They moved in single-cell death squads. Gone were the days of the full-team frontal assault. That had become a predictable, dangerous pattern. This time the Neterus would hold back precious resources. They would coordinate with beings in the Light, relying not solely on their own human understanding. New team circumstances required new battle strategy, something the enemy would never suspect. The daywalker females had gotten sloppy: they loved the sun. In times gone by, councilmen stayed underground and were therefore hard to ambush. But these newly made rulers flaunted their abilities, and their mates were drunk on the excesses of power.
Diana's ground forces moved between the ether and hunted like individual predators-hit women with a score to settle. Then they stepped back and waited. The strike against the dark-side was smooth, calculating, and oh-so-femininely vicious. Damali held her necklace in her hand, her thumb absently stroking the precious stones within it as though they were worry beads. Patience would reward her soon . . . she could feel it. Better than that-she could taste it.
The hooded human servant added more blood to her bath.Elizabeth sighed at the new fragrant, exotic blend. She gazed around her old lair in theCarpathian Mountains , wishing for Vlad's return. For now, Sebastian would do . . . until she could steal some of his reanimation spells. Then she would attempt to call forth her real and only true love. But a slow, agonizing pain began to paralyze her limbs and scorch her skin.
Shrieking, she stood, convulsing and trembling as servants scattered. Sebastian jumped out of bed, coming to her-then he backed away.
"Silver nitrate!" he hissed. "I will have the head of the human who-"
"I'm burning!" she screamed. "Help me, you fool!"
He jettisoned her from the tub onto the floor in a hard, bloody crash and then showered water down on her smoldering form. He kept away from the tainted blood that spread in a blue-white flaming carpet along the parquet wood floor, eating up the plush Persian rug to leap into the tub as though a match had been touched to a gasoline spill.
Elizabethlay naked, shuddering, her hands bloody claws inches from her face. Third-degree burns covered her body, and what had once been her perfect, bloodless white skin now oozed yellow puss in a sulfuric stench that made Sebastian heave. He turned away and sent a white sheet to tent her as she screamed and wailed. Yes . . . he would feed her . . . yes . . . she would unfortunately survive. But he also knew that she would never look the same. There would always be the visceral reminder of severe scars. Silver always left its mark.
He had called for another body to be drained. Feeding Lucrezia had become his passion. Nuit took the golden goblet from the tray and waved the servant out of their chamber.New Orleans moonlight favored his new mate so. He brought the goblet under his nose as Lucrezia's beautiful green eyes lit with a fiery red glow.
"They've outdone themselves this time, darling. They found a virgin . . . I believe you'll love this particular vintage."
"You spoil me," she murmured, accepting the goblet from him with a toothy smile.
"After your latest success in poisoning the entire team, don't you think that a virgin is the least I can give you?" He kissed her over the chalice. "Tell me what else I can do for you,ch�rie? "
She took a deep sip from the goblet and coyly batted her lashes. Then flung the goblet away, sputtering and convulsing, scrabbling at her throat. Nuit jumped back, out of bed, on his feet, frantic as his wife screamed. Smoke bellowed from her mouth, and a long, black stain covered her mouth and ran down her throat all the way to her stomach, where her skin began to collapse in on itself with a smoldering stench.
"Silver nitrate . . ." Nuit hissed.
Lucrezia's body arched and heaved against the mattress. With no option, he came to her, opened her mouth with a powerful grip, and reached in to break off the bottom part of her jaw, extracting her tongue, esophagus, clawing away the damaged soft tissue until he could finally scoop out her stomach. He looked at his ruined wife with tears in his eyes. His right hand was smoldering from touching the residue, and he quickly materialized an ice bucket of water to ram his fist into before the third-degree burns were too severe.
"Forgive me,ch�rie, " he whispered, bereft. "I had to, just to save you . . ."
A snap of his fingers brought a hose out of thin air, and he focused a stream of water on her open passageways as though cleaning out a gutted trout. Horrified as she gurgled and flailed about, he held her arms and legs down with a black-energy cord. Even if he fed her, she would always be disfigured . . . her once perfect, rosebud mouth would be misshapen, the gorgeous, creamy skin at her throat marred by deep twisted burns . . . her torso a wreck. He turned away and walked to the window as he made blood rain down on her within the frame of their antebellum rice bed. Silver always left its mark.
Tonight, he would find the Neterus once and for all and leave his!
Damali looked down at the lit stones. "It's done."
Carlos called his blade into his hand and two younger Neteru males stepped out of a golden splinter on the beach, dressed for war.
"Damn . . ." Shabazz murmured, glancing at Rider and Mike. "Is it my imagination or does something seem a little bit more serious about Rivera and D?"
"They ain't playing," Mike commented in an awed whisper as Seth and Abel walked up to Carlos and gave him a warrior's hug. "Not that they were before, but something's definitely different. Iain't never seen D this cold, either."
"I think it's the kid," Rider said, chewing the end of a twig he'd found. "They know they've got a baby to protect and the darkside kicked off something parental in them . . . bad move. I think our fearless leaders are going for broke." He nodded toward the silver box still sitting on the beach. "Ever see Rivera bring something like that home before, and Damali let him?"
All sidebar conversation ceased as Damali and Carlos turned toward the team with the two golden Light warriors.
"Just confirmed," Carlos said. "Nuit and Sebastian are on the warpath. They've got night vamps coming in from all regions to descend on our old compound inL.A. -the one that's abandoned. Our Neteru brothers have them thinking it's been rebuilt and that we fell back there. I got a jumper signal going from them, to Yonnie, to me, and got my boy doubling back this way so he ain't in the drama when it goes down. We need a blood sample from every member of the team for an authentic signature."
"So, let's do this," Mike said, pounding Shabazz's fist and then holding out his wrist as he hoisted his launcher on his shoulder.
Carlos shook his head. "All we need is a blood sample, bro. You can put the launcher down for now. This is Light squad only-we'll get in on the other firefight as soon as their forces are crippled at the old joint."
The windows were open at the old compound. The steel gates were in rusted disrepair. Bodies in white medical coats could be seen hustling about, seemingly attending the sick. There was no prayer barrier. The scent of human blood was thick in the air. The team appeared to have returned home in a rush, with human Covenant staff doctors trying to help them recover.
Nuit looked at Sebastian, and both generals stared out over the legions of vampires they'd called from every corner of the earth. One nod in unison sent hundreds of black tornadoes whirring toward the house. But behind it, splinters of light ringed the dark funnels just as the house lit in a blue-white nova.
Ashes fell everywhere as demons screamed and tried to escape the fast-moving carpet of light.
"Retreat!"Nuit yelled, shielding him and Sebastian with a black translucent dome.
The heat wasso pervasive as the nova rolled over their shield that it sucked the oxygen out from it with a staggering quake that crumbled the dome. Nuit and Sebastian were on their feet in seconds. The chime of a Neteru blade made Nuit instinctively duck. But Sebastian foolishly outstretched his right hand to block it. The limb was severed so quickly that for a second it didn't even bleed.
"For my mother, Queen Eve!May that bitch, Lilith, you serve rot in Hell!" Abel hollered, advancing on Nuit, sending white energy pulses from the tip of his blade like mortar rounds.
Seth ran forward, releasing a Neteru war cry, blade drawn, coming for Sebastian, who clutchedhis amputated limb and then disappeared. Nuit was right behind him, melting into the ground like fast-moving black water. Seth stood in the middle of the swirling sulfuric ash and raised his blade over his head. His brother whooped and then raised his blade, touching it to his brother's weapon, drawing them both up into a splinter of golden light.
"You can open the box and let the monster out," Seth said, leaning on his knees with both hands, gulping in air. His smile was brilliant and he glanced at his ash-stained brother who caught his breath against a tree.
"You must see-even Father did not have to assist. This was beautiful. Their outrage made the vampires careless." Abel looked at Carlos and Damali, his expression containing obvious joy.
Abel's silver eyes crackled with blue-white static charge and then he pointed his blade just above the sand, replaying the brief battle for the team like a QuickTime movie. Cheers and hoots echoed on the beach as Guardians high-fived and hollered out encouragement. But Damali and Carlos looked at each other, knowing that while it was good to get the mood hyped for the big one, early wins in a long war weren't to be confused with sure victory.
"Who authorized such a complete and devastating deployment of resources?" Lilith shrieked. "Just as we're recovering fromMasada , are you insane?"
"See for yourself the injury to our councilwomen!" Nuitchallenged, blood in his eyes as he waved his hand to show Lilith his and Sebastian's wives. "They cannot even tolerate the sun until their injuries heal. How could we allow this to goun -"
"Because we are at war, there is a bigger picture than your own inconveniences . . . collateral damage is a basic reality, and those two bitches are worth an empire," Lilith seethed. "And where were you, Yolando!"
"InTijuana ," Yonnie said, holding his hands up in front of his chest. "I didn't know they were going to war, nobody ever called me . . . I ain't have jack shit to do with this fucked-up mission."
Lilith stood from her throne and paced. "We are calling in the upper levels, from werewolves to Amanthras, to phantoms, as well as all Harpies and the one-third fallen angel company that allied with my husband when he was banished."
"He is sending the black angels?" Sebastian winced, clutching his forearm stump.
"To protect his heir?"Lilith scoffed. "Of course, you fool. Is any price too great, any resource more valuable than the Antichrist?" She looked at Sebastian with disdain. "Seal up that wound and leave it. After a Neteru blade swipe it will not regenerate. I should kill you myself, because you allowed one of them to take your conjuring hand. Isn't that your right hand, the one that you used to cast your spells with . . . the one that used to hold your sorcerer's wand?"
Sebastian drew back in his throne. "I am ambidextrous, Your Eminence."
"You'd better be," she seethed. "Because if there is a sudden call to arms, injury or not, you will join the battle . . . and if you cannot, you are worthless. You know what happens to the worthless here in Hell?" Her gaze narrowed when Sebastian didn't immediately answer. "They becomefood for our troops."
"Everybody ready?"Carlos looked around and then his gaze settled on Damali.
"Ready," she said, clasping her choker necklace on and calling herIsis long blade into her hand.
Damali looked around at the fully armed team. Prayers had been lobbed, and the team stood behind a golden shield of Heru that Carlos had erected, just in case what he released tried to double back and hide in a human body. He pointed his blade at the latch. The trunk bounced and snarled in agitation. Carlos opened his free palm and stared into it until three orbs of white light filled it. Then he sent a power pulse into the lock from the tip of his blade.
Instantly the lid blew off. A three-headed black cobra with acid-dripping fangs careened out. It kept coming and coming, as though the trunk had been bottomless. The creature had obviously regenerated while trapped and it was fighting, spitting mad. The first thing it did was wheel around on Carlos. He hit it with a white-light pulse, causing it to scream. Then when it saw two Neterus advancing on it, the creature let out a loud hiss, jumped up high, and did a nosedive into the sand.
Before the three agile necks disappeared, Carlos flung the light orbs as though hurling fast baseball pitches, embedding the orbs at the backs of the angry serpent's skulls. Its tail flopped and twisted, its shriek near deafening, and then it thundered under the sand, tumbling Guardians on the beach like bowling pins.
"Go, go,go !' Damali shouted, hitting the sand with white pulses from herIsis so hot that the sand turned to glass wherever the charge went.
Carlos hurled a flat, golden disc to blanket the sand as the serpent resurfaced, trying to snap at running Guardians. "Hit the deck, get onto the shield!"
He and Damali kept pressure on the three-headed creature as Guardians dodged fang strikes and made it to the golden island of safety on the beach. Infuriated, Mike stood and aimed his launcher.
"No," Carlos shouted. "I want it to go home-let it run!"
Damali and Carlos rounded on the creature, and as its heads focused on Carlos, she got a stab in that made the monster squeal. One of itsheads dangled, dripping acidic black blood, and the other heads tried to nuzzle it back to life. But after a few seconds it realized that the Neteru blade could fatally injure it. That's when it ran.
"Fold-away time, people! This thing is gonna run hard and fast-will be a bumpy ride!" Carlos shouted as he and Damali ran into the water behind the fleeing serpent.
Carlos threw a white energy line on the disc. Damali sent a tactical charge to create a small fence. Every tactical member of the group reinforced it. Then suddenly there was a hard yank, Carlos put down another shield beneath his and Damali's feet, and they left the beach.
Airborne for a few seconds, they hit the azure water with a hard splash. A black serpent dragged them like a speedboat, and white, turbulent surf sent shockwaves through their knees,quaking their bodies. Guardians fell back, tactical charges and sheer strength the only thing keeping them on the disc and alive. Carlos tossed his blade to Damali, who caught it with one hand. She rammed her blade and his into the floor of the shield and held on tight. Needing both hands to keep the beast from diving, Carlos pulled hard on the energy reins in each hand, straining with his foot on the lip of the shield to prevent it from towing the whole team under.
Infuriated, the creature leapt like a snared marlin, dragging the entire squad in the air to smack down on the water repeatedly. Were it not for the steady, blue-white concentrated effort of all tactical squad members, the discs would have flipped and the impact ofthe capsize would have stunned and drowned every member of the team.
Screaming, hissing, and dragging one dead head, the creature sped toward the only safety it knew. Land was in sight-so were jagged rocks along the deserted cove. The mouth of a cave loomed.
"I gotta cut the line!" Carlos shouted, two seconds before too late.
All tactical members sent out a blue-white net, catching the team as the discs they'd been riding hurled beneath them and slammed into the rocks, exploding.
Guardians came to a soft thud on wet sand.
Rider was on his feet first."Whoooo-weee! Ride 'em cowboy-let's dothat again!"
Carlos stood slowly, helping Damali up, flexing his hands and rubbing the soreness out of his biceps."You all right?"
"Yeah.I'm good." She felt her necklace, and it warmed under her fingers.
"Due north," the pearl said in a calm voice, "thenmake a left at the first big boulder. Thank you."
Damali shrugged as the team checked their weapons and collected their wits. "Okay, you heard the lady."
"Everybodylook alive," Carlos said. "You know this joint has gotta be heavily guarded."
"Can you pull in whatever weapons we dropped, C-especially those handhelds and the imagers?" J.L. said. He looked at the mouth of the cave."Would sure help to be able to see an outline before it struck."
"I got you," Carlos said, bringing their gear from the trunks on the beach. It hit the sand with a thud, and Carlos rubbed his neck.
Guardians armed themselves as J.L. sent a scan toward the door.
"Hate to tell you this, but it's like about a hundred and fifty black-winged, invisible motherfuckers walking toward us," J.L. said, reading his scanner and then looking up as Damali's necklace lit.
"This is correct," the pearl said calmly."One hundred yards and closing. Two hundred and twenty-five black angels, to be exact."
"Now?"Big Mike said with an angry smile.
"Now," Carlos said with silver in his eyes.
Mike released a shell that seemed to explode against nothing, but within the flash one could see flying body parts, followed by waves of advancing demon troops. From there, it was a free-for-all.
Guardians released hallowed earth rounds from hand-held Uzis. Juanita's and Inez's bodies shook from the shell discharges, as Tara employed snub-nose blasts each time a demon materialized to create a charging target coming into her peripheral vision. Dan and Berkfield lobbed grenades at the mouth of the cavern. Using the hand-held devices, tactical Guardians sent out pulses in all directions, making forms visible in a flash as they fell back, stunned.
Team sharpshooters Shabazz, Rider, and Berkfield picked off the fallen with silver-packed hollow-point rounds before they could get up. Jasmine and Heather lit the stones with white-light energy, incinerating black-charge snipers where they stood before they could even get off a shot. Marlene and Marjorie fired relentlessly as they kept open visuals for the team, barking out directions, alerting everyone where the invisible onslaught was charging from next.
Krissy and Bobby worked in tandem as a brother-sister team, moving Carlos's shield in quick rotations to cover the shooters' backs, their flanks, and overhead. The onslaught came by land, air, and sea. Val would pop up, sent a flurry of silver airborne, and then Krissy would shield her as demon bodies rained down. Marlene ran to the edge of the water and prayed over it, calling the angels to join with her in anointing the sea, sending a white-hot charge along the surf that stopped black dragons and serpents in a sizzling, sulfuric burn.
Death was all over the beach. Invisible bodies became visible as they expired or sustained mortal wounds. Carlos's silver gaze scorched a path to the cave's opening. One nod to Damali and they rushed forward, shields raised. The team was handling the beach-they had to get to the target.
Darkness so pitch-black closed in on them that it was almost impossible to sense direction. Even with their Neteru night vision and Carlos's silver beam, the chilling absence of sound and substance slowed their adrenaline-hyped advance. Low snarls and a familiar scent made the Neteru team instinctively stand back-to-back. In a flash they saw them.Werewolves attacking.
Damali'sIsis chimed at the same resonance as Carlos's. Blue-white pulses exploded charging beasts, opening a path to run forward, with huge werewolves on their asses. Carlos threw up a shield, causing the infuriated beasts to collide with the hot golden disc and roar in pain as they burned.
Harpies flowed over the crags like a gray river of maggots. The Neterus held hands and sent out a blinding charge that lit like a flashbulb going off, liquefying the onslaught. Gray-green goo dripped off of stalactites and stalagmites. The stench was almost unbearable, but they ran forward gagging.
A swift-moving rock narrowly missed Carlos's head and he ducked, pushing Damali down. Bats swooped in, baring lethal, gnarled fangs. Another flat disc of rock whirled over the couple's heads.
"Fucking phantoms," Carlos muttered, as he shielded himself and Damali with a golden disc.
"Silver-dust 'em, baby," Damali said, jumping up quickly between hurled objects, exploding the next rock that came at them into tiny particles with a blast from herIsis .
She held the shrapnel in stasis in the air for a second while Carlos's silver-eyed beam coated it, then he sent it hurtling back in the opposite direction. Ghostly moans and wails thundered through the cave. The couple was up in a flash, running forward before the darkside's security squadrons could reposition.
But they skidded to a halt as they came upon a large, slick, gore-covered chrysalis that was suspended from the roof of the cave by an eerie network of bulging veins.
A fully grown, naked humanlike male was inside it. He peered at the Neterus through the transparent, glowing red chamber that pulsed to a slow heartbeat. The blackest of eyes, the depths of which Carlos and Damali had never known or witnessed, stared back at them. His eyes were dangerously hypnotic, his face so tranquilly beautiful. Only the slight hint of fangs could be seen pressing against his perfect bottom lip. His face and hue changed with each pulse . . . the creature was African, then Asian, then European, then Latino, then Native American . . . and on and on, each heartbeat changing its face and ethnicity in a dizzying kaleidoscope. He stirred like a fetuswould, trying to get comfortable in a tight-fitting womb . . . his glistening black wings partially covered his nakedness. It was apparent that he was so very close to being born.
They had only been stunned by the horrible magnificence for a few seconds, but that was apparently enough for its guardian to awaken. A huge black serpent uncoiled from the nothingness of complete darkness, its head the size of a minibus as it hurtled forward.
Damali and Carlos touched their blades together and fired a pulse which hit the creature dead-on. It exploded, rocking the chrysalis and tearing a section of it away. They trained their pulse on it, released, and then there was complete blackness.
They hit the beach with such force that had they not been Neterus, they would have broken their backs. Warrior angels lit a path from the sky and filled the black hole with a surge so swift that they seemed like one long beam.Hannibal yanked Carlos to his feet and slapped him hard. Eve and Aset drew Damali up, covering her womb, and then nodded and set her on her feet. Black and white mortar rounds were going off above.
Damali turned quickly with Carlos to see their team was still in the battle. Adam and Ausar had Lilith backed into a corner. Eve left Damali's side, half-flying, half-running to reach Lilith before the ground opened and a great black claw snatched her away. The three ancient Neterus sent pulses of white light into the ground behind her, releasing battle wails. Seth and Abel advanced on Nuit, who power-snatched Sebastian out of the way and then dodged their blows. He saw an opening, his gaze narrowed on Yonnie-suddenly noticing that Yolando was blocking shots and not advancing their cause.
In a shrewd move that Damali saw in slow motion, through the chaos Nuit sent a black charge toward Valkyrie. Yonnie turned at the same time Carlos turned away from the entity he was battling. Carlos threw a disc to save Val, but it narrowly missed the black charge. The dark energy deflected from the shield, saving Val, but it hit Yonnie. The direct heart hit blew Yonnie onto his back.
Carlos beheaded the attacking Amanthra that had been on him and began to slash his way toward Yonnie's body on the beach. Val was already running to him, stabbing, cutting; she was a wild woman in motion, flying, she reached him first.
"Let him go!" Damali yelled, engaged in fighting so many adversaries at once that she could only make minor progress to get to Val's side. "The black claws will come and take you both down!" Her voice cracked as she watched Val cradle Yonnie's body, sobbing.
Carlos fought to get to her, his blade out to behead his best friend. It was a promise, the only thing he could do, but demon after demon blocked his path as Nuit escaped, laughing. Then, as they always did,the reckoners came. Their evil black claws sent up from Level Seven to give the Devil his due parted the sand, making it fall inward like quicksand as Valkyrie stabbed at them, refusing to let Yonnie's body go. Frantic, Carlos took blows he should never have allowed as he watched in horror as his best friend and the innocent hybrid who loved him began to sink.
"Valkyrie, for the love of God, let him go!" Carlos said, his voice breaking under the strain.
"No!" Val screamed, still struggling with the entities. "I am a Valkyrie; we do not leave our honorable on the battlefield."
"He's a vampire!" Damali shouted. "We love him, but by rights, he's theirs! Release him and save yourself before it's too late!"
"No!" Val shouted, burying her face against Yonnie's smoldering chest. "I don't care what he was, he was valiant and he will be victorious! I call my sisters of the sky! I call my mother's people to have mercy! Do not let this abomination occur on this beach-he was tricked, he honored me, he never laid a hand on me!"
Swift-moving light rained down on the beach. From every cometlike flash, a winged, fully silver-armored Valkyrie stood with a blade. They rushed to Val's side, frantically slicing at the screaming claws.
Lilith appeared a distance away, shouting, "You are in violation of supernatural law-he has been ours for over two hundred years!"
The lead Viking angel with broad, luminescent white wings lifted his blade, and a smaller, platinum-blond version of Val stepped forward and spoke as lightning crackled from the big Viking's blade.
"My daughter says deceit took this man's valiant life, and at the end of days, there is only justice-no technicalities will serve you now! Her incessant prayers called for his review. We cannot bring him back to life, but we can remove him from your clutches! Begone, demons!"
The crack lit the sky, and a black seal fell to the beach, broken and smoldering. A black horse rose up from the split disc, reared up on its back haunches with a glowing warrior angel on its back, whinnied, and then plunged into the sand.
"Tell Lucifer that we have released the black horse and this one vampire is ours-we are reclaiming our lost, those who were deceived but who kept the faith!" the large Viking roared, his eyes blazing silver. "His heir has been injured, and we have sent hunters to track it even into your bowels of Hell."
Warrior angels fanned out in numbers too numerous to count. The beach immediately emptied of demons, Lilith leading the instant retreat. The claws holding Yonnie grudgingly released their death-grip and receded. Neteru Council members nodded good-bye with expressions of deep satisfaction on their faces, and then pulled back into splinters of gold and purple light. Val struggled to lift her and Yonnie out of the sand. Splinters of light rained up in reverse, causing angels to vanish. Ash and sulfur were everywhere. Guardians stood dazed, clutching weapons, looking at the broken seal that still smoldered.
Yonnie coughed and slowly opened his eyes.
Val touched his bloody, dirty face. "Be valiant, be victorious," she murmured against his lips, and then cried.