CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

It was everything Rider told her to expect, and probably a whole lot closer to what she knew it would be - a honky-tonk dive. She would slay any vamps left topside and go after Lilith's foul ass again, too, for making her have to deal with this again in life. Two steps forward, three steps back. So the vamps wanted to play hardball and make her team start at the bottom again. Aw'ight. Cool.

Damali stared at the chicken wire that protected the stage, making a mental note to have the tacticals light it up for sure.

"Well, it's homey," Rider said with a big grin. "Has atmosphere." Mike and Shabazz just looked at each other and shook their heads.

"The only reason I'm cool with this," Carlos muttered, "is because it's a Guardian joint, owned by your boy ... but let one of them rowdy yahoos out there who ain't a Guardian throw a beer at my wife, and - "

"Hey, hey, hey," Rider said, laughing. "Duke'll bounce 'em, and remember, we are the world - rednecks need love, too." Rider laughed harder as Carlos bodily pushed him away.

"Rap, in here, dude?" J.L. said, glancing at Rider.

"Yeah, okay," Rider said with a grin. "Might be a little problematic, but what can ya do?"

"I know, Jack-o boy," Father Pat said, glancing around uneasily as hard glares over beer met Monk Lin, Rabbi Zeitloff, and Imam Asula. "We could have a non-vampire-related incident before the band hits the first note ... and if Marlene starts pouring libations in here - I don't think this is the crowd that would appreciate high art."

"Ya think?" Damali said from the side of her mouth. "And you have me roll up here in a Bugatti - they don't even know what it is, while you're flossing a Saleen S7?" She cut a hard glare at Carlos. "This ain't Hollywood Boulevard or Beverly Hills."

"I think maybe our clerics might want to go upstairs and watch from the light booth where Marj is working with Bobby and Krissy," Marlene said calmly.

"Yeah, take Dan and Heather up there, too, while you're at it, before Dan unloads a clip up in this piece."

"Okay, okay, lemme get Duke on it," Rider said, leaving the group. Then he stopped and went back to Tara. "Darlin', why don't you come with me so I won't have to blow that sonofabitch sitting at nine o'clock away."

"See what I mean," Damali said without missing a beat. She kept unpacking gear, pulling out instruments with the team, just to hurry the process.

"Okay, all right, sue me," Rider fussed, pacing away. "What did you guys want on such short notice? Gimme a break. This is Death Valley, not Vegas. Geeze!"

* * *

Sated and spent, Fallon Nuit lay prone within the heap of bodies in Lilith's subterranean chamber bed. Rousing himself to feed was even too much of an inconvenience at this point. However, when a familiar deep voice entered his consciousness, he drew away from the pile of nudity very slowly, thinking out each muscle pull before he extracted himself. You remember when I asked for a bargaining chip?

Nuit nodded and stood very still, not breathing.

Bring me one from Death Valley tonight. I want a hostage. The Dark Power released his mind and his shoulders slumped. Lilith stirred and smiled at him, crooking her finger for him to come back to bed.

"I'm afraid that Sebastian, even with his cunning sorcerer ways, is too new to our fanged existence to have built up endurance yet." She blew Fallon a kiss as she shoved Sebastian's sleeping form aside. "Maybe if you and Yolando could stop bickering... I could coax him to join us one evening?"

Fallon feigned a smile and began to dress. "Not likely. We are from two different classes entirely, and our sensibilities hardly mesh. Yolando prefers Tijuana ... what would he and Rivera call them - putas, I believe, if memory serves. But after being with you, dear Lilith, the sudden urge to hunt something has me in its talons... shall I bring you back something freshly killed from topside, or would you prefer for me to bring it to you still struggling and screaming?"

"Ah ... chivalry is not dead, no matter how many times I've tried to kill it." Lilith licked her lips. "Always the consummate gentleman, monsieur, please bring it to me screaming its head off."

Nuit presented her with a grand sweeping bow. "Be naked and wet when I return. This won't take long, madame, I assure you."

* * *

This was quite possibly the worst gig they'd ever done in their lives. While libations got poured, folks screwed up their faces and yelled loudly to passing semi-topless waitresses for more beer. Cigarette smoke hung so thickly in the air, every eye was watering. Damali was just glad that they got the first song off, the call to arms for all Guardians, without incident. That might have had something to do with the fact that Duke and a table of six burly Guardians sat in the front hollering and cheering like they were at a Smack Down event. That was real cool of them.

Carlos was done, though. They had run the lyrics so ice cold and so on-point that it even gave her the shivers. Her man had broken a sweat, rolled the lyrics off his tongue so fast that the band was slapping each other high fives.

But the crowd was getting restless by the third song. The band had been giving it up, playing their hearts out, bass thumping, axe walking the scales, percussion section going bananas, keyboards stoooopid, cowbells ridiculous -  however, the people in the audience weren't feeling it at all. It was a team decision not to let the ladies dance - uh-uh, not in here, they'd have to shoot somebody.

Half of her knew it was to be expected given the vibe people walked in there with; wrong place, wrong audience. Then again, another part of her wondered if foul play was involved. One could never tell. One thing was for sure though, these were humans, and if they were gonna get stupid, the best option for all parties would be for her and the band to leave.

"All right, Death Valley - give it up!" Damali shouted into the mic, getting one lone clapper in the back, and Duke's poor table trying to ignite an audience fire that refused to be lit. "We're gonna take a little break and uh, we'll be back." She ignored the boos, but her peripheral vision caught a bottle leaving a guy's hand at the

same time Carlos saw it, at the same time Shabazz saw it, at the same time J.L. saw it, at the same time Dan saw it, and at the same time the collective group vibe felt it. Twenty-nine guns of various calibers got drawn in one hard pull. Shabazz had zapped the bottle out of the air and hot shot the offender with a tactical charge so hard that he seized and pissed his pants.

"Sit your stupid ass down," Shabazz said, Black Beauty cocked. "As long as you be cool, she'll sleep. But we don't play that shit."

Duke lowered his weapon slowly. "All right. Show's over, folks. Why don't we give these fine people a round of applause for a most excellent show, and let 'em pack up nice and easy, and leave with my bar still standing."

"Warriors of Light!" one of his crazy Guardian brothers said, clapping hard with a nine millimeter in his hand and then whistling through his teeth. His wild red hair was all over his bare shoulders, and he had so much ammo in his vest that a stray cigarette ash could have taken out half the building. "Aw, yeah, Duke, this is what I call me a concert! All that's missing is the bar fight, man."

Duke jumped up onstage and went around the chicken wire. Disgruntled audience murmurs pelted his back, but ap parently no one was drunk enough or crazy enough to challenge the huge blond bar owner carrying a Glock nine. He gave Rider a bear hug with massive, meaty biceps almost crushing the wind out of Rider, and then stepped back and shook his head.

"You see what I'm dealing with, dude? But this is my cor ner of the world, love it or leave it." Duke glanced at Big Mike. "You mind telling your big guy to, uh, put down the RPG? He's making patrons nervous."

"I'm just helping drive up liquor sales at your bar," Mike said with a tense smile and lowered the weapon. "See? Now everybody is ordering extra shots to go wit dey beer. Bad nerves is good for the bar."

"We're out," Rider said, raking his hair with his fingers. "But thanks, dude."

"I just hope Marj got that video, because I definitely can't see doing this again," Berkfield muttered as he helped the band pack up.

"Can you say career killer," J.L. grumbled, dragging a duffle bag. "There wasn't even anywhere to set up half our equip ment."

"Be thankful," Damali said, glancing around as they col lected the last of their gear. "It was less crap to pack up this way. In and out. Like we said." She gave her guys a hard look with Marlene. "Don't make Duke feel bad. It's not his fault . Rider, either." Carlos chuckled as he hoisted up an equipment case. "I ain't saying nothing - I'm gonna save this, tuck it away, and use it for when Rider starts some shit with me. Then I'll whip it out on him, like an ace up my sleeve. You know me."

"Yeah, yeah, I know you," Damali said.

She was just glad that they were all finally filing out the back door to the big open parking lot. She needed air. It was stifling inside. If Marjorie got at least one decent song recorded, they could also record an interview in the studio to wrap around it and J.L. and Krissy could drop it like it's hot on the Net tonight. Damali stopped walking, lowered an equipment bag, and slapped herself in the forehead.

Everybody stopped walking.

"What?" Carlos said.

"We could have just done it all in our own studio, guys. It didn't have to be all of this - but we're so used to being on the road, needing that live audience feedback ... oh ... man..." The entire squad groaned, even the clerics.

"Hey," Marlene said. "Let's not go there. This was an unusual circumstance. Under normal conditions we do need that live vibe, that's what makes you jam harder, gives you energy when you're out there giving it up." She looked around as heads slowly began to nod in agreement.

"It all just felt so weird, Mar," Damali admitted, her voice defeated. "Never had 'em respond to me like that anywhere in the world ... to feel it in your own backyard is ... I don't know. Pretty weird." She let out a hard sigh and hoisted the case. "Probably how it feels when it's time to stop gigging."

"D, I'll only accept that tone in your voice if you try to do New York or L.A. or the ATL

and they treat you like that -  then, yeah, it's time to stop gigging before you wind up being a lounge lizard. But until then, boo, fuck their backward asses out here." Carlos looked around at the four clerics and then rubbed his jaw. "My bad... I mean, forget them, baby."

"Hey, at least Duke put some of his boys out here to watch the cars so they didn't get keyed or have the tires slit while we were in there. Now that was mighty hospitable," Rider said, trying to make jokes. "Still got all our headlights. That's a good sign." Damali looked around, counting heads in the lot. She jumped down out of the Hummer she'd been loading and be gan running. "Where's Dan? Where's Heather! Ohmigod, where's J.L. and Krissy?"

Carlos and Berkfield began running back toward the building. Marjorie gasped and flung the camera into the car, then rounded the cars, but Bobby caught her arm.

"Mom, it's all right. Dan and J.L. walked Heather and Krissy to the ladies' room, plus Duke's boys got their backs," Bobby said.

"No, it's not all right!" Marjorie shrieked. "It's never all right in a place like this - we move as a group! You never leave your sister, not even if she's married!" Rider sniffed the air, hocked, and spit. His eyes met Jose's as he did the same thing, then both Guardians drew weapons at the same time. Every Guardian went on vamp alert.

"Incoming!" Duke hollered, stumbling out of the back of the building shooting. Patrons screamed and flooded through the back doors into the lot, causing a potential civilian nightmare. Dan and J.L. got blown through the door Duke had just exited, but even flat on their backs on the ground and being dragged by something powerful and invisible, they held whatever they'd caught in their combined charges, refusing to let it go. Feet pressed against the dirt, wildly kicking up dust. J.L. and Dan struggled to hold on as Shabazz joined the tactical battle with Marjorie, Bobby, and Marlene, sending kinetic surges over the blue-white static that held the unseen. Rider and Tara took positions behind Hummers adjacent to Mike and Inez, Jose, Juanita, and Duke to be ready to shoot what ever came out of the tactical energy hold.

Carlos and Damali had rounded the building with Berkfield, swimming upstream against a flow of panicked bodies stampeding out the front doors. Using sheer force, guns raised above their heads, they jostled their way inside trying to get behind whatever Dan and J.L. were holding.

"Hold your fire!" Duke shouted as Guardians leveled weapons at the back door over Dan

and J.L. "It's got one of the ladies; the other one got pushed down and might be nicked."

"Cover it with prayer," Father Pat said. "Burn the bastard out!" Four clerics ran low and each took a side of the building and began shouting prayers at the tops of their lungs. Before they'd each gotten to the third stanza, a part of the back wall blew out, a high-turbine vampire funnel whirred out, and Damali and Carlos hit it with a combined pulse from behind. Fallon Nuit fell forward, his whirl temporarily interrupted. Heather hit the ground screaming, and Dan's dragnet immediately pulled her to him. J.L. was on his feet, had barreled into the back door, frantic, searching for Krissy. Dan was on his feet, Heather in his grasp, and he jumped back, narrowly avoiding a black charge as Guardians opened fire.

Nuit was on the roof, unable to go inside the prayer-stained building for cover. As Carlos and Damali drew blades into their hands and Carlos battle bulked, Nuit reached out and pulled at Heather's back. Dan whirled, feeling her slip away again, and reinforced his hold, sending a charge so furious and so direct that it blew Nuit back long enough for Carlos to scale the roof.

But Nuit's attention remained focused on Heather, and Dan saw it. Panicked, he jumped on Duke's Harley, pulling Heather with him, and took off. Nuit was gone in a flash of vapor. Berkfield came out of the building behind J.L. who had an unconscious Krissy in his arms. Carlos jumped down off the roof but not in time to catch Damali.

"He'll kill them both! Dan can't ride a bike!" Damali yelled, sliding into the Bugatti. The bike was a mile in front of her; a vampire cloud was downwind in the distance. Dan was eating up road at a speed where a wipeout for a novice was imminent. One false move, one pebble or road divot caught wrong and her Guardian brother and sister were dead. No helmets. A thousand and one horses were running for her under the hood. She had to get past Dan and Heather and get to Nuit. Slow down, Dan, she prayed. Hold the bike steady, don't drop that girl. Jesus. But as the funnel cloud thundered in Dan's direction, she knew they'd die, Dan couldn't turn off. It had to chase her. Damali's foot stomped the accelerator at the same time she turned on the launch mode. The centrifugal force thrust her back into her seat so hard that it felt like someone had body slammed her chest. She vaguely felt the car drop down low to the ground. Whatever was outside whirled by in shadowed blurs. On the opposite side of the road from Dan, she realized that if she rocketed past him just the wind-drag coefficient would be enough to wreck him - but she couldn't see.

Opening her third eye, the huge roadside concrete drain pipe and construction site became a target. Thread the needle, see it in slow motion ... she turned the wheel slightly as the vehicle left the road just before she would have buzzed Dan and Heather, but the car kept rolling, over and over and over in a spiral, driving upside down inside the concrete tun nel to fly out the other end, hit the ground with sparks right side up, and still moving at two hundred and fifty miles an hour.

Her body was instantly covered with sweat. She plowed through Nuit's funnel and came out the other side with his face pressed to the windshield. Immediately Damali charged it with white light, making him lift his face, yelling. Furious, he raised a fist to smash the crystal windshield, but the open motor hood sucked his body down and burned him, making him roll off the hood of her car, hissing. In the rearview she saw a red Saleen S7

skid in what seemed like slow motion, becoming a red diagonal blur in the road as the

driver's-side scissor door flew up and white light pulses fired, torching the ground, and burning out Nuit's black shield. She slammed on her brakes, taking almost a half-mile to slow down enough to turn the wheel without flipping over. Screeching, she burned rubber and skidded to a stop where Carlos was standing and cussing in a rage.

"I almost had that motherfucker!"

She knew exactly where Carlos was at. She wanted Nuit's neck so bad her hands were trembling.

* * *

"no, she didn't get nicked, either," Marlene said, holding Krissy's hand. "But she hit her head good when she went down in the ladies' room - corner of a sink got her." Marjorie stroked her daughter's hair and after a moment, at Berkfield's gentle insistence, let J.L. get in next to his wife.

"She was trying to grab my hand when he pushed her," Heather said, tears streaming. "He knew we were trying to join hands to combine our energy against him."

"But why come feeding in a place like that - a council man?" Dan shouted, pacing in the living room as the team tried to steady their nerves. "It doesn't make sense!"

"He wanted a hostage," Carlos said. "Plain and simple. But he came away empty-handed."

"A hostage for what?" Dan snapped, his nerves raw.

"I don't know," Carlos muttered and leaned back in his chair then wiped his palms down his face. "Maybe as pay back since we kicked their asses so hard in Nod." Silence strangled the group.

"You rode like a pro, Danny boy," Rider said, glancing at Jose and trying to diffuse the new layer of tension that had just been added to the group.

"Yeah, man, but if you're gonna snatch a bike as your get away transpo, me and Rider gotta show you how to lay it down so you don't kill yourself." Jose smiled and kept a steady gaze of support on Dan.

"Yeah, man," Dan finally said, chuckling nervously. "All that was holding my bike to the road was tactical charge, then D blew past me and I started slowing down." He looked at Heather. "Precious cargo ... it wasn't just me on the bike."

"Been there, and can appreciate where you were at," Carlos said calmly, glancing at Jose with silent thanks in his eyes. "Look, why don't we all just chill for a minute. Everybody in here is left of center. Then J.L. - so that this bull we just went through wasn't for nothing - we need you and the clerics, with the other tacticals to package up an In ternet bomb for the darkside. You up for it, brother?"

"Like never before, man," J.L. said. "I will blow their... yeah," he said, curtailing his language. "I got it."

"Cool," Carlos said, stretching. "Then, healers on your marks. I'll debrief senior staff on what happened in Nod while Damali works on the ladies with Berkfield." He let out a weary breath. "Everybody else just pack for Jerusalem -  the clerics will tell you what to wear, but I suspect everything is covered up and conservative, especially for the ladies." Rabbi Zeitloff nodded. "It is."

* * *

it had been a very long time since she'd seen her husband so thoroughly fatigued. Physical

exhaustion was one thing, but the mental toll of this last attack that Nuit had launched unexpectedly was something entirely new. But she had to ad mit that she was able to relate, because just healing a minor concussion had almost put her flat on her back. She knew for a fact it had everything to do with what they'd seen in Nod. How did one ever get used to, or harden themselves to see ing the bitter devastation of war? On television from far away it looked like shock and awe, but up close and per sonal, right there on the ground, it was horrific - topside's version of Hell.

Heather's light knock on the bedroom door gave Damali a start. She abandoned her packing job and called out for whomever it was to come in, already knowing which Guardian sister had come calling. But as Heather opened the door, Damali ran across the suite. All the color had drained from Heather's beautiful face, her eyes were wild, and her lips almost bloodied from biting them. Her chest held a hic cup wail so close to the surface of her skin that Damali felt her own lungs constrict. She collected Heather into her arms, pulling her toward the sofa.

Damali knew that look. She'd owned it once herself. Sympathy pains for her Guardian sister made her heart beat fast. Heather spoke in halts and jags in such a tiny voice that all Damali could do was make her lie down and kneel beside her, petting her hair.

"I'm bleeding," Heather whispered, her Scottish brogue becoming more pronounced as her voice became quieter and the hysteria blossomed. "I d'not know what to tell Daniel, I cannot tell him yet. I never really knew if I was ... I never got a test from the drugstore -

with this crazy life, when was there time? I never saw a doctor, so I know God wouldn't do this to us, so I cannot believe that this bleeding is our baby, tell me it's not, angel, please. My husband will never be the same, he'll swear it was his fault ... his pulling me to safety, or the bike ride, or whatnot, I d'not know - but, oh God, me Daniel cannot suffer such thoughts." Heather's hand became a fist clutching Damali's as she turned her face into the sofa and let out a soft, piteous sob, just shaking her head.

"It's not, it's not, listen to me," Damali said as she lay her cheek against Heather's back and covered her shaking body with her wings. She let the pain come to her and only left Heather with cramps. "Honey, you were just late because of all the stress, just getting married, then we were on the road, on the run, and finally, once you felt safe ... your body melted down. Shsssh . .. that's all."

She rocked Heather until her sobs abated, and held in a feral scream that came from heart anguish so deep she could barely breathe. Finally Heather lifted her head and turned to Damali and kissed their joined hands.

"Forever sisters for letting me be silly, when you have all the world on your shoulders." Damali closed her eyes, tears spilling as she kissed their clasped hands hard. "Forever sisters," Damali said, wiping Heather's face and then her own. "This kinda stuff is never silly." She gently brushed Heather's spirals of auburn curls away from her face and looked into her luminous gray eyes. "Married or single, the creation of life is sacred. To feel it in

side you, divine. Only another woman would understand that ... but there'll be your time, and when that time comes, I'll be the best auntie for you." They both smiled sadly as Heather kissed both of Damali's cheeks. "Guess I'd better go pack for Jerusalem, then, and take some Motrin."

"Yeah, and get some rest. It'll be a long flight and a long security-clearance process." Heather nodded then left. Damali pulled herself up using the sofa and staggered to the

bedroom, closing the inner suite door, then went to the bathroom and closed that door, too. She turned on the tub water to drown out the sound bub bling within her. Numb, she found the farthest comer away from the doors and pressed her body into it, her hands covering her face, wings shielding her head and arms, as she let out a moaning wail washed by bitter, bitter tears.

* * *

"I thought my request was clear," the beast said, his voice a deep ramble within the Level Seven caverns.

"I was ambushed, and - "

"So, then, let us dispense with quibbling and splitting hairs, Nuit. You failed."

" Non ," Nuit said, trying to hold his own against the complete Darkness, unable to fathom another round of torture. "I brought you a hostage. You were not specific in what that might be."

A deep chuckle filled the cavern. "Ohhh.... And you now bargain with the bargain master. How droll. Amuse me."

"Bringing you a body is passe. Soon people write the vic tim off as a lost cause and resume their lives, even if shad owed by the loss. But a person's sanity is something that you can play with forever."

Silence greeted Nuit for a long pause.

"Whose sanity did you bring me?"

Nuit sighed, satisfied. "I'm sure by now Damali Richards's ... if she tried to heal that poor Guardian sister of hers."

* * *

"My, my, you're in quite the chipper mood," Lilith said, looking Nuit up and down.

"Topside seems to do you well, I see."

He smiled. "Yes, Lilith, I always loved the unfettered night... the way she smells, her perfume of blood in the air. But when you sent me on your food errand, cheri, you did not say if you wanted it to be male or female ... you know how temperamental you are. Unable to decide," Fallen added with an aristocratic wave of his hand, "I picked them up at a quaint beef-and-beer establishment in Death Valley. I think the male might even be a genuine cowboy."

He snapped his fingers and her Harpies dragged in two struggling, muted victims. Leaning down, Nuit stroked the young barmaid's blond hair and then slit her tight T-shirt off her with a fingernail to allow her breasts to bounce free. He yanked a handful of brown hair and made the strapping young man the Harpies held almost fall. Sebastian sat up, and Nuit sighed. "Must I feed him, too?"

"Be nice, Fallen," Lilith cooed, staring into the terrified eyes of the dinner Nuit had brought. She glanced up at Nuit. "I like your choices. You can let them scream now. It makes the food taste so much better, n'est-ce pas?"

* * *

Carlos stood out on the mountainside overlooking the house. He'd put a call out to Yonnie, and he waited as fatigue threatened to make him collapse. Soon the familiar

signature flowed through his sinuses, and Carlos didn't even turn.

"Hey, man," Carlos said, relief settling in his shoulders. "You cool?"

"Yeah, brother. I'm all good. Few nights over in Tijuana, ya mean. If you wasn't a married man - "

"But I am a married man," Carlos said, putting up a hand. "So don't even tell me."

"Aw'ight, but you know the honeys over there ain't no joke - "

"Yonnie, man, I'm real tired." Carlos wiped fatigue from his face with both palms. "We gotta go on a pilgrimage .. . Jerusalem. I wanted to let you know we might be gone for a few, so not to panic."

"You know me," Yonnie said calmly, but there was strain in his voice. "I don't never panic, bro."

"Here's the thing," Carlos said, turning to look at him. "If they're sending our team to the original holy land .. . then it's gonna get hectic - everywhere." The two fell silent, holding each other's line of vision.

"I feel you," Yonnie finally said. "But, you know, since all the masters are gone and topside zones are all fucked up right now - since y'all did your thing, there ain't no interna

tional pass required, or embargoes on subterranean travel, and shit. As council, until the empire is reestablished, I can go where I want ... so, if a brother needs backup, you know, I can make that happen."

For a long while Carlos didn't answer as he turned away and gave Yonnie his back to consider again. They both knew that Yonnie was talking fast because he didn't want to hear what Carlos had to say. Neither of them did.

"Appreciate it, man," Carlos finally said. He let his breath out hard. "As my boy ... my blood brother, I'm gonna ask you to stay outta the hot zone." Carlos shook his head and kept his voice to a dull rumble. "It's 'cause I love you, man. It's gonna get crazy, I can feel it. White light everywhere and my side will smoke anything with fangs ... shit, I might get hit with friendly fire, when it's all said and done. Your people don't need to see you helping us, either ... because something tells me this battle might kick up enough dust for Level Seven to get in the mix directly." He turned and looked at Yonnie. "Bad enough Nuit and them is on your ass.

You don't want the granddaddy of Darkness to catch you messing with his game over there. Believe it."

Begrudgingly, Yonnie nodded. "Since you put it that way ... I hear you. But remember what I said before, too. If you do see me, and it's too late, make sure you do the hon ors." Carlos simply closed his eyes and nodded. "All right, man. I hear you, too."

* * *

damali steeled her nervous system for the most intense security checks they'd probably experienced to date, followed by a twenty-three-hour flight from LAX to Tel Aviv. It didn't matter that the drive up to LAX was only a few hours, or that the airport would be thirty-one miles west of Jerusalem when they got there. It was deja vu. They'd be flying out at 6:40 p.m. to arrive the next day at 3:40 a.m., crossing however many time zones, night into day this time, and she told herself to simply hunker down and sleep on the plane. She didn't think that was possible, until Carlos kissed her temple and told her he knew... and that it would be all right. He'd felt it, too, that's why he'd lost his mind trying to kill

Nuit... and he held her next to him just rocking that pain away, no words, just knowing right beside her the same way he knew what was inside those they'd healed together in Nod.

Knowing that he knew, that he'd not just heard her but also felt it in his bones down to the marrow with her was more than enough. She wrapped that silent comfort around her like a blanket as his heartbeat and body heat lulled her to sleep. A caress at the crown of her head and a gentle, deep voice inside her mind finally made her let go. She had no choice, because what her husband told her was filled with the sweetest, most profound truth he'd ever uttered.

Don't let them take your sanity, baby. That's what they want. As long as you have your mind, that means you can access your spirit ... so even if your body is gone, they haven't won. Don't let them take my wife from me, boo, be cause they 're twisting the knife in an old wound... together, me and you, let's let it go.

* * *

due to the insanely early time of arrival in the morning, the Covenant set it up so the team could lodge at the King David - and even sleepy, jostled, hot, and cranky, she wasn't mad at them at all for the choice.

True, it was set in the New City part of town, west of the Old City. But as the team filed into the grand lobby with its gracefully arched ceilings and columns covered with ancient geometric designs, and into rooms in warm cream and brown hues set off with Old World elegance and writing desks, there was no complaint whatsoever. Not even Rider said a word. Mostly, they were just grateful that they got there alive with no midair plane attacks, bomb threats, or a million other things that could have gone wrong. Even their luggage came, and everyone in the group credited the clerics' solemn prayers. When she came out of the shower she watched Carlos at the window. He was watching the sun rise over the Old City and for a moment she hesitated, not wanting to encroach upon his private rapture. But the draw to be near him as he witnessed the past, present, and future was too much of a lure. She sidled up beside him as he stood in the open win

dow, her breath momentarily trapped in her throat as she watched the Middle Eastern sun paint Jerusalem stones bathed in rose-gold.

The Muslim call to prayer rang out as a distant herald, blending in a symphony of church bells to create a cultural fusion rarely found anywhere else. Certainly this was the center of the world in so many respects. The golden hues that spilled down from the heaven lit the path of stones that had been on the planet as silent witnesses to the greatest sto ries ever told. She reached out her hand through the open window just to let that part of the sun touch her, too. They had made it this far by faith. Carlos's grip pulled her in tighter as he swallowed hard, feeling it too, so overwhelmed it was impossible to articulate. How could one properly express awe as one looked at domes and spires and ancient walls that commingled with modern office towers beyond them? How was it possible for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to all share Torah tradi tions, biblical echoes, and Koran refrains among hills after rolling hills of lands that ranged from bleak desert vistas to brilliant green oases in mountain isolation that gave rise to Dead Sea scrolls? How?

There was no way to wrap words around the palpable spir ituality or the fracturing experience of being in the midst of the archaic, as though time stood still, while vibrant,

modern markets would soon unfold, as though caravan camps in the desert along the Silk Road. Pricey souvenir shops, and bearded men in Orthodox garb, street performers, and hagglers at the Muslim Quarter market - the souk - a babble of languages, smells of turmeric and fenugreek, modem mu seums, universities, and coffee shops, and wheelbarrels bringing spices to the outdoor market. A finely woven tapes try, not so much a collision of cultures. It all left her with a sense of profound vertigo to experience the past, present, and future so compactly and beautifully arranged all in one place - at the center of the world.

A soft kiss broke their trance. Her husband's sad eyes and caress along her jaw with the pad of his thumb brought her back to the present.

"It's all so magnificent," he said in a gravelly voice. "Hu manity, and the passion to live, you know? I can't bear the thought, D, that it could all be over in a flash from the sky. They said the fire this time."


Tags: L.A. Banks Vampire Huntress Legend Vampires
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