"Hold up, everybody," JL said, his tone cautious. He glanced around the team, and everyone just nodded. "Got four monks, or priests... but they're warm bodies incoming. Think it's our old crew from the tunnel battle."
Marlene just stood and nonchalantly went to the door. But her expression was beyond concerned; it was pained. She turned to Damali and shrugged. "The Covenant."
"What's the Covenant doing here? I don't like it." Damali looked at Marlene hard, then toward the computer screens for a moment. It was them, sure enough. The old guy in blue Templar knight robes who reminded her of a lean, silver-haired version of Rider, was with Big Mike's practical double, save the Muslim white garb and machete, plus Monk Lin was with them, donning his traditional brown robes that looked like burlap... and they had a new, young, Latino priest with them who could be mistaken for a teenager. "We're tight with them and everything, but generally they call first. What do you think they want?"
"They want to bring a word."
"Oh, boy! Here we go!" Rider shook his head.
"Rider, shut up," Marlene said with a weary tone.
Big Mike nodded at Shabazz, who passed the nod to JL and Jose. Dan shook his head.
"Crossbows and weapons up, gentlemen," Mike intoned in his drawl.
"Roger that," JL replied. "Got a cold body reading on screen one, though."
"Mar, JL's got a cold body reading, and you all are just sitting there? Open the freakin' door, let the clerics in, and man your battle stations, people!"
She almost had a heart attack when JL hit the lights, and her crew nonchalantly stood, weapons in hand, but with relaxed stances. Marlene had flung the door open wide like it was a summer day, and was passing out hugs to the four guys who entered. Beyond flipping out, Damali watched her team exchange male hug-back-slaps with the Covenant team, and noticed that all UV in the weapons room were doused.
"All clear?" JL asked the oldest-looking cleric who wore blue robes.
The Templar knight glanced around. "Yes. I believe so."
"Okay, okay," Damali said, walking in a circle around the oddly assembled team. "Father Patrick, Imam Asula, Monk Lin, and Padre... I'm sorry but - "
"Oh, Damali, this is Padre Lopez. He's new to our team."
The shy, young cleric smiled and fingered the sword that he was obviously very unused to handling. "Hi."
This was mind-boggling. Her team had picked up a cold body reading, but had hit the lights before the clerics were safely insideŚwere they nuts? And that they even hit the lights made no sense. Her team was slipping, big time, and they were worried about her? Part of her wanted to laugh, another part of her wanted to shriek from the craziness of it. Steadying herself, Damali began again more slowly.
"It is good to see you all again, and we appreciate your stopping by, but somebody wanna tell me why you all registered a fifth body, a cold one, when you came through our door - that no one but me seems to be concerned about, and would somebody explain to me what the he - I mean, heck, is going on? JL, get the lights up in this freakin' place, would ya? You're bugging me out."
Marlene glanced around the group then shot a nervous glance at Father Patrick. "I told you she wasn't ready. Her senses registered nothing. She's using the technology, not sensory awareness."
Damali wanted to scream. Why were they talking about her like she wasn't standing right there? Damali's gaze tore around the team, noticing how their shoulders sagged, and their expressions held a level of empathy. Tears were now clearly visible in Marlene's eyes, and she didn't bother to blink them away.
Big Mike seemed like he'd just lost his best friend. "Our baby girl is a sitting duck. She's blind, y'all. She can't even sense it."
"It was the final test before we stood down," Rider said, sitting hard on a stool. "Damn!"
Shabazz walked away and slapped JL and Jose on the shoulders. "Happens to the best of 'em. We did all we can do."
"I didn't think it was that bad, though," Dan murmured. "I just didn't understand."
"What the hell are you all talking about?" Damali yelled. She hadn't meant to swear in front of the clerics, or to totally lose it, but her team was tripping, and people were all talking in code about her, in front of her. It was too rude, and it was pissing her off royally.
"They're right, baby," a deep, familiar male voice said as a figure stepped out from behind Father Patrick, as if materializing from thin air. "You never picked me up, never saw me coming, and if I was any other master, you'd be dinner by now."
Reflex had brought Damali's hand to her blade, Madame Isis was drawn, but her mind was having difficulty accepting the image. Her breath caught in her throat. She stared at this predator that had on a black soft-structured linen suit, black T-shirt, dressed to the nines... Dear God it was Carlos. A thousand emotions ran through her at once. Then as she stared at this being, rage began to fill her, heating her insides, causing her blood to pump hard and fast. Carlos was dead, and something had inhabited his form. Stolen him. Polluted his body. Her arm trembled as she gripped the Isis tighter, and she knew within her heart that split second of hesitation would have cost her a jugular. The arrogant creature before her had been right.
Damali stood speechless, her eyes never leaving this entity claiming to be Carlos as he rounded the clerics and walked toward Dan. She poised herself to take a clear swing, but had to wait to get into position so she wouldn't hurt her teammate. Her mind screamed at the others to take aim, to get into the correct stance. Even Marlene seemed deaf to her silent battle stations' commands. What was wrong with them?
Slack-jawed, she watched in horror as the two men exchanged a careful hug. She kept panic at bay, however, knowing that this entity had come for her - so be it. She'd lay in the cut, wouldn't make a false move to make it snap the neck of one of her brothers... oh, but when she got in range - it would be on.
Rider nervously backed up a little to give the Carlos look-alike room. Had her entire team been seduced? It couldn't be Carlos... could it? And that was just the problem. She wasn't sure. But one thing she did know for sure, master vamps moved like lightning, could kill a man with his bare hands within seconds and this thing was messing with her, staying out of range. She shuddered with rage. It smiled. Oh no, motherfucker, not in my house.
"Yo, dog, how's it hanging?" Carlos grinned, and pounded Dan's fist.
"I'm... uh, I'm cool," Dan stammered.
"You lived through Hell, guess you all right."
Dan nodded. "Thanks, man. I owe you."
Carlos laughed. "Never tell a master vamp you owe him. Not even me." Carlos shook his head and looked at Shabazz with a half-smile. "You need to school the newbie, hombre. Don't want him ass-out when it counts."
"I feel you," Shabazz said with a slow, sly grin. "We got his back. He don't go out alone yet."
"Good. It's all good," Carlos said, pounding Shabazz's fist. "You cool, Big Mike?"
"Yeah. I'm cool. Sounds crazy, but part of me's glad to see you, brotherman."
Again, Carlos nodded, understanding. "Thanks for chillin' with the lights till I got in, JL." He looked at Jose and smiled. "Ese... whassup? Know it took a lot of self-discipline not to freak at the last minute."
JL and Jose just nodded as Carlos scanned the room. Rider was still jumpy, though. He gripped the pump shotgun Carlos knew was loaded with hallowed earth shells. He could smell it. "Yo, dude. You all right?"
"No fist pounds, definitely no close hugs, Rivera. I appreciate what you did for us down in the tunnels, and even kinda like your style... However, you will excuse me if I give in to a nervous twitch." Rider lowered his weapon, but didn't break the barrel back.
"Sho' you right," Big Mike said. "We being real in here. You cool and all, but we just being real."
"No problem," Carlos replied, letting his breath out slowly. He'd tried to keep Damali only in his peripheral vision. Looking at her directly would mess him up for sure. Her pulse was already making his ears ring.
Marlene studied him for the slightest incorrect movement, and he could feel every sensor in the room locked on him. "Marlene, thanks for allowing this ten minutes. The point was made, and you all know what you've gotta do. Keep her safe. I'm out."
Marlene nodded. "Thank you."
"We cool, Mar. You're good people. Always were."
"I'll catch you, later, baby." He briefly looked at Damali, wrestling himself from her, and keeping near the clerics. "I wanna talk you, honest I do, but now is not a good time. Aw'ight? We'll pick it up later."
He had to get out of there. The look of shock, relief, disappointment, and rage on Damali's face was working every cell in his body. Plus it had only been a month since her first ripening and the mild, but wondrous scent of Neteru still lingered. She hadn't said a word, just circled him, staring, her blade held low, moving counterclockwise to him like she'd lunge at any moment. Her team was not his greatest danger. Nor was the Covenant team. She was. He needed to roll.
"JL, hit the exteriors, all right?"
JL nodded, but Damali held up her hand. Everyone stood still, waiting. The room crackled electric with quiet. No one even dared to breathe. The hum of air-conditioner compressors created a low sump-pump sound in the background. A stereo was on somewhere in the compound. The humans had enough adrenaline oozing from their bodies to give him a contact. He could see their eyes blink in slow motion as they stared at him and Damali while they continued to circle each other. The pores on their faces enlarged within his peripheral vision. He could detect the moment a bead of sweat slipped down their skin. His tongue glided over his lips and he tasted salt. The tension in their muscles increased, joints locked so tight that with the slightest movement, they threatened to pop. He felt the air, sensing for a weapon release. He smelled their blood, twelve nervous humans with hearts beating a rhythm out of their chests.
"I have to go," Carlos said, his gaze steady on Damali.
She shook her head slowly no. It was a millimeter of movement. Her locks swayed ever so much. The adornments in her hair and her earrings chimed. Lion's teeth, a tiny silver charm... Ahnk fertility symbols created natural music at a nearly imperceptible timbre. Her pupils had eclipsed her irises. Shea butter, almond oil, the scent of her was an intoxicating blend with something else she emitted... something different than Neteru. He'd smelled it on her before, but couldn't place it. Her face and arms glistened. The muscles beneath her smooth skin were a network of taut, steel-like cable. He could hear the blood pumping through her veins as she stalked him. She was gorgeous, poetry in motion. The crocheted white dress had holes that showed skin. As she moved, the dress moved with her body, barely concealing it. The fluorescent lights glinted off of the Isis and sent shards of illumination against patches of warm, damp flesh.
He allowed his gaze to rove over her in a slow undressing. "I have to go," he repeated more firmly, his voice dropping an octave. He had meant it as a statement, but even to his own ears, it had come out as a plea.
"You talk to me," she whispered through her teeth and stopped circling.
"Oh, shit..." Rider backed up a few paces and leveled his shotgun.
"Shut up, Rider," Marlene snapped.
Damali's eyes never left Carlos's. All she did was hold up her hand and her team went still once more.
"We should leave," the eldest cleric said quietly. "Before somebody gets hurt."
"Oh, what the fuck," Rider threw Big Mike a crossbow, and he caught it, nodding. Rider glanced at the clerics. "I thought you had an understanding with dude?"
"We do, and it's time to leave," Father Patrick insisted. "If it's not too late."
The Covenant team backed up, cautiously rounded Damali and Carlos, standing the line on the side of the guardians with weapons raised. JL had armed himself with a battle-ax, even Dan and Jose now had silver-tipped stakes in their hands. Shabazz had pulled Sleeping Beauty out of her holster.
Marlene folded her arms and leaned against the weapons table. "Steady, gentlemen. Nobody get an itchy trigger finger. Stay cool. Have faith."
"Have faith? Mar - "
"Shabazz, we know how this has to go down."
Damali tuned out the other voices, her goal singular, her mind focused. There was no shred of trust in her as she looked at the master vampire that had made her taste fear. She had to remember what he was, not allow the illusion to take her. This liar had fooled trusting clerics. Carlos was dead. This was something else. And this entity possessing a familiar body, had shape-shifted to trick her team, had rolled up on her in a battle-station ready compound, and dissected her while she was blind. The worst part of it all was, he'd been right. If it had been Fallon Nuit, she would have been dead... or worse. What did this thing want?
"Speak to me!"
"It's me, Damali - Carlos. Use your third eye!"
"You're a liar! Carlos is dead!"
She circled, moving with him. She was indeed more dangerous to him than sunlight at present.
"I can't get a mind lock," Carlos told Marlene and Father Patrick. "She's in a mental black box."
"Don't screw with my team! They don't have telepathic capacity that can break my will, I don't care what illusions you throw at them - "
"No, Damali," Marlene said, her voice urgent and strained. "Listen - "
"No! They sent this one as a decoy. I heard Carlos die - I saw it! Vamps are the masters of deception." Damali narrowed her gaze on the entity before her. "How dare you assume his shape... I will kill you." She seethed, her grip tightening on the Isis.
"Then plant the Isis," Carlos said, his voice escalating with emotion. "If that's what you need to do so you can see, then plant it right in the brand." In one deft motion he tore his black T-shirt from his chest, exposing his scar. Hot tears of frustration stood in his eyes. "Remember this, huh, Damali? Ask the damned men who pulled me out of a cave in the desert! Ask them how they found me. I suffered for three days in a cave in the fucking Mexican desert before they could get me stateside."
Carlos slapped the center of his chest. "I got this carrying you, baby," he said, his voice low and strained. "You're the only one that can smoke me in this room."
He closed his eyes, stretched out his arms, and leaned his head back. Her legs moved beneath her, hurling her toward the thing claiming to be Carlos, sword raised. She heard Marlene scream, "No!" She heard Rider cry out her name; she heard the Covenant gasp; could feel her team move forward as though to stop her, and the tip of Madame Isis came to a sudden rest against bare skin. Her blade arm trembled; her intended target didn't open his eyes or flinch. The tip of Madame Isis never even smoldered. She dropped her blade and wept. It was him.
And then her mind pried open.
Horrific images poured into her brain as she stepped back from Carlos. The battle in the tunnel; his wounds riddled her body, contorting her, making her cry out with his invisible pain. Starvation claimed her, and she felt a section of her face get torn away. Her eye was gone, and she regenerated herself in agony; cold blood splashed against her cheek, strength entered her body, and she weaved, and held onto the weapons table for support. Marlene backed her team away from her, shouting that she had to do this herself.
Confined, she couldn't breathe, she was in a casket. Dirt was under her fingernails. Locked, trapped, she yearned for the night. Messengers brought her to Hell, and she stood in terror before an evil council. She could smell their old, rotting forms, and then black smoke choked her and deposited her topside. A deer stood frozen in the forest - "Run!" she screamed.
She took flight, branches breaking against her body, becoming primal, hunting to bring down fresh kill. Sated, she was mist, and she saw herself through Carlos's eyes. Felt his desire, so close but yet so far. Her mind was burning need. Her head jerked back as she took a hit of Neteru, experienced the thing that drove him insane, and felt it wash through her system in an erotic wave. Damn... She was breathing hard. Carlos glanced away. Her team looked confused. She had to get out of his mind. She struggled to open her eyes, but when she did, the visions still wouldn't stop.
The images kept hurling through her brain. Pain, not physical, sobs of deep regret. "Please, baby, believe in me... just one more time." Her voice was foreign to her own ears. She covered them, squeezed her eyes shut. Cried hard. "I'm sorry!" She couldn't catch her breath. She was afraid because she was hungry.
Panting, she stood up, wiped at her eyes, and looked at the stone-faced exterior of the man before her. The muscle in his jaw pulsed. She ran her tongue over her teeth. She could feel her gums nearly splitting. She sucked in a huge breath. Her gaze darted to the other humans. "I have to go," she said, the words coming from inside her head. "I can't take it anymore."
Carlos closed his eyes. "Her sight is back," he said. His voice escalated, becoming more urgent. "I did what I was supposed to do. Now shut down the exterior lights and let me the fuck out!"
Damali stared at Carlos. He was frantic, his breathing was ragged, and she could barely catch her own breath. He turned away. "I saw it all. I'm not afraid," she told him.
When he slowly turned around to look at her, her team again raised their weapons. Not even Rider said a word as a collective gasp passed through the team. A pair of red glowing orbs had replaced Carlos's intense, dark eyes. His incisors had come down, two inches and had not stopped lowering, and his shoulders had increased in bulk.
Something strange was happening to her. She was not afraid as her gaze traveled down his solid chest, studying the brand over his heart, then the tight bricks of his torso, and allowing it to slide over his belly, dipping into his navel, clinging to the silky black wisps of hair that disappeared under his belt. His nostrils flared at the image in her mind that stripped him bare. She registered his anger at her blatant hunger in front of the team, and checked herself. It wasn't her fault; she wasn't playing games; it was pure reflex. Dayum, she'd never felt it like this.
"I told you to let me out of here," he said coolly, quietly, his even tone belying his rage and desire. The need to be with her was so thick in his tone that the statement had come out as an open warning.
"Shut down the lights, JL," Marlene ordered. "Now!"
"No," Damali said in a too-calm voice, walking toward Carlos. "I'm going with him. We need to talk."
The look Carlos gave her was pure electric current, one thousand volts.
"Damali, not a good idea!" Rider said with a frown and worry clear in his voice.
"Li'l sis, he ain't himself. You'll make us have to shoot him." Big Mike spoke in an easy tone, his gaze steady as he dropped the crossbow in exchange for pointing the barrel of his shoulder cannon at Carlos.
"You'll get hurt, or someone on the team hurt, if you try to attack > him," Father Patrick warned.
"Everybody stay cool, let the man out, and everything will remain chill," Shabazz said, raising Sleeping Beauty's barrel above Damali's shoulder line.
"Dan, talk to your boy," Jose said fast, his tone urgent. He couldn't get a clear crossbow aim because Damali blocked his shot. "Talk to him, before we have to do him."
"Let her out of the trance, Carlos," Dan begged, clutching a holy-water grenade. "Don't do this, man."
"She's not in a trance," Marlene said in a quiet voice. "Stand down. She's made a choice."
"What!" Shabazz turned toward Marlene, but she shrugged away.
The room again went still, the tension in the atmosphere was so tight that the walls threatened to bleed.
"I saw it all," Damali told Carlos. She moved toward him, following him, until he backed up to the cinder block wall. She continued to come closer until there was only a breath of space between their two bodies. "And you will not hurt me."
This woman had no idea. He closed his eyes as her hand found the center of his chest. "There's so much about this that you don't understand."
"Then, talk to me," she said quietly as she laid her head over his heart. "I thought you were gone forever."
He cringed and pushed her away. "There's no heartbeat, for starters."
She noticed his eyes had gone from red to gold. He was coming down. "What else?"
"There's no future," he said in a low tone, his fangs retracting.
She could feel relief sweep through the teams.
"What else?" Her voice was slow and gentle, the way you would talk to a wounded animal.
"I'm trapped... and I did it to myself." Carlos swallowed hard. "And I'm so sorry for all the things I did to get here. More than you'll ever know." He headed for the door.
Damali nodded. "JL, now you can shut down the exterior lights."
Carlos turned and looked at Damali as she walked up behind him. Carlos shook his head no, and repaired his ripped shirt as he did so.
"Where are you going?" He was beat, mentally wrung out, hungry. He couldn't take any more tonight.
"With you." She folded her arms over her chest, and ignored the stricken sounds of disapproval coming from both teams. "A lot went down. We need to talk - alone."
"Not advisable," Carlos said, truly meaning it.
"You heard the man," Rider said. "He's being honest, so let's not - "
Damali held up her hand. "That's why we need to talk alone. No sidebar commentary. No third-party advice. Me and you."
"You're serious?" Carlos laughed wearily. His gaze shot to her team. "Tell her again, people. It is not in her best interest."
"I'm going," Damali stated plainly. She didn't raise her voice, just walked over to where she'd dropped her sword and calmly picked it up. "You won't kill me, or rip out my throat. That's not what you have on your mind. I can see again, remember?"
Carlos nodded as a shudder of anticipation ran through him. "Then you'd better bring the blade... if all you want to do is talk."
Their gazes met, and she smiled a slow smile, and carefully abandoned Madame Isis on the weapons table, never taking her eyes from his.
"Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no no!" Rider fussed. "Hell no! You are not rolling out of here without your blade! Are you crazy?"
"Let it go, Rider," Marlene said in a weary voice. "Man, for once, just let it go."
"Listen, D, there are watchers everywhere, especially at night," Carlos warned, scanning the terrain outside the cabin safe house.
"If they saw you leave your compound," Father Patrick said, "and get into the Jeep with us..." His gaze darted toward Carlos. "Carlos can then enter the building at will after us - but the watchers will assume that we have taken you to higher ground, that you're on the move, and it won't blow his cover... understood? It has to always appear that he's deceiving us, had found a way in through a weak lineŚbut it can never appear that he's colluding with us."
She nodded. She needed to get out of the Jeep, away from these well-intentioned, but babbling men, and into Carlos's arms so badly she thought she would scream. Carlos wouldn't even look at her. She could feel him pick up the thought and knew what it had done to him. She tried to retract the sensation, issuing a mental apology as they sat in brief silence. His hands were almost trembling and he stared out the window at nothing.
Truth was, there was no need for him to travel by Jeep, but he hadn't left her side since she'd walked out the front door of the compound with him. They were both messed up - had been that way for years.
"You should eat first," the cleric named Asula warned, glancing at Carlos with concern. "You've always been trustworthy in this... and our assumption is that the Neteru is sacrosanct with you as well. Therefore, we will have to muster faith that this conversation to purge old wounds and emotions between the two of you will be worthy of such continued trust and faith. Correct?"
"You ask a lot of a dead man," Carlos said, his gaze remaining fixed on the darkness beyond the passenger-side window.
Damali watched Father Patrick's body language. He was tense, but he wasn't nervous.
"Perhaps a better plan would be for our team to take up our post outside the safe house, to guard it for any possible breach by these sniffers you told us about?" The older man smiled. He glanced at the other older priests who smiled and looked away with a nod.
"Yes, this would be best so you may talk and also develop a strategy," Father Patrick pressed on, glancing at Father Lopez who seemed stunned.
"Padre," the older priest said. "Calm yourself and have faith. This is about safety. Our detection systems are not as sophisticated as the Neteru's compound, and I would have felt better if she brought her sword. On my honor, I pledged to her seer guardian that we would return her unharmed. Damali, you should have brought your sword."
"She brought me," Carlos said, his voice a low rumble. "You think I would let anything hurt her?"
The old cleric smiled and shook his head. "I suppose not."
Remember, baby, how it used to be?
When we were just kids and so free.
�"Remember Baby" by Damali Richards