Carlos was in the process of dematerializing into unseen vapors when Damali's worry for him stabbed into his skull. How ironic. His plan had been to follow Dan's scent to her, when she literally called out into the night with her mind and was pulling him! How could that be? She'd broken into a master vampire's mind, a human? No one had told him that she would be able to invade his thoughts, draw him to her. Fascinating, and thoroughly electrifying. A shudder of anticipation ran through him.
Carlos became solid form as he closed his eyes and opened his mind to Damali's panic. He could see her driving, could see the perspiration cast a slight sheen to her lovely brow. He licked his lips, tasting the salt of her skin. Her deep brown eyes had opened wide, her pupils expanding until they eclipsed her irises. Night vision... like his kind?
Damali's pull was so erotic that he swayed and held onto the hood of a nearby car. Damn ... As she clutched the steering wheel of the Hum-V she drove, he could actually feel her power. No longer shielded behind the walls of her compound, he could detect a light blue aura of energy emanating from her skin. It gave her a glow. He could feel himself needing to touch her, drawn like a moth to a flame. Carlos reached out trembling fingers into the night air and let out a deep moan, and immediately censored himself. He quickly withdrew his hand. They should have told him that she would be like a drug to him. He would have to learn to control his reactions around her, if he was going to protect her from Nuit.
But her hair, her skin ... her voice. The timbre of it issuing battle commands... her lack of fear fueled by fury-induced adrenaline shot through him. Shards of pleasure created bands of colors in his head. She was a magnet. He wrestled with the effect she produced and focused on what was around her. Her guardians were formidable, but in this state of aggression he could take them. Then he saw her weapons - a blade, a dagger... she had no fear of hand-to-hand combat... she had bloodlust in her heart, driving her like a bullet. Carlos shuddered again as the scent of her now filled his nose, creating a hunger that matched his craving for blood.
Delirious, he stumbled forward, away from the parked car. He inhaled her again, and it produced a rush like no other he'd ever experienced. Immediately his fangs came down, the muscles in his body tensed and built. He could feel his density shift, become stronger. He glanced at his hand, awed that it was larger, his nails a deadly eighth of an inch longer, but he was amazed that he did not have claws. Why?
He rubbed his palm over his face, wondering what he looked like now. He used his fingertips to make the assessment. His awareness of her had only strengthened him, but had not disfigured him. Why? He stared at the side of a minivan. Two red gleaming points reflected off the shiny black vehicle. His eyes... daaayum... Damali could make him feel like this, miles away? What would an encounter with her be like face-to-face? Maybe the Vampire Council would have to drive a stake through his heart after all - unless she had to plant the blade she carried for her own protection first.
"Unbelievable," Carlos murmured into the nothingness, now identifying the fragrance that he'd always detected from her when he was human. A creature so special had been in his midst all along. He raked every detail about her through his awareness, to understand what this whole thing called a Neteru truly was.
Most importantly, she was safe. He had to go to her. His form began to lose density and shape as he composed himself and summoned control.
Then the shadows moved, and he smelled a sickening musty-sweet scent - incense-like... frankincense and myrrh.
Ready for an attack, Carols braced himself, his eyes keened to the movement. There were twelve forms. He could feel his jaw unhinge by reflex and every body muscle twitch as it regained bulk in preparation for mortal conflict. The incisors inside his mouth were different, wider, more lethal than what Damali's image had caused. Erotic desire was instantly differentiated from battle mode. He glanced at his hands. Long, hooked talons came from the tips of his fingers like a lion's retractable claws. Now he understood. He narrowed his gaze as differently clad assassins came from the darkness. But he stood still, assessing which one to bring down first.
The eldest slowly advanced. He wore a huge silver cross with a bleeding heart in the center of it topped by a crown of thorns, and was dressed in royal blue. The aggressor unsheathed a three-foot-long blade that glinted in the dim, yellow parking garage fluorescent lights. Two more came out of the nothingness and were in black Ninja gear. Each had clearly visible weapons in their hands, a morning star and a dagger. Another who seemed to be a sheik wore all-white cotton, his gold star and crescent in the center of his chest dangled like a dare, and his grip tightened on a machete. More and more of them stepped from the darkness behind cars until they circled him - each bearing a different religious emblem and a weapon. Humans. Innocents. But how and why had they found him?
Carlos looked up, considering his options to make an overhead retreat along the ceiling ductwork.
"Demon," the first one who'd approached said, "why did you save the innocent? Is he marked?" The man's tone was wary, but his voice held a hint of confusion.
"Who are you?" Carlos shouted back, his gaze holding onto the cross, remembering his own that he'd dropped when the insanity began. The fleeting thought entered his mind only for a second and then was gone, as he spun to protect his own back.
"I am a knight of Templar," the royal-blue-clad assassin announced. "The others are my brethren from the twelve scattered churches. We make up the Covenant. You are surrounded."
Momentarily confused, Carlos let his gaze rove over the multiethnic hit squad, smelling their blood. These were men - but somehow protected men. "So, state your business. Whassup? What do you want with me? I have places to go."
"You let an innocent escape, and that drew us. And you left the gray zone with your mother and grandmother's prayers upon you - and with one in your heart. You had an emblem of God on your person. Do you seek redemption, demon? Are you seeking sanctuary?"
Carlos's shoulders relaxed, although he wasn't sure why, and he could feel his fangs and claws retract. The Vampire Council's monitoring had again retreated as soon as these hombres had shown up. Redemption? He thought of the tour the messenger had taken him on through the realms. Sensing an opportunity in the offing, Carlos hedged a bet. "I need to be able to talk to you without my conversation being monitored. I'm tapped. Anything you can do to ensure our conversation stays private?"
The team nodded and lowered their weapons, and soon their voices began in a low chant, each speaking in a different language, saying what Carlos could only determine as different prayers - simply because the one man in blue before him said the Twenty-third Psalm in Latin. Carlos smiled. He couldn't hear the words, but he knew the cadence of the prayer. Knew the beat of it, how it was uttered. His mother's insistence that he attend Catholic Mass as a child had finally come to some good use. But it didn't stab into his brain. Interesting. They had somehow not attacked him with it.
"You are shielded," the blue knight announced as the group fell quiet.
Carlos nodded. "Thank you."
"We are the keepers of the sacred texts, and the guardians of the transition corridors. We keep the passages to the realms above clear of demonic manifestations and blockages so that ascending souls may pass unharmed. Yours was hijacked during sure descent, from the keepers of the sixth realm of darkness. Supernatural law was broken by the old vampires. You have to make a choice quickly. We don't have much time."
"If my soul got jacked, where is it?" A tingling sensation entered Carlos's fingertips as he waited for their answer.
"In Purgatory, until a final determination can be made about which realm has right to it," the blue knight said. "There has been a dispute over it."
The group nodded, but Carlos could see their grips flex on their arsenal. "Your business with me, then, is... ?"
"You have not eaten of the innocent yet, but soon you will have to - the blood thirst will be too strong... then you will be lost to us. You must make a choice. There is only one, and you have three days in which to make it. Choose wrong and the vampires own you."
He studied the assembled warriors carefully as nervous glances passed between them.
"Bring us Damali Richards," the spokesman said in an even tone. "Then who knows? Perhaps mercy may befall you."
Carlos smiled. Damali was in high demand. He almost wanted to laugh it was so mad-crazy. "I already have an offer on the table for her, at present - by another council. Two pending deals, in fact. Want to raise the stakes? No pun intended."
The knight of Templar narrowed his gaze. "Yes. How about if we raise the stakes?" he threatened. "Literally."
A red-swathed Indian monk spoke through his teeth. "We do not negotiate with the underworld!"
"In Tibet, we have one resolution for evil," another in a yellow robe sneered, brandishing a long, thin blade. "We behead it."
"Bullshit," Carlos said. "DEA negotiates with the underworld here on earth, and the human underworld mob bosses negotiate with the feds from time to time. As above, so below. That much I've learned in the last few hours. So, if you don't have anything substantial to put on the table, here ends our conversation - and I'll go about my business in a puff of smoke. Pullease, gimme a break. You hombres have to do better than that!"
"Infidel!" the Muslim said.
"Finish this," a rabbi insisted.
"No, think about it, man," Carlos said calmly as the knight circled him. "I'm in a pretty fucked-up position - you are on one side, offering no guarantee of amnesty, and on the other side I've got eternal life, money, fame, and a fifth of the world's territory... all for one chick. Talk to me."
Carlos kept his gaze steady, although anticipation coursed through him. Every side was after his precious Damali. Sooner or later one side would win, he just needed to assess which side he'd aid - if any at all. But there had been some policy breach within the spirit world. It might protect her... might save his ass, too. "I don't want her to fall into the wrong hands. How do I know I should trust you?"
"Lower your weapons," the knight murmured. "He still has human compassion."
Carlos stared at the man; his dark brown eyes were boring into him and making it hard for him to breathe.
"Demon, you are right to seek her protection and to try to assess the most suitable arrangement for her. Honorable." The knight bowed slightly and leaned on his sword.
For a moment there was silence. Very light traffic could be heard in the distance along with the hum of the fluorescent lights. Moths fluttered overhead, not heeding the remains of their fried, dead comrades that had gone toward the light as a warning. It made Carlos assess his own circumstances very carefully.
"He may still have some of the three weapons available to man," one of the Ninjas murmured. "He obviously cares for her."
When Carlos cocked his head to the side, the other Ninja spoke.
"Faith, hope, and charity - charity defined as love. If a man has faith, he can have hope; with hope, he can love. It is a trinity and without one, all others are weakened. If a man loses faith, hope dies. Without hope, one cannot love. And love is the greatest of all gifts from On High."
"And how is any of this a weapon against anything?" Carlos walked in the confining circle they had made around him.
"These three gifts of the spirit make humans a risky variable to both sides," the blue-clad knight said slowly. "We have lost many people from the houses of worship because they lost one or all of these gifts, hence the variable to our side. Thus we put a young woman in the new arena that draws the focus of millions - the entertainment industry. Her words inspire, inspiration gives birth to hope, hope fuels faith and love. She touches the young, while their impressions of the world are still forming, and instills hope. She composes lyrics from her heart that others her age can identify with. She galvanizes masses with her universal message. Crowds of young people follow her, want to imitate her. Therefore, she's valuable beyond measure for many reasons beyond your comprehension - you must choose wisely."
The rabbi cast his nervous glance around the group. "He doesn't understand the importance of a chosen voice, or art upon a culture." He then addressed Carlos, his eyes possessing an urgent expression. "Art, it's a universal language. It comes from On High, and every culture that evolves to the higher levels brings forth masterful work - to show the beauty and goodness in the world, in all the senses down here on earth. Sound, sight, touch, smell, taste - the various arts invoke emotion, through emotion the human heart can find compassion, which opens it to the three gifts."
The one identified as a Templar nodded, his eyes never leaving Carlos's face. "Why do you think that when cultures are conquered, art and books are the first things burned? Why are artists jailed and persecuted... yet they keep on pursuing their craft like they're on a mission? Because they are, even when they don't know why they have this desire inside them that must get out and into the world. But the dark realms destroy such beauty and replace it with their perversion of it."
The Muslim let his breath out with impatience. "This is what they want to do to our Damali. But the art always seeps back into the world and gets a foothold - and is always the advance cry of a revolution of the mind. We are in the throes of an era that requires humanity to glean to higher priorities. We need positive young voices to fill the void, to reestablish hope and faith and love for all races. We need them to draw peace, not war, as the adults have poorly modeled when they lost their way." i "The darkness has come to know this secret, too," the blue knight said in a sad, quiet tone. "And the dark also uses the airwaves to influence negativity - the Fallen Angel was given principality over the airwaves, as you recall. His realms have begun to use this to their advantage in our digital age where everything is airborne. Why not the vampires? They are, after all, the most evolved of the dark species."
"This is bullshit! I know you didn't come here to give me an art philosophy lesson. So, let's stop jerking each other off." Raking his fingers through his hair, Carlos stared at them for a moment. No anger reflected in their eyes. Pity did, and it disturbed him. Yet their conviction was palpable, and he could not deny that Nuit had built a recording empire in short order. But he needed to get on with his business, get to Damali. These men were wasting his time.
"Why me?" Carlos finally said. "Why didn't you all just surround her with a bunch of your church assassins - what makes you have to come to a vampire?" The pure irony of it made him laugh. "This makes no sense!"
A low murmur swept through the group and the one in all-white spoke.
"I am of the Moorish Order, and we must inform you of your value, by right." The Moor waited for the others to nod before he proceeded. "One sinner, damned almost beyond redemption, is worth in soul-weight that of one hundred holy men. We have lost many holy men, and you represent a valuable asset to the forces of light to help tip the scales. You had the destiny to be a tracker guardian... Damali was sent to you first, but you chose the wrong path and she was taken from you for her safety."
He'd heard the part about the worth of a soul, but needed to consider what he'd been told about Damali. Parts of his life quickly careened through his mind... the way they met, his ridiculous urge to always protect her - never wanting her to be a part of his drug life... but never being able to get her out of his system, though she made him so angry at times he could wring her defiant, stubborn neck. The Vampire Council, or one of those insane groups of vamps he'd met had said he was a tracker, had a nose for her. Deep. Now some church guys had the same story. He stared at them hard, assessing them, trying to read the prayer-blocked minds to no avail. But they were indeed humans. Very strange.
"Hmmm..." Carlos nodded slowly again, his hands behind his back now as he walked and thought, taking his time to speak. "If I choose your side, what happens? I have seen the dark realm - shortly, I'll have regional maps to the five demon layers as well as the old route to a rogue master vampire's lair."
He could sense a restrained excitement sweep through the group, and their eyes shifted nervously between each other.
"That is valuable information," the knight said quietly, but still on guard. "If you lie, we slaughter you, and send you to the place from which there is no return."
"See, now you're threatening me, and that doesn't put me in a willing frame of mind. It makes me feel no love and want to go where I'm getting more positive vibes. You dig?"
The guardians grudgingly relaxed their stance.
"What do you want, for the maps and Damali?"
"Oh, now, hold up," Carlos said, chuckling. "Maps and Damali? You just raised the ante."
"Speak, demon. We lose patience."
"Everybody's in a hurry. Hmmm." Carlos chuckled and let out his breath, remaining cool and in control. "I do not want to have to fight this blood thirst while I'm also fighting other vampires and demons. I want to be able to blind them to my whereabouts at will - if I decide to join your cause. Let's begin there."
Again the assembled men conferred.
"We'll have to take this On High. We have no jurisdiction over these matters."
"How in the world can you come to a negotiating table without the authority to act and cut a deal?" Carlos shook his head as he walked in a tight space. "See, that's the problem with layers of bureaucracy - the other side can make swift, decisive decisions based on a power formula. Just like the difference between the DEA and the mob. Unbelievable!"
The group said nothing but nodded to each other in a way that made Carlos nervous.
"And," Carlos pressed. "This daylight thing - "
"That you will never have, unless you make the right decision after three days has passed, and even then you may die... your wounds might have been too severe. The most we can offer is that you may be allowed to live in eternal peace."
"Oh, man... what is that shit anyway?" Shaking his head, Carlos passed through their circle and began walking away, so totally despondent and weary of the fruitless discussion that he didn't even care if they came after him.
"Show him," a voice behind Carlos called out.
It made Carlos stop and turn around and stare at the no longer fearsome-appearing group. Their eyes still held a level of pity that disturbed him.
"Witness," the blue knight whispered, pointing his sword toward the black-tinted windows of a nearby parked van.
From a distance Carlos saw what could only be likened to a slow-frame video. He saw himself laughing as a kid, running in the street, playing ball with his brother and his friends. His mother leaned out of the window and yelled for them to come in and eat, and he saw his father sit down at the table and kiss his mother's cheek with love for her in his eyes. The pain of the beautiful memories of his life made him turn away. Then he heard his sister's laughter... she was gorgeous, healthy, young, and was running down the street to catch the ice cream truck for him and Alejandro. Carlos swallowed hard.
The pain that filled Carlos was so profound that he had to look away for a moment, but was drawn back to the vision despite his efforts. A part of him wanted to see the pureness of his existence, something lost. Another part of him bled inside from the memory. "That was a long time ago, and all of it's gone."
"Not all of it," the knight murmured, pointing his sword to the van again. "What I have shown you is free joy, peace, grace - none of it costs a cent, and lasts so much longer than what you grasped for in your delusion of power. There is only one true power. This is life in the light."
The vision moving along the van blurred as Carlos blinked back hot moisture from his eyes. Damali was sitting with him at the beach and he was tracing her cheek with a finger. The sound of her laughter was innocent and gentle and it washed through him, making him close his eyes. Her voice stabbed at him as she read him her poems in a whisper.
"Even in your iniquity, you have had a good soul, Carlos," the knight said quietly. "Look further and see what we have seen."
Carlos breathed in deeply, watching parts of his life unfold. It came in fast flashes of altered reality. He saw the schoolyard brawl on behalf of a friend that saved Juan's life. He watched himself push Juanita away from him when his drug business became too hot... she was an innocent, and he begged her to fall in love with someone else. He saw himself breaking off stacks of illegal monies, and sending runners to neighborhood homes that he knew needed help. He saw his hatred retreat in the middle of the woods, when he asked that one of the Minion he spared a horrible death - regardless of how his own brother had been killed. Then he saw Dan drive away, frightened but unscathed. And then the van window went black again, leaving him with no reflection.
"An angel of mercy heard your prayer and bound it to those that had already been sent up for you. That was transmitted to warrior angels at the border of the gray zone. It's the only reason you have three days... and because the dark side broke supernatural law."
Through a deep breath, Carlos steadied himself and swallowed away emotion. The dark side had a vulnerability. What law had they broken, and what did that mean for him, he wondered. "Can these warrior angels offer a guarantee?"
The group shook their heads no, but then conferred.
"We can try to call them, but we don't know if they will appear in the presence of sure evil. The only reason we had been allowed to step in and make contact with you is because of the breach... and because we have a desperate need to ensure Damali Richards's safety."
A brief wave of panic crested within Carlos for an unknown reason, and he found himself walking toward the assembled, wanting to strike a bargain. He understood weight, product, amassing followers, and building armies to defend one's territory. There was always room to open an alliance.
"Wait," Carlos argued. "Ask them. I mean, if a sinner is worth his weight - then... ?" Carlos remained very still while they stared at him. "You guys haven't been honest," he pressed, panic lacing his tone. He couldn't let them leave. Not yet. Not before he knew more, and not after what seeing his old life had done to him. "This ain't about art," he pressed. "It's the fact that she's a vampire huntress - a Neteru. Talk to me."
Again the group mumbled quietly amongst themselves, and a low murmur began.
"So, the breach is correct," the Templar said, glancing at his team. "Only a master vampire would have known of the existence of a Neteru or her importance to the equation..." The men around him nodded. "The old vampires are in clear violation. Rivera died tonight, bitten by a master - Nuit, the warrior angels reported - but here he stands before us as a master, not a second-generation creature... that explains why even I, a seer, cannot get past his block to read his thoughts."
The Ninjas nodded in unison. "We have a rightful claim in the soul dispute. This must be taken up to higher realms for a decision... as long as he does not take an innocent, or pollute the Neteru."
"We'll get back to you," the Templar stated flatly.
One by one the religious men slipped into the shadows without a word. Carlos stood quietly, thinking about it all. No promises or commitments had been made. He was screwed. But he was still surviving the worst-case scenarios.
He needed motion, but preferred to walk for the moment. He took comfort in hearing his footfalls echo through the empty garage. It made him feel real, grounded, and somewhat normal. He'd find Damali in a little while, but he needed to first clear his head. A lot had transpired in such a short period of time. He'd literally been to Hell and back, been killed, raised from the dead, eaten from the dead, and seen his whole life flash before his eyes. His old life had been stripped away, his brother and friends had been murdered - his mother and grandmother had cast him out as the monster he now was. And he was only twenty-three. He'd also learned of Damali's true value, a vampire huntress, slayer, the Neteru. A diamond hidden in plain sight. But she'd been so much more to him than that, if they only knew.
Carlos exited the lot and crossed the street, avoiding the glass windows of the stores on Rodeo Drive by staying close to the curb. If he played his cards right, he could keep Nuit blinded by the Vampire Council - but get on the inside of his operation and close enough to hit him. He could also keep the Vampire Council blinded by the upper realms, who might be still hoping in vain that he'd go for their no-win deal. He could also keep the rest of his family from being turned, marked as off-limits, as well as manipulate the Vampire Council's extra boost of power to ensure that he stayed alive for a few nights, long enough to avenge his brother's death - and then slay his boys to hopefully release their souls. May Alejandro's soul rest in peace.
A long sigh found its way up from Carlos's lungs. He'd find all his family, and release them. Then what? At the end of the equation it still came back to the fact that he had to get to Damali, and in the end he'd be the walking dead, or worse. The Covenant hadn't even told him where to bring her, should he be so foolish as to bring her to them...
Carlos slipped into an alley, the streetlights and the normalcy of pedestrian traffic too much for him to bear. The lights flickered and he willed them to blow out. Only moonlight shone down the narrow asphalt corridor. An alley cat fled the Dumpster when he stared at it. Wise choice, kitty. Carlos stooped down and touched a glass-block basement window. Leaning his cheek against the coolness of a tiny cube of darkened pane, he spread out his hand that now gave off no heat and looked at the glass, trying to get it to shine back a reflection of his hand. What had he done? He wanted to weep, but his heart had no tears left in it - all it would produce was a mournful moan that made him close his eyes once more, and breathe in the only living thing that gave him comfort. Damali.
Static on the compound radio crackled as the guardians listened to Dan's voice lead Damali to him. Marlene glanced at Shabazz, who was sitting beside Jose's prone body. J.L. peered at her, and then fixed his line of vision on Jose.
"Put it on mute for a minute," Marlene ordered, going to Jose and Shabazz, and placing her hand on Jose's forehead. "He's burning up."
"I know," Shabazz said quietly. "We've gotta get him to a hospital."
Jose's complexion had turned ashen, and he was shivering so hard that he had to keep his eyes closed and breathe in quick, labored pants.
"They're inside my head, but the transmission goes both ways. They're splitting up the herd," Jose whispered through bursts of exhales. "Breaking her off from the group, and drawing her out. I'll be fine - stay with Damali."
Marlene and Shabazz exchanged a glance as J.L. stood.
"He's right," J.L. said, trepidation clear in his tone. "But we have to move the man."
Jose leaned over the side of the sofa and clutched his abdomen, retching. Marlene grabbed a nearby wastebasket that Shabazz had brought into the room - just in case - and thrust it under Jose's face.
"They're crawling inside of me." Jose choked, heaving and trembling, holding onto the side of the wastebasket.
"Three - make a circle, all of us hold hands, start praying over this man," Marlene ordered. "I'm going inside him telepathically."
"Don't," Shabazz warned. "You don't know what's in him." He covered his mouth and backed away from the horrible stench. He held onto the side of the weapons table and took deep breaths to stave off his own nausea.
Out cold, Jose didn't move, only his chest did.
"He's in way worse shape than we'd imagined, Mar."
Marlene nodded. "I'm going in and we have to get him rehydrated - or he'll flatline."
J.L. bounded up the metal steps to the rack of computers in the room, and took the radio communication to the Hum-V off mute. "Damali, we've gotta move Jose. He just puked up maggots - and he's out cold."
"You can't go out alone. It's hot out here tonight! Tell Marlene I said stay put," Damali commanded. "I know what she's thinking."
"I know, D, but our boy is..."
"Okay, okay - have Marlene call down the white light around you guys. We're going to get Dan, and we'll meet you at the hospital."
"God willing," Shabazz murmured, keeping his gaze on Marlene. "Mar, I'm going to have to carry him, which means anything that tries to breach us as we go into the garage, you and J.L. are going to have to deal with."
"No," J.L. said, looking at the security panel. "I can put on the UVs in the garage to flush it, and then simply leave the systems on and - "
"No," Marlene snapped. "You'll be outside of the van, broken off yourself. The lights might not be enough for what's out there. Plus, if we leave the whole place hot, the generators might be dead by the time we get back, which means the compound could be infested."
"We gotta move this man fast, and don't have time to argue. We leave the compound idle all the time to travel to do gigs, Mar - you know that. Systems are up on normal electricity, then have a generator backup."
"Yeah..." J.L. added in, but his words trailed off as the overhead lights temporarily went dead, and then came back up on generator power.
"What just happened?" Damali's shout could be heard in the background coming from the communications panel.
"You guys need us back at base?" Big Mike asked.
"No," Marlene said. "Our direct power got cut and came back up on generator."
"We've never done a night move, or an extraction - and we've never taken a direct power-line hit like this," Shabazz warned.
J.L. nodded and glanced at Jose.
"Stay where you are," Damali said. "We're about two miles away from Dan. We'll pick him up then head back to the compound."
Marlene reached for the console and put the telephone on mute. Determination blazed in her eyes. She was not afraid to die, a part of her already had when she took this mission. Traffic sounds could be heard coming over the radio. The guardians and Damali were all talking at the same time. She blocked out their strained voices, ignored their entreaties. Marlene glanced around at Shabazz and J.L., ignoring Damali's instructions. It was now or never. Her gaze went to Jose's face, and she spread her hands over his damp forehead and closed her eyes. Shabazz and J.L. stood back as a thin red glow outlined Marlene's hands. Her eyelids fluttered and her lips moved.
Soon every orifice on Jose's body slithered as nightmarish maggots, small black snakes, and tiny beetles fled his ears, nose, and mouth, leaving a sulfuric stench in their wake. Marlene had not moved. Her attention was unwavering. Jose convulsed, but she would not remove her hands.
The boy would not be doomed. She would not allow it! Not another young person in her charge would be lost - or she would die trying. Shabazz was at her side with his arm around her waist as an anchor, giving her his energy to siphon to add to their collective cause. His sensor's touch rippled through her body. Tears of exertion ran down her face, mingling with trickles of sweat. Her clothes stuck to her damp body. She was working. Knew how to do this. Had been anointed. This was her calling - a seer, a guardian, a keeper of the sacred sight. She was the team's elder. J.L.'s hands alighted her shoulders, both men prayed in a steady chant to protect her as she went inside Jose's mind.
She had to bring Jose back! She saw past her own fears, past her own instinct to survive... she harnessed her love for Jose to the light as her mind dove deep into the dark trying to claim him... and then she began to spiral, connected to his mind, which was locked to his besieged spirit that exited his body - leaving both his and hers vacant as she chased his soul to free it. She repented her own transgressions and wrapped love around the young man as her fingernails dug into his face until her mind opened to see where a fragment of his soul had been captured... trapped inside a dead fetus, trapped within Dee Dee's trapped soul, trapped in the realm of pure jealousy, envy, coveting Damali's fame. Secrets and lies, Dee Dee had envied Damali, it was all so very clear, and that insidious emotion had made her soul sink when Big Mike had staked her using his crossbow.
"Release the fetus, it is an innocent and does not belong to you," Marlene murmured. "Jose is a part of that only," she said more loudly. "It is now dead flesh, but the soul is not there. You have no claim! Release him!" She spit out vile slime as it crept up her esophagus, trying to take root in her, but she gave it no harbor. Jose moaned and writhed while Marlene worked. Then Marlene saw her own worst nightmare - Raven.
Marlene's spirit snapped back into her body, jerking her, depositing Jose's spirit with a twitch. She drew back her hands and clutched her stomach. Jose's color had improved and he stirred but was still weak.
"I'm going after her," Marlene said flatly, the conviction in her tone clear. The maternal pang inside her fused with guilt, worry, and a host of other emotions she could not define. Hot tears rose in her eyes as she set her jaw hard with determination. "It's time."
"I won't allow it," Shabazz said. "The last time Raven almost killed you!" He stared at the woman whose mind had been made up, defeat claiming him as he fought against a lost cause. The thought of possibly losing Marlene again was nearly unbearable.
"This is non-negotiable, Shabazz." Marlene's voice was firm, yet tender as she prepared to leave. She briefly glanced at Shabazz with understanding, then looked away as she spoke. "Escort J.L. to the hospital to cover him and Jose. The vamps are focused on Damali. While they're distracted, I'll join the rest of the team and be safe."
"Oh, shit, D!" Dan yelled, breaking through the argument occurring in the compound. His shout momentarily stilled the calls for a response from Marlene by the mobile Neteru-guardians who were panicked by the compound's silence.
"Something's just landed on the hood of my car!" Dan hollered. "Help me, help me, oh, Goddamn..."
"Start praying out loud, Dan!" Damali ordered. "Now! Anything you remember from Hebrew classes, whatever. Just start saying it."
Shabazz hit the console to take it off mute. "Dan, pray, brother. Hard, like your momma taught you how!"
"I don't remember!" Dan screamed. "I can't remember Hebrew classes... shit, something's rocking my car!"
"Then just start an old-fashioned fucking conversation with the man upstairs, dude," Rider yelled. "Like, 'Save my ass, Father. Help! Yo, get this shit up off me!' Don't stand on ceremony - call down spiritual backup!"
"Something's messing with the generators, D," J.L. shouted. "Power's dipping!"
"Give us ten minutes to get to Dan, then we're coming back for you guys."
"You don't have time to turn back, Damali," Marlene hollered. "Jose is bad, we've gotta get him outta here while we still have generator lights! Meet Shabazz, J.L., and Jose at the hospital. I'm going to draw it to me, then you draw it to you, Damali... keep it confused."
"Dan, Dan - speak to us," Damali, yelled. "Marlene, he's not answering."
They could hear Dan hollering and sputtering disjointed prayers and his car making screeching sounds as metal sounded like it was being grated. Marlene closed her eyes and brought the face she knew too well into her head, drawing it, taunting it, trying to create a diversion.
"We move," Shabazz ordered, hoisting Jose's limp body over his shoulder and snatching up his gun, then thrusting it into his waistband. "Weapons. Start pulling it to you, Damali. Marlene is on her way and has a lock on it."
"Done," Damali confirmed. "Mar, Godspeed. I don't wanna lose you."
Marlene nodded as Dan's remote screams could be heard through the radio. She picked up her stick and a battle-ax as Shabazz also grabbed a pump shotgun, and J.L. took several light wands and a crossbow.
All they had to do was make it to both remaining Jeeps.
"From what I'm hearing," Rider said in a quiet, urgent voice, "we might as well turn back and get up with our team."
Big Mike nodded from the backseat, placing a hand on Damali's shoulder. "Baby, you don't want to find him. We're too late."
"No," she said, her voice cracking. "We go get him, and back up whatever's feeding off of him. At least let his mother be able to bury him in one piece!"
Silence pierced the vehicle - neither the compound radio nor Dan's transmission chattered, only static came through.
"There's his Honda," Rider said, looking around as Damali spun the Hum-V to face Dan's badly mangled car.
"We do this nice and slow," Big Mike warned as each of them checked their weapons and prepared to get out of the vehicle.
Damali nodded, opened the door, and jumped down, swiftly followed by Rider and Big Mike. As they approached Dan's wreck, they could see that both the front and back windshields had been shattered. The top of the car looked like giant claws had ripped it open like a tin can, and the passenger and driver's side doors where hanging ajar.
She glanced at Big Mike, who shook his head, communicating pity for both the lost cause, as well as the fact that he couldn't hear anything lurking nearby. Rider hung his head, and slowly began to shake it, giving her the same silent message.
"Don't go to the car," Rider whispered. "Honey, you don't want to see what they leave. Seeing the remains of a friend is different than seeing a vamp gored. Even with all our losses, you ain't never seen that."
Damali wiped at her eyes with anger and pushed herself forward, braced for the grisly sight. Her second sight was locked on the face that she'd fought in the Chinatown alley. All she could see was the top of Dan's head as she peered through a smashed window. His whole body was wedged down under the steering wheel. She couldn't risk losing her hold on the thing out there stalking Marlene by splitting the focus of her second sight to scan Daniel, nor did she want to. She wasn't sure she wanted to have the image of his death permanently lodged in her mind, so she blocked it.
"Oh, God, they only left his head." Damali jerked her chin up and averted her eyes for a second to steady herself enough to cope with the remains of a friend.
Sudden movement made her grip tighten on her blade as Dan's hand thrust up, holding out and brandishing his gold medallion. Reflexes aimed Rider and Big Mike's weapons at his skull in preparation to take him out. Damali relaxed.
"Get back, get back, get back!" Dan screamed.
The team lowered their weapons and rushed to the side of the car, staring at the trembling hand that held up a gold star. Dan's other hand was covering his head and he was sobbing and screaming.
"It's us, Dan," Damali said, touching his clenched fist. "Are you hurt?"
"Pull him up and slap his face," Rider told Mike. "He's battle-freaked."
Mike nodded and pushed his shoulder cannon out of the way so he could grab at the huddled mass that was struggling to crawl deeper into the small pocket of safety. The extraction took three attempts before Big Mike could dislodge Dan, who swung at him wildly, but never dropped his medallion.
Rider paced over to the fray and slapped Dan twice.
"It's us, dude. Relax."
Dan opened his eyes and blinked at the group who surrounded him as Big Mike dropped him. Wiping furiously at his eyes, he scrambled to his feet.
"Oh, shit! Oh shit. I thought one of those big burly suckers had me when that ox, Mike, pulled me up. Oh shit, guys - why didn't you tell me?"
"Ain't got time," Damali said fast. "We've gotta get back - our compound is under siege. Get him in the vehicle."
Rider held up his hand. "This ain't the place to be making fast moves," he said slowly, his head turning as his nose seemed to follow a scent.
"Oh, shit - "
"Shush!" Mike hissed, cocking his head like a hunting dog. "You hear it?" he whispered, gazing at Damali. "Be still, baby. While you was covering Mar, think you mighta missed it." Mike slowly raised his shoulder cannon and spun on the sound behind him and fired.
The bushes lit up as the dirt shell exploded and a screeching mass took flight, circling above. Rider pulled Dan down, dropped to one knee, and opened fire with an automatic, spraying the mass with hallowed dirt - filled cartridges. Reconstituting quickly, the flying mass regrouped several feet away and separated into six forms while Mike and Rider reloaded.
"Give the man a weapon," Damali told Mike. "Dan, we need everybody in the game tonight."
Mike pulled three leather straps from his neck that had vials of holy water at both ends of each thong, and produced a stake for Dan to use from the back pocket of his fatigues. "You read the Old Testament?"
Dan nodded, his hand shaking as he accepted the strange-looking gizmos from Big Mike.
"David and Goliath action, understood, little brother? Watch her back and yours. Don't get nicked. The stake goes dead aim, in the center of a vampire's chest. Get the heart."
Dan put his chain back over his head and stood when Rider pulled him up by his elbow. With Damali in the lead, and the three men behind her, both sides waited in a temporary standoff.
When the six creatures before them parted, a low growl could be heard coming from deep in the underbrush behind them. Damali's blade was before her, every muscle in her tensed and ready to spring. Then two pairs of gleaming eyes could be seen first, low to the ground, as something stalked through the opening the vampires had made. That's when she smelled it, and released her call to it. Marlene had been covered. The things had come to her, the vampire huntress, and it was time to deliver a beat down.