The Hunted

Chapter Four

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Chapter Four

Tijuana, 45 miles into the Mexican desert, right after the battle in Hell

Carlos lay motionless against the cool earth. Only a whisper of existence flickered within him as his disoriented mind replayed the outcome of the vampire civil war. A travesty. A variable. Destiny was laughing. He could only hope that Fate's cruel sense of humor had spared his woman. At twenty-one years old, Damali Richards didn't deserve to go out like that. Yet, who would have thought he'd be made into a vampire at twenty-three? Way before Damali learned that she was a vampire huntress she'd been right; there were worse things than death.

He had heard his own bones snapping and flesh ripping, his cries echoing in the caverns of Hell as he fought off the attack. His body had suffered carnage, but it had also temporarily kept the Minion forces at bay. With all that he had to give her, he'd put himself between his kind and her humanity. That he had been turned into a creature of the night was moot; she was made of living, mortal flesh, and still had a soul. It was the last gift he could give her: protection, and a chance to escape.

It was a foolish concept that he nursed as he lay dying. Protection. For minutes, hours, days until they tracked her down again? His kind was relentless and had all the time in the world to go after her once they regrouped. That he killed many of them in the combat was of little consequence. His efforts would barely make a dent in the numbers that hunted her. He'd come to understand that as the tunnels of Hell had filled and they'd rushed him.

Even for a master vampire like him, there had been too many of them. Rogue vampires had descended upon him with their allied demon forces, however his objective had been singular: keep them away from the Neteru, away from Damali and her guardian team. Were it not for his alliance with the Vampire Council of old, he would have immediately perished. But, then, that might have been a more merciful fate.

Agony from his wounds stripped the breath from his lungs as his mind struggled to hold onto consciousness. Bone cut through his skin like jagged, bloody, white knives, leaving his leg a distorted wreck. His jaw had been shattered, neutering him, leaving him no vampire defense. His left arm was almost amputated, hanging by a bloody mass of muscle at what had been his shoulder. Sections of his rib cage protruded from beneath ripped flesh and had dug into the ground when they'd dropped him, almost trapping him against the sand until he could bring himself to roll over onto his right side. He couldn't even groan when he did. Pain had seized his vocal cords and impaled him.

His chest rose and fell with intermittent shudders for air. He trained his mind on the distorted faces that had attacked him. In the chaos of battle, he'd avoided being beheaded, and something he couldn't fathom had made it impossible for one of Fallon Nuit's master vampires to drive a stake through his heart. Odd. A strange arc of energy had spared his chest and had given his attackers pause. The split-second advantage allowed him to take out his immediate opponent, but it had not kept him from being badly mangled in the blood struggle with the others. Were he not in so much pain, he would have questioned what spared him, and then laughed at the irony of it all.

"Pride goeth before a fall," his mother had always said when he was still human. She, too, was right. What good were expensive suits on a dead man? He thought about how he'd once put so much emphasis on being well-groomed, the perfection of his haircut, his material possessions, all that he owned. No wonder he was damned. He'd never put a value on his soul, and now his once-athletic body was ripped to shreds and of no use.

His right eye was almost sealed shut. Multiple blows to his face had left a gaping hole that remained from where a claw took out his left eye and a part of his cheek. An attacker from behind had gotten to his one arm in mid-swing - that was now precariously dangling from filleted cartilage and ligaments, no longer in the shoulder socket that once housed it. When he'd fallen from the impact, like vultures they'd gone for his legs, his mobility, leaving one leg stripped of muscle and flesh down to the bone over a multiple compound fracture, and his ribs on one side had been crushed. There had been just too many of them that descended upon him like rabid wolves. Now his immortality was a curse, keeping him locked within a pain-riddled carcass.

His entire existence flashed through his mind in snapshots. Everything in his short lifespan was measured before the vampire turning point, and after it. B.V., before vampirism, and A.V., after vampirism. Before he had been turned, he'd squandered his talents for business by investing in the drug world and had been king of his hill. He was a real predator - and had been preyed upon by his own kind. Vampiri. A mournful howl entered his chest and escaped from the confines of his broken jaw. What had he done?

When the Vampire Council's forces had rushed the tunnel in search of him and his Neteru cargo, it had created a distraction for Nuit's army - but not before the rogues had angrily jettisoned him to the topside, earth. Their demons had made haste to lay him in the open desert two hundred yards away from a cave entrance before returning to the underworld civil war... two hundred yards away from the safety of a sunshield with dawn approaching. No mercy. That was the way of his world.

Badly wounded, and unable to hunt to feed himself in order to regenerate, he knew his fate was sealed. He didn't even have enough telepathic energy to mentally project himself to a safe place beyond the sun's reach; he could barely lift his head. He just laid there in the dark awaiting dawn.

Yet an eerie calm befell him, like that of a man who has finally accepted his demise. Soon daylight would incinerate him. It would burn away what remained of his flesh and turn it to a pile of ash, but it would also release his embattled soul. The pain of sunlight would pass in minutes, and would be nothing in comparison to the suffering that tortured him now.

Carlos stopped struggling against the hard, rock-strewn ground. The desert night air was cool. Coyotes howled, and he could sense them coming nearer to him; he was carrion. What did it matter? He had already been ripped to shreds, and his heart had no beat, no blood flowed through his veins. The Covenant of Light had been wrong. There was no second chance. In life, he had been a predator, feeding on the weak and dying as a drug lord, luring them and seducing them with his product. Now the carrion feeders were about to fill their bellies with his dying remains. Yes, only fitting. Karma.

Besides, there was no going back to a human existence, not with two significant mob factions looking for him, as well as the FBI.

There was no joining the Minion, Fallon Nuit's rogues, even after conquering Nuit, their attack made that clear. The old vampires posed no option, either. They wanted him to hunt down the only source of light in his life and bring her to them - and he'd never give them Damali.

So, Carlos waited. He could feel his body being nudged and sniffed by the jackal-like creatures of the desert. Out of pure reflex, he snarled, having no real energy to do more to defend himself. But the animals yelped and backed up in confusion. He could feel their terror and see them retreat with his inner mind's eye, at least. But eventually Damali's image eclipsed even that. God, please let her have made it out alive. He fully closed his half-shut eye. Profound. Near death, and with her name in his skull, he could call the name that used to scorch his brain.

Seeing her inside his head, the last still frame of her as she turned to him once, her eyes filled with tears, her voice strong but trembling, begging him to come with them. She'd seen him in full vampire mode, knew what he was, had watched him transform, but foolishly insisted that he come away with her and her guardians. Carlos allowed the sweet balm of her belief in him to enter his bones. It dulled the excruciating pain. As long as he could see Damali's face, her eyes, her Isis sword raised above her head... her eyes closing as tears for him ran down her face...

They had taken his soul, but they could never take his memory of her. The warmth within her being blanketed him. He remembered her touch, her kiss, her smile, her passionate spoken words, her music. His undamaged hand clawed the sandy earth as he remembered the softness of her bronze skin, the smell of shoulder-length locks, the way her black pupils eclipsed the color of dark brown irises when she looked deeply into his mind. All five-foot-seven inches of her lithe, athletic frame had fused to his in a desperate hug. She had not given up on him, refused to let him go, even when she saw the beast within him. And both vampire nations had wanted him to turn over such a precious vessel to them to pollute her with their demonic seed... to turn her untouched womb into a sanctuary for daywalker fetuses? Never! Not even as a dead man.

His foot pushed against the stones and gravel. One hand clawed and grappled at it to drag his battered form forward. His inner radar drew him to where it was dark and cool as the planet slowly began to heat with approaching dawn. Pain riddled him as he slithered along the ground millimeter by millimeter, tearing open flesh wounds against his abdomen and torso.

Exhaustion and agony claimed him, filling his pores with profound torture until he stopped his struggle. His skin began to feel hot, prickly. A cold shiver washed through him. He knew he was going into shock. Sweat ran down his face and covered his back and chest, the salt of it igniting new shards of pain as it entered his gaping wounds. It wouldn't be long before the night lifted and gave way. He'd loved Damali so much; didn't she know if he could reverse the hands of time, he would have? But that was beyond even a master vampire's powers - just like he was beyond redemption. The situation was what it was; he was what he was, and soon the sun would cook that away.

Damali's voice entered his skull, the last stanza of her concert song, the one she'd composed as a secret message to him... the refrain that he'd so arrogantly ignored, "Remember, baby, how it used to be? When we were just kids, and so free."

Yes, baby, I remember... It was all he had left.

Three nights later...

"Father Patrick, are you sure you should get so close to the beast? It is not yet full daylight, it's wounded and could attack." The younger cleric placed a trembling hand on the old man's shoulder, trying to get him to heed caution as he glanced around the dark cavern, a torch and flashlights their only source of illumination. He made the sign of the cross over his heart as soon as one of the lights glinted off a set of fangs. "Madre de Dios ..." His voice was a strangled whisper.

The gruesome remains of a vampire were the last thing he'd expected to ever see when he entered the clergy and became a priest. He'd heard about myths and legends like this that were rampant among his people in the countryside, but never in his life had he believed. These were superstitions, the rationalizations of simplistic people left over from a time gone by. In fact, he didn't even believe in exorcisms. The church itself was very, very skeptical about even discussing such things. But now he was out in the middle of nowhere in the desert, in a cave, at

night, with three old men claiming to be clerical warriors, who were advancing, without fear, toward something unfathomable? Until he spied the thing they spoke of, he had simply not believed.

Padre Manuel Lopez swallowed hard and wanted to look away, but could not. Fear gripped him and kept his gaze firmly on the thing that bore fangs and had only half a face.

"Padre Lopez... Manuel, there are only three of us left from the original twelve in the Covenant," the senior cleric replied after selecting a place for the others to set down a huge, silver chest. "My friends, Asula, Lin, and me." The Moor and the Buddhist nodded. "You are new, and do not understand this beast like we do." He let out a long, patient breath.

"My visions have led us here. The only reason you are here, Padre, is because your parish is near and we don't know this region. We needed an anointed man of faith to be our guide, or we would have spared you this grisly sight. On your insistence, you have entered this cave. We tried to warn you, but you would not heed our advice. So, please do not interrupt our mission."

"Patrick is right. He is a knight of Templar from the highest order, and the seer of our Covenant of the twelve major faiths in the world. The others were lost in the battle to protect our Neteru. Her team made it out, but ours all but perished. So many of us died with that honor. Those who made it out alive, died soon after from the wounds they'd sustained," Asula said quietly. "This beast saved our lives. Saved our Neteru. That is what matters here."

"How can that be?" Manuel's eyes darted between the three older men and the heavy silver trunk they had set down only yards away from the creature.

"He placed himself between our teams and those who attacked us," Lin answered, folding his arms over his chest. "The adversary showed no mercy."

"You think it's too late?" Asula stared at Father Patrick, worry lacing his question.

"I don't know," he said, his tone carrying the same grave concern. "Three nights is an eternity for a vampire who has been wounded and cannot feed himself."

Manuel looked stricken. "I thought we came to kill it, not revive it with witchcraft!"

"Calm yourself," Lin warned as they flipped open the trunk. "This is no witchcraft - it's donated blood from our order."

"Since when does the church authorize - "

"This did not go through normal channels," Father Patrick said, cutting him off.

"Obviously not!"

Father Patrick sighed. "Think of it this way. If we were the government, this would be considered a necessary black ops mission. But we work for the highest realms, and this is a white light mission of salvation. Therefore it's a very discreet white ops mission." He studied the young man for a moment, and then went back to the task at hand.

"How so?" the young priest whispered, taking a cautious step backward. "You come with bags of blood to revive a creature of the night... our church does not know about this... You have the gall to carry it in a Vatican silver chest with the holy crucifix on it - "

"Enough. We do this because the warrior angels wrested this creature's soul from the pit, and it is now in Purgatory," Asula said calmly, lifting out a bag of blood and tossing it to land near the vampire's face. "The dark side violated supernatural law, took him too early in accordance with the three-day laws of transformation. He was immediately turned, and his choice was stolen from him. This entity did not willingly give his soul - he was deceived. And now he is on our side."

"As long as his soul is in Purgatory," Father Patrick said, "Carlos Rivera still has a choice, has time. He has not fed from an innocent human victim, yet. Our job is to see that he doesn't."

Lin cut the top off a container and threw it toward the vampire's ravaged body, splashing his face with its contents. "But I fear we're too late. If he were stronger, he would have awakened to attack us, smelling our blood, or the blood we carry." He then looked at Father Patrick, ignoring the alarmed young clergyman. "If the blood doesn't revive him..."

Father Patrick and Imam Asula nodded and spoke in unison. "Then we're too late."

"The merciful thing to do would be to behead him," Monk Lin said upon a whisper.

The smell. Obviously he was hallucinating. Carlos inhaled the sweet elixir of life and licked his parched lips. A series of sharp pains about his mouth made him tentative about exploring the pungent scent further. It had to be a starvation-induced hallucination, anyway. Why waste the energy or endure the agony?

He was so close to extinction that he could feel warm bodies close by and hear the clamor of men debating in low tones. He stuck his tongue out and lapped at the sticky, cool fluid on his face, unable to resist the survival reflex to seek blood. The salty, thick liquid burned the open wounds on his face. Blood should be warm, not cold.

Another cold splash hit his face, and a smooth pouch landed against his clenched fist. Plastic blood bombs from above? Carlos laughed inside his mind. Yeah, right... But the taste and the smell of life were all around him. He opened one puffed, battered eye and squinted.

The young priest stared in horror as the creature before him opened one glowing red eye that intermittently flashed gold. "You have awakened the beast! Now kill it, before it's too late!"

"No!" Asula argued, and flung another bag of blood toward Carlos. "We told you! This one was once a guardian, and was destined to be paired with the Neteru - "

At the mention of Damali, Carlos struggled to push himself up. All the men before him drew back, weapons raised, dead silence enveloping them. He could hear their hearts beating loudly within their chests, their pulses racing, their lungs slowly expanding and contracting with small, terrified sips of air. Be afraid, he Warned within his mind. Be very afraid. Even a few swallows had revived him enough to imperil a human. He reached his hand toward the scent of blood and snatched it, splashing the cold substance against his fist and on the ground with his tight grasp, then sucked as much as he could from the bag. His body began to heal itself.

He snatched another bag in one deft motion as it hurled toward him. He tossed the drained bag away in frustration, narrowing his gaze on the four warm bodies before him. Yes... be very afraid.

"Carlos," a familiar voice said, "we have come to help you. Here is more. Regenerate quickly. Heal yourself. We have less than an hour to get you to a lair." Another bag hit Carlos in the chest.

Carlos caught the bag before it dropped to the ground, snarled, and drank down the contents, feeling a surge of energy as some of the pain abated.

"He'll need all of it," another voice said, "if he is to completely heal."

"And, if that's not enough? What then?"

That voice was younger, higher. He gave off the delicious scent of fear.

"Then, you'll be the first to go," Carlos said in a low warning.

"No," the older familiar voice said firmly. "He is an innocent. A cleric. Kill him, and my warriors end this while you're still wounded."

The familiarity of the voice, talk of innocents, and clerics... It forced Carlos to focus, to strain to see the blurry shapes around him as he drank. Templars? Still not sated, but much improved, he held onto his near-amputated arm with his good hand and leaned against a column of rock.

The electric blue robes worn by the human with the familiar voice held his attention, and he studied the strange crucifix that had a bleeding heart surrounded by thorns in the center of it. The white-haired cleric slowly lowered his sword, and the glint of the silver in the dim light brought it all back for him. Father Patrick, the blue knight of the Covenant. The seer who had told him of his fate and fought side-by-side with Damali and the guardians against his predecessor, his nemesis, Fallon Nuit.

"You recognize me, don't you?" the man said in a steady, confident voice.

"Its eyes have gone from red to gold, Patrick," a tall, strapping African-looking cleric swathed in all white said. "That is a good sign. He's normalizing and is not in attack mode." He continued to hold his machete in a readiness position, but his stance seemed relaxed.

"Yes. His face is nearly healed, save the empty socket," another of them said. He was an Asian man in dark brown clothes, who also bore a familiar voice.

The only man that looked positively terror stricken was a young priest without a weapon, dressed in a black Catholic habit.

"There were more of you," Carlos finally said, his voice raspy. "You were with us in the tunnels, right?"

"Yes, and we saw you fight with honor," the Moor replied. "We also know you nearly died before we evacuated."

"And Damali?" Pain sent a seizure through Carlos as his partially severed arm locked back into its socket, and he bent, letting out an awful cry of agony. He could feel his ribs reconstruct under the skin, and he grabbed his face as a lightning strike of torture made the raw flesh where his missing eye had been feel like a knife had been gouged into it.

Dropping to both hands, he panted as his ruptured kidneys realigned and healed and the compound fracture in his leg reset. His arms trembled, forcing him to drop to the dank cave floor. Skin from undamaged sections of his body stretched and multiplied to cover areas that had been stripped of flesh to conceal skeleton and ragged muscle that knit itself together like steel cable.

"Throw him another bag," Father Patrick ordered.

Almost too sick to ingest it, Carlos grappled with the bag that had been flung toward him, slitting it with a fang and practically inhaling the dark, thick liquid. As his body temperature heated up, he pulled the shreds of his shirt off, sweat running down his chest, his back, coating his arms. Panting, he lay there for a while, allowing the last of the shudders of pain to abate. He felt stronger, whole, but was tender as all hell. His entire body felt like he'd been punched and then run over by a Mack truck. The parts of him that had not been previously injured now stung from the process of splitting and cloning more tissue for the wounded organs. But at least he could see. At least he was alive, or more correctly stated, still existed.

"Damali?" he wheezed, trying to stand too soon, but wobbled and fell. "I have to get to her."

"You would let a vampire near the precious vessel?" Manuel crossed himself again and glanced nervously at the other men of the cloth.

"He is the only one who can help her at present," Father Patrick said. "Our Neteru's light diminishes daily."

"What happened to her?" Carlos was on his feet now, pacing. His fist connected with a section of the cave wall, leaving a crumble of rock where it had landed. He tried to think of her, to lock in on her present location, but all his mind would offer was glimpses of the past. He stared at the old seer.

"I cannot locate her, either, my friend. She's blind."

"What do you mean, blind?" Carlos stared at the man, thinking of how his own eye had been ripped from his skull in the fight. The thought of that happening to his woman made the air stop moving in and out of his lungs. Her beautiful face... even her name meant beautiful vision, to have that maimed, with no way to regenerate - all the plastic surgery in the human world couldn't repair her. Anger burned in his stomach, forcing bile up to his throat. He swallowed it back down along with unshed tears.

"She couldn't withstand the thought of your turning... or what she saw in the tunnels." The older man's voice was calm, sad, almost soothing. "Our huntress has shut down her third eye."

"But she's vulnerable without her second sight," Carlos murmured, his gaze holding the blue knight's. "You have to make her see again."

The clerics all nodded, as the one in blue rubbed his hand over his jaw in contemplation. "She still possesses the other gifts... superior strength, heightened senses of scent, taste, and hearing, she can feel with profound enlightenment. But her third eye is extremely vulnerable. It is what helps her see into souls, thoughts... and before long, if it doesn't come back, her other senses will begin to erode."

"I know," Carlos said quickly, "but why is she blind? I still don't understand. She was fine when she left the tunnels. Why now?"

"She had others she cared for at her side... it is in her nature to protect her own," the elder cleric said in a quiet tone. "But once the immediate danger had passed, her heart sealed with total despair and the loss of hope. She saw you ripped apart and die - at least she believes you died in those tunnels. Her third eye took those images into her mind and she watched it all. She loved you and your brutal death broke her heart the way nothing else has. Up until that moment she still had hope that you would turn to the side of light and come with the guardians. That hope was so deep and strong that the loss of it is eating away at her soul like a cancer."

"The loss of this hope - of you - makes her imminently more vulnerable to the Vampire Council, Carlos," the Moor added in a quiet, worried tone. "They will eventually sense this and will relentlessly pursue her." He paused. "And she may very well surrender. Once she does, they will not relinquish her until her next fertility, and once again the threat of daywalkers will be upon us." Asula hesitated. "You know we cannot allow this... even if we must ultimately take the Neteru out of the equation for her own good."

Carlos snarled, and flexed his hands. They had actually threatened her in his presence? Were they mad?

"That was never our intention," Monk Lin assured him.

"Do her guardians know about this?" Carlos's tone was even and lethal.

"Their gifts are ebbing, too, with a significant loss of hope, shaken faith, and... other issues clouding their judgment." Father Patrick looked at him squarely. "The Neteru compound is in jeopardy. The family is fracturing, and were it not for the civil war within the vampire realms, it would have been under siege as we speak."

"The compound is a fortress!" Carlos shouted. "I saw it, it's nearly impenetrable."

"Nearly," the large cleric named Asula said in a calm voice. "Nearly. But you got in - through her. She had them lower the barricades for you. One day, perhaps for the same reason, another shrewd master vampire will get in, too, but with very different intentions and horrific outcomes." He paused and stared at Carlos hard, but there was no anger in his eyes, just urgency.

Fury roiled within Carlos, but it was also mixed with something else now - fear.

"There's an old Ghanaian proverb that says, 'The ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people.' " Asula's voice was unwavering and held authority, just like his gaze. "The Neteru compound is representative of nations. The guardians are all from every faith and group of people, merged as one family - as it should be on earth. Her home, her family unit, must be strong. There's not enough technology in the world to keep out evil... and we know that religious amulets are playthings, if there is not strong faith to back them up. Break the family and the second line of defense at the compound fails. We, the Covenant, her first line of defense, have all but been broken... we lost two-thirds of our number down in Hell."

Father Patrick nodded as Carlos backed away from Asula and relaxed.

"This is why we need your help. She doesn't even have uplifting music in her heart - which is the core of her gift. Without her spoken word, without her ability to touch others through this medium... her spirit will further wither."

"And what am I supposed to do?" Carlos gave them his back to consider in frustration as he walked a few paces deeper into the cave. "She hates all that I am, all that I stood for in life - and hates what I am now. No wonder she went blind."

Profound guilt claimed him and tore at him like a fresh wound. "I can't even trust myself in her presence." Carlos found his vision blurring once more as he kept his face turned away from the misguided clerics. "I never want to see that look in her eyes again," he finally said, his voice dropping to a broken whisper. "Never."

"Our ranks are thinning," Asula said. "Hers are battered, exhausted, a few may be on the run trying to reestablish another safe house. The vibrations Father Pat has picked up say the group is splintering, looking to go their separate ways."

"Where is she now?"

"When the Neteru and her guardians came up from the tunnels, they immediately sought hallowed ground," Lin replied.

"They've been moving from those places in a crisscross pattern through LA, trying to get back to the compound for the last few days," Father Patrick said in a quiet voice. "The first night after the concert, the streets were crawling. They had to seek immediate shelter in the cathedral closest to the stadium. The next morning, human vampire helpers worked through the police to have them briefly detained for questioning after the concert on the ruse of needing information about the young people that had been victimized at the events. This ate up precious daylight for them to move within. But a man named Berkfield worked behind the scenes to have them quickly released before nightfall."

Carlos stared at Father Patrick.

"You know this man?" the older cleric asked, stepping forward.

"I did him a favor, guess he did me one without even knowing it. Yeah... I know him. He's marked by me as off-limits."

All the clerics glanced at each other. Shoulders relaxed. Weary expressions gave way to what Carlos could only interpret as hope.

"They were released and had to find a safe place to wait out the second night," Father Patrick said, his voice now more urgent. "On this third night, we've lost her trail, because she went completely blind. Her team seer is nearly blind. The guardians have broken the cord to the Light, and even I can't get a clear vision on them, the loss of hope in them is so great. That is the other reason we sought you."

Carlos sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "What was the first reason? And how did you find me?"

"There is still the unresolved matter of your redemption," Father Patrick said wearily. "I am a seer, and I was led by the same thing that saved you from being staked. Hope. Faith. It was my only beacon to find you. Your hope for her was bright; hers for you is so dim, I cannot sense it to locate her. When you, a vampire, asked God to spare her - you called on the Almighty, then I could clearly see you." He nodded toward the young cleric, Padre Lopez. "He also helped immensely For some reason, he, even more so than I, could get a direct lock on you - and he knew the region."

Carlos turned around and folded his arms over his chest, closely watching his odd benefactors. "My possible parole, which you call redemption, saved my life in the tunnels?"

All of the clerics except the young one shook their heads no. The one named Manuel just stood there with his mouth slightly agape.

"The Neteru's brand saved you," Father Patrick stated, nodding at Carlos's chest. "See for yourself. You owe her."

Carlos looked down at his bare chest. A full-scale imprint of a woman's fist with a dagger clutched in it, and part of a slender forearm was now a slightly darker bronzed-tone, a raised keloid burn scar that covered his heart. He reverently touched the strange marking on his flesh with the tips of his fingers.

"From when you carried her in the silver suit she wore in the tunnels," the older man stated calmly.

In snatches of memory Carlos remembered holding Damali in his arms. He'd cradled her against him like a baby, and it had nearly torched him. Yes, he remembered the smell of her hair, even while his own skin slowly burned. No question he remembered the scent of her ripening, and he'd never forget the way his desire for her had blunted even the pain of silver searing against his flesh.

"When Nuit's forces attacked you, her brand kept their stakes from entering what she'd sealed. She even prayed in your arms in the middle of Hell - as a fully ripened Neteru - which you didn't violate." The old priest shook his head and addressed his colleagues. "You are very much harder to kill now. As long as the Neteru's seal is upon you, you cannot perish from the stake. She covers your heart. But you can still be beheaded... Think fully with your heart on this situation - not just your mind."

Deep. Carlos laughed. "Are you serious?"

"Deadly serious." The old priest arched an eyebrow. "Help us find her. Our Covenant trackers perished, my sight is useless. No one is answering the phones at the compound. She doesn't want to be found. My two colleagues are hearing and tactile sensors, but they are out of range. Help us find her and restore her hope. Time is of the essence."

Carlos shook his head. "You're men of the cloth; you must have words of strength, prayers for her. But if not, I can find her... dead or alive."

The clerics looked at each other and then at Carlos. For a moment no one said a word.

"Then replenish yourself with the rest of what's in the trunk," Father Patrick finally said. "We have a safe house just over the border in the Santa Monica Mountains. Project yourself there. We will need a day to fly in the traditional way via airlines to subsequently meet you. The lair is protected by prayers. Don't worry," he said when he saw Carlos stiffen. "You will be able to pass through them. The refrigerators are well-stocked with donated blood. Your chambers are the lower level. We hope you'll find it comfortable. A reinforced steel door locks it from the inside. The place is also externally fortified against intrusion."

For a while Carlos leaned against the cave wall and looked off into the distance, thinking. "I don't know if I have enough energy to project myself that far and the tunnels are too dangerous. I might have to travel with you all tonight."

"So be it. We cannot wait here another night, but we can possibly do this like it was once done in the old days... as unsavory as that may be to you."

"The old days?"

"In Dracula's era, a master vampire was couriered during daylight inside a coffin surrounded by the earth of his lair."

"No way!" Carlos pushed himself away from the wall. "I'll stay here for a night or so, get stronger, then leave on my own."

"Your choice. But every night you stay here alone, you run the risk of your enemies picking up your trail. Our prayers at the safe house will keep you hidden from them. We have opened the boundaries to you only."

That reality gave Carlos pause, and he let his breath out hard in frustration. He was not going out like that again. Yet the last thing he wanted to risk was an airport search where some stupid security guard might open his coffin and fry him in broad daylight.

The elder cleric nodded. "You'll have to trust us. No one will open the coffin if priests are accompanying it. There are some protocols afforded our calling."

"Seems you guys have thought of everything," Carlos said slowly, still not fully trusting them. "How do I know it's not a trap?"

Father Patrick stepped dangerously close to Carlos. "I give you permission to use your telepathy to see the location and to sense through me whether or not there is a trap."

Carlos studied him carefully. "You got a lotta faith, Father. Might be foolish. You know, I could reach out and snap your neck. I'd get a real kick from the adrenaline rushing through your blood. The bagged stuff is much weaker and it takes more to produce a buzz, feel me?" Carlos smiled a half smile as the other men bristled. But he had to respect the old dude when he didn't even flinch.

"That's not what you're going to do, however."

"Why not?" Carlos asked, seriously mulling over the possibility.

"Because you still have a chance to save your soul, which is something you now want almost as much as you want Damali back in your arms."

The response gave him pause.

"I opened my mind," Father Patrick said, "and to read me, you have to open yours. We both know how a mind lock works, and are too wise for games. Fair exchange is no robbery, Carlos. I believe that is a favorite saying where you're from."

"This is bullshit."

"Is it?"

"I'm out."

"You know, redemption requires a period of atonement." The priest casually studied his nails as Carlos moved even closer to him. "I'm old," he added. "I've lived my life, done what I was supposed to do. Kill me and I ascend and will have nothing more to do with this foul earth. But, you, my friend, have a long road before you. You might want some guidance along the way. But, again, as always, it's your choice."

Carlos frowned. He felt trapped, and hated it. "I find her for you, secretly guard her while you - "

"No secrets," the old man said evenly. "We have four men here - "

"Four?" Padre Lopez's glance shot around the small cavern. "I am not - "

"We pleaded with you to stay outside the cave," Asula said, cutting him off.

"Can you go back to pretending that incarnate evil does not exist, now?" Monk Lin asked, staring at him hard.

"Once you have seen this, life as you've known it has ceased to exist. This is why we gave you a choice, Padre. Now you have just been inducted into the Covenant."

"Seems like homeboy just got jacked, if you ask me," Carlos said, shaking his head. "He could pose a risk."

"All of us pose a risk." Father Patrick sighed. "We all have free will. Padre Lopez can go back to his parish and tend weddings and funerals, and do what a good shepherd does. Or, he can be a part of something larger. It will always be his choice. But that can be decided later."

"Get back to the part about this protection squad," Carlos said, tiring of the conversation. He wanted to get to Damali. He needed to see her, even if he couldn't be near her. He needed to know what was expected of him, and what his atonement sentence was all about. The approaching dawn was also a threat, and he needed rest and to feed some more.

"Damali Richards and her team make eight additional members, added with our four, less one, to bring the total to eleven... we are missing one for the holy number of twelve. It is Canon Law - twelve. Always twelve." The cleric pointed at Carlos. "You're number twelve."

"You must be high." Carlos brushed past the four men and headed toward the cave's entrance. He'd project himself far away from all of this madness even if it took the last of his strength. "Join a human team to fight vampires and demons? Plus, your math is off! You said you're four - less one?"

"Me. I'm the one who cannot go on the last leg on this mission," Father Patrick said.

"Why not?" Carlos stared at the man hard. "You a punk, now, or something?"

"Hardly. But I am a seer and this is not my destiny. I would only add an additional risk."

The concept disturbed him. He'd seen the old cleric fight valiantly, with honor. Had to give credit where credit was due. Plus, he'd just saved his life. Aw'ight, he'd let his argument rest. "Okay, respect. My bad. But since y'all are into this destiny vibe, then what's my destiny?"

"You were supposed to be a guardian," the old man coolly remarked. "You strayed from the path and caused much heartache and destruction in the world, even before you became a vampire. The law of our realm requires guardian service. Think of it like community service, in exchange for this misused time. Seven years. You began hard dealing and took a life at sixteen - you were turned at twenty-three, we want your seven dark years back... and you'd better be thankful that threefold the time was not exacted. By rights, we could have asked for twenty-one years, but your atonement time has been reduced, given the nature of your assignment, and the lives you saved when it counted most. And... it may be seven years, but it will feel like twenty-one when you're done. Trust me."

"Fuck that!" Carlos said angrily. "Seven years of being a guardian, seven years of going into battle like the one I just narrowly escaped?"

"Protecting the Neteru, yes." Father Patrick folded his arms over his chest. "For every person you killed, you must save three. For every life you altered by your negative energies, you must restore threefold. For every family you hurt by the sale of drugs, you must restore three. Our sentence is light. You've already been to Hell and have seen the alternative."

Carlos closed his eyes and felt his shoulders slump in defeat. Seven years of invisibly moving throughout the earth to save lives, seven years of being a spiritual cop... seven years to possibly watch his woman fall in love with a human male, make love, live life, possibly marry and have kids... seven years to walk the planet as a shadow, her shadow, loving her like he did from inside a prison without bars... and never able to be with her, because when she ripened to Neteru fertility again, together they could start a line of daywalkers - and if she had a man and children, those she loved would be at risk.

It was too much to ask; nothing on the planet could stop a master vampire from going for a fertile Neteru. He'd kill whatever was in his path to get to her, even these kindhearted, misguided clerics. He'd learned that much about himself while in Hell. Yeah, just as he was finishing his sentence, the way his luck was running, she'd ripen and they'd smoke him. But that was the future and right now she was at risk from his kind.

There were four other master vampires topside, one for each point on the council pentagram, and Nuit had just been dusted. Carlos studied the odds. Those guys were probably too busy defending their borders right now, and wouldn't immediately risk coming into Nuit's old zones. They wouldn't cross borders, anyway, without council sanction. But soon one of them might get bold and try a power grab.

Carlos closed his eyes for a moment, seeing the world map from Hell's perspective. The sixth point was for the crest - the council—the sixth continent where they drew their food down from transporter bats. The seventh continent was laid fallow in wait for the coming Armageddon. The bullshit was supposed to go down right in the old Biblical lands. Oh, yeah, the priest was right. They were coming for his baby - one side or the other - eager topside masters or council. That was unacceptable.

"My mom, and my grandmom... Juanita... will be safe?" Carlos asked, distracting himself from torturous thoughts.

"They have been put in the federal witness protection program, courtesy of the police officer you saved and gave information to regarding your former drug connections. They live well, Carlos. He's a man of his word - honorable," Monk Lin said with compassion. "Your assets have been liquidated and transferred to them. Our prayers also protect them."

Carlos could only nod. Everything the blue-robed priest said made sense. Even in his former life, the deal was a body for a body. It went down like that in the vampire nations, too. As above, so below. He owed, big time. He'd been given a second chance, something many a dying man would covet. But why did it feel like such a hollow bargain? Here he was a man that had lost his whole world and had to seek shelter in a coffin in order to get on a flight to LAX. This situation was beyond fucked up.

"Aw'ight." Carlos sighed. "But only on one condition."

"You're not in a position to cut any further deals, Carlos," Father Patrick said in warning. "Have you any idea what intercessory prayers had to be heard to even get this case plea bargained at the highest realms? Do you know what we each have put on the line if this mission fails? And have you any idea how all of us are in the same proverbial boat should you kill an innocent? We have stepped out on pure faith for you. We put your case to the highest levels of mercy, and were given the message of atonement I gave you. Do not trifle with this opportunity—or I will exterminate you myself. That is also my job."

The two men stared at each other for a moment. Carlos nodded. The old man relaxed.

"If I were to hear your appeal, however," the priest said, "what would that one condition be?"

Again Carlos's gaze sought a distant place within the cave's blackness. "I don't want her to see me, if it can be avoided. I'll find her, will protect her, but don't want her to see me... at least until I know I can take it."

The small group of clerics shared concerned glances.

"If it can be avoided... That's fair. It doesn't violate any of the rules of engagement - but she must know of your existence. We will not have secrets, or risk her team inadvertently taking aim at you as a predator. Unless you become one." The old man looked at Carlos hard, but his eyes also held empathy. "The first assignment is an anathema to us, and we need a full team. There have been a strange series of deaths in the mountains in Brazil - none resemble vampire bites, or demon possessions. We don't know what it is."

"Let me investigate it alone," Carlos said fast. "I don't want her or her team near it - forget that full team shit. Damali almost got wasted, and if one of her family gets snuffed, there'll be no way for any of us to help her deal with that." He looked at the clerics hard. "That is non-negotiable."

To his surprise, the clerics simply nodded and didn't argue. He relaxed a bit.

"Then let's do this clean and simple," Carlos muttered, waving his hand to fully clothe himself with the illusion of a black tailored suit, white silk shirt with a bandit collar, closed by an onyx stud that matched his cuff links. He looked down and willed a pair of black leather slip-ons, and straightened a hint of white handkerchief in his breast pocket.

With a glance, his nails buffed and any traces of dirt and blood vanished from his being. He wiped his face with his hands to remove the shadow of stubble that had begun to sprout on his jaw, and ran his fingers through his hair to instantly bring about the well-groomed image, then ran his tongue over his incisors until they retracted. He didn't care about the stunned expressions of his wardens. If he was gonna go out in a black box, then let it be with style. Some dignity. "Where's the casket?"

Her head jerked up. She drew in a deep inhale. Erotic reflex to the scent slowly lowered her lids. They'd found him.

A quiet ache of anticipation traveled through her. The low purr emanating from her chest echoed off the lair walls. She had to go to him, but how? Frustration became an angry roar, muscles tensing. She walked out to the lair's narrow ledge.

If he only knew how long she'd waited for him. Just one male Master had been made for this region - then fate conspired to bring an embarrassment of riches to her territory. There had been two of them. And because of one foolish little girl, they had both perished on the same night. It had been a travesty. An obscene waste of valuable resources. This Neteru had to die a swift and awful death for the offense.

No one could ever fathom how the loss of hope had nearly strangled her, because who knew when the vampires would begin to re-populate the region properly? With a civil war going on, it could have been decades.

But, then again, survival of the fittest has been the way of the world since the dawn of time. She chuckled low in her throat and stopped pacing on the narrow ledge. The street rogue, not the bourgeois, had survived. Perhaps the young girl had actually assisted her in discovering which male was the more worthy mate? Ironic.

She cautioned herself not to be hasty. Capturing prey was a combination of stealth, strength, skill, but most essentially, patience. To be truly effective, one had to get in the right position and wait for the open opportunity to pounce.

Maybe this girl was useful as bait? The Neteru had mobility, could lure him... It didn't matter, as long as he came to the right territory. From that point, nature - basic vampiric instinct - would finish the transaction. Promiscuity was the foundation of their nature.

However, there was one thing for sure: even injured, he exuded a level of charismatic power unmatched by his predecessor. It was the rough edge and raw strength that she loved best, the bit of male animal just under the surface blended with his sense of swift justice... as well as his affinity for strategic vengeance. The fact that he was an extraordinary physical specimen was an added attribute that could not be denied. She let out a long, satisfied sigh, then breathed him in again. She had to hand it to the council. Their craftsmanship was superb when it came to developing empire builders. He was perfect.

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