Damali and Marlene reentered the living room knowing that for them to stay gone from the group longer would unnecessarily raise worry. They could hear the strain in Rabbi Zeitloff's voice blaring in the speakerphone.
"Daniel, online conversion courses? Over the computer?"
"I want them to like her, and you gotta be the mohel at the bris if it's a boy." Dan paced, raking his hair while all the brothers drew in with solidarity.
"He needs a cover story to chill out his mom and pops," Jose said. "Bobby and Krissy are lucky, their parents are here. But like Inez's mom, we can't pull in the Weinsteins, so they'll
need constant vigil over them, like Inez's mom and baby."
"Yeah, because if we go in and leave a tracer that could put his mom and old man in danger, none of us will be able to live with that - but this man has gotta be able to let his people know he's all right, happily married to a nice Jewish girl, and might be a daddy." Rider landed a heavy palm of support on Dan's shoulder as Dan continued to rake his hair.
"Thanks, Rider... Jose." Dan looked at Heather as the women on the team gathered around her. "I just need to be sure she's okay, Rabbi, and I want my parents'
blessing...after all I've seen, ya know."
"Oy, Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, you make this old man have an ulcer!"
"It is for the greater good," Monk Lin said softly.
"What - my ulcer?"
"No, Daniel's ability to get a family blessing on his union," Father Pat said calmly with a slight chuckle.
"If there's a child in the offing, then family cohesion is paramount," Imam Asula said.
"Honor thy mother and father ... thus - "
"Okay, okay, I don't need you to quote Old Testament to me. I cut my teeth on Old Testament, Asula. Humph!"
"Listen," Carlos said in a weary voice. "I can whirl you, Dan, Heather, and me to his parents, black-box it, let them meet, and leave. I can pull up right outside their door. You be there as the cleric that they've been corresponding with all this time, they can meet Heather, then we drive off in a car, go around the corner, and be out."
"And who might you be, how do I explain you, Mr. Rivera, who looks like a G.I. Joe action-figure marine? Their son is supposed to be on a kibbutz! You all have me, a man of the faith, lying through my teeth - and at the end of days, I don't mind telling you people, this is unwise a thing to do - am I the only crazy one here? Is it me?"
"He was on a kibbutz, sorta, Rabbi," Rider said with a grin. "I looked it up to be sure I knew what it meant, as I'd hate to lie to clerics or have them lie ... it's a - "
"Collective settlement," Dan said in a rush.
"In Israel!" the rabbi shouted.
"Does it have to be, or can someone who's Jewish be in it to qualify?" Heather asked, panicking.
Marlene cringed and placed a finger over her lips and stared at Heather, who had slumped back.
"Do you see the problem, here, Daniel?" Rabbi Zeitloff shouted.
"Ain't no problem," Shabazz said. "Do it like this. You go m, you say, 'Hi, Mom, Dad, I've missed you and love you. While I was away on the kibbutz I met this beautiful woman -
her name is Heather. She converted for me, and you're gonna be grandparents. You already know Rabbi from the letters he was good enough to send with pictures.'" Shabazz sat back in his chair when the speakerphone remained silent. "Then, you wait and let your mother scream, hug you, and hug Heather. You let your dad slap your back. Our man Carlos gets introduced as Special Ser vices, Black Ops - the leader of your division - a division with no name. C-los rolls in there with five-star general gear on, leaving a mental suggestion, but never lying to your parents, and doesn't speak beyond a
'Nice to meet you ma'am, nice to meet you sir.' Then you say that you are not at liberty to say what you really do for a living but it is very high up, pays extremely well, and that you
are working strategically for world peace - which is the only reason your wedding was so rushed and you denied your mother her big wedding glory. But your rank and mission give them bragging rights in their neighborhood." Shabazz looked at Carlos. "Then you glance at your watch and state that it's o-whatever-hundred hours it is, and time to move out. Let Dan and Heather hug and kiss their people - and be out, brother."
"That's a plan I can live with," Carlos said, pounding Shabazz's fist.
"That's some smooth shit, man," Jose said, and then checked himself. "I mean, stuff."
"Where's the lie?" Carlos asked, directing his voice to ward the speakerphone.
"You sound like a vampire!" Rabbi Zeitloff shouted.
"But will it work?" Dan asked, wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his forearm.
"It has potential," Rabbi Zeitloff fussed. "I can do it, but at its core, it's as rotten as - "
"At its core," Monk Lin coolly interjected, "is the honor able desire of two young people who have found love to make their parents a part of ushering in a new generation."
"Give me a break."
"Love," Father Patrick said.
Imam Asula chuckled. "I think we have a solution."
"Rabbi?" Dan asked, standing over the speakerphone. "Please. This is really, really - "
"Oh, all right! You put it all on my head; if I say no, then I'm against love, and you've ganged up on me. I do not ap preciate this kind of group pressure for a man of my age. But I like Daniel, he's a good young man, and this Heather, I'll like her more when she converts and I don't have to lie to Daniel's mother and father that he married a nice Jewish girl. All right."
Dan's shoulders slumped in relief and he closed his eyes. Rider practically caught him around the waist to keep him from falling, but grabbed him by the shoulders instead.
"Thank you," Dan breathed out.
"Thanks. We'll call you when we get settled in San Diego," Carlos said. "Peace." The moment all good-byes were said and each cleric hung up, Dan clicked off the call button, and pandemonium broke loose. Slaps on the back almost made Dan fall. Calls for beer to go with the room service order rang out. What had begun as a midmorning strategy meeting had turned into a raucous room party.
"I told you to call him, man," Jose said, laughing. "You gotta get that no-fear in the cojones."
Dan and Jose squared off, faced each other, and made ugly grimaces as their arms made huge, bicep-straining U shapes in the air. "No fear!" they shouted in unison, and then burst out laughing.
"Champagne and brew on the way," Mike hollered, holding up a phone extension. Heather went to Dan and hugged him, hiding her face against his neck as he stroked her hair. "You did that for me ... all of that just for me? The whole team, too ..." Her voice wobbled and broke. "Thank you, Dan. I love you."
"Aw, man," Rider said with a broad smile. "We might lose a man at the party, might go AWOL and back to his room - hurry up with the food, Mike!" Bobby stood with his back against the door and arms outstretched, blocking a possible exit. "One beer with the team, dude. It's protocol."
"I'll go see what's holding up the food," Carlos said with a tight half-smile. "Maybe I can
just go to the bar and bring back that part of the order."
"I'll help," Damali said, jogging over to leave with him. "You'll need extra hands to carry all those six-packs," she said, making excuses when he cut her a sharp glance.
"Cool." Carlos lifted his chin as Bobby stood aside, laughing.
"Bring back some natural juices for Heather, too," Bobby said as he rolled his body away from the door so Carlos and Damali could pass. "We gotta take care of our lady in wait
ing. No alcohol for her."
Carlos didn't answer, just nodded.
"I'll make sure to bring something up just for her," Damali assured Dan, and then slipped out the door with a sigh.
* * *
the golden-fanged knockers at the door didn't even ID check her with a strike, her power signature was so strong from her unprecedented coronation. Messenger demons had genuflected as she passed and strode down the long, narrow crag beyond the Sea of Perpetual Agony.
"Bring me that cowardly little satyr," Lilith commanded to her Harpies as she swept into Vampire Council chambers.
She sat with a weary but satisfied thud in the council throne that headed the blood-veined, pentagram-shaped table and drew a golden goblet of black blood into her clutches. Intense weeping made her peer over the rim of her goblet, and then the huge black marble chamber doors sud denly opened.
Four Harpies flew forward dragging a half-eaten satyr across the floor. They unceremoniously dropped him at Lilith's feet and he immediately drew away to hide under the table, whimpering.
"Fetch him and hold him on the table before me, since he likes to hide." The satyr covered his head, screaming 'Wo!" as the Harpies dragged him out of hiding and flung him down on the hard surface, splashing blood. Immediately the vampire crest in the center of the table took offense and sank huge fangs into the satyr's spine that came out through the small, fawnlike creature's abdomen. A puddle of urine soon spread, causing Harpies to shriek in hot disgust.
"Do not make me get up out of this chair," Lilith said in a deadly whisper and then cleaned the offense away with a wave of her hand. She stood. "Now. Firstly, I bet you wish you'd never betrayed Cain and had remained loyal to the end?" The satyr nodded quickly, blue tears running down his face.
"You Pan creatures are so fickle and given to such waste ful excess and mischief, but this time you've really gotten yourself in trouble, haven't you?"
"I'm sorry, miss. I didn't know. We just wanted to run and play, and didn't want to fight anyone," he whined, beginning to sob.
"See, that's the problem with being in the middle, not making a commitment, especially in the end of days - you were committed to nothing, so you must now endure everything."
"Oh, no!" he wailed and covered his face.
"If you had sided with the Darkness and Cain, you would still have a place ... like my dear Harpies," she said, petting the largest one that fought to be near her. "Or my bats, or messengers. Even my pit bulls have a place in the realms."
When the satyr's cries escalated, she leaned over him with a hand at each side of his trembling body. "Silence!"
He sucked up a sob with his lip quivering.
"If you had sided with the Light, even if you were killed, a highly probable thing ... you would be in a place of utter bliss," she whispered and pulled back. "Completely boring and disgusting by my standards, but at least you wouldn't suffer." Folding her arms over her chest, she peered at the terror-stricken creature impaled on her table. "But as a reasonable woman, I'll bargain with you for a do-over, a chance to make a wise choice a second time around."
"I'm on your side," the satyr said quickly, nodding. "You, miss, I choose you." She shook her head. "Delightful." With a sigh, she sat down. "Now, I need to understand better how Nod works ... you see, Cain's time there in the Light did not translate to our thrones. The data was garbled. Only his dark passions and lusts and plots did we receive, but the way Nod works, what fuels it, how things ... grow there ... we could not see for the blinding Light."
"Nothing grows in Nod," the satyr said quickly. "It is the same, ages very, very slowly over eons. It is pure energy, that's why we wanted to leave. There's no food or water, only energy to quench you, but stable, even energy and no procre ation. We cannot even mate, it is all mental stimulation ... so you see, Miss Queen of all that I'm bound to uphold, that's why we tried to leave after Cain."
Panic shot through Lilith and made her pace. Her mind quickly seized on the reality that, if nothing could grow there and could only remain in stasis, then her fertilized egg was simply languishing without a procreation or life-energy jolt. It didn't matter that it had been successfully couriered into Nod while the seals were breached and Cain was at war sending hybrids over the barrier between worlds. Nor did it matter that it was stored within a willing host. It would re main there, possibly for eons at a time when her husband had called for her to bring forth his heir.
"Are you sure, satyr?" she said, suddenly sweeping to the frightened fawn.
"Yes," he cried, beginning to sob again. "That's why we followed Cain's energy trail out -
only Hubert was strong enough. He was biggest and Cain's opening then was such a horrible tear that a few of us slipped out behind him. But the others are trapped inside because it takes a Neteru's call to be released." He covered his frightened face with his hands. "Only his warriors could pass both ways on his call while he fought. But once he died, they cannot get out, either. But those two Neterus, they can go in and they can bring out warriors for you, Miss Queen. They both went there and vis ited Cain ... and he really liked her. His energy still res onates with her there, I'm sure." Lilith returned to her throne quiet and intrigued. "A diver sion," she whispered, talking to herself as she shut her eyes. Helpless refugees, angel hybrids, or soft, doe-eyed, confused little creatures would draw out the protection instincts of a team that had befriended their kind, she thought with a wicked smile. Human Guardians couldn't go in, but who could resist a little satyr begging for amnesty after having learned the error of his ways? ... Especially one that is half-eaten and bloodied and brutalized? It would shock their sen
sibilities; it would be like mutilating a puppy or a baby seal... perhaps a small child. Neterus couldn't leave it. The satyr would tell them that angelic beings were being slaughtered by Cain's loyalists, and he'd picked up the beacon.
"She'll go because she's a Powers angel, a healer," Lilith murmured as a deep chuckle consumed her.
Suddenly she stood and screeched, making her bats whirl in a frenzy within the twisting smoke above her throne. "She will go," Lilith shouted, extending her arms and clenching her fists, "because she'll be all alone and heartsick and will cling to the need for a divine purpose to give her life meaning! She will go because where she is brings her such pain that she will want to redeem her dark thoughts through helping others! An gel hybrids like her! She will go - because Damali will want to heal all the injured and bring them to safety and build an army of feather-bearers in the end of days!" Lilith threw back her head and laughed. "And she'll go and jolt my near-dead host with a life-force jolt to make her live again, and unwittingly spark conception with the Caduceus in her hand and tears in her eyes - then Damali will bring my vessel out into earth's atmosphere where my heir can live!"
She spun on the little satyr and walked over to the table. She leaned down and stroked his belly, toying with his frag ile life. "Isn't that brilliant? I guess I have to repair you a bit and let you live, even though I had my heart set on fawn-human for dinner tonight ... I haven't had such a delicacy since Zeus's time."
"Please don't eat me, Miss Nice Lady Queen," he whis pered, squeezing his eyes shut as Lilith allowed her fangs to elongate. "I don't taste very good." A deep chuckle filled the chamber as she studied him and then licked him between his legs and up his belly as the table retracted fangs to drop him. She kissed the places that had been butchered and allowed the satyr to heal, giggling with the sinister knowledge that while she bided her time, she'd maim him again even worse before dropping him at Damali's feet one night. But for now, he had to remain alive. Lilith sighed philosophically. "You like my plan to let you live so you can run and tell Damali that she must help the hybrids still trapped in Nod?" She ran her finger over his belly button, causing the hairy little creature to shudder with need, and cooed when a small, pink penis rose out of the hair between his legs. "Aw ... how cute." Harpies covered their eyes, squealing.
"I like your plan - it's brilliant, Miss Queen," he said, inching away from her as she brushed his tiny pink member with a huge fang.
"Good," she cooed, beginning to sway like a serpent. "Because only a woman could think of something like that."
The strike was instant; blood splattered several Harpies, and the piteous satyr's scream made bats fuss in flight.
* * *
carlo s walked at a pace that Damali could barely match. His eyes were forward and his jaw locked tightly.
"Hold up," she said, jogging to keep up with his long strides. He ignored her, jaw pulsing. Finally at the bottom of the exit landing, she was able to jump down four steps and stop him with her hands against his chest.
"We gotta get the beer and juice, D. People are trying to party."
"No. That shit can wait. I need you to just slow down and talk to me - please."
He looked away. "What's to talk about? The team is cool with the decisions that were made, they came to a consensus, we're moving to San Diego."
"But I never heard your opinion in the mix, baby." She folded her arms over her chest.
"I ain't got no opinion," he said, still not looking at her.
"Because all of this is a moot point, anyway."
"Because even though we hit her lair in what was already a topside, hot war zone," Carlos said, not using Lilith's name as he folded his arms over his chest and stared at the wall,
"the entity that did her coronation almost broke down Christ - that's how strong that mug is. So, let's party, yo. I'm with Rider. What the fuck diff does it make at this point? Huh?
'Nita wants a hot tub in the room so she and Jose can get their freak on - I'll bring one in, pronto - she just gotta tell me what color. Dan wants to say good-bye to his mom and dad and get a blessing before his ass dies; I'm with that. It's the right thing to do. Mike wants ribs and whatever room service has - heeey. No problem. I'm so cool with all this shit, it doesn't even make no kinda sense, D."
Speechless, it took her body a moment to move when he began walking again. She understood Level Seven to mean the Nameless One, but dang, the way Carlos put it about that being the one to tempt Christ made her shiver. That was a bold mug, as Carlos called it. She ran to catch up to him and spoke in bursts from sidelong glances, passing other resort guests.
"You're right, I'm panicked, and me and you now have to work as one to do whatever we can at this point."
"I'll tell you what we can do," Carlos muttered. "After that dumb shit I just did, we can all bend over and kiss our natural asses good-bye."
"You're not giving up on me," she said, jogging to get in front of him to make him stop. He shrugged. "Naw. I'm not giving up, just being real." He tried to round her but she body-blocked him, eyes wide. "Look," he said, glancing around. "You of all people know that we shouldn't even be having a conversation like this without a prayer seal."
"You're right, you're right," she said, holding up her hands. "Thirty seconds, let's do it, because brother, I need to talk to you - maybe reality is just sinking in. Will you give me that?"
He begrudgingly nodded while she closed her eyes and murmured a prayer for white light to surround and seal their private, marital conversation.
"All right, first off," he said, leaning in close and glancing over his shoulder as he spoke through his teeth, "you didn't take the charge off that throne, I did. So don't act like I'm some punk because of what I felt and how I'm reacting." She touched his arm. "Baby, I do not think that. I trust your instincts to the letter." He stepped in closer, held her arms, and closed his eyes. "I thought I had felt dark, or twisted, or depraved, but ... oh, shit... there was no bottom to the blackness - and I'm ninety-eight percent disconnected. Can you imagine what would have hit me if I was still locked in? I'd be drowning in my own drool and fucked in the head for life." He stepped away from her, breathing hard. "They don't know. The brothers don't get it. Shit - I didn't know. I didn't get how evil the Ultimate Evil was, and I had been to Hell on a throne. You can't conceive it, can't wrap your mind around its vastness, just like the human mind
is incapable of under standing the Ultimate Light ... but as above, so below. My problem with all of this is, this time I dragged that to our team's doorstep." She grabbed his upper arms hard, frantic, and almost began shaking him. "Carlos, you might have felt what you felt, know what you know - knowledge is power, like you always said and learned as a weapon from them... but, baby, please, please listen - you didn't drag anything to us that wasn't coming for us regardless. The Armageddon was gonna kick off, and we're a Neteru team, so we are in the path of the tornado, the funnel cloud. They were coming, it isn't your fault, and anything that happens to anybody on the team isn't on your head - it's fate. They were chosen to be Neteru Guardians and they answered the call. Honey, don't blame yourself," she whispered urgently, and then hugged him hard.
They both fell quiet as a maid walked by. But she stopped and grinned at them too wide and too long as she pushed her cart. Then a flicker of glowing darkness entered her eyes as she slowed to speak.
"Yes it was his fault," the maid said, laughing, and then hurried away. Damali almost screamed. Carlos had her by the hand go ing in the opposite direction in a flat-out ran. He was so shook that he couldn't even focus to fold them away, and she was on the border of such instant panic that her shoulder blades were bulging and threatening to present wings. They practically crashed through the door and made Guardians stand up in unison.
"Don't eat the food, center of room, evac now, leave anything behind!" Carlos shouted.
"What happened?" Shabazz moved fast, sending a cre denza across the room with tactical energy to block the door as the team huddled.
Carlos opened his arms, adrenaline spikes making him dizzy. "They breached a freakin'
prayer barrier between two married Neterus - that's what the fuck happened, 'Bazz. We're out!"
* * *
"you didn't," lilith said, laughing and shaking her head.
"I did, my darling. .. . And I told you I would flush them to you in a panic to begin our little dance," Sebastian murmured as Lilith reclined in his large, circular bed staring out at the Carpathian Mountains.
"But how did you manage to break a prayer barrier between two married Neterus?" She lifted herself up on her hands and knees and crawled toward him, stalking him for answers.
"Do you really want to know?" he crooned, taunting her.
"Don't toy with me, Sebastian. I am in a very dangerous mood." He tilted his head to the side, unafraid. "Make me a councilman."
"Or make you dead - spit it out." She folded her arms over her naked breasts.
"All right, you're no sport at the moment, I see."
"I'm exhausted, having to think of everything and set wheels in motion... I now better understand Lu's lament about always being busy. He's not just a workaholic; there is vast incompetence that must be coped with. So, you were saying - so that I do not rip out your heart."
Sebastian folded his arms over his narrow, sallow chest and lifted his pockmarked face, indignant. "Am I not the greatest warlock you've known? Sleight of hand, my darling."
"Sleight of hand? I must understand this trick."
"Hunches, playing the best of hunches," he said, watch ing intrigue glitter in her dark eyes with great satisfaction. "Hunch number one: have witches the world over in the various covens hone in on where seven or eight wedding ceremonies took place in a hurried condition - same day. Not like Las Vegas that does hundreds, or a municipality. But the exact number all in the same facility. That was clue number one."
"Brilliant," Lilith murmured, easing down to lie on her side. "Tell me more." He lay down beside her, tracing her arm. "Then track the silver. We wouldn't be able to see it, but it would appear like a blinding supernova to our dark coven forces blocking them - and in that blindness is where we should go." He sighed, his expression smug.
"And once they found that, they should look for couples who have an extra Light around them....and listen to their conversation. If the witch or warlock was deaf to what they said, then it was one of them."
Lilith cradled his cheek. "You never disappoint me with your treacherous mind."
"And if a beautiful woman was arguing with a handsome man who fit the description that we all know ... the familiar has only one thing to say: 'Yes, it was his fault.' To reinforce his guilt and hysteria and to rock his faith that even his prayer barriers with his wife can now be breached... And to make him think your husband can track him from the throne." Sebastian laughed when Lilith's eyes got wider. "But he can't, of course... however, our male Neteru doesn't need to know that." He kissed her as her mouth gaped. "You wanted dampened libido, worry, fear, self-recrimination. I delivered, Lilith - and I'll have your potion ready soon. So... what is my reward?"
"Two more days and nights of hard negotiation with me... how's that for starters?"
* * *
she'd never seen her husband do a power foldaway with no clear destination in mind, and drop the team hard, off-course, in the middle of a public beach, then have to mind-stun civilians for a second until he could get himself together. He was breathing erratically, wild in the eyes as she stopped time with everything in her for a few seconds to give every one a chance to adjust.
His heart was slamming into his chest, sweat drenched his clothes, and he hated the fear scent folded into it. The whole team stunk to high heaven like that for the first time because he lost his cool, the way he saw it. Lucifer's familiar was strong enough to break a prayer seal. His mind stretched and almost snapped from the concept. He grabbed Damali's hand.
"Me and you, open a channel to the Covenant. I need a location. A new compound location - seers on your mark. I want Father Pat in this mix. I need barriers up when we whirl again." His gaze raked Damali and Marlene, then the slither ing memory that Father Pat had really broken from the church, had lost faith in the formal organization of it, and was operating as a rogue cell within it, made Carlos begin to hyperventilate. "Bring Imam Asula in as backup, with Monk Lin and Rabbi. Oh shit, we need a squad with no shaky vibes, right through here."
Marlene clasped Damali's other hand as the team drew in closer. "I'm going higher than that - I'm calling Aset."
* * *
all screaming had ceased by now. Time meant nothing, there was no way to sense it, nor had he the inclination to do so. Once the Dark Lord had reached up his rectum to his skull, dug in claws, yanked, turning his entire being inside out, the pain that accompanied that vile act was beyond fu tile.
He'd learned that the gurgling noises his twitching body made only delighted the Harpies. The Master of all Dark ness had left him to the feral little beasts that took great plea sure in ripping away bits of his soft, exposed flesh, turning him into their version of shredded beef. Master's Hellhounds were no better. They'd savaged his remains, growling and fighting over bones that they ripped away from tissue an chors as vermin and beetles, every pest from the Amanthra realms, took up lodging in exposed organs that now writhed from their invasion.
But in their depraved glee, the Harpies had made sure he missed none of it by slipping into the coveted abyss of uncon sciousness. No ... they took turns sitting at his head, sticking their long, flicking tongues into his exposed gray matter, gouging it and keeping it awake as they regurgitated black blood into it.
There was no peace. No respite. He tried to focus on the pain to keep from imagining the next horror the master would visit upon him when he returned - for surely the Dark Lord would oblige whatever fear scenario the Harpies siphoned from him. The sound of cloven hooves against marble made his almost boneless body begin to convulse with the foolish but instinctive need to escape. Squeals of terror escaped his fractured larynx as both the sound and vibration neared him. Incessant, excited bickering and squabbling from noisome Harpies made him try to worm his fetid carcass away in a slow, slimy ooze across the floor.
The jolt that assaulted his rectum voided his bowels and made his prone form go stone rigid as the blast slowly dragged his body right side out one inch at a time. The moment the last crackle receded with a juicy pop and his lungs and Adam's apple lodged into place, the wail he released was so intense that the Harpies laughed and clapped for the master.
"You are fortunate," a low, rumbling voice said as the hooves began to sound farther and farther away. "I have much work to do to ready my armies and do not have time to devote to your torture. Thank you for keeping my wife's pets amused during my absence, Fallon." Nuit's nails dug into the cavern floor as he pressed his face against it, quietly sobbing. His body was now only a disorga nized sack of meat and flesh. Hell dogs had snapped away vertebrae and ribs, and bones in his arms and legs, leaving jagged pieces that now pierced his abraded skin. Only the small bones in his hands and feet remained with his skull that the Harpies had guarded to save his brain, bones obviously too small for the dogs to bother themselves with to squabble over.
"If you can stop being such a pussy," the deep voice be yond Nuit said with a languid sigh, "I have a job for you ... now that you understand a small measure of my wrath."
"Anything!" Fallen bleated. "Anything, my Darkness, just, I beg you ..."
"Yes, yes, I am well aware of your state of agony. Do not waste my time with entreaties -
do my bidding."
Fallen nodded with his eyes squeezed tightly shut, too terrified to look up into the eternal darkness that surrounded him for fear that he might see the Dark Lord's eyes and draw his displeasure. "Yes," he gasped. "Your bidding is my every breath."
"Good. We have come to an understanding, then. An ac cord." The vast darkness breathed out slowly and methodi cally. "My wife ..." it said in a thunderous echo, chuckling and then seeming to choose words with care. "She is the most treacherous bitch in all creation. She would turn on me in a heartbeat, if she could ... this is what I so love about her. She keeps things interesting. However, I need a pair of eyes in council, eyes now so terrified of my wrath that they dare not make a mockery of this second chance to leave my torture facility."
"Beyond terror," Nuit said, pressing himself closer against the ground. "Stricken." Deep thunderous laughter filled the cavern. "Good ... very good, because she was never at this place of complete acquiescence. Despite her torture, Lilith had games embedded in her psyche so deep that even Harpies would never be able to siphon them all. Each one, however, was like a jewel just waiting for the moment to surprise me with one. Last month I found out just how much that is her core. Games, duplicity, thy name is Lilith. But trust me, Fallen, I will be so much less lenient on you than my beloved spouse. Are we clear?"
"Crystal, my lord," Fallon whispered.
"She holds up under torture so much better - I lashed out at her, personally, for a month. You could not endure twelve days with her pets during my absence ... while I spent pre
cious time with her."
Nuit gulped, unable to fathom what that experience might have been.
"No... do not try to comprehend the incomprehensible," the Dark One murmured, his voice soon becoming more dis tant. "Watch her for me and report all to me. Betray me and I will not be so lenient in the future. Fail me and I shall re lease eons of frustration upon your miserable carcass. I know she has a plan with my heir, but I want that monitored so that it does not become her heir alone. She is devious."
"I will be your everything and shall not fail."
"Indeed." Another hot, fear-generating breath filled the darkness and then wall torches lit.
Quiet surrounded Nuit and for a while he kept his cheek flattened to the dirt. Before long he could see the hem of scythe-bearers' robes. One stood beside him with a weapon held high, and the moment Nuit looked up, the demons smiled and brought the blade down midthigh, cutting half of the damaged stump off above where the Neteru blade had taken his leg.
A roar of anguish left him limp, and just when he thought he could bear no more, hungry Harpies raced to the new wound site and began to eat away at the exposed meat. Screaming in agony, Nuit tried to pull back with his fin gers, but with virtually no bones in his body, he was no more than a sack of quivering, jellied flesh.
"He said it was over!" he screamed, sobbing. "He said I was to be his eyes and ears -
They stopped. His wormlike body slumped in fatigue. But soon he saw their purpose as several Harpies began vomiting regenerative black blood into the wound site. He watched in awe as the bloodied nub began to slowly grow with new bone and tissue. Then a scythebearer bent and produced a cured human stomach filled with black blood from under his robe and brought it to his parched lips that he might drink. Nuit greedily sucked at the regenerative substance, chok ing as he took it in as fast as he
could. Spent from the first feeding in more than two weeks, he closed his eyes, feeling soothing warmth begin to invade his fevered body as beetles and pests exited through every orifice and pore. Slowly, damaged organs knitted back together, and missing parts grew out of the small scraps of tissue that remained. Broken bones mended but made him scream with agony as they snapped back into place.
Sweat covered the new skin on his naked body, and another scythe-bearer came to his side to feed him again. This time it cradled his head as he drank, its red glowing eyes gleaming within its hooded robe. Fallen trained his eyes on the vacancy within the robe and it showed him his old throne. Tears of relief slid down Nuit's face while he fin ished the offering, the sweet elixir of life coating his insides with ecstasy. As the demon that held him stood, Nuit grasped its wrist for support to stand. His new leg was numb, but from all ap pearances, he wasn't marred. The face in the hooded robe went black for a moment when the scythe-bearer closed its eyes and nodded yes. Without needing to be told it slowly lowered itself to the floor on its knees with the others, making a small circle around it and Nuit. The hooded entity then turned around and lifted its robe. Nuit glanced over his shoulder into the vast darkness beyond, but the need after regenerating from near extinction was too great to deny. No less than he could have denied the blood offering presented to him. He dropped to his knees, mounted the messenger, threw his head back, and wailed.
* * *
"I can wait," Machiavelli said in a smooth but annoyed croon, causing Sebastian to leave Lilith's body in fury.
The two warlocks squared off in a black-bolt challenge, but Lilith's hiss created a temporary cease-fire.
"You come into my bedroom, waltz in without an invitation!" Sebastian shouted, poised and ready to send a blast at the well-dressed intruder across his bedchamber.
"You Romanians are too volatile and impetuous," Machiavelli tsked. Lilith's gaze narrowed. "You know how much I enjoy your company, my dear, but your timing was more than rude and threatens my patience."
"Scusi, but this is why I came, bella. You cut me off for Sebastian when his impetuous move could have backfired on your ultimate plan."
"Liar!" Sebastian shouted, drawing on a heavily brocaded burgundy robe.
"Why thank you," Machiavelli crooned. "Compliments like that might gain you the favor of even my company one night."
"Speak quickly," Lilith said, growing exasperated as the two Old World warlocks sparred with words. "Sebastian is a strong warlock. Your charges had better be valid this time, Machi."
'To be sure," Machiavelli said with a gloating scowl as he walked slowly back and forth in front of the large circular bed, speaking as though he were in an Italian court again.
"Sebastian is indeed a strong warlock, his specialty potions and poisons - but that is where his expertise lies and should have remained. He does not know the twists and turns and outrageous complexity of the human psyche like I do."
"Make your point," Lilith said, growing nervous as the thwarted orgasm ebbed. Machiavelli stopped pacing and stared at them with his hands behind his back. "Lilith," he
said, curtly. "Have you any idea what striking complete fear into the male Neteru could alternatively do?"
He waited a beat. "Play with the concept on your palate." Lilith slowly stood.
"Yes. It might kill his libido as he rallies troops, calls Neteru warriors from his King's Council - and it would draw his mate into battle cohesion with him, any potion to build her lust counteracted by her survival imperative."
Machiavelli walked away ticking off charges against his graceful fingers. "The team that was to be in bliss would panic, all lovemaking cease, as they prepped for battle to follow their Neterus to their deaths ... so what would there be to be jealous of?" He spun and looked at Lilith. "Your entire plan could crumble unless you can re-create a false sense of security for these people. They need a period of normalcy for any of this to work. I can help with that, if you immediately remove him from our liaison - I'm sure you understand that I'd gladly share bodily fluids with him, but not warlock strategies." Machiavelli shook his head and laughed with an evil scoff as Lilith screeched and flew at Sebastian, slapping and clawing at him while he covered his head and yelled, "You fucked up, signore. Move over, she's my conquest for the night."