So, how'd they take it?"
Lilith stared at her husband's sinewy back with a smile. "They were positively hysterical."
"I'm sorry I missed that one . . . but you know what they say, I'm always busy."
"You would have loved it, Lu," she crooned, risking going near him.
"Hold it in your mind and show me later?"
"You know you don't even have to ask."
He chuckled deeply as he slowly materialized a white button-down shirt, drawing on the crisp cotton fabric before adding the designer navy-blue suit and sophisticated paisley silk tie. His smile widened as she gaped at his attire, watching black wing tip shoes glisten at his feet as he adjusted his tie and then cuffs beneath his jacket sleeves.
"I must know . . ." she murmured, still enthralled as he smoothed his palms over his once long onyx curls to their now present freshly barbered precision and then checked his watch."A world conference?A political soiree inWashington,D.C. ? Oh, tell me-I love the havoc you wreck when you go topside . . . where are you going this time?"
He gave her a dashing smile."Where else?To church."
This was so far past bad that his mind couldn't process a point of entry. Where did one begin? Carlos raked his fingers through his hair as he trudged back to the house. The King's Council had to be informed, and a visual on Yonnie had to be given, lest they smoke a brother outright just for breathing. Things were hair-trigger fragile, everything wire-tight. He knew that going in.
When Carlos opened the front door and four senior Guardians drew on him, he just froze for a moment, holding his hands up before his chest until clarity prevailed.
"What's the word, man?" Shabazzsaid, the first to drop his weapon.
Silence looped over Carlos's head like a noose and tightened around his throat as the team drew nearer to hear the verdict.
"He's cool," Carlos said flatly, his gaze scanning the group and settling on Damali for a moment.
"Dude, you know you're gonna have to come in here better than that," Rider said and headed for the back door. "He's cool? Kiss my ass, Rivera."
"Hold it, man," Mike said, stopping Rider with an outstretched forearm. "Hear the brother out,then we smoke the daywalker. Cool?"
Rider pounded Mike's fist and lowered his weapon.
Sweat beaded on Carlos's brow, and he could feel it making his T-shirt cling to his torso. The adrenaline spike on the team was so crazy that he could practically taste it in the back of his throat.
"Y'all are gonna have to chill and fall back," Carlos said after a moment. "This is a Level Seven high-security breach of the worst kind. My inside man is still cool. . . . He told me that after Masada, Lilith's old man was so happy with the results that he gave her the daylight bite to pass on to them. They can't pass it, though. So far, none but them have been made. She was only authorized to give it to her councilmen-that means three, plus Lilith, can come topside in broad daylight."
"What the hell . . . ?" Berkfield glanced around the team. "I thought we blew forty thousand demon troops to smithereens? Happy with the goddamned results, are you serious?"
"Yeah," Carlos said, and went to the cabinet to get a coffee mug. He poured the dark liquid into his cup very slowly, avoiding eye contact with the team.
"So, what brought on the party?" Jose asked, his eyes following Carlos's every move.
Silence strangled the kitchen.
"Those troops were cannon fodder-expendable," Carlos finally said and then took a slow sip of coffee and winced. "Damn!"
"We didn't get it, did we?" Damaliasked, her voice tense and low.
Carlos shook his head and dropped his gaze. It was the thing they'd avoided speaking of for far too long. "The little bastard got away."
"Oh . . . my . . . God . . ." Marlene began to pace.
"Clarification for those of us not reading between the lines," Bobby said quickly.
"Lilith's spawn," Rider said, opening the back door to hock and spit over the deck rail. "Now it gets really fun, folks."
"Rewind that tape," J.L. said, his gaze darting between Jose and Carlos. "The Anti-"
"Yeah, and don't say it," Marlene warned. "Don't even bring the energy up in this house by speaking its name."
"Nobody fire on Yonnie, all right?" Carlos said, setting his cup down hard. "My boy is in a real precarious situation right through here, but he's the only way inside right now. It's too hot for even a Neteru breach at this point."
Taraquietly hugged herself and allowed her gaze to drift out the window. Carlos glanced at Rider and then atTara .
"But you can't go see him under any circumstances, T," Carlos said gently. "Even though Yonnie's my boy . . . the daylight's got him intoxicated right now and he hasn't fed."
"We'll I'm gladyou finally see the light, Rivera," Rider said, his gaze hard.
Carlos allowed the comment to slide. He understood where Rider was-he'd been there before himself.
"He's splitting my skull," Tara said quietly, her voice so soft that were it not for the intensity of her words everyone would have needed to strain to hear her. She slowly slid her fingertips up the side of her beautiful face to massage her temples, and then closed her eyes as her fingers began to tangle in her hair.
Tara's outstretched fingers soon became fists amid her dark tresses. Perspiration sheen marred her once even, honey-brown complexion. When she jerked her head to the side as though someone had struck her, the team watched in abject horror as her jugular vein rose beneath her skin, pulsing like an irate serpent.
"Just let me go talk to him,"Tara rasped in a breathy, pained whisper, beginning to crest a hint of fangs in her mouth.
"And I can't smoke him?" Rider said. "What, are younuts! "
"He has to eat soon," Carlos said, keeping his voice flat and matter-of-fact. "Sit her in a chair-do itnow, " he added asTara began to pace. "He knows that if he breaches this joint, it's all over. I'll be the first one on his ass. He also knows that, if he turns an innocent or feeds buck wild, there's nothing I can do for him at this point. . . . He already has two hundred years of bad history weighing his case in the wrong direction so-"
"Let me go, Jack!"Tara suddenly screamed and began fighting against his hold.
"Either shoot that motherfucker or prayer-banish him," Shabazz said, helping Rider holdTara in her chair.
A black energy pulse that sounded like a mortar round had gone off hit the house. Instantly tactical sensor Guardians were on their feet, sending a blue-white energy charge against the walls to box in the room.
"I call down the white light of protection and mercy," Marlene said, beginning to walk aroundTara 's chair. "By all the angels and ancestors of the righteous, barrier this woman's mind and spirit."
"And her body,"Rider interjected, struggling to holdTara down with his full weight while still clutching his pump shotgun in his right grip.
Ignoring Rider's outburst, Damali's voice quickly joined in the low chant with Marlene's untilTara slumped against Rider's shoulder, her body damp with perspiration and her breaths stilted.
"And that was just from a wistful call denied, Carlos," Damali said, staring at her husband. "We've gotta deny him access to the property. He's stronger, baby . . . he's-"
"I know, but he's still on our side, D! That right there was some old relationship bull, but it doesn't mean he's gone dark. It may not be right to lust after another man's wife, but you and I both know that if everyone who did got shot, half of America or more would be blown away-so I ain't going after Yonnie for that kinda shit. Not after the way he's had our back. So, before we just up and smoke the man, we have to know for sure that he took an offer he couldn't refuse."
"Carlos," Damali said calmly, her eyes searching his. "I will go with you on that, but after he just tried to vapor-snatch our team sister out of the house, you have to deny him access to-"
"And leave him ass-out in a firefight, D?" Carlos walked around in a circle. "Do you know who's on his ass right through here?"
"Tell him. Send him a transmission so he knows he's blocked and doesn't get hurt trying to-"
"No. I won't do it, D. I can't go there." He was talking with his hands, his back to the team, pressure splitting his skull. "Barrier him to Tara, you and Marlene make the Light do what it do-but don't ask me to blindside my brother like that over no bullshit, especially not now."
All eyes were on Carlos. He was breathing hard, had begun to pace. The looks on the Guardians' faces spoke volumes.
"Man . . . you know we all got your back," Shabazz said, "but this time, you may be in too deep yourself. You ever consider the fact that you mighta got mind-dazed out there alone on the beach?"
"What?" Carlos cocked his head to the side and stared at Shabazz, his gaze solid silver.
"I'm just saying, man . . ." Shabazzmuttered, no apology in his tone. "Everybody's got an Achilles' heel, brother."
"Yonnie ain't my Achilles' heel," Carlos shot back angrily. He pointed toward Damali. "She's that, so I'm not trying to jeopardize the house, if that's what you're saying!"
"Then if D is your Achilles' heel, respect thatTara is mine, bro," Rider said, sending a withering glance in Carlos's direction. "Either check your boy or know that he's a dead man walking."
The rapid-fire exchange of angry male voices ricocheted off the kitchen walls, causing the rest of the team to pivot their attention first in one direction and then the other until eerie silence left an echo.
"Can we have a general's meeting, stat?" Damaliasked, her voice calm and her gaze mellow.
"Yeah.Fine," Carlos muttered and stalked out of the kitchen.
She glanced at the team, said nothing, but her eyes told them to just wait and trust her. Slow nods and postures going from tense to at ease bolstered her confidence that they'd hold off any daywalker hunting party at least until she got back.
With swift strides Damali crossed the expansive living room and dining room, finally locating Carlos in the family room. She waited by the archway for a moment as he paced back and forth and finally punched the wall.
"This is so fucked-up, D, I swear to . . . I just can'tfucking believe it!"
Damali entered the room and glanced at the plaster on the floor. "I know, baby."
"Yonnie and me . . . maaan . . . that brother has had my back more times than I can count.What am I supposed to do? What, the man is supposed to die just because he has a jones forTara -Rider oughta let the bullshit go. We've got bigger problems than all that."
Damali nodded and put her hands behind her back and let out a weary breath. "True . . . but you know this is a matter of honor, right?"
"Carlos, think back," she said quietly.
He turned away and crossed the room.
"I know this is your boy and all . . . but the situation is dangerous on both sides. Yonnie could go after Rider, too."
"He wouldn't do that."
"A lot of things can jump off in a split second and happen by accident,then people feel bad about what went down after the fact. You know that, baby." She kept her voice well modulated, gentle, as she approached him like he was an injured lion. When she was close enough to him, she reached out and touched his shoulder, all the while watching the muscles in his jaw clench and release. "I love Yonnie, too . . . just like I love Tara and Rider and the rest of this team."
Carlos rubbed his palms down his face. "Oh, man, D . . . what am I gonna do?"
Father Patrick entered theLos Angeles cathedral, stopping at the holy water font to anoint himself. As he passed the alms box, he left a donation, said a prayer, and moved to the rows of flickering votive candles, lighting one for his dead wife and son, as well as one for Padre Lopez, who to his way of thinking still died way too young. Before he could light one for all the members of the Covenant that had died in the line of duty, quiet footfalls arrested his intentions.
The elderly priest stood, his gaze set upon an immaculately dressed man sitting in the pews, who bore the countenance of an international businessman.
"Still questioning the Almighty, Father?" the stranger said with a half smile, standing slowly to exit the pews. He leisurely strolled down the center aisle bathed in multihued light from the exquisite stained glass.
"Where's Father Breckenridge?" On guard, Father Patrick backed up and looked around.
"The Knights of Templar began with nine knights in eleven nineteenA.D ., correct? A number twelve year. By eleven twenty-eight your secret members had risen to three hundred . . . again, that was a Holy twelve year for you, yes? Then by eleven fifty you had created your first bank, a seven year, and you no longer guarded the road to theHoly Land . . . if my memory of recent history serves me well." The man before him sighed and clucked his tongue. "Then you ran into conflicts with the church-all over money, the supposed root of all evil, and, alas, by thirteen hundred you all were all but gone. Is this a thirteen year for you, Father, an end-times year, or a twelve?"
Father Patrick made the sign of the cross over his heart, feeling the clamminess of pure evil wash over him. A faint ringing in his ears made it hard to focus on the stranger's words, but the subtle threat was implicit. Although the man's voice remained calm and his tone cultured, his eyes contained such smug hatred that Father Patrick dared not turn away.
"I am not afraid to die, if they've sent a hired human killer to gun down an old man in a cathedral," Father Patrick said, lifting his chin.
"I'm offended," the stranger said with a wide smile. "Human? No . . ." His eyes became chasms of blackness as he slowly sauntered forward. "Your second-sight is failing you, old man. Or maybe you've become comfortable cloaked in self-righteousness." He flung Father Breckenridge's Templar ring toward Father Patrick and chuckled evilly as it hit his robes and then fell to a singing chime at his feet. "Haven't you been watching the news-the Diocese of Los Angeles just had a six-hundred-million-dollar settlement adjudged against it for the molestation of children. Quite a stain and a rather open invitation for me to visit their house, wouldn't you agree?"
"Lucifer . . ."
The man before Father Patrick bowed and offered a droll smile. "Fallen houses of worship are one of my favorite places to meet people. You know what they say, meet people where they are, and so forth."
Father Patrick stopped breathing. There was only one entity with the power to breach hallowed ground that carried a stain . . . only at the end of days. "Father, God, protect me from all that is unholy," the elderly cleric whispered.
"Too late, I got here first," the Beast said with a smile."Still not afraid to die, old man?"
"No," Father Patrick said, taking a warrior's stance. "And you must be getting desperate if you're going after old priests one by one."
"Never desperate.That is a human condition. But curiosity is one of my weaknesses. . . . Tell me about these Neterus you guard."
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death-"
"I fear no evil-blah, blah, blah!" the entity shouted over Father Patrick's low, intense murmur. "That is complete bullshit! All mortals fear me!"
Ignoring the angry retort, Father Patrick continued his prayer, undaunted, as pews began to break away from the stone floor. The moment the carved stone font crashed to the floor, the holy water within it spilled in a river of fire down the center aisle.
"Where do they live?" The once ebullient voice had become gravelly and bottomed out with a snarl.
Father Patrick kept his eyes forward on the altar, ignoring burning pews and a wake of destruction as stained-glass windows exploded one after another as though a freight train were passing each one.
"I have given my life in the service of the Most High, and my service remains with you till the end of eternity, Lord Christ. I ask not that you save my body, just take my soul."
"Where do theylive! "
Beams and bricks began to rain down from the spectacular nave. Father Patrick turned and looked at the outraged entity and then smiled.
"You cannot touch me, can you? You can only intimidate in this space or frighten. But a man who is willing to die for the love of his family and for the Almighty is a man you cannot sway. Go to hell!"
A black bolt pierced the center of the priest's chest, knocking him down and sending him in a hard slide across the stone floor.
"You may be ready to die, old man, but I bet there's someone who loves you enough to try to save your crotchety stubborn ass."
Carlos jerked away from Damali, instantly battle bulking. The blade of Ausar was in his right grip, the shield of Heru in his left.
"What's wrong?" She stepped back and called theIsis into her hand.
He never answered her, just folded into nothingness with tears in his eyes.
"Battle stations!"Damali yelled out, racing through the house,Isisraised .
"Lock this joint down!" Shabazz called over the scramble as Guardians took known posts.
"Where's Rivera? Is this a daywalker breach, heavy incoming?" Marlene yelled, grabbing a 9mm out of the kitchen drawer.
"He folded-away too fast," Damali said. "I'm going behind his energy trail-don't know what he's hunting, but the look on his face said it was insane."
He slid to his knees and felt Father Pat's neck for a pulse. Wedging his shield and sword in the stone floor, he gently placed both palms against the elderly man's chest, one hand over the other, prepared to try to restart the erratic heartbeat. But the moment he'd laid hands on the man who had been like a father to him, an eerie black tinge wended its way across the old man's chest and began to cover Carlos's hands. Father Patrick was barely breathing, the hem of his robe was scorched, and the cathedral looked like it had been under an air-raid attack-but there were no police sirens on the way.
"Oh, God, what happened?" Carlos asked quietly, sending his silvery gaze against the darkness creeping up his wrists. "Father . . . come on, you're a tough old dude, man . . ."
"Well, at last we meet."
Carlos jumped up to his feet, but a black bolt of energy separated him from his sword and shield. Immediately he sent a silver warning shot out blindly in the direction of the voice that had spoken.
"Trust me, you don't own that much silver in your veins to counteract what I've got."
The entity laughed and stepped from behind a leaning stone pillar. Instant recognition from his old throne-level experience as a councilman made Carlosknow who he was addressing.
"You must have known that at some point we'd meet . . . especially after breaching my wife's lair-not done, under any circumstances." The entity glanced down at the dying priest. "If you want him back, we can make a deal."
Carlos quickly glanced at Father Patrick, amazed that the old man was still clinging to life. "What do you want?"
"Say it inDananu , like you remember it." The entity smiled.
"I'm not agreeing to shit," Carlos said in the vamp mother tongue. "I just want to know terms and conditions."
"Don't," Father Patrick croaked. "You've come too far."
A black-energy bolt made the huge altar candelabra uproot from its stand and whiz toward the priest, but a silver laser shot from Carlos knocked it off its trajectory.
"You can have the old man back if you call off your dogs of war against my heir."
Carlos hesitated. "You must be worried if you're bargaining for amnesty-what, that trick Lilith fucked up again?"
A pew exploded into thousands of pieces of shrapnel, all whirring toward Carlos and the fallen cleric. The golden disc Carlos called into his grip took the brunt of it, but then oppressive pressure and heat forced him to cast it away.
"Do you know who you're talking to, boy? Have you any idea how little tolerance I have at this moment? The only reason I'm even bargaining with you is-"
"Because obviously you have to!"Damali shouted, filling a naked window with light, her wings spread.
Beams of unnatural white light stabbed into the abused sanctuary from every opening, exploding bricks in rapid-fire bursts as they ate up the floor to where the Ultimate Darkness stood. But he was gone.
Adam walked out of one of the columns of light and looked at Carlos and then the fallen priest as Eve, Nzinga, and Hannibal drew in close to Aset, who clutched the Caduceus. Regal figures loomed tall, casting radiant shadows in their wake, dressed in full Neteru battle armor from centuries gone by. Damali looked up, a question in her eyes.
"It is not this man's time," Aset said, rushing to Father Patrick's side and stooping down above him to begin working on him. "But the damage is severe." She lowered the golden staff over his chest, bringing the entwined serpents to life as she tried to draw the toxin away from Father Patrick.
A lean, quiet young man that Carlos had never seen before stood beside Adam, too reminiscent of Cain to allow the newcomer's presence to go without mention. But before Carlos could pose the question, the stranger spoke in a gentle voice.
"I am Seth, a friend, like the others. It is time for me to fight beside my father, and beside you. Do not worry. Both Councils will convene after this incident."
Too mentally embattled to say a word, Carlos just responded with a nod, his focus on Father Patrick.
"The Unnamed One could have done so much more damage-this was a ruse," Adam said as the ancient spirits gathered around the elderly cleric.
Carlos glanced at the first Neteru king for confirmation, knowing full well that both he and Damali could have gotten their asses squarely kicked by that particular entity. "I figured a topside visit was fishy, man, but I can't figure out what we have to bargain with? Why here, why now, why in a cathedral, and what the hell did Father have to do with any of this? Clearly if Level Seven wanted to break my back, he could have done so right here.Him asking me to call off the dogs of war didn't even make sense!"
"You were lucky that he had a much more strategic agenda than mere revenge," Nzinga said. "Then again, he did exact some of that during his visitation as well."
Carlos looked at his hands, remembering the black ooze that had crept over them. "Yeah, and I think I got tainted."
"Hold out your hands," Eve commanded, glancing at Damali. "Have you touched him?"
"No. I got here the same time you all did." Damali motioned toward Carlos with her chin. "Once I saw Father down, I knew Carlos had tried to revive him-just as I would have . . . so, no, I didn't go to him.Been that route before."
Eve nodded. "Good. Then purge him and his father-seer."
The group remained quiet as Aset lowered the Caduceus over Father Patrick again, this time drawing the black poison out of his heart and causing the elderly man to groan. Searing pain crept up each of Carlos's digits until he panted, and then he watched in awe as the poison left his fingertips to join the inky puddle that was now burning in a pool of white light on the floor.
"In your state of confusion, grief, and rage, you were supposed to call the black horse of the apocalypse, the third seal of widespread human famine, to go after something stronger than yourself," Adam said in a tense mutter. He looked at Carlos and then nodded toward the disappearing murky puddle, watching the haze dissipate into odorous sulfuric fumes. "He has to have all the conditions right before his heir can be positioned for global rule."
"Damn, I was about to get straight played . . ." Carlos dragged his newly cleansed fingers through his hair and neared his elderly mentor. "Father, how you holding up, man?"
"Tell me you didn't agree to anything the beast asked of you," Father Patrick gasped, clutching Carlos's hand.
"Naw, man, I promise you that," Carlos said, trying to comfort the distraught cleric who now seemed so much older for the wear.
"My sanctuaries are no longer safe," the elderly man said, tears slipping from the corners of his eyes. "The Church has failed the people. I am so ashamed of what has become of the Body of-"
"Shush, shush," Damali soothed, hugging Father Patrick. "Don't think it, don't say it. That's not everyone or every church, just some people the Darkness got to."
"But they werepriests, " Father Patrick croaked, his voice dissolving into an anguished sob. "My Covenant brothers have wars in their lands started by clerics! None of the houses of worship are as they should be. . . . Money is changinghands, there are offenses and abominations-"
"It'll be all right, Father," Damali soothed, gathering him in her arms. "We'll pray, okay? Not everyone or everything is tainted."
Carlos stood. "We need to get him out of here. The Beast penetrated his mind, sodomized it." He walked to the far side of the sanctuary with his hands braced on the top of his head, so angry that his ears were ringing.
"Beware. Human outrage, grief, and pain at seeing one's loved ones and family tortured . . . this was what would have you call the essence of darkness in the name of vengeance. That plague resides within every man's soul and the Beast knows it-since he once had access to your spirit,"Hannibal warned. "This is what it was banking on, for you to break that next seal. Once that is opened, he can call the fallen angels that only he has the key to release-the angels of death, hell, and destruction that are to ride on the released horses of the apocalypse. But the Armageddon onlyadvances as each seal is broken and the Most Wicked obviously grows impatient."
Carlos punched a section of stone column as he passed it, sending the rubble to the floor. He almost couldn't bear to watch Damali's wings wrap around the now frail elderly man who'd been his inspiration, a warrior to the end. "Isn't there anything you can do for his mind?" Carlos asked quietly and then swallowed hard.
Aset shook her head. "We don't know the visions that were thrust into his psyche, nor can we endanger the Light by pulling them into each of us. Time will have to heal the rest of it."
"I'll call Imam Asula, Rabbi Zeitloff, and Monk Lin," Damali murmured as she rocked the distraught old man against her. "Their prayers couldn't hurt."
"Then Father Pat comes home with us," Carlos said, pacing, "especially now that daywalkers are-"
"What did you say?" Adam's gaze became hot silver as it met Carlos's eyes and then went toHannibal .
"Now you know," Eve said, lifting her chin and folding her arms over her breasts. "The time, as I'd said, is nigh. It escaped."
"How many, name the source," Adam said, his gaze tearing away from his wife's to pin Carlos for fast answers.
"My boy, Yonnie . . . he came to me this morning." Carlos sent the Kings andQueens images quickly, now talking with his hands. "They can't pass it, so the spawn isn't transmitting the day bite yet. This came from Lilith directly as a reward for it getting away."
"The one that came to you, did you exterminate it?"Hannibal asked, folding his huge forearms over his massive chest.
"No," Carlos said, glancing away. "Yonnie . . . he's like me-an ace on the inside. He needs amnesty, but the others, not to worry, we're on it."
"Once they return to their compound," Aset said evenly, "we need to convene a joint Neteru Council meeting."
"These are the end of days, young brother. Your alliances must be solid, like your position. No one can take a stand in the middle,"Hannibal said, studying Carlos carefully. "That is a very dangerous position to be in."