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Damali walked slowly along the beach behind the house, hanging back as Carlos said good-bye to his friend. The battle between her instinct to take the head of a clear and present threat and her desire to honor her husband’s request twisted her stomach into knots. She could feel the entire household manning battle stations as each Guardian awakened to their own internal sensory guidance.
No less than she would have expected, Marlene sat up in bed first, eyes wide, third eye vision sweeping and then honing in on Damali’s to question the SOS vibration she’d clearly felt. The insistent contact between Marlene’s seeking vision and her second-sight unlocked the interior of the house for her in surreal imagery. Like a bad and hazy dream, Damali could mentally see the unfolding chaos in her mind’s eye coming to her in fits and starts, and she took in a deep breath to summon calm as she continued trudging twenty-five yards behind Carlos and Yonnie.
Like a giant ebony cobra, in one fluid move Shabazz had slowly unfolded from the lotus mediation position he’d been in, locks crackling with raw fight energy, the look in his eyes deadly. His expression said it all: The house had been breached—unacceptable.
Mike had heard the thud on the roof and was already packing ammo as he came down the hall with Inez. Damali remembered seeing his bald head jerk up when Yonnie first hit the skylight in the roof, but the potential of immediate danger had blotted out the rest of the imagery until now.
She didn’t need to watch the trajectory of events mentally, however. The past informed her better than any second-sight ever could. Mike was on the move. Pissed off. A six-foot-eight, two-hundred-and-seventy-five-pound human bear made of pure muscle was in the hall of their compound; Big Mike wasn’t having a homestead breach any more than Shabazz was. Her girl, Inez, was right behind him, too, her short self toting a handheld Uzi. Damali groaned inwardly and then turned away from Carlos and Yonnie to head back toward the house before shots were fired.
This was the part that she wasn’t sure Carlos understood, as much as she empathized with his dilemma. This was finally home.
The entire family had envisioned every room, every detail of the massive San Diego beachfront property. They’d all prayed for a place to call home, and everything had been made manifest, right down to the sprawling ten acres that surrounded the mansion and the pristine mountain view beyond it. It was something to come back to after the battle in the Holy Land. This was sanctuary. This was what every man and woman on the team, from the eldest to the youngest, had dreamt of for years. A place that was like a citadel, but that was also not like the old maximum security prison–type compound from years ago . . . or the cramped, crazy dwelling they’d survived in during the rough stint in Arizona. This was a home where dreams could flourish and peace could reign supreme. And not a Guardian in the joint was having any mess come to their door.
In her soul she knew the brothers were prepared to take a Masada-inspired last stand here this morning if they thought a daywalker had come calling. The vibe reverberated through the air and pierced her skin like tiny knives. Live free or die trying.
“Oh, shit . . .” Damali let her breath out hard, and then picked up her pace and hurried back to the house.
Rider met her at the door with a sawed-off shotgun resting on his shoulder. Tara stood behind him with a 9mm lowered at her side, but the look in her eyes said it all—she knew. Damali held up one hand and let out a weary breath, watching younger Guardians hustling down the steps over Rider’s and Tara’s shoulders. Couples fell into Full Metal Jacket formation, flanking the windows and doors. For a moment all Damali could do was watch them.
Jose and Juanita parted like pros, clutching weapons while silently doing one-handed leaps over opposite banisters with Jose giving Juanita the two-finger silent signal to take the window while he headed for the deck. J.L. and Krissy hugged the wall and squared off with vents and fireplace openings, splashing each one with holy water before backing up to train a weapon on it. Bobby and Jasmine headed for the back door to lend support to the senior couple, Berkfield and Marj, who were already in the kitchen, strapped. Mike and Inez were out in the pool area, securing the lower decks, and Damali cringed knowing that Shabazz and Marlene had taken the roof. This was ten minutes past real bad.
Everything within the house was in order, the scramble effective and the way it was supposed to happen . . . yet the cosmos was out of alignment and there was no fighting that with conventional demon-hunting weapons. Until Carlos came back with more information, there was no way to know how to take down a daywalker permanently, the range of its powers, or how many had been made. The questions were endless.
“Stand down,” Damali said flatly, garnering confused looks from those Guardians within earshot. “Carlos got this.”
Incredulous gazes followed her as she brushed past her stunned teammates and headed for the kitchen. She heard the fallback order ripple through the house behind her and knew a near mutiny was close at hand. For this she needed coffee, not herbal tea. Before she could fill the pot with water, the entire team, sans Carlos, had piled into the kitchen behind her.
“That was Yonnie out there! His signature is in my sinuses, tell me I’m lying?” Rider hollered. “And unless my eyes are playing tricks on me and this is a very, very bad dream, D—a fucking vamp councilman is taking a daylight stroll down the beach with your husband!”
“I know,” Damali said as calmly as possible, and then added enough water to the huge pot to make enough coffee for everybody. What else was there to say? She didn’t have a clue at the moment what was going on, and was trying her best not to freak out. While she gathered her thoughts, she continued making coffee very methodically, and then put on a teakettle for Marlene and Shabazz. Her actions were mechanical, by rote, something she’d seen Marlene do a hundred times, if once, to quell mass hysteria in the compound.
“You know?” Shabazz said slowly, parting the group around her as he neared her. A blue-white swath of electrostatic charge spread across the floor before him like a crackling blue carpet as he approached her. “You know?”
Damali closed her eyes and then turned away from the sink in a slow pivot. She’d seen Shabazz upset before, but this was definitely a first.
“Yeah,” she finally said, now staring at the senior Guardian whom she loved like a father. How could she get ’Bazz to understand that she had to wait? The look in Carlos’s eyes alone was enough for her. As much as her husband had seen, as many bodies as he’d had to drop, rarely had she witnessed tears just rolling down his face at the mere prospect of doing what had to be done. The struggle within Carlos was obviously as visceral as the one now raging within her.
Yet she couldn’t explain all of that in front of the team. Nor could she tell them how fearful she was that maybe this time her husband was in more danger than even he understood . . . a newly made daywalker was with him: An entity that had clearly embedded himself in Carlos’s heart—the very way the vamps got to you. This entity was like a brother, like Alejandro, and she knew Carlos couldn’t make that necessary snap decision to smoke him in a blink of an eye . . . the same blink that could possibly cost Carlos his life. The team had no idea how much she wanted to bolt from the kitchen, Isis raised, and head for the beach. Her husband’s life was on the line, and she could feel every regret he owned blistering her skin. But she would honor his request this time, even if it killed her—or him.
“Carlos has a plan,” she finally said, stalling for time. “You oughta know that much about him by now.”
All eyes were on her, and trigger fingers remained twitchy in the kitchen. This wasn’t just her and Carlos’s home; it was everyone else’s, too. Each Guardian truthfully had just as much right to defend it as she and Carlos did, team protocols notwithstanding. The thin line between an all-out beach assault and this very tense kitchen conference was sheer trust and family respect. Period. Therefore, to keep the peace, she had to give the team a plausible explanation, even if she didn’t own one.
“Yolando hit our bedroom skylight about ten minutes ago and we went up to put him out of his misery and to commend him to the Light. But he didn’t burn.” Damali’s gaze raked the enthralled group around her. “Barely smoldered. Carlos is out there with him now, gaining critical intel. He’d made his boy a promise—he’d be the one to take his head if and when the Harpies came for him. . . . They didn’t come this morning, and from the little bit I’ve heard, we definitely need more information. So, we wait.”
Jose nodded and was the first to stand down. “C never led us wrong, and Damali is right. If these SOBs are walking by day now, we need to know under what circumstances, how quickly the daylight bite is spreading . . . maaan.”
Disgruntled Guardians muttered their agreement with Jose as the team slowly fanned out to lean against stainless-steel appliances and the center island butcher-block counter.
“This is beyond bad,” Marlene remarked sullenly. “I knew it had been too quiet for too long. We’ve gotta figure out where it came from, how they did it.”
“Or more important,” Shabazz said, his locks still crackling with unspent energy, “we need to know specifically how to kill one of those bastards.”
“You ain’t said a mumblin’ word, ’Bazz,” Mike said, pounding his fist.
“If they come out by day, does that mean all bets are off for holy water and other prayer-type ammo?” J.L.’s gaze nervously raked the group and then settled on Damali.
“If so, we’re screwed, brother,” Rider said, clearing his sinuses.
“From all that I remember,” Tara said, her voice tight and quiet, “it is a privilege bestowed by the Unnamed One to the Chairman, who in turn can pass it to his councilmen . . . but that still does not confer a soul into the dead carcass of the vampire entity. Hence, the normal precautions should prevail.”
“Good information, Tara,” Heather said, her wide gray eyes silently begging for more information. She glanced at Jasmine, who remained mute and had practically welded her petite frame to Bobby’s hip.
“So then the only bitch of this is, we can’t use daylight as a cover.” Berkfield glanced at the other senior Guardians and double-checked his magazine. “No problem. We’ll just have to smoke the sonsabitches in broad daylight. We’ve been in tighter spots than this, not to mention ones where we couldn’t see what was coming for us—so what the hell.”
Damali watched Berkfield’s simplistic logic begin to settle the group, a very necessary thing right now. Comments zinged around the kitchen supporting Berkfield’s statement, and she almost didn’t hear them, she was so lost in her own thoughts.
But Marlene’s knowing gaze locked with hers for a moment. Yeah. There was much more to it than kicking vamp ass in broad daylight. Way more. Like the fact that they had to determine if the councilmen could breed more daywalkers from their bite, or if it still held that daylight immunity could only be passed by the Unnamed One’s heir or the Neteru-vamp progeny that Nuit had been trying to create for years. The extent of the contagion had to be immediately understood, with a containment strategy summarily put into full effect.
Then there was the not-so-small issue of collateral damage. This time, just like the battles fought in L.A., Philly, and even in New York, they might not be lucky enough to be able to quarantine a huge firefight to some remote, unpopulated area. And this was definitely the first round of the Armageddon—daywalkers. She couldn’t even comprehend the scale of an all-out assault by the dark side in a major city. The last thing she wanted to be responsible for was turning San Diego into downtown Baghdad.
The very concept made Damali rub her temples to stem a throbbing headache that was building in a wall of pain behind her eyes. All the cosmic events foretold had already aligned: strange weather, pandemic plagues like AIDS and the bird flu, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and tsunamis. People had lost their minds; violence was off the Richter scale. Wars were decimating mankind, with tensions running hot within those regions not yet at arms . . . economies were crumbling; religious institutions were being turned inside out by corruption and the vilest abuses. The National Identification Number was pressing forward, along with a call for a New World Order by industrialized nations uniting under a single currency. And biblical seals had been broken.
She needed to talk to Carlos, had to consult with her Queens—but she didn’t dare leave the team before the other Neteru returned. Damali stared at the whistling kettle, wondering how long it had been singing without anyone noticing it.
“We’ve been training for this all our lives . . . guess it was too much to hope for the Armageddon to pass us by.” Dan released a hard, nervous chuckle and then sat down with a weary thud at the long oak kitchen table across from Jose. “Guess it’s also a good thing that none of us has any kids, since it’ll be a bloodbath with these suckers out by day.”
“Speak for yourself,” Inez said, her gaze suddenly frantic.
Everyone stared at her, remembering.
“I have a daughter!” she said, hugging herself and then pulling away from Mike’s attempt to calm her. “Fuck all this—I want my baby and my momma brought into this compound now! No more shuttling my kid around under clerics’ prayers and safe houses. If there’s no twelve-hour window to shield my baby, then I’m going out swinging, y’all hear me! I’ll protect her.”
“I’m sorry,” Dan said quietly. “That’s not what I meant. I just forgot because Ayana isn’t here with us all the time.” Dan glanced away, catching Heather’s sad gaze as the young couple remembered their recent loss.
“She knows, and it’s cool, y’all,” Mike said, coming to Inez again. “We gonna go get Ayana and your momma, okay, suga? Don’t panic. As soon as Carlos gives us the info we need, we’ll make a run and go get the baby.”
“Promise me,” Inez said, looking at Mike.
He nodded. “I ever lie to you, girl?”
Two big tears rolled down her cheeks as she shook her head.
“I’ma get your daughter and momma in here safe or die trying.”
This time Inez allowed Mike to pull her into a hug. Damali watched as her best girlfriend melted into her Guardian brother’s bearlike embrace. She knew the terror and could feel it stabbing into her chest as Inez’s breaths shuddered, making her back expand and contract in uneven bursts.
But the question of logistics shimmered in each Guardian’s eyes. How was that going to work—two civilians in a compound . . . a toddler and a grandmother, Inez’s mom, who hadn’t a clue about all this supernatural shit? The only thing that Mom Delores, as she was affectionately called, knew was that her daughter was on tour with a hot band, was on the road, and that Damali was treating her and her grandchild to the best of everything.
The poor woman had no clue that she’d been living under the watchful eye of Covenant clerics, or that every fabulous house she’d moved into had been previously anointed for safety.
Damali wiped her palms down her face. Jesus. Carlos couldn’t even do a clean, fold-away sweep to pick them up because Mom Delores would have a damned heart attack for sure. Yeah, right, a silver-eyed brother would just swoop into her house and fold her into nothingness with her granddaughter—and the poor baby . . . lord have mercy. Ayana might be scarred for life or left catatonic behind all of that! Which left only one way to go get them: Mike and Inez would have to split off from the team to collect civilians, but then what? And how dangerous was that, given that daywalkers had just shown up on the planet?
Plus, there was that terrible thing that neither she nor Carlos had wanted to think about, much less even discuss, since they’d walked out of the Judean Desert: They’d both seen Lilith’s progeny fly away. . . . Without question, that was the Devil’s spawn. The silent prayer she’d said months ago filled Damali’s entire being: Please, God, let her prayers be answered—let Hannibal have gotten that nasty little disease-carrying critter. If it wasn’t exterminated by the Neteru Councils, then it could be somewhere, anywhere, churning out daywalkers with its infectious, immediate-turn bites.
For the moment there were no answers. The most she could do was listen to the coffee brew as the Guardians finally sat down with a thud one by one, the magnitude of what they faced weighed heavily on them all.
He had screamed until he’d blacked out. In the back of his mind he heard the titter of Harpies that were still near enough to taunt him. He tried to open his eyes and the glare of sunlight blinded him. Nuit shielded his face with his forearm and rolled over, then covered his head with both arms. Moist earth and freshly mown grass filled his nostrils with the pungent scent of morning dew . . . and life. Suddenly he realized that he wasn’t on fire. There was no pain. He slowly removed his arms from his head and opened his eyes. Through his tear-blurred vision as he lifted his head, he saw his old New Orleans mansion, fully restored to its preflood splendor.
His right hand became a fist, and he pressed it to his mouth to stem the sob. He knew that Lilith’s cruelty knew no bounds, but to bring him here, at dawn, and to stem the pain temporarily just to tease him before letting him explode into an inferno . . . Nuit hung his head and wept.
“Darling, you are much too paranoid,” Lilith murmured, materializing beside him. “I had to wait until you’d collected yourself—you made such a fuss about this timeless gift I was trying to bestow upon you that I had to restrain you before you hurt yourself.” She stroked his profusion of disheveled onyx curls and laughed as he jerked away from her caress.
“Just do it!” Nuit shouted and glared at her. Battle-length fangs filled his mouth, but he knew better than to attempt an attack—that would only prolong the punishment.
“I already did,” she murmured, a wry smile gracing her beautiful face. “Do you like the morning, lover?”
His confused expression made her laugh again and then she leaned over and brushed his mouth with hers. “Daywalker,” she crooned. “How does it feel, Fallon?”
“Non . . .” Nuit tumbled backward and then flexed to a quick stand. “You lie.”
Lilith smiled and stood with easy grace. “Normally, I do—and thank you for the rude compliment. But this morning, it’s true. That was one hell of a battle at Masada. Lu loved it.”
“He gave you the key . . . the—”
“Uhmmm-hmmm. Even Dante couldn’t deliver for him like I could. He was very, very pleased. For your loyalty, I have decided to share his gift with my councilmen.”
“You created the Antichrist?” Nuit’s voice was a harsh whisper of disbelief.
“Who better than the Devil’s wife, I ask?”
Nuit covered his mouth and began to pace with one hand behind his back as though he’d been stabbed. He trudged back and forth beneath the grand bows of the dogwood trees, disturbing the drapes of Spanish moss with each pass. Tears streamed down his face as he stared at the antebellum structure that had once been his original lair, hundreds of years of memories cascading through him with such exquisite pleasure that he was forced to close his eyes. After a moment, he turned and stared at Lilith, finally understanding. He said nothing, just dropped to his knees before her and opened his arms, bottom lip trembling.
She smiled and slowly walked forward. “Yes,” she murmured in Dananu. “I thought you might like it after all. No more attempted coups. Deal?”
It was the cruelest of all punishments he could have ever envisioned. Death by daylight. Sebastian kept his eyes squeezed shut as he scuttled into a nearby shadow provided by an abandoned barn. Open, sun-drenched farmland sprawled before him; not even the cover of shrubbery would give him scant oasis between this human-forsaken building and the dense tree line hundreds of yards away.
Terror constricted his lungs as dust motes danced in the shards of light, taunting his intrusion. His gaze tore around the structure—there was no haven. Light found every crevice in the dilapidated wood frame. Pools of the insidious toxin blanched the barn’s floor. He looked up, and to his horror, the roof was mostly gone . . . by noon, there wouldn’t even be a corner left to cower in. Burning slowly was imminent.
Bereft, Sebastian slumped against the wall, pulling his shredded council robes around him like a blanket. He sensed the earth and closed his eyes. Lilith had brought him home to Bulgaria, how fitting. Once top advisor to the czar he’d betrayed, he would not even be allowed to return to the royal palace within the belly of Mother Russia. Instead he’d be left to turn to ash in a remote hole in the wall . . . left like a vagrant, a lower-level vampire who had lost his bet with the sun.
A mournful wail began the sobs as he remembered his old power, but the slow clucking sound of feminine amusement made him open his eyes and jerk his attention toward the far side of the barn. Fury replaced defeat and he wiped his face so bitterly that he drew blood under his left eye.
“I thought you might enjoy an old-fashioned breakfast of farm maidens in the old country—the way it used to be done, love,” Lilith said with a sly smile. “The next farm down the road is fully occupied, but you were in such a state unbecoming to a councilman that I thought it best to bring you here until you’d collected yourself.”
“Do not make the indignity of this all the more intolerable!” Sebastian shouted, bearing fangs. “To tease a dying man with the thought of food . . . to say it is merely a few miles across an abyss of sunlight—is there no mercy in your black heart?”
“None whatsoever,” she murmured and then blew him a kiss. “But I do feed my pets, darling.” She released a bored sigh. “Haven’t you noticed that you’re not even smoldering?”
Sebastian glanced around at the places on his body that sunlight touched and tried to squeeze himself farther into the impossible corner he’d been standing in.
“Just be done with it,” he said, voice quavering. “Please.”
“I heard Dracula’s castle is up for sale,” Lilith remarked coolly, studying her manicure as she blithely changed the subject. “I thought that after breakfast you might want to stop by the fourth-century Thracian tombs in Topolchane—they found golden masks there, you know . . . and then we might go get you that castle you’ve always coveted. But if you don’t stop behaving like a big baby, none of that will be possible.”
Her smile widened as he opened his hand under a shard of light and stared at it, slowly turning it over to feel the sun’s warmth without the hissing burn.
“How is this possible?” he whispered with reverence.
“Darling . . . you have no idea the extent of my powers now.”
Copyright © 2008 by Leslie Esdaile Banks. All rights reserved.