The Wicked CHAPTER SIXTEEN


CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Night-vision goggles were lowered on by those who had and trusted them. Several cold body-shield bracelets clicked on. Anything that the Covenant had been able to scavenge on short notice was used.

All gazes strained to focus on the heavy, sputtering plume that bil�lowed up from the volcano miles away. Soon it became evident that the small glowing red flecks within the smoky ash were eyes, not em�bers, rising in the black cyclone from Popocatepetl. Dark clouds gath�ered overhead, and then suddenly burst with black lightning, pouring torrential rains down on the waiting Guardian squads. It was nearly impossible to see through the sheets of rain. Mud made ground ma�neuvering treacherous. Holy water and salt-ring barriers around the house were washed away, and stone workers reinforced the electrified shields as they rushed down the lines to touch sections of the wall.

Tower Guardians aimed bazookas and mortars at the approaching funnel in a coordinated effort, lighting it up like a fireworks display, dead aim. The cloud exploded and burst into several smaller whirling threats. But roof snipers were having difficulty holding on in the howling winds and rushing water that pelted the house.

Six huge, whirling, angry tornadoes touched down just outside the clearing, uprooting trees and debris to fling it against the fort, but Carlos stood in the gale-force winds and quickly erected a translucent wall to absorb the hurling natural shrapnel.

’’I can only hold it until the tornadoes stop, after that, I've gotta conserve energy and we've gotta do this the old-fashioned way,’’ Car�los told his line. ’’When I drop shields, it's on.’’

’’Drop 'em,’’ Hidalgo said through his teeth. ’’Gunners, on your marks!’’

Carlos dropped shields and the towers released mortars at the swirl of man-sized bats. A direct hit inside one swirl lit it, exploding demon innards for three hundred yards. Huge felled trees and debris caught fire, setting off early hallowed-earth explosions on the outer ring of sandbags.

Guardian troops ducked as wood pieces the size of stakes flew at them. Then the sky grew blacker as a leather-winged aerial assault covered the sky. Machine-gun fire erupted from the roof as snipers and tower guards pivoted to drop anything coming by air. Burning vampire bodies hit the roof and torched on impact, forcing snipers to rappel out of the way. When the Guardians on the ground were able to look up, the landscape before them as far as they could see was cov�ered with legion formations of demons.

’’This is looking an awful lot like the Alamo, dude,’’ Rider said as he took aim.

’’Depends on your historical perspective,’’ Hidalgo said, releasing a burst from his automatic.

’’Catapults!’’ Carlos shouted.

Whooshing snaps resounded in the darkness to land five-gallon holy water bombs in the middle of legion battalions and burst war demons into blue-white flames. Nuit touched down wearing an all-black, gleaming metallic version of Napoleon's uniform and riding a black nightmare, its leathery wings beating the air with a thud. Its gnarled, yellow teeth and glowing green eyes flashed a warning. Scorching flames flared from its nostrils as its cloven hooves pawed the earth. He raised a black steel curved sword that looked like a giant scythe over his head, spotted Carlos, and yanked his nightmare to rear on its hind legs.

’’Attack!’’ Nuit yelled.

’’Cycles!’’ Carlos hollered as he jumped over the bags. ’’Kamal!’’ The Texas squad slid from the sides of the house in the mud, their choppers eating wet dirt and roaring as they met the first wave of the assault-were-demons. Grenades blew werewolves into cinders as the bikers mowed down anything in their path.

’’Fall back,’’ Carlos commanded, slicing his way through a wolf pack, but seeing the mud beginning to slow the riders. The big cats were in the next wave, and too fast for the choppers.

Bikes jumped debris as warriors scrambled to get back to the fort, and then he saw one biker go down on his side, yelling. He couldn't get to the fallen before three big cats descended upon him and pulled him into sections of quivering meat.

Duke turned around and headed back for his man, yelling and shooting, lobbing grenades, insane. Rider was over the wall of sand�bags, running behind Duke, shooting like a maniac in the rain. Kamal caught a were-panther before it got Rider. Duke was on the ground still firing and blowing demon guts out, when a huge werewolf jumped on the center of his chest. One of Kamal's men leapt onto the werewolf's back and freed Duke's hand to yank out a bowie knife and gore the creature's heart. Rider blew the head off the demon that wrestled with Kamal, and he dragged Duke by one arm back over the wall.

’’Medic! Get this man a medic, he's been nicked!’’ Hidalgo yelled, while covering Carlos with heavy fire.

’’Kamal, pull back and get your men behind that wall!’’ Carlos shouted through the din.

Mike lobbed several shoulder-cannon blasts to protect Kamal and his men as Shabazz sent a spray of automatic weapon fire into a newly formulating tornado, turning it to instant cinders. Nuit's ranks broke and flanked the house. Lilith's legions of Harpies were making a run for the back wall, putting pressure on Damali's squadrons. Huge ser�pents exited the earth and swished through the mud like greased lightning.

Blow the bags!Damali telegraphed in a mental shout.

Ground bags blew, creating wriggling, screaming coal-hot twists of screeching Amanthras on the ground. Harpies ran right over the em�bers in a gray-green gargoyle leaping mass.

Damali was up and out of the hole, Isis raised. Harpie splatter cov�ered her, driving rain washed it away as she took heads. Small bodies leapt over the trench to cling to the outer wall, only to fry where they clung and fall squealing. Esmeralda sprayed the ground as Harpies poured over a yawning fissure with scythe-bearing messenger demons. Catapults rocked Lilith's formations, and Damali pivoted to see that several Harpies had made it behind the sandbags to attack the Belize and Honduras troops.

’’No!’’

Racing back to the dug-in Guardians, ammo fire erupted from the hole. Damali jumped behind the bags, stabbing at little bodies with one hand and firing a Glock with the other as she kicked demons away. Esmeralda made swift use of a bowie, slaughtering demons as she and Damali went down the line. Inez and Juanita were up over the bags and had a male vampire in an energy arch, frying him to death. Krissy and Jasmine worked in tandem, blowing back demons and ig�niting war flags in the towers to send red dragons to assist. Heather worked on Bobby and Dan's artillery, turning gunfire into cold-seeking missiles that always met their targets.

Then one of the men trapped by Harpies behind the bags was overrun. Esmeralda ran forward shouting, ’’No!’’ as they clawed out the struggling soldier's eyes.

Before the team could get to him, he jumped out of the barrier and ran blindly into a swarm of Harpies, pulled the pin out of his grenade, and detonated it. Harpies burned in an explosion of human and demon body parts. The blast sent Damali and Esmeralda down into the mud, and when they both got up, more than war was in their eyes.

Damali threw her head back and released a Neteru battle yell. Car�los heard it and fought his way around the side of the house. Nuit's nightmare swooped and dove between the carnage as Damali pitched her gun and advanced with broad, two-handed strokes toward him.

Forced to pull back, he yanked his horse into flight, but Damali caught his mare in the chest with a powerful lightning blast from the Isis. Carlos was on him in seconds, swung, missed, but severed his leg. Insane with rage, Carlos lifted the limb overhead and hurled it at scat�tering Harpies, roaring.

Both Neterus turned back to see the hacienda under siege from the roof and began running toward it. The Philly team was on the east wall, swinging silver baseball bats and knocking were-demons into the spiked trenches below. Bone Crusher got a werewolf on the chin with a hard swing, breaking off fangs and severing the bottom half of its jaw, while Galakk the Giant popped up and fired a silver stake to incinerate the huge beast before it ever hit the spikes.

Demon bodies twitched and writhed in barbed wire as the Haitian and Dominican squads picked them off where they were caught. Hu�bert was on a wall with Sedgewick, sending hose blasts of holy water into funnel clouds that ignited in the night like they'd been hit with flamethrowers. J.L. and Jose had fought their way to the west side of the house, fly kicking and round-housing Harpies out of the way. But a wave of scorpions and adders erupted from the spike pits, making them have to jump to Hubert's grasp to come over the wall. Sedgewick covered them with a hose assault and lobbed Red Sea salt shrapnel on the ground.

Damali and Carlos were up over the wall, and he pulled them into a cloak to land on the slippery, tiled roof. Straddling it, they fought back-to-back to give rappelling soldiers a chance to escape. Huge red dragons from Jasmine's flags gulped Harpies forming in the air. Carlos's shield once again became a discus to clear one side. Damali's Isis levied white lightning blasts and scorched the other side free of any demon claw hold.

’’Towers!’’ Carlos shouted.

’’Clear!’’ the towers yelled back.

’’Save your energy,’’ Damali shouted to Carlos. ’’I can feel it dip-ping!

He nodded and turned to stare at the battle scene below. Water coursed down their bodies as the wind lashed them while they took a quick moment to catch their breaths.

Gunfire inside the house made the Neterus instantly slide to win�dows, grab the gutters, and crash in. Jose was yelling outside, and Damali and Carlos ran down the hall to the steps and dashed down the staircases, taking multiple steps at a time.

Marjorie was standing at the door with a pump shotgun. Jose was waving his arms at Carlos.

’’Message from your boy!’’ Jose shouted. ’’Take it from my head, man!

Carlos pulled the message as he watched Marjorie advance down the front steps.

She's beyond hope now, man,Yonnie's sad message said.She's out there feeding on the human wounded and demon blood. Lilith brought her out here, knowing she wouldn't be able to withstand the temptation.

’’Not in my ward!’’ Marjorie shouted. ’’I love you, but may God rest your soul in peace!’’

Marjorie pulled the trigger on the pump shotgun, the blast knock�ing her back as she wept. Gabrielle looked up from a groaning Guardian just in time for the shell to blast off her head. Marjorie turned and pressed her face to the open door frame. ’’Bring in that wounded soldier,’’ she said, sobbing. ’’We have to clean him out be�fore he turns.’’

Damali rushed forward, cleared the wall, and grabbed the injured Guardian, lifting him to her shoulders to jog his deadweight into the house. ’’Open up his throat wound,’’ she told Marjorie and Tara as she heaved the fallen man onto the floor. ’’Marlene, you got this-it's a double purge. Werewolves got his legs. Sara, don't touch it. Berkfield, you either.’’

Marjorie and Marlene made quick tourniquets from ripped sheets to staunch the bleeding, while Tara pumped on the man's heart and Damali cut into the puncture wounds with her baby Isis dagger. Car�los saw them from the corner of his eye as he went back to the line, knowing it was already too late. The injured Guardian began to con�vulse and opened his eyes and presented instant fangs.

’’God rest your soul,’’ Damali said as Marjorie and Marlene jumped back to avoid a swipe. His head left his shoulders before he could draw a breath to snarl. ’’Find out whose team he was on so they can take his body home to his family.’’ Damali bent and picked up the head from the floor, and gently placed it on the man's chest, then pulled a sheet over him. ’’Say a prayer over him, Sara.’’

Damali walked out the front door and simply stared at the burning chaos. Gunfire and shouts and demon screeches sounded so far away. She looked at the sky as the rain began to abate and then back down to the battlefield as white blurs went to bodies and whole souls lifted to reach for outstretched, angelic hands.

Wounded were coming into the hacienda by the dozens, flooding the ward. Soldiers limped in with assistance;those carried in, she al�ready knew were mortally hit. She saw Carlos standing on the battle�field, his sword lowered like hers as dawn cleared the area of demon incursion. She knew he was thinking the same thought that now haunted her: They had won tonight, but at what human price?

’’How many warriors did we lose?’’ Damali asked the team leaders as they gathered on the muddy front steps.

Hidalgo looked up with tears in his eyes. ’’Ten, altogether. A lot of 'injured. But ten dead. One of mine from Mexico City.’’

’’I lost my brother,’’ the leader from El Salvador's team said through a strangled sob. ’’He was only eighteen.’’

’’Come here, Salle,’’ Alana said. ’’We will weep together. I lost two good fighters from Honduras, brother. Be of our family.’’

The pair clung to each other as Alonzo joined them in a small huddle.

’’We should pray this dawn,’’ Alonzo said in a thick murmur. ’’Cuba has lost three.’’

’’They got Joe,’’ Duke whispered as Rider hugged him. ’’We'd been riding together for twenty-five years.’’

’’Sam was a good man,’’ Esmeralda said through a thick swallow. ’’There's nothing to send home, though. Just his dog tags. He blew himself up, rather than be taken.’’

’’That was my man from Jamaica,’’ Rockfish said quietly. ’’I don't know how I will explain his beheading to his mother.’’ He closed his eyes, crossed himself, and then stood and walked away ’’They ate his legs.’’

’’I want every man and woman out of here that sustained a loss or a nick,’’ Damali said, swallowing hard. ’’The wounds are too fresh, and your spirits are rightfully too broken. While we have daylight cover, you guys pull out and head to the convent in Taxco to heal.’’

’’Damali's right,’’ Carlos said, his battle-weary gaze going around the emotionally broken squads. ’’You've all paid enough. We would have been slaughtered in here without you, but the price is too high.’’

’’We stand as one,’’ Duke said, pulling away from Rider. ’’They got us all in the heart, so we go down swinging together.’’

Mutinous jeers rang out on the courtyard. No Guardian would turn back and they simply covered the dead in hallowed earth, salt, and prayers in a truck and came back to their posts to begin checking ar�tillery.

’’The fort is trashed,’’ Carlos said, walking beyond the gates with Damali. ’’Artillery is low, manpower is beat down. This is suicide for the squads.’’

Damali nodded. ’’The healers are spent. Even a new nick at this juncture is gonna pull me and you off the frontlines to purge it, which means they'll be out there alone on low ammo. Berkfield can't give another drop of blood or he'll have to get a transfusion himself.’’

’’I know, and we can't take another assault,’’ Carlos said. ’’We'll have to draw fire away from the teams, me and you, baby... because I can't have another death on my conscience.’’

She hugged him. ’’Me, either.’’ In that moment she knew why nei�ther she nor Carlos ever asked for help. It wasn't arrogance but fear- fear of an outcome like this.

Hubert's shouts from the tower made all eyes look to the sky and then forced the teams to scramble for battle stations.

’’Get down out of that tower, Hubert!’’ Damali yelled as the sky filled with hybrid funnels that streaked the clear blue sky with black stripes. ’’Towers, get down!’’

Mortars and bazookas went off and hit several streaks, but the numbers were daunting. Carlos raised a shield over the house as a black lightning bolt flashed toward the casa, and the force of it still rocked the house to the foundation. Tower sentries scrambled to head for the steps and another series of shockwaves blew the front wall.

’’I can't shield the towers and the front of the house!’’ Carlos shouted.

’’Black box it,’’ Damali screamed as another bolt tore through the front door and imploded inside the foyer, taking out the main staircase.

’’It's too big!’’ Carlos hollered, and then shifted his position to cover the front of the house.

’’It's Cain!’’ Sedgewick shrieked and ducked down behind the stone ledge, too afraid to run.

’’Sedgewick, come down now!’’ Hubert pleaded over Sara's screams, unable to get to him from the front stairs. He dashed through the house toward the kitchen to reach the back steps, yelling for his friend to get out of the towers, but rubble in the stairwell blocked him. He dashed out to the yard to try to climb up the side of the house, but couldn't hold on as repeated blasts rocked the structure.

Guardians still stubbornly manning their posts to the bitter end tried to save Sedgewick by sending a last mortar blast from the east tower and firing bazookas. Instantly two black bolts hit the towers, exploding them. Hubert looked up to see Sedgewick falling in flames with four men around him.

Damali ran out to the open field and raised her blade amid the chaos. ’’I call the elements!’’ she shouted. ’’Comets and lightning to blow these sonsofbitches out of the sky!’’

Meteors began to streak, exploding black funnels. Black lightning met white lightning as she dashed for cover. Damali stopped again, winded from the energy exertion, and raised her blade again.

’’Ravens, hit your marks! Bees, swarm and sting! Falcons, find your prey!’’ She ran and then drop-rolled as a bolt narrowly missed her, and got up running.

The heavens filled with birds as she made her way back to Carlos's side, but the swarms of bees were soon blotted out by a large, moving black blob in the sky that lowered and began to pelt Guardians. Sting�ing bodies splattered against their faces.

’’Take cover!’’ Carlos yelled. ’’Biting locusts!’’

Squads dashed and hunkered down against walls, vehicles, anything they could find, and covered their heads with rain ponchos to avoid the insect invasion. But the nasty little beasts had red glowing eyes and razor-sharp teeth, attacking any skin they could find like little minia�ture piranha.

’’The bastard knows the Old Testament like the back of his hand, D,’’ Carlos said as he put them under a shield so they could run to shield the others. ’’New approach. He saw you do that shit on the beach and can go like this all day.’’

Carlos flung his shield around the remaining squad as Guardians fought the little beasts off them and squashed them under boots.

’’I have to get outside your shield to call off the birds.’’

He looked up as bird bodies began falling, but also bringing down several of Cain's forces. Falcons tore at hybrid eyes, blinding them be�fore dying brave deaths. Ravens pierced wings, making hybrids list and have to land, but got felled in the swarms of locusts. Vehicles blew up all around them as black bolts rained down Cain's wrath from the sky. The swarm of bees Damali had sent attacked black feathered wings and crawled beneath them, weighing them down as they re�leased agonizing stings.

’’Let me out,’’ Damali said.

’’On three, shield goes down and back up, make it quick.’’

Damali called the remaining birds back to save them, but battle lust overtook her as she saw the carnage on the ground. Slaughtering sev�eral wounded hybrids as she dashed back to the shield, a hail of bullets cut off her path.

Carlos stood. ’’They're using conventional weapons against us. Oh, shit!’’

No sooner than he'd said it, a missile blew out a section of the ha�cienda.

’’I've gotta drop shields-she's out there by herself with bullets fly�ing. This ain't just supernatural bolts, folks. Find cover! Old school, like you was in the 'hood!’’

Damali ran a zigzag path and jumped behind a tree. Carlos raced across the clearing and dove behind it with her.

’’I'm gonna try to keep a shield around the house,’’ he said, panting as machine-gun fire whirred by them, cutting splinters off the tree. ’’Gotta give the teams something to cover them. Two more missiles and the house is leveled.’’

’’Do it,’’ she said, hunkered down behind the wide trunk. ’’I got us prayer-shielded for a minute so he can't see us, but it won't last long behind this tree... my focus is split between us and the others. We need to call him out. Psychological attack to make him land and come looking for us. Any ideas?’’

’’The wedding,’’ Carlos said, gulping air.

’’The honeymoon,’’ she said, breathless, and pounded his fist.

’’Send that shit live and in living color, baby.’’

They locked gazes, one mind. Carlos shuddered and smiled an an�gry smile.

’’Yeah, that's the one.’’

Damali nodded. ’’Thought so.’’

A rage-filled war cry rent the air. Two hundred hybrids landed, sending up clouds of sulfur to choke the hacienda-bound teams like it was tear gas.

’’Damali!’’ Cain thundered.

’’Now what?’’ Damali whispered as she peeped around the tree trunk to see a black swishing tail fully healed.

’’Oh, shit, the motherf*ker healed,’’ Carlos said in a rush, peeping around the tree and then pressing his spine to the trunk.

’’You will be a widow today!’’ Cain roared.

’’Okay, let me go to him,’’ she said. ’’He'll off you on sight, and the teams won't have a shield. We gotta be strategic. He doesn't wanna kill me-just beat my ass real good. Hold the line so our people don't die, and I'll-’’

’’Do what, baby? You see how huge that bastard is now?’’

’’Yeah,’’ she said, glimpsing the battlefield. ’’I remember from the last time.’’ Damali tightened her grip on the Isis. ’’When I go out there, telepath to the seers to open fire on Cain's hybrids, but not him. Drop your shield long enough to let them get into position. Let me take him, that'll split his focus, and his hybrids can die from bullets, too.’’ She touched Carlos's sweaty face. ’’You take ten and rest from the shield drain, then come out swinging. Cool?’’

’’Sounds like a plan,’’ he said, nodding. ’’On three.’’

’’Three,’’ she said, and then began running toward the clearing. ’’Cain!’’ she shouted, and then missed a black arc that singed her blade arm.

Cain threw his head back and roared and took flight behind her. She could hear gunfire erupting from the house, and from her periph�eral vision black feathers began to fly as the hybrids were assaulted with sharpshooter bullets. Leathery black wings that had been torn by bird beaks riddled the ground. Grenades were lobbed;the smoke of dawn warfare filled the air. Her people were in position, but she surely wasn't. She narrowly missed an overhead snatch by air, and then Cain landed with a thud in front of her, snarling.

’’Not this time, Damali,’’ he said through battle-length fangs.

She missed the bullwhip of his huge, spiked tail by a margin as she flipped out of his range. ’’It grew back, huh?’’

’’You incorrigible bitch!’’ he shouted. ’’You have no idea how close I am to just exterminating you this morning!’’

’’Then what good would that do,’’ she said, moving from side to side as he advanced and tried to grab her. ’’Can't make a baby by yourself, or did you die to come back, lover?’’

Damali danced out of the way of a black grip charge and sent one that he blocked. The power that ran up her arm almost knocked her down.

’’You wish,’’ he said and cocked his head to the side. ’’Never.’’ She sliced through another arc with the Isis.

’’You will grow fatigued soon enough;I can feel your energy al�ready waning.’’ He stopped advancing and smiled.

’’You can't implant me right now, anyway-your mother is-’’ ’’Severed from me,’’ he said with a low, threatening grin. ’’Oh...’’

A steady beam of white light suddenly entered Cain's spine and made him arch. He twisted and roared, raising his blade and Damali immediately saw Carlos's feet behind Cain's hulking form.

’’You got anything to say to my wife, you say it to me!’’ Carlos shouted, dodging Cain's tail as it thrashed, trying to impale him.

’’You will die on this battlefield today!’’ Cain growled in pain, un�able to shake Carlos's hold.

Damali dashed around Cain's body, missed a black bolt and came up behind him to touch her sword to Carlos's to increase the beam.

’’Kill their family!’’ Cain shouted, trying to split the Neterus'focus. ’’Take no prisoners!’’

’’Then let's make sure you feel it again for old time's sake,’’ Damali said, lifting her blade and taking off Cain's tail where it met his spine.

Cain's agonized howl rent the air. Carlos swung, but Cain pivoted, and Carlos's blade sheared off both his wings. However, Cain was far from down. The combined attack only seemed to make him angrier as he matched blade strokes with Carlos and pushed Damali back with a black bolt line. Then she saw it happening in slow motion and briefly froze.

Kamal and Marlene's eyes met just once. Marlene stood, AK-47 raised, screaming no. The telepathic message between seers was swift, searing, filled with passion, and tasted of salt tears. Damali licked her dry lips. The transmission contained such a white-hot light that Damali hadn't intercepted it;the message had literally burned across her third eye. But the emotion held within the private exchange made her start toward the hacienda before the reality of Cain's posi�tion sunk in. She had to get to the other side of the battlefield!

Three intense words fought for dominance in Damali's mind, car�ried on the delicate synaptic waves between old lovers, her mind frac�tured between Carlos, Marlene, Kamal, her team, and the very real threat of Cain.

Kamal's battle roar filled the air but offered Marlene a salt-coated mental caress said through unshed tears, a familiar Brazilian lilt made tense by pending doom. Male truth said hard, fast, no breath or pause-/love you.A mother-seer's mental wail, a hysteria-driven call and response caught midthroat, garbled in a mind stuttering with fear... not for herself, fear of the inevitable-please no, not like this!

Vibrations too thick to ignore even under heavy gunfire drew sight lines between old rivals, warriors on the same team. Shabazz stood. Marlene's eyes briefly closed. Kamal and Shabazz's gaze deadlocked before a shape-shift leap over the wall. Too many shells flying. A semi lowered toward a were-jag ally's back. Bullets squeezed off, casings spent. Hybrid gook splattered as one Guardian brother covered an�other, respect in tact, regardless of fate. Marlene opened her eyes, tears streaming. Still too many shells flying.Not like this. A Brazilian team off the hook, taking no cover, suicide mission, following their leader until the last man stands.

’’Marlene, get down!’’

A command, half-plea from Shabazz-electrified locks and arms extended, flesh trying to protect flesh from bullets, a body shield the ultimate sacrifice. The intent clear in a man's eyes... in his sweat... in the blue current running down his raised Nubian locks, coursing down his gun barrel, the most important part of his being could not die on the battlefield. Not today. Her name is Marlene Stone. ’’Get down!’’

Static blue tactical Guardian arcs magnetized passing shells, de�flected death's direction by a fraction... by a hair's breadth, jumping off Shabazz's dreadlocks, fingertips, white-lightning fury while a woman is caught midair, midlife, midreality between two men... men falling, shouting, shooting, ripping out hybrid-demon innards. Bullets, a nonrespecter of name or circumstance, still whiz by in blurs as a daughter screams for them all to stop.

Slow-motion death spiraling from gun barrels, words mentally re�peated by both men like a surreal echo sent in millisecond synaptic waves to male vocal cords that never got a chance today to utter what was evident-/love you.

Focus momentarily fractured. She'd heard Kamal tell her mother-seer that this was the only way-to die honorably in battle, for her, so that her soul, his, and therefore Shabazz's, could one day rest in peace. They all knew the deal. It had kept them from squaring off for years. If both men killed each other over Marlene, ascension would never happen, and even Marlene's soul could possibly be damned for partic�ipating in the madness until there was blood on her hands.

The wordno formed in Damali's throat but lodged there, trapped. Marlene's mental shrieking refrains of that same word eclipsed the panicked warning along with Damali's breath. Her mother-seer's pain sent a spasm up Damali's spine, nearly blinding her to the huge pred�ator that she most immediately needed to worry about, Cain. But she fought him numbly, fight instinct lifting her arm to match blows. She went through the reflex blade motions at Carlos's side, consumed with multiple distractions, multiple vantage points of heart-stopping worry exploding in her mind.

Several huge demon hybrids with black feathered wings had cleared the hacienda wall with semiautomatics. Her team was blowing away demons, sending entrails and innards across the field. Kamal's men had cleared the wall to go hand to hand with sharpshooters cov�ering their backs. But Kamal's men were still vulnerable to artillery and had to pull back or die.

’’Fall back!’’ Torn, Damali continued to fight Cain, working with Carlos to cover his flank, but had to get to the casa. She needed to be in three places at once! Then, before she could raise her Isis to fend off another black arc from Cain, Kamal had leapt in a were-jaguar attack to keep a predator off Hidalgo, and was shot in the chest midair by a shell.

’’No!’’ Damali yelled as she saw Kamal's spirit lift from where he lay to go into the arms of a waiting angel. Marlene had stood in the midst of gunfire and screamed, unable to reach the fallen. Kamal's men lost their minds and ran into a hail of bullets on a kamikaze mis�sion, taking leather wings and feather wings with them to their deaths.

Horrified, Damali simply stared for a second, witnessing the entire Brazilian squad be decimated by conventional machine-gun fire and shells.Not them. She swung her blade, still fighting in body, but her mind was bludgeoned by the heavy casualties on the ground. She could hear Carlos and Cain battling near her, but she was transfixed as angels scurried around the battlefield in a blur, gathering the souls of Kamal's men.

Carrion warriors fought off the attempts by dark legion collectors to drag Kamal and his men down into the pit. Marlene suddenly stood, continuing to squeeze off rounds, crazed, grief stricken, screaming, her vibrations radiating out a level of pain that stabbed into Damali's consciousness like an Isis.

Ignoring Damali and Shabazz's entreaties to take cover, the older warrior refused, blowing off hybrid-demon heads, splattering guts, standing in the full line of fire unafraid-machine gun in one hand, fighting stick in the other.

Damali felt it the same moment Shabazz did, their tactical senses locked as one while Carlos fought Cain back. She was too far away and too exhausted with too much splintering her focus to freeze time. Seeing a shell whir toward Marlene, Shabazz quickly stood again to protect Marlene and peppered the wall, and then grabbed her and yanked her down before it was too late. Yet it happened so quickly but so agonizingly slow in Damali's mind that she almost blacked out as the shell connected with flesh, tore cartilage, and blew Shabazz's back out.

Damali's entire being had become one with the shell as she'd fo�cused on it, tried to slow it down, tried to deflect it with her energy-depleted mind, to no avail. Once locked on the target, it was impossible to quickly disengage. She rode the shell's searing, destruc�tive metal, unwilling to release it to the course of its fate, unable to break free for a second as it blew through the center of Shabazz's chest and came out his back dragging gore. Damali screamed. She felt his skin tear, his flesh and muscles rip, his vertebrae snap and splinter into shards... until she was one with the wet sticky substance of his life being spilled.

Shabazz fell in slow motion, the impact snapping his neck in a hard jerk, large sections of bone and meat and huge drops of blood flying. Damali's consciousness exited his dark body into the battlefield light and drew a gasp.Oh, God.

Marlene was immediately prostrate over Shabazz's body, screaming out prayers, calling on all the shaman powers she owned, but his glassy eyes never blinked.

Damali's legs became a blur. Cain and Carlos momentarily stopped battling and backed away from each other, breathing hard. War mo�mentarily ceased as Damali's wings spread in an arc of bright light, ripping through her dirty T-shirt and drawing the full attention of all while she ran. Then her feet were no longer on the ground, her blade was clutched at her side. Dark claws that had grasped at Kamal's men quickly retreated beneath the earth. Guardians fell back and stared in awe as she landed in their midst screaming Shabazz's name. Over�whelmed with grief, she shoved Marlene aside, swept Shabazz up in her arms, and cast the Isis to the ground.

’’No, no, no, no, no-not my father!’’ Damali wailed, rocking Shabazz's lifeless body against hers while the others tried to focus on firing over the wall to keep predators at bay. ’’Breathe, 'Bazz,’’ she said, pleading against him, covering the exit wound in his back with her frenzied hands. Her fingers met slippery ooze and she flattened her palms against the gaping hole that was gushing blood, wailing harder. ’’No!’’

Hubert ran headlong toward Carlos, seeing Cain pivot to swing while Carlos's momentary hesitation from the heart blow Shabazz took stole his focus. The hybrid dove at Carlos;Cain released the swing. Both Carlos and Hubert simultaneously hit the ground as Cain backed up. Warm wetness oozed down Carlos's legs as Hubert con�vulsed.

’’I died with honor serving you,’’ Hubert said, twitching. ’’The Light is beautiful.’’

Carlos jumped up just in time to avoid another swing from Cain only to see that half of Hubert's body was gone. He'd been lying in the valiant hybrid's entrails. This time when Cain swung, Carlos caught his steel against his blade and forced it down, then swung hard with his left fist to sucker punch Cain backward.

’’I will kill you!’’ Carlos yelled, and a bolt ran through his sword and blew Cain onto his back.

Cain's sword went one way, his body went the other, and fatigue from his injuries was draining Cain. Carlos was on him in a heartbeat, but the fallen entity was still strong enough to grapple with the blade that Carlos poised over his chest.

Sara had run out of the hacienda and raced across the grass sob�bing. She dropped down by Hubert's body, trying to shove entrails back into his torso and then passed out against him.

Marlene was on her knees beside Damali who would not give up Shabazz's body. She just rocked Shabazz while her team lost it. Neteru Guardians were over the wall with maimed regional Guardians right behind them, every human taking gunfire, and still getting back up as white blurs whizzed by them. Their insane ferocity drove the hybrids back. Mysteriously, hybrid ammunition went off in half-demon hands, grenades exploded as soon as hybrids pulled the pins, full clips didn't fire when hybrid fingers squeezed triggers. When the smoke cleared, two hundred hybrids lay on the ground dead and twitching. Blood was everywhere. Every Guardian had been shot and wounded. Marlene was still prostrate in the courtyard mud near Shabazz, her heart going into staccato arrhythmia.

’’Give me the Caduceus,’’ Damali said, her face tilted to the sky and her eyes closed, her bloodied wings enfolding Shabazz. ’’I'm begging you. Mercy.’’

The white orbs appeared and only one spoke. ’’Give him to us,’’ the being murmured. ’’We will have mercy. He was a good man.’’

’’No!’’ Damali shrieked, and held her ground. ’’Not this day, not my father and my husband and my mother-never!’’ She looked at them squarely and then back up to the sky. ’’Eve--you see this! Send me the Caduceus.’’

’’Trust us, child,’’ the orbs said in unison. ’’Heal the others.’’

Immediately, the Caduceus clattered to the ground. Damali slowly unfolded her wings and laid Shabazz on his back and brushed his forehead with her lips.

’’Your spirit is still trapped in your body,’’ she whispered with tears streaming down her face and into his open chest wound. ’’Please don't leave me, Dad.’’

She stood and then gathered the golden staff in her hand and opened her wings as she opened her arms. ’’Mercy of Mercies,’’ she murmured. ’’Please hear an angel's battlefield cry. Powers Angels of healing, please take my lament up to God. Spare them all, if just this once.’’

The wounded stared at her, each man and woman gathering up the religious symbol that hung with their dog tags, slowly kissing it in awe. Damali rammed the Caduceus into the ground, too over�whelmed to speak further. Her tears were all that she had left. A blinding pulse of green and gold light made trees shudder and loose bricks fall. The circle of light spread from the base of the staff, over Shabazz and Marlene, glowing blue-white as it began fanning out to the courtyard, covering each Guardian, and overtaking the field for as far as the eye could see.

The white orbs leaned over Shabazz and spread their wings, fever�ishly working. Bullets began to bubble to the surface of wounds in the courtyard and fall from torn skin, slashes sealed, broken bones mended, people wept, and radiant heat and rapture made them fall down and sob.

Carlos could feel the pulse of something rumbling beneath the ground, and he and Cain turned at the same time to look at what seemed to be a nuclear light edging toward them. They ceased their struggle, both getting to their feet to run from what they thought was a detonated blast. But it caught the edge of Cain's foot as it fanned out and trapped him. Carlos tried to get away, but it rooted him where he stood, calming him and filling him with a sense of utter peace.

Carlos turned to see Cain's body writhing in agony on the ground, his cries piteous. He walked back to the felled giant and lifted his blade, but a female hand on his shoulder stopped the beheading.

’’Let me do it,’’ Eve said quietly.

Carlos almost fell, he'd jumped back so quickly.

’’He was our son,’’ Adam said, shaking his head. ’’I did love him at one point, too. But my queen must do this to set the world aright.’’

Carlos lowered his blade as the entire Neteru Council of Kings and Queens made a circle in the glen. They were dressed in royal robes of violet and gold, their expressions grim, as they looked down at Cain. Eve called the Isis to her palm and slowly closed her fingers around the handle as Cain stretched out his hand toward her.

’’Mother, don't do this,’’ Cain said gasping, his body writhing as each wound he ever sustained as a demon opened and bled black blood.

’’I love you, son,’’ Eve whispered with tears in her eyes as she walked toward him with the Isis raised. ’’Let me end your suffering, and all our suffering with it.’’

’’No!’’ Cain shouted as the Isis chimed.

Eve turned away at the sound of the thud and handed the bloody blade to Carlos, never looking back. ’’Cain is healed.’’

The Neteru Councils disappeared in a splinter of gold and violet light without another word. Carlos began running toward the casa and then stopped when he saw Hubert. Sara was lying on the hybrid's chest taking in shallow sips of air. But it didn't make sense. Hubert's body was woven back together, and yet, he still didn't have a pulse. Carlos gathered Sara up into his arms and tried to revive her. She stirred slowly and touched his face.

’’We were too late. His soul was eager to end this life and go into the Light. But he will not be mangled even in death.’’ Glistening tears wet her face, and she was dirty and covered with blood. ’’I will not al�low him to be desecrated by Cain.’’

’’I'll take you back to the group,’’ Carlos said, breathing in her pain. ’’Just hang on, you did too much-’’

’’No,’’ Sara whispered with a smile. ’’He's coming for me. I want to go with Hubert. My heart is broken beyond repair... I can go be�cause I died trying to save him.’’

’’I know how you must feel, but you're still breathing,’’ Carlos said, trying not to panic.

’’I am a Mercy, and what I have seen today has shocked my system,’’ she said in a faint whisper, her voice failing. ’’Put me on his chest... my favorite place in any world. Bury me in with him the same way.’’

Carlos laid her on Hubert's chest and watched her smile looking up at the sky. ’’I'm gonna see who's wounded and come back for you. Okay? You just hold on.’’

Sara said nothing as she reached up and the light went out of her eyes.

Carlos dropped to his knees and brushed the tussled hair away from her face, hung his head, and said a silent prayer. Too many had per�ished, and this was only the beginning of the big war. Defeat claimed him as he trudged back to the hacienda in search of his wife, numb.

His boots met ash, feathers, and bones. The entire ground was charred like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. The sky was over�cast from the smoke and remnants of spewing volcanic ash. He looked at the survivors that gathered around the steps, hoping that some of his immediate family made it. But the scene he stumbled upon made him drop his blade from his grip as he walked forward.

Damali sat on the steps, wings spread, with Shabazz in her arms, holding him from behind, Marlene's head in his lap as he groggily stroked Marlene's locks. Guardians that he'd witnessed going down to the ground mortally shot were sitting in the mud in the courtyard, bloodied but not wounded. His eyes tore to the dead-wagon vehicle, doing a laser search, and to his amazement, the dead were whole, not ripped to shreds... even the Honduran and beheaded Jamaican war�riors were whole. He glanced at Jose, the question in his eyes implicit-did Damali do her thing in time to save Kamal and his men? A brother-to-brother connection was subtly made as Jose shook his head, let out a shuddering breath, and then looked down. No.

’’Oh, man,’’ Carlos said quietly, briefly closing his eyes. Not them.

Big Mike was decimated. His line of vision kept going between Kamal, Drum, and the others beyond the wall on the battlefield and then back to Shabazz. Each heavy, quaking breath that Mike released to stave off breaking down held pain so deep that even Rider couldn't console him. There was nothing to say. Newbies sat shell-shocked, eyes staring, faces dirty and bloodied. The Neteru squad was laid out on the ground in small groups, so overwrought that no one could stop the torrent of tears. Then Carlos stared at his wife. The aftermath was profound. Damali's bottom lip quivered as she tried to speak. He put his finger to his lips as more tears streamed down her face. She searched his eyes and a quiet whisper entered his mind.

I prayed you'd come out of the glen...Damali said on a choked mental gasp.

That's the only reason I'm still standing,he murmured back, his thoughts caressing hers from where he stood.

I couldn't save them all.She buried her face against Shabazz's hair.But my daddy...

’’I know, baby,’’ Carlos said quietly and came to sit beside her on the steps. ’’You saved all the ones you were supposed to. Heaven got the rest.

’’Lilith, you must help me,’’ Nuit croaked as he lay bleeding out on the floor of the Vampire Council's chambers.

’’You were already dead when you sustained the wound from a Neteru's blade,’’ she said coolly, looking at her nails. ’’I cannot regen�erate the limb. It is finished.’’

’’Then stop the bleeding, the agony of it, so I can survive,’’ Nuit begged, beginning to sob.

’’Why should I? Maybe Yonnie can help you-he's a master.’’

Nuit looked up at her as she glanced at his old throne and burned his name off of it.

’’No, no, Lilith, I can explain my liaison with Yolando. It wasn't an attempted coup... it was a pact, an alliance to strengthen Cain's am�bitions!’’

’’Your armies failed. Your alliances failed,’’ she said, looking at him from Cain's old throne. ’’Your attempts to sabotage the Neteru team failed, and your ineptitude thus caused my husband's grandson to per�ish by his own mother's hand. What do you think my husband would do with you, after he was so lenient to allow me to raise you again, hmmmm?’’

’’Please Lilith, I beg you,’’ Nuit said through his teeth, tears rising to his eyes. ’’Don't send me to his chambers-anythingbut that!’’

’’I do feel your pain, as I have been there under less than favorable circumstances. But this I promise. After a month of negotiation with him,’’ she said with an evil grin, ’’it might help you better endure the Sea of Perpetual Agony.’’ She leaned forward, her eyes narrowed to slits. ’’The Devil will have his due, and this time you can take the brunt of his fury, not me. I do pity you-at least I was his lover. I had something to bargain with. Do you?’’

’’No, no, not that, anything, Lilith, I give you my word! We can come to an accord!’’ Nuit began to drag himself away from the group of Harpies that surrounded him, futilely clawing at the marble as his bloody stump leaked his energy away.

Thundering footsteps made both entities stop bickering as the bats went still. Lilith grasped the arms of Cain's throne.

’’Husband,’’ she squeaked. ’’You're home.’’

Nuit covered his head and stopped breathing.

’’Indeed,’’ a voice echoed just beyond the chambers. ’’Cain's throne said you won it from him by inheritance rights from your le�gitimate bargain. This time you did very well for yourself-your treachery knows no bounds like mine, which is why, I suppose, I love you.’’ A deep inhalation rattled the thrones. ’’But I am outraged to have lost another in my direct line of creation.’’

’’I was just preparing a blood sacrifice for you,’’ she said calmly, looking at Nuit's cowering body on the floor. ’’The Harpies were about to deliver a traitor in our midst, one that conspired to cause Cain's downfall.’’

A deep chuckle quaked the cavern. ’’I know this bastard well... he is the same one that attempted a coup against my son, Dante... which is why I came this time to collect him myself.’’

Even the bats and Harpies turned away as Nuit's screaming body slid across the floor leaving nail marks in the marble behind him.

World news said the Popocatepetl volcano was active again, but posed no immediate threat to the cities within its radius. Local papers said that a drug-lord war leveled a villa and hacienda in La Paz, as well as a historic castle in Cuernavaca. The sisters of San Bernardino de Sena swear they witnessed a miracle that cannot be substantiated beyond pure faith... they said an angel raised a dead woman before their very eyes. Nonbelievers scoffed at their superstitious awe. But the townspeople of Taxco know that twelve praying sisters and their se�nior, Sister Louisa, were quietly venerated by the Vatican in a private service performed before the nuns by the Pope.

The angels wept as ten Guardian funerals were held throughout Central America with the Covenant officiating, and all that fought during that fateful twenty-four hours attended. Three courageous hy�brids were laid to rest in the ruins, all Guardian teams present, their legacy inscribed in the sacredTemt Chaas and books of Heaven as they were guided into the Light.

Ten brave humans who were once bitten by were-demon jaguars in the Amazon were also laid to rest on hallowed ground. Their spir�its now reside with the warriors of Light and their children will know them as heroes. The fervent prayers of a sister, a niece, and a nephew, along with those from a man with a good heart, plus the pleas of two young women who'd been spared a horrifying existence to be guided to Guardians by a merciful woman, and the full company of a Neteru team appealed to the Mercies not to leave one of their own. Some�how Light border guards were given the word by an angel named Lopez, who passed it to a spirit named Christine, that there was a bat�tlefield mistake, and in the confusion the preemptive decision was made before hard-hit demons could properly convene. Purgatory was thus breached to take one crying female vampire's soul into the Light to be with friends. That made two additional vampires, friends of the team, that had been spared according to the prophecy.

None of it was a perfect solution or the end of their struggles. This time, it was a draw, a perfect stalemate. But for now, flowers bloomed again, the cycle of life continued, and Guardians could temporarily sleep at night.





EPILOGUE

One month later... Tahiti

Thisis wild,Carlos mentally said to Damali with a sidelong glance. He looked around the huge, nondenominational church and simply shook his head.I'm never gonna hear the end of it once the brothers wake up tomorrow morning and realize what they did, he added, teasing her.

Shush, be quiet, we're in church, and this is beautiful,she mentally said with a huge grin.

They can't hear us like we're whispering, you know. I could say any ole thing to you, even get a little-

DON'T even try it. In church, you crazy?

Been awhile, maybe I am.Carlos smiled and kissed her cheek.Wed�dings have that effect on me, and seven at one time, hey?

Damali bit her lip to keep from laughing. Carlos was a trip and the whole thing was a refreshing change. She was so happy this morning that she wouldn't even revisit his married-man barb later.

After a month of burying the dead and eating their hearts out about what they could have done differently, today was about celebra�tion, pure and simple.

Each cleric would have his turn to perform the ceremony in each Guardian's faith, and half of the squad was running up and down the aisle, either walking the ones who went ahead of them down it, or standing in as best man or both.

Rider walked Marlene down, and Mike stood as Shabazz's best man, Imam Asula presiding;Berkfield was crying harder than Mar�

jorie as he gave Krissy away and Dan stood next to J.L. as best man, Father Pat doing the honors. On every couple the Covenant switched clerics. Inez and Mike went with a local Baptist minister, Damali at her side, Shabazz at Mike's. Rabbi Zeitloff performed the marriage rites for Dan and Heather, shouting ’’Mazel tov!’’ when it was done.

Under the circumstances, even the rabbi turned a blind eye on the whole conversion thing for Heather, just like Father Pat had done for J.L. at Monk Lin's insistence-time was of the essence, but the elderly rabbi couldn't resist warning Dan that his mother would have a coro�nary. Bobby was Dan's best man, and Jasmine was Heather's maid of honor, then they flipped the script, changed clerics again, and Father Pat was back on call to marry Bobby and Jasmine with Dan and Heather standing by. The paperwork and licenses would be sorted out later.

Jose nudged Carlos. ’’I'm up next, man. My tux okay?’’

Carlos nodded and brushed invisible lint off Jose's lapels. ’’You're righteous, holmes. Will be right back with her.’’

Jose nodded and adjusted his bow tie with a hard swallow. Damali gave him a supportive nod and ran to take her place in the back of the church.

’’You ready?’’ Carlos asked Juanita with a smile.

’’Yeah... now I am,’’ she said with a shy smile and looked down as Damali lowered her veil for her. ’’Thank you for giving me away, Car�los.’’

’’It was time, all way around.’’ Carlos kissed her cheek. ’’You're a beautiful bride.’’

Juanita turned to Damali. ’’Thank you for everything.’’

’’I'm honored that you asked me,’’ Damali said, giving Juanita's hand a squeeze.

’’I'm just glad that you would do it,’’ Juanita said and took a shud�dering breath. Her eyes searched Damali's for final acceptance. ’’You aretruly a matron ofhonor.’’

The two women stood together in silence for a moment while private understanding bound them as more than teammates, but fi�nally friends. Damali could only nod and sniff, and then she smiled, giving Juanita's hands one last squeeze before turning to march to the music.

Damali tried to keep her eyes on Father Patrick while blinking back tears of joy and wondering about time... How strange a commodity it was... so quick to heal, so slow to heal. Tragedy could be triumph and the reverse also true. Sara would always be a blue star in the night, just as Hubert and Sedgewick would be constellations of courage she'd say her evening prayers for. Gabrielle would be her constant won�der... What if things had been different?... And God bless Yonnie, where was he? Kamal and his men would always be regal spirit mentors in her dreams... the ones who taught her first how to deliver the balm of peace. Today was a gift she wouldn't squander by looking backward.

But never in a million years did she think that time could have healed the wound between her, Jose, Juanita, and Carlos. The look on Jose's face said it all when he glanced past her to spy his bride, letting them all know time was also merciful. The brother almost broke down.

But nothing was more moving than to see Tara come down the aisle on Carlos's arm for Rider. Damali could barely see the white runner for the tears as she held Tara's flowers and walked before her. Rider didn't even try to hide it. After waiting thirty years for this day, he didn't have to and no one expected it. Rider just shook his head and let the tears run while Shabazz and Mike flanked him like kingly sentries.

Tara wore a long, white, beaded Native American-styled gown and a breathtaking headdress of white eagle feathers. A short veil rimmed in silver thread covered her face and her hair hung down naturally to grace her delicate shoulders. She held a bouquet of wild lavender in trembling hands, tears wetting her beautiful face as she walked with the dignity of a true queen. They practically had to help Father Patrick away from the altar-he was bawling so badly-as the tribal shaman from Tara's grandmother's home in Arizona came to the front of the church to unite the pair as one. Mercy of the Mercies had been visited upon the team today.

The private hotel reception that followed was nothing short of de�cadent, Carlos's orders and definitely his style. Seven cakes for seven brides, all trimmed in the brides'hue of choice. Food enough to have fed the regional teams atla casa, and enough champagne to make everybody dance and act stupid. But Carlos made sure he teased every brother real good when they tried to leave early, citing their harassment of him not long ago.

’’Yo, dude, where's the fire?’’ Carlos teased, whisking Tara away to dance to another song. ’’Y'all ain't leaving yet, are you?’’

Rider just laughed. ’’I still have a firearm nearby, even today.’’

Carlos danced around, whirling Tara back to Rider. ’’My bad. Guess I'll just have to get Inez to hang and party with us.’’

’’Aw, man, don't start,’’ Mike said, laughing.

’’D, talk to your husband, pleeease,’’ Inez wailed, as Carlos hustled her out on the floor.

’’Nope,’’ Damali said, wagging her finger. ’’Y'all made me stay at my reception for almost four hours.’’ Damali sighed and looked at her watch. ’’Only been two hours. Fair exchange is no robbery.’’

’’See, I taught her well,’’ Carlos said, teasing Dan as he danced away with Heather. Then he stopped. ’’Oh, yeah, y'all arereal new-I'll letthem go.’’

The group burst out laughing as Heather blushed and dashed away from Carlos. Carlos cocked his head to the side to see who he could pick on next.

’’We're out,’’ Bobby said, glimpsing Jasmine and laughing as Carlos wiggled his eyebrows at him.

’’Uh, see ya, Mr. Berkfield-I mean, Dad,’’ J.L. said, body blocking Carlos from taking a dance spin with Krissy.

’’Marlene, Marlene, I know you can boogie all night, sis,’’ Carlos said, a new victim in sight.

Shabazz held up his hand with a smile and rubbed his chest. ’’Newly back from the dead, brother-I get special courtesies. Back off my wife.’’

Carlos pounded his fist with a broad grin. ’’Been there-but, uh, y'all ain't give me no special consideration.’’

Shabazz winked, lacing Marlene's arm over his. ’’Y'all wasn'tmar�ried when I was considering.’’

’’Oh, oh, so it's like that, now. Okay,’’ Carlos said, laughing. ’’Cool... I'll dance withmy wife then. How you like that?’’ Then he stopped and glanced around. ’’Where's Jose and 'Nita?’’

’’Gone about a half-hour ago,’’ Rider said, ushering Tara out the door.

’’Vamp move if I ever seen one,’’ Carlos said, as Damali laughed and pulled him onto the floor.

’’Well you would know,’’ Shabazz said, sneaking out the door.

’’Bye y'all-see ya in ten days or so,’’ Marlene called out, laughing.

The room cleared. Marjorie and Berkfield stood with Damali and Carlos.

’’Dang, they really left us.’’ Damali put both hands on her hips and then doubled over laughing.

’’Sho'did... man, and I thought we was bad?’’ Carlos shook his head and twirled Damali out onto the floor. ’’I had 'em play oldies, too, for the old-heads.’’

’’What are we gonna do with all this food?'Marjorie said, looking at the nearly untouched silver banquet trays.

’’Give it to the church, Marj,’’ Berkfield said, and popped her on the behind to make her squeal. ’’Let's dance. Send the cake toppers to their rooms, and let's say me and you take a bottle of bubbly back toour room?’’

’’I got the logistics covered,’’ Damali said with a wink. ’’You guys have fun.’’

The DJ slowed down the music and put on an old Luther Vandross ballad. Carlos smiled as ’’Creep’’ came on, pulling Damali into an em�brace.

’’Guess it's just me and you and a whole big reception that nobody wanted to hang out at.’’

’’Time,’’ she said, kissing his neck and staining his white shirt collar with lipstick. ’’Time seems to movereal slow when there's something you wanna do, but can't... and seems to move real fast while you're doing what you really wanna do.’’

’’Now you're talking dirty to me in a public place.’’

’’This isn't a church;it's a nice little hotel reception room.’’

’’Ah... but you might get in trouble for the offense.’’ He nipped her earlobe. ’’Lose the collar, later, okay?’’

’’Hmmm... maybe, maybe not.’’ She kissed the underside of his chin as they slowly dragged around the floor all alone.

’’Wanna take a bottle of bubbly up to the room?’’

’’I have to tell the staff what to do with the food-I promised Marj.’’ She batted her lashes and then chuckled with a se*y wink. ’’Will only take a minute, but time... can move real slow some�times,’’ she said, drawing out the words as she withdrew from him by increments.

’’Keep playing with me and I'll make it stop,’’ he said, his eyes begginning to flicker silver.

’’Promises, promises, but you'd better not let the hotel staff see your eyes.’’

He checked himself with a smile and went over to tell the DJ he could pack up. He kept Damali in his peripheral vision as she spoke with hotel management, giving instructions. She hadn't lied, though, about time moving slowly when there was something else you'd rather do. He watched her body move beneath the pale lavender silk sheath and became riveted to the way her legs flashed out of the slit at the sides each time she took a step. Time made him remember how her cinnamon-brown skin felt when she smoothed on shea butter... and it brought her scent to him from across the room, slowing time like a slow drag. Agonizing.

’’You know we're officially still on our honeymoon... and since it was interrupted, I demand a do-over,’’ he said against her ear when she finally walked down the deserted hall beside him.

’’Is that so?’’ she said, hiking up the bottle of champagne she'd taken from the reception as they leisurely strolled by the open arch�ways, glimpsing the beach.

’’Yep,’’ he said, suddenly turning and sweeping her up into his arms. ’’Besides, with all the drama, we never got to celebrate your birthday right.’’

She squealed at the sudden change in altitude and held on to the bottle to keep it from falling, and then laughed even harder as he sealed them away in an invisible whirl.

But she stopped laughing the moment he touched down inside their oceanside suite, set her down slowly, and pressed her to the door with his eyes blazing silver.

’’I want nine of those ten honeymoon days back, Damali,’’ he mur�mured into her hair as he took her mouth. ’’Every delicious second.’’

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