CHAPTER NINE

She couldn't stop it. Didn't want to stop it. Once her Ama n Queen sister threw her head back and released a bat tle cry, the fight command had popped off so fast and so furiously that it felt like a lightning bolt tore through her sys tem. Call Carlos how? She was in battle fury's grip. It was go ing down. Every indignity that Eve felt, she'd experienced. All of it threatened Damali's sanity. By

any means necessary; no justice, no peace - until Lilith felt her household violated and crushed the same way she'd come after hers; it was on!

Damali stood in the Black Forest clearing with her three Queen sisters, Eve, Nzinga, and Penthesileia. They'd brought her to the last place Lilith's essence had scored topside, hop

ing that Damali could use her past experience to open the chasm of Hell.

"No problem," Damali muttered, walking around studying the charred earth. "Harpies and scythe-bearers opened it right here." She squatted for a moment, putting her hand over the sealed crevice. 'They locked up shop, but I know how to get 'em to open the door." She stood up quickly. "Stand back, take cover, and when the first funnel forms - or when demons slither over the edge - let her rip, Nzinga.

That will get us down to at least Levels One and Two. I just hope the spell vaccination Lady Fu Hao gave us works."

"It will work, she is the best at counteracting forces of Darkness that have been delivered through potions and evil elixirs," Nzinga said, lifting her chin higher. Damali backed up from the site, keeping her eyes on the ground. "Yeah ... whatever she gave us was strong enough to make me see silver and make my cycle go off. Girlfriend ain't no joke. So, let's do this."

The older Queens nodded, but Eve hesitated. "What if Lilith comes up in the funnel? I want her head."

"Lilith won't come up in this funnel," Damali said with a tight, angry smile. "Because I'm not calling that bitch."

The Queens shared confused glances as Damali leaned back, took a deep breath, and began yelling.

"Fallon! Fallen Nuit! Bring your punk ass up here and fight like a man!"

* * *

fallon stood up from his throne so quickly that he al most toppled it. Lilith and Sebastian hissed.

"It could be a trick, Fallon," Lilith screeched. "Be still and listen, send up - "

"It's Sebastian's potion," Fallon said in an even tone that barely concealed his excitement. Sebastian weakly nodded with a smug expression. "So, it would appear that my work was not all for naught, then? It would stand to reason that she'd call ... the first real master vampire she knew, descended now to council level - after her human Neteru was depleted." He leaned forward, his gaze narrowed on Lilith. "Potions are delicate chemistry and take time to snake their way into the human system. Listen to her frantic calls above."

"With Cain gone, her last near-vampire lover," Fallon said, sweeping away from the table with a flourish and star-mg at the vaulted ceiling, "who would be able to satisfy her proclivities more than I?" His vision became laserlike as he stared at the swirling funnel cloud of transport bats. "Look at her," he murmured. "Eyes wild, her blade raised, fury making her tremble, and my name on her gorgeous mouth." He closed his eyes for a moment. "And you ask me to wait... after losing her twice?"

"Do as you like!" Lilith screeched. "I sense a setup, but have no problem in using your worthless carcass for cannon fodder, Fallen."

Nuit tilted his head with his eyes closed. "Listen to the distress in her beacon." He drew in a slow breath. "She said, 'After Cain, how dare you leave me like this.'"

Sebastian chuckled. "As good as a ripening, my fellow councilman. So now you owe me." Nuit smiled. "Well worth the price, indeed."

* * *

the chasm in the earth opened and a hundred massive scythe-bearers flowed over the edges. Nzinga stood hidden in the stand of trees and began swinging the silver energy tether in a whirl of circular motion and then released it so that the glowing white orb containing the reversed spell passed the demons and fell into the abyss. The scythe-bearers hissed and screeched then went after the offending light before it descended too far into the pit, not realizing that the moment it hit anything down there, it would deto

nate like a grenade.

Damali took cover as huge tentacles reached up from the yawning opening in the ground and snatched down scythe-bearers with an angry snap. Their blades were of no use. Each time the guard and messenger demons hacked away one squirming limb, the black-green slime that splattered them entered their systems and made them lustily turn on their fellow demon soldiers. Those demons unable to reach another one of their own connected with the spell's thick ropes of tentacles, tree trunks, exposed roots, anything they could rub themselves against until the spell pulled away the groaning carnage to go deeper into the pit. The Queens squinted in disgust as the tentacles finally dragged away writhing demons, and disappeared.

"Never in my born days ..." Eve murmured, shocked. "Not even in Sodom and Gomorrah."

"I'm just pissed off that they tried to bring that shit to my door - my household," Damali said through her teeth. "Well, hold on for phase two. The door is open. Watch my six." Quickly moving to the edge of the precipice, Damali made her voice as seductive as she could. "Fallon," she said, listening to it echo down through the unguarded first and second levels. "How could you show me all those hot im ages, taunt me outside of la casa in Morales, and then disap pear? I didn't realize chivalry was dead, mon dieu." Damali rolled her eyes and put her hand on her hip, but kept the Isis firmly in her right grip. She could just imagine the devastation the spell was having with the ghost gangs and incubi and succubae, not to mention the poltergeists. Lilith would be busy for weeks cleaning up that madness and restoring order, and if it got down to the serpents ... the Amanthras might strangle themselves in frenzied mating balls. The were-demon realms on Level Five might not even come out to hunt on the full moon. An urgent mental jolt from her Queens made her ready for the soundless mist behind her. Damali didn't turn around; she knew male vampires and what they craved like she knew the back of her hand. The moment Nuit materialized she spun, had his hair in her fist, and bit his jugular.

"What took you so fucking long? Do I look like a woman who wants to be kept waiting?" She smiled. The surprise in his eyes and the hard shudder that passed through him made her wonder for a moment if he'd busted a nut.

"Damali ... for years," he crooned, nuzzling her neck.

"Yeah, what can I say? I finally came to my right mind, I suppose... besides, you know what marriage does to a girl."

"No, tell me, cheri, in excruciating ... mental... detail."

She fought not to tense at his cool, clammy touch and gave a French kiss her all to stun his mind. There was just something so foul about having a being without a soul run its hands over her ass, but this was war. Carlos had always been white hot against her, even while dead. The soul factor, she supposed. But the fact at the moment was she needed Nuit to take her down through the tunnels so she could seed the lev els with glowing time bombs, let them quietly detonate, and then her squad would be coming in as backup once the ten

tacles consumed everything in their wake with lust.

"You got a throne?" she murmured, coming out of the kiss breathless for maximum effect. His hands were in her hair, tears of desire in his eyes, and she could feel him about to totally lose his composure to present bat wings and a spaded tail. "Never could I have imagined what the scent of you this close could do to my reason, cheri, much less the taste of your mouth and the spill of natural confection your skin is in my hands - "

"Listen, while I'm flattered," she said, not wanting to have to kiss him again, or worse.

"Stop humping my leg and answer my question - do you have a throne?"

"Of course I do," he said, nuzzling her hair and sliding a glistening fang up her throat.

"Then can we get our swerve on down there? I'm horny as hell and really don't feel like being out here in a pile of leaves and bugs and whatnot," she fussed, staying in charac ter, doing everything she could to make him believe the spell had taken her mind. He just stared at her for a moment as though she'd slapped him, and she could feel his mind trying to blunt fuck hers to pry information out of it. She smiled and allowed her eyes to slide shut as her hand slipped between their bodies and she stroked his groin.

"Oh, yeah ... that's it, lover. Just do that in a throne and I'm yours," she murmured and then pulled in a deep hiss between her teeth. "I remember when Carlos used to be able to do that, baby."

A dark transport cloud swept her up so fast that it knocked the air out of her lungs. In the dense blackness, she had to remember how to sense the descent, flying blind, with evesight useless and Fallen's mouth on hers ... but drop-nine small charges from her pockets while he was extremely preoccupied.

She landed on his lap and immediately jumped back before the throne itself could start to invade her. For a moment, he was slightly disoriented and she needed a cover to buy time.

"I didn't know she'd be here, and who's he?" Damali said, pointing at Sebastian. Lilith hissed. "Fallon, are you insane?"

"Hey, Lilith," Damali said, ramming her Isis into the floor and watching the marble smolder. "I would have given you the ride of your life in a throne, Fallon, but not with that bitch watching - she doesn't deserve it. Put her out or I ain't dropping the silver - him, too."

Damali quickly turned back to Nuit, who had ironically battle bulked on Lilith. She didn't bother to fight the smile and allowed it to come out on her face looking just as sinister as she felt.

"The legendary one. Ahhhh ... I am Sebastian, greatest of spell-caster warlocks and newly installed councilman at large," Sebastian said with a bow toward Damali. He spun on Lilith. "If you ever challenge one of my spells again, I will remind you of this moment." He began to sweep away to the council antechambers. "Nuit, you lucky bastard, I want a mental video of this when you're done." With a puff of black smoke, he was gone.

"I will ask you again, Fallon," Lilith said, hissing and spitting as she transformed to meet his physical challenge, "have you lost your mind?"

" En garde!" he shouted, producing a Black Death blade.

"Girl... you know how they are when they want some, right?" Damali said, studying her nails.

Damali ducked the black bolt that Lilith sent her way, and was pleasantly surprised to see Nuit put a black shield between them with the Isis still on her side.

"You owe me this, Lilith!" Nuit shouted in Dananu. "After all I've done for you - this one indulgence is all I ask!" His fist hit the council table and broke off a corner of the pentagram.

"I owe you nothing but my wrath!" Lilith shrieked back in the negotiating language of their kind while leaning over the table and meeting Nuit eye to eye. "But it will be a first in chambers." She pulled back and shook her head, and then laughed. Damali froze. That was not the expected reaction.

Nuit leaned over farther and brushed Lilith's mouth with a quick kiss, and then closed his eyes. "Thank you, Madame Chairwoman. Forgive my outburst." Lilith swept away from him and waved her hand, chuck ling in a low rumble. "The pulse of that erection, Fallen, is enough to make you deaf, dumb, and blind. I hope I find more than your ashes when I return."

Nuit glanced at Damali and dropped his black safety barrier from around her. "If it is thus that I am ash, surely it will be because she has scorched me." Damali smiled a tight smile, watching Lilith slowly walk away, and knowing Lilith did have eyes in the back of her head. She drew her Isis blade into her palm, ready.

"Now, where were we?" Nuit crooned, walking around his throne and beckoning her to him with a look.

Anything she was about to say to stall him came to an abrupt halt as the marble floor began to rumble and Lilith and Sebastian whirled into the chamber. Damali began back

ing away from the central vibration point that seemed to fol low her around within seconds of her every move. Wall torches were falling along with rocks. Fallon Nuit was trying to get to her like a valiant lover. But she made it appear as though she was falling from his grasp, too - knowing full well he'd jettison her somewhere she'd never been in the pit, and wouldn't know how to get out.

Then just as suddenly as the underground earthquake began, a swarm of vicious Harpies came up from the wide fissure that opened in the floor. They rushed at her, screeching, causing Fallon Nuit to foolishly attempt to come between them and her as she butchered the little beasts with her blade.

"Call them off, Lilith!" Nuit shouted as gook from Damali's swings splattered him.

"I didn't send them," Lilith screeched over the din. "My husband did! Something's wrong!" Oh shit. Damali's mind screamed for an out as she gripped her Isis like it was a baseball bat and swung wildly, decapitating ugly little fanged faces from squishy demon bodies. Soon to be overrun, she had only one option left, the one she was saving for the Vampire Council as soon as the odds were even - but the best laid plans sometimes never stood a chance.

Fumbling as she hurried, Damali dug a hand into her jeans, pulled out the last grenade, and lobbed it over into the abyss to hit Level Seven's sentries. The moment the orb of Light

went over the edge, Harpies screamed and dove after it. Lilith flew at her with a blade poised at her heart, and Se bastian whirled on her with black lightning charges from be

hind that temporarily stunned her.

"She had to defend herself - your Harpies made her fight! She is a Neteru, it is her nature, Lilith," Nuit shouted in a standoff with Lilith, blade drawn. "Harm her, Sebastian, and know that - "

"Did you see what she threw into the Ultimate Darkness's lair?" Lilith whispered, staring at Fallon Nuit like he was insane.

"You can fuck her when she's dead, my friend, after you make a blood sacrifice of her -

but if you do not address this breach, you may find yourself unable to enjoy it if she lives." Sebastian turned to Lilith for approval and then slowly drew away. "Oh... noooo ..."

"What?" Lilith screeched, spinning to look at Sebastian. Damali flipped up, took a fighter's stance, and kept her eyes on the pit and the three vampires before her.

"They reversed the spell! Take cover!"

Huge, monster-sized tentacles vomited up from the floors, its various-sized limbs undulating with messenger demons and Harpies in their grasp. Damali began running toward the door as the long ropes of spell lashed out, twin ing around thrones, wall torches, and the table as Lilith, Nuit, and Sebastian tried to escape each grab. Funnel clouds of transporter demons in the vaulted ceiling drew vertical tendrils to shoot up and snatch the teeming mass of mating bats down into the fissure in the floor. Black charges from an infuriated Nuit chased Damali across the floor like machine-gun spray. But a bolt of blue-white energy resembling C-4 blew council doors off the hinges, followed by a battle-ax lodged in Lilith's throne hurled by Eve. Dodging a charge from Sebastian, Damali flipped to corner his escape to the antechamber, shattering his blade in two. Nzinga and Eve had Lilith's attention tem porarily hemmed in while Penthesileia ripped through Fallen Nuit's Armani suit at the chest with a machete. However, the battle temporarily ceased when a black-fire-snorting, golden minotaur the height of a six-story building climbed out of the fissure, exploding the floor and walls, and quaking the vaulted ceiling to start an avalanche. It still had souls twisting in its jagged, blackened teeth like white maggots as it rose with a roar and leapt into the center of what had been Vampire Council Chambers. The great beast spun and pawed the earth with castiron, razor-sharp cloven hooves, its spaded tail a bullwhip against the cavern walls. Cornered, the Neteru Queens were backed onto the nar row crag that had once separated the Vampire Council Chambers from the rest of the portals, with the Sea of Per petual Agony's bubbling, lava surface separating the divides. The furious Vampire Council members were nearly hidden by the massive girth of the huge beast that suddenly lowered its head with black, gleaming horns pointed at the Queens and charged. One mind - all four Queens moved as swift mirror images of one another. Damali's blade replicated into the hands of her Queen sisters. Penthesileia quickly thrust her blade into the cavern dirt, reached over her shoulder and drew an Amazon bow and arrow, and fired with a silver energy rope attached to her arrow. The arrow burned into the rock surface behind the beast as it lunged and cleared the lava sea. The Amazon Queen immediately grabbed the end of the line, and yanked her blade from the foul dirt to pass the beast gouging out an eye.

Eve covered her, sending power pulses like mortar fire into the wide open and unprotected Vampire Council Chambers, while Nzinga grabbed the blue-white energy line as it swung back to propel herself past the bucking, injured beast to maim it again, shearing off one horn.

Taking flight, Damali's wings lit the cavern, further pushing back Lilith, Fallen, and Sebastian. As the angry entity thrashed in the cavern, she was able to grab hold of its ear, flip herself onto its back, and drive her blade into the other eye. But when it leapt and smashed its back against stalactites, goring itself in its agony and rage, Damali flattened her body to its smelly, oily, scaled skin. Only narrowly had she missed being crushed to death, were it not for the jagged rock formations in the cavern ceiling that dug into its huge shoulders while she hid between the kneading sinews.

But opportunity was opportunity. Seconds mattered, and Damali slipped off the raging beast as it bucked against granite and struggled to free itself, bleeding black blood. Her Queen sisters were in an unguarded portal area, and Damali headed toward them. The spell tentacles had rushed up over the edges of the now wide-open Level Seven fissure in Vampire Council, and had Lilith by the leg, Nuit in a full coil, and only the outline of Sebastian's struggling form could be seen. The corridors were cleared, as entities on every level were temporarily trapped by the spell, and massive, seeking tentacles were reaching out with yearning toward the huge minotaur.

"We're out," Damali said, glancing around quickly for any landmark she knew, and finding none. Even the Sea of Perpetual Agony was writhing as tentacles came up with tor tured souls in their clutches before submerging again into the inferno.

"Let us go out with a blinding reminder to never screw with Mother Nature," Eve said, her gaze hard but satisfied.

The four Queens smiled, touched their blades together, and raised the combined Isis as a column of light shot up, creating a vacuum opening.

But Damali's smile was the widest. "We kicked their asses tonight!"

* * *

"you did what?" Aset whispered, looking at the four dirty, demon-splattered Queens as she walked behind her li onesses in the decontamination chamber. She shook her head as she stared at Damali's wings. "You look more like a Valkyrie that escorts dead soldiers to Valhalla on the battle field than a healing Powers angel that is - "

"We slayed them," Eve said, unable to contain her joy. "All the way to the bottom."

"You should have seen Fallon's face - he actually bulked on Lilith!" Damali threw her head back and laughed. "I so owed them both that shit, Aset, if I don't live twenty more minutes, it's all good ... just to see that. In council, too!" The foursome laughed and exchanged back slaps.

"It was like old times, Aset," Nzinga sighed. "The young Queen was awesome."

"Like the best of the Amazon battles, only better," Penthesileia said. "I wondered if I might even bump into Achilles while there, but no."

"They will feel our wrath and be quite disorganized for a while," Eve said, wiping sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. "Nary a sentry twitched. They were too con

sumed in their frenzied mating to even guard their own corridors - and to think this is what they'd sent to our sis ter's home."

"Speaking of which, ladies," Damali said with a bright smile. "Can I get a shower and a quick Light blast... then, uh some clean clothes and a lift home? I gotta break this to my husband real easy."

* * *

He wasn't worried about where Damali was. Marlene had said the Queens had called her, and left a violet tracer so there'd be no concerns. It stood to reason that they might have cracked the code on the problem that had been contained in the black-box he'd left in the great hall, and he was curious to find out what Damali had learned. Plus, after Dan and Heather's good fortune of parental acceptance, albeit along with a little overeating indigestion, he was in a really good place. Peace had claimed him for once in a blue moon.

Carlos chuckled, listening to the crazy banter in the main suite. But he was just glad that, at the moment, everything was cool... man. Rabbi Zeitloff was at one of the Covenant's synagogue safe houses awaiting Father Pat, Imam Asula, and Monk Lin's flights that were coming in soon. Dan's rendition of everyone's reaction as that brother held court in the living room and told the story with so much yeast that it rose, was hilarious. When Dan started doing different voices, Carlos almost rolled out of his chair onto the floor. Finally, Jose was the one who just got everybody going. He started in with teasing them about being secret agents, and then J.L. got into the mix.

"Check it out," J.L. said, turning his laptop around on the coffee table. "You need to let me and Jose pimp this ride out for D, and I got one for you, too, C."

"Aw, man, get out of here," Carlos said, laughing. "What is it?"

"See, every secret agent in the flicks has to have a cool ride, and since you scammed Dan's parents, I was saving this for you," J.L. said with a wink. "Check it out, the Bugatti Veyron, pretty bitch pushes two-hundred-and-fifty miles per hour, rockets from zero to sixty in two-point-five seconds, and accelerates so fast you can drive her upside down -

feel me?"

"Daaaayum," Jose said, nodding with approval. "We mighta just been playing around, but... hey."

"I was thinking the same thing, dude," Rider said, coming to look at the car. "What's the price tag on that lovely, sexy, make-you-wanna-holla female, J.L.?" Every woman in the room groaned.

"Oh, no, please don't get them on a tech bender," Marlene said, flopping into a chair in defeat. "I thought we were gonna go look at real estate before the sun went down."

"A cool one-point-three," J.L. said, answering Rider's question and ignoring Marlene.

'That ain't bad, for all-a that," Shabazz said, pounding Carlos's fist. Marjorie just leaned her head back on the sofa and closed her eyes.

"Are you all crazy!" Juanita fussed.

"A million dollars for a car that you know Carlos is gonna crash up or run something over with?" Inez said, sucking her teeth.

"That's crazy," Krissy said, plopping down on the edge of J.L.'s chair, leaning in to see better. "But it's gorgeous."

He looked up at her and smiled. "Wait 'til you see this one. The Bugatti is for D, she needs the extra speed to get out of a jam... and when I weapons-kit it..."

"Yeah, when homeboy pimps her ride," Jose said, leaning in for a fist pound, "it's gonna be - "

" Da bomb," Carlos, J.L., and Jose said together.

"You see why I don't argue about some things?" Marlene said in a resigned tone, glimpsing Heather and Jasmine's wide grins. "It's not because I'm psychic. It's just because I already know how this is gonna go. We found the property this afternoon, so now all the technology and toys to go in it - and filling up the garage goes with that territory - is their thing."

"Aw, now, Mar, don't get all salty. We gonna get you some snazzy-jazzy stuff, too," Mike said, laughing. "Maybe put some GPS locators in your - "

"The old-fashioned way works for me," she fussed with a smile, but had to also stand and go look when those assembled around the table released a collective groan.

"Aw, look at her," Bobby said, tracing the screen with his finger. J.L. swatted his hand away. "Uh, uh, look but don't touch and don't drool on my laptop."

"I hear you, son," Berkfield said in a near whisper. "Damn, ... she's a beaut."

"The Saleen S7 is all you, Rivera," J.L. said with a smile. "Damn, I wanna funk that lovely lady out with some machine-gun turrets, RPG launcher, side lasers along the running boards to burn out and blow tires, you know?"

Carlos stared at the flawless, metallic red finish on the car that had shark gill doors that opened in a vertical hatch. "Aw, man... only point three seconds behind the Bugatti."

"The lady oughta get there first," Rider said, making the guys laugh.

"She's built like a missile with cockpit interior," Carlos said, mesmerized, leaning in farther to read the small print as J.L. continued to enhance the images. "V8, seven-hundred-fifty horsepower, zero to sixty in two-point-eight seconds." He looked up at Shabazz. "No airbags. Once you're in her, you're totally committed. You can't second-guess - it's 'til death do you part."

The male contingent in the room fell back against whatever available surface in utter appreciation.

"A death machine, dude. They gotta fill her tank up with pure testosterone blend - whew!

Just like a Harley." Rider pulled out a chew stick. "After hearing that, I want a cigarette." They all laughed, and everybody shook their heads.

"Yeah, but the Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 ain't no punk, either," J.L. said. "That's all you, 'Bazz. Bet your tactical class one charge could hold that boy to the highway at a hundred fifty miles an hour while changing gears ... scissor doors."

"Oh, yeah, that's me, brother - manual shift, hey." Shabazz smiled and rolled the toothpick in his mouth.

"Okay, okay, we give," Marlene said, holding up her hands. "Yeah, all right. It's been a long time since we've had a real compound for an extended period of time, much less a garage. Fine. Buy the toys."

A collective whoop filled the air as high fives and fist pounds got exchanged. Marlene couldn't help laughing. "I don't know why y'all are acting like what I said meant a thing - you were on a mission and gonna get this stuff any ole way."

"But, Mar, it's been a really long time since we could funk out the whole compound with state of the art, you know. My creative energy is dying, Mom, it has been cramped," J.L. said, his tone wistful.

"J.L., if we turn you loose on the house, we're gonna need a floor plan for every button and whatnot you install in the rooms," Marjorie said. "I don't want to accidentally detonate my shower, or start a code-blue evacuation sequence that levels the house."

"You know what..." J.L. said, his gaze becoming distant. "That is genius, Marj. I never had a melt-down, blow the joint, code-embedded - "

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa whoa!" Rider said, laughing. "Take us slow, and by degrees, J.L."

"I feel where he's coming from, though," Jose said, supporting J.L. with a handshake.

"Like, I was trying to get us back to touring, and nobody was feeling the music." Carlos looked at Jose for a moment, remembering to bring that to the forefront of the discussion. The night before everything had been so murky, clouded by the condition he and Damali had been in, then it was time to pull it together and do the run for Dan, as promised.

"We took it to Neteru Council, and the man is on-point," Carlos said, pounding Jose's fist. Carlos held the group in thrall, explaining only the necessary elements of getting the worldwide Guardians to know how to track them, and made the point that, since their cover was already long blown with the darkside, that wasn't a concern Prayer barriers and evasive tactics would have to keep the heat off of them in the future.

"What about those madcap scientists that snagged us before?" Shabazz said, looking at Marlene with concern.

"They're still out there, just like every other human helper to the vamp empire. But those are rogues, and we still have the squads that helped us in Tibet. Both Neteru Councils are gonna try to give us Light support and cover, keeping whatever domicile we settle into covered. Just like to buy all this fancy equipment, we'll have to run it through several layers of holding companies with the Covenant cleaning up the trail, so we can stay on the down low."

Carlos pushed off the wall he'd been temporarily leaning against. "The only thing that concerns me about the World Peace tour is the fact that every time we move, we're vulnerable to a new, hostile environment. But if you guys wanna tour while the new compound is being built, then I'm down for whatever."

* * *

Dan was right in the middle of explaining how they might be able to get some of their old endorsements back, after J.L. had discussed the types of security they'd need at various stadiums around the world, when Damali walked out of the bedroom. Everybody looked at her and fell quiet. Carlos studied her closely. He knew his wife. She had victory fire in her eyes.

"Hey, y'all... what'd I miss?"

No one answered.

"What did we miss?" Carlos asked, folding his arms over his chest. She began walking in an excited circle, talking with her hands. "It was crazy! Ohmigod!

Sit back and lemme tell you what went down."

* * *

"does this mean we should still buy the property Mar lene was talking about?" Dan said

quietly, the first to speak when Damali was done. "Or should we just update wills and wait for the response to this latest adventure?"

"Danny boy, you're beginning to sound like me," Rider said, dragging his ringers through his hair. "You see why I used to smoke."

"But at least now we know what was in that spell... and what we have to do to keep our bonds strong," Marlene said. "What if that mess had gotten into our household?" She rubbed her palms down her strain-weary face. "The Queens are awesome, and that was the best slingshot, spell-reversal-by-prayer move I've ever seen in my life. Damn, sistah - well done!"

"Comeuppance like a mofo, foul karma boomerang delivered all pro, D. I'm proud," Shabazz admitted. "You're scary, but I'm proud."

The rest of the team sat wide-eyed and mute, their stunned gazes going between Damali and Carlos and back again.

Carlos chuckled. "D, didn't I just catch a ration for doing something like this?" Damali blew him a kiss from across the room. "Oh, man, you should have seen my sisters work it, though! I had Nuit backed up in a throne, and Lilith hissing - then he bulked on girlfriend."

Carlos held his hands up in front of his chest. "As long as you had your clothes on, I've got no beef." Then he smiled. "You backed the brother up into his own throne? Damn, D, you're vicious."

"We bombed all seven levels," Damali said in triumph. Shabazz and Mike looked at each other and mouthed the word seven. The gesture rippled around the room, rendering everyone mute for a few added moments.

"And, I've been thinking," Damali said, starting to walk.

"Ya know, when we do this tour, I'm really not feeling peace- - per se."

"Sleep on it," Marlene said. "You're still battle-high." Carlos laughed. "Yeah, D, adrenaline is all in your sweat."

She gave him a glance that said Later, but definitely, and ignored the protests. "Nan, I'm feeling more like a Take A Stand: End the Violence Against Humanity concert. There's a difference. One is more passive, and my music isn't flowing in me like that." She looked at Jose for support. "Like, we have the old standards that built us up over the years as the Warriors of Light... and some new stuff that we can refine and get out there ... I don't know, like, 'Wounded Lover,' and all that, for the love portion of the show. For the part that gets into what happens when the madness continues."

"I feel you, D," Jose said. "Like, the concert in L.A. and during the early days, when we'd call evil out, and you'd strut across the stage with the squad, ready to rumble, holding up your Isis."

"That was some of your best stuff, D," Carlos admitted, looking at her and almost forgetting the team was there.

"Yeah, then you'd drop back and croon about those that got lost in the battle, and what missing them was like -  Sydney, redux," Jose said, glancing at Carlos. "It was awesome. And we'd end on a note of hope with something bangin'."

"Then, I suppose, while we have a little hiatus, we oughta get back to seriously trying to lay down some closing tracks," Shabazz said, glancing at Rider, Mike, and Marlene.

"Maybe we can get some serious choreography going to include some of these newbies,

just like before."

"Oh, no, I'm strictly paperwork and backstage," Dan said.

"Me, too," Bobby said. "I'll be on security detail in the wings with the Covenant and Mom and Dad. Forgetaboutit."

Shabazz smiled. "Aw'ight, not everybody is meant for the limelight. But we'd work you in, if you wanted to."

"I don't sing," Inez said, laughing.

"But you can dance your butt off, sis," Juanita said. "How about you, Kris?"

"Uh..."

"I'll teach her," Inez said.

Tara held up her hands. "I'll carry an Uzi in the wings. I'd feel less scared doing a tunnel run than stepping onstage."

"No lie," Carlos said, shaking his head.

"Oh, man, no - I am not accepting that from you," Jose said, laughing hard when Carlos's eyes widened.

"What'chu talking about, Jose - be serious, man."

Damali covered her mouth and laughed.

"I am serious," Jose said. "If this is a worldwide call to arms, you have to get out there and - "

"Do what?" Carlos said, talking with his hands as the older Guardians began to stare at him as though considering Carlos insane. "I don't sing, I don't - "

"You can spit, brother. I've heard you," Jose said with tri umph.

"What!" Carlos crossed the room, pointing at Jose.

"He talks more trash than a little bit," Damali said, now laughing so hard she was bending over. "Roll them Rs, baby, when you're talking cash-smack a mile a minute, drop it down low, all up close in the mic, war-jones running through your veins, you'll - "

"She's still battle-high, Mar!" Carlos said, laughing and walking away. "I do almost everything this woman wants, but not that - no!"

"Give him a beat, Mike," Rider said. "Jose, J.L., on percus sion."

"Don't act like y'all ain't used to stand on the corners spitting lyrics, out shit-talking the others, just messin' around. You're from east L.A., holmes," Shabazz said with a wink.

"Land of Krunk."

"Not to be confused with the dirty South," Mike said, be ginning to make beats on the table as Shabazz started mouthing a heavy bass line.

"It all starts like this, and you know it," Damali said, strutting over to him and getting in his face. "Battle of the bands began with a battle of the blocks. Don't act like you don't remember."

"I remember, but I'm not doing no concert in front of a hundred thousand people, no matter what you say, D."

Carlos folded his arms over his chest and fought not to smile as Damali held an invisible mic and leaned up in his face with a street challenge, one hand on her hip.

"Oh, so now you scared, running blind, trying to act like you ain't hearing me, ain't got the time?" Damali said, just pulling a line from the air to start the battle.

"No, you got played," Carlos said, snatching at the air as though he'd just yanked down an invisible microphone. 'They took your mind. Women, children, babies, now you're killing

your own kind - psyched you out as a hustler - got you believing the hype - but your ass is straight-trippin' like you're smokin' a crack pipe!" The room erupted in cheers as Carlos stepped back. Damali laughed hard, nodding.

"Aw'ight, aw'ight," Damali said, smiling. "Mad props. But, take this." She grabbed the invisible mic again and got in Carlos's face. "Ghetto bravado, brick-selling macho, bank-rollin' cash hits, steady talking cash - whoops, who's your daddy, don'tcha momma know?

Best get hip real quick, learn how this lesson go - ain't only 'bout the knot you got, this joint's 'bout to blow."

"Whooooowe!" Rider said, falling back on the sofa as Shabazz slapped him five.

"Yeah, okay," Carlos said nodding. Then he took a deep breath and snatched the air mic again, rolling so hard and fasten Damali that Jose almost lost the beat laughing.

"Beef between brothers and blocks, nations flaring like dropped rocks - drama with crazy chicks, babies dying -  they sick, what you ain't wit it - oops who's your baby's daddy, don't you really wanna know, why she go on Maury's show - jus' ask a brother how he know. Yeah, like I said a quick minute ago ... they took your mind - turned you in, turned you out, got you blind to what it's all about - stole your peace, robbed your pockets, jacked your future, your mind - women, babies, old folks - why the Darkness need to come at cha', when you killing your own kind?"

"Oh, shit!" Jose shouted, jumping up from the sofa and abandoning the beat. Shabazz was on his feet, fist pounding Mike so hard they couldn't keep the beat steady, either. Damali was nodding and laughing as the group erupted in general chaos.

"That was the nastiest spit I've heard in a loooong time!" Jose said, shaking his head and rubbing the back of his neck. "Damn, C."

Carlos laughed, breathing hard from the no-breaths-between-words exertion. "I don't care what y'all say, I talk trash, but I don't do in-concert. The living room is one thing, but I'm not standing on a stage in front of all them people forgetting what I was gonna spit." Damali rubbed his back and he laughed when he moved away from her.

"Nope, girl, don't even try it."

Everybody laughed harder, and then Mike and Shabazz picked up a hard, military cadence, with Shabazz doing verbal bass line, and Mike on table percussion. They looked at Jose, who immediately jumped in and started making up lyrics.

"Roll call, Guardians. Sound off!" Jose hollered.

Damali repeated the line and looked at Carlos, making him shake his head harder and fold his arms over his chest.

"Who's ready to roll?" Mike said in a deep, threatening baritone that made Inez sit up in her chair and lean toward him, listening hard.

Shabazz was right on his next sentence and he glanced at Jose to be ready to take it after he spit. "Git down and dirty wit it, leave no stone unturned to win it."

"Roll to your last breath, take no prisoners fast death." Jose looked at Carlos.

"Ride, like you're gonna die, don't even ask no questions why."

Damali smiled at Carlos when he was done. "Who's ready to roll - uh-huh, what you say?

Who's ready to ride -  uh-huh, what you say? Who's taking a stand - uh-huh, what you say?"

"Just get your gear and move out. Draw the line - what you about?" Carlos said in the same steady-beat baritone as the brothers had, but then changed up the tempo to a

syncopated, Latin influence that made them all shake their heads with appreciation.

"Who's down for whatever, whenever, whoever, however it's gotta go, yo? Who's willing, and able, and ready to go back  - back to the hood, back to the block, back to backing this bullshit up while holding your Glock? My beef starts right at home, 'round the corner all alone. Who knows enough is enough; ashes ain't ashes 'til dust is dust, man? You gotsta be crazy letting this madness up in your mind, up in your hood, up in your woman, up to no good - inviting in evil at every turn, you're like a wide open virgin about to be burned -

but I'm school ya now, brothers, so you all can learn - the insanity you're fighting can't be won, 'til you man up, and face up, and stand up, and be done. Roll call, who's ready, tonight I'm getting my gun."

Mike slapped Carlos so hard on the back he almost knocked him down.

"Ooooh, maaaan!" Jose hollered. "That was ridiculous, C!"

"We definitely can't bill this as the World Peace concert -  I'm not even sure Stop the Violence applies," Dan said, impressed.

"Hey, go with Take Back the Block, then," Shabazz said with a wide smile, " 'cause this brother definitely took that shit."

"Didn't he," Inez said. "Damn, C, I didn't know you could spit like that."

"That was pretty awesome, Mr. Rivera," Marlene said, "and I've been in the biz for a fair piece of time - raw talent, brother. Mind like a razor to be able to come up with lines on the fly that fast - which also tells me how fast you can lie," she added, making the group erupt again in laughter before she hugged him.

"You definitely have to use a God-given talent like that, especially if it's calling Guardians to take a stand right in their own neighborhoods," Marjorie said, looking around. "You're calling people to say no to craziness in their own lives, first, and to monitor their own blocks and stop the insanity in their own homes before going anywhere else to stop it."

"Marj," Berkfield said, rubbing his palms down his face. "We're not in showbiz, leave them to - "

"But you used to say that all the time when you walked a beat," she argued. "I know what I'm talking about. This is true."

"I just didn't know you had it in you like that, dawg," J.L. said, laughing.

"Neither did I," Damali said quietly, unable to keep how proud she was from seeping into her voice.

Embarrassed by the attention and Damali's breathy tone of appreciation, Carlos walked over to the minibar and hunted for a beer, quickly realizing that the team had been in their suite for a long time and any stash that had previously been there was long gone.

"I was just adding-in here in the living room. Onstage takes the pros and I ain't that," Carlos said offhandedly, but still very pleased that he'd made Damali proud. It didn't mean he was down for a concert, but that he finally felt that he could relate to a part of her world that had felt so foreign before. That felt good. Really good. Maybe too good, given that it looked like the team was gonna probably be dug into their suite, concert planning for the duration.

An unexpected knock at the door gave the team a start. Bobby cautiously answered it as the room became quiet and tense, everyone's weapons concealed but at the ready. The concierge stood at the door, his face solemn. "I am sorry to disturb your gathering," he said, glancing around with disapproving eyes. "But our other guests have asked if it is

at all possible for you to keep it down just a tad?"


Tags: L.A. Banks Vampire Huntress Legend Vampires
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