The Bitten Chapter Twenty Five


Chapter Twenty-Five

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Slimy, violating hands held the sides of his head, raping his mind, tasting it, peeling away skin from muscle from bone, creating a bleeding fissure in his scalp so their nicking tongues could gouge into his gray matter and siphon his brain with their tongues. Pressure behind his eyes bulged them forward and almost out of the sockets, ripping his retinas, blinding him, stealing back his night vision and normal vision;blackness was now his captivity. One vampire and human sensory lost to their endless probe.

His cries went from intelligible to primal as they strip-searched every hope and dream and desire and private thought he had ever possessed. When they burrowed down to find images of her, the arch of resistance broke one of his arms away from the wall, halving it, his blood splattering everywhere.

’’Don't fight it,’’ the chairman said soothingly from across the room. ’’It only makes them work harder, and the process take longer.’’

Heckling, screeching laughter assaulted his ears, snakelike tongues entered them, taking back his once-superior hearing, leaving him deaf. Then they entered his mouth.

A hot, fecal-smelling vise clamped down over his nose and mouth, tearing the soft tissue and forcing a long, slithering tongue down his throat, suffocating him, gagging him, making him dry heave as it wrapped around his Adam's apple and snatched it out, while claws slit his torso, threading snakes through his intestines and spleen.

The convulsion began at the base of his spine, where a serpent had entered it and threaded up his spinal cord, hemorrhaging it as it slid up his back, snapping and cracking vertebrae away from each other, one torturous disk at a time. His legs were jerking, every muscle twitching, and hundreds of tiny snakes ran under his skin, setting it on fire from the inside out.

But he had no voice to scream. No eyes to see his tormentors. No faculty to listen to anticipate the next vile act to be committed against his flesh. There was no breath in his lungs - now filled with a dense substance that he could only imagine to be his own blood - and there was no peace.

Then, just as it had started, it stopped.

Evil little hands left the sides of his head. His skull slowly closed, his sight returned. He could slowly begin to focus on the chairman, who held a grave expression. Dozens of tiny tormentors huddled by his legs. He could slowly begin to hear their disorganized murmurs. Smiles of sinister glee and triumph were no longer on their faces. Air rushed into his lungs suddenly, making him cough, heave, and vomit up a bloody mass of twisting black adders, but he'd heard his voice. Something magnetic pulled his shoulder back and his arm joined the bloody stump, reattaching the severed limb.

Weak, sweat running off him like a river, the cuts in his skin healed as thousands of threadlike snakes exited his body through his pores and dropped to the floor.

Carlos stared at his innards on the black marble floor. It was an out-of-body experience, they had tortured him to the point where he might as well have been looking at lint in a carpet - everything was so disconnected, so painfully surreal. With exhausted disinterest he watched his entrails slowly recede from the floor, up and into the ragged, gaping hole, tugging him forward as sections of organs reattached to the dripping cavity, and then sealed.

Water... if he could just have water. They'd even taken away his blood hunger for a moment. Then the burn for blood scorched him through. Panting, he tried to close his mouth to make saliva come, and then bit his tongue when both fangs scored it. He closed his eyes, tears running down the sides of his face;they had left him whole.

’’They're impressed,’’ the chairman said quietly. ’’There was much to dredge from your brain, so much dishonorable intent against our realm and so many despicable acts committed while alive... but with such conflicting emotions... such an embrace of your power, but then, not.’’ The chairman walked near him, tiny beasts hanging back. ’’They could not break your seal around her or dredge any information about the seal and lost key. How absolutely incredible.’’ He glanced back at the harpies, and laughed. ’’You couldn't, could you? He had a prayer around her and the information about the upper realms the entire time?’’

Carlos stared at him through bloodshot eyes. There was as much deep respect there as hatred, a conflict. They understood each other.

’’I know,’’ the chairman nodded. ’’I have so much respect for the willpower shown, the utter defiance, the stubborn refusal to just give in. But I so despise the reason why you have this strength.’’ He brushed a damp wisp of hair away from Carlos's forehead. ’’We so needed someone like you on our side. I hate that you're not. Thus, my conflict.’’

He strode away from Carlos with purpose. He pursed his lips, and brought a finger to them, studying him. ’’Torturing you would grow tiresome. That no longer amuses me. We have tortured millions, after all. And with you, Carlos, the one thing that always delighted me was that you brought me something new to study, to wrap my mind around, to envision. You are a worthy adversary—and that is definitely rare down here.’’

He glanced at the harpies who were now becoming agitated and screeching in frustration.

’’Oh, yes... this is very new, because we never have one down here with all of the qualities of a saint and all the qualities of a demon so deliciously blended and in our clutches. How did you manage a fusion in your system like that?’’ He tapped his fingers on his lips. ’’What do you want?’’

’’To die with dignity,’’ Carlos croaked. ’’Just let this be over, and let her live.’’

’’You wasted part of your wish,’’ the chairman said, his expression amused. ’’We had every intention of allowing her to live. That was never an issue. But we are going to flush her womb - you understand that we have to clean out our vessel for the future.’’

Carlos let his head drop. ’’Then make it swift, and don't bring her pain... please.’’ He looked up, renewed defiance entering him.

After what he'd just experienced he knew that the memory of physical pain could fade, but the scar on a soul could last forever. ’’Don't wait until she starts showing and feels the life grow within her. Do it now.’’

’’Honorable,’’ the chairman stated flatly. ’’She's a worthy adversary, in fact, turned our best master - a councilman at that. We have protocols, too, and a worthy opponent should be addressed with swift dispatch of their sentence. So be it.’’

Tears ran down the bridge of Carlos's nose as he watched a puddle of his blood on the marble floor bead up and separate into two halves, one black, and one red with iridescence. His shoulders shook as he leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and wept, the refrain ’’I'm sorry’’ echoing through his mind. His abdomen constricted, and a sharp pain scored his lower belly Then the mild cramp passed and took up residence in his heart. Breathing hard through his opened mouth, he waited for the heaviness in his chest to lift, but it wouldn't. ’’I'll carry that for her, too,’’ he murmured.

’’You. Are. Making. Me. Ill!’’ the chairman shouted. He turned and walked away from Carlos and spoke to the harpies at his feet. ’’Send him into the Light to be with her, to die with honor as a warrior - but let her see what she did to break the most promising master vampire in my empire!’’

He circled them and his words seethed scorched smoke as he railed. ’’My registers just ran blood tonight. The entire topside empire is gone! Wiped out, leaving only lower-level vampires. She is responsible for exterminating five of my best masters - yes, I am even counting the rogue, Nuit, in that number, plus a very old councilman, Vlak - and countless turns in our realms! At least Nuit would have stood for our side - traitor that he was, he didn't side with humans!’’

As his wrath congealed, sulfur smoke plumed out from under his robe, making the harpies back up. ’’Now, she has ruined my true vessel, Carlos... and I want her to witness what she created, what she did by her own hand to something she supposedly loved. I want a wound on her heart so deep, so lasting that she will never be able to raise her blade against one of my own - not like this, ever again.’’

The chairman's voice trembled with rage and bitter defeat as he pointed at Carlos. ’’We would have made him a king, and she could have ruled at his side, but look what she did to him!’’

The chairman leaned back, his arms opened wide, his eyes closed, his dark energy swirling to a critical mass of sulfuric smoke, blowing open the ceiling above the council table, scattering the courier bats, a funnel of electrified black smoke sucking up harpies and Carlos and goblets, and wall fixtures, and torches, and rock, and anything not nailed down into the vacuum. ’’Take him out of my sight!’’

Seventy miles an hour and climbing through near-dawn streets, zigzagging past corridors they'd never traveled, they hit the straightaway of Macquarie Street, then gunned the motors to eighty - St. James Church at the edge of Hyde Park, near Queens Square, was the goal. That's when the awful cramp hit her. Stole her breath. Pain so swift and blinding that she almost dropped off Jose's bike. She knew what was happening the moment it began. The wind whipped tears from her eyes like a slap and warmth ran down her legs, splattering blood on the ground and Jose's chrome exhausts.

Rider looked down, bringing his bike next to Jose's. Marlene stood up in the Jeep behind them, wiping at her face with fury. Then the sky darkened, blotting out the coming dawn. A thundering tornado cut a path of rage behind them, then split in two, one half of it heading toward the harbor, the other coming for them.

’’Drop the colloidal silver bombs in your packs, Jose!’’ Rider shouted. ’’Damali, baby, you have to reach the side packs and break the bottles on the ground!’’

If she leaned over, she was going to fall. She could barely breathe, much less move. They'd taken everything from her - what was the point? She just shook her head no and buried her face deep into Jose's back and held him tighter.

Mike was standing in the second Jeep, releasing holy-water vials, splattering the roadway behind them, but the cloud changed course. It just cut a path between the Jeeps and the motorcycles, making the Jeeps swerve to get out of the storm's wake.

’’Take her to the church, man, keep going!’’ Shabazz hollered over the howling wind to Jose. ’’You're almost to St. James - or St. Mary's Cathedral, ride hard and we'll meet you.’’

’’We can't go that way,’’ Marlene shouted, turning the drivers around. ’’The Jeeps have to go back past Sydney Cove to Holy Trinity Church by the Rocks.’’

Each direction they turned to get close to the churches rimming the park, the cloud would separate, cutting them off, and force them to go in another direction. Rider outstretched his arm, firing behind him, dropping three gray-winged creatures that came out of the cloud, soaring toward Jose's bike. Damali drew her blade as something scrabbled at her back, Rider couldn't get a shot off without risking hitting her or Jose, but her blade severed the clawed hand, leaving it to smolder and catch fire - still attached to her dress - before dropping away.

Then the cloud separated again, cutting Rider off and leaving a line of fire down the center of the road so wide that breaching it was impossible. She looked back and saw him go into the slide, firing two-handed. His bike wipeout eminent, he had a Glock in one hand and a shotgun in the other, unloading rounds and screaming at the flying beasts, splattering gook - going down with a fight to the bitter end as his bike tilted, was stripped out from under him, and he hit the ground in a hard, bone-snapping roll.

His black Harley slammed into parked cars, twisted, flipped, and careened off a parked truck to take out a store window before it exploded. Rider didn't move.

’’We have to go back! They'll eat him alive!’’

’’No,’’ Jose shouted. ’’They don't want him! They want you!’’

Jose swerved the bike to avoid the epicenter of the cloud, taking the bike up onto sidewalks, jumping curbs, landing hard and skidding into turns, leaning, using his weight, their weight, as a shifting rudder, tearing through parks not on the safety-zone grid. Disoriented and turned around in the frenzied getaway, his bike headed toward King's Cross.

’’Darlinghurst Street, no!’’ Damali yelled. ’’This is taking us toward the red-light district. No hallowed ground there, Jose!’’

She could feel claws pulling at her, attempting to lift her from the back of the bike, and she swung her blade wildly over Jose's head, breaking the unseen hold as he swerved, pivoted, and headed back in the opposite direction.

’’I'm going past where Rider dropped his bike,’’ he hollered over the screaming wind. ’’They're cutting us off from the sanctuaries at Hyde Park, but daylight's coming!’’

She held him tight, her glance behind her as the cloud gained speed, mass, and density, fanned out and a large funnel set up a roadblock. Jose popped a wheelie at a hundred miles an hour, she leveled her Isis, closed her eyes, and they charged it - exploding through the mass of billowing sulfur, leaving entrails in their wake.

He kept going, riding like the wind, burning down the street where Rider had fallen. She felt him swallow hard as they raced by - no sign of Rider, just the smoking destruction left by his bike. Sirens were now blaring in the distance. Everything became a blur as tears flew from her eyes and they skidded onto Cahill Expressway, burned down it, and then went into a hairpin turn to eat up local streets on the way to Holy Trinity Church by the Rocks.

So much was gone... her family destroyed, two Guardians lost - Carlos, and now Rider, and someone she hadn't even named yet. And God only knew if the rest of the team had made it to sanctuary. An innocent cop was in the back of a Jeep bleeding to death, a man with a family, children, a wife... Pain and tears blinded her. She burrowed her face in Jose's back.

Jose rode the bike up the steps, through the church doors as he saw Mike's arm sling it open and step back and they came to a sliding thud as the bike went down, he and Damali with it, her sword clattering and rolling, skidding toward the altar - stopping five feet in front of it. For a moment, they laid there just breathing.

Fast hands gathered them up, assessed them, hugged them, hard exhales of relief entering them from warm bodies huddled near.

’’Where's Rider?’’ Damali said fast. Jose's grip tightened on Damali's waist.

’’Talk to me, Mar. Where's our boy?’’

Marlene shook her head and looked away. ’’I saw him go down, we went back... they took him to the Rocks in the cove. I can see it.’’ Marlene covered her mouth with her hand and breathed deep.

’’No!’’ Jose shouted. ’’They wanted her, not him.’’ He broke away from Damali, and went to go get his damaged bike. ’’I'm going to get him. Who's riding?’’

Shabazz and Big Mike stepped up. Dan and J.L. shoved new clips into their guns.

’’Let's do this, we're bringing everybody home,’’ Shabazz said, picking up a weapon and pulling out the keys to the Jeep.

’’He's bait,’’ Father Patrick said carefully, his eyes sad as they locked with the other clerics. ’’The key is safe and the detective has been taken down to our sealed vault where he's receiving medical attention. You all need medical attention... Rider is bait to get you all to leave this sanctuary.’’

’’So, f*k it,’’ Jose said. ’’I'm hooked. But we're gonna go get our man.’’

’’You don't understand,’’ Marlene told them, her voice firm and tender at the same time. ’’They needed to take one of us hostage and put him close to Carlos so we could track him - to get her to - ’’

’’Carlos!’’ Damali shouted. ’’You know where he is?’’

’’No. Rider is telling us no, stay back, not to let you see it, no matter what they do to them. Baby, this time - ’’

’’We ride,’’ Big Mike said, overruling Marlene.

Marlene and the clerics formed a human shield barring the door.

’’Tell her,’’ Marlene said to Father Patrick.

’’It's ten minutes till dawn. They want you to see him die. Rider will live;he was only put there to draw us. It's a trap to break your spirit. We won't lead you to him... and only Marlene and I can see where he is. No. You don't need to see it.’’ Father Patrick folded his arms and looked down at the floor and swallowed hard.

’’Break my spirit,’’ Damali laughed, the tone of it hollow and bitter. She held the sides of her ragged, wet dress, and lifted it to her knees. ’’Look at my legs,’’ she said. Her voice broke, new tears streaming down her face as she showed Marlene the wind-dried blood staining them. She dropped her dress, her arm flinging outward to point at Jose's bike. Hysteria bubbled within her chest and came out in a near scream as she implored them. ’’Look at his bike! My spirit is broken and splattered in the streets of Sydney!’’ A sob caught in her throat as Marlene went to her.

’’We ride,’’ Shabazz repeated. ’’We don't leave our own.’’

She kept her gaze fastened on the Heavens. Time, time, all she needed was time. Daylight be still. Heaven hold down your curtain and delay dawn just this once. Please God, have mercy. Damali closed her eyes and covered her face with her hands, rocking.

When the vehicle slowed, she didn't even wait for it to stop before she propelled herself from it, feet bare, shoes lost a long time ago on the boat. Footsteps sounded behind her but lost distance as she raced ahead of the others, clutching her abdomen.

Stone pavement, then gravel, then jagged edges cutting into her flesh, running, becoming wind itself, her heart beating out of her chest, her blade not long enough or big enough to conquer what she saw. Standing so close but so far from where she needed to be, blade chiming the air, hitting nothing. Rage. Hurt. Pain. Not like this! They couldn't kill him like this!

Each time she ran forward, huge swooping predators that had a dark invisible force around them that stunned like a sonic boom, knocked her back.

She was an ineffective witness to laughing, circling hawk-like creatures, gray-green tormentors, ripping at Carlos's chest, flying with massive spans of leathery wings, talons outstretched, diving and opening his abdomen, pulling flesh from his bones, sending his cries to rent the air, designed to call her, draw her, torture her - be her worst nightmare.

Rider was struggling in tethers, but unmolested. His voice a long holler for the team to get back, screaming curses at the demons;hysteria in him flashing fight-hormone through every Guardian. Weapons firing, trying to clear a path to get to their own, plugging the things that just multiplied and dug into Carlos's stomach harder, coming away with dripping organs and meat before stopping, hovering, looking directly at Damali - triumphant, their job done, they then flew away into the waiting tornado.

Big Mike and Shabazz had run to Rider to recover their fallen brother. Jose was in a flat-out chase behind Damali with Father Lopez and Marlene behind her.

Damali suspended breath as she ran. He was so far away - at the edge of a dangerous crag, pinned to solid rock over the waves. She went down flat on her belly, hands reaching, her eyes connecting with deep brown ones that had been defeated, done unmerciful. She could feel more Guardians at her side, reaching. Her head snapped up as daylight refused to wait. ’’Noooooo!’’

Carlos's gaze slowly left hers and went to the sun. He arched hard, and the sound of a slow sizzle blending with his agonized wail almost sent her body over the edge of the crag to reach him. Brute strength lifted her from the ground, and tried to carry her away, but she twisted out of the hold, to resume her futile reach. ’’Cover him!’’ she shrieked. ’’Get a blanket! Something! A jacket! Just cover him.’’

Her request was irrational to her own ears but her voice carried nonetheless. No one moved. They, like her, were transfixed. Carlos was facing her, hand outstretched, transforming. Fangs lowered, eyes red, skin charring and crackling, her name a long echoing cry as the full sun broke the horizon. But she couldn't turn away, her voice had transformed too, becoming a constant long scream echoing back the word no, turning it into bitter hiccupping sobs as every wound he'd ever sustained as a vampire, every horror they had visited upon him mutated, manifested, and twisted his once whole body into a writhing mass of torn carnage and decay.

She felt her body lift again, strong arms attempting to carry her away from the gruesome scene, making her fight against family. ’’No, I won't leave him until it's over!’’ She wept and she was released. ’’We don't leave our own to die alone, no matter how horrible.’’

Jose was down a cliff side, Father Lopez sliding, skidding along the perilous rocks beside him, trying to get to what was quickly becoming ash with a suit jacket against the sun. Futile. Human. The last of Carlos's distant line responding to instinct beyond their own comprehension. Her tears dropping off her nose, hitting cinder with a sizzling pop as Carlos torched, his head still turned toward her, his hand reaching as it crumbed away.

Father Patrick's last rites was a far-off drone in her ear. A woman's hand on her back, rubbing, trying to heal the impossible, was of no use. Brothers beside her on their knees, calling Jose and Lopez back to safety, shouting that it was too late, begging them to come back, were just background noise. It was full daylight.

Two futile hands clutching ash before it all blew away, sobbing, not caring that they were men, worked and glanced up at her. Jose and Lopez were stuck on a crag as Sydney began to come to life in the morning, holding hope in their fists, wanting to put some of what they held on hallowed ground... allowing brothers to pull them to safety but refusing to let go of the ashes. It all seemed so remote, like watching a movie at the very end of it without a frame of reference... who were these people?

There was a woman screaming. She sounded very far away, too. She kept saying ’’Please God, no!’’ Damali thought she knew the woman's voice, recognized it from some distant place in her mind, wasn't sure who she was, though, as Big Mike picked her up and began walking to a Jeep. She looked up and saw Jose and reached for him, making heads turn, making Big Mike put her down easy, making Rider and Shabazz wipe their eyes. Made clerics stop walking to stand still and pray. Made Marlene close her eyes and turn her chin up to the sky, as Damali ran to the only person who would understand what this was like.

Arms opened for her, a fist of dust pressed against her back, her plea went into a shoulder that she knew had shared the same pain.

’’Don't let him die,’’ she said, shaking her head, her whisper a fervent, irrational, impossible request.

Another pair of hands touched her shoulders, and kind brown eyes stood with her and Jose, opening her hands. Jose's face stained wet. Father Lopez's stained, like hers. Eyes red. Three together, all knowing the same hurt. Male hands pouring a funnel of dust into her cupped ones. A ring forming around them, Guardians.

’’He wasn't supposed to die, not like this,’’ she murmured. ’’He was a good man... he was a Guardian - like one of us.’’

’’We'll bury him righteous, D,’’ Jose whispered. ’’I promise.’’

’’On hallowed ground, we'll scatter these ashes,’’ Father Lopez said.

But their words fell on deaf ears and she dropped to her knees as she let the ashes fall into the dew-drawn grass. Everything she'd ever believed in was a lie. The good died young. The dark side had won, and they'd tortured the man so terribly... and those she worked for, those she held faith in, those she'd fought for - her side, the Light, hadn't interceded. She could feel the circle widen to allow her space to grieve. She opened her arms and let her head fall back. ’’Where were the angels? Where was the Light? Why didn't you help him?’’ Another sob stole her breath. ’’I prayed and you didn't come! Where were you when I needed you most - he needed you most?’’

She stood and walked away, leaving Father Lopez and Jose to stoop and touch the fallen ashes, saying good-bye through their fingers, their last connection to his matter. The teams didn't move. She was done. She'd never pick up the Isis again in battle for the Light. Never again. She ran to the Jeep and retrieved it, and stormed back to where they had all gathered, ignoring the pained, stricken expressions around her, brushing past Marlene with fury. She looked down at the ring Carlos had given her, and wept. It never went back, didn't dematerialize.

How cruel of them to leave her his heart - blue ice, and not one with a true pulse. She snatched the solitaire off, and flung it into the pile of ash, raised her sword, and plunged it into the ground through the ashes, sending the ring into the soft earth. ’’I give it back! I wanted his real heart!’’ The Isis could be his headstone, his marker, something worthy left for a true Neteru, her equal. It belonged now to him.

As she turned away, she saw a flash of static from the corner of her eye. Jose and Lopez stood slowly and stepped back. Marlene and Father Patrick moved forward to retrieve the sword, but the others didn't move near it. They, like her, watched as a current arced between the sword, Father Lopez, and Jose. The wind gathered and the dust swirled around the blade of the sword near the ground. Particles of dust connected, tiny granules of matter flashed static, magnetized, drew together, and began to take shape and form. Marlene rushed toward it and pulled the Isis from the earth, and walked backward slowly as the tip of it dripped red blood.

’’His heart,’’ she whispered, holding the blade up to the light.

Father Patrick crossed himself and began murmuring a silent prayer as the dust continued to gather. The clerics fanned out, each taking a directional position of the earth. ’’Her heart,’’ he said, his gaze locking with Marlene's.

’’His line,’’ Marlene said, her eyes going toward Jose's and Father Lopez's, and then going to Damali. ’’His hope.’’

’’His prayer,’’ the elder cleric said quietly, gazing at Damali. ’’His faith.’’

’’His love,’’ Marlene and Father Patrick said in unison, holding Damali in their sight, slowly bringing it back to the mass on the ground that was now large, spreading, connecting, shifting, darkening to coal-colored matter.

Damali ran to it and went down on her hands and knees, hope careening through her, watching a body form from the skeleton out. Muscles and tendons slowly covering bones, even olive-brown skin covering muscles - her hand went to her mouth, and she dared not move, breathe, hope too much, tears making what she was witnessing blur before her eyes, no fear, just awe, reverence, her soul recanting the anger, quietly begging forgiveness for her arrogance, her momentary loss of faith, her lack of understanding, her forgetting about miracles.

’’We don't know what's coming back, Mar - get her outta there and away from it, until we know.’’ Shabazz lunged forward, but Big Mike stopped him.

’’Faith, brother. Faith.’’ Big Mike closed his eyes, total reverence in his huge countenance. ’’Believe in things unseen.’’

’’Hope,’’ Rider said quietly, going near but not all the way. He touched Dan's shoulder. ’’A collective prayer in trinity.’’

’’Love,’’ Jose said, stepping back to stand by Shabazz, then he turned away. ’’He'll never leave her, and will never hurt her.’’

Shabazz's hand went to Jose's shoulder. ’’Destiny, brother. This was written before we were born.’’

Damali looked down into a serene face that she dared not touch, and started when it drew a sudden gasp of breath, short fangs catching sunlight then retracting up and into his gums. She could feel every Guardian behind her tense, but she couldn't move. Her hand reached out, trembling fingers touching the side of a face she remembered, had given up on, needing to be sure she wasn't hallucinating and that he was real. Carlos.

A pair of intense, deep brown eyes opened and looked at her, then the irises burned out silver, glowing. His gaze slid from hers to the horizon as he sat up slowly, bracing himself on a shaky arm. His breaths steady, expanding his naked back, his voice low, awed, and far away.

’’Can't you see them, D?’’

Necks craned, eyes shot to the horizon, then back to the quiet man sitting still, and naked, and damp on the ground.

’’See who?’’ she whispered, her voice almost nonexistent.

’’There's so many of them, and they're beautiful,’’ he said, tears running down his face as he slowly clasped her hand. ’’Warriors... angels... they never left me, never left you, never left their Neterus, us... the future.’’

Damali strained to see what held Carlos rapt, but her eyes were only human. All she could make out was brilliant, golden light. Her gaze went to him instead, redemption... her hand stroked his hair, and her body came next to his to stare out at the sun with him as he leaned against her and quietly wept with her.

’’Damali... I'm finally free.’’

Turn the page for a sneak peek at the next

Vampire Huntress Legend novel

COMING IN JULY 2005

Damali felt like she was flying, the images whirled by so fast. Her skin crackled with electricity, and she gasped as she landed on her feet with a thud. She crouched down, instantly on guard, and glanced around herself. She quickly patted her side. Damn. Her blade was back on the plane.

The question was, where was she and how did she get here?

It was clearly an industrial area. A river lay to the south of her and to the north was a wide street, but there was no traffic. The moon shone like a perfect silver disk in the sky, not a cloud in sight. This was the hunting hour, not a good time to be without a blade. Damali glanced down at herself. Black leather pants, black halter top, and steel-toed boots. Perfect for kicking vamp or demon ass.

She walked forward slowly and cautiously. The large, dark buildings loomed silent and empty. A bridge towered in the distance, looking blue and skeletal in this half light. She saw a street sign and narrowed her gaze. Delaware Avenue. She was in Philly.

She rounded a corner and saw a purple neon club marquee that read ’’Club Egypt.’’ Damali stopped walking and folded her arms over her chest. She stared at the sign, then noticed the hieroglyphics that had been spray-painted on the sand-colored exterior of the building.

’’All right, then,’’ she muttered. She crossed the wide boulevard and walked toward the club with purpose. Standing on a corner wringing her hands wasn't going to get her any answers.

When she got to the door, a huge bouncer stopped her. ’’ID?’’

Damali looked him up and down. He was a big, burly brother who looked like he was straight out of the motherland. His blue-black complexion gleamed, blending almost seamlessly into his black muscle shirt and jeans. Brother wasn't moving. She could do this the hard way, and simply kick his huge ass or do it the easy way. She smiled. Finessing her way into a club had never been a problem for her.

Still smiling, Damali caressed his broad chest and said, ’’Now you know you need to stop playing. You know a sister just wants to get her groove on.’’

’’No ID, no getting into this club.’’

Damali licked her lips and moved in closer to him. She looked at him from beneath her eyelashes. ’’Oh, come on. How about it I say pretty please?’’ Then she pressed herself against him oh so slightly, leaned in, and breathed in his ear, ’’Please?’’

He stared down at her, his face blank, his eyes icy. Damali gave a little wiggle and smiled at him again. The ice cracked. Almost reluctantly, he moved his mountainous girth out of the doorway. Damali blew him a kiss as she hurried past.

Once inside, she squinted through the purple lights and hazy clouds of smoke. The interior seemed fairly normal. The place was jumping, the music was thumping, and people were freestyling on the wide, polished wood dance floor. The DJ was all right. The bars were loaded. People were seated at round tables or lounging stylishly on purple or black mini-sofas. She couldn't sense anything preternatural or demonic. Very weird.

Damali carefully made her way to the bar and slid onto a tall brass and leather stool as she continued to scan the club. When the female bartender came toward her, she remembered - she was broke like a mug.

No problem. There were plenty of brothers sipping at the rail to make that a nonissue. But if they were offering drinks with a shot of color, she wouldn't be drinking anyway.

Damali studied the tall, older woman as she walked over to her. Girlfriend looked good. She had on a metallic gold bustier that served up her double-Ds like trophies. A gold filigree waist chain that moved ever so slightly above her tight, gold lame pants as she walked accentuated her flat belly. Her complexion was of burnt cinnamon, but her eyes were a smoldering dark brown, matching the color of her shoulder-length braids. A gold serpent bracelet circled her sleekly muscular upper arm. She looked like she was in her late thirties. Her walk was so smooth, she almost looked like she was moving in slow motion. Damali had to shake her head to break the hypnotic rhythm. Had to be vamp.

’’What are you having tonight?’’ the bartender asked with a smile.

Damali studied her. ’’What are you serving that's top shelf?’’

The bartender's smile widened. ’’Sis, I don't roll like that. I've got a man.’’

Damali sat back. ’’Well, shit, so do I.’’

’’Don't we all?’’ said a deep, se*y, female voice close to her ear. Damali quickly pivoted on the stool, ready to do battle. ’’But if you're angling for a free drink, just name your poison.’’

’’First, you need to back up off me,’’ Damali said slowly, watching a very tall Native American - looking woman slide onto the barstool next to her. She tossed her long French braid over her shoulder and sighed. Damali didn't like the odds and they were getting worse. She could feel the females moving in on her quickly and quietly as the men backed away, making room for them.

One by one the chairs filled around her. She glanced at the bartender, then the tall, older woman who was a fly-ass fifty, serving royal blue peacock and black stilettos.

’’Pour this child a Jack Daniel's,’’ the woman beside her said. ’’My tab.’’

’’This ain't no bargain,’’ Damali said, accepting the drink with her eyes but not touching it. Another older sister had slid into a chair on her right. Her dark face seemed vaguely familiar, and her intense black eyes had that same knowing quality the others possessed.

She flipped her hand to dismiss Damali's open assessment. Sister was rockin'so much ice that the diamonds were practically blinding. Pure confidence radiated from her, almost like a heat wave. She was serving red stilettos that bordered on being ’’f*k me’’ pumps. The red pants suit, killer. Her aura demanded respect.

Damali raised her glass to them. Her gaze surveyed what she quickly counted as eight women, all older, of varying hues, and dressed to the nines, so confident and cocky that they hadn't even worn good battle shoes... All of them, obviously, professional assassins who could be patient and wait to do their hits. ’’Well, I have to hand it to you, ladies. You sure know how to take a sister out in style.’’

The one in red chuckled and sipped her martini. ’’So dramatic.’’ She looked down the bar at the others. ’’See what man trouble will do to you? Make you simple.’’

Damali gave a small smile and bumped her glass, spilling the contents into the woman's lap. ’’Yeah. It'll do that. So, let's get this party started.’’

She'd expected the woman to attack and braced herself for it. Instead she just looked at the stain and the liquor running down her shapely leg, dabbed it with a finger, tasted it, made a face, and shook her head.

’’Now that was just tacky,’’ she said in an even tone. ’’Why don't we step into the ladies'room?’’

Damali stood. ’’After you.’’

The bartender cleared the bar in one lithe leap to stand before Damali with a sly smile. ’’Shall we?’’

’’It's your house,’’ Damali said through her teeth. ’’You lead the way.’’

Martini glasses, champagne flutes, and rocks glasses were calmly set down in unison as the women flanking the leader stood.

’’Baby girl, do you have any idea who you're up against?’’

Damali stepped back, one hand on her hip. ’’No, do you?’’

It was the first time she saw a flicker of rage cross their faces.

The women simply turned on her heel and walked away, her head high and her shoulders back.

Damali stared after her. Was she hallucinating, or had these female vamps just marched off toward the bathroom like a bunch of offended church ladies? Something did not fit, big-time. Curiosity got the best of her and Damali cautiously followed their regal promenade.

The sister in red swung open the heavy door, almost yanking it from its hinges and making it slam against the wall. Bright fluorescent light greeted them. Damali entered the now tightly packed space last. She made a quick assessment. No windows. All white metal stalls and tile with pink accent borders. Who knew vamps liked pink? Then she stopped as they stood before a huge mirror, every one of them casting a reflection.

Okaaay. They weren't vamps. So then, who the hell... ? Damali opened her mouth, then slowly closed it.

’’That's right, damn it!’’ the woman in red said. ’’You'd better recognize who you're talking to. I ran empires before you were even thought of, sister!’’

’’Chica, this is bad,’’ another said, shaking her head. ’’We're gonna have to kick your behind for real now.’’

’’Aw, ladies,’’ a third tall beauty said. ’’You know that's not why we brought her here.’’

The bartender stepped forward. ’’We've got bigger problems.’’

’’All right, Eve,’’ the sister in red said, giving Damali a hard glare. ’’This is your territory. School her fast before I snatch a bone out of her narrow behind.’’

Damali's attention jumped from one woman to the next. Did one of them just call the sister serving drinks Eve?

’’Yeah, yeah, yeah. Long story, baby. But hey, you know how this goes. You find Mr. Right, fall in love, get your head twisted around by some other fine bastard, then you have issues. Feel me?’’

Damali couldn't stop herself from gaping.

’’Take a walk with us,’’ the one named Eve said, moving toward the mirror. ’’You game for some insight?’’

Damali nodded numbly. Eve turned and touched the mirror, melting into it as if it were water. ’’We had to strip your blade from you, hon, until you could learn to use it correctly. Because you can't fight what's coming for you like you just did out there. A common street fighter.’’

The others nodded.

’’You will get your ass beat down if you go after her like you just did, hear?’’ the woman in red said, obviously still salty about her dress. ’’Lilith will f*k you up good if you don't watch your back, and no man is worth all that.’’

Damali's eyes were so wide that she couldn't blink. Then someone behind pushed her forward and she was suddenly alone in a vast stone enclosure, standing on the landing of a massive staircase. Towering oblong windows let in the breaking dawn.

Once she reached the top of the stairs there was a wide hallway. A glasslike wash of violet light spilled across the marble.

She focused all her senses, straining to feel vibrations, to hear, all to no avail. Where had they gone?

She began to walk forward, feeling amazingly light as each footfall lifted her slightly off the floor. Soon the glasslike purple rays covered her as she entered their full beam. Suddenly she rushed forward to an open atrium filled with swirling golden-white light and women's voices.

Damali squinted as a large, opalescent table came into view. Seated before her were the eight women. Four were sitting to either side of an empty, high Kemetian throne carved in alabaster, with a falcon-winged sun disk bearing the ankh symbol of fertility. She recognized Nzinga instantly this time. The red siren's getup had completely thrown her off. Then she saw the Amazon sitting to her right and immediately dropped to one knee. Oh, dear God!

She'd been summoned to the Council of Neterus!

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