The Thirteenth / Chapter TWO

Chapter TWO


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Chapter TWO

Uh, that's just lovely!" Rider shouted, throwing up his hands as he walked to the other side of the living room. He looked at Damali and Carlos in disbelief. "On the advice of a flaky, several-thousand-year-old pearl oracle, who has had her bouts with personal issues, we're supposed to leave a twenty-thousand-dollar watch on the coffee table as though this exclusive resort were a pawn shop, and then mist into a freaking cathedral in broad daylight--one that probably has tourists-- and then hope to charter a yacht from some guy we have yet to meet with the goal to circumnavigate the goddamned Bermuda Triangle with a boatload of pregnant Guardians, and then try to work our way into Miami during U.S. martial law, praying we don't get blown out of the water by a naval destroyer or the coast guard at the very least--in Miami, a port known to shoot smuggler ships on sight--so who can guess what'll be waiting for us if we make it to shore with the Devil literally on our asses on the open seas. . . All this during the end of days, when lady luck ain't exactly been in our hip pocket. Maybe it's me."

Rider looked around at the team getting confirmation glances, and then settled his hard gaze on Carlos and Damali.

"What did I miss? Did you two go out on the beach and smoke a joint to relieve the tension or something? Are you highT'

Big Mike didn't say a wordjust crossed the room and slapped Rider five after Yonnie pounded his fist.

"Look," Carlos said, his voice tight and urgent as he glanced around the team. "This ain't up for negotiation. We don't have a lotta options, given where we landed. You wanna take a shortcut through the Triangle on a wing and a prayer, hoping we don't get sucked into a black hellhole? You wanna risk the lives of four pregnant Guardian sisters?"

"Five," Tara said quietly.

Stunned speechless, Rider simply looked at her.

All eyes went to Tara, but Damali looked down at her sand-crusted bare feet. Carlos dragged his fingers across his scalp in agitation. The Neterus glimpsed each other. Their secret was finally out. Just as Damali was about to offer an explanation, Val pushed off the edge of the sofa she'd been leaning against.

"Six," Val whispered.

Carlos and Damali shared another look.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Yonnie said, slowly pushing off the wall, his line of vision fixed on Valkyrie. "Talk to me. My ass is dead--I'm just a vamp with an undefined reprieve. Whatchu talkin' about six, ma?"

"Five?" Rider said so quietly that the group left Val to ricochet and focus on him. He stared at Tara. "Baby, you were dead for forty years... I mean . . . something's wrong with the math here ... I'm damned near--"

"Angels don't lie!" Tara shrieked, and then hugged herself and turned away.

Rider immediately crossed the room, trying to gather her in �his arms. "Hey, hey, easy ... I was just--"

"Is that all you had to say to me, Jack Rider--that I was dead for forty years?" Bitter tears streamed down Tara's face as she hauled off and slapped him hard enough to make his lip bleed.

Two tense seconds passed; not one Guardian moved. Then all of a sudden Rider burst out laughing and hugged Tara up off her feet until she started laughing with him.

"Our asses are in a world of shit now," Rider said, laughing, finally putting her down. "Okay, I'm in for a penny, in for a pound." He staggered around in a circle, intermittently chuckling and becoming morose.

"You okay, man?" Shabazz asked, going up to Rider to land a hand on his shoulder and to get him to stop walking in a circle. Rider just shook his head. "No. Actually, I'm having a nervous fucking breakdown, if you don't mind. How are we supposed to defend all of humanity against the forces of the Ultimate Evil and not be scared shitless that something could happen to the most precious thing on the planet?"

"Wow ... oh, wow," Yonnie repeatedly muttered, rubbing his jaw. "This is deep . . . I'm dead, yo. Maybe it's, you know, psychosomatic, baby . . . not that I'm not down with it, if that's what's up, but I just never thought, I mean . . . we be getting it in, but I'm not able to ... like . . . yo, C, you know what I'm saying, here, bro--you've got a heartbeat, I don't. . . like how is this possible? You sure we ain't got double-crossed?" Yonnie went to Val as huge tears of disappointment welled in her eyes. "Baby, listen, for real, now ... I am a dead man walking. If you're pregnant, this could be the darkside seeding you, somehow, you know." He looked at Carlos and then Damali as worried glances passed around the group. "They do foul shit like that from where I'm from."

"I can scan her," Damali offered, but Carlos blocked her path. "Uh-uh . . . that's a job for the Queens. If something's inhabited her," Carlos said carefully, "we need to just be sure it's not contagious."

Yonnie closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around Val, kissing the top of her head. "We'll get it out of you if it ain't right, okay, boo. Carlos is right . . . but I'ma be with you no matter �what."

"It's not evil," Val shot back, trying to wrest herself out of Yonnie's hold.

"Baby, how do you know?" he murmured, cupping her cheek with his hand. "I can't make life; I can only take life like I am now."

"Uriel told me," Val said in a quavering voice, her eyes filling with tears as she wrapped her arms around herself and lifted her chin. "The Neteru born must have seven Guardians for protection--ours plus Ayana, the new mother-seer, makes seven, Yolando. It's part of the prophecy."

Marlene rushed forward and gently grabbed Val by the arms as the team suddenly looked at Damali. "What's the full prophecy the angel told you, honey? Talk to us."

Val nodded. "What Damali is carrying has the power, when fully matured, to stop the one-third destruction of humankind foretold in Revelation. If this progeny is born and can reach maturity, then the one-third population wipeout can possibly be averted. This will help tip the scales toward the balance of the Light. Every one of these children must be a part of the new team."

A tiny squeal rang out in the room as the pearl in Damali's grasp fought to speak without water.

"Dip the oracle under tap water or something," Marlene commanded, eyes frantic.

J.L. rushed forward with the ice bucket, sloshing melted ice water, and offering it to Damali, who just stared at him. Carlos reached back, feeling for the wall to lean against with a thud.

"Dunk the pearl," Carlos said in a raspy voice. "I thought we weren't supposed to tell anybody yet . . .just dunk the pearl."

A high-pitched squeal wafted up from the bucket as soon as the necklace hit the water. "I was just bursting to tell. The Queens said I couldn't--not until Uriel made other announcements! So, now it's official. Congratulations, everybody!"

Damali yanked the necklace out of the water and simply stared at the rivulets cascading down her forearm.

"Oh . . . shit. . . ." Jose bent over, hands on knees, and began to hyperventilate.

"Like, what does this mean?" Berkfield asked quickly, his gaze furtive and haunted. "Like what are we gonna do, all this at risk and down a Neteru? Anybody hearing me?"

"It has to be all right," Marjorie said, wringing her hands as she spoke. "There must be a plan."

"Don't freak, people," Shabazz warned, taking temporary command of the team. His dark, intense gaze swept the room, his regal African features set hard in his dark ebony face as a blue static charge ran down his dreadlocks and then connected to the charge running down Marlene's long, silver dreadlocks. "You saw how crazy strong C got in Detroit when Drac came after Damali and the team, right?" He waited until shoulders began to relax. "I don't know what the plan is yet, but I know I've lived through enough bullshit to know there is a plan."

Marlene swept her arm around the group. "We've got, for all intents and purposes, two sets of grandparents here--me and Shabazz, Marjorie and Berkfield. Between the four of us, we've got the skills of two seers, a strong veteran tactical, sharpshooter, aikido master, healer, and stoneworker . . . practically an entire squad, just from us. We represent the four cardinal points now. Plus, every man on this squad that's a father-to-be is still a viable warrior--and is probably more insane now than ever before. Every female who's carrying is still a force to be reckoned with, Ashe. So let's not get our heads all twisted, like Shabazz said-- not yet. We've got months before we have to worry about all that."

"Ashe," Inez said. "But I have to get to my momma and my baby."

"First order of business, as soon as we can get to the States, suga," Big Mike assured her. "But we can't be bringing Mom and boo through no crazy energy distortions."

Inez nodded and leaned against his huge, six-foot-eight, tree-trunk frame, which made her seem even shorter.

"I just wanna know how all this happened at the same time?" Berkfield said, wiping the perspiration away from his bald scalp.

Shabazz smiled. "C'mon, man. It ain't been that long since you got some--you know how the birds and the bees work."

"That's not what I mean!" Berkfield yelled, growing peevish. "I mean the timing."

"Communal living," Marlene said in a cheerful voice, un-fazed by Berkfield's tone. "Fertile women who live in the same home, same tribe, all cycle around the same time ... all the children born within a community like that are normally conceived and born around the same time. Lots of cousins. This is life still happening, even in the darkest moments in history. The human spirit will prevail, no matter what. These children will all need one another." Her tone sobered as she looked around the room. "And in a family like this, if one or both parents don't make it--which is a reality we have to be at the ready to always deal with--that child will not go- parentless. We will raise all of them like the village we are. Ashe."

Murmurs of Ashe filled the room as each Guardian couple fell quiet to contemplate Marlene's and Shabazz's words.

Rider went to the mini-bar, opened the door, and just stared at the selections.

Yonnie followed him, and then materialized a pack of red Marlboros in his hand, pulled out a cigarette for himself, and offered one to Rider without lighting either one. Both men simply stood shoulder to shoulder dragging on their unlit butts, smelling the tobacco while lost in their own thoughts.

"Uriel told me, too," Tara murmured thickly, finally breaking the silence in the room as she drew in deep breaths looking out the glass doors toward the unending blue sea.

She pushed a strand of her dark brown hair behind her ear and turned her face toward a shaft of sunlight that bathed her beautiful Native American features in tones of gold.

"My womb was dead for four decades, but was needed ... I am needed and what grows within me is needed. I'm not dead anymore. I'm alive." Tara looked at Yonnie. "You might be alive, too . . . when's the last time you cut yourself to see if you bled red blood? The Light works quietly, subtly, and when we least expect it."

"I ain't been cut since D.C. . . . everything healed the moment we came through the Light and we got dropped here."

Yonnie stared at Tara for what felt like a long time and then opened his palm. Guardians gathered around him, craning to see the results of his test. With a shaking forefinger he willed forward a razor-sharp vampire fingernail and sliced into his palm. Thick, red blood oozed to the surface, painting his palm crimson. Yonnie clutched his chest like a man having a heart attack and staggered backward until he crashed into the dining-room table. Val caught him under an arm before he fell, and then pressed her fingers against his jugular.

"You're warm," Val murmured in awe. "For the last couple of days and nights you've been burning up ... and I just thought it was your body trying to regenerate from internal injuries." Then suddenly she snatched her hand back and pressed it to her heart, beginning to sob. "You have a pulse."

"Oh, shit. . . ." Yonnie wheezed, tightly closing his eyes. "When? I didn't even feel it."

"You had a better transition from the darkside to the Light than I did, bro," Carlos said, going up to Yonnie to pull him into a warrior's embrace. "Welcome to the Light, man. And congrats on the kid."

Yonnie opened his eyes and then burst out laughing, hugging Carlos back hard. "Damn, man! Like ... we did it! We gonna be dads? Oh, shit! Me, too?"

"So, what in God's name do we do now?" Rider said quietly, still staring at the bar.

Tara wrenched her gaze away from the ocean and stared at Rider. "We take the path the Neterus have set."

"It's always the little things. The devil is in the details." A deep thunderous voice rang out followed by an evil laugh, unsettling transporter bats and dislodging rubble from the vaulted ceiling above.

The massive, black double doors leading into the Vampire Council Chambers eerily creaked open. Both of the large, golden-fanged door knockers that normally struck for blood authenticity cowered with their slit eyes shut tightly. The sound of hooves in the distance kept all eyes trained on the gaping maw of total darkness just beyond the doors. Wall torches began to flare in agitation to the new screams and moans renting the air from the Sea of Perpetual Agony just outside the grand chamber.

Every vampire went still as they sat in nervous repose awaiting the next set of orders to be given by their Dark Lord. Tiny gargoyle-bodied Harpies scampered to hide in the crags behind each of the huge, onyx-hued marble thrones, avoiding their normal sanctuary beneath Lilith's hemline like the plague--just in case she'd somehow lost favor with the master. They seemed to sense his foul mood before he arrived, as did the fanged crest in the center of the pentagram-shaped black bargaining table that had stopped spewing black blood. Even the veins within the black marble floor had stopped pulsing with the elixir of life, as though every inanimate object was also trying to avoid being the object of Lucifer's wrath.

Lilith sat deadly still on her throne. As Chairwoman, she knew that if a mistake had been made by one of her council members, she would be instantly targeted to take the weight. . . unless she could skillfully deflect whatever charge was being levied. Self-preservation, at all costs, was necessary.

Her three-hundred-and-sixty-degree peripheral bat vision studied each council member with care. If Lu needed a blood sacrifice to abate his fury about some yet unknown offense, who would she offer? Which member of her council was most expendable? The pale, devious Elizabeth, with the porcelain skin--wife of Count Dracula?

The fact that Elizabeth Bathory was a ruthless, sadistic bitch was reason enough to give her up; those character traits weren't unique in Hell. What did Liz really bring to the table, other than the very crafty reanimation of Dracula at Sebastian's expense . . . which was priceless. But the question was, however, would she be enough to sate Lu? The aquiline brunette with smoky, dark, exotic eyes was reed thin, tall, and handsome, but no stunner. Lilith released a very slow exhalation, considering. No.

But then, what about Liz's husband, Dracula--Vlad the Im-paler himself, perhaps? She glimpsed his strong, warrior jawline that held massive fangs when provoked and studied his athletic carriage, watching torchlight make strands of gold and red glisten in his dark brown hair. No, he was too valuable to the empire. Like Nuit, he was a master strategist, but had the added asset of owning the prowess and loyalty of a full demon army.

Maybe the sallow-skinned spell-caster and regular pain in her ass, Sebastian . . . but an expert necromancer during these times was also an asset. Lucrezia, then? Lilith studied Lucrezia Borgia's delicate features, startling green eyes, and beautiful thicket of auburn curls, and then discreetly dragged her gaze down the councilwoman's shapely body. But Lucrezia's expertise in poisons had served her well, not to mention, she had an evil pope in her line that was a strategic chess piece in the game that could be used later. Besides, to sacrifice Nuit's wife would cause an indelible rift between her and Fallen, and he was truly the closest reminder of Machiavelli that she had left. Decisions, decisions . . .

Glimpsing Fallen from a sidelong glance, she wistfully considered the tall handsome rogue from New Orleans, knowing that she'd throw the whole lot of them at her husband, if necessary, to buy herself more time.

Sulfuric ash spewed into the entranceway, making Lilith wrinkle her nose and halt her endless musing. Messengers had been killed . . . lovely. She made a tent with her fingers in front of her mouth and waited. She'd clearly heard hooves, but to her surprise, upon his arrival, her husband entered chambers in his human form--handsome as always and well coiffed, wearing one of his best black business suits.

His dark hair was well barbered. He'd put away his horns and bat wings, with no evidence of fangs gracing his seductively lush mouth. The spaded tail was gone and he wore a pair of expensive Italian slip-on leather shoes. He'd even come wearing his fanged crest ring, the one she so adored with the pentagram and black diamond in the center of it. Very nice. What game had he come to play today? She almost smiled.

The entire council prostrated themselves as the Dark Lord approached the bargaining table and took up a golden goblet, waiting impatiently for the fanged crest to belch black blood into it.

"The pale horse is running amok, how shall we make use of this fine hour?" The Unnamed One lifted his goblet with a droll smile and waited until Lilith slowly gazed up at him. "You have no idea how dismayed I was to have my hand forced like that. But all is fair in love and war, they say."

"We tried to contain the battle with the Neterus to Detroit and end it there," Vlad said in a defeated tone, "but--"

"My dear count, do stand." The Dark Lord swirled the blood in his goblet and then took a healthy swig from it as Vlad pushed up and stood. "You were the only one man enough to attempt to offer an explanation, and out of respect for all you've done for the empire, I'll allow you to cast the first suggestion for a strategy."

Seeming unsure as the Devil's smile broadened, Vlad hesitated.

"Oh, come now . . . you don't trust me?" The Dark Lord set down his goblet very carefully on the edge of the table and clasped his hands behind his back, beginning to circle Vlad. "You gave me much," he said in Dananu, beginning the negotiation by employing the centuries-old bargaining language. "Here is your chance to make a fair exchange. Sebastian is too weak to call me on what I really owe him; therefore, I will give it to you--if you can guess what it is."

A loud swallow made the Devil turn toward Sebastian, and then he laughed as Sebastian lowered his gaze. "Don't even attempt a late entry into this game, you pussy . . . you had your chance."

"You have released the pale horse of the Apocalypse to divert attention away from your heir," Vlad said quickly in Dananu. "It was a wise move necessary so that the warriors of the unnamed place above shall be too busy saving human lives to send a substantial retinue of warriors after the dark prince."

Clapping slowly, Lucifer narrowed his gaze on Vlad, the echo from his strong palms slapping one against the other deafening the vampire until blood began to leak from Vlad's nose and ears, staining his black council robe. Then in a sudden fit of rage Lucifer grasped Vlad by the jaw and stared deeply into his eyes. "Only half the story, old friend. Your obliviousness disappoints me. Perhaps I allowed you to suffer in the Sea of Perpetual Agony too long and your sensory awareness is dulled. Pity."

Gently removing his grasp from the count's jaw, the Dark Lord spoke in a quiet, lethal tone. "Please tell me what happened in Detroit?"

"The moment I surfaced with my army," Vlad said, gasping in Dananu, but still standing tall and proud, "I attacked with all my might. We impaled innocent humans and Guardians alike. We ravaged the area--"

"You attacked," Lucifer said calmly, refilling his goblet. "And not once did your dick get hard for the Neteru ... a centuries-old vampire that still has the look of a young, virile, handsome warrior from the knights of old?"

"No," Vlad said proudly. "I was focused on victory." Lucifer shook his head. "Fallen . . . stand and tell me what's wrong with that picture?"

Fallen pushed up from the floor and stood, head held high, shoulders back. "Dracula lusted for the Neteru in the Sea of Perpetual Agony until he nearly went mad when she ripened," Fallon murmured in Dananu, staring at Vlad first and then the Dark Lord with dawning awareness. He ignored Elizabeth's hiss of jealousy and a sly half-smile tugged at his mouth as he finally settled his gaze on Vlad. "Man ami. . . you didn't even try to take her as a hostage for a lair prize later--you tried to kill her outright. . . the female Neteru."

"Of course I did, you backstabbing harlot!" Vlad shouted, about to lunge at Nuit. But Fallon Nuit's eerily calm countenance gave Vlad pause as Lilith covered her mouth.

"That could only mean one thing," Fallon said, his Dananu now ringing out with confidence as his line of vision shifted to become steady on the Dark Lord. "She no longer lures . . . the female Neteru's once-irresistible scent has been tainted by the Light that now inhabits her womb. Damali Richards Rivera has conceived! Always efficient in your evil, you released the pale horse to kill two birds with one stone ... to lure the angels away from your heir and to infect the Neteru prophecy child."

"The devil is in the details--did I not say that when I first came in here? Give the man a seat at the head of the table, Lilith. He was the only one who stuck to his guns, figured it out based on a known variable--Dracula's behavior--and had the balls to present the theory. I like that," the Dark Lord said, laughing as he offered Nuit his goblet. "The game just got very interesting, and I have much work to do."

Time was pressing down on Damali like an invisible anvil. While the team absorbed the shock of what they'd just learned, something very instinctive kicked in and made her stop all conversation. She couldn't worry about how people were processing any of the news. They had to get out of there. Now.

Damali rushed forward to the middle of the room, her second-sight sending a hot poker of pain through her temples until it bloomed behind her eyes. "Everybody chill!" she shouted. "I can see the inside of the church. We've gotta move, come out of the energy fold in the long corridor just before you get to the sanctuary. Then we'll blend in with the tourists. There's a man there now, seeking his life's purpose ... he's going into a confessional booth. If we wait, we'll miss him--he's our contact."

"Baby, you all right?" Concern laced Carlos's expression as Damali doubled over, beginning to pant.

"No," she whispered, standing up slowly. "I'm really not."

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