The Thirteenth / Chapter ELEVEN

Chapter ELEVEN


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Chapter ELEVEN

Carlos never had a chance to respond. As complete darkness fell over their armies the sound of Ayana's high-pitched scream told him that his worst nightmare had come true.

Pure darkness had coalesced a hundred yards from the water tunnel entrance, almost seeming to be reaching down into it to pluck Guardians out of it. All he could determine was, either the prayer barrier hadn't gotten laid down fast enough, or when the team hid, the site wasn't cleared. Not knowing twisted his mind and practically seized his heart--if anything happened to the innocents on his watch ... if anything happened to his brothers' wives . . .

A child had scrambled to freedom with machine-gun report behind her. The other Guardian teams were on fire, fighting like every man and woman was ready to make this place their Masada--their last stand.

His team went ballistic; Big Mike was diving headlong into untold numbers of beasts; Damali was in forward motion to save the child; Inez was swallowed by a wall of darkness. Marlene's yell cut through the night. Mounted Neterus tried to encircle Damali to keep her from what was clearly a suicide mission, but Damali would not be hemmed in ... and then something fragile within him snapped.

His wife turned toward him, her eyes glowing white. Everything felt like it was suddenly happening in slow motion. That same fragile cord had apparently popped within her, too. A black claw reached out for the child and then exploded as Ayana's voice hit a decibel beyond his range of hearing.

Furious transporter demon bats lost sonar navigation, crashing into one another and attacking their own in a feral frenzy. Gargoyle-bodied Harpies became instantly disoriented by the light-frequency of the sound as the voice of pure innocence turned them one upon the other in vicious attacks that culled their numbers.

Carlos released a Neteru war yell, fangs lengthening, silver sight scorching everything in its wake. Battle bulked, his arms and legs felt as though forged from steel cable, his night vision pure laser, his intent singular--save the baby.

Every footfall felt like it took an eternity to propel him forward, yet it was only seconds in real time. Save the child-- Ayana locked into his focus. Her face was his visual mantra.

Warriors slashed and cut their way forward as the darkness filled in all around them. And then he heard Damali's breaths above the din. Slow, individual inhalations and exhalations of Ma'atAkhw BaAnkh separating out her signature from the pure chaos of wanton battle.

Opalescent light around her broke the oppressive darkness that was closing in like its own entity. The luminous aura created a guidepost, bathing a thirty-foot circumference around her in scorching white light. Demons fried, popped, and sizzled, screaming to their deaths while her powerful aura shielded human Guardians and gave them a living lighthouse in the darkness.

Damali opened her mouth and released a long, sustained, nasal cry that sounded almost like a cross between a muezzin call to prayer and the harmonic sound lines of the dreamtime shaman.

The sound hit Carlos like a depth charge, arched his back, stripped sanity from his brain, and sent him airborne into pitch-blackness. He couldn't see what he killed, not because he was night-blind, but because he was moving too fast. Soon his sensory precision adjusted to bring him flashes of awareness from the vibration within each entity he slaughtered. He could tell humans from that which he dismembered by their aura of light and lack thereof. If it didn't shine, it had to die.

Icy cold entrails filled his hands. Gook splattered his face, sending sulfur up his nose. Demon legions had formed, legions had been decimated. Neterus and armies of the Light cut their way through the erupted contents of the Sea of Perpetual Agony while the sky rained brimstone and angels charged.

Covenant clerics appeared, fighting back-to-back with Neteru Guardians, keeping the living alive, circling the child and civilians in protection. Carlos's gaze swept across the bloodied battlefield. His wife had stopped running and slashing demons with her Isis blade to open her arms under a shaft of inner light, her sword lifted, pulling down rays from the sky, and exploding out a white-light nova carpet from where her feet met the ground.

Suddenly colored shafts of light could be seen in the distance, each of her Guardian sisters lit to produce a hue and harmonic that blended into Damali's. The genius of Atlantis and Marlene's and Pearl's words stabbed into his mind; his wife had become a living crystal, the main pyramid that drew down Divine light and refracted it to her sisters.

Their light shafts gave human warriors cover and night vision, incinerating any demons that came near in a one-way shield of energy that allowed projectiles out and none to come in. Gathered in a semicircle, pushing back armies of darkness as they advanced from the mouth of the tunnel entrance, they were a walking light and sound weapon. Neterus and angelic forces boxed in the demon legions from the flanks and rear. Hell was surrounded. Let the total annihilation begin!

Carlos slashed his way forward as he ran toward the child. Then Ayana was at Damali's side, protected by Father Patrick wielding a Templar blade. The small angel from Nod body-shielded the child, too. Sara and Hubert were here?

He could only process what he saw next in flash-frames of bewildered consciousness. The longer Damali held the note, the stronger the beams of light became. The stronger he became. The harder the Neteru Councils fought. . . the more determined the armies of martyrs were.

Big Mike surfaced from a pile of werewolves and Level Five were-demons, arms bulging, holding bodies by the throat. His old werewolf fang wound across his knuckles was bleeding. A section of the deceased, Brazilian were-human Guardian team leapt out of the morass of bodies with appendages in their jaws. If ever there was a squad that had given their lives in the name of On High, it was Kamal and his men. For a few seconds Carlos watched, rapt, as their translucent spiritual energy deftly slipped between Mike and fatal harm, fearlessly fighting with him, death no longer their issue.

Carlos quickly sent a blast from his sword to assist, but watched stupefied as Mike's rib cage cracked, his chest became more diesel, and he gutted a huge alpha male werewolf with his bare hands. Inez had thrown away her 9mm when the clip ran out and was charging toward her child, severing any demon appendage that reached for her with a bowie knife in each hand.

Imam Asula followed through with a machete, hacking demons out of her way, going in and out of astral projection to frustrate the unholy that couldn't destroy him.

Monk Lin's face melted into J.L.'s as phantom samurai blades filled J.L.'s palms. Krissy's harmonic tone bathed him in yellow-gold light, allowing that Guardian brother to actually lift and propel himself from it as though it were a solid object. Slain Tibetan monks, student protesters, and eons of innocents fell from the sky like golden-clad ninjas to decimate the darkness around them. Huge Amanthra serpents attacked, but J.L.'s double-sword agility and his fast-moving spiritual backup dropped heads quicker than a serpent's strike.

From his peripheral vision, Carlos caught a glimpse of the team's youngest male warrior. Bobby's body became awash in jade-green light, then X-rayed into dreamtime shaman images, his wizard skills locking into the sound of Jasmine's call, white lighting a swath through a legion of scythe-bearers. An Aborigine army encircled the young couple in prayer sound lines, their Light-poisoned darts taking down targets of darkness until the ground smoldered.

Rider threw his head back and yelled as turquoise light folded him away into nothingness, releasing him behind unwitting vampires to blow their brains out. Native American wind chants blew in ghost riders wielding glowing battle-axes and Light tomahawks, taking heads as they cut through grounded demons that could not get airborne under the Light-frequency sound.

Padre Lopez moved in and out of the darkside's vampire columns, a phalange of holy water blinding them as he flung last rites with a hard gaze. Nubian warriors melted up from the earth as druid warriors melted out of the stones. Kemetian ground troops rode out of splinters of Light on golden chariots.

Light hit their shields and spears and within seconds they'd broken formation to join with fallen Spartan armies to war against the darkness of ancient Rome.

Every male Neteru Guardian's past wounds, every weakness he'd owned, now surfaced with the harmonic tone echoing through the war zone. But those old darkside-inflicted injuries were no longer a liability; this time they were a source of strength. Carlos saw it with his own eyes, old wounds that should have crossed a man over to the darkside, the Light was now using it to reinforce their warriors--just like Damali had said. If he made it through this battle, he would never question her again. He spun and took off the head of a massive demon Roman soldier with one swipe of his blade, ducked to avoid a mace, and then halved the foolish entity that had swung it.

A ground blast dropped Jose, who was so battle-crazed that he stepped beyond a pool of protective light. Before Carlos could get to his Guardian brother, Yonnie covered Jose's body, only to be rushed by huge international transport demons. Carlos tore toward his fallen men, but Val's red energy flowed over Yonnie, her voice a sustained chord of deep sensuality. Yonnie lifted his head, eyes gleaming black, holding attacking messenger demons paralyzed in the bands of crackling energy that radiated from his fingertips.

Confused demons genuflected, hesitating too long as they mistook the camouflaged Yonnie for a Council-level vampire of their own. Yonnie slapped Jose five as he pulled him up from the ground and an orange rush of energy claimed  Jose from Juanita's tonal wail, putting fangs in Jose's mouth.

"My line brother, let's do this shit!" Yonnie whooped. "My councilman, my line brother," Jose said through fangs, whipping out a fresh 9mm loaded with hallowed earth shells. The two Guardians locked arms and took a running whirl to become a huge black tornado emitting a black Vampire Council charge and bullets, slaying everything in their wake.

Nearby roars made Carlos pivot, missing a flying demon barb to his head, only to see that Shabazz had upper and lower canines presented, his dreadlocks lifted in blue adrenaline static, hands a razor-blur of instant death. Kamal and Hubert from Nod were right at his side. In the distance Carlos could see Light forces and winged cavalries rolling over dark legions, practically wading now through ash.

Marlene had worked her stick so mightily that she stood in ashes that reached her shins, white-light heat rippling down her locks and keeping entities back. Slave ship chants surrounded her, along with the chants from Trail of Tears captives, and the cries of concentration camp victims--all were now replenished with fluorescent vitality as they fiercely fought against imperial-izing powers of evil, devastating their ranks.

Dan was covered in a purple haze, his tactical energy rolling out in concentric circles, incinerating demons in a depth charge that shook the earth. Peoples from native lands too numerous to count stood with him, their shackles raised, their indignation against injustice a powerful force that lit the region as they lifted their fists and their collective cries exploded demons beyond the hillside.

Marjorie was a madwoman, magnetizing demons to lift and send into the path of Berkfield's single pump shotgun shell to the head. It was as though the two were playing coordinated target practice, and the only thing missing was Berkfield's cry "Pull!" A sea of clerics surrounded them from every nation and every religion; all those persecuted in the name of the Most High now stood their ground to obliterate dirty emperors, Inquisition participants, barbaric clerics, and dirty politicians who had innocent blood on their hands.

Breathing hard, and glancing around, the teams slowed as an eerie quiet settled upon them in the howling wind. The lighthouse Guardians stopped harmonizing; nothing blew across the landscape but demon ash. Sulfur rose from the ground and wafted away in spirals. Heaven yawned open her charcoal-gray clouds and suddenly shafts of light, which seemed like a million flashbulbs, had gone off all at once, pulled the martyred off the battlefield. Angels nodded and swiftly followed their battalions to a victorious retreat. But Adam, Eve, Ausar, and Aset rode forward with Hannibal and nearly the full Council of Neteru Kings and Queens. Never before had Carlos seen them so fatigued. Their bodies were dirty, exhausted, but bloodlust was still in their eyes.

"Go," Ausar commanded. "Heru and Adam's sons are at the new front, holding off an onslaught with our Amazon Queens and Nzinga's warriors. We have done well and it will take them a long time to replenish what we have devastated. Solomon will guide you from here with Akhenaton. But you must move quickly to be in position before the Rapture."

Without another word, the Neteru Councils turned their mounts toward the darkness, their steeds opening massive white wings as they rode hard into the night.

A fresh wave of demons poured out of the trembling earth that quaked with fury. Berserkers lurched out of fissures that had begun to connect like ever-widening spiderwebs. Instantly, Damali drew a deep breath, the light around her and her Guardian sisters lit quickly and then blacked out like someone had flipped a switch, and she scooped up Ayana as Val covered her back with a volley of arrow fire.

"Fall back!" Carlos hollered, assisting Guardians to get to the safety of the tunnels.

Warrior angels swooped down and blocked the Berserkers' pursuit using blinding white light to hide the Guardians' retreat position, but huge chain and mace balls released like cannon fire behind them.

Never in his life had he or Damali been ordered to retreat that hard that fast in a battle, but there was more at stake this time than ever before. They'd literally cleaned out Hell, and now what was left of it was topside.

Clerics' spirits sealed the retreating team in protective prayers that rendered them temporarily invisible to the darkside as they fled. Covenant forces ran down into the tunnels first, ensuring their safety as angels drove back the hordes of beasts. But he still didn't understand why, 'with all the military support out there, the Neteru Councils had pulled back. Although he'd never question them, his expression must have transmitted his confusion to his wife.

"The darkside is saving their ruling Vampire Council strength for the final battle," Damali said privately, catching her breath for a moment on the long descent down the wooden steps inside the tunnel shaft.

Carlos looked up at the prayer-shielded opening guarded by angels. Bloodlust had definitely affected his strategic thinking. If the Antichrist hadn't been revealed yet, and the Messiah hadn't come yet to step to that rat-bastard, then this was only phase one. And if he remembered his biblical texts correctly, the martyrs would go home and be given final rest, peace, and joy . . . scraping throughout the Armageddon wasn't that--so, yeah, it made sense that after this one assist so that everybody could be vindicated, the Light was taking them home. That meant, most likely, from this point forward, he and the squads would have to rely on their own skills, some random angelic intervention, and the Neteru Councils. But full-scale armies of Light, maybe not. Deep.

Too winded to speak, Carlos gave Damali a quick nod and tried to retract his fangs for the sake of Ayana, who kept her little face pressed to Damali's shoulder.

"Didn't you notice that not one Vampire Councilman was on the battlefield--and that isn't like Vlad's army," Damali added, still winded and holding Ayana high up in her arms while hustling the combined teams to safety. "The Thirteenth leads them, and we need that sucker's name and a dagger to put him down hard. Without it, they can go like this forever. We kill them and they replenish their forces. We have to hit their leadership, the guys that can reanimate and make more . . . the brains behind the brawn, just like old times, Carlos."

All he could do was nod. What she was saying was strategically sound. Adrenaline mixed with testosterone had made him temporarily insane.

The Unnamed One stared at the war-room map, watching his armies being decimated. He made a tent with his fingers in front of his mouth as his Vampire Council sat in silent terror awaiting his response.

"They have finally gotten the courage to rout every demon from Hell. Bold. Unpredictable . . . and so very modern-era Neteru." He stood, allowing his impressive leather wingspan to cast a shadow over the table as his withering, black, glowing gaze slowly studied the faces before him.

Lilith didn't blink, assessing her chances for an escape if things turned deadly. Judging from her husband's cool demeanor and his choice to present fangs and leather bat wings rather than his normal handsome image and gleaming raven feathers, it did not bode well.

She glimpsed Sebastian without ever moving her head or eyes. He was trembling, trying to take shallow sips of air so that their Dark Lord couldn't hear him breathe. But he didn't need to worry, unless he made a fatal false move. He'd done as much |i as could be expected -- working feverishly behind the battlefield I lines, reanimating demons as they fell, replenishing the troops as fast as evilly possible. Those felled by a blade of Light or Neteru sword were history, and even the Devil himself had to concede to certain supernatural laws.

Nuit was golden now. He'd brought her husband his cherished missing seal after millennia, and although she would one day pay the ruthless bastard back ... it would not be today. She j would give credit where credit was due. However, Vlad had cause to worry. Lucrezia got a pass from her husband's treachery, as well as her own deft handling of poisoning the human population's food and water sources. Elizabeth was on very shaky ground. As for her own longevity, her ability to continually nourish the heir and to give her husband insight about what made the current living Neterus tick ensured that.

Her husband began a leisurely stroll around the table. Every vampire around it stopped breathing.

"We have had minor border breaches in the past, but none so thoroughly devastating as this one." He placed his hands behind his back as he stopped briefly behind each councilman's chair in a silent threat, terrorizing them by his sheer presence near them. "They came to my door, Level Seven, walked right through your Council Chambers . . . and no one has a suggestion about our next steps?" He roamed to the war board and stood staring at it with his back to the assembled vampires. "The losses of my legions are incalculable at this time. When the fifth seal was broken, according to what is written in Revelation, martyrs were to be taken up -- period."

He spun, fangs glistening, his voice rising to a thunderous roar on the last word of his sentence. "The only thing that could have inspired martyrs to participate in all-out warfare after a full Neteru Council Light-devastated my realms was that they were galvanized and emboldened by a living Neteru team. Hope is dangerous; it is a virus that must be stamped out in the end of days! Human hope, love, compassion, empathy, I want it routed out! Wiped from the face of the planet! There's only one way to do that, and that's to show these warriors, and anyone who would follow them, that they are mortal. I want the pregnant female found, gutted, and whatever is in her womb ground into a black ink spot under your boots."

Nods of agreement immediately followed the command and eyes lowered in submission.

"These two have rushed my hand since they were born," the Unnamed One grumbled. "I was not prepared to unleash my Thirteen until after the Rapture. But, now, to ensure that the resources of the Berserker armies will not be vanquished, allowing time for us to rebuild for the period of Tribulation where we will grow strong and my heir will rule, I must place them under the capable leadership of my most cherished."

His gaze narrowed on Vlad. "I want you to rebuild the human army of my followers, those living and whose souls I own, as a secondary layer of protection around my heir's interests." Sending his dark-current gaze toward Elizabeth, he leaned across the table. "Make yourself useful, or you will be cannon fodder for my son." As he drew back, his expression mellowed as he gazed at Lucrezia. "Your father, Pope Alexander, has been raised and is in position. Finish the job on the currently installed."

"Yes, my darkness," Lucrezia said, prostrating herself against the table.

"Job well done, Fallon . . . but do not let that go to your head. You are only as good as your last game, and I want the Neterus. I believe you are the only one here capable of finding them."

"I exist only to do your bidding," Fallon said, prostrating himself against the gleaming surface.

The Devil chuckled. "I like a man who has clear priorities. . . Vlad, you could learn from him." Whipping his attention to Sebastian, he sneered. "Not particularly bright, but hardworking. I want my ranks replenished. I only have scattered forces topside now, there is only Hell on earth, no Hell subterranean, and I do not like being so exposed."

"But this is a perfect arrangement," Lilith said with a sly smile, attempting to draw her husband's attention away from his desire to murder one of her valuable council members.

"You test my patience with riddles today, Lilith."

"No, on the contrary," she murmured seductively. "I think this sends a clear message of confidence. We are not lurking in the darkness, hiding from you-know-who in the caverns, any longer. We are out in the open, confident of our win . . . Hell running rampant topside. We do not have to seek the darkness-- we are the darkness and brought it to the surface with us." She glanced around and smiled. "I like the new office decor. I like its layering system and it goes very deep underground into our tunnel system, should we need a last-minute escape . . . and, darling, it is heavily fortified. This man-made facility was a wondrous choice you've made. Allow me to do some interior redesign as Fallon and Vlad search out the Neterus. I'm close to our heir's healing dens here, too." She stood and went to him as his eyes flickered with pride and the subtlest hint of pleasure.

"Think of it," she murmured, stroking his ego in front of his powerful inner circle of commanders. "The Light was so desperate that they threw their own martyrs at a war zone. To me, that represents weakness, not military strength. Once we assassinate the Neterus and destroy any last glimmer of hope humankind has for salvation during the Tribulation, what remains of the human population is completely ours."

He gave her a sly half-smile as she passed him to go stand by the globe, glancing around his new accommodations. "You'd better hope you are right," he said with a casual chuckle. "Otherwise, know that I will kick your ruthless ass."

Dirty, bloody, nicked, and bruised warriors hustled down the two-hundred-and-ten-foot tunnel to the main spring reservoir. Breathing hard, some helping the Weinsteins, Monty, and De-lores, they gathered by the underground freshwater source, awaiting instructions.

The sound of constant bombing overhead made small rocks and gravel fall. People cringed against the larger blasts, but began to relax as the sound of war overhead began to move farther and farther away.

"Roll call!" Carlos shouted, his gaze quickly assessing the group for casualties.

"New York team, intact," Phat G yelled out. "Atlanta in da house, all present and accounted for!" Quick said, stepping forward and then back into the group.

"DC. ... at least what's left standing from before," Cordell said, his voice flat, sadness weighting his words. "Philly team took the kids from that compound up into the mountains and is guarding them there. Last I saw, everybody made it past the flood and the contagion. Didn't lose nobody this time on my watch."

"We're good," Craig said. "DC., we'll rebuild."

"Cool, Cordell. Thanks, man," Carlos said. "Thanks for having our backs, Craig. Y'all were crazy out there."

"Yeah, we appreciate everything you gave and sacrificed," Damali said, her tone gentle as she stared at the elderly seer and then glanced at Craig.

"Detroit, still standing," Alicia yelled out.

"Chicago, representing," Barbara hollered, jumping up so people could see her in the back.

L.A. . . .just one, but I'm still strong," Leone said, leaning against the wall.

"Philly in da house," Quick said, winded and then pounded Sasha's fist.

"Philly had to represent," Sasha said in a breathless rush.

"And you've still got one bloody Scot who will ride the dragons back down into Hell with you, sir!"

"Good," Carlos yelled.

Carlos and Damali gave each other a glance. The Midwest and Texas teams didn't make it. Most of those Guardians were lost in the battle of Cuernavaca at La Casa in Morelos, Mexico, along with the Brazilian team that helped them against Cain.

"Net squad?" Carlos looked around.

"Everybody's good, C--civilians ain't even nicked," Big Mike hollered from the rear.

Carlos's shoulders slumped with relief as Damali came to stand beside him, holding on to Ayana.

"We've got the baby, 'Nez," Damali called out.

"I know," Inez called back to her, moving to the front of the group. "Why you think I still ain't up top fighting and hunting for her?" Inez opened her arms for Ayana to fill. "Come on, pumpkin," she said softly, kissing Ayana's cheek to take her from Damali. But Ayana just clung tighter to Damali's neck.

"Aw, boo, don't you want to go to Mommy?" Damali said, trying to coax the youngster to let her go, not wanting to hurt Inez's feelings.

"Let her stay with you for a little bit," Inez said after a moment, dropping her arms, clearly too battle-fatigued to take offense. "My kid is a quick study. She's got the safest seat in the house right now, D. Bet half of us wish we could do the same thing."

Nervous, post-battle laughter filtered through the group, opening a release valve for the tension as Guardians pounded one another's fists and slapped one another five.

"There're new team members the Neteru squad never met," Carlos said in a loud, booming voice, casting a gaze over the large group. "Don't know your names, but thank you. Will get everybody acquainted as soon as we get basic logistics out of the way." A tall, handsome, olive-toned man with a rush of dark brown hair and wearing ripped, olive fatigues parted the group with his wide, athletic shoulders. He reached out a hand to shake with Carlos and Damali and offered them a strong grip. His face was smudged, his piercing gray eyes hard, but his voice was welcoming.

"Hi, I am called Tobias. I'm the lead tactical on the Middle Eastern team--Israeli-born. My wife, Habiba, she is a seer, Palestinian-born, and I will introduce the others . . . from all over: Syria, Turkey, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Egypt, Oman, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, all over," he said, waving a thickly muscled arm. "Muslims, Christians, Jews, Greek Orthodox, Armenian . . . we know this holy land and are here to do our part at the end. Peace must come. Innocent people are dying, while those in power manipulate war for profit."

"Good to meet you, brother," Carlos said, giving Tobias's hand a hearty shake. "Your team was awesome out there, and this ain't our yard . . . we could use strong guides and serious warriors at our backs."

"And we could use men and women of honor like your team at our fronts. Our mission is united. We are all humans who bleed red blood," Tobias said proudly.

"Couldn't have said it better, man," Carlos replied, giving him a warrior's embrace. "It's all good."

"It is, how you say, all good."

A beautiful woman with large, exotic, Bedouin eyes stepped forward. Her hair was covered, but she wore army fatigues. "We are honored and have heard much through the underground networks about the Neteru team and its legendary Neterus. You all give us hope . . . you even travel with your parents and children. Families beyond soldiers." She turned and gazed at Damali and then suddenly hugged her. "You have done what we all hope to do, live unmolested like normal people, if there could be peace."

"We all hope for that," Damali said, returning Habiba's warm embrace, and squeezing Ayana between them. "You are not alone. Everybody who's sane in the world wants that."

Carlos glanced around and then settled his line of vision back on Tobias. "Is the water source safe? Because if so, we need to water our teams, close up some of these demon nicks before we have any internal group problems, and figure out how to keep nonwarriors safe. Don't know if you heard, but we're looking for an ancient manuscript down here, and gotta go into Jerusalem into the tunnel system there."

"I can show you the tunnels in Jerusalem--but the city has been severely bombed, things are not what they once were there. It is dangerous, crawling with confused troops. Contagion is rampant. It would be best to take a small search party, rather than a full squadron to draw unwanted attention. However, I have never personally seen a manuscript here." Tobias pointed to the tunnel interior, sending his gaze around it with a puzzled frown. "The walls are iron ore . . . there isn't a place where it looks like someone dug into the walls to hide something old and fragile."

"The water is untainted, though. First things first," Habiba said, going to the edge of the reservoir and dampening the tip of her khimar. "Let the little one and your civilians drink." She came close to Damali and wiped Ayana's dirty face, but Ayana took the edge of the wet khimar and wiped Damali's pearl.

"Pearl doesn't like to be dirty," Ayana said quietly. "She doesn't like fighting and loud noises, and me neiver. But she wants to tell Aunt Damali where the book she's looking for is ... you're nice and you're pretty."

With a look back at her mother and Damali, Ayana went to the female Guardian's arms.

"She's a seer," Habiba said in an awed rush. "Yeah, a real serious one, too," Damali said proudly, taking up Inez's hand. "This is her mother." She nodded to Delores, who was leaning on Monty. "That's her grandmother."

"Three generations, all alive?" Habiba said, surprised, causing the Middle Eastern team to murmur appreciatively. "You are blessed."

"We are, indeed," Damali said, kissing Ayana's cheek. Ayana gently tugged on Damali's hair. "Aunt 'Mali, Pearl wants to tell you somepfin, but she needs more water."

Damali smiled as the youngster took off her necklace. "She's too dirty, boo. You can't dip her in the drinking water . . . then all that demon gook will make people who need freshwater sick." "Pour some on her den," Ayana said, frowning. An Israeli Guardian from the rear tossed a canteen forward and those closer to Habiba passed it forward to her.

"Out of the mouths of babes," Damali said, holding her necklace over the ground so that a clear stream of water could wash over it.

Within moments the pearl coughed, gagged, and sputtered. "Damali, oh, have mercy . . . that was horrific!"

Habiba and Tobias gathered in closer, mesmerized as their team members craned their necks to watch with the others.

"Yeah . . . that was pretty bad," Damali admitted. "I'm sorry you had to be a part of it."

"Quickly," Pearl said in a breathless wheeze, "gather your sisters around the water. Raise Atlantis down here."

"I don't understand." Damali glanced around at the female Neteru Guardians, and they stepped forward at the ready, but not sure what they were supposed to do.

"The lights, the lights," Pearl squealed anxiously. "Bring the lights together over the holy water, so you can raise what has been submerged!"

Reading each other's thoughts quickly, the Neteru Guardian females joined hands in a semicircle around Damali.

"The Scot," Pearl called out. "The stoneworker, Heather. You must raise the stone at the center. Ask the other Scot for help."

"Yo, Dragon Rider," Carlos called out. "An assist on some stonework."

"I will raise Stonehenge, if you need that, too, just say the word." The group opened so Dragon Rider could get through. She landed a hand on Heather's shoulder and Heather turned to hug her.

"Thank you," Heather said, giving her a quick hug before going back into formation.

Marlene walked close to the edge of the cistern, staring into the pool, her walking stick in one hand starting to glow, and the canteen that had been passed to her in the other hand held midair. "We ask the ancestors for permission to begin," she said, pouring libations as she began to wave a white-light wand of energy over the water. "We ask for protection, guidance, and strength as we complete these important missions, Ashe."

Marlene lifted her stick at the same time Damali lifted her Isis. White light passed between both women, one a pillar to the past, one a pillar to the future, with each color of the chakra system slowly covering the Guardians between them. Each woman's aura expanded, spilling over the edge of the pool into the water, and soon both Heather's and Dragon Rider's eyes rolled into the backs of their heads. Small beads of perspiration dampened their foreheads and made their clothing stick to their bodies. The sound of stone grating against stone filled the tunnel, as though their efforts were moving a huge slab off something.

Soon the surface of the water broke with a large, square-shaped object that floated to the edge of the cistern as the colored lights dimmed.

Carlos stooped down and fished the badly tarnished object out of the water, holding what seemed to be a black box in his grasp. He set it down on the rock floor and stared at it, burning away the black tarnish.

Pure silver gleamed as thousands of years of stain slowly melted from the deep, Kemetian etchings to reveal a sealed box that had been soldered shut, containing the same markings as on Damali's Isis blade.

"Open it," Damali said, squatting down with Carlos. "Somebody went to a lot of trouble to seal that manuscript in a box, surround the waterproofed box with blessed symbols, and then hide it in holy water for a coupla thousand years."

"You telling me," Carlos said, trying to sense where the precious contents were and therefore where he could go in. "This has Akhenaton written all over it, a Neteru King's silver mind box." Team members gawked but no one said a word as Carlos found the solder seam and slowly, gently, sent a penetrating silver gaze around it. Wiping his forehead with the back of his forearm, he carefully lifted the top. Inside was a large scroll made of papyrus on a silver rod with indecipherable hieroglyphics.

"Now what?" Carlos said, releasing his breath in frustration. "I know the old dark throne stuff, but not this. The Kings and Queens are long gone, and I can't read--"

"We can ... I can," Damali said, touching his arm.

Marlene knelt beside Carlos and nodded. "You saw it in their eyes on Monty's yacht. This is why I said, let the process unfold. They have all the languages of Light within them--the languages of ancient wisdom--they being feminine energy of air and water."

"Mar, you are so deep you scare me sometimes," Carlos said with earnest reverence. He looked up at Damali. "Be careful, boo . . . from my old days I know that having the name of a powerful demon in your head ain't nothing to play with. In fact, the more I think about that, the more I'm not down with that."

"He has a valid point," Marlene said, standing. "I want everyone in here to turn around, except Carlos." She grabbed Carlos's hand and then Damali's. "Husband and wife, you are of one mind, one flesh. Give him the language and then let him open the scroll. Damali, do not touch it. You're carrying precious cargo, and if this demon is the Unnamed One's most cherished, then this is a bad mofo. Understood?"

"You don't have to tell me twice," Damali said, backing away from the scroll.

Carlos sidestepped it, too, and came close to Damali, placing his hands on her shoulders. "You let me take this one for the team, all right, baby? Then, once I get a name in my head, I'll seal the box and submerge it again--and it can stay down there for another coupla thousand years, for all I care."

She nodded and melted into his embrace, laying her head against his shoulder. "You be careful messing with this stuff, Carlos. Promise me."

"I promise," he murmured, brushing her temple with a gentle kiss. "Now give it to me."

Damali closed her eyes, her hands sliding up his back until her palms fanned out against his shoulder blades. It so reminded him of the old days when this was a form of foreplay that he had to keep his mind focused on accepting ancient languages rather than reminiscing about the past. He felt her face smile and landed another slow kiss against her temple to let her know he remembered, too. Then her agile mind seized his hard, causing him to release a slow hiss of air between his teeth. It hurt so good, felt so good, and the information she began transmitting broke him out in a cold sweat.

Silver filled his irises as she pulled back from him and stared into his eyes. Damali looked at her husband hard to be sure the transfer was going directly to him and not accidentally sent to an innocent member of the group. But as Carlos's eyelids fluttered, she could see glowing silver etching in every language from a time before recorded history whirring by his pupils, and then came the hieroglyphics. She pulled out of the transmission with a hard snap--he had the other later languages from after Dante's time, had that from before. But they didn't have time to stay for all of that.

Carlos fell forward and caught himself, fangs ripping his gum line. "Damn, baby," he said in a private murmur, trying to quickly compose himself. "Couldn't have brought me out of it smoother than that? Do I treat you that way?"

She laughed softly and caressed his cheek. "I'm sorry, will make it up to you later."

"I'm gonna hold you to that." He waved her off. "Give me some space, turn around with the others, and lemme see if I can get a name. Cool?"

He was glad that she didn't argue. The title of the scroll alone gave him the willies. The Gospel of Judas. Carlos shuddered and lifted an end of it to begin skimming the text. It wasn't long before he quickly rolled up the scroll, slipped the lid on the silver scarab and symbol-covered box, sealed it, and flung it back into the deep reservoir.

"Is it okay if we turn around now?" Damali asked.

"Yeah, yeah," Carlos said, pacing back and forth along the water's edge. He had the heebie-jeebies and needed to chill out. Old dark throne memories were bludgeoning his mind as the name of Lucifer's most evil fought within the silver-lined space.

"You cool, C?" Yonnie called out, his gaze intense on Carlos.

"I was gonna ask you the same thing, baby," Damali said quietly.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm good, just a little freaked-out, but I'm glad I read it rather than you." He ran his fingers through his hair. "Would also make me feel a whole lot better if I knew where old Lu and his Vamp Council had relocated Hell."

"Oh, that's easy," Cordell said offhandedly, pushing off the wall. "They took over the Pentagon in DC. Seen 'em do it."

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