By Banks, L. A.
St. Martin's Paperbacks
Copyright © 2006
Banks, L. A.
All right reserved.
All was still on level seven. A clawed hand held embryonic life within it. Golden green glowing eyes misted over black as they looked up to the vast expanse of nothingness that mimicked a vaulted ceiling. Trembling with anticipation, a shaky finger extended a hooked talon that prodded at the bloody mass of dormant life . . . life that could be molded into its own image. A hissing coo filled with gentle adoration warmed the small cluster of cells, making them glow red and begin to pulse.
"Oh, soon, my son," a passionate voice whispered. "Very, very soon."
Sydney, Australia . . .
Dread tightened Damali's chest as she watched Carlos's eyes. Visceral emptiness filled her, making her clutch her lower belly. His once-serene gaze now darted to her face, then to the faces of her teammates and to his surrounding environment like a man displaced and confused. The sensation was so overwhelming that it threatened to choke her heart to a standstill. Her man, once confident, suave, and smooth as black silk, had come up out of the unknown looking crazed and wild in the eye.
Suddenly she felt a strange sensation that fluttered in her womb. She pressed her hand against her abdomen. What was that? But she had to shake off the weird feeling. Too many issues competed for her attention right now and themost immediate was Carlos.
The Light had brought him back, had actually reconstituted his form from the burnt vampire ash left by dawn, and now it seemed as though he didn't know where he was, how he'd gotten there, or whom he was with. Beyond all that they'd had to contend with, this was perhaps the most frightening experience of all: Carlos Rivera's mental state was in question--tears, screaming, ranting, fighting against the hold of friendly hands. Damali turned away for a moment and swallowed hard.
A head on a silver platter would be her bride price. Yeah. She and the chairman had unfinished business.
She reached out her hand to touch Carlos's face, and he jerked away from her, unsure if she were a mirage, a vampiric illusion, something evil and vile that would start his torture all over again. His fear rippled through her and rattled her bones. It sent a chill through her like a knife. It drew her mouth into a tight line as she fought not to scream. She saw what they had done. A head. The head of the bastard who'd done this, was the only acceptable answer to levy the debt paid in full.
Down in Hell they had a phrase: Fair exchange is no robbery. Then so be it. A head for a head, a mind for a mind . . . and an eye for an eye and a tooth for a fucking tooth--the chairman's fangs mounted on her wall mantel. This was war.
Damali could feel her eyes narrow to slits as her man tried to stand, and then tried to get away from her and her team. Oh, hell no. They'd raped his mind and stolen his dignity. And for that unforgivable offense, she'd blow the Vampire Council's doors off the damned hinges. In her mind's eye, she could see the pentagram-shaped table surrounded by dark thrones, and the chairman's smug expression. But Hell had no fury like a woman scorned. Her thoughts frayed and descended to the pit.
Fuck you, Mr. Chairman. This time, it's just me and you.
Carlos could feel his eyeballs roll backward beneath his lids as consciousness ebbed and flowed like a reluctant tide. One moment he had been sitting on the ground, naked, awed, and so profoundly moved that he couldn't speak, and in the next moment, he was being hurried away by many hands and clamoring voices all trying to get him into a vehicle and onto hallowed ground. Were it not for Damali's hand firmly holding his and her voice cutting through the mêlée, he would have tried to escape them all.
For the first time in his entire existence he truly feared he was losing his mind. Something was very wrong. He'd gone into the Light--more accurately, had been propelled into it, summoned by it, sucked toward a bright, indescribable iridescent wonder that had a pulse, a center, and held the heartbeat of the universe. Beings of unfathomable strength had hurled him forward, their silvery light sabers cutting at filaments of dark tendrils, holding him, burning him to ash. The heat was so intense that his bones had liquefied, his skin had blackened and crumbled away, his eyes had melted and had run down his cheeks like gory, oozing tears . . . but silver metallic wings with the texture of satin had shielded him from the furnace blast beneath him. What were they and who'd sent them?
Healing warmth had entered him, coating his burning insides with instant peace, quenching the sun's fury against his skin. One being had parted to become many with raised golden shields that seemed as though each held a living, moving orb of sunlight until he was encircled by them, each ball of molten, living, golden light fusing to become a ring around him. The ring had covered him, entered him. . . . All he could remember now was that they came and then in a fluttering cloud they'd dispersed, shooting away so quickly they'd left only a blinding blur of white light in their wake.
But perhaps the powers-that-be had messed up somehow. Maybe they didn't catch his soul in time, and how did a man-turned-vampire return to the sun?
He couldn't hear. Everything was coming at him in muffled tones. People spoke in indecipherable guttural fragments. Everyone seemed to move in slow motion. It was like moving through mud. His mind was a slurry of confusion. He was nearly blind, each friendly face blurred beyond recognition until it was breath-close to his face. His skin felt thick and dull, the sensation of hands soothing his shoulders, rubbing his back, bundling him into a coat, but all of it took seconds to register. Breathing was an effort that consumed his concentration. The most troubling aspect was the heaviness he felt in his limbs, as though his muscles were too weak to lift his own body.
What had the Light done to him?
Carlos leaned forward and covered his face with his hands. The sensory overload was too much--rather, the lack of sensation and the ability to perceive his surroundings was horrifying.
"I think he's going into shock," Damali said, drawing him closer against her body as the Jeep careened through the streets. "We have to get him inside, out of the sun."
"I'm gonna fry," Carlos croaked, becoming more disoriented as the vehicle barreled through desolate streets in a town he didn't know.
"We'll be at the church in just a few minutes, kiddo."
Carlos slowly removed his hands from his face, training his attention toward what he remembered to be Rider's voice. "To a church?" Instinct made Carlos begin struggling against Damali's hold. He could hear his voice rising with panic. "No! I'll burn!"
Many strong arms held him. In a distant part of his mind he heard Father Patrick call out to him.
"You've stayed with us on hallowed ground before, Carlos. We have to keep you safe. Remember the woods, the cabin? The dark side cannot know you've come back. You won't burn."
More hands held him down as he grabbed at the door handle . . . but these were human hands, hands that shouldn't have had enough power to hold him, even in his weakened state. He needed to feed and find shelter!
"Stop fighting us, baby," Damali urged. "It'll make it worse. Please, Carlos, trust me."
"We're taking you someplace safe," an old man's voice said. It was a familiar voice.
In unsteady increments memory came back to him. Father Patrick . . . that's right. The monks. They had a prayer barrier that only he could cross. Yeah. He remembered. The safe house. Damali trusted them. This was her squad. All right.
Carlos stopped struggling and closed his eyes. He could feel Damali's cool hand stroke his brow, wiping away the sweat. He ran his tongue over his incisors to retract his fangs, lest he frighten his benefactors, and then froze. He touched his mouth, running his fingers over his upper canines. Tears sprang to his eyes so quickly he didn't even have time to blink them back. He glanced at Damali, then away, lowering his hands from his face, staring at his palms in disbelief. He'd been neutered. He wanted to vomit.
He curled his hands into fists. He shut his eyes tightly and hung his head. He could feel Damali's hand stroke his back and he jerked away from her touch. "Don't."
"It's Jose, man. Don't you remember?" A young, soothing voice cut into his consciousness. "You burned and came back. You said you saw angels, hombre. You sat there looking at the sun. You spoke to us, looked at us, sat quietly with D and said you were free."
Carlos shook his head with his eyes closed, pressing his fingers to his temples. "No. I don't remember. Shut up, you're confusing me!"
"Ease off, Jose," the voice he knew as Rider's said in almost a whisper. "Father Pat, Marlene, either of you guys got something for dude--something to help him bite the snake that bit him?"
He felt hysteria rising in him. Carlos chuckled, but he kept his eyes closed. The sound was hollow even to his own ears. Rider. That's right. Hombre was human and had brass balls . . . had been chained to the ground as bait while the harpies pulled out his guts. Crazy white dude yelling at Hell's worst nightmare, talking trash with no weapon in his hand, trying to divert the predators away to give him a chance to beat the rising sun. Very cool of Rider . . . he wouldn't forget the debt. "You drink Jack Daniel's, right? Add a little color in it for me and I'll buy you a drink, man. After what we just went through on the docks--you buy; I'll fly. Cool?"
Silence in the vehicle surrounded him. No one but him was laughing. He could feel the vehicle slowing down.
"Get him inside, Father Pat," an older woman said from somewhere within the Jeep. "He's delirious."
A pair of strong arms threaded around his back and nearly lifted him off his feet. What seemed like a battalion of clerics wearing long black robes and white collars accosted him with phalanges of holy water, striking at him in the sign of the cross, making him cringe, as he turned his face away to protect it from the assault, to no avail. Relentless, they swung heavy brass pots filled with smoking frankincense at him as the burly brother hoisted him over his shoulder and advanced up the cathedral steps.
He could feel several hands dressing him . . . someone was anointing his head with oil. Then he was being moved again, up what seemed like an endless spiral of stairs. Footsteps, many, many footfalls, rushing like a military SWAT unit, followed him. The sound of choppers in the air, bright sunlight filled his eyes and touched his face, but like the incense and holy water, it didn't burn. Why? he dimly wondered.
Confusion tore at his brain. Blurred white birds of metal with a crest on the side . . . blue, a crown of thorns, a sword, a bleeding heart--just like Father Pat's medallion--opened at the side, filling its belly with humans that eagerly climbed in and dragged him with them.
This was a vampire's true Hell. The chairman had indeed had the last laugh. The choppers were flying toward the sun! Carlos braced himself against the pain once again. How long would the chairman continue to torture him?
Pilots wearing dark aviator sunglasses never turned around as he begged them to release him from the Sea of Perpetual Agony. He suddenly feared Damali's touch; what beast would she turn into? An Amanthra? He squeezed his eyes shut, refusing to watch her gorgeous brown eyes change into slanted, glowing orbs while her beautiful body transformed into a serpentine menace. Or maybe the chairman would be particularly cruel and she would become a were-demon. It would be a painful taunt to remind him of his brush with that entity in the Amazon; Hell always beat your ass down with past mistakes in the place where there was no such thing as forgiveness.
Carlos's thoughts scrambled, trying to figure out an escape, a way to negotiate a shorter sentence. Hell was eternal, so peace and the lack of acute pain had to be measured in milliseconds. For every minute that passed where no direct pain was being inflicted, he had a chance to rest, maybe regenerate, just enough to be able to withstand the next assault that was destined to come. If he wasn't in pain, he could think. If he could think, he could bargain. But what aces did he hold? What could he barter with at this juncture?
When the choppers touched down in a deserted section of airport runway, and the illusion of humans helped him toward a crest-bearing private jet at the end of the landing strip, he had to wonder just what the chairman had in store for him now. And could he bear it?
Carlos opened his eyes, his breathing labored as he tried to form words. He searched the impostor Damali's face as she led him by the hand with Big Mike on his flank helping him walk. "Where?" was all he could manage to get out.
"Ethiopia," she said quietly, tears shining in her eyes. "Baby, we have to get out of Sydney and go to a Christian stronghold there. It's said that is where the Ark of the Covenant is held. The clerics all agreed this is the safest route. By nightfall, the Vampire Council might send a cleanup crew to look for your ashes that don't exist, so we have to leave now. Then, we'll take a transcontinental flight to Algeria . . . the mosques there are old, but we have to avoid the site of the pending Armageddon, the Middle East. Understand?"
None of what she was saying made any sense.
The big brother--an international courier?--was pulling him down the tarmac with the impostor of Father Pat jogging beside them to keep pace. Knowing that resistance was not an option within the inquisition chambers, which only seemed to steal his strength faster, Carlos stopped struggling against them. He had to be strategic.
"As soon as we get clearance, we have to get you behind the walls of the Vatican," the cleric said. "Until they're sure of what you are . . . all the Covenant can do is keep you on the move, from fortress to fortress."
Carlos cocked his head. He didn't believe that the chairman knew how the Covenant operated, not at this level of detail.
Carlos peered at the man who'd spoken, then looked at the one who was supposed to be Rider.
"Dude, the Vatican is like the Pentagon for the guys with the collar--just like Asula can't just waltz you into Mecca until you're checked out, dig?" the supposed Rider said as they walked up the jet's narrow steps. "So, they're gonna have to take you to their hideaways in the hills . . . sorta like being an alien and getting shuttled to Area 51 till ya spec out. Now why we all have to go along for the ride with your boy Berkfield is beyond me. I, for one, know I didn't get bitten, although Damali's case is a little--"
"Everybody get on the plane," a tall brother with locks said, his gaze lethal. His tone made the group stop walking as he slowly pointed to each person. "Damali has already been compromised. Jose and Damali had a twister of harpies on their asses, and came into the church bloodied and beat up. Jose, Dan, J.L., and Rider were also riding in the VIP vamp limos, alone, with what was then a council-level master vamp--Rivera. Me and Mike were on the yacht, like the others eventually were, and in unseen, dark corridors away from the group at times long enough to get nicked. Mar, Father Pat, Father Lopez, Monk Lin, and Imam Asula were all on standby, in speedboats, out in the open, in the dead of night. My point is, any one of us could have gotten nicked. You think the powers-that-be are going to let us roll up on the pope with who knows how many vamps and a potential daywalker in our midst?" He shook his head, then turned his back to the teams and strode up the jet's steps. "Our side ain't taking no chances, and I don't blame them."
"Shabazz is right," the woman named Marlene said in a weary tone. "Life as we knew it has just ceased to exist."
The names began to link with the faces as the memory of what had happened came back to him in fits and spurts. The past came back in snatches of quilted memory. Without resistance he slowly walked up the steps and entered the jet, noting the somber expressions around him as everyone took their seats. Again, he searched Damali's face for confirmation that the truth had been told, and found it.
She clasped his hand and led him to a seat, one hand touching the small Isis dagger at her hip. "I've got your back," she said, her eyes holding his. "They've got mine. It's gonna be all right."
He nodded, slowly beginning to believe that this was all real. But as he fastened his seat belt with a click and slowly turned to stare out the window at the sun, Marlene's words rang in his ears. Her truth permeated every fiber of his being, and with that sudden knowledge, an acute sadness that he dared never share with another living soul entered his being; life as they'd known it was null and void.
Copyright 2005 by Leslie Esdaile Banks
Excerpted from The Forbidden
by Banks, L. A.
Copyright © 2006 by Banks, L. A..
Excerpted by permission.
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