The Thirteenth / Chapter FIVE

Chapter FIVE


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Chapter FIVE

The moment Damali stepped out of the confessional and the man who'd been in a booth next to her came out crying, he knew this had been a bad idea. The older man was no soldier, was just an innocent--a potential victim. Carlos pushed off the stone wall and walked toward the twosome and shook his head as Damali hugged the man.

"Mr. Sinclair, this is my husband, Carlos."

"Monty," the man sniffed, clearly overcome as he continued to wipe his eyes and nose with a very used handkerchief. "It's short for Montrose and what my friends and family call me . . . used to call me when they were alive." The short, stout man wiped his eyes again and then dabbed perspiration from the bald horseshoe in the center of his head.

"Your wife is an angel," Monty pressed on between stifled sobs. "She knew things about my life that not even some of my closest friends knew. She told me things about my Eleanor . . . and told me she could communicate with my wife on my behalf to tell her things I never got to say to her. I am indebted to your wife for the rest of my life. I will pilot you wherever you want to go--free of charge. I've been waiting all my life for my life to have meaning."

"Yeah, she has that effect on people," Carlos said flatly, gently tugging on Damali's arm. "Can I have a word with you, D? Before we go upsetting Mr. Sinclair any further?"

Damali arched an eyebrow. "Sir, if you just give me a moment to talk to my husband?"

Monty nodded and staggered to a pew. "Take as long as you need."

The moment Mr. Sinclair was out of earshot, Carlos dropped his voice and spoke through his teeth.

"D, are you crazy? What's the matter with you? I thought we were supposed to be getting the boat without a civilian passenger? You know how dangerous this shit is!"

"Shush!" she hissed back, and glanced around. "First, stop cussing in church."

"Aw'ight, my bad," he said, holding up his hands in front of his chest. "But you feel me, D? That old guy just lost his wife and kids, is in mourning, and probably never shot a gun in his life, let alone seen any of the craziness we have. Now you want to put him on the high seas with a boat of targeted Guardians, during the last days, and--"

"I know it sounds bad, Carlos," she said, talking low and fast. "But--"

"Sounds bad? Sounds bad? It is bad, Damali. It's insane-- socially irresponsible, is what it is!"

"Keep your voice down. He's doing this of his own free will. I told him--"

"No, no, no, no, no. That's the same game the darkside plays, and I ain't having it--so-and-so knew of their own free will. Gimme a break. If that old man dies on our watch, you think the Light is gonna say, 'Oh, she told him, so it's his bad'? It don't work like that, woman, and you know it. Plus, that mess will haunt you for the rest of your life."

Damali's hands went to her hips as shock overtook her face. "Do you think for a million years I'd use some tragically unhappy old man like that, Carlos? Just for a boat? I can't even believe you'd think something like that about me!"

"Keep your voice down," he muttered, pulling her more deeply into the vacant hallway. "Listen, I know how focused you get. I also know how badly you want off this island so we can go get Ayana, Mrs. Filgueiras, and the Weinsteins, okay. That's all I'm saying that sometimes . . . when you get like this, and while looking at the big picture, the details get fuzzy. That's all I'm saying."

"The details aren't fuzzy, Carlos," she said, pointing at him, biting off every word as she spat it out. "I might be focused, which last I checked wasn't a crime . . . but I have never, ever, ever put an innocent in harm's way -- not even for the cause."

"All right, all right, I'm sorry," he said, dragging his fingers through his hair and beginning to walk in a circle. "But . . . why?" Carlos stopped pacing and stared at Damali. "Why this guy? Why this civilian?"

Damali folded her arms over her chest and looked away. "I don't know. Just got a feeling I could trust him."

"Okay," Carlos said, letting his breath out hard. "Look at me, D." He waited until she turned around and faced him, but when she only glimpsed him and then sent her line of vision to the floor, he put a finger under her chin and lifted it. "I want you to replay this conversation in your own mind again. What about this doesn't sound right?"

"All of it," she finally said, letting out a deep sigh. Her shoulders sagged as Carlos's finger dropped away.

"All right . . . progress," he said, glancing over his shoulder toward Monty Sinclair. "But I respect your gut, D. Something drew you to that guy."

Damali looked at him and perked up. "It did, and it was weird, Carlos. It wasn't like my normal second-sight. I didn't see--I felt. The connection to him was hand in glove . . . then all these things about his life poured into my head. So I said a little prayer before I said a word to him. I asked if he was the one I should trust and if I should tell him what I knew . . . and this really bizarre, strange sense of peace flowed over me. That's when I told him what we were up against and what we were--"

"Wait," Carlos said, placing both hands on top of his head and squeezing his eyes shut. "You told him what sounded like mythology . . . about us being Neterus and whatever?"

"Yeah, because it felt right. . . and he started crying and saying that just knowing he had something to do during all of this chaos made him feel like his life hadn't been in vain. He said that evil had been making a mockery out of all he thought was important and this was his way of fighting back, however small a measure that was."

Carlos opened his eyes and stared at Damali. "Did you tell the man he could die?"

"I told him it was extremely dangerous and that we were wrongly being sought by authorities and--" "Did. You. Tell. Him. He. Could. Die?" "Not in so many words; you know I like to stay positive about these things." "D . . ."

"Oh, all right!" She began walking in a tight circle. "Why do you have to be so negative all the time?"

Carlos folded his arms again. "Where I'm from it's called being real."

" Yeah, yeah, yeah--"

"No, D, I'm serious," Carlos argued, pointing toward Monty Sinclair without looking at him. "Before we even get on that man's boat and risk him having a heart attack at sea, we are going to tell him the realio dealio. We're gonna show him fangs, wings, shape-shifts, the whole shebang, aw'ight. If he can hang after that, then we ride or die with him. But if he freaks--I mind-stun him and we send him back into civilian population none the wiser. We clear?"

Damali lifted her chin, dismayed that the entire Guardian team was staring at them and the only one whose head was still bowed in prayer was Mr. Sinclair's. "Okay. Fine."

Monty Sinclair looked up into the faces of the full Guardian squad. His shy, humble manner of speaking kept the team's questions at bay and softened some of the hardness in their eyes.

"You see," Monty said simply and without apology, "my entire family was from here. I went to London to better myself, where I met my beloved wife. We had children and I worked hard. My son even joined the service there." He shook his head. "I have been praying for a miracle . . . and your Damali was that for me. She told me things that I needed to know before I die. She spoke to the spirits who meant the most to me." He stopped and swallowed hard and then his watery brown eyes searched the Guardians' faces. "For the last few days I haven't been listening to the television or radio ... it was our anniversary. I played old calypso and our favorite songs. Today, after I turned on the news, I almost decided--"

Damali's hand on Mr. Sinclair's shoulder stopped his words. As she glanced around the group, she didn't have to tell them that a suicide had been averted. "We're here to let you know that there is good, there is Light, and that angels exist."

"Yeah, but so does the darkside, brother, no offense," Yonnie said, pounding Rider's fist. "I'm just being real."

"I keep telling my wife the same thing," Carlos muttered. "Can I be blunt?" Rider asked, stepping forward. "Why stand on ceremony, man--ain't you always?" Big Mike said, shaking his head.

"Thanks for the endorsement, Mike," Rider said with a sarcastic half-smile. "Did that lovely lady over there tell you that we're wanted dead or alive by about half the governments in the world . . . and that you could have your lovely hundred-and-ten-footer smoked by a U.S. destroyer cannon with you on it?"

Monty Sinclair lifted his chin. "She told me you were freedom fighters and that it was dangerous."

Shabazz slapped his forehead. "This ain't an adventure like you'd see in a Bond film, man. This isn't the movies."

"I am well aware. 1 trust this lady with everything that I am . . . she is an angel--I can feel it." Monty Sinclair squared his shoulders. "I grew up here, as I said, and I know these waters. I made money in my first jobs piloting ships to all the resorts, taking tourists around. I can navigate, and I joined the Navy for some years, and then got my British citizenship," he added proudly, "and then made my money on the Exchange. So if there's a question of my integrity to be able to get you where you want to go--"

"Show him the wings, D . . . I'll get you another tank top when you're done," Carlos said, annoyed. "Then when he passes out, we'll send him home. Okay?"

"Fine," Damali said, lifting the back of her white tank top, much to the chagrin of Mr. Sinclair. "Sir, we are--different. And, what we do to fight evil can get you killed. My husband is right. In the spirit of full disclosure, and out of complete courtesy for all that you've been through, and before you decide to go with us, since once you do, there is no going back, we want to show you so you can really decide. All right?"

"Madam, I assure you, you do not have to disrobe to show me your good intent!" Mr. Sinclair said, mortified. He turned away, but Big Mike reached through the huddle of Guardians and turned him back to face Damali.

"Yeah, sir, she does, sorta . . . and you do need to see this." Big Mike gave the man a slight shove as Damali covered her breasts with folded arms but allowed her wings to unfold from her shoulder blades.

For a moment no one spoke as Mr. Sinclair slowly sank to his knees and then covered his face with his hands.

"Send the man home, would ya, D," Carlos said, walking away.

"Hold it, hold it, give the man a chance to breathe and take it in," Yonnie said with a smile, chewing on a toothpick. "I had the same reaction when I saw my first pair--bet you did, too, boss. Besides, if he's cool and can hang, we could really use that boat right about through here." Jose nodded. "I'm just saying." Juanita shook her head. "Y'all are so not right." Marlene and Marjorie knelt beside Mr. Sinclair, rubbing his back as he began to loudly sob.

"It's all right," Marlene murmured. Marjorie laid her cheek against his back. "Let it out." Damali dropped down on her knees and took up Mr. Sinclair's hands until he looked at her. "Sir . . . we need your help. But it's dangerous. I'm not an angel, just a ... I don't exactly know what--a hybrid, I guess. My Guardian sister Val also has wings, and, uh, a couple of the guys have fangs." Damali motioned toward Val, who gave him a small wave.

Monty shook his head wildly and then squeezed his eyes shut. "Don't send me away from this miracle. I've seen this all my life," he wheezed. He promptly opened his eyes and pointed at a stained-glass window. "Out there, on the boats ... I saw a caramel-skinned angel--one at the bow, and a darker beauty at the stern--that guided me through an unimaginable storm . . . but it was sunny and gorgeous out. . . pure blue skies, when they boarded my craft. And they said not to be afraid. I'd always have that little daydream in my mind while I was piloting, wondering if I was sheerly mad, or if it were just a metaphor for a guardian angel or two helping me to navigate all the storms of my life."

Monty scrambled up to his feet. "You say going with you is dangerous . . . have you watched the news? I could die from a rabid dog attack, from the plague, from random violence, or someone attacking me for a few groceries as food begins to run out here, like it has on the mainland."

"The man has a point," Berkfield said, gaining nods all around.

"Yeah, well," Carlos said, still unconvinced. "D just showed him the good stuff . . . let's see how he does when me and Yon-nie show him a battle bulk and fangs."

Nuit strolled into his private, subterranean lair just off the corridors of the council grand hall, glanced at his wife, and smiled. The sumptuous Hell chamber was yet another prize, just like Lucrezia.

Surrounded by powerful black marble that emanated a constant, renewing dark charge, he touched the veins that pulsed in the walls and smiled. Just for sport he pierced a capillary with a sharp nail simply to watch the blood slowly ooze down the wallpaper before the wound healed itself. He licked his finger and returned his attention to Lucrezia.

"You have done well, Fallon," she murmured seductively. "The others are green with envy . . . hissing and spitting in outrage behind our backs."

He nodded with a sly smile. "Then be sure never to turn your back, cherie. Not even on me, at times."

She laughed softly, walking past the long onyx table flanked by high-backed, crimson, velvet-ensconced thrones, dragging her finger playfully along the gleaming finishes. Gazing around at the iron-held wall torches and the walk-in fireplace constantly being tended by enslaved Harpies, she sighed.

"I like the weaponry on the walls," she remarked, seductively glancing at the implements of torture strategically mounted against segments of granite.

"It is living art," Nuit said, coming deeper into the sanctuary. "Do not get too close or you might find yourself an unwilling captive. This was Dante's private haven. Lilith offered it as a prize . . . since she already has better than this on Level Seven."

"Better than this?" Lucrezia murmured, tilting her head to the side and tracing her jugular with a forefinger.

"Don't get crazy," Nuit warned with a laugh. "To go after Lilith's lair is to literally lose one's head."

"Just dreaming." Lucrezia offered him a pout and then smiled, letting him see just a hint of fang. "I love what he did with the serpents," she added in a husky voice, looking over to the bed that rose out of a black mist above a bottomless abyss.

Moving forward, she allowed her council robe to fall away and pool on the floor as she reached out toward one of the massive marble posts that held draped, crimson sheers. Curious, she waited until one of the huge adders slithered down from its perch to wind around her arm. Then suddenly the serpent yanked her to the post it had descended from, binding her to the marble in a writhing hold. Clearly jealous, the others left their posts and joined in the pulsing tussle for dominance of her body, striking her and one another until order was finally restored.

"Ah . . . they're trained," she murmured, and then held Nuit's gaze trapped within her own.

"Over multiple millennia, cherie." Nuit licked his bottom lip as his fangs crested.

"You're not joining me?" she said, her expression crestfallen when he simply materialized a goblet in his hand and pressed it hard against the wall.

"In due time," Nuit said in Dananu, savoring a sip of blood while he watched the serpents close their eyes in ecstasy as they enjoyed rubbing themselves over Lucrezia's nude body. "But in order to keep this, I must be vigilant. . . Vlad would literally kill for this chamber."

"Can't you just relax for a little while?" Lucrezia gasped in Dananu, lolling her head back against a post as one of the large adders parted her thighs.

"Soon, cherie . . . but I must ask you a bit of business, first."

She lifted her head and hissed. "I am your wife, Fallon, not your competitor."

"Be that as it may--humor me."

They stared at each other for a strained moment and then she smiled.

"You know you love a man who exerts absolute power, you bitch, so let les ban temps rouler."

Lucrezia threw her head back and laughed, beginning to undulate with her living shackles. "What do you want to know?"

"How is the poisoning of the current pontiff going, my dear?"

She closed her eyes. "Such a simple request. . . he'll be dead in a week. I would have disclosed that in bed."

"Oui," Nuit murmured in Dananu. "And I love you for that." He walked closer to her and offered her a sip of blood from his goblet but didn't release her, and then slowly took her mouth. When he pulled away he licked the residue of ruby stain from her lips, allowing his left hand to gently fondle her pale pink nipple as he absently took another sip of blood.

"I think you just like to watch," she murmured into his mouth in Dananu.

"You know I do." He smiled.

"Be honest, Fallon," she murmured in the bargaining language, beginning to squirm against her holds as his touch sent pleasure waves into her skin. "Just being in this chamber has filled you with desire that you can barely contain . . . having access to Dante's war room, feeling his strategies crawling across the walls, coating every surface in his old, dark power with an open power abyss all the way down to Level Seven beneath his bed, has made you blind with passion."

He briefly closed his eyes and turned his head away from her for a moment as though she'd slapped him, but then quickly composed himself to respond to her with a smile. "Now that the Dalai Lama has been captured and his replacement named by the Chinese government, and with the sealed fate of the pope ... we must plan something equally as compelling for Judaism and Islam ... or we could simply allow those two branches of human devotion to implode in the war of the region. What do you think?"

"I think you're afraid to fuck me in Dante's old bed above the abyss for fear that the Dark Lord will ridicule you for lack of performance!"

Nuit laughed. "Is that what you think?" He wagged his finger at her and set down his goblet on the fireplace mantel, leaning on it and watching as she strained to break free. "I believe you are talking out of your head because you're so frustrated, my dear. All of that carnal power wafting up from the depths between your lovely legs. I am not the one welded to the marble that holds residual memory . . . and Dante was such a bad, bad boy." "Fallon, that's enough," she said in a desperate whisper in Dananu. "Let me go--or come to me."

His gaze hardened, even though his voice retained a seductive Dananu croon. "Do not forget that with power comes privilege ... I have been a vampire for so many years longer than you. And as desirous as I am of you at the moment, I own something right now that you don't--control." He took up his goblet and knocked the rest of it back, and then wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "Let's get back to politics."

Lucrezia closed her eyes and released a wail of frustration. "Only Pope Alexander VI, your father and old lover, can bring back all of the Machiavellian politics and sexual corruption of the Renaissance papacy that is fitting for the end of days. With the new religious replacement in Asia, the Middle Eastern sects and religions at war, Christian televangelists and megachurch pastors falling from their pulpits, thus grace, like flies... all we need is a new pope in our hip pocket. That should please those I have to keep appeased in order for you to enjoy the finer things in death, my dear."

"I hold no sway over reanimation, only blood in my veins from my father's old line. I told Lilith I would avail myself!" Lucrezia yelled, straining toward Nuit and trying to reach for him. "Darling, what do you want from me?"

"Lilith is busy . . . the more I can bring her without disturbing her, before Vlad brings her something that will excite her, better."

Tears rose in Lucrezia's crystal green eyes as a serpent struck her jugular. Her voice dropped low and husky as she arched. Please . . . make love to me before I lose my mind. Only Sebastian can reanimate!"

"Exactly."

Lucrezia stared at Fallon for a moment. "Nooo. . . don't you ' dare!"

"The man has been relegated to a eunuch down here. The Harpies will barely give him any, and his only outlet has been fantasizing about you and Elizabeth and jerking off when he thinks no one is around. The bats tell all."

"No!" she screamed as Nuit began to head toward the door. "I will never forgive you for this, Fallon! How can you do this to me?"

"Because absolute power corrupts absolutely . . . you have heard the quote before, I'm sure." He stopped walking and stared at her for a moment. "In this state, do you really care who attends your needs?"

She looked at him and didn't immediately answer.

"When Lilith commends you on a job well done and bestows more power on you--"which is what I am supposed to do as a husband, to ensure your success and your protection--will you hate me still or love me more for positioning you well, c/zen'e?" He blew Lucrezia a kiss from across the room that made her close her eyes. "Non," she murmured. "Je t'aime. When put that way, how could I hate you? But . . . after--soon after--promise me you'll return and finish? Sebastian is so ... not you."

"How could I resist such a lovely offer?" Nuit said, genuinely torn.

"What will you do while you're gone?" Lucrezia's eyes rolled back in her head as her eyelids fluttered shut again.

"Take a walkabout to retrace some of Rivera's old ground."

Elizabeth's fingers dug into Vlad's shoulders to massage away the tension, but he shrugged her off and stood. "A granite cell in the caverns of Hell for me and my wife is sacrilege, after all I've delivered to the empire."

"Only for now," she said, crossing the small, Spartan space to fill a goblet from a dead Harpy she'd cornered. "This is temporary."

"This is unacceptable!" he bellowed, and flung the goblet against the granite wall when she handed it to him.

Rage consumed him as he paced within the rock-hewn space. "Look around you, Elizabeth. This is a replica of a mausoleum chamber. A death slab of stone in the middle of a cavern ... no running blood facilities. This is what topside generals used to hide in below and regenerate briefly before going back to their more sumptuous lairs aboveground. And they expect me to waste illusion energy on outfitting my own chamber rather than use the dark core energy to save me the expense?"

"We will bring the Dark Lord and our Chairwoman something they want and have favor restored. Until then, rest, and save your attack for our enemies in the Light."

"Fallen is among my betrayers."

Elizabeth stared at Vlad. "He has made minions of masters while Lucrezia and I were convalescing. He used the time well. . . when Alaska falls into perpetual night, they will emerge. The masters he made in L.A. are feeding now with rampant abandon each night. From one end of North America to the other, his loyalists would blot out the night, if we attempt a coup . . . and our forces have been depleted from the wars with the Neterus. It was our armies that were ravaged, not his."

"And I need you to remind me of these failings?" Vlad said in a quiet, lethal tone, coming near her.

"Only so that we might develop a strategy for a bloodless coup, my love," Elizabeth whispered, backing up as his eyes glowed red and then went pure black. "If your wife was pregnant and you were being pursued, where would you go?" Elizabeth hurried away from Vlad and picked up the goblet with nervous hands.

Vlad slowly outstretched an arm and leaned against the wall with a flat palm, staring out into space. "We have savaged every continent, and still they hide. Sebastian's Berserkers will soon awaken and will ride hard on the four corners of the earth."

"I would go somewhere small, unchartered," she said quietly. "Away from dense populations that carry the contagion."

Vlad spun on her. "But they are hunted by the human authorities. Somewhere small, like an island, would be insane. There'd be no cover, nowhere to run. In Budapest there are mountain ranges beyond ... in Russia, vast wilderness ... in the old Ottoman Empire, the lands of Genghis Khan, there are--"

"Every place they know we'd look. But a small island in the Caribbean, or in the Pacific, or off the mainland of--"

"Could be wiped away with one tsunami!" Vlad yelled, and punched a large chunk of rock out of the wall.

"Let us work as a team, rather than allow our mutual frustrations to claim us," Elizabeth said calmly in Dananu. "You know how Sebastian feels about me . . . allow me to strike a deal with him to have the Berserkers search and destroy the lands looking for the sixth seal as he wishes, but give a small retinue of them to me to search the island clusters for the Neterus." When her husband simply stared at her, Elizabeth pressed on. "If I am wrong, Lilith will be none the wiser. You will be guiding the armies to trounce the land and find the Dark Lord's seal, as only you can do--Nuit is no military general, nor is Sebastian . . . what good is raising the Norse and Germanic tribes if there is no one to lead them?"

She filled his arms as his gaze mellowed and then she took his mouth. Turning her throat to him, she closed her eyes. "I will bring you a prize that you can trade for more power, trust me."

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