The Bitten / Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Four


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Chapter Twenty-Four

It was like history repeating itself, coming full circle. He'd become so fatigued that at one point he'd nearly dropped her. Now she was running by Carlos's side, her steps hard and sloppy from exhaustion, gasping breaths through a blinding pain in her abdomen that felt like someone was examining it, ruthlessly invading it. Carlos was wounded. Both of them were practically staggering and hitting the sides of the walls while running and as the ship continued to shift, listing like they were, her man was too tired to transport, too tired and unfocused to heal himself, half dragging her toward her team.

As they rounded a corner within the behemoth vessel to escape through the exit left by the fallen stairs, they saw a wide smoking hole in a wall and three smoldering vamp dust piles. A dead man was on the bed with a table leg in his chest. Carlos glanced at the grisly sight and his panic shot through her system, nearly blinding her.

Without a word, he wrapped his hands around her waist and thrust her over his head so she could grab a bent rail and pull herself to deck level.

"Run!" he yelled, but she watched him struggle to pull himself to safety with his uninjured arm.

Ignoring his command, she knelt, hooked her arm securely on a brace, and extended her hand. She reached for him harder, holding her breath as new tears formed in her eyes and fell. Their eyes met, no words needed, and he grabbed her hand, leveraging himself with a hard swing and her grasp to land beside her. Then together they ran.

Ammo shells littered the deck; rapid machine-gun fire sent shells in every direction, making them run low and in a zigzag pattern to avoid getting hit. Her team was pinned down behind a twisted section of metal and wood once the helm. A Hell-hound was assisting, keeping nearly fifty top-deck vampires held at bay at the bow from leaping at them airborne, patrolling the expanse with razor-sharp jaws and a slashing tail.

J.L. had rolled away, fly-kicked an encroaching male vampire, and mowed him down with a hail of bullets while sliding on his back. Dan was dead aim and capped two females, then smoked another to give J.L. cover, while Jose stood, a Glock in each hand, giving Dan a chance to reload another magazine.

Shabazz, Rider, and Big Mike were hemmed in at the stern, out of ammo. The rail was at their backs, and a long she-serpent with Lai's body atop, a thick, black coil swayed from side to side. Mistress Xe's six bulked arms were reaching for the trapped Guardians with claws. Mike stepped forward and took a swing at her with the butt of his shoulder cannon, catching her in the jaw, chipping one of her fangs and splitting his weapon in two. In a swift pivot, six hands snatched Mike, squeezing him into a snake's death grasp as she freed her claws to combat the others by thrusting him into her coils. As he struggled to break her hold, she screeched and screamed her fury, making his ears bleed, crushing him with constricting serpentine strength.

Carlos was on her tail in seconds, grappling with the end of it, making her turn, drop Mike, and focus on him. The Hell-hound swooped in, slicing her back open, making her screech, sending black blood everywhere that the huge Guardian had to avoid as he rolled away from the splatter. Then the dog flew off to circle and come in again.

"Carlos..." Lai hissed, furious, her thick, muscular tail-body slamming him to the deck. "We ran out of product, but we'd picked your pocket and found one more pill. Shame you didn't stay."

The dog stole the female vampire's attention for a moment as she swiped at it with a free hand.

"The red pills," Damali yelled, her eyes going to Jose.

Jose nodded, and flung a Glock end-over-end to her. Damali missed, but Rider caught it as Master Xe's wife reared back, swaying, to deliver a death strike to Carlos. J.L. tossed Shabazz a full clip as the dog landed behind the female vamp, distracting her again, and stalked toward her.

With complete synchronicity Rider and Shabazz shadowed each other's movements; they were one. Each brought their arms up, extended, at the same time.

"Yo, sis," Shabazz hollered, making the female vamp turn away from the approaching hound.

Carlos had both hands around the female's throat, but she was a full head taller than he, and more bulked. His back was to the Guardians as she pivoted him with her, and her multiple arms were crushing his rib cage.

"He's family," Rider said, releasing the hallowed-earth-packed rhino shells at the same time Shabazz released his.

Carlos felt sudden heat whiz over his shoulders. Mistress Xe released him, writhing, twisting, and screeching. The dog stopped its advance, then he heard two more simultaneous gunshots, ducked, and shielded his head as her chest exploded, leaving only ash.

He stood fast, glanced back at Rider and Shabazz, and nodded a nonverbal thanks. But his condition was real. Big Mike's gun butt had had more of an effect on the female vamp than he did. If the dog hadn't been there and assisted, if the Guardians hadn't had his back... He had to get Damali and her team off the ship while there was still time. Council was taking away his power.

Drawing together like a magnet, the team instinctively formed a ring around Damali. The hound howled and stood by Carlos. The ship leaned at a harder angle and groaned. The lower-level vampires who were left backed up and sought cover.

"She's going down," Carlos said, his terror unmasked as his gaze swept the group then the open sea. "I have to bring it to a full stop and reverse engines."

Damali touched his face, her fingers tracing Master Xe's blow that still bled, then she looked at his ragged shoulder. "You have to feed. You don't have that much energy in you - your wounds aren't sealing."

He shook his head. "There's nothing on the boat to eat." He stared at her, refusing to look at anyone else in the group.

"Save the key, Carlos. Don't worry about me!" She extended her arm and he glanced at it and staggered away, going to the stern. He held onto the rail and closed his eyes. He could feel energy draining away, making it hard to breathe as the ship slowed to become dead in the water. He pushed off of the rail, his hands forward, concentrating everything within him to a pinpoint of fury, then fell back as the listing vessel lurched and jettisoned in the opposite direction going toward the harbor.

Gasping, he lay on the deck. It was getting too near dawn. Hell was siphoning him hard for answers, draining him. He could smell the putrid stench of Hell-hound saliva and the creature nuzzling him back to consciousness. Footsteps echoed from the deck wood into him, pain. Hands pulled at his body. Sweat blinded him, but he managed to stand. His vision was fuzzy, unfocused for a moment, but he could feel the speed by the rate of the wind passing him. A pair of tender arms held him upright. Sydney Harbor Bridge was coming into view, and he could hear the speedboats rushing to rendezvous in the distance.

"Get on the boats," he said, his speech slurring from fatigue as he weaved. "I can't stop it from hitting the harbor."

"We all do this, man," Shabazz said.

"No," Carlos said, almost unable to lift his head. "Protect the package," he croaked, pushing Damali away from him, staggering backward, and snapping his fingers for the dog. "No acid," he yelled at the creature. "No harm. Do not bear down - carry her for me. Be my arms."

"We are not doing this again," Damali yelled. But as she took a step forward, the Hell-hound rushed her, grabbing her in its massive jaws, and flew off without biting down, and dumped her into Marlene's fast-moving skimmer. Then it circled back to the ship.

Marlene rubbed Damali's back as she jumped up and leaned far over the side of the speedboat, straining toward the larger vessel. Father Lopez made a U-turn in the water and came alongside the rocketing yacht. Father Patrick and the other clerics flanked Marlene's speedboat, all eyes looking up, trying to keep from bumping the vessel beside them, but also urging with their eyes for the rest of the team to quickly join them.

"Jose, J.L., Dan," Carlos yelled, not looking at them, but sending the order to the dog, who responded instantly. Carlos looked at Jose. "The others are too heavy now, the dog hasn't been fed, is exhausted, and might drop them. Don't fight me. Remember what I told you. Hallowed ground. Deliver the package intact."

All the Guardians glanced at each other. The dog hadn't eaten. Jose nodded, and nervously complied on trust alone, committing his body to the dog's jaws. They all watched as the animal brought the three lighter-weight Guardians and dropped them with a soft thud. But on each pass, the animal visibly slowed its return, the exhaustion clear as it strained harder with each delivery.

"We ain't leaving you," Big Mike hollered. "We'll jump, Mar can circle back."

"The sharks," Carlos said. "I can't hold them back."

"We are one," Rider said.

"Carlos, throw a line, and let Rider and - "

A swirling black cloud silenced Damali's urgent demand. It was headed in a direct path, perpendicular to the port side of the listing yacht. Carlos turned slowly, knowing exactly what it was. Council transport.

The dark tornado cut the water in two frothing sections that made the speedboats bounce and have to pull away from the yacht to avoid collision. Black lightning zigzagged through the Hell-sent mass, flashing hints of red-eyed courier bats within it before going dark again. The angry screeches sliced his eardrums and made Big Mike hurl. Carlos glanced at the cloud and then at the horror in Damali's eyes.

Gale-force winds made it hard for them all to stand. The remaining lower-level hiding vampires and helpers that cowered at the bow took their chances against the sharks, leaping off the yacht like lemmings. Angry jaws from beneath the water's surface abandoned their chase of the speedboats and headed back toward the yacht. Their instant feeding frenzy colored the water, turning it black and red and sizzling. Vampire extinctions and human cries rent the air as lieutenants and helpers fought against the impossible—nature's efficient garbage disposal system.

With his last ounce of strength, Carlos slung his arm in the three ship-trapped guardians' direction, knocking them overboard from the starboard side, jettisoning them forward, his mind connecting them with the two speedboats, separating their landings as his fists opened, his fingers craned, and the veins stood up in his neck—they could not fall wrong and die, it would break her heart.

Instantly, he saw Berkfield's terror-stricken face within his mind's eye and felt a small surge of light enter him as he grappled to get past the dark current shackling the man's arm's and legs within one of the four coffins hidden within the engine room. Deck board splintered; a hole opened in the ship all the way to the hull. The boat listed at the invasion, and a frightened, weary man bubbled up with a froth of sea water, choking.

The exertion brought Carlos to his knees. The cloud was calling. Carlos looked at Berkfield, unable to even speak. He glanced at the speedboats and used the last that was in him to slam Berkfield into the getaway vessel closest to the yacht. Carlos stopped breathing. His heartbeat slowed to a crawl and then died.

His dog was now circling him, growling, stalking him. He'd lost favor. His throne had been revoked. Power drained from his hands, the cloud was calling. He looked up at the waning moon. He'd had a good run, had played it to the bone, but it was time to ante up and pay the band. Carlos closed his eyes, feeling the foul wind on his face. He was oddly at peace - the lie was out, he'd been busted... the night was on his face. Damali's sobbing voice begging him to jump was a stabbing pain in his temple.

"We don't leave our own!" Shabazz hollered. "You're one of us - always were. C'mon man, you're a Guardian!"

Father Patrick's loud, fervent prayers made his ears ring, but didn't slow the cloud. Marlene's, and prayers from all the others, blended in and became chants that only made the tornado pick up speed. Damali's voice was drowned out by the turbine winds. Berkfield was weeping as the clerics whisked him toward the shore. This was Hell's concern, he was theirs, he'd used their credit at the table.

A deal was a deal. All the power to play by their rules. He'd reneged, now it was their turn to do said same. It was nonnegotiable.

He could hear futile gunfire whirring through the cloud. A rocket-propelled grenade lit the cloud like the Fourth of July, but it kept coming. Hell's debt-collection system had a score to settle.

Father Lopez pulled away, Father Patrick's boat on his flank. They were giving up! Damali's eyes filled.

"No!" she screamed, her voice breaking with a sob. "Don't let them take him!" Strong hands held her from the boat's edge—she'd swim if she had to but she wasn't letting him die alone, not like that.

She reached out, and opened her hand - the Isis filled it as Carlos looked back at her slowly one last time. Then the cloud collided with the yacht, and the fireball explosion sent splintering cinders everywhere, rocking their careening speedboats almost out of the water.

Marble broke his fall, shattering his kneecaps. Carlos rolled over on his side, his legs jelly, as agony shot up his thighs, into his groin, and stabbed his abdomen. Three sets of black robes swished by him—he could hear them near, hovering, repressed fury making the air around him crackle and pop. He opened his eyes slowly, his face a hot poker against the icy floor.

He peered up at the chairman, then focused on the other two councilmen. Tetrosky stood by the council table, his expression triumphant.

"Stand and face me!" the chairman bellowed, raising Carlos to his feet by sheer will and an outstretched claw. Then he flung him to a far wall and hurled two stalactites at him, spearing his arms to keep him hanging against it.

The instant agony made Carlos close his eyes and release a long yell that echoed and bounced through the chamber, his body convulsing and burning until his muscles stopped twitching.

"I don't even know where to begin," the chairman said. His voice was even, level, controlled as the vampire tribunal approached Carlos. He grasped Carlos's jaw in his gnarled hand, forcing Carlos to look at him, squeezing his face until his fangs dropped. "You don't even deserve to possess these," he whispered, seething, then let go of Carlos's face, pacing away. "I am so disappointed," he said with his back to Carlos, his voice escalating in volume with every word, his hands now outstretched, gathering strength, curling in, rattling thrones until the huge pentagram-shaped table shuddered.

When he turned around to face Carlos, black tears of rage shimmered in his eyes nearly eclipsing his all-red pupils. Breathing hard, the chairman paced over to Carlos again, reared back, drew his arm far over his shoulder, and released a backhanded slap that took out one of Carlos's fangs, leaving blood in his mouth. "Ingrate! Infidel! Heretic! Treasonous bastard, I made you!"

The blow had shattered his jaw, and a long trail of saliva mixed with blood oozed to the floor from where his left fang used to be. He shut his eyes tight, hurt as much from the blow as he was from the humiliation. He could feel a claw dig into his wet scalp and thrust his head back, forcing him to stare into furious glowing eyes. Then his jaw repaired, minus his fang, as the eyes narrowed on him.

"Speak to me!" the chairman bellowed. He dropped Carlos's head from his grasp and walked away, pacing hotly, drawing smoke from the floor as he waited for an explanation.

Carlos glanced around the room, looking for anything to cling to, a place to begin. Tetrosky's sly smile dug into his pride. "I made the drug because - "

"Silence!" The chairman was trembling, and the other council-men backed up, hissing. He stretched his arm out behind him and pointed to Tetrosky. "He brought a valid complaint to my chambers about my most trusted, most promising councilman!" The chairman closed his eyes and made a tent in front of his mouth. Then he lowered his voice to a murmur. "I do not care about a little masters' territory squabble."

The elderly vampire swished away and walked up to Tetrosky, grabbing him by the throat so fast that Tetrosky hadn't been able to avoid the snatch. The chairman studied the fear in Tetrosky's eyes with casual disdain. "We were debating the futile," he said, speaking over his shoulder to Carlos while holding Tetrosky. "I explained to him that I didn't give a centuries damn about his losses, or the fact that my own turned councilman had bested him and the others in a blood hunt. Winner takes all. Those are the rules. And I told this pathetic topside master that if power was to concentrate, then let it be with the better vampire - so be it. And if my turn was conniving and shrewd enough to use a drug, or whatever ruthless methods to deceive him, then that truly showed who was the better vampire."

The chairman dropped his hold on Tetrosky and let out a long sigh. "I was so proud of you, son." The chairman shook his head as he stared at Carlos. He drew a deep, shaky breath, and let it out slowly. "So, I told this sniveling, Old World bastard to get used to a new empire - Carlos Rivera was progressive, street savvy, had shown even me something new... and I cannot tell you how long it's been since I've seen something new!" He turned his attention back to Tetrosky. "Didn't I?"

Tetrosky nodded. "Yes, Your Excellency," he said, genuflecting and backing away.

"And I told him to take his pathetic, pampered, betrayal-ridden carcass out of my chambers and away from my sight, and to never darken our threshold down here again - not over some bullshit about his feudal rights over a woman!" The chairman whirled around, snapped his fingers, and brought a transport cloud down to collect Tetrosky. "But now, I may have to cede Europe back to him! Perhaps the entire topside empire! Why? Because as the only topside master that has survived this fiasco, he told me that you possessed the key that would open the seal - that it was your treachery! It was hidden in your marked human. And he let me witness with my own eyes how you sent that key away with clerics en-route to hallowed ground to protect him. And you also impregnated our vessel - stealing daylight and power from me not once, but twice!"

His gaze narrowed on Tetrosky as the smoke gathered around him. "Although I have not decided to give him all that he asked for yet." The chairman glared at Tetrosky. "So do not get comfortable even lusting over the idea. You did yourself a disservice. Instead of taking your losses like a true master and being clever enough to bide your time to win your losses back, you came to council like a child, wanting your territory handed back to you on a silver platter." The chairman shook his head. "You disgust me. Our kind, from the old days, would have seen that as a challenge, raised an army, embedded intrigue in Rivera's own courts, but we would never have whined about our misfortunes. Youth! What is happening in our world? You had the perfect opportunity to show me something new - your worst deceptions through creativity!"

With that, he bitch-slapped Tetrosky. "You dishonor Dracula's line, and will never descend to a throne under my rule for bringing this information to me that breaks my heart about my favorite - I will never forgive you for that."

The chairman stepped away from the cloud. Tears of humiliation glittered in Tetrosky's eyes and burned away as he glanced at Carlos while the dense cloud consumed him.

In the quiet moments while the chairman took deep, stabilizing breaths and Tetrosky disappeared, a new awareness entered Carlos. He clung to the acquired knowledge like a life raft. The chairman had said he was his favorite. Had called him son. Like an heir apparent to the top seat, someone being groomed for further descent. Even in his wrath, the old vampire's spirit had hesitated to exterminate him. He'd felt it in the blow, in the crushing hold of his hand, the way he'd held himself back from ripping out his heart, had repaired his jaw to hear his side of the dispute.

Their eyes met, one pair older and seeming broken, one pair hopeful.

"Carlos," the chairman whispered, and then looked at the two seething councilmen by his side. "Leave us," he ordered, and waited until the others begrudgingly vanished. He returned his focus to Carlos. "Have you any idea how much pain this causes me?"

The chairman shook his head slowly, coming to Carlos without fury. "No, you don't. You never will." He walked back and forth slowly with his eyes closed and his hands behind his back.

Carlos knew it was useless to try to offer an explanation in his own defense, no matter what Tetrosky had done, or how he'd been set up. The balance of the evidence was damning. He could feel his mind being torn open from the lethal probe. Blood began to run down his nostrils, burning, stinging, and making him gag. The pain was so intense from the brutal invasion that he could barely hold his head up. But there was one thing about a mind probe, it always worked both ways.

"My Neteru..." the chairman said, his voice far off as he chuckled and took another deep, stabilizing breath. He looked at Carlos. "I was midsentence, tongue-lashing Tetrosky, when her blood dropped onto my council table and the light in it burned a hole straight through the marble." He smiled and pointed. "Right on the crest." Then chuckling, he rubbed his hooked hand over his bald scalp. "Burned right through the table and went all the way to level seven."

Carlos blinked and sniffed back blood and mucous. "History is repeating itself, isn't it, sir?"

The chairman nodded. "I thought you could beat the cycle," he whispered. His gaze was eerily tender. "You had become so intertwined in their lives... so trusted, that you could roll over prayer lines and live. I had seen a new era. Not even hallowed ground could stop you. I nearly wept with pride. For a moment I tasted the elusive thing called hope."

The old man walked away and gave Carlos his back, his breaths shuddering his body as he spoke. "You were with ripe Neteru on hallowed ground, about to start an empire."

"Sir, she was just in false flux and - "

"Do not mock me at this juncture!" The chairman spun, his arm outstretched, pointing at Carlos so hard that his chest started to groan, ribs snapping slowly, his heart tearing away from the surrounding tissues. He drew back his arm in a fast jerk, and Carlos's body slumped. "You think I do not know the true scent of ripened Neteru?"

Agitated, the chairman paced back and forth quickly, stuttering as he spoke, lather forming at the corners of his mouth, his fangs dropping three additional inches. "I don't know because I am an old man?" He paced some more, stopping in front of Carlos. "I bit the first Neteru on the planet. Eve!" The chairman slapped the center of his chest, and spit on the floor. "Human prayer lines? Please!"

Pure, unadulterated shock held Carlos against the wall harder than the rock spears the chairman had hurled. "Eve?" The question came out on an awed whisper filled with genuine respect.

"Yes!" the chairman yelled as he opened his arms and his voice fractured. "In Paradise, I crossed barriers that you cannot fathom, gained her trust against the one who shall remain nameless, took her from a male Neteru!" He was breathing hard as the recollection swept through him. He pointed at his chest. "It was I who began our race. Cain was mine. That is why I sit here as your chairman." He took a heaving breath and swept away from Carlos's unblinking gaze. "She was gorgeous, the first woman on the planet... flawless, innocent, a warrior, and I brought her pleasure that she couldn't even comprehend." He covered his face with his back to Carlos. "And they took her from me," he added quietly. "She went back to her people. She made a choice that even I couldn't control."

Black tears stained the chairman's face as he turned around and stared at Carlos. "Can you fathom that? She went right back into Adam's arms, and carried his human seed right next to mine. Gave up every luxury I could have offered her, all for desert, hardship, and hope." He slowly went to the abandoned table across the room and touched the burn hole in it. "It was a hollow victory when Cain slew Adam's part of her womb fruit, Abel. She probably died human - I wouldn't know. I got demoted from the left hand of my father, and was sent here to rule a lesser realm in the darkness."

The elderly vampire glanced around the cavern. "That's why our kind cannot bear the light, and we have been made death-sterile, except if we can be shrewd enough to beguile a Neteru - to right the earlier wrong." He offered Carlos a sad smile. "My father's wrath knows no bounds... but he did leave me a conundrum, a puzzle if you will... a challenge loophole, an opportunity that only presents itself every thousand years." His voice dipped to a dangerously low whisper. "You had solved the puzzle, were so close... and then... she bent your will. A council-level master!"

Again, two pairs of eyes met. A terror filled Carlos like he'd yet to experience. Information was power, but his mind was not ready for this black box that he'd opened within the chairman's. He now understood to whom he was speaking to, understood who he'd been playing games with... oh... shit... and the baby... Damali... this was who he was employed by...

"Uhhmmm-hmmmm," the chairman said with a sly smile. "Rude awakening, isn't it?" He sighed and studied his nails. "But you were excellent, Carlos. In thousands of years, I had never seen a man with such balls. Absolute defiance." The chairman chuckled. "You delighted me so. Reminded me so much of myself. I had my night where I angered my father by doing the Paradise job while he was in heavy negotiations, and fucked up and lost." The chairman laughed harder, amused at the wicked memory. "So like me. Here we are on the brink of the Armageddon, and you are cutting side deals left and right, light and dark, all because of a woman who is making you crazy... making you lose perspective, forgetting all about what we can really do to you down here. You even gave her the key." He shrugged and sighed. "Not to worry. We've sent an escort to reclaim it. No matter. It's your intent that pains me so, going against me, the one who made you."

He waved his hand. "Ahhhh, youth. I did it, too. My father was stalling for time with his primary adversary when I breached Paradise; his demon legions were not built up, he hadn't harvested enough dark souls... he was not prepared to do battle - but my ill-timed seduction almost made the Light eclipse the Dark and withdraw from sensitive negotiations. It almost began the final battle while our side's forces were just forming."

The chairman shook his head. "Just like you have done - while our vampire forces have sustained heavy losses, our empire is in shambles with the loss of all topside masters but one - with only a weak one left... two open thrones at a table that requires five, only lower realms filled, and lower-level vampires topside that cannot create more masters... and you fall in love." His smile evaporated as he let out a frustrated breath and stared at Carlos hard. "My father was very displeased... much like I am now. Timing is everything. Son, you just screwed yourself by attempting to screw us."

He pushed away from the table and licked the finger that had touched the burnt hole. "But the difference between you and me is this. All I could create, given the times and the bargain on the table my father had made, was an evil spirit within a man - Cain." He pointed at Carlos now, his fury slowly building as he thought about what he was saying.

"But you could have released our kind to dwell in sunlight as well as live forever. It would have sealed the rift between level six and level seven - there would be no boundary between those realms! Even the other councilmen have no concept of how close you were to that, what power you held in your arms as you loved her - only one who has been there could ever fathom that... no other, but you and I, Carlos, has had a Neteru willingly give herself by choice."

The old vampire became very still, his voice dropping to a murmur of madness as though addressing himself. "The fair exchange would have been made - the Eve fiasco possibly forgiven. If I had delivered night eternal by opening the sixth seal and swayed the Armageddon, my debt to my unholy father would have been paid in full. We would have broken the backs of all Guardian teams worldwide, as well as the Covenant; hope would have finally been banished from the face of the earth... and my father's army would have spoiled it, unchallenged - harvested souls in numbers that are frightening. The power you walked away from... power that I would have never given up. That's the critical difference between you and me. You've ruined everything!"

Suddenly becoming quiet, the chairman stopped walking, shook his head, his voice a mere whisper as his weary eyes searched Carlos's. "Carlos, why? Why would you give them both the Neteru and the key... what did they offer you that was so great? Salvation? What is that anyway? Why?"

"I didn't know..." Carlos said quietly, the truth in his words no ploy, no game. "I didn't - "

"You didn't think as you released!" the chairman yelled, his mercurial emotions now thundering his voice through the chamber. He swept in to Carlos fast, grabbing his tattered lapels. He gazed at Carlos, his eyes filled with hurt. "You loved her like a man." He dropped his hands away. "You filled her with hope, love, faith, trust, everything that keeps the human choice whole and the spirit unbroken." Near sobbing with regret, he touched Carlos's face. "You let her turn you. And you prayed for her... and prayed that if she ever conceived by you, the baby would be like her, human. You let her give you the virus of humanity - a conscience... compassion. And you disgraced everything I've ever known."

The chairman walked away from Carlos. "Even now, down here, so crystalline a plea is in your heart... a prayer to end this, take you, but spare her. You brought a prayer into my chambers, staked to my wall, bleeding, broken, defeated - the absolute gall of it, and you come in here with hope?" Incredulous, the chairman's voice dropped to a whisper. "Your last wish, the only thing on your mind is not survival, but to see her one last time... not power?"

He placed his hand over his heart and closed his eyes. "She has polluted my protege and has driven a stake through my heart." Then he chuckled and shook his head. "And, I can't kill her. She's still the only vessel we have, unless I can extract the key. But even then, I must still find the seal - which could take centuries!" His withering gaze held Carlos. "You played our entire realm into a winner-takes-all position where she's temporarily won. Unbelievable."

He began walking again with his eyes closed and his hands behind his back. "What to do, what to do with you, my wayward, wayward son? The sins of the father shall be visited upon the son—that's the law of all realms, a point not negotiated... and I'm sure my father had to ask himself this same question. Irony."

"It wasn't her fault," Carlos said, sheer panic in his voice as a million different horrific options entered his mind.

"Oh, yes... there was total, clear intent in her desire to save your damnable soul... to snatch it from our clutches, to convert you to her side - Dark Guardian. She wanted to bring you into the Light." The chairman tilted his head and nodded. "So be it. Grant the lady her wish, and let her see what the Light does to our kind." He walked away from Carlos. "I hope she likes her decision."

Carlos could feel his body relax. It would be painful, but it would be an end, and be over quickly. She'd survive, so would the baby. Maybe, under the right circumstances, Marlene could help guide it, anoint it, keep it from being evil.

The chairman put one finger to his lips before speaking. "Over quickly? No..." He made a little tsking sound as he slowly shook his head. "And, we do intend to be sure that she sees your death in the Light - just where she wanted you to be, to place a scar on her heart where she left one on mine."

Carlos closed his eyes.

"And, the baby... the Neteru is our vessel, and it has to be cleaned out. I'm not going to risk - "

"No!" Carlos yelled, straining against the rock stakes in his arms.

"Yeessss..." the chairman said. "Just like you showed her. The blood separation - yours to one side, hers to the other... we can't harm her, we can't infect her blood, but we can take back that which is rightfully ours - your blood and your DNA... and we will drain it out of her womb until the fetus detaches from - "

"Oh, God, no! Compasion," Carlos cried out, sobs now choking the mucous-trapped words, "Dios, por favor, compasion - don't let them do that to her! Take me, do whatever, don't hurt her - not like that!"

Horrified, the chairman stepped back as the black marble floor split between them, sending a hiss of thick, black sulfuric smoke up from the widening gully. Tears, smoke, blood, burned Carlos's eyes. Hysteria made him tear at his own flesh to free himself from the wall, nearly severing his arm.

"Never in my chambers - that name!"

Screeching, howling, spitting creatures climbed over the edge of the dark pit in the council floor. Squatting, gargoyle-faced entities appeared, their gray-green skins mangled and fused into contorted features as though keloid scars from burns. Their long, scaled hands had gleaming yellowed hooks on the ends of six appendages that mocked fingers. Their tails swished back and forth like a cat's, a razor barb at the end. They had no eyes, just bloody black sockets, and from behind jagged yellow teeth, they flicked a long, black serpent's tongue. Gray wings with razor edges and spikes spread out to help them balance in a slow scamper forward. The creatures huddled around Carlos's feet, touching his legs with one finger, poking him, tilting their heads, their short black horns catching the torch fire as they conferred with each other.

"I might have been moved to some dark level of mercy," the chairman said calmly, backing further away as the entities turned to him and screeched. "May have struck a deal," he added, which returned their focus to Carlos when the chairman gave the only acceptable answer in Hell. "But you cried out down here" He shook his head, his voice filled with strange compassion and yet respect. "I can't help you now that the harpies have come to investigate. You will have to tolerate an Inquisition."

She couldn't see as she stumbled up the dock, half running, half jogging with her team. The tears wouldn't stop flowing, then she heard it. A piercing wail that ran through her soul. She turned to the others and covered her face. Brutal images flashed in strobe in her mind, made her vomit, and drop to her knees. "They're torturing him!"

A sharp tug on her shoulder, arms lifting her, reinforcing her grip on Madame Isis, and making her stand. The sea was spewing a dark, whirling funnel cloud, electricity sparking within it to reveal the razor-toothed flying creatures within it. Instantly they all knew it had come for the living key, Berkfield.

The Guardians temporarily halted their retreat, holding a line at the edge of the dock to slow down the hellish cloud. Weapons drawn, the clerics began to half drag, half carry the semiconscious Berkfield to a Jeep. Then the team froze. The clerics surrounded Berkfield.

"Damali, come to me!"

She wiped her face fast and focused on the deeply pained male voice, and gasped.

"Steady aim," Rider whispered. "We got us an amped master."

"Stand down," Damali ordered, her back to her team. She spun on them when they wouldn't lower weapons. "Me and Tetrosky had a deal! Stand down if it's the last thing you do. Now!"

"He's in her head," Shabazz said, his voice steady. "Take aim - "

"No," Damali said fast, backing away from her team to stand between them and Tetrosky. She ignored their stricken confusion and blocked their aim.

"Neteru," Tetrosky said. "Your team stood with me against Amin. I saw them try to take him out to assist me. They're confused, they're human - but we need them to clear away the hallowed earth over close-by lairs. Don't harm them. It's near dawn. Send the chairman his key and we shall find favor, still, in the empire. It's not too late. All my primary forces are gone. After the battles, and the transports, I need to feed just to have you in my arms and protect you." He wheezed but stood tall, passion and yearning glittering in his eyes. "We'll rebuild the empire, you and I, one turn at a time. All the chairman wants is the living key, but it will take him eons to find the seal to open it. None of us know where it is. That leaves us as his only future. Tell them to lower the weapons that can hurt our kind."

"You hear that?" Damali said, pointing her sword toward her team, sheer force in her eyes as she held each gaze closely, trying to transmit information, then she looked at Marlene and nodded slowly. "He is the last master vampire topside," she said carefully. "All the second-levels, including wives, went down with the ship. Winner takes all. I made this man a deal in the castle parlor... I actually made him more than that - I made a promise that I would honor with my Isis - now stand down - and do not be confused. Trust me."

Her team cautiously followed her lead and lowered their weapons, but their muscles twitched with readiness. She watched Tetrosky visibly relax, his breathing labored as though he'd just been through Hell.

"Where's Carlos? I have to know before I honor our pact. I have to know if you've truly won the blood match."

Tetrosky took a step forward, but she lowered her blade, making him stop, and keeping him twenty feet away from her.

"He is down in council chambers, Damali," Tetrosky said, his voice becoming a plea. "He's staked to the chairman's wall and is getting his innards ripped out. I am the last master vampire standing." He opened his arms. "Don't make it a hollow victory for me."

Damali slowly brought her hand to her mouth, her Isis lowered a bit, and she fought the chill that ran through her. She refused to allow tears to build in her eyes and found an old inner rage to cling to in order to anchor herself. Without looking back at her team, she held her hand up to them, knowing they were ready to unload what was left of their ammo. Timing was everything. Not yet. He was still a master, and still dangerous. Especially now if he panicked.

"Gustav," she said, allowing her voice to become soft, and using his first name on purpose. "The victory will not be hollow."

She could see tears of relief, pent-up desire, self-doubt, tension—so many things all at once glittering in his eyes. She knew where he was, could sense it with everything Neteru and female in her. He was male. And he had led her man to the worst nightmare imaginable.

"I remember what you asked me to do just before the master's hunt," she said, slowly approaching him as her grip on her blade tightened. "You wanted me more than all the others, and you played your hand so very, very well."

"Yes," he whispered. "For you, McGuire. For you, a visit to council to survive the chaos on the boat. Now come to me. We still have time before dawn, you and I."

She nodded, walking forward. "Skill, shrewd strategy, deception... let the best man win."

He nodded, approaching her slowly, still cautious about her nervous team and unwilling to make a sudden move that could spook them. "Winner takes all, and you still smell so good."

"I'll come to you, just as you wanted. With Isis in hand," she murmured, allowing her gaze to rake his body until he briefly closed his eyes.

A sob stole his breath for a moment. "Do you have any idea what I went through to acquire you?"

She nodded, her steps moving forward steadily, her eyes locked with his, gaze unwavering, stalking, hunting. Then her voice dropped to a breathless whisper. "Just ask me once again like you did in the parlor, just so my memory can fuse with the new image as I give you my throat now that my husband is being extinguished. Just let me see it raw. I need that now." Tears filled her eyes as she referred to Carlos, and that devastated Tetrosky, sent insane fury through her system like a rocket.

Tetrosky opened his arms wide, trembling, dropped to his knees, leaned his head back, and another sob of sheer relief entwined with blatant longing caught in his throat. "With all that I have, take everything - and my throat. You extinguish me."

Damali swung so hard that it felt like her shoulders were coming out of their sockets. Each vertebra in her back expanded, twisted, and snapped as the blade connected with Tetrosky's throat, slicing in a ringing wind chime through skin, and muscle, and tissue, and cartilage and bone. She kept spinning in a full fhree-hundred-and-sixty-degree circle and almost fell from her own momentum. She heard the head thud and bounce, rolling away from the body, the eyes in it stunned open, before the body fell back and made a loud thud - then burst into flames.

"Gladly, you bastard! As promised!" she screamed, going to the ashes and kicking them, hysteria bubbling in her. "The last man standing is staked to a wall in Hell! They're torturing him because of you!" Screaming sobs made her vision blur, her ears ring, and her hands grasp at the air as her team drew her away from the site.

Her team was pulling her away from the cinders, lifting her off her feet to keep her from repeatedly stabbing the ground where Tetrosky had been. The team was yelling about the cloud of evil that was only a quarter mile away. She didn't care! She snatched away from them, going back to where Tetrosky had been, beating the ground with her sword, trying to kill this motherfucker over and over again.

"He was the better man. He is the better man. I'll kill you! I'll kill you! Oh, Marlene, I will kill this bastard. Shoot him, Shabazz. Mike, blow this fucker up! Oh, my God! Heaven help me! I will kill him!"

The team backed off for a few seconds, their gazes monitoring the darkening horizon, but they gave her those few heartbeats to let her rail at the nothingness. Immediately the remaining ash and dust from Tetrosky blew away from her foot stomps and the mere wind.

Then in an eerie moment of clarity, she stopped, wiped her face with her dress sleeve, closed her eyes and breathed deeply, and really cried hard in earnest. They were torturing her man... oh Lord... make them stop.

A female hand touched her shoulder, and then female arms encircled her. Yes, they had just wiped out the entire vamp empire and had saved an innocent containing the living key - but what a bitter victory it was. Mission accomplished, but to what end? So what there were no more master vampires left topside? Who cared if all that were left were probably thirds and fourths, and minor entities that could be easily conquered? As long as there was Hell, there was a manufacturing plant to make more. What was all of this for, then? All the battles against something that just kept coming and coming and coming - evil? They were torturing her man, ripping her heart out... and there wasn't a thing she could do about it.

"Why?" she said, her question so piteous even to her own ears as she looked at her team, looked past Marlene's shoulder, then broke away from her to face the clerics.

"Damali, we've got to get out of here!" Shabazz yelled. "Marlene, Mike, Rider, Jose, tell her, it's time to go!"

"Why? You answer me! Why!" She stormed away from them when they took two seconds too long to answer her, and she approached her bewildered Guardian brothers and opened her arms. "Why?"

"Baby, we ride," Rider said, going to her to drag her away from the battle she couldn't win as she raised her blade and took a stance as though bracing for the incoming cloud.

She saw her team about to go to her, then Berkfield stumbled toward her, his eyes wild, his hands bleeding. Clerics began yelling, soaking his wounds in their robes.

"Stigmata!" Father Patrick shouted. "Bind up his wounds, do not let a precious drop of sacred blood hit the ground! She beheaded the master and broke the vessel ritual," he said, huffing and working quickly with the others to wrap Berkfield's wounds.

The turbine whine of the dark cloud made them all hold their ears. Surf crashed into the pier, lightning and thunder lit the sky, and wind made it difficult for them to stand, but the team noted that for some eerie reason, the evil contained within the dark tornado momentarily stayed back.

"He's going into shock," Father Patrick yelled over the storm. "This man's blood is separating from the Lamb's and the sacred blood must be returned to the key keepers! He is our priority. We must get him, and the sacred blood, to sanctuary!"

Berkfield convulsed, stopping their retreat, his forehead dribbling blood, his eyes running tears of blood, his palms pierced and dripping blood, his feet broken and bleeding. Then he arched, cried out, and began bleeding at his side. There was no way to keep all of the blood that fled his body from splattering the ground. The clerics were frantic as they worked against the inevitable. They couldn't get it all, sacred blood would surely hit the earth. But the second a drop hit the dirt, it was as though they were all watching the scene in slow motion.

Dark crimson drops transformed into golden-silvery-red iridescent orbs that gathered together and rose off the ground's surface a few inches. Blood splatter immediately gravitated to the hem of each cleric's robe. Stupefied by the sight, the teams watched the process of the sacred blood key going to holy vestments, staining them crimson within the folds as it crept upward away from the ground, concealing itself in the fabric of them. Once the last of it had been absorbed and hidden, a ray of light broke through the black horizon. It drew a line of white fire in the water offshore, sending a message for the cloud to stay back, halting its advance.

To the group, it seemed to be a momentary standoff, but like all things, they also knew that the dark side was willful and would exhaust all possibilities before it ever surrendered to defeat.

As the last of the stigmata began to disappear from the detective's agonized body, Berkfield convulsed again and passed out. Imam Asula caught him and carried him to a waiting Jeep. The line of light withdrew, and the black cloud began a slow advance that began to rapidly gain in speed.

Numbly, Damali watched the clerical team speed off with the limp body of an innocent man on the seat. Berkfield was their priority now. Who was there to help Carlos? New sobs accosted her, made her push Big Mike away as he tried to pull her to him and stroke her hair. It was the wrong set of arms, the wrong person to stroke away the pain. There was only one right body to fit against and weep, and he was trapped in Hell.

She spun on Shabazz and Rider, their tears making more of hers fall. "So what that we won? Who cares! We all didn't make it back - we aren't supposed to leave our own! We left him," she shrieked, her voice strained, popping, fracturing with each question. "We can't get him out, and he's .still alive! But what they're doing to him isn't human..."

The images tore at her brain, made her walk away from the group, bend over and dry heave then spew bile.

She stayed there, standing alone for a quick moment, one that she needed to regain her battle readiness for the team. Her eyes closed, she bent over, still breathing hard, staving off the chills, and just trying to figure out the Rubik's Cube of the universe. Why?

"We have to go to hallowed ground," Rider said quietly after a moment. "We still don't know what's coming. And it's starting to pick up speed and come fast."

Marlene went to Damali and collected her. This time she followed her mother-seer's lead. She allowed Marlene to deposit her on Jose's bike. She didn't fight or struggle, there was no resistance left in her.

"Rider, you watch my back, we're faster than the Jeeps," Jose said in a far-off tone, then stomped down on his bike and revved the motor.

"Done," Rider shouted, stomping down on his black Harley. Shabazz tossed him a sawed-off shotgun from the interior of one of the waiting Jeeps, and he caught it.

"Precious cargo, gentlemen, ride fast but ride her easy." Marlene turned away, and jumped into one of the two waiting vehicles. She threw Damali's sword belt to Jose. "So she can ride strapped."

"We got y'all's backs," Big Mike said, pointing a freshly loaded rocket-propelled grenade launcher out the window. He tossed Rider and Jose more clips. "Hallowed ground, then home."

Moving like a robot, without feeling, Damali put on the belt and sheathed the Isis. Her hands grasped Jose's waist, and she rested her cheek against his back. Soul weary, she didn't care that silent tears wet his back, or that she could barely feel the wind catch and lift her hair. The noise of the motorcycle 'wasn't loud enough to block the agonized male voice in her head. Just let it be quick... that's all she could hope for him now.

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