The Thirteenth / Chapter SIX

Chapter SIX


Chapter SIX

Damali and Marlene lifted Monty Sinclair up as Marjorie dashed to find him some clean drinking water.

"Sight of fangs will do it every time," Rider said, walking away shaking his head. "When are you guys gonna learn?"

"Naw," Yonnie protested, pointing toward Shabazz with a toothy grin. "It was the shape-shift that put him on the stones, yo. Don't blame it all on me and my boy, Carlos."

"Would you guys lighten up before you give this poor man a heart attack," Marlene warned, fanning Mr. Sinclair with a tourist brochure. "Sir, are you all right? These guys are weird but harmless."

"I take offense," Shabazz said, rolling his shoulders.

"He, he turned into a panther." Monty searched her face. "I must be hallucinating."

"Jaguar . . . Shabazz is picky about his phyla, and for the record, I'm glad you got that passing-out thing out of your system before you were at the helm of a ship with us on board," Rider said. "Sheesh, for the love of Pete."

"You still up for a Pirates of the Caribbean-style adventure?" Berkfield asked, examining the man for any injuries from his fall.

"But, but they had . . ."

"Fangs, yeah, we know," Jose said calmly, squatting down with an old jar of apple juice that Marjorie handed him. He looked up at her. "This'll kill the man for sure, sis ... that's all they got?"

"Pantry is wiped out. Seems the clerics and staff stocked up and left." Marj chewed her bottom lip. "Sorry."

"Well, get him a splash for his face from the font -- if holy water's gone bad, then we're all in deep caca," Berkfield fussed, glancing up.

"Knew we shoulda cleaned out the mini-bar," Rider muttered, walking by a pew and punching it. "Damn!"

"Ahem." Marlene gave Rider the evil eye and then looked back to Mr. Sinclair. "Sir, if you'd rather not go with us, we can see you safely home. All right?"

He shook his head and struggled to stand. "The two angels said it's all right and not to be afraid." Monty Sinclair looked around the team. "Something like this only happens once in a man's lifetime and only if he's blessed ... if I die in this, I will have lent myself to something so much bigger than me."

Nuit folded himself into the cavern shadows and watched as Elizabeth frantically passed him. "A day late and a dollar short," he muttered with a chuckle as she left Sebastian's lair unfulfilled.

Confidence claimed him, as did the dark swirling power of the victorious. Once he was sure that his rival's wife had gone, he mentally called for a retinue of barrel-chested, international couriers. Australia was beautiful this time of year.

This had been a bad idea; he could feel it in his bones. Damali felt that taking Mr. Sinclair into an energy fold-away would be too much of a strain on the man's heart right after he'd seen the team unmasked. Now they had to walk!

It wasn't that it was so far, truthfully he and the team could have jogged to the docks. The part that he hated was the eerie quiet. Every now and again a dog barked in the distance, but it still had the normal tone of just a frightened pet. The wildlife here hadn't begun dropping from the trees or going mad. Graves didn't appear disturbed, and wholesale looting for goods hadn't happened yet. But it was all just a matter of time.

"You know we're gonna have to stock the boat with supplies, C," J.L. said, hanging back with a couple of the Guardians that were covering the rear.

"I know," Carlos said quietly so that Damali didn't hear. "Problem is this. If I take it from the church missions here, then when supplies on the island run out, local civilians will be ass out. Major institutions, like schools, hospitals, hotels, and whatever, are going to need whatever they have, too, for the population here."

Rider nodded toward the cruise ships. "They look awfully quiet to me, hombre. They came in from the mainland, ya know. They've got plenty of supplies in bottles and cans that weren't open to the contagion. What say a small group of us do a fold-away with you while the ladies get situated on Sinclair's boat ... if there's innocents on there, we can bring 'em back alive. If everybody on the vessel is a goner, then it ain't technically stealing."

"This man used to be one of us for a few, right, C? 'Cause he sure sounds like a brother who used to have fangs," Yonnie said, laughing, pounding Rider's fist. "I'm down with the plan."

"Yeah, me, too," Carlos said, keening his line of vision on all the cruise ships that appeared to be dead in the water. He looked around the group as everyone came to a stop. "Yo, 'Bazz,

Mike, Berkfield ... I want you guys to do a first pass on 'that boat before anybody gets on it. Could be some stray undead types infesting it--we need a sweep."

"Got you, C," Mike said, drawing out a handheld Uzi from the back of his fatigue pants waistband.

"Cool," Carlos said with a curt nod. "Then Bobby, J.L., Jose, and Dan, I want you brothers on security and communications to be sure we don't get accidentally blown out of the water by a nervous coast guard or military vessel . . . and I want a man with artillery at the cardinal points, top deck, to be sure we don't get pirate boarded by anybody else out there who's hungry and looking for fuel and supplies."

"Roger that, C," Bobby said, extracting a 9mm from his waistband.

"I'll see what else I can MacGyver up," J.L. said, "to protect the ship."

"Good man, good man," Carlos replied absently, walking up to Damali. He touched her face briefly and then allowed his hand to fall away. "I want you to check the galley with Marlene and 'Nez, and make sure there's nothing in there that can poison anybody."

She smiled. So now I'm on kitchen detail---just barefoot and preg-gers, huh?

He kissed her and then pulled away, his expression sober. The last time I was on a yacht with you, we didn't have a good experience. Allow me this.

She remembered all too well. The huge pleasure ship owned by the Australian master vampire with three more master predators and their vampire wives, all vying for a night alone with her and Carlos . . . trapped aboard with her Guardian team and nowhere to run. That's when Dante had found out that she was pregnant the first time. That's when Carlos had'put himself between her and a tornado of Dante's Harpies. That's when Carlos had been unmercifully tortured and ultimately died in the sun. That's when she'd thought that she'd lost him forever. How could she forget? Worse yet, how could she have overlooked how bad a flashback all this had to be for Carlos? Damali briefly shut her eyes, nodded, and touched his cheek. "I'm sorry."

Turning to the team, she kept her memories to herself, her emotions in check, and her voice firm. "Monty, I want you to give us a brief spiel on how to steer this thing--in case . . . everybody needs to know how to crew this boat. Then I want a seer and stoneworker on the cardinal points with a gunner. Cool?"

Murmurs of agreement filtered through the group.

"Good," Damali said with a curt nod. "Once I get coordinates from Pearl, seers, we'll lock in on the sunken pyramid as our touchstone to keep us out of the dangerous Triangle fluctuations." She turned to Mr. Sinclair. "But the basic navigation and all the protocols of entering a foreign harbor with the right lingo is gonna be on you."

"Not a problem," Monty Sinclair said.

"Aw'ight, cool. We got a plan." Carlos began walking away from the group with Yonnie and Rider.

"Where're you guys going?" Damali's hands went to her hips out of reflex.

Carlos gave her a look over his shoulder. "To go get bottled water, uncontaminated food, and a coupla gas cans of fuel. We don't know how long -we'll be at sea, so--"

"From where?" Damali folded her arms over her chest. "Why do you always do stuff like this, Carlos?"

"Might as well tell her, dude," Rider said under his breath. "You know how they are--this could take all day."

Carlos rubbed his jaw in frustration and then motioned to the cruise ships that were adrift just beyond the reef.

"You don't know what's on those ships!" Tara snapped, walking forward.

"Yolando, I said to be valiant and victorious, not foolish!" Val said, frowning. "It could be a death trap."

"Glad I ain't the only one who's being given the blues." Carlos let out a hard breath as he glanced at his two Guardian brothers.

Marlene folded her arms over her chest. "What about mangoes and pineapples, and fresh--"

"Anything not in a bottle or can could have been contaminated from the rain, the wind ... we don't know exactly how they're spreading this shit, Mar. Might be airborne for all we know. Maybe not, but are you willing to gamble?" Carlos waited a beat, vindicated when no other concerns got raised.

Yonnie opened his arms wide as he spoke, looking among Val, Tara, and Damali. "We can't steal, because that sets up a negative energy trail right to us. We can't use up valuable supplies on the island that innocent civilians will need. They won't go on the cruise ships until they're really desperate, because, frankly, how will they board 'em? If we find people alive on the cruise liners, us going on board will be their salvation, because we can drop them on dry land. But, if we find anything else, us taking supplies off ain't stealing from the living--okay? Besides, any good supplies left on those five ships out there could be jettisoned back here to the cathedral we just left... a safe haven for it and for folks who, ultimately, could starve to death on this island."

"I think that about says it all. It's a screwed up job, but somebody's gotta do it." Rider hocked and spat, and then checked the magazine on his weapon before glancing at Yonnie and Car-S. "Gentlemen, shall we?"

Nuit stood in the courtyard of the abandoned Australian castle ind drank in the night. This was what Dante had exiled himself from--feeling the raw power of the living planet. If his former Chairman had only left Vampire Council Chambers, he would have been able to track Rivera more closely, would have learned from his duplicitous style. But the old man was from the predawn era of vampires that hid in the caverns of Hell, soaking up power from the depths for power's sake alone and never enjoying their immortality to the very fullest--and that had been what had initiated his failed coup and alliance with the Amanthra demons.

Yet, he was still here . . . and the Devil's firstborn son, Dante, was not. The irony of that made Nuit smile as he gazed at another ruined vampire stronghold. He'd never envisioned the Chairman dead at the hands of the Neterus. Cain had even succumbed, and through it all he was still standing!

The awareness almost made him laugh out loud. Nuit waved off the thick-bodied, hooded messengers that had scythes at the ready to guard him. There was no threat here. Just feeding rats and meandering serpents. What had once been an opulent display of raw master vampire power had been reduced to dust at the hands of Rivera. That wealthy bastard, McGuire, had lost it all. Pity.

For a moment Nuit stood still, allowing the very night itself to soak into his bones. The majesty of the stars awash in a midnight-blue velvet sky made him open his arms wide and close his eyes. There had been so much waste ... so much loss at the hands of the Neterus.

But rather than dwell on the outrage of it all, he squared his shoulders and walked up the steps, waving his security forces off. He wanted to feel the old trail of Carlos Rivera alone. He wanted to savor his archenemy's last steps as a vampire ... to feel the burn of Rivera's passion for the Neteru female while he was still trapped as an entity of the night. That was true majesty. Passion and lust, dare he call it love, that transcended the grave and challenged the realms of Hell. How Rivera convinced the female Neteru to love him like that was still worthy of envy.

Nuit glanced up at the full moon, wishing he could have been an eyewitness. Now all he could do was shake his head as he entered what had once been a grand foyer.

Cobwebs, rubble, and fallen plaster greeted him. Nuit closed his eyes, sensing, seeing the castle come alive in his mind ... a place that once held elaborate blood-gorging fetes. Delicately veined walls pulsing richly with fresh blood were now cracked and dried. Massive, sweeping staircases in shambles. The rare, leaded, beveled glass windows that still remained hung in piteous disrepair. Elizabethan-era knights, Louis XVI furnishings, Victorian treasures all rusted, stolen, dry-rotted, wasted . . . it was a travesty.

He passed the great room and the ballroom with his head held high, and then stopped and looked up at the vaulted ceiling. In a vapor fold-away, he immediately walked into the master suite two floors above that had been given to the then Councilman Rivera. Nuit looked around and chuckled softly. "You may have wanted to, but you did not love her here, did you, mon ami'?"

Hands clasped behind his back, Nuit began walking. "With all those spies and treasonous bastards about, nor would I have bedded my bride here. Where would a man of your inscrutable strategy have taken her so that she could stumble upon the seal for you?"

Frustration claimed him as he sauntered through the room, but a gentle breeze drew him out to the balcony. The trail of Rivera's old vampire energy was so weak . . . but there was still something--a pattern that he couldn't ignore. A signature that he'd never in a hundred lifetimes forget: Damali. Her energy stained the crumbling stone rail.

Nuit closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. "She is your Waterloo, mon frere. You love her more than existence itself. This I fully understand."

Touching the air before him as though blind, Nuit turned and swayed, seeming to dance alone in the darkness. . . sensing where the couple had stepped, moving as they had moved on the terrace until a shudder of heat claimed him. He gasped as the sensation entered his chest and fanned out in a quickly spreading burn that contracted his groin and sent him stumbling backward against the rail.

His eyes slid closed as he surrendered to the passion and fell. Two hundred feet above the cliffs, jagged stone yawned up, and his hurtling form began to disintegrate into pure vapor.

He landed on all fours, panting and in a desert. Red iron ore stabbed into his palms and sliced under his nail beds as he threw his head back and howled. Her scent was everywhere, causing saliva-slicked fangs to fill his mouth, and his head to be thrown back in an agonized wail.

Nuit dropped to the ground, gathering dirt in his arms, washing his face with it like a madman. Damali's scent, her sweat, her feminine essence had spilled upon this barren land. She'd rained pleasure upon his rival so profoundly that even the earth wept, leaving crystallized casings of her sweetness behind.

Euphoric, trembling, he lifted his head, eyes glowing, need carving his groin, and became wolf. There was no other choice. To remain man would leave him vulnerable to the longing. In his human form, he'd love the very ground imagining it to be her.

Time was of the essence. He had to move. Massive sinew-laden shoulders replaced his athletic human body, and his ribs splintered and cracked to allow a barrel chest to form. His spine elongated with his howl and a dense midnight coat eclipsed his cafe au lait skin. Lowering his nose to the earth, he picked up Rivera's old scent, finding the edge of where Damali's scent left off and where only Carlos's footfalls could be distinguished.

Nuit moved like black wind. Rivera had loved her, then carried her for a distance. Excitement made him heady as he dashed to the edge of a strange gathering and then skidded to a halt. Carlos's scent went beyond the perimeter, but he could not. Nuit growled quietly.

An eerie blue ring of scorching white light blinded him and made him turn away, then become mist. Old, dark-hued men with strange white markings on their bodies stood and glanced around, on alert. Nuit watched from the nothingness, but then suddenly the sound of their collective mutterings and didgeri-doos drove him away.

Dreamtime chants, twenty-thousand-year-old prayer lines-- damn the shamans. But still he smiled from the subterranean caverns.

Nuit looked up. He'd found it. Vlad's armies or Sebastian's raised Berserkers would never find it--even if the old men died of starvation. The key was a human soul. That was the only way to cross the prayer lines that ancient.

Whirring in a black funnel cloud, he traversed time and space within minutes to return to Dante's old lair. It took all his acquired reserve not to blow the marble doors off their hinges, and to coolly open the doors, then close them behind him.

Lucrezia was alone, pouting, her hair tussled. She sat up in bed and folded her arms, glaring at him. He produced a goblet and pressed it to the wall, but had to hold it with two trembling hands as he greedily drank from it.

"You promised you'd come back to finish . . ."

"And I am a man of my word," he gasped between deep swallows. "As I promised you, chine, you will not hate me for it, either."

"Sebastian will do my bidding," she said with dripping sarcasm. "Are you satisfied?"

"Non," he replied, instantly materializing in bed nude and flattening her. He brutally took her mouth with a bloody kiss and fisted her hair. "Anything but."

"This is Eleanor's Dream," Monty said shyly, motioning to his vessel.

The team just gaped for a moment.

"You'll have to forgive all of us," Damali said, impressed. "We aren't up on nautical terms, and didn't mean to insult you by calling what you owned a boat."

"No, shit. . ." Berkfield said with utter appreciation in his voice. "What is she, a fifty-, sixty-footer?"

Monty smiled. "Sixry-eight-feet-six. She was originally designed to sleep ten, but I had the large main deck salons cut in half to add more bedrooms since that still allowed for considerable common space, and took a little off the galley to make another small bedroom, plus added a little pullout sofa to the pilothouse so that she sleeps sixteen privately, and there's still plenty of community space on the top deck. Someone could also sleep up there--you'll see. It's very comfy, and there's tables and chairs and whatnot."

"Well, just dayum," Jose said, peering up at the double-decker, white behemoth.

"What's she got under the hood?" J.L. asked with excitement, beginning to walk down the slip.

Monty eagerly followed him, rattling off specs with Berkfield right on his heels. "Twin three-hundred-and-seventy horsepower, Yanmar-diesel V-drives, twenty-five-kilowatt Westebeke diesel generator, a-hundred-and-thirty-six-thousand-BTU Cruiseair to keep things cool. . . furnace, cable, and satellite phone equipped, gourmet galley with stainless-steel appliances. . . holds six hundred gallons of fuel, has three bathrooms. With floor-to-ceiling solar-cooled bronze glass enclosing the main deck. Oh, yes, and music ... a custom-distributed music system is also on board."

J.L. turned around with a wide grin. "You are da man!" "Did I hear you say you had sat phones and cable on board?"

Berkfield clutched his heart dramatically and swooned, making the others laugh.

"I heard gourmet galley, also known as a kitchen," Inez said, smiling.

"No--I heard three bathrooms," Juanita said, laughing, "and I've got first dibs on a shower, okaaay."

"This is what we'd always dreamed," Monty said, clearly proud. "This was going to be our floating retirement home where she and I would sail around the Caribbean, taking our friends, family, sometimes maybe allowing nice people to charter her, getting to know new people . . . having fun in our golden years, inviting the kids to come with our grands." He looked up at the yacht and then shielded his eyes as he looked up at the sky. "This is what she would have wanted, isn't that right, honey?"

Considerably sobered, the team looked at one another as Marlene walked forward and rested a palm gently on Monty's shoulder. "Thank you for sharing this sacred space with us."

Sebastian whistled while he walked back to his conjuring room. That was the thing he loved most about Hell, someone was always ready to cut a side deal to cut someone's throat. He couldn't wait until the next general council session where he could silently gloat and watch that pompous bastard, Fallen Nuit, be none the wiser that his own wife--the lovely, devastatingly sexy Lucrezia--had cuckolded him. It was too rich.

But he stopped midstride and gaped and then immediately went on guard.

"What are you doing here?" he asked cautiously, staring at the scantily clad Elizabeth. He looked around and pressed his back to the wall as she approached and then held up his hands, making claws. "Stay back! Assassinations on council are forbidden. My cauldron will tell, my, my spell books will testify!"

"Calm yourself, darlink," Elizabeth murmured, coming closer. "Vlad has lost favor . . . you are a valuable necromancer. The vagaries of fate have shifted alliances, and power is an aphrodisiac. Where have you been all this time, you naughty boy?"

Encouraged but still skeptical, Sebastian glanced around and moved closer, beginning to tremble. "I went to check on the locations of ancient graves ... I must go to Europe and raise the Berserkers tonight for Lilith."

"May I join you?" Elizabeth leaned into him, pressing her body against his, and slid her tongue up his jugular and captured his earlobe.

"Vlad will murder me."

"What Vlad doesn't know won't hurt you," Elizabeth murmured seductively in Dananu. "But I see that you've been in high demand tonight. Have you lied to me?"

Sebastian pulled back and looked at her. "I don't know what you mean."

"I smell Lucrezia on you."

Not wanting to miss this rare opportunity to bed both coun-cilwomen in a single night, he hedged with a lie. "You smell a fantasy," Sebastian said, glancing away theatrically. "You know Lucrezia would never have me . . . and I doubt you would, so please don't tease me."

"A fantasy?" Elizabeth murmured.

Sebastian motioned to his spell room with his chin. "I... made her essence to surround myself with it. Just so I could . . ." He let his words trail off, giving her as innocent an expression as he could muster. "I am humiliated that you even know."

"I am hurt that you made her essence the object of your fantasy, and not mine," Elizabeth said coolly, drawing away.

"I only did that because I fear Vlad much more than Fallon," Sebastian said quickly, holding her arm to stay her leave. "You know what he'll do to me if he finds out that I've even dreamed about you."

"Then while in the Carpathians, you and I should take a long, hot bath after we're done so he'll be none the wiser."

Sebastian swallowed hard. "You would do that for me--with me?"

"If you do one little thing for me," she said with a wicked smile, and wide, innocent eyes. Sebastian nodded. "Name it."

"Far be it from me to ask the question, but does it seem a little too quiet on this ship--or is it me?"

Yonnie looked at Rider. "It ain't you, Holmes. The hair is standing up on the back of my neck."

Carlos nodded and then made a fist, causing the men behind him to stop walking. His gaze scanned the deck and then he tilted his head like a hunting dog, listening. The sound of something wet, squishing, sent a shudder through his body. Using his forefinger and middle finger, he motioned to his eyes, and suggested a path for Yonnie and Rider to take in stealth mode. Calling the blade of Ausar into his hand, he waited until the warm, familiar metal filled his grip, and then he was a blur of motion.

In a shadowy corner behind toppled deck tables, four diseased humans were huddled over a dead crewman's body, eating. The sound of their gore made Carlos want to dry-heave as he watched them fight over entrails like scavengers.

They looked up with vacant black eyes and sallow skin, and hissed, but Carlos's blade took two heads before they could leap up and scrabble toward a new blood source. Hooked, yellow teeth and twisted, scaly talons reached out as knotted spines and double-jointed legs awkwardly propelled them forward across the smooth deck surface like fast-moving, diseased crabs.

Instantly, Rider got one in the center of the skull, blowing the back of his head off, and Yonnie made quick work of the aluminum frame of a deck chair--snapping it off and using it like a metal stake to hurl through the center of a young woman's head.

"Oh, fuck me . . ." Rider said, wiping his forehead with his T-shirt sleeve. "You know how many people a cruise ship usually holds? We go below decks where it's gotta be teeming with those things, and it's all over."

Carlos nodded. "Save your ammo, man. I ain't getting no life pulses off this vessel. Ain't no survivors. We're too late. I don't feel anything down below moving tWt death."

"Me neither, man--and you know vamps can feel the humanity thing going on ... thatVhow we used to eat. But not like that. . . damn. Everythings in this joint is as dead as a doornail, bro." Yonnie glanced around nervously. "I say we be out." "Great minds think jwke," Rider said, looking over his shoulder.

"Aw'ight, look," Qart>s said, listening and keeping his gaze sweeping. "We fold-away down to the kitchen, jettison supplies back to Monty's yacht and the excess to the cathedral for survivors. The white-li^ht blast I'll send it through should clean all the cans and bottles! of all contagion, plus Mar knows how to make it do what it do. We go to the pilothouses on each ship-- they've gotta have fla,re guns, weapons, and shit in the captain's quarters . . . and then we blow this joint so none of these creepy crawlers get back to the island and go hunting down innocent survivors. Same deal on the other four boats--on, sense, off, blow the sucker."

"Yeah, aw'ight, we got your six, C," Yonnie said, glancing around, "but hurry the fuck up."

Monk Lin took in a deep, cleansing breath. He sat perfectly still, an open vessel to the communication he sought. With his eyes closed and his legs crossed yogi-style, he sat on the floor of the safe house, waiting.

Soon, his eyelids began to flutter and images poured into his mind. He heard Cordell's voice, saw him open the maps. In each Templar location, there was a storehouse . . . grain, water, canned goods, weapons, cash, technology. Tears streamed down Monk Lin's face. The moment Cordell's image faded, he focused on the face of each seer in the twelve scattered tribes that he'd memorized by heart. And then he saw little Ayana's face.

"Tell your people that in these times, money means nothing. Goods are what will be treasured."

He opened his eyes. The Neteru team was still outside of his reach. He didn't understand it, but didn't question the Divine. The others now knew. Guardians would have a way to survive the difficult times, the darkness. They knew to go to higher ground. His job was done. The safe house was no longer safe. He bowed, and came onto his hands and knees and then pressed his forehead to the floor in front of his altar.

Tibetan incense swirled and danced, the scent of it mingling with death. The door burst open, and death ran toward him. He was up on his feet in a flash and had unsheathed two samurai swords that had been mounted on his altar. The whoosh and thud of heads being separated from bodies thrummed in his ears as he kicked out the window and somersaulted onto the fire escape.

The things that sought him crawled like fast spiders, but he slashed and cut, every fiber of his being remembering all of his ancient teachings. Winded, there were some on the roof above him, some scrambling over the hacked bodies he left below him. A military truck rolled down the street and he lifted a sword to hail it for help . . . but the soldiers only saw the carnage around him.

Inside the Bradley the terrified men made a snap decision.

"There's more of 'em on the fire escape, Joe. Hot those motherfuckers!"

Nirvana was close at hand. As he saw the flamethrower rise, Monk Lin let his swords fall away to clatter on the cement below, and simply turned into the orange-red sun. Bliss.

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