The Awakening CHAPTER TEN


CHAPTER TEN

’’Body count? Ammo? Who's wounded? Status, now!’’ Shabazz hollered as the besieged guardian teams huddled and re-marshaled forces.

’’We lost four men,’’ the Templar yelled, heaving in breaths. ’’We're down to eight, and we've got a man bitten and dying slow.’’

’’Ammo is almost out,’’ Rider shouted. ’’From this point on, it could be hand-to-hand and we're only halfway there - judging by the reconstructed maps!’’

The teams surrounded the Hindu monk that had been among the knight's team. The large Moor had him in his arms and the Moor was breathing hard from the exertion of the run and the battles, like the rest of them. With his eyes, the Templar asked the question, and the Moor shook his head no in silent reply.

’’Vampire. If it was a demon strike, we could bring him up and exorcise him. But...’’

The monk hissed as the Moor gently put him on the ground.

’’With honor, my friend,’’ the Moor said, his normal voice coming out with a struggle.

Blood ran from the corner of the monk's mouth, and when he turned his head, a huge section of his shoulder was gone. The Moor stood back, and the guardians watched in horror while the blue-clad knight raised a silver battle-ax over his head.

’’Go with God, and rest in peace - and in honor.’’

The blade came down, and all gathered turned their faces as the dying man's head rolled past them on the dank cavern floor.

’’It is the only way to assure that any of us will rest in peace,’’ the knight said in a strong voice as he looked behind them. ’’We knew this going in, and have dedicated our whole lives to this. We have no way to tell which line the beasts come from. Do not let any man or woman with us suffer. Do this, if we are compromised.’’

’’We need to get to Damali. Mar, can you see anything down here?’’

Marlene shook her head in answer to Big Mike's question. ’’We're in too deep.’’

’’We need to move,’’ Rider said quietly. ’’Jose doesn't look good.’’

’’If he falls, I'll carry him... he ain't heavy - he's my brother.’’ Big Mike slung his arm around Jose's shoulder as Jose struggled for air.

’’I'm slowing you all down...’’

’’Shut up, Jose,’’ Dan yelled. ’’We don't leave anybody down here to perish. We go back for our own, and bury them ourselves. Come on, I got his other side, Mike.’’

’’While we were topside, did you give Damali that extra battery, J.L.?’’ Shabazz lit a concert torch as the one he was holding began to die.

’’Yeah. If she can get to it fast enough, she might have a prayer.’’

’’Let's hustle, folks. I hear movement again behind us,’’ Rider urged. ’’The monk's blood and our body heat is drawing 'em out again.’’

Marlene touched the knight's shoulder. ’’I'm. sorry... but I have to say this. If they stop and feed, it gives us time. When we go topside, you tell them that your brother guardian gave his life so we may live.’’

The knight just nodded and swallowed hard as the group began to jog deeper into the pit.

The force of Carlos's push had landed her against a pile of gore with a soft thud, but she hadn't lost her blades. She instantly shrank away from the dead women who had cushioned her fall. The doors had flung open, and something worse, much worse than Carlos, was standing between the marble slabs now hanging from broken hinges, and it issued a threatening growl. Red, gleaming eyes peered at her through slits, as Carlos's golden ones glistened with challenge. Oh, shit...

The thing standing in the doorway was a head taller than Carlos, and it not only had fangs but claws to match. They squared off and circled one another. While the two vampires focused on each other, she scrambled low, undetected for a moment, into the larger space behind them. The room she had sneaked into was lit with wall torches, and had more space for her to maneuver within. The massive black granite slab in the middle of the floor was something that she could use to shield herself with, and she knew she could leverage her position to fight around it when the time came.

’’My delivery is five minutes late!’’

’’We were attacked in the tunnels - four of my men went down.’’

She watched as the first creature withdrew with caution, and could only assume that it was Nuit. He let out a guttural roar, which drew the same sound from Carlos. But they had stopped circling.

’’Unfortunate, but I left your dinner at the door as promised - now leave me my bride.’’

A bride... and Carlos asked for bodies to be left? She saw him glance at her, and the implicit threat in his eyes chilled her. Two masters in such close proximity were screwing up her telepathy. But she caught part of Carlos's response. Play the game. Right.

’’Don't sweat me about the minor time lapse! She called you.’’

Carlos rumbled. ’’That should tell you something, despite my condition. You know the high-speed access portal has taken its toll - and as the courier, I was required to do battle, and then had to suffer holding her! Can you blame me?’’

Damali was behind Nuit and could see his muscle-distorted shoulders begin to relax. She knew Carlos's style well enough to sense something was going on, and she locked in on his gaze. But she was too far from the menacing thing in front of her to wield the Isis, or effectively use the dagger. They would have to do this as a team, and Carlos was backing up Nuit in his lair.

’’No, I guess this was to be expected,’’ Nuit finally growled, stalking from the entrance to turn his attention on Damali. ’’You've done well,’’ he said as she continued to back up, her glance going between Nuit and Carlos as she moved with Nuit, her sword cocked and ready to swing. ’’The package is wrapped in silver,’’ he snarled. ’’Unwrap it.’’

’’Are you insane?’’ Carlos said, shaking his head. ’’I held it, nearly caught fire. If I unwrap her, she's mine.’’

’’You were to bring her to me without her barriers!’’

’’I lost my brother, my cousin, and two of my best friends to make this delivery - and fought in the tunnels... and didn't violate the package. We need to have a discussion about the territories, and my new, expanded cut. Then, maybe I'll unwrap her for you.’’

Damali glanced at Nuit as he tilted his head to one side, his gaze going between her and Carlos. Anxiety swept through her, as did hope. All she could do was pray that Carlos hadn't totally gone over to the other side, and that he wouldn't have turned her over for mere territory - and what did that mean, anyway? Territory? For what? She was afraid to fathom the definition as she thought of the dead women on the ground outside. But the thought of a prayer brought Nuit's attention back to her.

’’Not down here,’’ Nuit said in an even tone through his teeth.

Carlos cast a warning glance at her.

’’You're frightening her,’’ Carlos said carefully.

’’Good - it just intensifies the lure.’’

’’You want her to submit willingly, or the seed might not take. Be smart.’’

Outright indignation accosted her, and she stepped toward the beast. ’’Seed? You must be on drugs.’’ She would ice this sucker.

’’I am, sweetheart. Totally blitzed by you. But you are mine.’’

Damali glared at Nuit. Oh yeah, she would cut his heart out. ’’Who I choose is my decision, asshole! And I haven't made up my mind! But it's safe to say, if you're one of my choices - not.’’

Nuit stepped back from her for a moment, and then laughed. He inhaled, and closed his eyes briefly and began circling her. ’’Carlos... you were right. She's fabulous. Absolutely intoxicating. The defiant rage in her is like a power hit.’’

From the corner of her eye she noticed Carlos had slipped into the chamber behind Nuit. She knew she needed to hold Nuit's attention to give the other stalking vampire the advantage - then they could cancel each other out. But, again, as soon as the thought crossed her mind Carlos stopped, looked at her, stunned, and Nuit had spun around to see Carlos well inside his lair.

’’We'll discuss your territory later. I told you, for this delivery the bride price would be high and well worth it!’’

Carlos nodded and backed away. Mortified, she leveled her blade to defend herself from both of them. But she needed to even the score with Nuit first.

’’Nuit! You killed my father and my mother! Took out several of my guardians, made Raven. We have a debt to settle!’’

Unharnessed fury coiled within her and she could feel it nearly curdle her blood. But the effect of her increasing anger seemed to only strengthen the thing in front of her, as well as Carlos. Suddenly Nuit reached out, and as she swung her blade, Isis ringing, he drew back his hand and licked the ooze coming from the slash.

’’Carlos, close the doors on your way out. You can have all of South America, Africa, whatever... she's amazing.’’

’’I will cut your f*king balls off,’’ Damali said evenly, flexing her wrist that held the dagger.

A shudder ran through Nuit, and his eyes glowed a deeper shade of crimson. ’’Close the doors, now, Rivera - she's blowing my mind.’’

She heard a low growl coming from beyond Nuit's shoulder, and she knew he would turn to address it. The moment he did, she swung the long sword, and rolled over the slab to keep it between her and Nuit. He threw his head back and roared at the slash that had slit his suit and drew black blood. But it gave Carlos time to spring from his crouched position by the doors.

In an instant the two entities were in the midst of a death struggle. Carlos had opened a huge second gash in Nuit's back, and when they fell, Carlos had scored Nuit's face with a swipe on the way down. But the returned swipe from Nuit had gashed Carlos the length of his abdomen, beginning at the center of his chest. Immediately the two beasts parted, circled, and then lunged at each other again, taking out a corner of the granite slab and a section of rock wall when they hurled against it.

They were moving too fast for her to get between them to get a decisive strike in to cripple Nuit. She couldn't understand it;the Isis wasn't drawing smoke. It was cutting like a regular blade. It seemed like both of them were now impervious to the normal Isis-delivered wounds that rendered vampires impotent - but the more she fought, the more she tried to claim her part of the battle, it seemed to heighten their blood lust to destroy each other.

Rock and marble fixtures along with torches went crashing, as teeth locked upon sections of bone that wouldn't give way. She could also feel herself getting stronger, and was soon able to keep pace with them and get out of the way, as she jockeyed for position to get in lightning-quick strikes, slashing Nuit's back, which made him round on her. She threw her dagger, and he caught it before it opened his chest.

’’Stay out of it so you don't get hurt! You are too important!’’

Nuit yelled at her, casting away the dagger, and pushing her so hard that her body slammed against a jagged wall.

The silver suit ripped. Blood oozed from Damali's elbow and shoulder where it had connected against stone, and Carlos's eyes went from gold to red as he hurled a punch.

’’Motherf*ker, I will kill you!’’ Carlos roared. ’’Don't you ever touch her!’’ He'd grabbed Nuit by what remained of his suit at the chest, raised him overhead, and slammed him to the floor.

Nuit scrambled quickly, nursing the blow that he seemed to now feel, finding a neutral corner as his eyes went from red to gold. ’’You're a master? What the f*k... When did that happen?’’

’’Shit happens, and I made a deal - several, in fact,’’ Carlos breathed out, sucking in huge breaths. ’’You made her bleed. You did my squad, so I had to watch my back.’’ He inhaled again deeply and cast off Nuit's ring. ’’She's mine.’’

’’The Vampire Council?’’ Nuit's eyes began to normalize, only flickered gold intermittently.

’’Yeah,’’ Carlos snarled. ’’And I'm coming for you to pull a bone out of your ass.’’

He was on Nuit so fast that when they fell, Damali almost lost her sword. Nuit's leg was exposed, and she raised the long blade above her head and came down vertically, pinning Nuit's leg. The trapped beast let out a howl and Carlos looked over his shoulder.

’’Back off,’’ Carlos roared, ’’My kill. Check the doors - company.’’

She pulled her blade out of Nuit's leg, who was scrambling to get away from Carlos. Damali rushed to cover the open entrance as fluttering sounds came from just beyond it. But Nuit's attempt to evade another blow from Carlos was in vain. Carlos had grabbed the back of his suit and flung him across the room. Nuit's body slammed the rock, and when he looked up, dazed, Carlos bitch-slapped him with the back of his hand.

’’Remember Alejandro!’’ Carlos bellowed, taking out the bottom section of Nuit's jaw with one powerful swipe. ’’You're neutered, bitch. Fair exchange is no robbery.’’

Gurgling in agony, Nuit covered his face with both arms as Carlos's foot found the center of Nuit's chest. Like a cobra's strike, Carlos tore away one of Nuit's arms, bones snapping, as the forearm bent backward unnaturally. Damali stood transfixed. In a blur of fury Carlos's hand immediately went to Nuit's throat, the other inside Nuit's mouth, and came away with tissue and incisors. Carlos stepped back, spit on the ground, and showed Nuit what remained of his vampire powers, then his fist slowly closed over the dripping teeth and meat.

A piteous scream came up from Nuit's gaping face. The flutter at the broken doors stopped and a cloud of bats dispersed and shape-shifted into six guards. But when they landed, and saw Nuit with Carlos growling over him, they hesitated.

’’You were made from whose line?’’ one of the entities beyond the door shouted.

’’I was made by Nuit,’’ Carlos stood, breathing hard, as Nuit slithered into a corner to take cover, then he dropped Nuit's teeth and threw the bottom half of Nuit's jaw to them for inspection.

They sniffed the air, and sniffed Carlos from a distance, and then nodded.

’’That's f*ked-up, man. You're a second, and did him like that - with Neteru running through him?’’ One of the assembled hit squad snarled a smile in Damali's direction and licked his lips.

’’Don't even think about it,’’ she whispered, her blade leveled in their direction.

’’Wait till the boys hear this shit,’’ another of the creatures beyond the door said with a chuckle. ’’Humph.’’

’’We report to you, now, or what? You taking his New Orleans lair? This bitch, Nuit, ain't good for nothin'now, dude. Damn.’’

’’I haven't decided yet,’’ Carlos said slowly, and very cautiously.

’’Need to let my bride finish Nuit off.’’ He nodded at Damali. ’’Only reason I saved you some is 'cause you asked me to. You wanted his heart - cut it out.’’

’’Damn, dat's cold,’’ one of the vamps at the doors said, shaking his head and laughing. ’’Aw, man... this territory hit is going down in history, boss. Look at this shit;let a Neteru do him in his own lair as her first birthday present. Brother, what's your name? Just so I can say I was here.’’

’’Rivera.’’ Carlos nodded again, staring at Damali. ’’You wanted vengeance? Then do him.’’

She looked at the creatures at the doors, looked at Carlos, and glanced at the bleeding, cowering creature at Carlos's feet, which couldn't even beg for mercy. Black blood gurgled up where a plea might have been issued, and she took her time coming near the living carnage.

’’She'll get a stomach for it,’’ one called out from the cavern. ’’Give her time, man. She's fine, though... can see why you had to do him for her.’’ It shrugged and pounded fists with the others. ’’If I was your rank, woulda done the same thing, man. It's all good.’’

’’The longer you take, Damali, the longer this sonofabitch suffers. If you're gonna be a huntress, then hunt, Neteru. Or, if you want him to suffer, that's cool, too. Your choice, baby.’’

’’You already put him down,’’ she whispered, staring down at Nuit. ’’I've only done them while in the heat of battle - never like this.’’

’’Then I want you to think about it this way - there are several women on the ground out there who I have to behead to be sure they don't wake up one night. I had to stand there and tell my brother I loved him and rip his heart out while I put a stake in it. I had to drive a stake through my boys'hearts, and it drove one through mine - trust me. And this motherf*ker will reconstitute in a few days and come looking for you. Make a choice, Damali, like you said for the audience - make it fast.’’

She stood over Nuit and said a mental prayer. Carlos backed away. Then the prayer found her lips, and Carlos covered his ears while Nuit began to screech and smolder. The creatures in the hall hissed their discontent. And she asked that Nuit's soul be saved, sending him into the light till he caught flame. She waited, watching the slow fire, before she plunged Isis with her full weight behind it.

Weakened, the other vampires covered their mouths and shook their heads while dry heaving. Carlos leaned against the wall as Damali turned to all of them and narrowed her gaze on them.

’’Damn... sister... that was cold. You didn't have to go there. Coulda let him have a little pride on the way out. A prayer? Deep.’’

’’F*ked up, is what it was, for real for real. Burnt off the contact, too - damn, she blew my high behind that.’’

’’Aw, man, brother - you got a cold woman on your hands. You got dat!’’

’’I still can't wait to tell the brothas how this hit went down, though. We be out, boss.’’

’’You want this take-out cuisine left at your door, or do you need it for later, you know... after you and the lady hook up? Just asking, don't wanna to see good food go to waste. We can leave you one, as an appetizer?’’

’’Take 'em,’’ Carlos murmured. ’’Just don't let them wake up and walk.’’

She stared at him as the beasts left the cavern entrance and half shut the broken doors. Smoldering ash remained, emitting sulfur in a slow, steady stream. Carlos sat down heavily on the end of the slab and studied his hands, cleaning them with his mind.

’’I better take you to go find your team, and get you back onstage,’’ he whispered.

’’Yeah,’’ she said quietly. ’’It's all done down here.’’

He shook his head, and glanced up at her. ’’Baby, it's never done down here.’’

’’So, what are you going to do?’’

He chuckled. ’’I don't know. Just started a legend... had to save face - couldn't have 'em say I was no punk.’’ Carlos stood. ’’The sulfur is dying down, the prayer is wearing off, the silver's effect ain't jack right now, but the way you look in the suit is killing me. You're working it like you worked the audience... and working me along with it. You're stronger. I've just seen you do some incredibly se*y shit, and you smell - ’’ Carlos swallowed hard and paused. ’’Woman... listen, it's almost past midnight. I burned a lot of energy, I'm extremely hungry, and I need to get you to your people. Hopefully your team is intact.’’

He watched her hesitate and he closed his eyes against the slow pull she was having on him again. ’’I heard your song... I remember. Trust me. I kept everything you wrote from those days, like you used to read to me on the beach. But - a lotta shit has gone down, to put it mildly. And you see how they deliver takeout down here. A vampire and a vegetarian is a stretch. So, let's go, while I've got a little noble left in me.’’

She nodded, and stooped to pick up her dagger. ’’I hope you choose well. Would have liked to see you around again.’’

’’Damali, noble is wearing thin. Get your blade, baby. Keep it, and me, in front of you.’’

’’We have to take the slow tunnels. My team went in there - maybe we can meet them halfway.’’

He stopped and turned around and stared at her for a long time, branding her image into his mind.

’’If they took the slow tunnels, I doubt they made it, D. The Vampire Council is looking for you, and the registry just ran blood - a master went down, and a whole line is up for grabs. You're in a war zone. All seconds and thirds are dusted upon my command. Only weaker strains remain, and they get folded up under my turf. It's done like that, so I can pick my own lieutenants without issues, but I don't have any at present. You understand - the tunnels are crawling, the demon empires just went to war on those rogue demons that sided with Nuit, and I probably have some real old, powerful dudes on my ass looking for you to be with me.’’

He winked at her, appraising her and letting out a deep breath as he stood. ’’That's the only reason you're getting out of this room right now. I ain't that noble, survival has somethin'to do with it.’’

’’Watch your back,’’ she said, trying to resist the pull to him. He'd normalized and she held that image of him in her mind.

Carlos rubbed his jaw and turned away, glanced at the door, then glanced at her, and tore himself from the seductive thought - it left a warm spot where his mind had touched her.

’’I can't, no, correction, I won't leave my team.’’

Deadlocked in a standoff, she began walking.

’’I'll go in alone.’’

’’No, you won't.’’

’’Then watch my back,’’ she commanded. ’’You might run shit down here, but you never ran me.’’

He smiled as he followed her. He wasn't sure why he was allowing himself to be led into a sure kill, but the rear view of her in ripped, dirty silver from this vantage point was threatening his reason.

’’Look,’’ he called behind her. ’’You need to get back to the main cavern in the next five or less. They're doing the Raise the Dead act above, but it's been neutralized. The portals are closed from your prayer-songs, and the head of the line is toast. However, when your team steps back into the center of that cavern, based on the ceremony timing, it's going to suck everything in it up onto stage again. You don't want to miss that elevator ride.’’

She peered at him and he backed away into the shadows.

’’Raise your sword, baby. Send a signal;give the people hope. Show five continents that tonight, the light was what got raised from the dead. It came straight up from Hell, and was gorgeous.’’

’’Come with us!’’

’’No. If I come up with you, I'm a marked man. The televisions can't pick me up - but the Vampire Council can send a hit to do me right there onstage, if they think there's been a double-cross. You understand? I have one goal, to reunite you with your team in that center cavern, then I'm gone.’’

’’But - ’’

’’No buts about it. I need to handle my business. You are already handling yours.’’

’’You could have bitten me at any time - why didn't you?’’

She saw two glowing orbs in the shadows disappear and the reappear with the sound of a deep inhale.

’’You have five minutes of juice left in the new battery on your suit. You could have toasted me and Nuit at any time, and gotten rid of both of us. Why didn't you?’’

For a moment, she said nothing.

’’Yeah, I feel you, baby,’’ he murmured, his voice smooth, controlled, sensual in the dark.

’’I need to find my team.’’

’’Yeah, you sure do.’’

’’You need to take the lead down here,’’ she murmured. ’’I don't know the way, and I should probably stay downwind from you so we can make it topside.’’

’’Glad you finally understand where I'm coming from,’’ he said on a ragged breath, rounding her in the dark and taking the lead. ’’Wise choice.’’

A low flicker of light made Carlos and Damali start running faster. Moving bodies ran toward them, dragging wounded, and the numbers had considerably thinned. Carlos's line of vision narrowed, and he could sense her trying to see farther than was possible. Even with her unique ability, the night was his, and he had the advantage.

’’Listen, D, brace yourself. There are only twelve standing, and not all twelve are completely standing. You started with a squad of nineteen. The reason we made it this far without incident is probably because they took the weight as decoys.’’

’’Oh, no!’’

’’Yeah - but it wasn't your fault. That's their job... they're guardians. They have to be willing to lay down their lives for a Neteru.’’

Running beside Carlos, she let the remorse sink into her bones. No person should have to make that choice, no matter how honorable. Guilt dug into her side as the run sent a stab of pain through it. The battling, the stage, the run, were all taking their toll. The twinge felt like it was gouging her appendix, and she slowed her gait, and had to catch her breath as another shooting pain ripped through her abdomen.

Bent over, she heaved in air, and in slow motion, she watched Carlos stop, turn away from her, and growl.

’’Get to your team! Now!’’

She could barely breathe, much less run, and she pushed herself up and looked at the dim light that was coming closer. ’’I don't know what it is. I think I may have been hit... when I fell, some internal injury that just - ’’

’’Get to your team,’’ Carlos said in an agonized voice, but much softer. ’’Please, before they kill me. Run toward the light - I got'chure back.’’

Half running, half dragging herself, she brushed past him. Isis was making a line in the rock at her feet as Damali stumbled forward pulling it behind her, one arm in front of her waist clutching the dagger.

’’Neteru!’’ the Templar called out. ’’Are you hurt?’’

’’No,’’ Damali wheezed, making it to the border of light, her gaze counting faces, heads. ’’Roll call,’’ she whispered, tears now streaming down her cheeks.

’’Rider, Mar, Shabazz, J.L., Dan, Jose,’’ Big Mike boomed, his breaths labored. ’’And me.’’ He then fell quiet, breathing hard, as the blue knight stepped forward winded and exhausted.

Damali looked around as her assembled guardians each nodded upon Big Mike's roll call. All of them were leaning against portions of the jagged tunnel walls, trying to catch their breaths.

’’They took the weight, li'l sis,’’ Mike said while grappling for air. ’’Died with honor - said it was their job as front line. We're second line, and they held back things I cannot even describe. They helped us put down the guardian squad from our unit that had been nicked topside... so we didn't have to.’’

’’Templar,’’ Damali huffed, ’’we cannot begin to thank you and your men. There are not enough words.’’

’’That you are still with us unscathed, Neteru, is all that we had hoped for,’’ the knight said on slow, heavy exhales.

’’We have to move, we only have a few moments to rest,’’ Marlene whispered, drawing ragged inhales from the run. ’’D, you don't look good.’’

’’I'm not.’’ Damali winced. ’’But I'm not nicked. It's my side. I cut Nuit's heart out, after Carlos neutered him. But I think I hit a wall.’’ Damali stopped mid-sentence, tried to catch her breath, and continued more slowly. ’’Might have some internal injuries. You're right, though. We've gotta move, the Vampire Council is looking for Carlos, and will flood the tunnels soon. We have to get back to the open cavern in the center and wait for a lift in a few minutes or less. I'll be all right.’’

’’Where's Carlos?’’ Rider said, an odd level of concern in his voice.

’’He left me, about twenty-five feet back and told me to run toward the light. He had my back the whole time - save one minor incident.’’ She chuckled sadly. ’’But he's gone.’’

’’He's not gone,’’ the Templar warned, glancing around. ’’He's a master, and he's showing a lot of discipline, Neteru. Unparalleled restraint at the moment. If you can withstand the pain, we have to get you out of here before his restraint falters.’’

Damali doubled over again as another stab in her side ripped through her abdomen.

’’Tell her, Mar,’’ Shabazz murmured. ’’Once and for all.’’

Marlene looked at Damali and glanced at the darkness behind them.

’’It's almost midnight - you were born at twelve-oh-one... and, baby, you're in the middle of Hell, and you just started ovulating - the first adult Neteru menses. It's a rough one on the human system, that's why it hurts so much - you aren't injured. You've gotta move, now, without us.’’

Damali's gaze locked with Marlene's.

’’Baby, you can take a body blow, or a bite, and you can see in the dark... Read minds, and you are making him crazy. So, baby, run. We got your back;let Isis have your front. We're dragging wounded and will slow you down. You'll draw sharks in this cavern in the next minute or two. Run!’’

’’Run with me, Marlene - everybody. Or we all go down fighting together. We all go up into the light, together. That's the only way I'm going down that tunnel - as a team.’’

A low growl behind them made the group stop and turn fast.

’’I tried to reason with her, too, Marlene. I tried to stay upwind from her,’’ a low rumbled whispered. ’’Tried to explain what she was doing to me, but... she's so damned stubborn.’’

When J.L. moved a light near the voice, it was summarily flung away.

’’Oh, shit... uh, look, Carlos, man - ’’

’’Shut up, Rider! Go with her, if that will make her move. I'll watch your backs;you will immediately get your bloody, mangled team out of here. You're drawing more of us, and more of them to her - the longer you all stand and have a summit meeting in the f*king cavern about this!’’

A section of the cavern wall gave way, and falling gravel and dirt made the team cover their heads.

’’I can keep them from your back, but I can't guard your front,’’ the voice said more calmly.

Heavy breathing echoed in the cavern, as the group remained still.

’’Come with us, Rivera,’’ the Templar said quietly. ’’You had faith that she could trust you, hope that you would vanquish Nuit... and love, or the Neteru could not be here with us, not without one of you being dead. Rivera, your choice is - ’’

’’Move her, now, priest! Or I take her deeper into the lair zones. You'll find that choices are very limited in my world. Decisions are also swiftly made.’’

’’Carlos,’’ Damali's voice rang out, still refusing to leave without him or her team, ’’you'll be a sitting duck here for the Vampire Council. There's safety in numbers! We fought good together.’’

Two golden orbs in the dark disappeared and came back red.

’’That cannot be a good sign, D,’’ Rider said fast. ’’Let's not argue with the man. He's made his decision. He has serious issues. So let's get the f*k out of here.’’

’’Wise choice,’’ the voice rumbled. ’’All of you need to roll. Quickly. You're between a rock and a hard place - me at your back, and whatever at your front. You all smell like blood, and I haven't eaten all night... and she smells...’’ The voice paused. ’’Fabulous. Get my woman out of here. I'm not myself.’’

’’We get the picture,’’ Big Mike murmured, as the group began to move out. ’’Let's give boss some space. He's compromised - and it's real cool of him to give notice.’’

’’What did you say?’’ Damali murmured as she walked toward the darkness, and Big Mike put a hand on her shoulder.

’’Her voice is running all through me... Baby, go 'head. For real. You don't understand this craving... yet.’’ The red glow disappeared from the darkness.

Marlene and Shabazz glanced at each other.

’’Uh, people,’’ Dan whispered, ’’I think that's our cue.’’

’’Y'all deal wit your shit later,’’ Shabazz said, his tone firm. ’’We be out.’’

’’Big time,’’ Rider yelled as the group backed up. ’’See, that's youth. People our age only gotta be told once.’’

’’Leave him, D,’’ Marlene said, as a growl came nearer.

’’He's one of us - we don't leave our own! I saw him fight back there. He fought like a guardian. He didn't harm me. He was once a guardian, too, and it may not be too late! Carlos, listen to the Templar and come with us - ’’

’’I'm not one of you, beautiful vision . . .’’ Carlos's voice echoed through the cavern in a low, seductive murmur, bouncing off the walls, now making it difficult to locate his position in the darkness. The intensity of it made the sounds beyond them go quiet for a moment, the way birds and crickets go still when a loping predator passes. ’’Damali, raise your sword, baby, before you have to plant it in my chest.’’

His voice was rendered at such a low, sensual octave of warning that the walls vibrated from the sound of it even after he'd stopped speaking. Wisdom instantly assaulted her, and she turned away from the darkness to quickly usher her team through the cavern toward safety - but her mind was left in an invisible corner as they ran, and she glanced back repeatedly hoping what was in it would follow. He was one of them;they didn't leave their own. Running as a small huddle, they turned after a hundred yards when they heard a fight ensue behind them. Loud snarls and snaps and screeches echoed behind them. Damali turned to head back.

’’Leave him, huntress!’’

Reality jolted her and they continued to run, now in a flat-out dash down the treacherous area before them. Hideous sounds were advancing, a loud cry rang through the cavern - it was male, it was low like a mortal wound... it was Carlos.

’’No!’’ Damali turned again, but Big Mike held her, shoving her ahead of him.

’’Push forward toward the light. You can't help him now - whatever's got him, got him!’’

She ran as hard and as fast as she could, helping to drag the knight's wounded teammates, helping Jose, her side killing her, the sound of a fierce vampire battle behind her stabbing her heart. It was a vertical thrust with no mercy in it, goring her as she listened to Carlos's roars of agony behind her. ’’Die with honor... but live with pride,’’ she whispered as she raced. ’’Live!’’

They stood gathered in the small, confining space where they'd first been dropped - the allied teams gasping for air, sucking in the sulfur, the putrid after-stench of vampire extinction. Guardians surrounded her in Templar formation;her team a center ring, then the Templars, and she at the core. Damali glanced at a revived Jose, who could now live, also knowing his loss, like hers, would never be erased. She briefly closed her eyes, the burn of the environment becoming grit behind her lids, waiting for the lift, and listening as the pathways behind them went still. That's when her hand found her mouth, and she looked back just one last time. What if... Please, God, even down here.

Things of the night slithered into the space around them, vampires, demons, all manner of creatures unnamed. And as her weary team drew together, surrounded, back to back, the last of their weapons readied to go down as one - she quieted her team with a silent prayer, and lit herself as a torch.

Ultraviolet light filled the space from her suit and fried everything in its wake that wasn't human. Billowing black clouds mixed with yellow and deep crimson, screams so horrific that the guardians covered their ears and a small avalanche started. Damali raised her sword upon a whisper... ’’For Carlos. Rest in peace.’’

It was not clear whether the subterranean disturbance, the timing, or the light jettisoned them upward, ejecting them back to the place where they'd first been swallowed. But her team stood firm, surrounding her - then fanned out one-by-one on an electric blue-lit stage with black smoke behind them, the Vampire huntress in the circle's center, all slowly stepping forward for the cheering crowd, her sword raised in salute to those who got left behind.

Media swamped them, the crowd rushed the barricades, and the team looked on as commentators thrust microphones in their faces... there were no words. Who cared that they'd brought the house down? It wasn't magic;it was a miracle, and there was no way to explain something as complicated as that.

Damali closed her eyes, leaned her head back, swallowed hard, and raised Isis higher for the applauding, cheering crowd... the refrain of a very sad song echoed in her mind. She tried to send it by thought to someone she once knew.

Remember before it all got crazy? Please, baby, don't ever forget.
EPILOGUE

Previous Top

Detective Berkfield sat at his desk, looking at the package that had come to him with no name and no address. The note inside of it said simply, The Jamaican Territory - as promised.

For a month, nothing, and now this came in the mail? He looked up as his new partner leaned in his doorway.

’’Hey, kon***, I know you're brown-nosing for the next big promotion, but it's getting late. You wanna get something to eat?’’

’’Naw,’’ he said slowly, holding the package in his hands. ’’I think I'm gonna hang here for a while longer.’’

’’Why, man? You have to eat. You're gonna mess up your bio-rhythms, working all night all the time, and then crashing at dawn.’’

’’Yeah, I know... but I got a funny feeling I'm going to get a phone call soon.’’ Berkfield's gaze slid out of the window toward the blue moon. ’’Don't ask me why, I can't even tell you - just a feeling, is all. Next time. Be careful going home though... say a little prayer;works for me. Catch ya later.’’

THE LEGENDS CONTINUE WITH

THE

HUNTED

A VAMPIRE HUNTRESS LEGEND

COMING JUNE 2004

TAKE A SNEAK PEEK

He had to get out of there. The look of shock, relief, disappointment, and rage on Damali's face was working every cell in his body. She hadn't said a word, just circled him, staring, her blade held low, moving counterclockwise to him like she'd lunge at any moment. Her team was not his greatest danger. The Covenant team was not his greatest danger. She was. He needed to roll.

’’J.L., hit the exteriors, all right?’’

J.L. nodded, but Damali held up her hand. Everyone stood still, waiting. The room crackled with quiet. The hum of air-conditioner compressors created a sump-pump sound in the distance. A stereo was on somewhere in the compound. The humans had enough adrenaline oozing from their bodies to give him a contact high. He could see their eyes blink in slow motion as they stared at his and Damali's circling forms. The pores on their faces enlarged within his peripheral vision. He could detect the moment a bead of sweat exited their skin. His tongue glided over his lips and he tasted salt. The tension in their muscles increased, springs wound so tightly that at any moment they would pop. It fused with his reflexes. He felt the air, sensing for a weapon release. He smelled their blood, twelve nervous humans with hearts beating a rhythm out of their chests.

’’I have to go,’’ Carlos murmured, his gaze steady on Damali.

She shook her head slowly no. It was a millimeter of movement. Her locks swayed ever so much. The adornments in her hair and her earrings chimed. Lion's teeth, a tiny silver charm... Ankh fertility symbols created natural music at a nearly imperceptible timbre. Her pupils had eclipsed her irises. Shea butter, almond oil - the scent of her was an intoxicating blend with something else she emitted... something different than Neteru. He'd smelled it on her before, but couldn't place it. Her face and arms glistened. The muscles beneath her smooth skin were a network of taut, steel-like cable. He could hear the blood pumping through her veins as she stalked him. She was gorgeous, poetry in motion. The crocheted white dress had holes that showed skin. As she moved, the dress moved with her body, barely concealing it. The fluorescent lights glinted off of Isis and sent shards of illumination against patches of warm, damp flesh.

He allowed his gaze to roll over her in a slow undressing. ’’I have to go,’’ he repeated more firmly, his voice dropping an octave. He had meant it as a statement, but even to his own ears, it had come out as a plea.

’’You talk to me,’’ she whispered through her teeth and stopped circling.

’’Oh, shit...’’ Rider backed up a few paces and leveled his shotgun.

’’Shut up, Rider,’’ Marlene snapped.

Damali's eyes had never left Carlos's. All she did was hold up her hand and her team went still once more.

’’We should leave,’’ the eldest cleric said quietly. ’’Before somebody gets hurt.’’

Carlos shook his head no.

’’Oh, what the f*k.’’ Rider threw Big Mike a crossbow, and he caught it, nodding. Rider glanced at the clerics. ’’I thought you had an understanding with dude?’’

’’We do, and it's time to leave,’’ Father Patrick insisted. ’’If it's not too late.’’

The Covenant team backed up, cautiously rounded Damali and Carlos, standing the line on the side of the guardians with weapons raised. J.L. had armed himself with a battle-ax;even Dan and Jose now had silver-tipped stakes in their hands. Shabazz had pulled Sleeping Beauty out of her holster.

Marlene folded her arms and leaned against the weapons table. ’’Steady, gentlemen. Nobody get an itchy trigger finger. Stay cool. Have faith.’’

’’Have faith? Mar - ’’

’’Shabazz, we know how this has to go down.’’

Damali blocked out the other voices, her goal singular, focused. There was no shred of trust in her as she looked at the master vampire that had made her taste fear. She had to remember what he was, not allow the illusion to get to her. This liar had fooled trusting clerics. Carlos was dead. This was something else. And this entity possessing a familiar body, had shape-shifted to trick her team, had rolled up on her in a battle station-ready compound, and dissected her while she was blind. The worst part of it all was he'd been right. If it had been Fallon Nuit, she would have been dead... or worse. What did this thing want?

’’Speak to me!’’

’’It's me, Damali - Carlos... use your third eye!’’

’’You're a liar! Carlos is dead!’’

She circled, she moved with him. She was indeed more dangerous to him than sunlight at present.

’’I can't get a mind-lock,’’ Carlos told Marlene and the seer cleric, his line of vision shifting quickly to gain their assistance. ’’She's in a mental black box.’’

’’Don't screw with my team! They don't have the telepathic capacity - I don't care what illusions you throw at them - ’’

’’No, Damali,’’ Marlene argued. ’’Listen - ’’

’’No! They sent this one as a trap;it's a decoy. I heard Carlos die - I saw it! Vamps are masters of deception.’’ She narrowed her gaze on the entity before her. ’’How dare you assume his shape... I'll gut you,’’ she seethed, her grip tightening on Isis.

’’Then plant Isis,’’ Carlos said. ’’Plant it right in the brand.’’ In one deft motion he tore away the black T-shirt to expose his scar. Hot tears of frustration stood in his eyes. ’’How did I get that, then, huh, Damali? Ask the damned men who pulled me out of a cave in the desert! Ask them how they found me! It saved my life and I suffered for three nights in the f*king desert.’’

Carlos slapped the center of his chest as Damali's hand slowly covered her mouth. ’’I got this carrying you, baby,’’ he said, his voice fractured. ’’You're the only one that can do me in this room.’’

He closed his eyes, outstretched his arms, and leaned his head back. Her legs moved beneath her, hurling her toward the thing claiming to be Carlos, sword raised. She heard Marlene scream, ’’No!’’

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