Chapter Nineteen

Saliva built in his mouth as the scent from their goblets wafted across the room. Pure awe battled with terror inside him as he glanced at the surrounding walls that were of jagged, black gran-

ite, and hosted massive, iron-held torches. He gazed up to the ceiling, but there was none. Above him was angry, swirling gray smoke that released intermittent screeches and distant howls. He slowly lowered his gaze. Strange inscriptions also covered the walls. Soon he could see the red veins within the huge table were not fixed. They throbbed, moved, and were fluid ... more than likely blood.

The entities were seated in what he could only liken to high-backed onyx thrones, each bearing a different crest inlaid in gold. Thick black candles oozed tallow from tall, scorched iron stands that cast an eerie glow to their fanged faces. They sat before him like a row of judges. If his crimes in life were to be sentenced now, he was done for. Their long, willowy fingers were folded before them. But their countenance was calm, as though they were inspecting a bug under a microscope.

Vomit roiled within his chest, and he could not speak to even offer a plea for mercy. He was beyond disoriented. His heart beat erratically, stopped, and his hand immediately clutched his chest. Pain seared his ribs, lungs, and wracked his body with agony as the muscles around the dead organ within him constricted until there was nothing, no pulse. Yet he was still alive. Or still aware? What was he?!

Confusion and despair brought tears to his eyes. He could feel his body begin to cool as a hard shiver snaked through him. His breath now came out with a frosty mist, as though he were outside on a freezing day. He'd obviously been mistaken before. This was Hell.

"I see our messenger has been successful in bringing him down from the topside." The words seeped from the entity that bore the peaked hat.

"The demonic realms are getting out of hand, we must rectify this, Mr. Chairman," another intoned.

"It is hard to find good messengers these nights," the counselor agreed with a nod.

"In due time, Counselor, gentlemen. For now, our cargo is safe," the one identified as the chairman said. It smiled. "Do not be disturbed by our appearance," it added in a cool tone, staring at Carlos. "Down here, we do not waste our valuable energy with image projection to assuage delicate human sensibilities. We save that illusion for when we are topside. Down here, there is no need to cater to human deception ... we are what we are, and if you have been summoned, you are what you are - lost." Then it threw its head back and laughed in a low, evil tone, drawing a round of deep chuckles from the seated group.

Their voices cut into Carlos's senses. Their harsh intent entered his ears and made them hot, feel wet. He brought his palms up to cover them, and came away with his own blood.

"He's new," the chairman said with a wicked grin. "Adjust your frequencies, so he can adequately hear us. We have much to discuss."

The seated entities offered the chairman begrudging glances and then nodded and complied.

"Welcome, Mr. Rivera. Our apologies for the abrupt and inconvenient mode of transportation." The chairman stood and smiled more broadly, showing an impressive set of hooked fangs. He put his withered hands behind his back. "Our elder council members are too valuable to take the topside risk more than once a year. We only come up annually to meet with the gray-zone world leaders that have been compromised. Come. Join our table - we have a proposition for you."

Carlos blinked, still disoriented, as he stared at the four black-robed figures before him. Each was seated at a star point around the table. One throne at one star-point was vacant. The creature called the chairman occupied the furthest point away from him.

He studied the pale, hideous things before him that were in full black regalia threaded with gold. He was mesmerized as he stared at their discolored blood moving within them, and on each of their hands they had a ring like his - but each had a different colored stone in the center of it that matched the long stole sash that hung down the fronts of their robes.

The one at the head of the star-shaped table hissed and began speaking in a brute-sounding tongue that was quick, complex, and totally indecipherable to Carlos. It set off a flurry of conversation between the others, and Carlos found his feet. This was power - consummate, infinite power. He could feel it enter him through the floor, forcing him to his feet. They had done this. Knowledge of that was evident when the eldest-looking one in the group fixed his gaze upon Carlos, and flicked a serpent's tongue, making Carlos feel the acidic lick across the room.

"Step forward!" it commanded.

Slowly Carlos complied until he was directly before the massive table. He could feel an electric current run through the length of his body, and immediately a metallic taste registered in the back of his throat.

"Very good," the head entity murmured, then relaxed and sat down.

"He's strong-willed," one of the others at the table whispered. "Could pose a risk."

"Or a distinctive advantage," the eldest one said, returning his penetrating red gaze to Carlos.

"You have been summoned and offered much. Be prudent," another warned. It had been the counselor who spoke. "Mr. Chairman, you have the floor. The Vampire Council comes to order."

The chairman nodded, then smiled. "Carlos Rivera."

It had whispered Carlos's name like a lover and briefly closed its eyes. An erotic waft of sensation ran through Carlos's body as the entity deeply inhaled. Disturbed beyond reason, Carlos's hands made fists at his side.

"Do not fight it," the one identified as the chairman murmured. "Pleasure goes with the pain. Enjoy the encounter -  always."

"Look," Carlos interjected quickly, bringing the horrific thing out of its violating assessment of him. He could feel it touching him, groping him, stroking his skin with an icy palm ... licking him as though tasting the salt from his skin. "I don't know what the hell is going on, but - "

Screeching laughter rang out in the room as the entities around the table stared at Carlos and shook their ugly heads in unison.

"Mr. Chairman," one said. "Point of order. He's new, but time is of the utmost concern."

The chairman chuckled. "To be sure. My apologies to the council ... it has just been so long since the topside has sent one such as this."

The bald heads around the table nodded in agreement, flashing powerful incisors with their sinister smiles. Then each picked up a golden goblet and sipped at a thick, dark, ruby liquid. Carlos breathed in, hungering from the scent of fresh blood.

"We are an old race," the chairman said, his glance roving the other entities beside him. "Our council was formed to ensure peace and order, and we are the most powerful of the realms of Hell." He let out his breath slowly, and took his time. "Our methods are subtle, unobtrusive. Our bite is clean, only two puncture wounds to efficiently drain the human body. It avoids unnecessary alarm. It is accomplished with finesse. We leave no scent, no trail. We are highly evolved, and have mastered telepathy - brute force is rarely our way." The chairman sighed, and his expression became almost philosophical. "We blend in with the human world, and relieve it of its more unsavory characters, so in that respect, we perform a vital service."

All Carlos could do was stare and listen as the creature before him spoke. How was murder of innocent people a service? There were no words. Hundreds of questions slammed into his brain, but as long as the creatures before him appeared peaceful, he didn't dare move a muscle or ask a question. However, as the thing continued to talk, he became less disoriented, and his senses felt more keened.

"Good ..." the chairman said and chuckled. "You are beginning to adjust, and let's not quibble over the fleeting merits of a human life." He stretched out his arm and motioned to the seated group. "Let me introduce our Parliamentarian - council member, Senator Vlak ... an attorney, and once a member of Caesar's Roman inner circle of advisors. He handles our contracts and our worldwide business negotiations with the humans, but has been having great difficulty with our clerical invasions ... albeit we are pleased with his infiltration of the North American Roman Catholic Church. Pedophilia. Pure genius. Creates such chaos... much like the old days of the Inquisition, Counselor."

The one entity designated by the chairman's hand nodded and offered a smug look of satisfaction. "Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I will have forces in the Vatican again soon enough. I urge patience."

"Very well," the chairman crooned and then looked at Carlos once again. "Council Member Chu deals with another delicate balance of topside power ... he minimizes the light within the dark sector of the yin and yang - he has Asia, and all within the Pacific border. The others" - it pointed with a bony, clawed, hook finger - "have their specialties in war, famine, disease, and human lusts on every continent."

The group smiled as the chairman acknowledged them.

"You are too kind, Council Chairman," one said.

"But our Dark Lord is so eagerly watching the progress of your possible destruction of the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem. We shall monitor your success closely."

The eldest entity bearing the hat put his hand on another's shoulder as he began walking behind the seated members to denote each one by one.

"European and African council member, who led our transatlantic slave trade, conquest of the Americas... I must commend you on the recent topside wars in Rwanda and Bosnia. Oh, yes, and the modern plagues of rampant diseases visited upon impoverished, developing nations that cannot combat them. He does outstanding work. But as you can see, we are still missing a seat at our table, which means a sector goes vulnerable to peace. We cannot have unspoiled virgin territories in our midst - which present unacceptable environmental hazards."

The chairman stopped walking and held Carlos within a riveting stare. "You see, we have a family member on each continent. Each reports to one of our council members. Each helps to keep the chaos of humanity in full strife, which is how we remain undetected. Until recently, all was in balance." The entity smiled at Carlos. "You have a question?" It closed its eyes and opened them slowly. "You are granted permission to speak."

Carlos glanced around and nodded, but kept silent. Fear began to edge away as the slow awareness entered him; he had not been summoned to the slaughter. There was obviously a problem topside, as they called it, and he had been brought to an even higher council than the one in the woods. Otherwise, why was he here and still whole?

Every instinct •within him coiled itself tightly, readying his mind to spring at the first hint of opportunity to bargain for his own safety, if not his longevity. Survival was imperative. An alliance had to be forged; it was the way business was done -  and again, he was the youngest man brought to the feet of the most powerful.

Readying himself to pose the question, Carlos forced confidence into his voice as his line of vision continued to sweep the group. He watched their expressions, body language, and every detail of their reactions before saying a word. He'd heard them speak. He'd picked up the way they strung the language together. Like being in court before a judge, you had to quickly learn the vocabulary - and one thing for sure, you had to show deference.

"I'm here, then, because you have a proposition for me, as you said upon my arrival, most notable council members?" He was no fool. He wasn't going to allow a lapse in showing respect to get him killed. Carlos told himself to just play it cool, and find out what they wanted. So he waited.

The chairman grinned and poked a long, gnarled finger into his goblet, stirred the contents, and withdrew a bloody digit and sucked it. "I like his style. He learns quickly. He shows the council the required demonstration of submission. He has finesse, unlike our rogue. This is a man who recognizes opportunity and craves power. One must give credit where credit is due - after all, he did offer his soul for power, and thus, must give the Devil his due as well. Interesting."

"He's eager," the attorney murmured. "Impatience can be a good or bad thing for us."

The chairman nodded. "We have a concern, Mr. Rivera," it said in a slow, even voice. "As I stated earlier, our world is a very orderly one, a balance of discretion and strategic aggression.

Twenty years ago - a moment in time, comparatively - one of our most gifted council members went rogue."

"He went after a cleric and turned him," one of the other members snarled in anger.

"Yes," the chairman said in a smooth, even tone. "We may kill clerics, as they understand, as do we, that there is a hereafter. To kill one only adds that soul to their side of the spiritual equation. It is even foolhardy to kill them, for they only become stronger in the spirit form, and we try our best to avoid such casualities. But to turn one that had not been seduced properly is heresy in our world. A clerical turn requires that human to willingly give in, barter away his salvation for one of the lusts like power, money, fame, or another carnal desire, which properly compromises the cleric's soul - instead of sending his soul down here from a mere bite after the fact... which then attracts battalions of warrior angels. Our rogue member did not properly seduce his intended cleric victim; he stunned and bit him, but the cleric never gave his soul of his own volition. There was no willing exchange. As I said, we try to remain very subtle in our tactics."

"Not to mention, this rogue almost ruined the opportunity, and almost sent our nations into a return of feudal law," the attorney spat.

"It could have been chaos, so we doomed him to the corridor of unrelenting agony - where he could not feed," another said.

"At his appointed time of incarceration, he was to be tortured in the sea of agony, and then banished to travel the fifth realms and upward - demon country," the one at the far end of the table added. "He was locked from topside, could not feast on fresh human blood. But within days of his sentence, he escaped. We'd left him to perish in the upper levels; demon meat is all that's up there." The thing shivered and spit on the floor with disgust. "Yet the punishment was never exacted. Providence unlocked his prison."

"And he was wise and formed an alliance," the chairman corrected. "He was always a brilliant military strategist, I would have been disappointed if he'd done less. We must offer credit, where credit is due." The chairman sighed and shook his head. "Brilliance gone rogue, however, is dangerous in any empire. He must be eliminated. We cannot sustain such variable risks to our way of life."

Before he could censure himself, a question had rushed past Carlos's lips. "Why don't you just send a messenger to whack him?" Carlos waited as the group became still again and their focus went to the chairman. He instantly realized that he'd spoken out of order, and fear crystallized in his veins as the vampires gave him a disapproving glare.

"Our rogue got out under the most fortuitous circumstances," the chairman finally chuckled, making Carlos relax a bit. The old vampire shook his head and then laughed with a bored sigh. "Stroke of luck, mixed with a stroke of pure genius." The entity looked at Carlos with an open, direct gaze. "See for yourself," it murmured. "Nuit killed a cleric and turned him twenty years ago. We immediately sealed his lair ... but the man's wife, a church woman of all things, went to Nuit's mansion assuming her husband was having an affair, and did a ritual that an old, jealous witch had given her."

At the mention of Nuit's name, Carlos's eyes locked with the chairman's. As he gazed at him, the chairman's eyes siphoned breath from Carlos's body. He felt like he was moving into the image that was cascading before him. Suddenly, he was no longer witnessing the image; he was inside the scene, feeling it all. The illusion made him experience the brief sensation of floating as in a dream. Then the dream structure around him became solid. He could see the past as though it were the present. He was in a mansion, walking with a beautiful, but frightened, woman down a flight of basement stairs. She looked so much like Damali that it made his lungs hurt for her.

He could smell her perspiration; he could feel her anger driving her beyond her fears. He reached out his finger and touched the flame of her black candle and it burned him. This was real.

He watched her make a five-pointed star symbol on the dirt floor, saw her cast herbs, watched her lips move. He oddly understood the language. Bile rose in his throat as her hatred for her husband's lover grew. He could see above and below her. The woman's feet were planted on the dirt floor just above Nuit's sealed coffin. He could see a pair of glowing eyes open within the casket. The woman's voice was getting louder, the floor began to give way, and she cried out. Tears streamed down her face, and something else, not Nuit, but equally hideous, began swirling in an awful black cloud that came up from the dirt, toppling wine racks, obliterating shelves, unearthing Nuit and the casket at the same time. The woman covered her face as shards of glass from broken bottles exploded toward her, splinters of wood scored her arms and stuck in her hair. She was shrieking as two forms appeared.

Carlos was panting as the vision abruptly ended. Yet his mind was still sensing images, putting together the details, fitting the jigsaw puzzle together. He gaped at the chairman, who nodded with a wise smile. "Her husband was hiding his vampire hunting activities from her to protect her," Carlos choked.

He looked at the council and shut his eyes tightly. The images would not stop careening inside his skull.

"Yes," the chairman murmured. "Compelling drama, isn't it?

Lesson number one: dissolve the image; get it out of your system once you've tasted it. Remember that."

"She was pregnant when it began." Nausea and anger from the woman's hurt still laced his system as Carlos kept talking. He had to get it out, to say it out loud, lest it stay in his mind. The more he talked, the dimmer the images became, and the less he felt the woman's agony. "Her husband's lies that he was with parishioners got found out. All the people he'd claimed to be with, when she checked, hadn't seen him. The first clue came as an accident, and some people began acting strangely, which made her start digging."

"Correct," the counselor said in a weary tone. "Hurry. Purge, so we can get to the matter at hand."

Carlos shook his head. "She had the baby, and one night she saw a man, Nuit, seduce her husband in their living room. She was upstairs, the child had awakened, she heard what she thought were lovers... Nuit carried her husband out the door in his arms to finish the bite - her husband didn't seem to resist, and she made assumptions... . The minister disappeared for three days. She found an address. His car was parked at Nuit's house. She went there on the third night." He wiped at the trickle of sweat that had run down his temples. "She didn't know what she was walking into."

The chairman sighed. "The foolish woman did not understand that what was seducing her husband was a master vampire. The pastor had stupidly gone into a master's lair alone during the day, leaving a trail, which Nuit later followed. The cleric's penchant for heroics, and not wanting to have another of his human folk hurt, allowed him to be led there on a suicide mission." The chairman drew a deep inhale and let it out slowly as though garnering patience. "Alas, his wife thought her husband was having a male liaison." Now it laughed. "That was before such things were in vogue, so the poor woman lost her mind and sought out an old hag to work roots, of all things, on the situation. Country bumpkins, spare us all!"

Carlos nodded. "She went in there with vengeance in her soul, and to get her man back."

"Correct. We've dealt with the root worker long ago. That is of no consequence. But what is perilous is the fact that, by her giving the dark ritual to the minister's wife, our seal on Nuit was compromised. The wife released a revenge demon right above a master vampire's crypt -  in his lair.Unheard of." The chairman's laughter immediately dissipated as he stood again and began to nervously pace.

"Do you have any idea of the irony of this event?" The chairman paused, looked at Carlos, and resumed his complaint. "We never cohabit with demons. It is unthinkable. They are locked to locations - which we avidly avoid. They, unlike us, can only be summoned by an entity possessing a soul, which we do not have. Hence, those compromised humans within the dark arts are very careful to never commingle them with us - they perform their rituals elsewhere, and all remains in balance."

Suddenly the chairman whirled on Carlos and slammed his clenched fist against the table. The throbbing veins within it splashed blood against his fist. "A church woman  - an innocent released Fallen Nuit and a revenge demon - stupid bitch! If we didn't know better, we'd swear that the warrior angels had a hand in this atrocity! And because she knew nothing of the dark arts, she did this... this... ritual without understanding the ramifications. Fool!"

"But - "

"Listen!" the chairman bellowed, cutting off Carlos's unspoken question. "Nuit bit her, and half turned her in his lair. He was overconfident, and wanted her to suffer slowly while he and the demon made plans. The demon would get to have free access to movement within what Nuit calls the Minion  - his own made, now rogue vampires... humans who have willingly traded their souls for something they want, which also now bear an ugly signature bite like a revenge demon, an Amanthra. The legions of Amanthras merged with Nuit's Minion, using the vampire bodies as hosts to freely move about unbound by locations, and have thus created a hybrid. That possession demon type is prevalent, as it lurks just below the surface and is drawn by human emotions of jealousy, vengeance, and blind anger. Those that could not find a vampire host, await more vampires to join Nuit's faction to inhabit.

"It is an ugly, ugly demon - because it has no finesse, no subtlety, and is not strategic, it acts without thinking, something that is totally contrary to our highly evolved vampire species. We do not consort with any demons, but especially not that one." The chairman's breaths were now coming in short bursts of fury as it circled the table. "Nuit got released from our prison and was offered protection from our hunters. The Amanthras allow him to use their tunnels; they get to use his bodies. That was the barter."

Carlos stared at the chairman, then let his gaze slowly appraise the concerned expressions of each powerful council member. This was some heavy shit... .

The counselor eyed Carlos. "An innocent performed the ceremony, and she still had purity of heart... her husband, who still loved her, heard past Nuit's call, came to her in that basement, and interrupted Nuit before he could finish the wife off. Nuit struggled with the minister, and committed the second grievous act in our world. He picked up a piece of wood from the shelving and drove a stake into the heart of his own second-generation made vampire!"

A collective shiver went through the group.

"He turned and killed a cleric," the chairman stated, breathing heavily. "The woman, realizing what she was about to turn into herself, and that before long she'd die from rapid blood loss, committed suicide with a prayer on her lips and love in her heart for her infant child."

"A baby girl," the counselor whispered. "Neteru. A vampire huntress... ."

For a moment, no one spoke. The council members passed nervous glances among them. Finally unable to stem his roiling curiosity, a question formed in Carlos's mind without censure. He watched as the group seized upon it.

"Other humans rushed to the scene and tried to contain what they thought was a demon, but their incantations didn't work, because the alliance had been formed. The bite signature on the wife and the way the husband's body had been mangled in the struggle, threw them off ... how would they know a hybrid had been created? They never staked Nuit - they used a ritual -  which had no effect on a vampire. The one Amanthra within Nuit perished, but as I said, they have legions. Another simply took its place. Nuit disappeared from the surface and bided his time ... trying to locate the Neteru. And another human seer -  a younger one, female - secreted the baby away. We have been looking for that infant for twenty years." The chairman sat down heavily in his throne and took a deep swig from his goblet.

"We have also been searching for a way to stop Nuit," the counselor said in a distant voice. "But he is too strong, once having a power seat at our table. Our brethren outside his marked territory cannot get close enough to him to do the hit. With his alliance, he can now travel freely using the demon realm's high-speed tunnels near the surface, something they have province over which gives them access to the gray zone to possess bodies, enter households, and claim souls. Those areas in levels one through five are heavily fortified.

"Our portals are few, since we are so deep and close to our Dark Lord. Only our lairs give us access to the topside - and any lair not in the Minion is heavily watched by the Amanthras to be sure we do not breech their tunnels. His lair is impenetrable by our forces, as the Amanthras far outnumber us and guard it day and night - they are impervious to sunlight, our one evolutionary flaw. Topside, Nuit is like a phantom. His senses are keen; he is an old vampire with many skills. The moment we attempt an abduction, Nuit vanishes into an Amanthra portal."

The chairman glanced at the counselor. "We are at the top of the food chain - and our human helpers above both feed and protect us... it is, shall we say, a symbiotic relationship. But even they cannot get to a master's lair, past demonic protection in those numbers." The chairman paused. "On your way out, our messenger will show you the levels of Hell - just so you can familiarize yourself with the new environment... unless you'd care to stay?"

The others around the table nodded and murmured. Carlos sensed a thinly veiled threat. Hmmm ... this was becoming interesting.

The attorney gained a nod from the chairman and stood. "Your maker, the head of your bloodline, has not only violated our basic policies, but he's been on a dangerous feeding frenzy above."

Carlos stared at the counselor, whose eyes immediately offered the truth; Fallon Nuit had been the one to take out his family. He'd been double-crossed. Vengeance slithered through him. Raven had to be the one that did Alejandro and the others. He'd seen her work. He'd eaten from her veins and had fucked her -  now he could feel her presence as he witnessed how she'd mur-

dered his brother and posse in the chairman's knowing gaze. The attorney nodded as soon as the thought of Nuit's deceit crossed Carlos's mind. He could feel his brother's death and hear his screams within his head. Tears of bitterness rose to Carlos's eyes and burned away. Fallon Nuit would pay.

"Yes. You catch on quickly. So, we have a proposition for you that will aid us in capturing Fallon Nuit, and will allow you to avenge your family's demise."

"What comes with this proposition?"

"Oh," the attorney smiled. "What's in it for you?"

The council members glanced at each other, seeming amused as they murmured, for a moment, among themselves.

"Sit in Nuit's chair," the head of the council ordered, holding out a hand toward a high-backed black throne.

Taking his time, Carlos complied and sat down, but the sensation of power was so overwhelming that it made him shudder with devastating ecstasy. He had to close his eyes to suffer the wanton pleasure of it. Images, knowledge, history, languages entered his skull so quickly that he thought it would fracture. Information he'd never dared to conceive slammed into his cranium, made his tightly shut lids flutter. A moan escaped his lips as he writhed in the bath of power and knowledge.

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