Thus the highest realization of warfare is to attack the enemy's plans;
next to attack their alliances; next attack their army; and the lowest is to
attack their fortified cities.
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
"She called, Carlos. I don't know what you said to her, but her people called."
Nuit closed his eyes and inhaled slowly. The ear-splitting decibel of the music coming from the stage provided no cover for the sigh of anticipation that he'd released. Carlos monitored his cool. He had not called Damali, or made contact with her people since the previous night and they had never spoken about the concert. That she would call Nuit on her own meant there could be a serious variable that was raising the odds on the long shot.
Nuit swallowed with difficulty as though trying to keep his calm. "Her business manager, Weinstein, said that after the concert, she wanted to meet with me privately to talk about her career... and to bring contracts. My human assistants sent word via Amanthra demon alliances that are impervious to daylight. They woke me up in the lair to tell me... I couldn't even go back to sleep after receiving such news. They told me he'd said, quote, 'She was trembling for the opportunity.' Then they said she wanted her own crew, her own stage lights, her own diva entourage." Nuit snatched Carlos's arm. "I told them to give her whatever she wants! She's coming willingly, with ego, and power-lust, and the ruthless desire for fame."
"Your fangs are showing in public, dude. Uncool for a master. Even if we've brought out a colorful crowd tonight." Carlos appraised Nuit with a sideways glance, who only nodded in agreement.
"You're right. I have to collect myself."
"Maybe you should go underground and wait for her in the lair. If you get a whiff topside, you might really embarrass yourself on stage." Carlos chuckled. It was partly the truth.
"Her whole crew... anybody she shook hands with, hugged... they're trailing it all over the place!"
"I know," Carlos said as calmly as possible. "It's going to affect you more, because as a master, you have a lower tolerance for it - the others don't have the nose. So, you can either stay up here, and watch her do twenty minutes... under the hot lights, while she works out, sweats, and puts more of her scent in the air, or you can be cool, and chill, and go sub. She's on in less than fifteen minutes. Make a decision."
"I don't think I can take it," Nuit murmured, beginning to pace.
"Wise choice. Been there. See you in New Orleans."
To find out where she'd been stashed was a no-brainer. The other vamps had positioned themselves closely to her quarters and a ring of guardians eyed the vamp forces in a tense standoff. The problem would be getting to her dressing room. This variable had to be dealt with. No element of the plan could go haywire at the last minute. Whatever she was cooking up could put everybody in harm's way. When he spotted Shabazz and Big Mike on the door, he approached more slowly.
"Gotta talk to her before she goes on," Carlos said in a calm voice.
"I don't think so," Big Mike said low in his throat.
Shabazz shook his head.
"Call Marlene for an appraisal - but on the DL. If you haven't noticed, the rafters are loaded and have eyes," he said, motioning with a nod above. "The walls have ears, too. But she can't be bitten until after the show - girlfriend has to cast an image. We got three minutes to talk, or we can stand out here and bullshit and put her in harm's way."
"Three minutes," Big Mike said as Shabazz stepped aside begrudgingly.
"Cool," Carlos muttered as they followed him into the room.
Damali was at the far end of it. Marlene was opening with a prayer, anointing the group, but immediately stopped midsentence. Twelve knights and the rest of Damali's crew drew weapons. And then it hit him - she was wearing all silver. He could taste the acrid metal even from this distance. It registered a warning so visceral to him that the hair bristled on the back of his neck. But it also had a stabilizing effect.
Carlos held up his hands. "Three minutes. Say a prayer of concealment against dark forces. I have information. Need to talk to her. Everybody can stay. But the info is power."
"Let him speak," Damali said quickly. "Do it, Mar. We don't have much time."
He watched as the team rimmed the room, held hands with him inside their circle so the words would seal in what he had to say, but he was forced to cover his ears as the sound of Marlene's murmurs almost made his ears bleed. Once the pain stopped, he dropped his hands away and wiped the sweat from his brow.
"Are we sealed?" He glanced around at the faces that nodded, and tried to shake off the effect Damali was also having on him. "As soon as you close, the floor is going to drop out from under you - you'll be in a tunnel."
"What!" Rider snapped. "That is not the plan - "
"Rider, let the man speak," Damali warned in a low voice. "The prayer has him affected, and we need to know what we're dealing with."
"It's not just the prayer," Carlos said on a deep inhale, letting it out fast. "Your scent is an aphrodisiac... you can use it to your advantage."
She stared at his back as he turned away. Her group of guardians parted as he went to the door and leaned against it on an outstretched arm. All of them watched him as his back heaved from deep breaths, almost expanding his tailored suit till the seams ripped, and then collapsed, repeating the hypnotic motion as his breaths became more labored with each exhale.
"Masters have a low tolerance for it. Male vampires can smell it for miles. This concert site is packed with them. Sends the lower generations into a feeding frenzy. Females, however, will fight you - will attack at the drop of a hat. You've got Nuit's human helpers out there with orders to take down any male vamp with a stake if they rush you. So, topside, you should be cool. But the tunnels are filling. I've been designated as your escort to Nuit's door - he doesn't know I'm a master... or about my alliances."
"He tells the truth," the Templar said quietly, placing a hand on her shoulder. "The demon is suffering, but might have to be exterminated if..."
"You can't trust me," Carlos admitted. "I can't even trust myself, at this point."
He turned and looked at her, his gaze riveted to her horror-stricken face. Her team drew closer to her. Dan leveled a crossbow at him. Carlos closed his eyes, willing his fangs to retract. They were slow to respond.
"Oh, shit..." Rider said in a quiet voice. "You got an antidote for that, man? Something to keep you on our side while we're in Hell with you?"
Carlos carefully appraised Damali, the pain in her eyes haunting him, but he couldn't look away from her. "There's only one, but it won't sit well with the group."
For a moment silence stood between them.
"All right. Talk fast, man. Lest we have to smoke you in here."
Nodding, Carlos began to pace, trying to shake off the effect of Damali. Shabazz had a point. "Yeah, Shabazz. You might have to - because I have to catch her when she drops - or the demons will get her, or the Vampire Council, or any other possible rogue vamps that want her. If she travels at a high speed with me - it will be directly to Nuit's door. But by then, I'll be in a very compromised state, and a weakened one. I'll be no match for him alone... and I don't even know if I can hold her - she's wearing silver."
The group cast stricken glances between them.
"Templar, can you do anything?" Carlos murmured. "If I drop her, the suit will only hold back a few vamps, but as you know, Hell is infested. She won't be able to find her way back to the portal. Eventually, if the Amanthras get to her and pull her in deep enough, the suit won't do shit for her."
Warily, the knight approached Carlos, glancing between him and the group. "On May tenth, Venus, love, and Mars, war, were in exact conjunction in a very rare celestial alignment during the Neteru-signaling period. It hasn't, and will not occur again for decades. We didn't know what it meant, in the midst of the other signs. Love would collide with war, we initially thought. But perhaps it meant aligning love within the same war. We can attempt a prayer, but only for her, that will also cover you... which might also help you keep focused. But we won't know if it works till she drops, or you touch her."
"I'll take the risk." Carlos turned, his gaze going past the Templar and the team of warriors surrounding Damali. Silver notwithstanding, her pull was incomprehensible. She looked at him and rocked his mind to semidazed awareness. Yeah, he'd take the risk.
"How fast to Nuit's door?" Damali asked, walking in a circle.
"Be still... you stir the air," Carlos hissed.
Everybody looked at him and she stopped pacing.
Carlos let out his breath slowly, and closed his eyes, unable to simultaneously process the sight and the scent of her. "Forty-five seconds. If you go by foot through the tunnels - it's still astral speed, just not as fast. Time is different down there than up here - seems like hours and it's only minutes. So be prepared for the time distortion. Any human in the tunnel, or nonsanctioned vamp, will be moving at topside time approximately ten minutes behind you... but anything human or otherwise without what amounts to an Amanthra passport will be attacked."
He stopped and briefly gazed at her again, having to close his eyes once more just to be able to speak. The sight of her in a body-fitting wetsuit, her locks down on her shoulders, her eyes boring a hole into him...
"Can we get you some water, or something?" Rider asked, shaking his head. "Damn. Hurry up and say what you gotta say. You're giving me the heebie-jeebies!"
"Damali," Carlos murmured. "If you come with me, you and I can take Nuit - "
"No," Shabazz said immediately.
"Definitely not." Marlene walked away and leaned against the far wall.
"What they said," Rider agreed.
"You must be crazy," Big Mike rumbled, shaking his head slowly, and then pounding J.L.'s and Dan's fists. "Must be missin' yo' mind."
"Hold up, everybody," Damali interjected. "If the silver doesn't maim him, the man can get me to Nuit with Madame Isis in hand in forty-five seconds, right? And he's not going to bite me, because he wants Nuit dead as bad as I do - Nuit did his family... so he's not going to bite me."
Again, the group's attention went to Carlos, who now opened his eyes.
"Can't promise that, baby. Never could."
Rider folded his arms over his chest. "At least the brother is honest. Look at him, Little Red Riding Hood. That is, for real, for real, the big bad wolf!"
Carlos just nodded, too ashamed to be able to do anything else.
"Then why is he here?" Damali started toward Carlos but he held up his hand and turned away.
The room went still again, and the blue-clad Templar stepped in between them. "His time to make a decision is running out and even he doesn't know what that decision will be. If he goes with the Vampire Council, he can have infinite power at the ground level. If he goes with Nuit, he will be a high-level advisor with a vast topside territory and daywalker power. If he goes with us, five mob factions, the FBI, and other police forces will hunt for him, or until they find his body... and that's only assuming he gets a chance to live. He might have to die if he becomes human again because the bite was so horrendous. And, once this double-cross is uncovered - both sides of the vampire empire and all its factions will hunt him till the end of time."
"Shit. And here I thought homeboy was holding aces." Rider shook his head and looked at Damali. "Don't even think about hugging him under these circumstances - not even to keep hope alive, as Reverend Jackson would say."
"Man, you got yourself in a totally fucked-up position," Shabazz said. " 'Scuze me, all present. But, there's no other way to describe it."
"The tunnels," Damali said quickly. "If our men go in, led by Marlene, what advantages can we leverage?"
Her voice was like a knife, carving at his libido, slicing it away from his reason.
"In the slow areas," Carlos said, releasing a deep breath. "I have forces - the Vampire Council's messenger demons who do not want Nuit's goal to be accomplished. They will sense anything in there moving slow, and will help you get to his door to kill him. That was our deal."
"Demons?" The Templar and the members of the Covenant pulled back and huddled in an agitated conference, arguing the merits of Carlos's newest strategy, and the way it might be misunderstood within their own hierarchy.
"Listen. We don't have time!" Carlos began pacing. He'd been in the room longer than three minutes. The show proceeding hers was wrapping up. There would be a brief break, and then she'd have to go on stage. Someone would knock soon to tell her it was time.
"The demons I worked a deal with agreed," Carlos said. "However, there are rogues amongst them that will attack slow-moving objects - any vampire not traveling at the higher speed, or humans. The way the tunnels work is, if something is moving slower than the tunnel's speed, it belongs on a different level, not theirs. They don't ask questions, they attack. And humans aren't even supposed to be anywhere down there. Your bodies are slowed to topside time, not astral time, and you draw them. Not to mention, the scent of your blood is a tracer."
"This is a bad - "
Carlos stopped Rider's comment and pressed on. "Nuit's forces are expecting six of us to go down there with Damali in tow - me, my brother Alejandro, as well as Julio, Juan, and Miguel. The five other vampires made by Nuit's line, and me, are the only ones that have high-speed amnesty - not even Damali can be cleared. Which means as soon as the floor drops, while in the center of a zone, I'll have to do them... may their souls rest in peace. From there, we can go fast, or slow, but we won't have much time. The longer it takes me to get to Nuit's door, the more suspicious and on guard he'll be, and the higher the risk of attack from other subterranean forces."
"Oh, Carlos," Damali murmured. "Nobody should have to do their own family..."
Carlos looked away from her.
"Once I... take care of them, you can pick four men to replace them, but they have to enter the tunnel immediately after you and me or they will be viewed as intruders. If they miss that window of opportunity, they'll have to risk the slower corridors with the rest of the group." Carlos studied the serious faces that stared back at him. "If you don't get to Nuit's door in time, Damali will be between me and Nuit. The only thing you'll have to your advantage, and the only possible way to get her out, is if he and I square off - which is inevitable."
"I told you, they did his fam - "
"No, D!" Carlos yelled. He looked at her hard, and finally told her the truth. "It's not because of my family. Two male masters, one female Neteru... If I kill him down there, you'll have to kill me. Got it? So will your team, when they get there. Make your strike swift, make sure you get me on the first blow. If not..." He put his hand on the door and didn't look at her as he spoke. "If not, I start an empire. Choose well, and be decisive."
The assembled group didn't say a word. The expressions on everyone's faces said it all. Damali walked over and picked up her blade, and checked the sharpness of its edge.
"Say a prayer, Templar," she said in a low murmur. The knock and curtain-call yell didn't even make her look up. So much adrenaline had hit her system it was making her ears ring. The tone of Carlos's voice, the look in his eyes... the unconcealed desire. Yes. She might have to kill him.
"C'mon, people. We've got a show to do."
She could feel them watching her as she stood on a small platform under the stage, waiting for it to raise her to stage level. It was like being in a shark cage underwater, each beast swimming by, circling, waiting for the opportunity to strike. Seconds seemed like minutes. Damali gripped Madame Isis tighter, checked the battery belt on her silver suit, as well as the Isis dagger on her hip, and picked up the medieval, silver, double-bladed battle-ax the knight had offered. They were gonna get it on when she dropped, and she'd have everything she needed when she did.
Special-effects thunder and lightning strikes could be heard above, as the crowd's clapping roar swelled when Big Mike turned up the volume of the FX section of his soundboards. Marlene's voice rang out with the introduction, and she began an African chant that the crowd followed.
Stage boards creaked overhead to the beat of Marlene's repetitive, "Oooohhh, nanana." The team was jumping up and down overhead, giving Watutsi homage and anthem from the motherland. Deep bomb blasts that sounded like M-80s soon followed, and Damali knew it was show time.
She held up Madame Isis as she rose. A dark blue and a purple haze awaited her entrance when she got to the top, then more bomb blasts, and the stage went white with light and gold smoke. More thunder sounded as Rider's guitar started to wail. Jose, as sick as he had been, was throwing down conga hard, J.L.'s keyboard was serving it hot, but Shabazz was walking the bass and had it thumpin'. Marlene was working out on cowbells as the crowd went nuts. Damali laughed. So, they liked the twelve warriors with weapons onstage, huh? Cool.
Electricity ran through her. There was nothing as exhilarating as a performance when the crowd was like this. And even though there was everything in the world riding on the situation, the music had her swaying. All those innocents out there, waving UV unknowingly. She was gonna blow the doors off!
Rising slowly, she heard Big Mike's booming voice lead off and blend in with Shabazz's and Rider's, as they each took turns to yell into their Mies.
"She leaves 'em smoking, on fire!"
"Baby got da ansa, for any desire!"
"Hot - burnin' with emotion!"
"Betta wat'chure back, 'cause she ain't jokin'!"
The floor opened and a wave of audience screams assaulted her as more stage bombs went off, white and gold smoke surrounded her, and the lights changed. The music tempo picked up, and Damali stepped forward holding a medieval ax out from her boot ninety degrees on the left and Madame Isis raised on her right. She gave out a war cry, and the crowd erupted again. Dropping the ax for a nearby knight to catch, she strutted to the front of the stage to the music, pulled her dagger from her hip belt, lowered her sword toward the crowd, breathed in, and let the words ring out.
"I leave 'em smokin', dead or alive. Dis ain't no job like a nine to five. Ain't scared of the dark, 'cause I bring my own light. Make a choice, fast, and make it right. Been to Hell and back, might go there again - but you betta watch yours and take a friend. My sword's name is Isis, and Momma draws heat. Watch her work, when we drop da funky beat!"
Carlos was riveted to Damali's image, as she owned the stage. He couldn't move from his position beside his squad in the wings as she began her routine. It was pure, fluid adrenaline, charged atmosphere. Her body was like liquid silver fire, and the crowd was off the hook. The UV lights kept him in the shadows, it burned off some of the scent, but it didn't keep him from seeing her work. She took full possession of fifty thousand screaming fans, however many crew and vamps in the wings - and him. There was no description for it. The music throbbed inside him as Shabazz and Rider took the rhythm frenzy to the next level, and Damali swung a sword and dagger in between stanzas.
"Yo, man, how's your head?" Alejandro whispered. "You need to step outside for a minute and get some air, so you can do this delivery in a few? You don't look so good, hombre, but I got'chure back."
"I'm all right," Carlos growled, his gaze glued to the stage.
"Listen, man, you gotta stop watching her or you ain't gonna be no good by the time the floor drops. Plus, the silver suit wasn't expected. How you gonna hold her and not go up in flames, hombre?"
"I'm already there, bro. You have no idea. The suit doesn't even compare."
"I think he's over the top, man," Miguel said nervously, looking at Carlos and then at the others.
Carlos pulled his gaze away, and turned his back on Damali's performance. "I'm all right. I'm good. She won't be in the tunnel that long." He watched his brother's expression from a side-glance. Despair fought side-by-side with the effect Damali was having on him, all of it clouding his judgment. "But I just needed to watch her for a little bit, before it's time."
"Damn, man, I can dig it," Alejandro agreed, his gaze fixed on the stage. "I remember when she was just a kid, free-styling in the old neighborhood - begging to get a shot at a mic. Look at her now..."
Unable to withstand the pull, Carlos found his line of vision drawn back to where he had forbidden it to go. It was now possible to see a thin sheen of perspiration on her brow, and she'd licked her lips, opened her arms, and leaned back with a weapon in each hand. Incredible.
"If I die with honor, then they say it's all good. But I'm about livin', not jus' survivin' in the hood. So keep your light, and block the shade - tell 'em don't hate a player that the light above made! 'Cause ... I leave 'em smoking wit da truth, everything I'm telling you got da juice. Been standin' on the high road, but can go low, might hafta drop a body, so act like you know. Ain't no game, ain't truth or dare. What Grandmomma told you is your only prayer - "
"Man... go get some air, brother, for real for real. Your hands are shaking," Alejandro warned. "You are way too high right now, and - "
"Shut up!" Carlos shouted as the music took another turn, and Damali paced toward the back of the stage, allowing the drums a solo.
His boys looked at him hard. Alejandro shook his head when Juan, Julio, and Miguel came up behind Carlos and stood with him. His breath was coming out in short bursts now, and his shoulders were gaining in thickness. Carlos wiped his nose with the back of his hand as a shudder ran through him again. He swallowed hard and could feel his gums beginning to bulk. He closed his eyes, leaned his head back, and sucked in a huge gulp of air.
"He'll take a limb," his brother warned. "Go get him something to eat."
"I don't need to feed on garbage!" Carlos growled.
His boys hesitated, and Alejandro signaled for them to wait and ride it out. They stood by him with a wary distance between them. When Damali went into the last stanza, Carlos held onto the wall for support. Against his better judgment, he opened his eyes and again watched her work.
"Yeah ... I leave 'em smokin' - so watch your back. Night is the time when creatures attack. Bring the word; stand in the light. We got one shot to get it right! Ain't a game or a battle, it's a fight for it all. Make the wrong choice, and you'll take a fall. Runnin' down the high road, dodging from the low, pressure starts to build, but that's when I blow..."
The lights blew, sparklers went off, the keyboards screamed with the guitar, and Damali lit up in full UV - the crowd went wild, and he had to turn away. The light temporarily blinded him, dazed him like a sucker punch. His boys covered their eyes with forearms and snarled. But the pain worked like a slap of reality. The UV so close to her skin, burned off the residue of potent scent for a moment, and it helped to break his trance.
"Downstairs, now!" Carlos circled his team, and pointed to the lower level.
"Yo, man, but - "
"She's only got a few minutes to be lit up, judging from the battery sizes on her belt. She's got two more songs, and we roll." He was breathing hard as he walked away from the stage, his squad in hot pursuit. "You wanna be the one to explain to Nuit why we weren't in position to catch her when she falls? If the wrong demons claim her, or another vampire does, he'll have everybody's head - do it now!"
Without further argument, his posse followed him. He couldn't speak as he got farther and farther away from Damali. The pain that riddled him felt like an eerie withdrawal, but if he didn't get away from her now, he wouldn't be able to later. A female vampire holding a clipboard scowled as he walked by.
"This was not on her docket, nor was real silver! That bitch flipped the script," she said low in her throat.
Carlos came to a halt. "Tell it to Nuit. He said to make her happy, and give her whatever she wanted."
"She's got this place feeling like an oven, and temporarily sealing lairs near wherever this sound travels or is broadcast with all this light bullshit! She's got the crowd with UV wands in their hands, and - "
"Say anything to make her anything less than happy, and Nuit will rip your heart out," Carlos said evenly. "He wouldn't care if every portal sealed worldwide, as long as I bring her to him. You understand? No interventions topside, or after this is over, I will personally hunt you down. We clear?"
The female vamp smiled. "Promise?" she purred.
"Forget her, man," Alejandro said, pulling his arm. "Let's do this thing."
Carlos nodded, then brushed past the female and made their way to the lower level. He could hear Damali above finishing her first act, and the scent of her was so strong in the tight confines near the lift that he had to keep walking in circles - motion, anything to wear it off, wear it down.
"Man, in just a few, everything will be cool. Just hang in there."
He closed his eyes as he heard Damali prepare to go into a baleful poem-song above his head. He could tell by the music that she was sending him a message as much as she was working the audience. It made him stand still as he braced himself to listen to the words, and the guitar and keyboard accompanied her in sad harmony. Marlene's violin felt like it was cutting him, sawing through his ribs to get to his heart. The flute, the chimes, soft bells, making him go back to the place where he'd found her; Shabazz's bass connecting it all like a pulse. Don't do this...
"Remember, baby, how it used to be," she began singing low and sweet to the audience. "Before it all got crazy - when we just were kids... and so free.
"Now, I know we've gotta move on - and that's life. Still I can't help going back to our past - just once or twice... Just remember, baby, how it used to be - before it all got crazy, when we were just kids... and so free - please, baby... don't forget."
Damali's voice had risen with the violin, stroking his memory, turning a blade in the center of his chest, and had ended on a whisper... please, baby... don't forget.
Carlos looked up at the black underbelly of the stage. The area had cooled; the lights had gone low to a blue haze. He could see a ball casting a prism of stars around the glimpses of stage periphery, and he shut his eyes to see her and join with the emotion in her. She stood in the middle of a blue universe of stars, wearing her silver, her sword held low as though in defeat, her dagger clenched in her fist, her head back, her eyes closed, tears glistening at the corners of them, as she sang her heart out. Yes, he remembered. How could he forget? She stood in the middle of his world, and was his universe.
"Don't listen to her, man," Juan murmured. "That was a long time ago, hombre. It's all different now. Power, money, women - she didn't understand the life. Never did."
"Don't let it mess with your head, bro," Julio said with worry. "You got everything in front of you - leave the past behind and may it rest in peace."
"Yeah, man," Alejandro said with growing concern. "Only thing you need to remember is you got a delivery to make."
"Word," Miguel murmured.
Carlos didn't respond to his best friend, cousin, or brother, nor did he shake off Miguel's hand on his shoulder. He had to do what he had to do. But her words were like an echo, a whisper that wouldn't leave him... because all he could do was remember. Everything.
"Alejandro," Carlos whispered, as he walked toward his brother and Miguel's hand dropped from his shoulder. He needed to stand close before Alejandro to help him understand. "Listen to the words," he said, locking his brother's gaze within his.
"You all right, man?" Alejandro backed up a bit when Carlos placed his hand in the center of his chest.
"I'm fine. Close your eyes. Remember when we were kids - playing ball in the street, running for ice cream, hanging out?"
With caution, Alejandro closed his eyes, and gave in to the sway of the memory that Carlos projected. "Yeah... man, those were some good times. We'll have good times again."
"Yes, you will, my brother. But remember how I tried so hard not to bring you into the life - how I'd chase you away?"
Behind him, Miguel and Juan laughed with Julio. Alejandro opened his eyes.
"Little brat was always following us, getting in the way of a deal." Julio shook his head. "We had to finally let you in, before you got yourself - or one of us - shot."
Alejandro just laughed, and covered Carlos's hand over his chest. "But I wanted to be just like him." Tears filled Alejandro's eyes suddenly and he looked away. "Would do anything for my brother, even this."
"When's the last time you saw Mom?" Carlos's question was a murmur.
His brother shrugged and the laughter among his friends died down. Silence enveloped them.
"I want you to remember her face when she was happy - before any of us died... before Dad lost his sense of what was right and wrong... before he hit her. I want you to close your eyes and stand with me and remember her laughter, the peace in her eyes, the sound of her voice when she'd call us for dinner, and remember how much I tried to push you away from my life - because I loved you so much, then, and knew what I was, then... what that life meant. And I'm doing it again," Carlos said, sucking in a deep breath, "because I love you."
He'd reached into his breast pocket so fast with his free hand, without removing the other from Alejandro's chest, that his brother only had his eyes half open before the stake replaced his palm.
"Rest in peace, Alejandro." Carlos stepped back from the burning ash, and breathed in deeply to steady himself. The wailing song above held him as he stared at what was left of his brother.
"Oh, shit! Carlos, man - you did him? What the fuck! You're too high - you just did you own brother! Are you crazy, man!"
"It was about my brother's soul. I'll never have one, but I always wanted him to have better than me. The song made me remember how much."
Carlos didn't move as his boys circled him, their fangs now showing, ready to attack. He watched them through narrowed eyes.
"He went soft," Juan spat. "I don't fucking believe it! And he's supposed to bring the huntress to Nuit? You don't even deserve the honor. You disgrace our family - our line!"
Miguel lunged at him first, and lost his heart to Carlos's fist.
Out of friendship, he made the snatch instantaneous. A master's reach slammed into breastbone, ripped away anchor tissue, and left a gaping hole in Miguel's chest. With Miguel's heart still beating in his hand, Carlos drove the point of the stake through the bloody organ and flung it away, watching it burn as his friend was immediately incinerated. The only comfort he took was that his friend had stopped feeling before he even began to burn.
Julio tried to escape, but that couldn't happen. Carlos grabbed the back of Julio's suit, pulled his cousin to him, lodged the stake where it needed to land, then stepped away from the inferno. But perhaps the hardest pair of eyes to meet were Juan's. Unlike Alejandro, cornered, Juan saw it coming. The pleading expression almost made Carlos hesitate. The question "why" hovered on his best friend's lips as Carlos held him by his throat and killed him at close range.
It had to all end here, quietly, under the stage - which it summarily did. Carlos stood over each pile of ash that had been his friends, his family, closed his eyes, and saw again how he'd driven a stake into their hearts - using the same one that had allowed Alejandro to rest in peace. They had not been on a tour of Hell, of that he was sure. They would never know where their souls could have been trapped... not even a dog deserved to be held hostage there.
Tears threatened his eyes as he realized he couldn't even pray over their remains. Such a transgression would scorch his tongue. All he could do was look down at what was left. Four members of what was once his family... what had been and was no more. Young, vital humanity, with promise, turned inhuman, all in the blink of an eye.
Carlos listened to the end of the song as he wiped ash from his hands and the stake, putting it back in his breast pocket as he slowly stood. "Rest well my friends, my cousin, my brother. Remember what it was like when we were just kids, and we were still free." That was the closest thing to a prayer that he could utter.
She had begun her last number. The lights were back to burning brightly overhead. He could feel the heat, but somehow it didn't have the same effect. Damali had heavy reverb going, the stage was thumping, and he could hear the crowd on their feet stamping to her throbbing beat. Three minutes, and she would fall into his arms, and it didn't even faze him. He just had to finish this. End the madness.
But reality spread through him like a fast-moving cancer; it would never end. Killing Nuit would just stop one line out of many. Just like her prayers and songs of light were only one torch competing for brightness with so much darkness all around it. She could hold up the lantern with her words till it looked like only a small match in the distance. Maybe her prayers closed a few portals tonight, but others would always open.
Sure as he was standing under the stage, evil would reconstitute itself elsewhere, in another form. Even with Nuit eliminated, the Vampire Council would send hunters to track him down, just like the world of light would. Topside, bottom side, Heaven or Hell, what did it truly matter? Her guardians were right, he was in a fucked-up position. However, the different sides closing in on him needed to recognize one thing - a man, or a vampire, with nothing to lose, was a dangerous variable.
She was yelling, "Bring it, people! Bring the light! Pass the flame!"
Carlo shook his head as sound started to evaporate around him. The clock was ticking. Only four of her guardians could go with them. He looked up, sensing her footsteps, her position, as the crowd roared around her. Another smoke bomb went off, and he felt the air whip at his trousers, scattering the ashes at his feet.
Then she dropped.
It happened so fast that she couldn't breathe. Air felt like it had been vacuum-sucked out of her lungs. She gripped the Isis sword and baby Isis dagger, and held onto the smoldering body that had caught her. When she looked up, her team was sprawled on a cavern floor, trying to scramble to their feet. Carlos had instantly let go of his hold on her and backed away, snarling.
"Choose four, fast, and let's move," Carlos commanded. Intense agony riddled his body. The damn suit. He looked over the scorch marks on his hands and his clothing, which still emitted a light white haze of smoke. But there wasn't time to deal with the pain.
Damali and the Templar immediately assessed his condition, and she issued a quick order. "Rider, Shabazz, Big Mike, Marlene - "
Before she could finish speaking, demons entered the black space as J.L.,Jose, and Dan quickly lit concert lights in the small area. Misshapen, grotesque forms lashed at them in the confining area. They needed to fan out, so the weapons would have swing range. Carlos had blocked one side of the cavern, giving her team room and a chance to run down the dark corridor.
"Protect the Neteru at all costs!" the Templar yelled over his shoulder.
"Bring her in this tunnel behind us!" Rider hollered.
"No, hot demon and vamp territory!" Carlos roared. "She takes high-speed transport. It's the only way."
Damali's blade swung as the hair on her neck bristled. Something was happening to her; she was more aware of things down here than she'd ever been. The environment was pumping her up; the urge to fight was stronger than when she'd tracked Raven. She was inside her body, but also not, as she beheaded a foul creature, spun around, kicked its burning head away from her foot, and let out a throaty battle yell. It was fucking on! Her guardians were in her way, as were the Covenant warriors. They were trying to circle her to protect her, but they were interfering with her kill.
"Fan out!" she ordered, slashing at something she couldn't even see until her blade connected with it. The thing materialized and dropped, turning to a mass of putrid, bubbling tar.
Her eyes didn't even have to strain in the dark. Each creature she brought down, the sharper her senses became. It was exhilarating, a rush, and created a hunger to push forward. She was out of the team's circle, had left the ground with a hurling kick to stun a beast before she put her foot on its chest, then planted her sword in the center of its ugly flat skull.
Back-to-back in tandem, Shabazz and Big Mike took out three slithering entities. Their grotesque claws grappled at the wounds that tore into their greenish nude human bodies, which ended in a black serpent coil for legs. Their eyes glowed yellow, and their massive viper fangs dripped acidic-smelling ooze as they screeched a death shriek.
Awful wails from dying demons battered their senses. Mike had unsnapped the sides of his wide-legged leather pants in one deft motion, and pulled out two double-barrel snub-nose cannons, blowing away two of the demons. Shabazz ducked as creature gore splattered from Mike's assault, and while stooping, he released a black magnum into each hand from his sleeves to explode the third predator that was about to rush them.
Marlene used her stick to stake one screeching creature through its temple and then its gizzard, which left green gook and entrails at her feet. Dan got the one behind her with a holy-water grenade-slingshot hit dead-aim into the eye of the thing he battled, making half of its head ignite and then explode. J.L. and Jose were working out on instrument-converted minicrossbows. Their weapons adapted to fire like automatics and released multiple rounds of silver-tipped wooden arrows, creating a plume of sulfuric smoke around the team as they took out screeching targets.
They gave Rider cover in their center by flanking him while he locked four sections of a machine gun together and released a hail of hallowed earth within the pit. "Back the fuck up!" Rider hollered, his arms shaking as he sprayed into the black network of endless tunnels.
Members of the Covenant swung battle-axes and machetes, sending geysers of green blood and gore from spindly, gruesome necks that began smoking. Damali beheaded another creature with the Isis, as she glanced at the Covenant team to be sure she didn't lose any of her men. The Templar sliced the chest of a pale, withered beast that squealed a high-pitched call as it slumped. The Ninjas had a vampire between them: one going for the beast's head with a kick, the other using discs to incinerate it from behind. Blocked from the high-speed zone by four demons spinning wildly, the team fought to open a hole toward safety along the other routes to enter the slower tunnel - while Carlos went after the creatures that blocked his passage to the high-speed zone.
Damali glanced at Carlos, and his form took her aback. He was huge. The fangs he now bore were six inches long and at least three-quarters of an inch wide. His eyes glowed red. The muscles in his forearms and shoulders and thighs had burst seams in his tattered suit. His silk shirt was hanging open, the size of his chest looked like two cinder blocks had been affixed to it, and his stomach rippled with eight, well-defined muscular bricks. Heaving from exertion, sweat rolled down his temples and the center of his chest. His adrenaline was palpable, the scent of it nearly intoxicating. He'd abandoned using a stake as a weapon; now he used his bare hands.
The low rumble that came from his throat sent a shiver through her. For a second their eyes met. The force of his projected thought momentarily stunned her like she'd been punched. For the first time in her life she witnessed a master vampire in full battle mode. It was both horrifying and awesome.
"Damali!" Marlene yelled, breaking her trance.
Stabbing at a new wave of creatures with the Isis blade, Damali opened access closer to the portal Carlos was fighting to clear. "I won't leave my team down here!" she yelled toward him.
When she spun around, however, the Templars and her guardian team were blocked in the slow cavern by multiple beasts that gave chase. She could hear her squad running and yelling, each telling her to go fast with Carlos and they'd meet her on the other side.
"Trust me," he said, grabbing her arm even though his hand began to sizzle. "If you resist, we'll fall back into a slow cavern - just the two of us. They at least have a fighting chance," he told her.
Beasts seemed to be pouring into the pit from all sides, and oddly she couldn't see now that J.L.'s lights were being carried farther away. Before J.L. had even fired up the torches, she could see in the dark, hear everything coming before it rushed them, feel the creatures' presence - sense it, taste it - but in an instant her internal battery was low. It was like her own power had dipped the moment she'd been slammed with Carlos's thoughts.
She squinted, regaining her night vision, yet she had to work at it, concentrate. Holes she hadn't even noticed came alive. Rock was transforming into entities, gravel under her feet clutched at her as hands came up from the ground. Things overhead grasped at her head, pulled her hair. Invisible threadlike tentacles and fingers snatched at her arms and legs while she slashed at everything with her dagger in one hand and Madame Isis in the other.
As soon as she stopped pulling away from him, Carlos swept her up while she held her sword and dagger close to her chest. The suit burn made the surfaces she touched slowly ignite, but he tightened his hold.
Hurtling so fast, there was no way to breathe. He could feel the pressure push oxygen out of his lungs, make his eardrums nearly burst, sight was impossible, everything was a blur, and all he could do was continue to cradle Damali in his grasp and keep her close as she practically fused to his skin.
She thought she was dying. Her chest felt like a thousand pounds of forced weight was upon it. She couldn't suck in because her diaphragm couldn't lift. Her ears felt like they were bleeding, and the high-pitched whine was like that of a turbine engine inside of them. The foul, smoldering air and the whiz of motion burned her eyes, which she could only shut tightly now. She began a prayer, and she heard Carlos howl with pain as they slowed and his hold loosened on her.
No! Not in my arms! It wasn't Carlos's voice, but his mind that told her.
Somehow she knew that her survival was predicated on them getting to the other side. She could immediately feel things scratching at her when they'd slowed down, and her mind fixed on the objective, which instantly kicked them back up into high gear. Find Nuit.
Almost as suddenly as they had begun to hurl forward, the swirling energy behind them snapped shut, making Carlos lurch forward and stumble to a stop before a massive, black marble door. He was heaving in air, and fully transformed. He dropped her down fast, then backed up and drew quicker pants. Knowing the suit had hurt him, weakening his fight condition, she stepped away from him as he gasped for a breath in the putrid pit around them. She could see in the dark again. All her senses were keened once more. She was in full-blown huntress, having also transformed herself. The hurling action had sent an adrenaline shot through her, and tapped into her survival core. She was ready.
On the ground behind her were a heap of six dead women. The sight of them lying limp, their necks snapped, their eyes wide open, had turned her knuckles white on the grip of her blade.
Every lapsed sensory gift was so heightened that she was almost shaking where she stood. The smells, the distant sounds of lost souls screaming, the still air, the taste of dark realm sulfur, and her lack of need for light entered her system from her spinal column - spreading out to the tips of her fingers, toes, and the top of her head in one internal electric current. She used the blade to motion toward the gore.
"What the hell is this, Carlos?"
"Dinner, I presume," he muttered. "Nuit is a man of his word. Two for me, one for each of my boys." Carlos spat and walked around her. "I'm not hungry, though."
The burn, the high-speed travel, and the battle combined, had initially been enough to slightly bring him down to divert his attention. Now Damali just stared him, could even see him in the dark; it was reversing the effect, like an anesthetic wearing off. The heightened Neteru scent of her mixed with another fragrance that he couldn't place. It created something close to delirium within the tight, unventilated confines. Blood was also in the air from Nuit's substitute offering. But Damali's adrenaline was pumping, the silver suit's effectiveness rapidly diminishing, as the scent of her numbed the pain. He had the feeling he could just tear the silver from her body with little difficulty. He shook his head. They had to breach Nuit's lair now or he wouldn't be responsible for his actions.
"You've got about two seconds to make a choice. We go in there and fight him right now, or I won't be myself. Que pasa?"
Damali leveled her blade at the man who had changed in size and density right before her eyes. His shoulders had gained another three inches in bulk. Threatening strength circled her, occasionally tilting its head. His incisors had taken on saber-toothed proportions, and his transition was worse than what she'd witnessed before. His eyes occasionally flashed deep gold, like a cat's within the darkness. As he circled and stalked her, a low panther-like rumble came from his chest and went through her body and settled in her marrow. He breathed in deeply and the glowing orbs disappeared in the blackness. But she could hear him circling, ready to strike, and she turned with him, Madame Isis always leading their dance. Then, he vanished.
"Fear mixed with a sudden burst of adrenaline... you better kill me on the first blow - you're taking too long," he said, his tone urgent and strained. "I tried to tell you, baby. I didn't want you to see me like this, ever."
His voice echoed off the walls and suddenly she went still, using all her senses to locate him, because his footsteps had also suddenly disappeared. Then he was behind her, and had her by her shoulders. His hands didn't burn now, and it sent a shot of pure terror through her. The instinctive reflex seemed to make him shudder and only tighten his hold. She tensed, bracing for his bite. Instead, he'd groaned against her hair.
She was not trying to go out like this. Struggle was impossible under his vise-like grip. His entire body pressed against her like stone. He nuzzled her shoulder, up her neck, smelling her hair, the growl moving up from his chest to his throat. Again, she became very, very still - remembering that there was another one - two males that would battle to the death over her.
"I didn't want it to be like this... especially your first time," he murmured harshly against the exposed skin of her cheek, sending a hot shaft of pure desire through her body. "But I'm way too far from redemption at this juncture, baby... Since last night, I ain't been no good."
She could feel his fang-packed jaw, the power of the muscles in it grazing her cheek as his body trembled against her spine. Instead of only feeling a sense of horror, she was also feeling a strange draw of desire. What was wrong with her? She leaned her head back to allow Carlos's ardent nuzzle. She couldn't help it. He issued another primal sound from deep within his throat as her body relaxed against his. The ache to make love to him almost made her cry out. An incisor slid past her earlobe. As it did, her survival instinct kicked in. She screamed the last name she ever though she would.