Rider began to pace. "Isn't there anything you can do, or give her?"
"What's wrong with me, guys?"
Marlene glanced up at Rider, and then returned her focus to Damali. "What did ..." Her voice trailed off, and Marlene sucked in a deep breath. "What did the female vampire say that made you follow it like you did?"
Damali closed her eyes and took her time, her breaths steadying her. Marlene hadn't answered her original question, though. "It said, 'You can't have him.' Then something inside me snapped. It said, 'You can never take my place.' Whatever that means."
"A queen second," Mike murmured. "Just as Marlene suspected."
"Oh, boy. Here we go," J.L. said on a hard exhale.
"Jesus H. Christ." Rider sat down heavily on a stool, shaking his head. "Already?"
"Yeah," Marlene agreed quietly. "We've got one in our territory and the vampire huntress picked up the scent... and it's defending her own territory. Damali won't stop until she gets it, or the contrary. The female vampire's aggression is a sure sign that we've got a master male vamp in this quadrant. It just confirmed my suspicions. Until last night, I was just playing a hunch."
"I don't understand." Damali slowly pulled away from Jose and wrapped her arms around herself, intently watching her team.
Shabazz looked at the map and traced it with his finger. "The energy a guardian team casts will draw weaker members of a vampire line - because the perpetual hunger is not only blood, but power. The blood of a guardian is like a drug hit, too. So, from time to time, we get sniffed out, is the only explanation. But as Neteru energy matures, it throws a scent to a pack that's stronger than anything a guardian team can throw off."
Shabazz looked at Damali, his gaze softening as he glanced away. "When we found you, you were still a little bird ... you didn't leave that much of a trail, or a marker."
"Wasn't long before a couple of 'em came for you, then we turned the tables on the situation, and went on the offensive - per Marlene's wisdom," Big Mike murmured. "The idea was to flush out the nest and wipe out that line before you came of age and had to deal with all of this." He looked away, and his voice dropped so low that Damali had to strain to hear it. "Marlene will tell you about why we had to clear this nest, or at least back it up, before your time." His eyes met Marlene's. "Right, Mar? You'll tell her today."
"Tell me what?"
Jose nodded to the map, his trembling finger touching the edge of it. His gesture temporarily drew Damali's attention away from her question, and it stilled the group. They let him talk uninterrupted in a weak, scratchy tone.
"My grandfather's people, the Creeks, believed that night feeders divide territory and mark it like wolves. Shamans say if one outside their line is caught hunting in the wrong territory, the others will attack it. Told as legend, the old ones say the night feeders migrate and are nomadic - but travel within the same route that they've been following for centuries."
Jose wheezed and straightened himself, and then leaned on the workbench for support as Damali's hands fell away from her sides. She folded her arms in front of her and waited with the rest of them for him to continue.
"There's at least one known vampire line on every continent - but like all predators, we're not sure how or why, but something limits their growth. Most times, they snap the victims' necks first, and then immediately feed, while the blood is still warm, fresh kill. Usually that just leaves a corpse, and there's no problem. Their numbers remain stable that way."
Rider let out his breath hard and rubbed his palms over his face. "Yeah, but we've got mugs jumping up off morgue slabs now in record numbers - so they're building in ranks like I've never seen before - not that any of this is normal, mind you. But comparatively speaking, something big is brewing."
"Okay," Damali said, taking her time. "So, Marlene was originally attacked, and like all of us, had a run-in with one of them solo, but made it out alive. Then, we somehow got guided to each other to form a team, right? That part I get. You've all told me this before, remember. Tell me something new."
"Divine intervention, how we all got together," Jose whispered. "We were shown, were blessed with the gifts to keep us out of that vampire line, and that light force drew us together by what others might call strange coincidences - but, by now, we know there's no such thing as a coincidence."
"True dat," Big Mike whispered.
"Okay. I know that. So what would make them move on a coupla record companies and a club - and not just feed and leave, if they have this growth limiter? And, what's this queen thing?" Damali's question hung in the air, and the group shifted nervously.
"We don't know what supernatural laws limit their growth," Marlene said softly. She glanced at the team, her expression tense. "Or, what specifically has sent them into a feeding frenzy ... at least not all of what may have."
"Oh, shit, Marlene," Rider yelled, frustrated. "Just tell the girl!"
"Tell me what? Somebody talk to me!" Damali was now pacing, and no longer looking at the map. Her gaze was singularly focused on Marlene.
"When you guys all went out, and while you were asleep, Damali, I investigated the last known site of the master vampire - who was supposedly vanquished years ago - in New Orleans. I looked up the property records, and that same house is within what was then Fallen Nuit's holdings. It's now listed under Blood Music, and after you peel back the layers of owners, Nuit's name pops up."
"Why didn't you tell me this before, Marlene?" She stared at her mentor, and Marlene's gaze slid away. "You know the master vampire's name?" Damali was incredulous. Her group kept something this important from her. Now she was more than stunned, she was pissed!
"If you knew where the lair was, you'd go after it, before you were ready. Our job is to protect you."
"What is this 'ready' thing? Please, Marlene, fill in the blanks."
Marlene's expression was tender as she took her time to speak. "You had to clean out your body with organic food in preparation for the ripening, and to keep your body a temple - that'swhy we wouldn't let anybody near you. Then, the stars aligned, and - "
"Wait!" Damali screamed, putting her hands in front of her, and then digging her fingers into her scalp. "Talk slower! Ripening?" She felt like she would retch as everyone's thoughts simultaneously entered her skull. Information be?t itself into her brain. Terror seized her. She was changing like that? They were all clamoring inside her mind about her bones, teeth, skin ... Her body would do what? Oh, my God ... she was a freak. Not just a sister who could kick ass. All the training made sense, all the weird shit that had happened to them. Damali squeezed her eyes shut, and tears streamed from the corners of them. "Don't even say it," she shrieked, and then blocked the rest of their garbled thoughts. "But why didn't you tell me this would happen?! You're telling me that I can hear and smell things like a damned bloodhound, and it'll only get worse? You call that ripening? Shit!"
"She's hearing thought before it's uttered," J.L. murmured. "You all have to take it easy. She's just hit a wall. This was a lot of data and you're crashing her mental hard drive."
Damali was breathing in shuddered bursts. Tears were streaming down her face. She didn't wipe at them, just let her gaze land on each face.
"We couldn't afford to break your confidence," Marlene said gently. "You needed time to accept this part of it all. You might have gone into battle unsure, in every fight you might have second-guessed yourself, or worse, been overconfident - and that split-second of hesitation, or a misplaced blow, could have cost you your life."
"How do you know?" Damali could barely ask the question as another sob threatened to choke her when she swallowed it down.
"I'm the seer, remember?" Marlene went to Damali and gently held her hands.
Damali dropped Marlene's hands, not in anger, but in abject despair. "Then why am I here?"
"Have you watched the audiences when you do your con-
certs?" Marlene whispered. "You were gifted with oratorical skills that mesmerize. How many great people changed the course of history, just by words? Think about it, baby. Even your name - Damali - means beautiful vision. You must now learn to see the path better."
Damali's gaze tore around the room again. She didn't know where it should land first. Silence stood among them, but she could still hear parts of their thoughts. The reality was disorienting. She closed her eyes to get her bearings.
"Every thousand years a Neteru is born," Shabazz said. "A vampire huntress. This millennium, you're it. And at least seven of us, usually twelve, come with the package to bodyguard a Neteru while they wipe out a predator's line that's getting too thick. There must be one hundred and forty-four thousand of us on the planet at any given time to hold all manifestations of evil at bay - an army of twelve times twelve, representing the twelve original tribes. Guardians are made and lost every day."
Shabazz walked around the table, his arms open, sweeping past the group.
"Twelve. Each guarding the sections of the ancient sacred texts. In Tibet, in Rome at the Vatican, in Egypt, in Asia, in the U.S., in South America, in the motherland, in Hopi country, you name a region or continent, we are hidden, but there."
Damali opened her eyes and just stared at her team. This was definitely new information ... just as she'd requested. But it wasn't what she'd expected to hear.
"The Holy City and the Church of the Nativity has even been under siege with all three of the major world religions at war with each other - watch the news," Jose murmured.
J.L. offered him a confirming nod. "The planet Earth is out of balance, it was time for a Neteru to show up. Don't you think the recent world events would cry out for the need to return the balance of peace? Think about it, D. Evil has a stranglehold on mankind, making us wipe each other out ... culture-by-culture, race-by-race, tribe-by-tribe, and religion-by-religion. You think that's an accident?"
"Like we told you when we first found you - music, art, draws people together across these invisible, ridiculous lines. That's why it's sacred, baby. Remember what we told you? Connect the dots. The artists cross the lines; music is universal, like other forms of art. It touches the soul, can make people feel emotions past ideological rhetoric. Can blend, bond, fuse, and heal the rip in the human family. It's powerful. You were gifted with the voice. So, here we are," Marlene added and then gave Shabazz the floor.
Shabazz accepted his turn to speak again and released a slow breath with patience. "But what we didn't tell you was that guardians are secreted away to preserve the balance within every aspect of human interaction. We didn't just coincidentally roll up on you and then band together."
Shabazz paused, and then pressed on when Damali remained silent. "Sure, we told you we were guardians, and loosely described that you were a vampire huntress, a Neteru - a slayer - but never properly defined what that meant. It wasn't the time. First we had to protect you, gain your trust - which was hard for you to give us, coming from your life on the streets. We needed to earn your respect, and you needed to emotionally mature enough to listen to us without running away again to avoid the inevitable. Today, you're ready to hear us. Clarity is required."
Damali nodded, and Shabazz continued. "There are more of us out in the world than just this team, that's what we never explained. Some guardians are dispatched to work with the spirits to close tears and fissures in the veil between worlds. Some work with world leaders to bring wisdom, justice, compassion. Some work the streets. Some work the schools to develop young minds. Some to unearth demon nests... and some of us, from every culture represented, get selected to guard a Neteru. None of us wanted to freak you out with too much knowledge too soon. Until last night, we had been able to pass you off to the vamps as just another guardian ... until you went into your first real blood lust. Now, your energy is strong enough for them to find you. So, I am a Neteru guardian, as are we all. I am honored."
A collective "Ashe, Amen," rippled through the group, as they yielded the floor to their team's most learned philosopher, Sha-bazz.
"Those that guard the sacred texts, and the Neteru guardians, have the most dangerous mission, but the highest honor of the sets of twelve - and the most difficult," Shabazz said, his tone unwavering. "Everything we taught you was to keep you safe, our Sankofa, until you could fly like an eagle on your own. Last night, you tested your wings. Now, it's on. You have to fly."
"A hundred forty-four thousandguardians in secret armies?" Her head was spinning. Damali found the sofa and sat slowly, needing to breathe.
"How many vampire colonies do you think are walking the planet, sis?" Rider shook his head and paced away from the group. "There's at least five or six that we know of. Now let's add in werewolves, demons, not to mention just your regular schmoes who do bad shit in the world. Okay? There's plenty enough to keep divisions of us busy down here, along with all the companies up in Heaven. We are at war with the dark side. It's a war, not just one battle in the night. That's why Mar flipped out on you. She had reason. You need to listen to the general, until you get your stars, kiddo."
Damali's line of vision searched the deadly serious faces around the table.
"We let you have time to be a kid," Jose murmured. "Because we love you."
"Yeah. Information like this sorta blows the groove, doesn't it?" Rider let out a weary sigh. "Hell, after the first attack, Marlene didn't even want us to explain it to you, because she wanted you to still have a little more time."
Shabazz nodded, and then pounded Rider and Big Mike's fists.
"The forces of light came to Marlene in a vision. That's why Marlene, a guide, found you. Seers are always the ones to locate a Neteru and form the circle of protective guardians around him or her - and that's why during religious purges, seers are the first to be put to the stake. Kill the visionaries - the seers - and a slayer can be lost in the mix. But the Divine always knows where you are. The planetary alignment signaled when you will come into all your powers - three inner planets signaled three months from the alignment." Shabazz used his hands to speak, drawing out the constellation for Damali as he tried to get her to understand.
"One outer planet signaled the lesson that must be learned in one month - your birth month. The last large planet, Jupiter - a massive planet signaled a massive event soon to come. But it's also the planet of good luck."
"Then, let the chips ride on the big Jupiter bastard, then," Rider said, letting his breath out hard. "Man!"
"Rider, your mouth," Marlene warned, shaking her head. "I know it's hard to change, but please. We are trying to school a Neteru."
"Sorry, Mar. Old habits die hard. Been cooped up for months; I have a slight verbal aggression issue." Rider chuckled as Marlene raised an eyebrow and Shabazz let his breath out slowly again.
Damali couldn't focus on Rider's sidebar commentary. Instead, she just shook her head as she stared at the team. Too much had come at her too fast. Yeah, she knew there were these things called vamps. Yeah, she knew there was above and below ... a lot she'd learned, but that was more abstract before, and today it was applied science - the mathematics of it, the planets, the physics, secret armies. The logic. Whew...
"How do you gays just know all this stuff?"
"Unfortunately," Big Mike said with a weary sigh after a moment, "we had to research it - some the easy way, some the hard way. Each one of us went through our own personal trial by fire. We each survived an attack, and were then led to another person like us, who had also survived an attack. Baby girl, you aren't the only one who grew up feeling weird as a kid."
Mike glanced at the team and received nods of confirmation. "Heck, when I was younger, I thought I was crazy. I could hear things nobody else could hear. Scared the heebee-jeebies out of me, most times. So, I didn't tell nobody, never. It was my secret, until one day something rolled up on me and I had to deal with it."
"Word," Shabazz muttered. "I could be out in the hood playing B-ball, and brush up on somebody, and feel when they were gonna die. Or give an aunt a hug and know her time was limited. We've all been there, Damali. Everybody's had their own private wake-up call. We all have a long story, and we wanted you to have as much time being a kid as you could."
"Yeah," Big Mike agreed. "We didn't find you until we were readied, either. You had to be in a place in your head where you were ready to be found, had seen enough stuff on your own to accept protection - -just like we all had to."
"Right," Jose agreed. "And we all had to be ready ... it took us time, too, to learn to accept the cosmic laws of reciprocity. We would teach you and be taught by you. We will hunt and be hunted. We will guard you and be guarded by you. We will defend you and also sustain attacks from the vamps. Whatever we all do follows the natural and supernatural laws of energy exchange, Damali." Jose labored as he spoke, and his body slumped from the mere exertion of his statement.
"Here on Earth is the gray zone; it's both light and dark here," Marlene said as everyone nodded. "In this war, the good and the bad pull from the casualties of that war - the choice border, Earth. That's what we defend."
"Last night, your metabolism changed," Shabazz said in a matter-of-fact tone. "Second sight, olfactory and taste awareness, tactical sensing, increased audio capacity strength. When the seventh one hits ..."
Damali kept Shabazz's gaze trapped with her own as his voice trailed off. So much had come to her at once that she could no longer get inside the group's heads. Part of her didn't want to. Before today, she'd never mentally probed them - but it had been a reflex when it happened this time. But now it was almost as though they'd thrown up a mental barrier to her thoughts, and when she looked at Marlene, all she saw was blackness. Why would Marlene block her that hard now? "What's the seventh?"
Thoughts, emotions, and an ache so deep that she couldn't move, battered her - her heart hurt. She just stared at the people around her, listening, trying to make sense of the insane. But they were forcing her to grow up overnight and fast-forwarding her awareness. The shift in tempo of the group was dizzying.
"Later," Shabazz said, shaking his head. "Marlene will go over that one-on-one. We need to look at the map." Shabazz went to the weapons table and gave Damah his back to consider. "Our people are going down, as are Blood Music's and Carlos's - forming a triangulation of activity between here, Carlos's hub, and New Orleans where the bullshit began."
"The vamps have eyes everywhere - normal joes who do their bidding ... think this big worldwide concert has anything to do with it?" J.L. fired up one of his computers, and clicked on the attached projector, shining a map of the world on the wall whiteboard. Using a laser pen, he drew a line between the five selected continents, marking the cities where the concerts were to be held. "It looks like a giant pentagram. Anybody want to bet that the dark realm has claimed all the space between the points as the place where their major attack will be mounted?"
Marlene sent a glare so sharp and with such warning embedded in it toward J.L. that he looked away. If Damali didn't know better, she would have sworn Marlene wanted to cut the man's tongue out. Deep. Later, like Shabazz said. However, this time when the group fell silent, the quiet horror they shared was audible. No words were needed.
"We've been following the attacks happening to Blood in the papers, just like we've been following what's up at Carlos's joint. We can probably rule out that his performers are vampires, because to perform, they have to cast an image," Jose rasped, countering Marlene's glare as the group's peacemaker. Despite his weakened condition he appeared to be desperately trying to restore civility. "Their artists are doing music videos, interviews, traveling on planes during the day, whatever."
"Have you seen 'em lately?" Big Mike argued. "They look like walking death, too. Might drop and turn any minute. Never can tell, if this old master vamp, Fallon Nuit, runs Blood Music."
Shabazz shook his head. "Vampires have normal business operations to keep them rolling in capital. They don't feed on everything around them; that would be stupid - and the last thing vampires are is stupid. The only reason this world concert made us sit up and pay attention is because J.L. showed the team that the locations formed a pentagram. That part is not a coincidence. So what if their artists look like hell? Plenty of goths look like death warmed over, too."
"Drugs will do that to you," Rider said with a sigh. "We can't go staking what we think are negative artists on a hummer - even if they can't play a lick of music and their act reeks. I believe cops will call that Murder One." Rider made little quotes around the word "negative" as he glanced from Big Mike to Damali.
"No," Rider added in slow contemplation. "If they're casting an image, they aren't a part of the equation - except as possible master vamp helpers. Hell, we've had presidents that were surrounded, and they were even guarded by Secret Service from a master vamp's groupies. Every part of the world has had a leader that was either surrounded, or compromised, at one juncture or another. A coupla hot music artists doesn't stress me. Vamp traitors gotta make money, too. That's part of the deal - your soul for millions, power, and fame. Basic. Once the deal is made, a human is marked for that master vamp. However, vamps don't generally do their marked human helpers ... so it might be safe to say that wherever bodies are dropping might just be happy hunting grounds."
"No, listen," Damali said, finding her voice as she approached the map. "Didn't you all say they stake out territory like wolves and fight if lines are crossed? Well, this concert is being simulcast - which means that they had to form an alliance across competing vampire borders. If what you're telling me is true, they're not supposed to do that, right?" She glanced around and then wiped the perspiration from her brow. "Either there's been a weird alliance, or one master vampire has taken out a lot of competition to be able to cross vamp borders worldwide."
"Li'l sis has got an excellent point," Rider conceded, finding a stool and sitting down again. "Damn. Maybe the bodies dropping had to do with some war we didn't see coming, some subsurface event that was hiding in plain sight - just like this slayer is. What if that's why the killings were all so brutal, and not the normal, smooth, two-hole bite? Ever think of that? A vampire version of a drive-by, maybe?"
"We're still not sure it's pure vamps, though. What about what Marlene said earlier about that revenge demon?" Damali shot her attention to Marlene, who remained silent.
"Let's not jump to conclusions, though. Like Carlos's shop and ours," Shabazz interjected, "the Blood Music team is probably just a feeding ground for a line - grazing lands." He shook his head as he walked away from the board, kicking a metal stool out of his path.
"Yeah, but Shabazz," Damali argued, "the concert is worldwide. That's a lot of territory. It would be different if only artists from L.A. or New York or whatever had dropped. Think about it. They've had to cross their lines. Kids have been dropping after all of these concerts in the last few months. Now they're linking those cities with one label doing a megashow? Uh-uh. Something ain't right."
"The Blood Music label draws kids from all walks of life - lost souls, and seducing good souls, too." Shabazz leaned over, his fingers tracing and retracing the steps. "Anybody without a strong spirit is susceptible to the negative vibrations and can be hypnotized by the violence in the music. It's real easy when the concertgoers are in altered states, partying under the influence of drugs... like in the clubs. Shit happens, nobody finds out why, or really cares. They're just teenagers going down from drugs and violence. Parents grieve. Whatever. Concerts get shut down for a little while, just like a club that has had an incident and then reopens in a matter of weeks. Authorities can't shut down a venue if some junkie kicks off there - and it wasn't the organizer's fault."
"It's a perfect cover for a vamp operation," Rider admitted. "Right out in the open, like I said."
"You're right, though," Shabazz finally conceded, turning toward Damali. "The artists that have died were all linked to the same company by contracts, but they haven't just been dropping in L.A. How our people, and an unrelated club network that Carlos runs, fits into that is the thing that's nagging me. We have to find the epicenter of activity. Something big is definitely going down."
Jose's frail voice held the group enthralled. "So, if it was just feeding grounds the vamps were after, Blood Music's regular concerts gives them plenty of opportunities to eat. Why are they turning our people, and possibly Carlos's people? If vampires want to eliminate a threat, they can easily just kill it, then feed off of it. But if they're increasing their ranks, then Damali has a point. Something's up."
Rider nodded with Marlene. "Yeah. Who knows? Maybe they only went after us because they thought we'd get in the way of their ability to feed when the Raise the Dead simulcast concerts go down. I have no idea why they went after Rivera's posse."
"But," Jose argued, "ours and Carlos's are turning."
"If they're turning, and building in numbers, then they could be getting ready for a vamp war. I think this goes way beyond feeding grounds."
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