax, and leaped with five other hooded figures in front of the advancing row of jaguars.
"What the fuck?" Rider's voice trailed off and he knelt on the vehicle floor, facing the windshield with his gun pointing toward the missing pane. "Vamps, too? All in the same night?"
"I'm going over the seat!" Dan hollered. "C'mon, JL. I'll cover you. Try to see if we can start the engine!"
"Dan, sit your ass down! You're a target, like Rider. The engine and radiator are done. You see that front end?" Big Mike pointed with his shoulder cannon. "Everybody, conserve artillery, and only shoot at what comes near us. If they fight over us as dinner, maybe they'll thin their own numbers out. We pick off what's left."
"Sounds like a plan," Shabazz said, covering a back window as the limo rocked with weight again.
They were moving backward away from the tree. Shabazz squinted, trying to get a visual on what had them, in order to get off a solid shot. The team's attention darted between the standoff before them and the invisible force pulling the wrecked vehicle away from the tree trunk.
"Hold up," Marlene said fast. "I can see. Hold your fire."
"What?" Rider put his left hand under his right wrist to steady his weapon.
JL, Dan, and Jose had crossbows assembled and aimed.
"I said, hold your fire! It's our only way out of here!"
The back windshield peeled away like it was a piece of paper, and two red, glowing eyes stared back through it without a face. Massive incisors opened and a snarl emanated from the creature. Marlene's hand went to Rider's trembling arm, and she held up her other hand to keep Shabazz and the others steady.
"We will repair your engine and radiator. But you must be quick. The demons are upon you. Daylight comes soon - and makes our assistance limited."
But as the entity spoke, it suddenly burst into flames and disintegrated.
"I can fire now, huh, Mar?" Rider shouted, opening a round of gunfire with Big Mike and Shabazz.
A dart flew past him, lodging in the leather seat a millimeter from his upper arm. Dan released a crossbow stake, but it simply passed through thin air. Before them, the standoff broke into a free-for-all battle as the jaguars lunged at the hooded creatures. Horrible snarls and hisses echoed into the night air.
"Keep that back window covered!" Shabazz ordered, tumbling into the front seat with Dan.
"Shabazz, no!" Marlene yelled, another dart missing him by inches. "They use poison! Use the holy-water grenades, Dan. The crossbow arrows aren't fast enough. They don't work on the demons, and don't shoot the vamps. They're allies!"
A blue electric arc shattered the side window upon Marlene's words. Shabazz yelled, "Noooo!" his gun firing toward nothing, passing through the light that wracked Marlene's convulsing form. The arc was unbreakable. The front window was vulnerable as the team scrambled to help Marlene, unable to touch her as the current riddled her.
The energy that held her was as bright as lightning, and as her body shook from the jolt that paralyzed her, the team drew back, not knowing what to fire at. The energy receded, dropping Marlene in a smoldering heap, and an albino human female face lowered into the side window. Her light brown locks were woven with gold bands, and her eyes glowed green, her evil grin disfigured by fangs. She disappeared before Big Mike's shoulder cannon payload passed the horizon of the window.
Just beyond the side of a limousine another vampire guard was felled, disintegrated by a hail of silver-tipped arrows. Shabazz was over the seat, holding Marlene to his chest, one arm extended with his weapon, his body swinging wildly as he quickly aimed in different directions. A hooded creature jumped into the driver's seat that Shabazz had abandoned, and when Dan raised his crossbow, the vampire slapped it away, put his finger in the ignition, and the engine fired.
"Drive!" Then the creature was gone.
Dan slid over and took the wheel; Rider jumped in the front with him to cover their driver. Big Mike put one hand on Shabazz's shoulder, covering him as he tried to revive Marlene. Both JL and Jose stood up through the hole, using it like a machine gun turret, leveling crossbows at the misty night while Dan drove the vehicle down the street in reverse. Spinning fast, he wheeled the limo in a circle, threw it into drive, and stomped the pedal to the floor.
"You know where you're going? You can't see shit out here!"
"No," Dan yelled at Rider. "But anywhere is better than where we were. Fuck it. If we have to drive around like maniacs till dawn, what dif does it make?"
"Point taken," Rider admitted. "How's Mar?"
Rider peered over the seat. His eyes met Mike's. Big Mike shook his head. Shabazz brought Marlene's limp body closer against his, and rocked harder, saying nothing, nuzzling her cheek with his own.
"Son of a bitch!" Rider punched the dashboard and swallowed hard, blinking back the emotion.
Dan simply drove.
Sudden motion at the door brought Damali to her feet, crossbow raised, chin lowered, her sight on the target; anything that came through the door would be toast.
Big Mike barreled through the hotel-room door first, an Uzi leveled as he kicked it in, and Shabazz came in carrying Marlene in his arms, followed by Jose, JL, and Dan, Rider bringing up the rearóbacking in, his gun toward the hall before shutting the door.
All weapons dropped, the team gathered around the bed, and Shabazz gently lowered Marlene and laid his head on her chest. The rest of the group backed up as they saw his fist slowly clench the covers around her. His shoulders shook. A sob caught in Damali's throat. Her crossbow fell to the floor. She stood there, stunned, not believing her eyes. Hot moisture made everything go hazy, and her voice came from her belly, as she screamed, "No!"
Fighting against the hands that grabbed for her, she pushed them away.
"Let me at her, Shabazz. Please, 'Bazz! I got this, trust me!"
Tears coursed down his dark, stricken face, but he sucked in a deep breath, stood, and stepped to the side. Damali pressed her face to Marlene's chest and closed her eyes. Then she took a deep breath and opened her mind. Her hands caressed the crown of Marlene's head, her fingers tangling in Marlene's dense thicket of silver locks. Frantic, Damali tried to still herself, tried to remember everything Marlene had taught her about healing, removing dark-arts magic, restoring wholeness, breaking horrible illusions. She breathed slowly, willing Marlene's soul to hear hers. Silent tears ran down the bridge of her nose, dripping onto Marlene's chest. The smell of sulfur sent a stench of raw skin and acid into the back of Damali's throat where the arc of negative energy had struck.
In her mind, she could see the electric blue light that was darkened by a black, writhing mass of adders that it carried, their green eyes glowing as they'd entered Marlene's chest, strangling her heart, trying to stop the flow of her life force. She covered their entry point on Marlene's chest with both hands, her eyes shut tight, as she mentally siphoned them to her with her younger, angrier, more vital energy. She could feel them enter her palms, slide up her arms, and enter her chest cavity.
Damali's chest began to sting, burn, and sear her cotton T-shirt to her as her lungs became filled with suffocating sulfur. Her chest felt tight, her innards moved, consumed by a slithering mass that snapped at her heart tissue and soft organs. She cried out. Big Mike rushed toward her, but Rider held him.
Shabazz began a silent prayer, his hands clasped, his eyes shut tight, now on his knees. Dan knelt beside him as Damali worked, joining in the prayer with Shabazz in Hebrew. Rider's hands went to Damali's shoulders and Big Mike added his with Jose's, sending energy, power, prayers, light to the fallen Marlene. Shabazz lowered his face to the bed covers, his body shaking with the effort to control his tears. The pain that went through Damali's chest felt like her heart was being stripped from it, but she would not stop. Dear God in Heaven, not Marlene!
Pain made her breaths come in short pants. Panic ripped at her mind. But she held on, sending love, light, and warmth. Images echoed in her skull. She saw the thing that had sent the horrible dark charge. Her eyes locked with its demonic stare. Damali sat up, trapped in the vision, holding Marlene's clothes in tight fists.
"You can't have her!" she said, her voice coming out almost in a growl. "It is not her time."
Damali yanked her hands away from Marlene's chest and made fists, holding a part of the evil within them. She stood and shrugged off the other guardians' touch for their safety. She knew it would concentrate, would try to pull back into one black mass. An eerie dark light swirled around Damali's clenched fists as she opened them and stepped away from the bed, then slapped her own chest hard, taking a small portion of what had attacked Marlene into her. "And you don't have that kind of power!"
Damali's body instantly arched as the black charge entered her, and she tried to draw the negative energy away from Marlene toward her. The air around both women crackled with dark current, and a volt snapped Damali with a hard jerk as a charred filament threaded out of Marlene and connected both women at the heart level chakra like a snakelike black cord.
"Toss me my blade, but don't touch me," Damali said, her voice strong through labored breaths. She didn't even open her eyes, just heard her weapon chime as a teammate threw it. She felt for it blindly as she reached out and caught it mid-air. With one swing, she broke the dark cord connection that was beginning to choke her, then leaped up on the bed, one foot on either side of Marlene's body.
She placed the Isis tip over Marlene's heart, and watched the dark filament attack it, leaving Marlene to creep up the blood grooves in the sword, cover her hand, and slide up her blade arm in a slow approach to her heart. That's right, come to me. I'm younger, stronger, more vital, have a weapon. You want the group leader, the seer, female energy. Come for the Neteru. Her mind screamed at the darkness, baiting it, drawing it, Yes, come to me, she's old. When the last of the black plasma had stopped coming from Marlene's chest, Damali raised the Isis and began a loud chant of Psalm Ninety-One - the psalm of protection during battle.
Immediately, the dark cord receded from her shoulder in a fast-moving, smoking, angry swirl back down her arm as though trying to escape the route it had traveled. The moment it hit the handle of the blade the black plasma sparked, ignited, and torched everything on the blade, leaving a green slimy residue that ran down the blood grooves when Damali lowered it over the side of the bed away from her and Marlene. The group watched it burn, turn to ash, then disappear.
Blue electric current rippled across Marlene's shut lids as soon as the last of the ash had vanished. Marlene gasped and arched violently, then relaxed. She coughed, wheezed, and drew in a huge gulp of air, then vomited over the side of the bed.
Damali knelt and held Marlene's locks out of her face, while her body continued to empty itself. An open sob wracked Shabazz as he clutched Marlene's concert robe and buried his face in it. Damali touched Marlene's face.
"You learned good, baby," Marlene said, her voice a hoarse whisper. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She caressed the top of Shabazz's head. He was breathing hard as he clasped her hand, but had recovered.
"Get her some water," he said, glancing up at Mike.
Rider went to get towels to clean up the mess by the bed, and the others helped as Shabazz just stayed by her side stroking her hair, dabbing perspiration off her forehead, and swallowing hard. Marlene sat up a little, took a sip of water, and spit it into the waste can Rider held for her. She took a bit of toothpaste from Damali's finger when Big Mike offered it, and swished her mouth out, then shook her head.
"Close one," she murmured, shutting her eyes and drinking a full glass of water.
Damali nodded, her hand went to her chest, and her voice fractured with rage. She was seeing red, little pinpoints of it wafting past her corneas, almost scorching them from the inside out. "Too close. This was over the top!" Damali picked up her sword and her grip tightened on Madame Isis. She looked around at her team, realizing that she had almost lost them.
"Everybody else is all right," Shabazz said, his voice hoarse as he stood slowly. "I've just never seen Marlene take a hit like that. We're all right. After this, I'm done."
"Shabazz," Marlene said quietly. "Guardians never run." She touched his face. "This thing is - "
"I'm going alone," Damali said, sitting down beside Marlene and taking up one of her hands. "I will cut this bitch's heart out. She went for my moms, my mother-seer - had my partner, Rider, almost shoot himself in the head? Got my man acting stupid? Oh, hell no!" Her gaze swept the group. "I understand 'Bazz's point - it is too dangerous for a lot of members on this team. But, you know what? I'm so fucking done, if I get one of them before I die, that's all right by me."
She looked at Shabazz, thoroughly understanding his position, and also could dig why her team was silently riding the fence, not trying to sway the decision to fight so that if something happened to Marlene again, their own consciences wouldn't kill them - if they lived. Both elder members would lay heavy on all their hearts, if the shit got any crazier than it already had. She kissed Marlene's forehead fast and stood and walked to the terrace doors and flung them open. "It's on now, you whore!" she yelled, then slammed the glass so hard it almost shattered.
Rider glanced at Damali and Shabazz, then cast his gaze around the room, allowing it to settle on Marlene. "I don't think Carlos knows what he's dealing with. He told us it was a female vamp. What attacked us were were-demons from this region. I was the first one ready to break camp and ready to go home, too. But my mind can't wrap around a piece of this puzzle." He rubbed his jaw and looked at Shabazz. "You should take Marlene home, man. Wouldn't nobody blame you... least of all, me."
"I hear you, but, we're okay, everything's gonna be fine. Gotta pick your battles, just wasn't ready for this one." Shabazz's voice sounded more like he was trying to convince himself than anyone else, but the group simply nodded. They could all dig it. The team was shook. "Marlene, you were right all along - Carlos doesn't know shit. These are were-demons, girl. His ass is tripping, so don't factor in what he has to say. The two that came for me - one as a croc, the other as an anaconda... right in Carlos's fucking lair, his shit is so raggedy." She stood and began pacing. "I'm done."
"What?" Rider had stopped her from pacing by holding her elbow. "In a master vamp's lair? How the hell did they breach his - "
"He thought she was a female vamp, and obviously didn't bar her or her girls from his bedroom," Damali said quickly, cutting Rider off. "The point is, I was in there with no Isis, a freakin' brass fireplace poker, and a twelve-foot crocodile materialized in the stream in the bedroom - then a giant anaconda slithered out of the goddamned hot tub."
"I'm not going to ask about the appointments in these vamp lairs," Rider said slowly, "but, uh, where was lover-man when the shit was hitting the fan?" He folded his arms over his chest. "This ain't his style, D. Not the way he feels about you. And you are still valuable to the vamp empire. To them, you're precious cargo, and he wouldn't risk that; the man has two very compelling reasons to keep you out of harm's way. He couldn't have known about this."
"The first one would have been enough for Rivera," Jose said. "Trust me on that." He looked at Damali and his gaze slid from her toward the window. "He didn't sanction a hit."
"Nah," Big Mike said, looking at Rider. "Homeboy might have decided to take the vampires' offer, but I agree with Rider and Jose, and I know he wouldn't willingly put Damali in harm's way... and demons? C'mon, y'all. Something's up with that. He don't roll like that. Where was he when they breached his lair, baby?"
Marlene struggled to sit up and Shabazz helped her, as all eyes in the room went to Damali. She studied the blade in her hand.
"Out feeding," Damali said, humiliation coating her tongue as she said it. "Or, whatever."
"He was feeding, D," JL said quietly. "Don't go there."
Again, no one spoke for a moment, but Dan's soft voice of reason broke the silence.
"Well, it was Carlos's crew that bailed us out, D. Rivera kept his word."
Damali nodded. But a rage so deep, worse than she'd ever known, threatened to make her scream. The emotion was so close to the surface of her skin it was making her itch. A war cry trapped in her throat mixed with the tears of anguish she'd swallowed and threatened to choke her.
"If there's been some kind of new alliance between the vamp empire and the strongest demon forces out there, the weres, then we need to go to Bahia," Marlene said quietly. "We can't run from this, or allow how we individually feel to cloud the issue."
Her gaze went to Shabazz and she cupped his cheek, and she briefly closed her eyes as he kissed the center of her palm and took her hand. She looked at Damali until Damali turned to face her. "He came for you when you were blind... you've gotta come for him now." She hesitated as she watched the tears rising in Damali's eyes. "Regardless, you and I both know that we cannot have an alignment that might allow these two entities to share power."
Damali nodded. "Vamps have mobility to go wherever they want, demons have access to daylight." She let out a weary breath. "Yeah, Mar. I know."
"Then, we need to at least warn the crew in Bahia about what Marlene is talking about. Matter of fact, if they've seen something like this, maybe they'd have weapons for it, because we sure don't." JL's gaze swept the group. "That's freakin' courtesy, folks. Imagine how we'd feel if another team knew about the whole Nuit thing, and just ran?"
"That's what telephones and fax machines and the Internet is for, little brother. We can get word to 'em. No need for a guided tour." Shabazz's eyes remained on Marlene. "The more I'm thinking about it, the whole thing is just too risky and my heart can't take it - honest to God."
"I love you, too," Marlene said quietly. "But you know in your soul, we've gotta go."
Shabazz stood and walked to stand by the terrace doors that Damali had abandoned and raked his fingers through his locks. Damali watched Marlene lie back down and close her eyes. She studied Shabazz's back as he breathed slowly.
"I can go alone or with a partial team, since it's just a fact-finding mission," Damali said softly, her rage dulling as she watched Shabazz's struggle. "I respect where Shabazz is coming from, and if our elder brother has a bad vibe - "
"No," Shabazz said in a weary tone. "We don't split up the group under any circumstances, personal or otherwise, when there's a clear and present threat. That's always been the rule."
"You sure, man?" Rider said, going to him.
Shabazz nodded. "Everybody get four hours of sleep. We'll check out at eleven tomorrow, send our stuff to the States, and get us a flight to Bahia, like Mar said. But in the meantime we get some sleep."
Shabazz walked back to Marlene, climbed up on the bed next to her, and spooned her from behind. Big Mike took a position in a chair facing the busted door, his Uzi over his lap as he shut his eyes. JL slid down against a wall, his crossbow on his legs. He leaned his head back, shut his eyes, and let his breath out hard. Rider snatched the desk chair, turned it around backward and sat, dropping his head to the desk. But his hand never left his gun. Jose and Dan slowly found a position by JL, flanking him on the floor.
"We might not be going anywhere," Marlene said with her eyes closed. "The driver... an innocent man. There'll be questions."
Damali closed her eyes as she found a soft chair and curled up in it. Somehow, the anger had blocked her fear, but it also lowered the veil expanding her awareness. She could intuit without full sight. In connecting with Marlene, she'd felt wisdom enter her. While she still couldn't see Carlos, the expressions on her team's faces, their beat-up, fatigued bodies, sent adrenaline through her. "Carlos's crew will clean up the situation."
"The vampire CIA, huh?" Rider chuckled wearily. "Operating in foreign countries, shifting the balance of power like a huge game board."
"Yeah," Damali muttered. "Somethin' like that."
She kept her eyes shut. A gray filter of new sunlight was trying to peek through the sides of the shut drapes. The guardians were there not to protect her; they were there because they were afraid to sleep alone. The burden of the shift in roles sat heavily on her chest and shoulders. Marlene had always said one day things would change.
But she had expected a long, drawn-out coming into her own. Yet, with a snap of Fate's fingers, a roll of Fate's dice, she was the den mother, the group leader, the general leading the charge. She now understood why Marlene and the others had given her as much time to be a kid as they could afford. It had been a small blessing, one to be cherished that she didn't fully appreciate until now.
Yes, she had led many a street fight. Sure, she had gone into fights before with Marlene and the guys. But never had one of her inner circle been this close to being lost. The Dee Dee thing was different. That had hurt like hell, but still... Dee Dee hadn't been one of their inner circle. Never had one so close as Marlene, her seer-mother and friend, ever come so near to dying, or had needed her so much. What if she hadn't been able to save Marlene? What if it hadn't been black-magic energy that had dropped Mar; what if it had been an arrow or a bullet? She couldn't save her from that. What if fear paralyzed her and she wasn't able to save anyone? Then what?
This was so different, this new role in a strange, foreign land. Never had so much been siphoned from her soul in one night... a night when she needed to weep for a significant loss, but couldn't. Those days were over. She'd gone to sleep one night ago a girl and had woken up in a new land as a woman.
"Do you know where he is, baby?" Marlene's gentle question flitted across the room to Damali.
Damali didn't even open her eyes to answer as she drifted off to sleep. "No, Mar. It doesn't matter anymore, anyway. He's just another vampire."
Carlos stared at the remaining vampire from his international squad in disbelief. "What happened?"
The maimed transporter fell to his knees and hung his head before Carlos. Its hooded robe was in shreds, as was one of its arms. It had been stripped of its battle-axes, and one fang was missing. The eyes in its faceless expanse of blackness flickered dangerously, on the verge of going out.
"I need to feed," it heaved in a ragged whisper. "I cannot even transmit."
Begrudgingly, Carlos pushed back the sleeve of his suit and offered his wrist to the dying thing. Disgust filled him as the entity greedily accepted the offering, and immediately slit Carlos's vein and began to feed, making wet, sucking sounds.
"That's enough," Carlos snapped, pulling his arm away.
The entity stood slowly, humiliation flickering in its eyes. Shaking its head in a warning, its eyes were solid red and it pointed to them, telling Carlos without words to see for himself.
Carlos looked into the entity's eyes, nodded, and paced away from the creature. "It was beyond your control." He walked over to the hearth and slammed his fist into it. "Damn!"
"We protected the Neteru's people at all costs, as you ordered. But the toll was heavy, sir. Were-demons are formidable within their own power boundaries... even though it poaches your territory."
What could Carlos say? Their word had been their bond. He studied the creature and let his breath out with impatience. "Thank you," he muttered, but meaning it. He'd asked the impossible and these messengers had delivered. But demons against Damali's crew? Why? Her team was nowhere near where the bodies had dropped. Then a deeply disturbing reality hit him; if that whack female vamp had led them to the new Neteru so they could manufacture more essence... Carlos closed his eyes to gather calm. "Let council know what happened."
The entity sighed and nodded, seeming relieved. "I will transmit the situation to the Vampire Council. The Neteru is safe?"
"Yes," Carlos said, nodding with caution. "Go ahead and send." He watched the red orbs disappear as his message was transmitted. The muscles in his back coiled with anticipation, as he waited for the messenger to reopen its eyes.
The chairman stood with his hands behind his back, his eyes closed, and his chin tilted toward the ceiling as he received the topside message. The Vampire Council sat silently, waiting, until the chairman opened his eyes.
"We have a disaster brewing topside," he said plainly, walking from behind the large pentagram-shaped table. Beyond belief, he shook his head as he spoke, his gaze roving over his council members, suspicion in his countenance. "See for yourself how we lost all but one of the international couriers we sent to protect Rivera's cargo. Pirated by level five were-demons? Impossible! A breach of this magnitude is an attempt to start another war - "
"While we are knowingly vulnerable," the counselor advised coolly.
Fury ripped through the chairman, but he remained outwardly calm. "Our world as we know it is changing. We were once a vast superpower, unmatched. But aggressive, weaker nations are utilizing terrorist tactics... they fight a very different war than we are used to."
"Do not underestimate their formidability, Mr. Chairman," the counselor said, his eyes never leaving the senior vampire. "We must get Rivera out of the hot zone, along with his cargo, before anything happens while they're there."
Another council member from the far end of the table spoke. "We must come to a decision, as dawn approaches, or adjourn. And we still have the matter of Rivera's missing soul. Our best man topside is in double jeopardy fighting unscrupulous forces such as these."
"I want his soul, or I want him out of there," the chairman said with a note of concern. "This courageous vampire is so - "
"We have the matter under control," the counselor interjected. "Mr. Chair - "
"No!" the chairman boomed. "Enough waiting!" Thick billows of black smoke surrounded his feet as he walked, rising in plumes around him as his robes swished against the marble floor. "You have sent soul searchers on rescue and recovery missions, and they have failed! You handle this personally, Mr. Counselor! Now!"
The international courier bristled, drawing Carlos to alert status. They both glanced at the horizon, knowing only a few minutes stood between them and certain incineration. Seeming confused, the now weaponless messenger stepped back. Carlos looked at him, hard. The messenger only offered one word.
"The council? Near dawn?" Carlos studied the entity that only nodded. This was not good. He stepped back as a cavern opened within the center of the lair's slate floor and the requisite black plume of smoke screeched in a furious swirl, threatening to suck away the contents of the room with gale-force winds. Slowly, as the room came to a rest, the counselor stepped from the center of the abyss.
"Leave us," he said to the courier, ignoring Carlos's question. He stood staring out the deck opening until the entity disappeared, then he turned a sinister gaze on Carlos. He walked the perimeter of the room with his hands behind his back as he garnered enough restraint to speak.
"Your gates will come down in a few moments, so let us not mince words or play games." The counselor held Carlos's gaze in a lethal stare. "You and I both know your soul is not within the realms." When Carlos opened his mouth to form a protest, the counselor held up his hand. "You may fool that old, doddering idiot. He has become weak and senile with delusions of a return of the old way, but you are speaking to me now, not the chairman."
Counselor Vlak spit on the floor and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Carlos remained very, very still, ready for an attack.
"I thought about the options - the strategies available, as soon as my subterranean soul searchers came back with news that your soul could not be found. And that damnable prayer in your heart that you died with kept haunting me. So, we sent a our best searcher to the border of Purgatory as a last resort; a place we rarely go near as the dangers to our kind there are many." He laughed evilly, and shook his head. "Damali Richards's essence within your soul led our searcher right to it. We could not cross, but they were absolutely certain that there was one of ours behind the wall riddled with Neteru trail - and polluted by love. So I watched you... the refusal to traditionally feed on innocents, the refusal to take a life. All the signs, the compassion toward her team - even clerics!" He spat again and circled Carlos. "You even imperiled our best international couriers for her and her human guardians!"
"She's precious cargo to the Vampire Council," Carlos hedged, still not wanting to corroborate any evidence.
"My first impulse was to inform the council of your treachery and have them remand you to the Sea of Perpetual Agony," the counselor said, not the least bit fazed by the rebuttal. "But then, all my years as a Roman senator prevailed." He shook a bony finger in Carlos's face and smiled, his fangs lengthening. "A man so bold as to play three ends against the middle is a worthy competitor. And a man with something of value to lose, is a man who will cut a deal."
"What do you want?" Carlos whispered. For the first time since this entire travesty began, he felt cornered. He was cold-busted, and dangling by a thread over a precipice, and Damali was endangered from multiple realms.
"I want absolute power," the counselor said, calmly studying the lower echelon crest on his hooked finger.
"I don't have absolute power," Carlos said, no ruse in his reply. He opened his arms. "I'm a trapped and hunted man. What can I give you that you don't already have?"
"A trade," the counselor replied, looking up and holding him without blinking. "A discreet and quiet trade."
"Talk to me," Carlos said, glancing at the open deck doors. The iron lair seal had begun to lower.
"Fallon Nuit was a madman, but a brilliant one. His method of escape just needed refinement." The counselor threw his head back and laughed, sending a shrill echo through the lair. "There is nothing better than a double, double cross. He was let out by a variable, a woman who performed a ritual that released a demon above his incarceration lair. Nuit then formed an alliance with the Amanthra he was forced to cohabitate with."
"I know, I know," Carlos said, becoming nervous that he might be trapped in a lair all day with this lunatic. "But speak quickly."
"Yes. You are observant." The counselor let his breath out hard and pressed on. "But Nuit was arrogant, impatient, and I knew he would not be able to resist the Brazilian territory. This region is rich and has been one to fuel the demon empires with the atrocities of greed committed over this soil against innocents... and our history shows that the dark realms even claimed a guardian soul, the first and only in history, from here. But the were-demons had that soul in their possession - we had no access to it. We could learn no more about it, other than the fact that it fell from grace... until Nuit did one of his international concert locations here, an error in judgment. He opened a portal, and open portals allow for the passage of things in and out. Haste makes waste. Information is power - during the chaos in the demon realms, much of their information was at risk. My searchers, beholden to me under my council provinces, were able to spy and learn valuable secrets."
Slapping his hands together, he walked in a mad, gleeful circle, coming close to Carlos, sending his foul breath into Carlos's face.
"A coup... you'd overthrow the chairman?" Carlos now walked away from him in an agitated circle. He wasn't sure why all of this just didn't sit right with him, but it didn't.
"The old goat is past his prime," the counselor said quickly, his voice frantic with excitement. "He still holds onto the ways of chivalry and valor from the days up to the end of the Dracula era. He doesn't even believe in contracts to seal a deal. You were witness to that. I have been telling him for years that there are new technologies we can employ, and that the new breed of vampires knows nothing of the old ways, that he must update his methods."
The gate was half lowered, and panic was settling into Carlos's bones. "Then if there will be a coup, how can I, not even holding a confirmed council thro - "
"The old man doesn't know about the were-demon's small stash of Neteru. Just like he has no clue that your soul is in the wrong hands, safely stowed away in Purgatory - out of our reach. He thinks the demon realms have hijacked it, thus it's in the dark realms and obtainable."
The two men stared at each other for a moment. The counselor threw his head back and laughed. "Perfect, isn't it?"
"What do you want from me?" Carlos asked, now panicking.
"Take the female were-demon to the vanishing point." He smiled evilly. "She's beautiful, you've seen her."
"That was a female vamp!" Incredulous, Carlos walked back and forth, raking his fingers through his hair so hard his scalp nearly bled. "And to do that requires a black blood exchange with a were." He stopped and looked at the counselor. "That's illegal."
Counselor Vlak stared at him for a moment and then burst out laughing. "I do see why the old man tolerates you. They broke the mold when they made you." He shook his head. "That was a were-demon, young man. And you fed her from your veins. That, also, was not sanctioned." He continued to chuckle. "And I cannot believe that a man of your past is concerned about what is legal. Tell me your moral fiber is not - "
"She came at me like a vamp! I didn't know!"
"Older women can be intriguing, powerful, seductive... will lure you from where you should be into realms where you shouldn't go. Especially if they have a little black blood running through them to give them temporary powers of illusion to be all-vamp when they approach a very novice young male." He chuckled and studied his claws.
"You set me up..." Carlos felt himself about to bulk, but then thought better of it. Power for power and with dawn near, Vlak was an older entity that was not to be tried. "And she lied to me," he said, his voice unnaturally quiet as all of what he was learning sank in. The resistance to his territory, pushing contracts in his face, the counselor acting like, he didn't want him to have South America, blocking his immediate access to a throne and calling for a vote later - all of it was bullshit to keep Vlak looking like the last entity who would collude with him. The game was deadly smooth.
"Of course she lied to you. She's a demon," he said, triumphant as awareness took hold within Carlos. "And naturally I set you up, that is my nature. Winner takes all. You didn't think I was going to allow you to descend that fast with such a vast territory, and to openly challenge me at council table in front of the others without a strategic response, did you?"
The two stared at each other for a moment, and then Vlak smiled.
"Good. We understand each other. The sun is coming, so let me say this quickly." Vlak shook his head. "There is always a variable, and black magic is powerful but unstable - that's why we prefer pure illusion, or moving existing matter. That crazy mother-seer were-demon is starting to have delusions that she is the Neteru... Her mind is easy to compromise." He arched his eyebrow. "One little sip of a dark guardian's blood and she was ready to make an overly compassionate master vampire her life-mate," he said then laughed. "Tragic."
Carlos rubbed his face with both palms as humiliation scored him, breathing into his hands as they slid past his eyes and over his nose, listening with horror, thinking of how twisted things could get when minds bent and snapped. He felt nauseous as he absorbed it all and as the counselor's voice became more urgent, more excited as he went on unraveling the sordid plot against the chairman.
"She escaped level five with the small portion of Neteru essence left, and trapped within the demon boundaries, tethered to the moon like the animal she'd become, she was desperate to escape before they found her again... and when one is desperate, one tends to make unwise, hasty decisions. It was perfect. My searcher brought me her proposal to give us access to daylight in the exchange for access to unlimited mobility, and I told her the truth wrapped around a lie; there was a new, very young, inexperienced master vampire with vast territory that shadowed hers - and that he, because he was younger, could take her to the V-point. I calmed her fears of the dangers, and told her that when it was done, however, she would not be consumed into you... I would ensure that for her, since I am, after all, council-level with powers that she couldn't fathom. Then, we struck a deal that with her daylight access, she would bring me the Neteru that we'd lost. I told her you were a small sacrifice and wouldn't be missed and performed the forbidden black blood exchange."
He laughed again and shook his head as Carlos simply stared at him. He glanced at the grate, which was now half lowered and still closing. "Foolish woman. She didn't know we already had the Neteru in our sights, and that with your soul weight, if you took her to the vanishing point, your dropout is guaranteed. And through you our empire would have access to daylight, plus a vessel that could produce daywalkers seven years from now." He paused and stared at Carlos. "I want that power."
"If I take her there, how would that help you? Through a throne transfer? You want me to rush the chairman?" Carlos asked, trying to remain calm.
Vlak smiled and made a little tsking sound of disapproval. "Silly boy, no. I will be there the moment you come out of the fusion point naked and shaking like a junkie. You'll be weak; will need to feed. You'll barely be able to lift your head. And if you do attempt to fight me, I can easily kill you, bleed myself out, and then drain you dry to recover. But it would be better for us to keep our dirty little secret until I can infect enough of my own army to storm the chambers. That crazy old bastard... He must be insane to believe that I would wait in line to receive the daywalker's bite! I will already be one, long before the Neteru is ready to give birth to them, and the chairman's throne, which goes back to the time of Paradise lost, will be mine."
He folded his hands behind his back, closed his eyes, and let his voice drop to a sinister whisper. "So, rather than make this messy and public, you'll come to my throat and I'll come to yours, double flat-line, total transfer." He looked at Carlos and tilted his head. "It will be enjoyable, trust me." He chuckled as the color drained from Carlos's face. "Ahhh... while alive, you never went to prison, did you? Shame, having missed so many different experiences. But this one foul act of willingly taking a were-demon to the vanishing point will most assuredly give us your soul. All will be well, and as it should be. Fair exchange, and I'm even allowing you to keep the Neteru."
Carlos's gaze narrowed on Vlak. Fury sent bile to his tongue as he remembered the subtle threat of violation that had threaded through his system as the demon siphoned his wrist. Yet Vlak's full-fanged smile contained cool confidence in a way that let him know the counselor had somehow trapped him.
"What if I just say, fuck you?"
"You catch on quick." Vlak smiled but returned a lethal stare. "It'll be my pleasure, but preferably after you do her and hijack daylight."
Instantly Carlos was in full battle bulk. He would take this motherfucker's head off.
"I've got your insolent ass by the balls, Rivera." The counselor hadn't even matched Carlos's mortal combat challenge or backed up. He just continued to smile. "I have evidence that you did the black blood exchange with a were-demon, of which the council penalty is death. And if you're not around to protect the Neteru..."
Vlak's gaze went from red glowing orbs to black nickers. "Do you know how many ways we can torture her existence? We don't need her mind, won't care what plagues riddle her body, as long as her womb performs its function seven years from now. What we will do will make you puke. We can tap into her cellular structure in a way that we never could have had access to without you, until you bit her and carried her blood in your veins." He laughed cruelly as Carlos normalized. "That's right," he said with a nod, "you've got her DNA all in you - and trust me, I'll extract that from you drop by drop before you torch."
"You gave the demon blood, too, you lowlife sonofa - "
"With a searcher's testimony to back up my claims, whom do you think the old man will believe? He'll smell demon saliva in your system, and know that you did the exchange. You were so foolish to let her take from your wrist instead of from a goblet. There's no trace when you allow them to drink from a goblet." Vlak shook his head as he clucked his tongue. "You do know that I'm in charge of chamber inquisitions, si?"
He stared at Carlos hard when Carlos didn't immediately answer. "Take it or leave it. The offer is as I have described. If you refuse, I'll burn you - literally, by turning over evidence of your treason to the chairman."
"But the she-demon went after Damali already. If she goes near the Neteru to try to kill her, I'll have to smoke that crazy bitch." Carlos had meant his statement to come out as hard logic, a forceful slap of reality in Vlak's face. But instead it sounded more like an unsure question, holding the tone of near defeat in it.
"Oh, noooo," Vlak warned. "What she did was send you a message that she has lost patience, just like I have." His black gaze narrowed to a withering glare. "Fuck that bitch soon and be done with it! The longer you procrastinate, the more you put the daywalker breeder at risk. I need what you sire to come under my armies. Her heirs will pass the virus faster than through the black blood transfers, but will still be beholden to the case above them, mine."
He smiled and glanced at the grate that was three-quarters closed.
"What if the chairman gets hip, if he finds out like he found out about Nuit?" Carlos asked, his voice strained with panic. He felt like he was suffocating within his own lair.
"Nuit was sloppy and obvious. But more importantly, the chairman was your maker. That is why he favors you so, has such a blind, sickening, weak spot for you. He is too arrogant to concede that one of his own made vampires might deceive him. You can deceive him and go against him because of the little issue of your soul not belonging to the dark realms yet. A wonderful variable... that he knows nothing about. Make a choice - opportunities like this don't come often. So fuck that bitch for daylight, and that old man out of his throne, and be done with it!"
Carlos could feel the transport winds beginning to kick up, the smell of potent fumes and smoke gathering as the counselor began to dissolve away.
"Well who made you, then? How can you go against the chairman?" Carlos yelled, feeling the winds begin to go quiet, but his mind raging.
"Caligula Caesar!" the voice echoed up from the cavern. "Who else?"