The Hunted

Chapter Twenty-Five

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Chapter Twenty-Five

"All right," Damali said, talking fast. "We have like twenty minutes for me to get to the top, and do this thing while dissension is brewing in her ranks. I want these teams out of here, collect your man before something goes after the remains, and - "

"You are not going up there by yourself. Forget about it," Shabazz said, snatching her arm, making the team surround her with Kamal leading the pack.

"You're burning my daylight, big brother. She ain't taking my sword, trust me. So, I want the team on that boat, with Big Mike ready to blow the lair as soon as the sun hits the horizon, if I'm not back by the time you're ready to pull off. It doesn't have to be completely dark for Carlos to come at sundown, but I don't want him to have anywhere to hide out here. We need something to distract him, make him retreat for a few minutes to get himself a secure new base. Plus I meant what I said about not destroying the beauty of this - "

"No," Marlene snapped, walking away from her. "Absolutely not. I won't allow it."

The whole team shook their heads in unison.

Damali sighed with a hard rush of frustration. It was hopeless, and this team standoff was wasting valuable time.

"Then only take what you can carry. While I'm up there with her, nobody fires unless they are personally rushed. I don't care how close you think I am to biting it - you let me do this." She stared at her team hard. "It's more than about a Carlos thing, or even a demon problem."

When Kamal nodded, everybody went still, their eyes going between him and Damali.

Damali grabbed a crystal-tipped stake and thrust it in her pants back pocket. "He knows," she said with a half-smile, glancing at Kamal. "That's why dude is out here, and told me today... in the center of my chest. I saw it when the anger lifted and peace claimed me. That Amazon was wronged, people. She's crazy, but she was wronged. And there's only one way to rectify it now. Compassion enough to put her out of her misery."

Damali shook her head. "Even Carlos, in his messed-up state, felt for her. He sent that to me, too. Don't hate her. Hate what she's become, and what did this to her. That, I am going to deal with... the bastard that made her come back."

"Damali," Rider argued, his voice gentle, his eyes holding a combination of terror and confusion, "I know the code of a Neteru is supposed to have high ideals... but, baby..." He glanced at Big Mike and the rest for support, whose eyes all held the same expression of panic. "Please, D - "

"She's still an ancestral guardian, and there's a code," Damali said in a firm, quiet tone. "Because they came for her wrong, there's a hiccup in supernatural law - I want her back on our side. There's a tiny fragment of trapped light coming from the ascended Neteru in there that will sway the balance. They ingested the wrong thing... it'll give them a fragment of conscience, make them remember, and a second of hesitation will be my window. Eleven guardians might even ascend, if I take the head of the hydra. Means we get one hundred soul-weight to one, do the math... times eleven is an eleven-hundred soul-shift, with Neteru topspin in the equation. The Neteru that perished will have her old team back - righteous. Plus they're all warriors."

She pointed toward a tunnel that her heart told her led to the top. "You got it?"

Shabazz nodded. "Let's do this."

Army boots crushed bones and rotting animal carcasses as the guardians and Kamal's men passed; the stench of death and the hum of carrion-feeding insects got denser as the teams approached the apex of a narrow interior tunnel. Damali had the front, Big Mike and Drum had the back, with Marlene and all sensors in a closed-rank, single-file formation edging to the cliff top opening.

Vultures took flight; some dove and swooped at the human team to make their displeasure at an interrupted feeding known. Eight pairs of green, glowing eyes met the human squad from hidden shadows and small crags, but nothing moved.

All spectators gathered, a foul breeze blew, and Damali and the team's attention went to the cavernous location adjacent to them. Appearing out of the darkest corner, in full battle gear, the Amazon appeared.

Her polished gold breastplate, armbands, shin shields, and helmet glistened red in the setting sun. The brilliant white cloth of her battle robes seemed to absorb the colors of the sunset within each fold. Her hair was twisted high off her shoulders in an endless spiral of knotted braids, and her strong forearms flexed as her battle-ax lowered and she bent her knees prepared for war. She was indeed a queen.

The stalking dance began slowly without words or fanfare. Damali's sword was lowered, just like the Amazon's ax. Their movements were steady, controlled, and neither of them blinked. But time was not on Damali's side. A fight like this between two evenly matched opponents could take hours. She had less than a quarter hour. Without further hesitation, Damali locked in on her adversary, first sending her the message of respect. The woman was truly magnificent.

Seeming dazed, not expecting to sense that message, the Amazon widened the circle.

"They're going to use you," Damali said, resigned. "You know that, right?"

"You have minutes, young huntress. Pity. Because you, too, are magnificent. Your people have shared much with mine. I will give you that."

Damali nodded. "Don't you know that you won't come out of that vanishing point, the vampire will? You'll have been fucked over twice by power-hungry men."

"You lie because you love him," the Amazon replied, closing the gap. "You must accept defeat. Give me my sword. What I am after is freedom from all boundaries."

With the comment, Damali saw an in. A way to score her opponent's concentration, start the charge. "Yeah. I know all about that, too. Soon as the sun sets, you're coming for more than my Isis blade. But you can take the sword, you can take the body - but, girlfriend, you can never take my place."

Damali smiled to herself as she felt something prying into her brain for an explanation, the Amazon's telepathy feeling her out for assurance that the Amazon's evil plan wouldn't be derailed by a variable she'd overlooked. The Amazon was curious, suspicious. That was good.

And that was also when Damali sucker punched her with every bit of memory, sensation, and excruciating detail she could find. The Amazon lowered her weapon for just a fraction of a second, dazed, fury taking two seconds to boil over. Damali used those seconds to land a fly kick dead center in her opponent's stomach, shaking the Amazon's balance. But the agile senior warrior instantly flipped up from where she'd landed on the ground, and came back at Damali angrier than she was before the blow.

Two lightning-fast whooshes went down Damali's sides. She'd faked left, and the close heat of the missed ax-blade strike actually friction-burned the length of Damali's left arm. Anticipating the second swing, Damali had dodged right, narrowly avoiding the second pass of the deadly Amazon ax. The passes had been wielded within the span of two snaps of the fingers, but the Amazon was too near her to effectively stab at her with the Isis. She'd only slice her, and would lose momentum on the draw back. The were-demon was in close, enraged at what she saw and felt within Damali's mind. But the anger was making her sloppy. Damali landed a solid punch to her adversary's jaw when the ax came down again without precision aim, giving Damali time to back up for Isis range.

Using both hands, Damali put her full weight into the swing, but the Amazon bent back in a capoeira move, a limbo avoidance duck, and caught the Isis with the side of her ax. The vibration of the hard, clanging connection traveled up the Isis, through Damali's arm, nearly rattling her skeleton. Maybe Big Mike had been right - this bitch got stronger when she got angrier.

Momentarily winded from defending against the heavy, sword-connecting blow, Damali had to get out of the older warrior's swing range. She was strong as an ox, and angry as a bull. She'd lost two close guardian sisters and had killed one of her own; Damali had not. The Amazon was down three bodies on her team; Damali was down one. The Amazon had ingested her own Neteru, was tethered to that essence, was synced to the stolen fertility phases, was getting hyped from the waxing ripening cycle as the sun set; Damali's system was stabilized - save adrenaline. She'd been incarcerated in Hell for almost five hundred years; Damali had only visited to kick some ass and get out. She'd been in horrific human battles of biblical proportions; Damali definitely had never taken a human life. It was time to be strategic. Pure muscle was not gonna win this one.

Kamal's words entered Damali's head as both silent squads looked on; were-jaguar demons on one side, a combined team of Neteru guardians and were-humans on the other. Two spectator demons cast evil grins in the human seer's direction to warn Kamal to stay out of it. His words ebbed back as Damali avoided an ax landing in the center of her skull, propelling herself out of harm's way with a back flip.

She'd quickly tried to behead the Amazon as the ax weight of swing carried the ancient warrior forward to bend over, but the seasoned queen was too fast and was on her feet as Damali's sword was just rising.

The Isis was, for the first time in Damali's life, becoming a detriment. This older warrior used a skill that Damali hadn't seen before, and the Amazon was adept with the smaller, closer held, hand-to-hand combat weapons. The Isis dagger was too short-range for a stronger opponent like this one. Even if Damali had access to long-distance death carriers, like arrows or darts, those only worked in an ambush. If she had a Glock, she'd have to aim at something that moved like lightning. Even the sharpshooters hadn't been able to hit one of them good. Spraying an area with machine gunfire had been futile - these things vanished into thin air before the bullets struck. You had to catch them off guard, up close and personal while they charged.

A sudden blow to Damali's jaw from an unseen fist sent her hurling backward. The dropping sun was strengthening this enemy, giving the Amazon greater speed - which the ancient warrior didn't need to be effective. In slow motion Damali saw her opponent take a running leap, a shrill battle cry passing her lips as she went airborne, and Damali's boot connected with the center of her chest, flipping the Amazon over her.

The Amazon landed on her back and scrambled up. Damali jumped to her feet, too. Steel met steel in a sudden rage lunge. Every swing of the battle-ax caught on the sides of the Isis as Damali flipped the blade to match the blow. But the superior strength of the Amazon was literally walking Damali backward toward the edge of the cliff as the older warrior marched aggressively, swinging in strong matched strokes, constantly moving forward.

Marlene covered her mouth when Damali's boot met the edge of the high crevice. On the next raise of the ax, Damali head-butted the Amazon, ramming her stomach, knocking the wind out of her, but not before two sharp elbows came down hard on Damali's spine and a knee caught Damali right under her chin. Damali hit the ground and rolled away from an ax blade that became wedged in the dirt long enough for her to jump up and stand.

Jaw nearly cracked, lip bleeding, tongue cut from her mouth being slammed, her back bruised, Damali held her blade firm. Confidence was waning, as she also realized for the first time in her life, she was getting her ass kicked. Damn it was too early to be the end of an era. The thought had been isolated and dredged as soon as it slithered through Damali's mind. The Amazon smiled.

The two began the torturous process of circling again, but the thought Kamal had sent had already been working and taking root in Damali's brain. Slamming the older warrior, who was also breathing hard and showing mild signs of fatigue, Damali used the standoff to her advantage, hurling image after image of the Vampire Council and the counselor's deceit.

"No matter," the Amazon wheezed, sucking in huge inhales, trying to catch her breath.

"No matter?" Damali watched the glowing eyes, the twitching muscles. "Don't you know that in the midst of the act, they'll be a separation? You'll be vapor - Carlos still has soul weight!"

The Amazon straightened a little and backed up, quickly glancing at her squad that now began to move forward. Damali's squad raised weapons, but she held up her hand.

"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Damali nodded toward the sun that was touching the horizon, her chest heaving from the blows.

Damali's throat tightened, her mouth dry from exertion and emotion. "The old counselor, from the same tribes that overran your people, will hijack your daylight ability. You are just sunshine breeder-stock to them. You're mad, so you can't see it. He won't allow Carlos to reign with you; don't you get it? After Vlak bleeds the daylight out of him, Carlos is coming for me to make daywalkers. This is about absolute power. Vlak will suck him dry the moment you're vapor. That's how they roll down there. Then, in seven years, Vlak will probably double-cross Carlos again and be strong enough to come for me, too."

"Carlos would never submit himself to that abomination!" the older warrior shouted. "His people are my people. He's a dark warrior of honor! He's a master vampire and would never - "

"He still had a soul, that's why they can torture and compromise him!"

The Amazon stopped moving. Two sets of female eyes deadlocked. Both combatants were breathing hard, but remained still. Damali's irises were now totally eclipsed by her pupils, as the Amazon's green orbs peered into them.

"He's in Purgatory," Damali said through huffs of air. "He can come out before total sundown. He nearly wept for your loss, the atrocities that your people suffered. He told me to my face that you were majestic... but twisted, now. And what they didn't tell you was that you've got a slight chance, a fraction of an opportunity to stop this madness. The redemption clause - use it for you and your girls!"

The Amazon backed away in horror and disbelief as she stared into Damali's eyes and her own eyes went from solid green to flickering green-gold to deep, mahogany brown.

"They robbed you of your will to live, killing your child and bringing smallpox as their final weapon to your Neteru... knowing you would rather go to Hell than - as a warrior, in the middle of the worst scourge to come to your land - be forced to lay down and die without a fight. You couldn't do it. You were the mother-seer and thought you had failed. It warped your faith, stole your hope... the dark side got to someone your team could trust, someone from inside your camp - you. That's all you had left to believe in, after your Neteru fell, then the baby was killed."

Damali made the sign of the cross over her chest as she mentioned the infant, noting that the warrior's eyes filled with tears. "They seduced you with a deathbed offer when you got sick, too - your soul for a shot at revenge, right, sis? I can dig it, but it was a bad move, wasn't strategic on your part." Damali let her breath out in a rush. "Connect with me, guardian to Neteru, and tell me I'm wrong?"

Fists clenched tight at the Amazon's sides as she nodded. "Never would I surrender... you don't know what they did."

"Don't surrender," Damali told her. "Keep fighting - from the right side, though, my sister."

A flicker of green came back, the Amazon's eyes narrowed, and Damali tensed again.

"What hold do they have over him? What would a man who's tasted the sheer power of the sixth realm care that his soul was hostage? All souls are hostage to oppression, topside, as long as our people aren't free! His soul was in bondage by humans already!" The Amazon paced in an agitated line between her snarling were-jaguar demons behind her and a cavern tunnel. "Besides, if his soul is in Purgatory, it is untouchable even by the vampires! He would not care what Vlak said, if he had a redemption option. He could die with honor, then. You lie!"

The battle-ax left the Amazon's hand so fast, and with so much force as the sun dipped beneath the horizon that Damali couldn't even take a sip of air. The move she'd seen Kamal execute became one with Damali's consciousness. The response was not thought, it was cellular encryption that connected with her legs, bending her knees, dropping her a millimeter from the ground, flexing back her injured spine with a shard of pain to avoid the weapon that waddled in a blur past her breasts, chin, forehead, eyes and became lodged in the mountain wall.

Up fast, Damali spoke quickly to the unarmed, but seemingly more dangerous demon. "All that you say is true, but you forgot one variable."

"What?" The Amazon crouched low, like she would transform into a jaguar to even the odds of having lost her weapon.

"Me!" Damali shouted, her voice ringing in the mountainside cavern. In an act of frustration, foolish for battle, she opened her arms, almost like an act of surrender.

"Me, damn it," Damali repeated, losing her battle cool. "Me. Look and see for yourself. That's the only reason Vlak got to him. Me! That's the only reason he agreed. The only reason he fought to get out of the tunnels. Me. The man crawled across the desert and starved for three days, bitch, for me!"

The Amazon's entire were-jag team transformed into human form and studied Damali's eyes; all searching to be sure there was no fraud.

"Me!" Damali was now yelling, rage filtering through her, pumping adrenaline so hard her ears rang. "I branded him - me. The only reason he can see the edge of daylight is because of me! I've kept him on the edge of the light - me!" she exclaimed, slapping the center of her chest with one hand, leveling her sword with the other. "Don't tell me I'm a liar. Look in my eyes. You see for yourself. When you are down in that lair, the old bastard will be near to bleed the daylight access from the body that comes out of the point. Carlos. The only reason Carlos would allow some shit like that is because, to him, I'm worth it! The brother doesn't even care about his own soul! Get to that!"

Damali stepped closer. "Why would a master vampire submit to such rank humiliation? Why would he care to do his atonement? Huh! Me - because he loved me before he died, was turned with a prayer - my prayer - in his heart, and ya'll can't do shit with that, but dig it!"

Both sides became still. The Amazon stared at Damali for what seemed like a long time. "They won't rob me twice," she whispered, transformed, and took a running lunge at Damali before Damali could even raise her sword.

But the creature's leap and angle was just above Damali's shoulder. To avoid the contact, Damali went down hard on one knee, anticipating the leverage she'd need when the creature doubled back for the second lunge. The guardians were poised to protect against the other demons from entering the combat, but when the demons began stalking in Damali's direction, nobody fired.

Damali's gaze shot to her team, whose weapons weren't sounding, then toward the jaguars that passed her, as she spun quickly to see the position of the Amazon. She immediately jumped back, her heart skipping a beat, as she stared at the gruesome sight.

The Amazon's head had been severed by her own leap toward the entity she most wanted to destroy - Counselor Vlak. As he fully materialized, the were-jaguar had become enraged and airborne. Unwittingly he stood in front of the mountain cavern, blocking the blade, sidestepping the lunge, accidentally allowing the Amazon to take the impact.

"Stupid!" He was spitting and hissing, holding the head.

Timing was everything. Damali studied his countenance. He was definitely not trying to kill her. It was simply a matter of time and placement, where he'd materialized. Then again? She smiled. There were unseen forces on both sides shifting the balance, always. But where was Carlos?

"You foolish bitch!" he shrieked, walking in a trail of black smoke, talking to the decapitated head. "You've ruined everything!"

The other were-jaguars rumbled their complaint in low growls, stalking, circling, distracting the old vampire with snarls and hisses, but still not bold enough to rush one as old as Vlak.

Anoint da queen were-jag, quickly, Mar, Kamal whispered in thought to the other seer. Weapons aren't firing because of the master vamp's psychic hold. But send the Amazon team to ascension with a prayer. Remember, you must cut off the head of the hydra. This one is anchored by a Neteru's essence and won't incinerate - so seal it with prayers to get da deceived Amazons to rest to go to the light. Take that ripe Neteru scent out of the air before the young male vampire shows up.

Damali heard the thought transmission, and knew the old counselor would only be oblivious for a few seconds while he ranted about his lost cause, so she set up a distraction. "Too bad, but seven years from now, me and you? How about it?" Damali walked a wide circle, laughing as she glimpsed Marlene from the corner of her eye.

Counselor Vlak sneered at her. "You think that you have won this little escapade, but now I have no reason not to turn Rivera in and destroy him. In fact, if I call up a squadron of messengers right now, we could all end this in the jungle." The old creature made a tent with his fingers before his face and chuckled, shaking his head. "We can make your life a living Hell until we need you seven years from now."

"Possibly," Damali said, trying to remain cool. "But that's a lot of explaining to do, especially if the Vampire Council finds out about the Amazon."

She walked, holding Vlak's stare, showing him what she knew. "Mr. Counselor, honestly. Holding back on product from the Vampire Council - hiding ripened Neteru scent in a demon on level five, and in the Amazon?"

Damali clucked her tongue, enjoying torturing him as his beady red eyes narrowed. She could tell he was momentarily trapped; however, with an old master this shrewd, being caught in his own web of deception wouldn't last long. But more important than indulging in twisting the blade of her tongue in his temporary wound, she needed to stall long enough for Marlene to do her thing. He was also being disoriented by the demon's scent; she'd use that, too.

"And, you'd better not kill me - because then you'll have to wait a thousand years to get some, baby. Then, again, you think after this fiasco that the light is gonna make another Neteru anytime soon? Hmmm... Didn't you all have to wait like three thousand years, at one point in history? You know they work with the number three in Heaven - already sent her, Nzinga, and me way ahead of schedule..." She shot him a glare of pure contempt. "Ya blew your trinity, brother. They'll make your asses wait three thousand, my bet, for a shot at the title again." She paused for effect, watching the old vampire hesitate. "Hurt any of my people, I will literally fall on my sword... but not before I let the old boys know what you did." She watched the threat sink in.

"Kill yourself, and you won't ascend," he said, trying to recover, but his voice didn't have the same arrogant ring of authority in it.

"True... but I won't be on level six. I may be on level one as a disembodied spirit. Perhaps on level two and manifest as a poltergeist. I'll be a lost soul, some crazy Neteru chick who committed an unthinkable act and died of a broken heart. But rest assured I'll have a prayer in my heart when I go. And all I know is, you guys won't have me... and that will really piss off the chairman." She looked at him hard, no fraud in her tone. "Try me. Love will make you act stupid."

Marlene's lips continued to move and the head of the dead female were-jaguar began to smolder on the ground. The old vampire screeched, and sent a bolt of electrified fury toward Marlene, but the protective crystal breastplate she wore reflected it and sent it back to him. Seconds mattered. His semidisoriented state had been their salvation.

As the old master fell to the dirt beside the severed head, Big Mike tossed Damali a holy-water vile, and she caught it quickly. Vlak raised his hand to send a dark arc toward Damali, and as he moved, the were-jaguar demons nearby rushed him. Damali cast the vile hard, smashing it at the head of the creature next to Vlak.

Blue flames covered and spread from the incinerating head. Vlak's robes combusted on contact with the edge of the holy water's band of flame. Thick, black clouds plumed around him. But through the blackness, eleven white beams of energy immediately shot up - connecting to a single, wide amethyst beam of light that met them.

"The ancient Neteru collects her team..." Marlene's voice trailed off in awe.

Despite the majesty of the event, Damali didn't waste time while Vlak was deconstructing. His awful, screeching cries made the audio-sensitive guardians stoop and cover their ears.

It was not about leaving Vlak's end up to chance. Damali knew that with a vampire that old, one could never be too sure. Madame Isis raised, she looked Vlak dead in the eyes for just a second, added a smile, and plunged the Isis with her full weight behind it. "Rest in peace!"

She jumped back, hearing the high whine of energy gathering—then covered her head for the boom. The team was knocked off their feet from Vlak's body explosion, splattered with ash, and left coughing and sputtering as they stood up quickly.

"Blow the lair," she told Big Mike, snatching the Amazon's battle-ax out of the slit cavern wall. "Holy water this area down! Remove all traces of ripening Neteru in the air!"

Damali was running, helping people to their feet. "We gotta get out of here before they send up a search party - you don't just nuke a council-level vamp and not expect them to check it out! C'mon! And the level-five demons that were supposed to witness this ritual - to be sure their interests were protected, will come up through the lair breach... it's gotta be in their zone. We ain't outta the jungle yet! Let's move!"

"What are you saying?" The chairman screeched, leaning over the Vampire Council's table. "You and Counselor Vlak may have your differences, but he is still a ranking - "

"Look at me," Carlos said, breathing hard, his eyes set hard. "Do I look normal?"

A murmur went through the three seated council members.

"Where would I get a hit of ripened Neteru? I had international couriers with me! Look in my eyes - see for yourself!"

Three sets of cool, steely eyes gripped Carlos, and he could feel his stomach move and a sharp pain enter his intestines, dropping him to his knees before the council.

"Your charges are beyond sheer arrogance, it's pure hubris that has possessed you! I will rip out your gizzards and feed upon them myself," the old chairman warned. "If I sense duplicity..."

"Damali is out of phase, but you've got a level-five breach," he panted. "Our Neteru in a demon hot zone, and one senior council member about to turn a five-hundred-year-old, risen-demon, Amazon warrior, a trained Neteru guardian fighter, on her - then start a new empire with her."

"How can that be?" the chairman said, running his bony hand over his chin, but releasing Carlos from the painful hold. "There was no Neteru before Nzinga within the five-hundred-year range..."

The chairman's voice trailed off as he realized he gave Carlos too much information - highly guarded data only known at throne level. Carlos didn't blink, but the fact that it wasn't just an early sent Amazon Neteru, or Damali in the equation, another Neteru had been sent, too... all within a very short period of time. A trinity of them? And that info was so guarded that only old council seats knew? No wonder Nuit was so frantic to claim Damali. It was more than just daylight access, or even world domination. The last one bridged the millennium, and anything that created daylight capacities in the demon realms in this era was... they might try to rush even Heaven. These bastards were crazy. Oh, shit it was on. The Armageddon.

"All of this is speculation," the chairman said, coolly recovering. "Even if your claims about this demon are correct, her womb is dead."

Carlos nodded, standing with effort, using the seconds to work on his game. "She's got daylight - he's risking to do a black blood ex-cha - "

"Never..."

Carlos nodded. "Supernatural law; the demons tricked the Neteru's mother-seer, the mother-seer is doing time for the crime. But she wants out bad. She came to Vlak with a proposal after she became a were-demon, and Vlak saw an opening." He looked at the chairman hard. "You think he's out searching for my soul, don't you? Well, last night he came to see me just before dawn to strip my ass of pride and to get me to go against you. He's known where my soul is all along."

When the chairman didn't immediately answer, Carlos pressed on. "He sent his twisted demon bitch to my lair to pollute the perimeter with her hijacked scent during the day while he and I both slept. He's smart enough to stay away from it; is probably lying low and told her not to trail it into the mating dens... but when I woke up, it hit me. It leads a trail right to her dens, but probably not in it, where Vlak will be to ensure the exchange goes down right."

"Impossible. How did you break away from the trail?" the chairman said with fury in his eyes, but his tone not quite as sure as it had been. "If it was ripened Neteru..."

"The demon's batch is synthetic product, tainted, not as strong as the pure stuff. Its will-polluting effect is only temporary - like a quick rush... leaves you high, but not totally stupid-blitzed. That's what gave me a half-ounce of common sense to pull up from the trail and come here, first, to report in." Carlos opened his arms wide; the old men were wasting time and frustration was drilling a hole in his brain. "But you'd better kill me now if you think I'm not going back topside tonight."

The chairman's gaze narrowed. "I assure you we can accommodate your request here in chambers."

"What part about this don't you get?" he said louder than advisable. "Damali is out of phase, and you know that - which means I had to get this contraband from somewhere!" Carlos paused, trying to regain enough control to sound respectful - but if the old vamps didn't know for sure about the demon, had only heard rumors and only Vlak had solid proof... something happened at the borders of Purgatory... the forces of light had to be losing strength against evil on the planet. Now he understood the Covenant's haste and need to make every soul count, better understood his position in the equation, too. Very interesting...

"If I go back up and take another hit, Mr. Chairman, I could abort the whole mission by accidentally destroying our cargo because this is in my system. If the demon ain't around, I could hemorrhage Damali or kill her, if she gets in between me and whatever's trailing false Neteru, you know the outcome. The demon plans to double-cross Vlak and come out of the fusion then whack our vessel, or set me up to do it, so that she's the sole source of the daylight option. When I thought she was one of us, I did a mind lock with her, messing around... I went back in high - trust me, I'm much stronger than her under these conditions."

Renewed rage entered Carlos as the old men at the council table simply stared at him. The look of outright shock on the chairman's face helped Carlos build his case.

"Vlak is so stupid and so desperate for power that he doesn't see it! He not only betrayed us, but he's put our package in jeopardy, if his twisted plan fails." Carlos rubbed his face with both hands. "I need something to come down, man, before I go topside again." It was the stone-cold truth. His hands were shaking. "I've gotta get Damali out of harm's way for the empire. I need your help. Stop fucking with me and let me do my job."

The council ignored Carlos for a moment and conferred.

"Vlak would take such a risk, at his age?" the chairman asked evenly. "He would need insurance." His gaze narrowed on Carlos. "Wouldn't he?"

Nodding quickly, Carlos stepped forward, feeling the effects of Neteru rocking his concentration. Only the depth of his subterranean meeting was helping, but he knew it would be all over as soon as he hit topside - if they didn't gut him down here. "Vlak has been lying to us all. That stupid bastard allowed my soul to get dragged into Purgatory!" Carlos forced feigned rage, which wasn't hard to do with ripe Neteru in his system. "He lost mine! I'm doomed!"

A bolt of red, crackling current slammed into Carlos's chest. Were it not for the additional bulk from the ripened Neteru scent in his system and protective brand, his heart would be lying on the marble floor.

Bending over, his hands on his knees, Carlos sucked in huge inhales through his mouth. His eyes were shut tight as the fire of pain tore through his lungs, chest cavity, and began to ignite his liver.

The chairman had rounded the table with the others, which surrounded him. He snatched Carlos's chin up, making the sweat that ran down his face fling off it. "Tell me why, a man with such redemption options, would be standing in my sacred chambers telling me about a potential coup... one coming from a council seat, from a trusted adviser I have known for several thousand years!"

"Because I wanted the power." Carlos could feel his jaw crushing as the chairman's red glowing eyes went black. "But Vlak forgot a variable."

The two stared at each other and the chairman slowly released his grip. Carlos's chest heaved.

"I can't go against the vampire that made me... he told me who delivered the bite."

The chairman's hand lowered and he placed his hands behind his back.

"I didn't want to be in Purgatory, after having a chance to sit in Nuit's abandoned throne." What Carlos said was true - but it could be taken in two ways. He knew which way the vampires before him would take it; they had a blind spot created by their evil perspective.

The chairman nodded, then rubbed his jaw. His fangs retracted, and he swept away toward the table, the others following him. Taking his time, he sat slowly, and after he did, the two others seated themselves at his left.

"I was willing to wait seven years for the chance to be made council. Ask your couriers; we all tried our best to keep your cargo out of harm's way. But Vlak put her in danger with his fucked-up plan, and was going to use my body - no self-respecting master would allow it. You know that."

The chairman nodded. "And, with my bite, you were strong enough to resist Vlak... were strong enough to drag yourself here even with ripe Neteru in your system. You also feared me more than him." He paused, his gaze raking Carlos. "Good," he finally said with a low hiss. "Wise choice."

The old vampire leveled his gaze on Carlos then looked away in the distance, thinking. "That I can believe, because you were made by the top of this empire." He nodded again. "Thank you. Your report has been most helpful. We will deal with Counselor Vlak in our own way. You may go. Bring me back my cargo."

Carlos shook his head, making the council go still. "I can't. That's what I've been trying to tell you," he said honestly, his gaze tearing between the council members. "Has it been so long since you've been topside?"

Their expressions held a lack of comprehension.

"I've got ripe Neteru in my system - but your cargo isn't ripe! Yeah, I can get her out of the Amazon, with some demon breach-sealers with me as backup, but I'll injure her. She'll hemorrhage internally. Don't you remem - "

"Yes," the chairman said, standing. "We'll have to send somebody else."

"But it's my mission!" Carlos was pacing in an agitated line. "Don't you have an antidote for this shit at your rank?"

The chairman looked at the others who shook their heads. "There's only one... and we have to destroy Vlak to do it. That will take time to locate him and corner him." The old vampire sighed and studied his claws. "The elixir from our table keeps us refined, balanced, and very strong while here - as our physical strength has ebbed over the years. But do not toy with our mental capacity, Carlos. Topside, you could have beaten Vlak. Why didn't you, especially with what courses through your system?"

"Because," Carlos said, combining the truth with the deception, "he also left me vulnerable when he lost my soul."

All the senior vampires looked at him, and Carlos saw that as his next in.

"Until you guys figure out a way to retrieve it, I have a weak spot for this Neteru. I would rather see her sire daywalkers willingly, to help our cause - even if I have to work on her for the duration of seven short years - than to see her emotions butchered by plagues." He took a deep breath, holding their gazes. "You have seen how effective I've been in swaying her to our side, haven't you? She's drawn to me because I have a piece of soul left - even I didn't understand that. She a Neteru, and could sense it. But I'm using it for the empire, and I'm patient, can wait for my opportunity... let's use it to work her. If you send somebody else, she'll fight to the death and may get injured or die - but she'll come to me, and only me!"

The chairman offered a lopsided smile and nodded.

"I've proven my loyalty by using my weakness to your advantage. For the dark realms, I was already marked. That's fact. I was turned during the commission of a crime - fact. I was supposed to be full-fledged, but was somehow robbed. I figured, fair exchange is no robbery... but I'm no fool. I wouldn't hurt the only chance we have to strengthen the empire. That's why I came here - home, first, and didn't go with Vlak, or try to follow the plan myself, using the Amazon."

The room went very, very still, save the screeches of the bats.

"When a council seat is lost, the throne runs black blood from that senior officer. The history of the event immediately burns into the arch of the seat. The only antidote for ripened Neteru is for a council member to be slain by a Neteru - and when the throne runs red blood, we can give the affected master a sip."

The chairman let out his breath hard and pointed to each throne. "Masters have been killed by a Neteru, that is the ongoing struggle... see for yourself in the high histories. But never has a slayer taken out one of our Vampire Council chairs. It would mean a search for a very crafty, and very old council member - and we'd have to allow her to kill him in order to remedy your condition."

The chairman chuckled. "Ah, the conundrum. While I have no problem in exterminating Counselor Vlak with my own bare hands, you would never be able to tolerate the wait while we found him, bound him, and brought her before the chair to kill him. We would have to exterminate you, just to get the act completed."

Leaning forward on the pentagram-shaped table, the chairman sighed, holding Carlos with an empathetic, but smug, stare. "My suggestion, then, is that you remain on the sixth level for a few evenings until our border patrols find and eliminate Vlak. We will perform the ceremony on the ancient Amazon ourselves, and will ensure the current Neteru's safety, but won't abduct her to cause her to fight us or sustain injury. We'll allow you to guard the younger vessel, as a reward for marvelous undercover work - once you have collected yourself. You're right; if she's with you willingly, then you're our safest long-term containment strategy - and your soul can stay where it is, until the seventh year... it's best to keep her confused... might even render her team and the Covenant off guard. But this is so very interesting... two available vessels, only seven years apart. Wonderful variable; unprecedented opportunity." He laughed deep and low in his throat. "Thank you, Mr. Rivera. You are amazing."

Carlos nodded. But pure defeat stripped every option away from his mind. Humiliated by his condition, and knowing that now they'd really do everything in their power to sway his soul just as Damali was ripening, made his shoulders slump. The word was out; his soul was hanging in the balance up in Purgatory. At least they still thought he was pissed off about that fact, and it being there made it impossible for them to read his mind at will.

The only small glimmer of hope within the travesty was the fact that they wouldn't hurt Damali, or her people. Greed was their imperative. They wouldn't jeopardize two shots at creating daywalkers, and that was the only thing he could hold onto.

There was nothing else to do but chill and suck it up. Still reeling from the effects of the intoxicant in his system, and slightly weakened by the council's initial angry beat-down, he knew he had to be hallucinating. Carlos laughed as he turned to walk away, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. Yeah, right, Vlak had gotten his heart cut out and his throne is running red. It wasn't even midnight. Boss would last more than a few hours topside, old and treacherous as he was. In his wildest dreams.

But sudden hisses and commotion behind Carlos made him turn around. He froze with the others, their eyes on Vlak's throne that had come to life in a red gurgling stream. The inscription within the arch of it flashed with a blue-white light that made them all cover their eyes. Then the light vanished, leaving a burning brand of a Neteru sword with a glowing date in the blade handle. Carlos stepped forward slowly as the glow of the date abated. Immediately a searing sound cracked into the throne's black marble, and a new etching began. A name was written.

Spellbound, the vampires stared at the inscription. The chairman dumped out the contents of his goblet and pressed the empty chalice against the bleeding arm of the throne, lifting it toward Carlos. They all understood. If Vlak was dead, so was the demon, so was the second option to make daywalkers - option one, Damali, was at risk.

"Give the man an army and strengthen Rivera's borders from every quadrant in the empire," the chairman said with controlled panic. "ASAP." His eyes narrowed. "This vessel is so much more than the millennium slayer, Carlos. She sways the Armageddon... was delivered five hundred years early, which is how we know the hour draws near. We did not even speak of it at the table before, because you were too new, and this was of such magnitude. However, with her squarely at risk in demon territory, you must be clear that no cost is too great to ensure her safe return. Now, do you understand? The precious nature of this cargo to our side is beyond measure."

He stared at the chairman. His instincts had been correct. The information slowly entered his mind, toppling one epiphany against the next like mental dominoes falling. Yes, she was definitely precious beyond measure, and Vlak would have never given her up - even seven years from now. Carlos knew in every fiber of his being now that Vlak would have used him as a security guard to keep competitors away while he was empire-building, then double-crossed him, killed him, and added Damali to his stable, derailing anything she would have accomplished during the big war.

For a fleeting moment, Carlos wondered if Damali even knew how serious her role was. Then he shook the concept. Of course she had to, Marlene and company had been schooling her for years. Pride for her filled him instantly, as did the understanding of who she really was. Respect... damn, she was the Neteru. It wasn't an intellectual understanding anymore, clouded by passion, or the way he'd found her in the streets all those years ago.

Carlos smiled, his voice a reverent whisper. "My baby's making history."

The blast from Big Mike's charges flashed orange-red, and sent huge chunks of dirt, rock, and foliage hurling into the jungle. The team dropped, the ground beneath them unstable, as the explosion began a rain of rock and dirt upon them from the side of the cliff. Frenzied bats screeched and sought available escape paths. Righting themselves, and racing toward the tunnels that brought them to the top, the team scrambled to get out of the cave.

Damali shot out in front, leading the group through pitch blackness from memory. There wasn't even enough light for her night vision to be fully effective. But with what little she could sense, she got the squad back to the center of the cavern where the were-jaguars had ambushed them, the team feeling the walls blindly with their gun barrels angled down to avoid shooting a fellow teammate by accident. When her foot struck something soft, Damali almost jumped out of her skin. But then she remembered, and made the team come to a halt.

"I don't know if we can carry our man with us," she told the group sadly, "even though we never leave our own."

They gathered around their dead man, but even Kamal shook his head. They didn't have the manpower to carry Dominique as well as the footlocker, and be alert.

"Anoint him here," Kamal said fast. "He was already were-human, and has been bitten again by were-demon - at least our man deserves to ascend."

Marlene hurried as the tunnel continued to rain rock.

"I'll carry him for you, brother," Big Mike boomed.

Drum put his hand on Mike's shoulder. "His body is jus' flesh and goes back to the earth. Long's we get his soul out, we, from our team, are cool with it. But, thank you."

Mike nodded, though Drum couldn't see the response. Damali glanced around in the darkness, seeing nothing, as Marlene quickly concluded, sensing where to drop a vial of holy water on Dominique's missing chest.

Just as she was about to tell the group to move, glowing green-and-gold eyes from every imaginable ledge appeared. Sulfur smoke filled the tunnel. Big Mike and Dan lobbed holy water grenades, and for three seconds of bright light amid horrible demon screeches, the team saw what they were up against. Pure Hell.

It was as though the entire demon world had evacuated the subterranean space they occupied and had descended on the cavern. Kamal's men were gagging, the grenades nearly felling them. It was clear that the ancient warrior had meant more to them than the vampire nation, and they had sent up serious representation to ensure no double-cross from Vlak.

Deformed animal shapes grotesquely fused with human forms stood poised for attack once the holy water rings began to burn off. Guardians quickly paired up with Kamal's men, trying to help their comrades, but also trying to keep themselves covered with weapons at the same time.

Acid-dripping fangs had flashed in the light, massive hooked claws had shielded hideous glowing eyes from the glare, greenish rotting skin befouled the air - this was the demon realm's warrior team.

In a unified thought, the human squadron opened fire, sending automatic-weapon magazine releases against demon targets that exploded, scrambled, and lunged again. It was like the things were splitting, multiplying as the guardian and were-human teams cut a path, backing into an open tunnel on the run, Mike and Drum hurling C-4 bricks and grenades behind them to seal off a path.

"Roll call!" Damali yelled, as they found a temporary shelter. "Anybody hurt?"

"No, we good!" Kamal hollered back. Rocks behind them made the group press forward, but as soon as they rounded the corner, Damali held out both hands. They were at the mouth of the booby-trapped tunnel. Behind them was half of Hell, before them was sudden death.

"Shit!"

"What's up, D - we gotta roll."

"Rider, this is the tunnel we were supposed to be sending the bad guys into."

"Oh, shit," Shabazz muttered.

"Send a crossbow stake through it - see how bad..."

Kamal's words tapered off as a low hissing sound filled their tunnel. It was coming from outside the cave, and in seconds a huge black snakehead eclipsed the moon. The thing's skull and jaws were the size of a Honda, and when its eyes flashed green, it unhinged its jaw to bear fangs as long as a tall man.

"I think we could use your shoulder cannons now, gentlemen," Damali whispered as the serpent slowly eased its way into the tunnel, viciously snapping in the process. "Let him get in good, so we don't miss... they move fast, I saw one in action."

Mike and Drum just nodded. The scratching at the blocked opening behind them had ceased, and the growls and screeches seemed to be moving, like the fight was going on outside now - probably to join this thing for dinner, Damali woefully thought.

But as the monster got fifty yards away from the team, a snap sounded, the beast looked up, and huge wooden spears impaled it. Furious, wounded, but not mortally so, it struggled against the spikes, slamming its head against the sides and ceiling of the tunnel, causing an avalanche from the commotion. Taking quick aim, Mike and Drum sent twin bazooka blasts at the creature, which blew it out of the tunnel, clearing the way.

The team was about to run forward, but Damali held up her hand, finding a rock, hurling it to the midsection of the tunnel, and the false floor gave way, revealing pikes. The problem was, however, pikes weren't the only things down there. The pit writhed and swelled with serpentine energy. Wet, slimy things half human and half snake unwound from the stakes and moved toward the group.

The team unleashed everything they had - automatics, crossbow shots, holy water bombs, Damali taking swipes at things overhead with Madame Isis and the Amazon's battle-ax, dropping hissing heads as Marlene defended against them and batted them away with her stick. Artillery low, the things just kept coming, and then for no reason, retreated.

Huffing from exertion, the team stared at Damali - who stared at Kamal and his crew, then her gaze shot to Jose.

"Incoming," Jose said quietly, as the spent were-human team nodded, gagged, and looked like they would vomit from all the holy water smoke in tight confines.

Two of Kamal's men dropped, and neither their teammates nor members from Damali's guardian team could immediately help them up. She glanced at the fallen men with panic, as Drum weaved and Big Mike caught him under his arm.

"The sulfur. We've gotta get Kamal's men out, fast. So we're gonna have to creep along the sides while the enemy regroups. It's our only way out, but we have to leave the footlocker. It's too unstable, a man could fall, Kamal's men are getting sicker... plus, these things could snatch any of us down there at any second."

The team members murmured an uneasy agreement as Damali stepped forward, her boots crumbling rock and dirt along the edge. There was nothing to hold onto. The walls were slimy and slick, the soft edging was only four inches wide, and she was physically the lightest-weight member in the group. Big Mike and Drum would never make it. She glanced back, and returned to the squads, shaking her head.

"We're fucking trapped," Rider said quietly.

Growls made the group train its focus on the open, but inaccessible cave exit.

"We'll bring you over," a familiar voice said, materializing with a twenty-vampire squad.

The team just stared at Carlos, slowly raising weapons like Damali had told them to do. But the sheer size of him, as well as his squad that covered the entrance, gave the entire guardian and were-human team pause. Damali could not breathe. She was going to have to watch his beheading, if not do it herself. Her grip tightened on the Amazon's battle-ax, and Madame Isis. Several, if not all of her team members would die.

Carlos looked more pumped than he had in the tunnels before, when the entire team battled Nuit. His fangs were down at the ten-inch battle length; his eyes were solid red, his chest and shoulder enormous beneath black camouflage fatigues. His Green Beret-looking henchmen had no faces, just red glowing eyes within a black haze under hooded robes, and their arms were as thick as two of Big Mike's. Battle-axes in hand, they snarled and surrounded Carlos, who took a step forward, motioning for them to not enter the holy water smoked cavern with him.

"Steady, gentlemen," Damali murmured. "On my order - 'cause you'd better not miss."

"What! Woman, are you crazy?" Carlos backed up, shook his head, and his henchmen growled. "We ain't got time for no theatrics! The gatekeeper Amanthra is down, we got a bunch of the weres, but you know in a minute, they'll be back at us - two levels of bullshit, D. This is a level-four and -five breach! So stop playing around!"

"I'm not playing, Carlos. You've got ripe Neteru - "

"I don't - "

"Then why do you look like that?" she shouted, her team holding, readied for the word.

"Because we been kickin' ass to give you a fucking chance to get out of here!"

"How'd you get the Neteru out your system, dude?" Rider shouted, unable to contain himself.

"Damali killed Vlak with the Isis, I was in chambers trying to raise a squad when the chair bled! Now, c'mon! We ain't got a lot of time!"

"Can you read him, D?" Shabazz said fast. "Get a bead on - "

"No! We don't have time for that!" Carlos was walking a hot line back and forth in front of the cave.

"Want us to extract the cargo, boss?" one of Carlos's entities asked with a glare. "We can go get her, if you want... as long as we don't get slashed, we can - "

"Oh, my God," she whispered, her gaze going to Marlene. "I'm cargo?"

"See, man! Shut up," Carlos fussed. "No. I'll go get her, because she'll start her team shooting and shit, and one of them might get fucked up if you guys go off."

"You damned straight dis joint'll be lit the fuck up, mon, you try en grab de gurl. Not with ripe Neteru in your system. We go out motherfuckin' swingin', boss - you know dat. You in our house out here!"

Shabazz pounded Kamal's fist, as the human squad held their weapons tighter.

"Oh, shit..." Carlos began walking in a circle as his own team growled. "Why, Damali, would you stand in front of an Amazon, tell her all the shit you know about me is true, then be scared of what you saw in a fantasy, huh? Damn, girl, you are pissing me off!"

"You heard what I said to her?" Damali cast a glance at her team, which began to look confused.

"I was down there in council chambers getting my ass kicked, okay? I was begging them to let me come up here and get you, told them about Vlak's bullshit, and needed something, anything, to bring me down so I could deal - and you are up here, yelling at the top of your lungs about all the shit I did for you!"

He punched the cave wall, making part of it crumble. "Telling all my fucking business, about the desert thing, and everything - and now, you won't come with me so I can keep demons off your ass?" He walked away. "I'm done. Just fuckin' done."

Carlos's henchmen cast nervous glances between the retreating master vampire and the huddle of humans in the cave.

"Yo, boss," one of them hollered. "Whatchu want us to do with the cargo, man?"

"Let the demons eat her and her squad! Half of 'em are were-humans, anyway!" Carlos yelled back over his shoulder. "I can't take anymore! This is the most stubborn, off-the-hook woman in the universe!"

Carlos spun on the confused henchmen, pointing a finger at them. "Do you know, this is the woman who made a throne run red blood in council chambers, first one in history to do a high-ranking council member - her damned sword is branded in Vlak's throne - so don't be crazy and go in there for her. Leave her. The demons want to wipe out the vamp daywalker vessel, since theirs is gone. Her stubborn ass will see when all the demons on levels four and five come up here. We seal the level breaches, and I'm going to eat. I'm done." Carlos turned his back to her and began walking while muttering. "Dusted almost all my second-generations in my territory to keep her safe - for what? Now I bring an army to save her, and she's arguing with me? Fuck it!"

Damali looked at her team, and they simply stared back at her, weapons lowering.

"Damn, gurl," Kamal murmured. "You hit a throne?"

"Yo, D, think you should ease up on your boy... seems to me like he's cool, and all... might get us out?" Big Mike shrugged and glanced at the others.

"Hey, let's not allow a little domestic difficulties to ruin the party," Rider quipped, glancing nervously toward Carlos. "Yo, man, she didn't mean it!" He looked back at Damali who bristled. "Did ya, hon?"

Begrudgingly, she sucked in a huge inhale and hollered Carlos's name, but he didn't answer.

"Aw, shit," Jose replied on a dejected note, as the henchmen started disappearing. "I think this time... ya know... I mean, even his brother and the rest of his posse was in that second-generation tier."

"I think our brother is straight, D," Marlene murmured. "That other stuff you saw, he didn't bring that right now."

Marlene was the only one that cut through her defenses. Damali let out her breath hard and folded her arms over her chest, a weapon in each fist. "Carlos," Damali yelled, "fine! Squash the other shit - we'll take that up later. Aw'ight, we could use a hand."

Carlos spun on her, stopping his retreating and confused squad. "No, you don't! You don't need me," he hollered back. He looked at his men, then at her trapped teams. "I saw you do some incredible shit." His voice mellowed. "I was so damned proud of you, I almost got smoked in council." He nodded to the messengers. "Say what you want, girlfriend is baaaad. Dusted a treasonous councilman, fucked up a rebel master - killed Nuit's ass with a prayer as she planted her sword. Did a drag race to protect my turf, rode shotgun with me... and kicked that bitch's ass up there, then served her a head trip like I ain't never seen. My boo is awesome."

He let his breath out hard, and studied her teams. "You all don't know what you've got on your side. Shit... I ain't messin' with her when she's like this. Naw, I ain't the one; I know better." He glared at Damali, but it softened as he looked at her. "You were right, my bad. I mean it, and I've even said it in front of your squad and mine. What else you want from me? I said I was sorry." He turned and walked away. "Plus, you've got a damned army in there, and can handle yourself without me."

Kamal moved from the middle of the huddle to stand by Damali and quietly spoke to her. "Call de man right, chile. I showed you—use da balm. Den apologize right, later. A man's pride is a terrible thing, and at the moment, his is beat down hard, and he needs it. That ain't changed since the beginning of time, and won't tonight, even in dis new millennium. You won. You the Neteru, that ain't changed neither - and nobody can take that from you... so don't cut off your nose to spite your face, proving what don't need ta be proved. Not out here."

She was about to fuss, but Kamal cut her off as Carlos and his men disappeared. "He got shit wit him, you got shit wit you... you right for wondering, he wrong for makin' you wonder... he right for coming when you needed him, you wrong for being ornery when he did - so squash the bullshit, and get our teams outta here."

Weary, Damali raised her hand and closed her eyes. She just wanted to go home. She just wanted to take a shower. She just wanted to sleep on clean sheets in an air-conditioned room with no bugs. She just wanted everybody to be all right. No more causalities, not even a hangnail. She just wanted poor Kamal to be able to bury his man in peace. She wanted to be off the fucking Amazon River and away from a foreign country... she didn't want to be dealing with demons. Her body hurt from almost getting her ass kicked, her man was bugging -

"You almost got your ass kicked?" Carlos was walking down the center of the tunnel, oblivious to the fact that it had no floor, and there were pikes below. He just strode across the expanse; his jaw set hard as Damali's team pointed gun barrels to the floor without blinking.

"She hit you in your face?" he asked, galled, turning Damali's cheek to the side gingerly with two fingers. "You know..." He shook his head, and called over his shoulder to his squad. "Clear that fucking exit and get my woman out of this insect-infested bullshit, would you!" He took Damali by the hand and began walking, but she hesitated.

Carlos let out his breath. "Girl, you oughta know me better than that."

"It ain't you, it's the ground, or the lack thereof," she said fast, her team peering over the edge of it with her.

"Like I said," he repeated with a hard snap of his fingers, making the cave floor solid and passable. "You oughta know me better than that."

Not even a cicada, mosquito, or water flea moved as the team got onto the barge with twenty-one extra passengers. Every human on the boat just took a very still corner of it, or sat on a box, but nobody was trying to say anything that could light a match.

Carlos materialized on the second level and walked up to Kamal. Nervous looks passed through the group, but again, no one said a word. "You the one who taught her how to refine her technique?"

"The balm," Kamal said cautiously.

Carlos nodded, glancing at Damali who was sitting on a crate, a battle-ax in one hand, a sword in the other, glowering at him. "Don't know whether to thank you, or rip your heart out, man."

Everybody bristled, even the vampire breach-sweepers that patrolled the decks for security.

"Was just jokin', man." Carlos chuckled. Kamal visibly relaxed. "Damn. Everybody's so jumpy."

"Like nobody has a reason to have their nerves fried after this fun adventure? A must-see for the guided Amazon tour brochures." Rider shook his head.

At first the flippant comment tensed the group to a danger level. The twenty security vampires on the decks stopped walking, and looked at Carlos as though not sure if a death reprimand was coming in Rider's direction. Every human muscle coiled, waiting for Rider to have gone too far this time. Rider simply spit in the water and leaned against the ammunitions crate. Carlos burst out laughing.

It was as though the echo had released the night sounds. The insects came back; crocks felt it was safe to slip back in the water. Owls took off from branches so they could go hunting again. The trees released their evening chorus-line show of bats. And one by one the laughter ignited, sending everyone into an unstoppable release of tension. Even Damali was laughing, and just gave up on being on guard.

"Oh, what the fuck... I'm so tired," she wheezed through the giggles. "Have you ever?"

"Y'all are cool," Carlos said, still chuckling. "Me and my boyz got everything locked down till dawn - by then, you'll be back in Manaus, can take your flights, and backtrack home. Damn, what a night." He glanced around one last time, letting his gaze settle on Damali for a minute. "Me and the boyz gotta go eat - we used up a lot of energy back there... but, you know, call me later, baby."

She smiled.

"Kamal gave you my pager number," Carlos said, chuckling deeper, moving toward her but not coming in close. "You already had my private cell digits."

She laughed. Kamal smiled.

"We'll see," she said, swallowing a smile and looking away toward the black water.

Carlos shrugged. "If you get tired of the bugs... want a hot shower... don't wanna wait in the airport lines... I might be able to find a good bottle of wine and a gourmet dinner - if a sister would act right."

"Damn, man, keep talking like that, and I'll go with you - a hot shower and no bugs?" Big Mike pounded Carlos's fist, then laughed. "Sheeit. Better act like you know."

She smiled, cocked her head to the side. "We'll see."

Carlos nodded, gave her a wide grin, and vanished with his team.

Marlene chuckled and folded her arms over her chest. "You gonna call him and take the short way home, or what, chile? Lemme know so we can figure out the passport problem."

"No worries," Kamal said with a sly smile, going down to the first deck. "I know some people who know some people if she needs a stamp to show she took the regular way home."

"Y'all putting me off the boat?" Damali shook her head, amused, but relieved, and yet too tired to think about any of it.

"Oh shit!" Drum's voice echoed in the night, bringing the entire squad to the front of the vessel.

Drum was peering down over the lifeless body of their fallen man, Dominique. His chest, face, and throat had been repaired, and it only appeared as though the young man was sleeping. The older warrior from Kamal's squad swallowed hard as he knelt beside the dead man and handed the note that was attached to Dominique's vest up to Kamal, who only nodded and closed his eyes.

"Class..." Kamal murmured. "Brother said to bury our own right."

"Damn," Shabazz whispered. "That's deep... was real cool of Rivera."

Marlene looked at Damali, and then glanced around at the faces that stood dumbfounded and a grin slowly captured her face. "Yeah, girl, we're putting you off this boat."

Damali nodded with a half smile. "That's cool. I got his new digits. But first, I'm calling my soul sister, Inez." Marlene gave her a knowing smile. "I've learned a little patience. The man can wait... Carlos Rivera ain't rushing me."
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