The Thirteenth / Chapter FIFTEEN




Cordell rushed behind Tobias as quickly as he could. Tobias body blocked for him like an NFL linebacker, pushing panicked citizens out of their path and grabbing Cordell by his arm to occasionally help him along.

Walkers careened into the street, snatching at human flesh and adding to the chaos, while rabid dogs fled buildings followed by demon rats that poured into the streets from the sewers. Chunks of brick and falling debris rained down to add to human fatalities. As Cordell and Tobias rounded a corner, a huge Berserker skidded into their path, wielding a fiery spiked ball that wiped out half a building.

The crowd changed direction on a dime like a terrorized school of fish, trampling one another, darting into crevices and bombed-out buildings, individuals getting picked off by demon slaughter. Tobias had Cordell by the back of his shirt, yanking him toward safety against a wall as he reached out using a blue-static tactical energy line and bound the legs of the charging Berserker's nightmare.

As the demon went down it slid the length of the city block, taking out screaming people in its wake to leave a bloody smear.

But a white-light pulse coming from across the street spurred Tobias and Cordell on. The second they rounded the corner, they saw Carlos--he spotted them, cutting through a horde of walkers. Cordell raised the wrapped weapon to let Carlos know their mission was accomplished. Pure darkness entered the tiny street, melting walkers as Carlos reached out to his men for a fold-away. Cordell looked back; Tobias screamed no; every building that had been around them exploded.

Carlos sprawled onto the stone floor of the Church of the Sepulcher with a hard thud. He looked up and saw that Tobias had crashed into a section of pews, clutching a portion of Cordell's shirt as the sacred weapon he'd been holding clattered to the floor. Carlos was on his feet in milliseconds as he saw Cordell's body face down on the stones, twitching.

Guardians rushed in with Damali. An agonized yell suddenly escaped Carlos as he held his face and blood began to leak from his eyes. Torn, Guardians split ranks, going among Carlos, Cordell, and Tobias.

Damali tried to pry Carlos's hands away from his face, and when she did he collapsed as her shriek shattered church glass. His eyes were missing. Huge holes with skull bone and exposed flesh remained where his silver gaze had just been. Carlos began to convulse as Marlene hastened to Cordell's body, flipped him over, and then jumped back, making the sign of the crucifix over her chest. Carlos stopped breathing.

"His eyes are gone," Marlene said, aghast.

"He's not breathing," Damali yelled, beginning to urgently perform CPR on Carlos.

Berkfield was on his hands and knees beside Carlos but got up and ran to Cordell, and then ran back again. "What should I do, Mar? What should I do!"

"It-it-it-," Tobias stuttered as Habiba rocked him in her arms, "it was the most evil darkness I have ever felt. I didn't look back, but Cordell, Carlos, they stared right at it." Tobias broke down and covered his face, weeping. "There was nothing we could do against it!"

"What do we do!" Berkfield shouted again as Damali's hands covered Carlos's wounds and she frantically gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

"You work on the living!" Shabazz hollered. "We got a Neteru down--Cordell is gone!"

Carlos coughed before Berkfield could even move, and then he sat up quickly, yelling, and shoved Damali away from him. As Cordell's last gasp exited his body, Carlos covered his eyes and released a long, bloodcurdling wail.

"Don't touch him, D, anymore," Marlene said firmly. "He tried to heal that man in a fold-away with a demon charge tracking him."

"I don't give a damn!" Damali said, trying to get back to Carlos's side. "I'm riot leaving him like that!"

But Carlos waved her off, keeping his eyes covered against the dim lights with his forearm. "Oh, God . . ." He arched and clawed the stones with one hand, panting as though giving birth, and then finally slumped over. "The light is too bright," he gasped, sliding down to lie on his side. "The light is too bright."

Damali knelt by him, her wings out and covering his shuddering form, blocking whatever oil lamplight and candlelight still existed. "I'm here, I'm right here," she said, ignoring the shelling outside the walls.

"I tried to save that old man," Carlos said in halting jags. "I knew he was a seer, so they'd take out his eyes, try to use them to see the last thing he saw. I thought if they pulled in a little silver, I could blind them . . . woulda saved Cordell his sight. But the second I could see from CordelPs eyes, saw the streets, I knew they'd--" Carlos stopped speaking and heaved in a deep breath to steady his voice. "It wasn't a swap, it was a merger--they got both for a minute. It all happened too fast to make a clean separation."

"Oh, baby," she whispered, wrapping her arms around him as she pressed her face against the crown of his head.

"Tell me he made it, D," Carlos murmured thickly. "Even if he might be blind."

She shook her head. He balled his hands into fists. "Do you know what they are doing to people in the streets?" Carlos said in a low, lethal whisper. "Damali, we've gotta take it to the streets. We can't stay in here."

"I know," she said, brushing back his hair. "But right now your eyes need to heal."

She gently peeled his arm away from them, looking at the reddened, fragile lids and deep, bruised blood circles all around the sockets. He looked like he'd been in a prizefight, but at least the organs were slowly coming back.

"All I need right now is that blade Cordell brought me, and some sunglasses."

The darkness screamed; the shelling temporarily stopped. It clutched at its eyes with massive claws, reared back, and ripped them out as silver residue blinded it. Silver drizzled down its invisible black pit of a face, sizzling and popping as the beast ripped at its own flesh. Its feral wail in the distance spiked a tornado. Lilith and her generals stopped slaughtering the masses and for a moment all fighting ceased. A huge claw reached up from the broken earth, and from within the pit, the Dark Lord climbed out to challenge her.

Huge bat wings cast a shadow over Lilith as she stared up into glowing eyes filled with pure rage. Cloven hooves advanced in the unnatural quiet, clattering against stone. Her generals withdrew, fearing for their lives, as a muscular, spaded tail with a weapon tip the size of a boat anchor bullwhipped toward her, crashing into buildings and smashing bricks. Vicious, saliva-dripping yellow fangs opened to release a deadly snarl. Fire chased the smell of sulfur from the gaping maw that demanded recompense.

"My Thirteenth was blinded by a Neteru's silver gaze! How could you allow this travesty to happen, Lilith?"

"Listen," Damali said quickly, helping Carlos to his feet as the other Guardians covered Cordell's body and reverently placed his lifeless form on a pew. "It's too quiet and it's too dark."

"I've felt that before, bro," Yonnie said. "No offense, but so have you. We both know who's topside now, for real."

"Truth," Carlos said, facing the direction of Yonnie's voice with his eyes still closed.

"Lucifer has violated the edict," a hollow murmur echoed through the sanctuary. "He cannot be on the battlefield during the time of the pending Rapture. That he has tipped the scales offers us the opportunity to now also do the same."

Guardians looked around, clerics looked around, as civilians wept and ducked their heads low in terror.

"We should go outside," a priest said. "One hundred and forty-four thousand will leave this wicked world. It is the time of the Rapture!"

"Not yet," Father Patrick said, materializing before the shaken clerics. "And a word was left out of the texts in translation . . . one hundred and forty-four thousand thousand. One-hundred-and-forty-four-million good people of all races, religions, and walks of life will be called home. The Most High is love unconditional. You will be called from wherever you are. There is yet to be a battle completed. Wait on the Lord."

Carlos stooped down and blindly picked up the wrapped weapon that Cordell had given his life to bring him. He held it out to Father Patrick. "You know I know what to do with this." Father Patrick nodded. "That is why it was given to you . . . and now you know what the Unnamed One's beast looks like and you have its name--but that foul creature is blind to you. The darkness that has been spilled like black ink will not be a weakness for you; use the temporary disability to your advantage. Your wife and the other Guardian females now have their own inner lights to allow the rest of the team to see. Remove that entity called the Thirteenth from the face of the earth so that your children will not be left to battle that as a part of their legacy."

Rabbi Zeitloff slowly appeared, drawing the attention of the team and the sanctuary's clerics. He stared at Dan, his parents, and then Tobias. "We stand with you, as well as all those who've wailed at the Kotel. Send your parents, Dan, to stay safely here with the child--little Ayana--as well as Delores and Monty, to be under the care of clerics and prayers. Let the people pray while the warriors fight--this always reduces casualties."

Imam Asula stepped out of a fold of light, machete drawn. "The Dome of the Rock shall be valiantly defended, as will this vast land. It is the will of Allah."

Monk Lin quietly stepped from behind a pillar with a retinue of ninja warriors, his blades gleaming. "Justice knows no borders; when one has penetrated deeply into enemy territory, the army will be unified, and the defenders will not be able to conquer you. This is the Tao of warfare; this is from The Art of War. You are in deep, make honorable use of your position." He bowed slightly and then disappeared.

"Strike now," Adam's booming voice commanded as he stepped out of a splinter of golden light. "The others are on the Temple Mount and at the Dome of the Rock. We say take back the Tower of David and defend this citadel as though it were Giza."

The healing staff, Aset's Caduceus, filled Damali's left hand as her Isis filled her right.

"Heal him," Aset said in a disembodied voice. "He must see using his mind as well as his eyes. Make haste."

"It's too quiet," Lilith murmured, trying her best to restore the lead demon's sight. She glanced up at her generals.

"Although right now it seems that they are holed up on Golgotha--the hill of Calvary--we must make sure they do not double back and attempt to attack Washington, D.C., while our Dark Lord relocates the heir for his safety. The only reason we are alive following the severe injury to his Thirteenth is because the Dark Lord cannot afford any high-ranking casualties this close to a victory. But do not take his temporary restraint as a sign of weakness."

"They will not escape," Vlad said, looking at the flickering silver in the beast's missing eye sockets that made it wail.

"You bet your life they can't," she said, turning away from him and Nuit. "Be sure you keep the Neteru team so engaged that they keep the battle here for now . . . even if it means we deplete our forces and have to rebuild them for the next twenty years during the Tribulation, I want this finished]" she hissed.

"We've got tactical charges covering this sanctuary, as well as the stones it sits on, and are drawing power from Calvary so our men don't fatigue," Damali said, using her blade as a pointer. "But through that high front window that got blown out with the first blast... I wanna send them a little welcome card--call it a shot over the bow."

Seven Guardian sisters nodded and got into position, drawing down Light energy into their cores and then clasped hands. Marlene stood between them and Damali, serving as a jumper cable, her stick to Heather's shoulder, her palm toward Damali, who was aloft on the thirty-foot-high stone window ledge. The moment their light fused with hers, Damali sent out a long, pulsing blast of multihued light toward the tower.

Rather than the impact terminating with a destructive charge against the building, glowing colored light shimmered over the ancient stones, washing them in pure energy that caused demons to leap over balustrades and out of windows screaming and burning. Instantly, whirling black tornadoes of rage funneled up from the citadel, releasing demon bats.

"Masters airborne," Yonnie hollered. "Aerial attack, archers up!"

From her phalanx of rooftop warriors with wings, Val released holy water-dipped arrow fire that sent airborne vampires plummeting to the ground. A full Valkyrie squadron took to the air with her as Yonnie took ground forces beyond the walls to hunt down Fallon Nuit.

Guardians poured out into the courtyard and went over the walls in a complete frontal assault. Neteru Council cavalry offered ground support cover, while warrior angels swooped down from the sky, breaking the demon ranks from the rear. Black demon blood ran in the streets, eerily commingling with the red human blood they'd spilled only a short time earlier.

Big Mike commandeered an abandoned Humvee and turned over the wheel to Phat G. With his shell crate newly blessed by sanctuary clerics, he leaned out the window as they careened down the street, playing chicken with a demon cavalry, sending Hellfire rockets into Vlad's oncoming Berserkers, seeming crazier than they were. The team had gone for broke. JoseJ.L., and Bobby were doing recon with Dan, tracking evil building by building, kicking in doors, blowing away walkers and demons with hallowed-earth packed shells, liberating trapped humans to flee to the nearest holy shrine for angelic protection.

Rider, Berkfield, and Shabazz worked the roofs in a fast relay of hard sniper fire, sweeping streets, then pulling back so the team could advance, constantly jumping roofs and lobbing shots. Heather and Habiba kept the pressure on the stones, rushing amid the buildings, lighting them up, creating instant ovens for anything dark within them, while Jasmine erected living flags that gobbled fleeing rats and Harpies.

In the midst of battle frenzy, Dragon Rider caught the long whiskers of a flying water dragon just as it was about to depart from an altar cloth, leaping upon its back and riding it into a cloud of bats.

The holy water from the Church of the Sepulcher that she tossed into the screeching morass had the effect of detonating C4 midair. A thunderous blast rocked her off her mount. But the dragon was faithful, and doubled back to softly land her on the ground before it delighted in gobbling charred bat bits.

"Whoo-hooo!" Dragon Rider shouted, running for cover. "Wanted to do that all me bloody life!" She grabbed Jasmine by her face, kissed her cheek, and got another bucket of holy water as clerics worked as quickly as they could to renew supplies.

Tara and Juanita slipped behind enemy lines like silent assassins with Marlene, using Tara's ability to track a male vampire's energy pulse. Their goal was the necromancer, the one who could continue to replenish fallen demons.

Marlene gave them the nod as she saw Sebastian working amid the ashes. Healer to healer, their eyes made contact at the same time. Overly confident but clearly exhausted, Sebastian bared his fangs with a roar, his arms outstretching at the same time as Marlene's in a white light-black charge stalemate. A thrown Neteru battle-axe culled both of his outstretched limbs away from his body at the forearms. His scream brought in demon reinforcements that were beheaded before they could assess the threat. Black blood flowed like a geyser from Sebastian's severed limbs as he tried to escape, and then his eyes suddenly widened when Marlene's walking stick ripped through his back and pierced his heart. Two seconds later, his head left his shoulders with a silver slug to his temple.

Juanita looked at the gun in her hand as Tara yanked the stick out of his back. The Neteru Amazon Queen slapped Marlene a high-five and cleaned off her blade.

"The fellas said hi," Marlene muttered over Sebastian's body before she spat on it and then damned it to never rise again with a good prayer.

While the New York and Detroit teams rumbled with evil in the streets below, Inez and Marj set up a seer's trap on a rooftop, using Krissy as bait. Liz Bathory's history of luring young women to their deaths would be her weakness they'd exploit. Joan of Arc waiting in the wings, they sent Elizabeth a fake distress SOS as though it were Damali, jumper cabling the Neteru Queen's young, female warrior energy with Krissy's young, living, pregnant energy to bring the councilwoman to the rooftop.

It was a lure too tempting to resist. Elizabeth touched down within moments, surrounded by a retinue of vampire henchmen. Nzinga's blade whirred through the air, Aset's silver-white prayer lines rolled over the rooftop. Elizabeth's head hit the tarred surface with a sizzling thud as her security forces spontaneously combusted.

"I wanted that venomous bitch, Elizabeth, in the worst way," Nzinga said coolly, retrieving her blade and wiping off the gore on the bottom of her boot.

A loud echoing yell scattered the rooftop team. Vlad's long "No!" made the building begin to crumble.

In a quick jettison, Damali pulled the Guardians down to safety but remained on the roof. Carlos came out of the fold-away, blade plunging into Vlad's steed at the heart. The monstrous nightmare kept plowing forward, momentum taking its flaming body over the roof's edge in a violent, ember-exploding display. Vlad landed on his feet, black blade drawn, facing Damali, and ready for war. But Carlos decapitated him with a double-handed swing, kicking his head over the roof as he spat.

"That was for my wife, motherfucker! Don't you ever draw on her!"

"Thank you, baby," Damali said with a hard smile, as they both folded away in different directions.

Damali nodded as a Neteru blade glinted off the roof a half mile from her. The signal that another council member was down made her open her arms and swan dive off the edge of a tall apartment building, wings spread, into the fray.

The Detroit, Chicago, and Atlanta teams had remnants of the Berserker army hemmed in. Now without a general or a necromancer, they'd begun to flee. But Yonnie was on the ground �with the Guardians, having gone hand-to-hand and acquiring a gigantic spiked mace, he sent Berserkers careening into hallowed earth gunfire, folding away like a ninja and reappearing out of the nothingness to do permanent bodily harm.

Carlos studied the battlefield from afar. Heru joined his side with Adam, Ausar, and Hannibal.

"They made another Chairman," Carlos muttered, still half blind.

"So we heard, my brother," Hannibal said, gripping his forearm in warrior support.

"Me and Fallen go back," Carlos said, tilting his head to the side, trying to sense where he might be. "That punk ain't leaving Lilith's side right through here. They're down three . . . and if I know Damali, in a minute they'll be down four when she goes after his wife."

Damali ran along the city streets in a zigzag pattern, searching for the water source. Although Lucrezia couldn't breach holy ground, she was into poison as a formidable weapon. All-out street combat just wasn't that councilwoman's style. But what better way to ensure that a weary populace and human armies couldn't live to attack another day than to taint the one thing every living thing required . . . water.

As expected, Damali found her target at Jerusalem's water mains. That source would send freshwater down a long aqueduct to the fountains on the Temple Mount, as well as the cisterns on the lower platform that had been designed years ago to collect rainwater. Battle-panicked, Lucrezia was more focused on doing her evil deed quickly and getting back to a safe position behind the wall than watching her back. Too bad she wasn't looking when seconds mattered; Nuit should have taught her better.

Damali smiled as Father Patrick laid a hand on her shoulder and she whispered the words he gave her, blessing the water before she folded out of the nothingness and gave Lucrezia a hard shove into one of the open reservoirs.

A blast rocked the area as Lucrezia combusted on impact. Vampire embers floated down in red glowing dust and gook floated to the water's surface.

"Eiiiww! Nasty. Hope they've got a good filtration system,"

Damali said, wiping water and gook off her face as she jumped up.

"You bitch!" Lilith screeched, materializing behind Damali, who quickly spun to meet the threat. "At long last, you've come out to play."

"But so have I," Eve said, sheering off Lilith's head with one clean cut.

The body dropped slowly as Lilith's hands grappled at her bleeding throat. Eve dispassionately watched Lilith sink to her knees, staring into Lilith's dead eyes as she kicked the body over using the bottom of her golden boot.

"I have been waiting eons to do that," Eve said in a hard murmur. "I didn't take nearly long enough, however, to make that bitch truly suffer." Then suddenly, crazed, Eve released a Neteru war cry and rammed her sword through Lilith's heart so ruthlessly that her blade stuck into the concrete. "For my sons, you whore of Babylon!"

Eve and Damali instantly jumped back as a black electrical charge shot up and out of Lilith's dead body from the wound in her chest, and her open neck, and then connected to her eyes, nose, and mouth, slowly turning her body inside out as it dragged her into the ground in a sizzling puff of black smoke.

Four Covenant clerics immediately appeared, standing at the four corners of the fissure to send prayers down behind Lilith's body, which caused an underground blast that shot up a black geyser of blood.

Adam flung up a shield to keep the gore away from Eve and Damali as the clerics disappeared with a satisfied nod. Adam immediately turned to Eve, speaking quickly.

"That just turned the tide of the battle . . . killing Lucifer's wife could unleash anything." Adam's gaze went between Eve and Damali. "There is no time to savor that victory. We need to get the human teams back onto hallowed ground. Archangels have wanted her for years, and they will protect us until we reach sanctuary, but they hunt the Devil himself while he is weak. We must go."

Eve just stared at Adam for a moment. "No congratulations?" He chuckled and bowed, taking up her hand to kiss the back of it. "But of course."

"I also heard what you said." Damali strained to see as far as she could. "I'm out. Gotta tell these folks to fall back."

Fallon Nuit stood at the top of the Tower of David staring out in disbelief. Lilith was gone? His Lucrezia had been murdered? He was stunned beyond grief. All the others were gone but him? Nuit turned to the Ultimate Darkness behind him and allowed the power of his new office to fill him, but was wise enough to quietly enjoy his rich inheritance.

"In all these years," the disembodied voice said. "I would have never believed that they would have gotten to my beloved. Lilith was like none other."

Fallon Nuit remained very, very still.

"Release my Thirteenth!"

A sense of urgency made Damali take a running leap off the roof. Her energy was low, a fold-away would have used the last of it, and somehow she sensed that she would definitely soon need it. The worst part of all, Carlos was nowhere to be found as she began giving the Guardians mental signals to fall back to the church or whatever shrine they were closest to.

As many humans as could be saved had been sent in all directions to find shelter in the churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques, and she could see her team fighting backward to get indoors. But where was Carlos?

One more circle around the area, and she'd come in and do roll call. But a daggerlike pain gripped her stomach as she began to spiral to the ground. To avoid fatal injury she used what reserves of energy she could to propel herself to drop face down on the roof. Her Guardian sisters' screams pierced her consciousness. Damali pushed herself up and dragged herself to the edge of a building.

Jasmine was being led away by Habiba, trailing blood.

"No!" Damali tried to stand, but a gripping, hemorrhaging cramp put her down on her knees.

Inez's SOS to her made her feel faint. All Guardian females were bleeding. This could not be happening!

Yonnie met Carlos on a roof. "I'm going, too, man. I have to! I'm the only one living that can."

"Where's the female squad at?" Carlos never turned to speak to Yonnie, but kept his shaded gaze searching rooftops.

"Big Mike, 'Bazz, and Mar, all the Guardians got 'em in the Sepulcher. Mar found Damali on the roof." Yonnie walked back and forth, dragging his fingers through his Afro. "They're all inside, man. Got clerics sending up prayers . . . maybe angels will come, too, who knows?"

Carlos nodded. "They're all bleeding. You be my eyes. History ain't repeating itself on my watch."

A tiny voice whispered inside her head. Damali limped into the church and then stopped. Awareness made her stand up taller and then run in. She grabbed each Guardian female who was pregnant and shook her, causing males to gather around, bewildered.

"It's illusion!" Damali shouted. "Your worst fear amplified by mine. They can't touch these children--they weren't created to be lost like this . . . what happened to me before happened while Carlos was dead."

Damali pointed to the floor of the church. "What do you see?"

Female Neteru Guardians stood slowly and looked around and then down at their clothes.

"Right. The moment you crossed the threshold, the blood disappeared."

Nuit spun away from the tip of a Neteru blade as it burned a graze mark in his black fatigues at his chest, and then sent a black charge toward Carlos, who deflected it with his shield of Heru. "We go way back, motherfucker -- and this time you have gone too far!" Carlos shouted, still partially blind as he listened for Nuit to land.

"You're so right," Fallen hissed, bearing fangs and battle bulking behind Carlos. "We go very far back, man ami."

"So do me and you," Yonnie said, his hand reaching through Nuit's back to rip out his dead heart. "All the way back to plantation days, bitch."

This time Carlos's blade didn't miss. His only regret when Fallen's head hit the ground was that he couldn't get one last good look into his foul eyes. But he never had time to contemplate the philosophical raisons d'etre. Something so strong and so massive swept his body off the ground and full body slammed him against the rocks. Neteru Kings surrounded it, drawing the colossal beast that was sheer moving darkness away from Carlos's limp form while Yonnie tried to get him up.

Damali came out of a fold-away and Yonnie waved her back.

"No, D! This is the Thirteenth! Get back to hallowed ground!"

"Not without my husband!" she shrieked, running forward, but a huge, clawed hand the size of a semi broke through the earth and snatched her out of the air before she could take flight, crushing her wings.

"Then since you helped to kill my wife--fair exchange is no robbery," the voice belonging to the hand thundered, dragging her into a fissure.

Angels splintered the sky, Neteru Kings and Queens charged into the pit behind her, blowing open the empty caverns as Carlos got to his feet. Massive darkness was closing in on Yonnie, who'd tried to throw everything he had within him at it before a wide black charge began to crush the life from him, cracking his ribs as he yelled.

Humans that still ran through the streets exploded into red stains against the ground and buildings. Carlos threw his head back, released a primal yell, and drew the spear into his grip. Insanity replaced all doubt. A foul stench of absolute demon stung his nose, but pure crazy spiked inside his bones. They'd taken Damali and his kid as a hostage? Was killing his boy--not today!

"laldabaoth, die you bastard! I rebuke you in the name of the Most High!"

Hurtling toward the beast as it swung away from Yonnie, Carlos met a black charge with the power of a nuclear blast that billowed out from the entity's core. In a split second, he jettisoned Yonnie to the church. But Carlos was coming at the beast headfirst, a silver-white bullet of determined fury covered by Heru's shield. The moment the spear pierced the entity, it exploded into a mushroom cloud of black ash and soot, throwing Carlos to land a half mile away.

Grace broke his fall. He could feel things touching him, gentle hands probing him, lifting him, as though putting him back together to make him whole. But as reality returned, he sat up, fully sighted on the steps of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and spun around, crazed. "Darnali!" The Unnamed One had taken his wife.

Carlos stomped the ground as buildings fell and burned all around him. He called his blade of Ausar into his hand, trying to open up a fissure in the earth with white-light pulses, creating such a commotion that Guardians opened the church doors. Yonnie barreled out of the doors first, holding his right arm against his rib cage.

"He took her! Oh, shit, he got her, man," Carlos said, blasting the ground like a madman.

"Carlos, Carlos, what's wrong?" Damali said, running out of the church. "I've been looking all over for you!"

Carlos stood still for a moment, disoriented, and then dropped his blade. He turned and ran, grabbing her up and pressing her to him, not caring if the team saw him lose his mind. He squeezed his eyes shut, and grabbed a fistful of her hair, and buried his face in the crook of her neck. "I thought he took you," he said, his voice raw. "I swore that he finally got you."

"It had to be illusion," she said, holding him close. "The rest of the team wasn't bleeding."

Carlos pulled his gaze up and looked into Damali's eyes as her hand touched the edges of his at her cheek. "They fixed your eyes. . . ."

"Maybe so you could see this, C," Yonnie said, pointing out to the horizon.

Heaven split with a bolt of white light. Legions of Angels filled the sky, lightening skewered the blackened earth, until the team had to look away. The sound of thunderous wings beat the air as a war horn sounded, making every human present cover their ears. A joint vision convulsed the human Neterus while the Neteru Councils began to cheer. Movement so swift in their minds made Damali and Carlos fall, the vertigo impossible to fight. Archangels with white light blades pierced the ground causing it to-belch up its remaining demons. Then they heard the voice--Lucifer's bellows.

Carlos covered his wife's head protectively, pulling her to his chest.

"Michael--damn you!" the savage voice raged from beneath them, creating an earthquake.

"You don't own that power!" a forceful male voice shouted. "Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael, all of my brethren, in the Name of ALL that IS, seal away this treasonist!"

As suddenly as the earth had split a roiling energy of glistening golden light sealed the earth. Pure silence followed. A quiet knowing entered both Damali and Carlos as they slowly looked up and stared at each other.

"They sealed away the Devil?" she asked in awe.

Carlos nodded. "But they've still gotta find his son."

"That's supposed to be a battle for somebody way bigger than us then," she said quietly. "The real ONE" Damali hugged him and laid her head on his chest.

Thousands and thousands of cylindrical lights began to glow, breaking through the darkness as they shot heavenward like a reverse meteor shower. Guardians hugged one another, turning to see that the church, behind them, which was once filled with civilians, had emptied out. All was silent at the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock, too. The mass ascension was something they could feel in their souls like a quiet sigh from Heaven released around the world.

They all stood gazing at the majestic beauty, while Inez kissed her baby girl. "Momma's gonna see you soon," she whispered into the toddler's ear. "I love you so much, Yaya."

"I love you, too, Mommy," Ayana said, and then squeezed Inez's neck.

But as the landscape slowly dimmed, confused Guardians looked around. People staggered out of buildings crying, some yelling, as they took to the streets.

"What happened?" one man shouted. "Was it a nuclear blast? Did we get nuked? What about the radiation and fallout--we're all gonna get cancer and die."

The team on the church steps looked at one another, every Guardian staggering to a place where they could sit.

"I knew I wasn't going. No big surprise there," Yonnie said quietly, rubbing Valkyrie's hair. "But I don't understand why they wouldn't take you . . . unless you forfeited a ticket on account of me?"

"They didn't take my baby?" Inez said, weeping, her gaze wild. "I know I done sinned up a storm, but Ayana?"

Delores held her face in her hands and wept bitter tears as a stunned Monty just rubbed her back. Marlene sat with a thud beside her and Monty and simply took up Delores's hand, as the Weinsteins hugged each other, rocking with sobs.

A single tear cascaded down Damali's cheek, but she grabbed Carlos's hand still staring out at the horizon. "As long as they didn't split us up."

He nodded. "I can deal, as long as they didn't split us up ... but I am so sorry I stood in your way. If they ain't taking angels and little kids, just because they hung with us," he said, turning to look at the disheartened team, "then what can you do? It is what it is; we just got re-upped for a tour of duty in Hell."

"After all this time ... all those battles, all of the insanity," Rider said, rocking and then jumping up to shout. "This is bullshit! You mean it's not over? We put our lives on the line and there's no cool retirement plan--we got left behind? I know I drink, and cuss, and yeah, I smoke, but--"

"Don't be mad, Uncle Jack," Ayana said, making the group look at her. "The angel said you can't go, 'cause of the babies." She lifted her little chin with pride and smiled wider. "She said that's why I have to help, too, 'cause I'm a big girl."

She pointed a stubby finger at Tara, her voice bright and cheerful as only a child's could be at a time like this, making it all the more surreal. She had every Guardian's complete attention as they drew near the most innocent member of the team.

"Girl," Ayana said with a big smile, looking at Tara, "Aunt Val, you got a boy. But Aunt Jasmine got a girl... and Aunt Krissy and Aunt Juanita gots boys. But Aunt Heather got a girl." She looked at Damali and opened her arms wide and then clapped. "You got bof... a girl and a boy. Plus there's all the ones coming from the mountains where we was. .. and some more from them," she said, pointing toward the other Guardian teams. "Like Miss Habiba gonna have one soon, don't know yet if it's a girl or boy, but she will. I'm gonna be the big sister little mommy."

"Out of the mouths of babes," Damali whispered, closing her eyes.

"Every time," Marlene whispered as her old, tattered black tome, The Temt Tchaas, filled her hands, smoking. She watched in quiet reverence as the frayed black binding slowly covered over with new silver etched with Neteru symbols.

"Babies' names are in there, Nana Mar," Ayana said. "But you can change 'em if you want--that's what the nice lady said."

Guardians laughed. Guardians cried. Some just looked out into the distance too overwhelmed by all they'd recently been through to process anything more.

"Twin Neterus?" Carlos croaked.

Damali's hand slowly covered her mouth.

The child glanced around as Carlos caught his weight against the church's stone wall and she gave him a little shrug, returning her attention to Rider.

"See, Uncle Jack, that's why the angels said stay. You wasn't bad. You not on punishment. But who's gonna be here to teach all the little kids how to fight that big thing that hurts people?"


One year later . . .

They clung to life, to survival and hope, dispersed Guardian teams and civilians alike. Tribes of humans determined to live sought refuge in the Carpathian Mountains, and the shelled remnants of the ranges in Afghanistan and Turkey. They flooded into the center of huge landmasses, seeking the Congo, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the highlands of Tibet.

Humanity clawed its way kicking and screaming, some dying along the way, but enough ultimately surviving against all odds to relocate to the Altay Mountains of Mongolia as well as the Ural range of the Siberian plain. People fought their way up Everest, the Andes, across Australia's Great Divide and the Sierra Madre Occidental and Oriental. Guardians led them to clean food and shelter from Templar stashes.

Healers and angels dispatched to hold back disease upon the survivors -who still believed, while others used all their human knowledge inspired by Divine insight to set up guerrilla communications systems, interloper lookouts, and security systems. The war for survival against evil was on.

And the Neteru Guardian team went home, calling their North American squad to safety in the vast Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Grand Canyon, and Appalachians.

The Unnamed held his head in his hands in abject frustration, alone in his fury except for the company of his gestating heir.

"Neterus and Guardians are worse than cockroaches!" he bellowed, and then flung a weak black charge at the listing globe.

He closed his eyes against the devastation of his realms and sat back on his dark throne, spent. He would have to make another wife . . . but who could rival Lilith? Her loss was incomparable. The amount of vengeance he would unleash to redress this offense would smite the world a thousand times over! He would have to make a new Council of Vampires . . . replenish demons, werewolves, phantoms ... he simply shook his head. And they'd destroyed his Thirteenth.

This time his hand would not be forced into play prematurely. There were still humans left behind, many of whom he could compromise. There were still those who'd bought into the illusion even after all the signs were revealed, and those still inhabiting the burned-out cities, those still looking for salvation from a human leader, would be his sheep, his flock; they would bear the mark of the beast. He narrowed his glowing black gaze on the globe and then finally shut his eyes. Defeat was temporary; he had to believe that.

Twenty years to rebuild--so be it.

Quiet peace filled Damali as she gently lowered her son into his bassinet and then placed a light kiss against his soft, cocoa-brown cheek. Unable to resist, she allowed her fingertips to brush against his profusion of silky black curls and stared in awe of his long, onyx lashes that dusted his cherub cheeks. She was still amazed that something so incredible had pushed its way out of her body. Of the two, this one was so calm that Marlene actually had to give him a little whack to get him to take his first breaths of life. So different from his sister. Damali smiled and looked up as Carlos entered the nursery.

"Finally," Damali whispered. "How long did she have you walking the compound halls being nosy until she gave up and closed her eyes?"

Carlos squinted for her to be quiet and Damali covered her mouth not to laugh.

She wanted to be where the action was while me and the fellas were playing cards, Carlos told her, sounding pleased. Rider had his boo on his lap--Mike had Ay ana, and you know Jose andYonnie had their bruisers on their laps talking smack. She loves that, D. So, our girl here wouldn't go down until every other kid in the place gave in and drifted off. When Ayana finally conked out, this one started rubbing her eyes and I started walking back here.You know motion is the only thing that makes her really go to sleep.

She's got you wrapped around her little finger, Damali said in a teasing, mental barb.

Yeah, she does. When she looks at me with those big brown eyes . . . Carlos's gaze was tender as he looked down at his daughter. He nestled his nose in her wild shock of walnut-brown curls against her smooth cinnamon-brown forehead, breathing in the child's baby scent with his eyes closed. This is my angel.

Damali gave him a look. Angel, nothing. She's a pure terror. Him, I can still breast-feed--she's been on a bottle from day one, and still bites. And that one came out hollering, fists balled up, with teeny little fangs cutting through her gums--and she won't sleep at night to save her life. Her brother's the angel.

Carlos chuckled softly and kept his voice to a gentle whisper. "Yeah, that's Daddy's girl. My take-no-prisoners fighter," he said, lowering the sleeping infant into a bassinet next to her brother. He bent and kissed the top of his son's head, admiring the dozing infant with a proud nod. "But that's my boy. Got a grip like Bam Bam. Look at him, 'Mali, the kid is already diesel. Check out the size of his fists and his feet compared to his sister's. He's twice her size already."

"He has your eyes," Damali murmured with a wide smile, sliding her arm around Carlos's waist. "But he's so even tempered, doesn't get angry unless his food is late, and that's when you'll see the silver." She stared up at Carlos. "Earlier today, his bowl fell off the counter while I was trying to get some apple juice bottled. I think he was trying to bring it to his tray--but I'm not sure."

"Uh-huh ... I can't wait till he takes that first flight, 'Mali. Wings should be able to hold him in a few years, you think?"

"Oh, man . . . please don't rush it," Damali said in a quiet voice, laughing softly. "As it is, we've gotta figure out how to childproof this compound. When they all hit two, I don't know what we're gonna do. They'll be able to outsmart us, using Ayana to see around corners for them like a guided parent-tracking system. Think about it, Carlos," she added, beginning to sound distressed. "We've got our two, plus Yonnie and Val's male Valkyrie, who will be trying to fly off a cliff with our son. . .Jasmine's dragon-painter who also owns wizard skills from Bobby--who knows what she'll create if she spills her cereal on her tray and starts painting with her hands--what, a freaking dragon will break out of the high chair plastic?"

"Baby, just. . ." Carlos let out a long breath. "I know it's gonna be crazy, but we've faced worse."

"Yeah, ya think?" Damali said, her voice soft and teasing. "Oh, it's cool now, but wait a few years and try to pit your skills up against a couple seers with vamp stealth capability, coming from the combos of Rider and Tara and Jose and Juanita, to go with a stoneworker who can kick a tactical charge, courtesy Heather and Dan--who will no doubt be busting things up with J.L. and Krissy's boy."

"Baby, we don't stand a chance," Carlos said, laughing softly. "All I can say is, we'll just have to worry about that later. It's hard enough to figure it out one day at a time."

Carlos chuckled and pulled Damali into a loose embrace, and then kissed the crown of her head as they both stared down at their sleeping miracles. For the first time in his life, he didn't want to rush time, and if he could have, he would have made it stand still. . . but that was the province of a higher power way beyond his comparatively meager Neteru abilities.

As though locked into the same thought, he and Damali looked up in unison, staring out at the barren mountainside that was blanketed by snow. Multi-hued lights sent dazzling prisms of pastel shades against the stark white backdrop that covered charred trees and foliage. The women had built a sanctuary, a place invisible to the unholy, a place of hallowed earth left to them unspoiled and prayed over by angels, Atlantis resurrected. Everything they'd endured, every lesson learned, had come together in an unfathomable tapestry, a grand design that had been impossible to see episode by episode in their lives. It took an elevated view. The universe was efficient, nothing went to waste.

The women's lighthouses that had been ignited by ancient energy on Monty's yacht now served to set up twelve-hundred-acre, interdimensional havens that were off the human grid, and functioned like a demon blind. All he and the brothers had to do was build within the safety zones. Every Guardian compound worked that way, hid that way, would survive that way.

Stone and wood, everything natural was called into service. Solar panels hijacked from lost warehouses and abandoned buildings, rainwater cisterns, technology stripped from lost military outposts, supplies brought in from hidden Templar silos-- blending into the environment without a trace was the goal. It had been a mission of survival that went far beyond just that. It had been a mission of love, a promise to protect the future by shielding the present so that it could live and grow.

Lighthouses of sanity, places of peace ... all the Guardian squads that had fought with them during the final battle had made it, and word was that so had many more around the world.

Yeah, life was good. Carlos briefly closed his eyes, feeling blessed. They had lived to fight another day and when the time came they'd fight the darkside like guerrillas, always a rebel army that would never cede to corruption. Light-encoded Internet, light-encapsulated telepathy, light tower to light tower communications, they all had to kick it up a notch and function on a new frequency to keep the children safe.

He and all the brothers had watched their wives go through perhaps the most significant ordeal of human existence . . . creating life, bearing its weight, fighting to protect it, and then pushing it forth on their own, bloody and screaming, into the world. And every woman immediately recovered . . . her first objective to hold that which had given her a level of pain that he couldn't even begin to comprehend . . . then brought new life to her breast to nourish it. Respect was too shallow a word to describe what he had for what he'd witnessed.

Carlos sent his gaze to the horizon, still awed. The women had been right; it was all about using the Light as the most effective weapon. Everything else brought death, hell, and destruction. Never again. Not on his watch. Uriel had come to them with an archangel's promise of twenty-one years. Carlos tore his gaze away from the huge bay window and pristine Appalachian mountainside to settle it on his sleeping children and then his wife.

Twenty-one years ... he couldn't even think that far into the future. Damali seemed to know that as her hand went to his face to gently pet soft caresses against it. The one thing he had learned was to savor every precious moment of life to the fullest. She was his living, breathing joy. This woman whom he'd been blessed by was still alive, had given him life, created life, and given him the ultimate gift. Every dream he'd ever owned she'd made come true--not just his, but had orchestrated the deliverance of the entire team's dreams, too, under seemingly impossible odds. She would always be his first angel. Always.

Te amo, he mentally murmured, pulling her closer to him. She smelled so good, felt so good, he'd never get enough of touching her soft skin or feeling the extra swell of her now-swollen breasts against him . . . the kids would have to wait a bit and allow their father to indulge his senses in something truly divine--their mother.

"I love you, too, for letting me get some rest," Damali said in a quiet rush as he began to spill slow kisses down her neck. "Why don't you go eat, baby? I think Delores and Monty made breakfast for everybody with Frank and Stella . . . Mar and 'Bazz have this watch with Richard and Marj; wanna get some grub and then a few hours of sleep before these two are up again?

"I'm not really hungry," Carlos said, tracing Damali's cheek with a finger.

"More tired than hungry," she murmured, leaning up to take his mouth with a quick kiss. "I understand that one . . . c'mon, why don't you go to our room and lie down then. I've got this watch."

"I'm not tired, either," he said, staying her leave for a moment, allowing the pad of his thumb to smooth over her eyebrow and then over the swell of her cheek. "I love you, and I miss my wife."

She smiled as she turned her mouth into his palm and left a gentle kiss there. "And I love you," she whispered as she stared up at him. "But you're gonna have to be real quiet or you'll wake these two up."

"I think I can work that out."

A slow smile spread across Carlos's face as he glanced at their adjoining bedroom door, the babies, and then Damali again. She covered her mouth quickly to stop a belly laugh from tumbling out as he put a shield of Heru over both bassinets and motioned with his head toward their bedroom.