"I gotcha back on that one, Wizard," Big Mike reassured him after a moment, pounding Jose's fist in the process. "Cool?"
"Yeah. I'm cool, man." Jose checked the settings on his crossbow as he answered, but did not look up. "You do her, though, if she's out there. Okay?"
Mike nodded, his massive walnut-colored hand splaying across Jose's lean, sinewy shoulder. "The sooner we do this, the sooner we do this, little bro."
"And the sooner we can get on a plane, and can sleep for five hours before we land in the morning at LAX," Shabazz reminded the group. "Focus. We need a full day and the time the sunlight provides to check the compound out, and make sure we still have a secure base. They've got regular people like us siding with the vamps for power and money who can get past the vampire traps. Remember that. We don't even rehash or strategize on the flight, because you never know who's listening. So let's just do this and be out."
"Might be nothing," Jose offered. "We've been strapped up before, all ready to rock 'n' roll, and only one or two of 'em was out there - or none, and we just had the heebie-jeebies."
"That's the best way to get yourself nicked, or worse," Damali warned. She carefully chose her words and spoke with full authority, trying to be sure that her team was clear about the danger this time out. One by one, she looked each crew member in the eyes. "Don't let your guard down - not at night. Not tonight."
"I got Raven," Shabazz said quietly, watching Marlene, "if she's out there. Nobody should have to do a person they've loved. You don't have to carry that burden, baby. I'll carry that load, if it comes to it."
Marlene nodded, but the emotional wear from his reassurance almost made her face appear to age as the group waited for her response. "Thanks."
Damali let a tender gaze rest with Marlene's. It was clear that for all of Marlene's hard edge, the woman was breaking inside. Made sense, now, why Mar had been riding her so hard all day. She must have telepathically picked up Raven nearby, and it had to hurt Marlene so badly that their auxiliary seer was slowly going blind. Marlene's voice had been just above a whisper when she'd spoken to Shabazz. Damn.
"You good?" Marlene asked Damali after a moment, shifting gears and obviously submerging her own pain.
"Yeah, I'm good," Damali responded on a long exhale, while pushing herself away from the place on the wall where she'd been temporarily leaning. "I'm always good." She had to say something to get the group's confidence back. But the question remained, if Marlene was blanking because of Raven's possible presence, then who was out there that was making her blank? Seeing Dee Dee would definitely hurt, but wouldn't rock her to the core like that. It had to be more than that.
"Then, let's pray," Marlene began, joining hands with Damali and Shabazz until each member of the team was linked in a circle. "May the power of the Most High, the Giver of True Light protect us, and send a battalion of warrior angels to flank us and cover us ... let no weapon formed agamst us prosper. Let our circle remain unbroken. Ashe."
A dull chorus of "Amens" followed, and one by one hands slipped away from hands, and palms gripped gear and weapons in the place of human flesh. Damali looked into the eyes of each of her mentors, guides, trainers, crew, who had become her beloved family - like older brothers, people that she'd never had connections to by blood but who were now linked to her soul in spirit... just like Marlene had become the mother she never had.
Whatever was waiting for them, whatever hunted them, had a darkness more vast than she'd ever sensed before, and if any of the team of seven fell on this full-moon eve, she wondered whether that would be the final stake driven through her own heart. Damali glanced around at each member of her team and gave them the nod. There was only one way to find out what was in the streets.
"Let's do this."
damali listenedbeyond the steady drone of the air-conditioner compressors that wafted down the vacant alley. The low hum resonated through her as she tried to get her bearings. Humidity hung about the guardian-huntress team like a thick cloak. It was hard to breathe in air so dense. The summer heat combined with the dampness felt like a shroud. She glanced at her squad and the way everyone's shirts had begun to stick to them just that fast. Nervous perspiration was also a probable cause. Extra adrenaline was a good thing. Her ears strained to detect anything abnormal while her team's footsteps echoed against the gray, rounded cobblestone as they walked in formation.
This was an alley probably filled with ghosts, she told herself, her gaze sweeping the terrain. Original architecture, old buildings, hidden openings. She hated shit like this. New buildings were clean, better, easier to spot a sudden movement against. The bricks probably hadn't been replaced since the sixteen hundreds, and the Society Hill alley was still as narrow as it had been during Ben Franklin's era. Joint even emptied out to the old slave-auction square. No wonder everybody had the creeps. Stupid developers had cranes up a few blocks away digging in slave burial grounds, too. Who knew what else they'd dug up? All she knew was they'd better chill, before they unearthed some real deep shit. Maybe that was all she and the team had sensed. A massive, disturbed gravesite.
From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a rat scurry behind a Dumpster. Others on her team had seen it, too. Yeah, they were on guard. Cool. Everybody had clutched their weapons tighter, and the muscles in their arms had tensed. That was good. Nobody was sleepin' on the job. Might save their lives if they noticed something as small as that.
But there should have been more noise coming from the club and the streets beyond the alley; more sound. Damali tilted her head. Something was wrong. It didn't take three seconds to process the answer. Just as she thought. No security. Not even the cops were out there. But that didn't account for the eerie absence of sound. The human vampire helpers had obviously been there to create a diversion, and had gotten any witnesses out of the alley - but that still didn't answer the sound question. When she heard Big Mike's footfalls stop behind her, Damali glanced over her shoulder at him and listened harder.
"It's too quiet," Big Mike remarked as the team cautiously paused in the alley before advancing.
Shabazz just nodded, flexing his right hand and rolling his shoulder. "No cops. No back-door security. Nobody out here going for a smoke - you know when it's dead like this, trouble's brewing. I don't like the vibe out here. I'm feeling the hair stand up on the back of my neck."
"I don't like it, either," Jose agreed, breathing deeply and closing ranks tighter while they all surveyed the dark, narrow back street. "I'm tracking a scent. Coming from that direction," he added with a nod.
"Sulfur." Rider sniffed the air and quickly hocked and spit on the ground in disgust. "I hate the taste of that shit. I'm just glad it's not raining."
"Time for the Twenty-third," Marlene muttered, her line of vision glancing to Dumpsters, darkened doorways, and then up to the fire escapes that hung above them like huge, blackened skeletal remains.
Damali nodded and started walking again, her team resuming their original formation. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil ..."
One by one the members of the team picked up strands of the psalm, advancing slowly as their voices became one low harmonic chant. Dense night surrounded them, the transparency of the air around almost becoming a thicker texture that made it feel like they were trudging through wet sand.
Shabazz abruptly stopped, forcing the group to come to a halt behind him. "Wait," he whispered. "You feel it?"
"Like walking through the swamp," J.L. said. "But you can't see anything."
"It's too quiet - you can't even hear the club music inside, or traffic," Big Mike murmured. "We're in a zone."
Damali turned in a slow, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree circle. All eyes were on her as she spread her arms out, her walking stick in one hand, and splaying her fingers on her free hand to feel the nothingness. They were in some kind of silenced area or cocoon. It was too freaky, and way too dangerous. Something invisible could snuff them out without a sound being heard by anyone but them. "They've got us in some sort of sound bubble. Vamps don't normally roll like that. They come upon you silently, but they can't block exterior sound."
"Damali might be on to something. This is different," Marlene murmured.
"Too much like a setup," Shabazz agreed.
Mike rubbed his jaw and glanced at Jose and J.L. "You ain't said a mumblin' word, bro."
"Now, you all are reaching," Rider said with a nervous laugh, fingering his gun.
"Oh, it's there," Damali reassured Rider, growing defensive and testy by his arrogance. "Something's out there."
She didn't care what anybody said, the density had changed around them. Everything around them felt weighted and as though it was pulling them down. It was creepy, like a gate to the dark realm had opened. Marlene had told her about the phenomenon, but none of them except Marlene had ever claimed to experience it.
"Mar, you're the expert on this one. What's your take?"
Marlene let her breath out slowly and used her stick to point to the fire escapes, thin sidewalks beyond the cobblestones, and then motioned out toward the wider asphalt street beyond the alley. "Notice how the colors around everything are off, aren't what they should be - gray isn't gray, black isn't black? Seen this before. Only once. Wasn't good."
"But I thought we all sensed vamps tonight?"
"We did. That's what I can't figure out."
Damali looked at Marlene for a moment. Hold up. Her mind lunged at the facts. The two entities don't travel together, demons and vamps. Plus, demons were fixed to locations... like a house or a building or within a host body they'd possessed, unlike vampires that could freely move about as long as there was no sunlight.
Big Mike opened his vest and took out two vials attached together on a long leather cord. Raising his arm above the heads of his teammates, he began swinging them in a hard circular motion until the two objects at the end of the tether became a blur. "Then let's light this joint up."
Hurling the vials fifty feet before the group, they exploded against the cement with two small pops of broken glass. Holy water trickled from the shattered containers, and then suddenly ignited the asphalt. The flames quickly spread, moving swiftly back toward the group, covering the cobblestoned ground around them as though a river of gasoline had been lit at their feet with a match.
"Jesus H. Christ!" Rider's line of vision followed the edge of the flame.
"It's like we're standing in the middle of Hell!" J.L. hollered.
"Down!" Damali yelled, as the flame suddenly stopped twenty-five yards out from where it began and disappeared into the street vents, which gave way to a screeching, fluttering cloud of movement. "Bats!"
Hundreds of the flying vermin circled their heads with beady, glowing red eyes and huge, menacing fangs, diving at the team in a high-pitched aerial attack.
"It's too fucking many of them to shoot! They're moving too fast," Rider shouted.
Damali and Marlene swung wildly at the offending creatures, and kept the swirling mass from descending on the group using their walking sticks, while J.L. and Jose spun in erratic circles, trying to get a clear shot at the multiple enemies smaller than the stakes their crossbows held.
"Save your ammo. Don't fire. It's probably only one giving the illusion of many," Shabazz said, cool control lacing his order. "Wizard, J.L., lights on. Damali, Marlene, cover 'em. UV lights up - and back that bullshit up. Now!"
Jose and J.L. worked feverishly to free the halogens and Fres-nels in their duffle bags, hooking them immediately into the battery packs slung over their shoulders, and then sent beams into the fluttering black mass.
Immediately the cloud dispersed, then reconstituted itself into one form, and then separated into multiple forms just beyond the flame, yards away. The eyes of the beasts glowed red within their slits. Huge fangs protruded from the creatures' deformed mouths, stretching gray, death-pallor skin over their overpacked jaw lines. Their limbs seemed elongated, unnatural, and yellowing, hooked claws turned their hands into razor-sharp weapons. And the sounds they made ... then their jaws unhinged. What the hell... These were not normal vampires!
"Crossbows up," Damali ordered as the group's focus trained on the shadow that was still shape-shifting before them. "We need to take all six of them out pronto, people."
A series of low hisses emanated from the forms in front of them. With lightning reflexes, Damali spun toward a sound on her left. J.L.'s body had also turned immediately to address the hiss at his side, which made him instinctively fire at the sound. Jose fought off an attack from a creature that leapt over him using the blunt end of his crossbow, but his UV light crashed to the ground in the struggle.
"J.L., reload, now! Get some light on our men and cover 'em!" Damali ordered, her attention snapped back toward the remaining beasts. But for a few seconds, she watched the creature that had been hit.
Pinned to the brick wall at their left, the hideous creature struggled against the stake in its center. Dying, it began transforming back to what it looked like upon death. That's when she saw it. In only an instant before it disintegrated into dust, leaving the awful stench of sulfur behind it, she saw it. The throat had been ripped out. That was not the normal vamp bite. It was not the typical dual puncture wound at the jugular. The thing looked like whatever had attacked it, and had converted it to this type of creature, had half eaten it in the bloodsucking process. Vampires had a much smoother signature than that. So, what the fuck were they up against?
J.L. had quickly reloaded and closed ranks tighter. Jose was in position, but his new light didn't have the beasts in range. A screeching chorus erupted from the slithering forms before them, which kept multiplying, splintering, exponentially growing as though they were cells of evil splitting under the microscopic focus of the slayer-guardian team. In a quick tally, Damali counted thirteen in all.
"I hate to inform you, Shabazz, but it ain't one trying to fake itself as many, brother," Rider quipped as he took aim. "As far as theory goes, we're screwed!"
Mike lobbed the first wave of the offensive, using the vials as Shabazz and Rider opened up and began firing rounds of hallowed earth. Jose and J.L. kept the walls to their left and right clear, hitting targets that crept up the bricks with their joints turned backward, scaling the mortar like grotesque, fast-moving spiders, and occasionally picking off a predator that had made its way to an overhanging fire escape.
"Dead aim, bro," Jose shouted as a creature dropped behind J.L. "Watch your back!"
J.L. couldn't turn fast enough, but Damali was on it, her long ebony stick spearing the creature, sparing J.L.'s life, causing her to use the wall as leverage to flip out of harm's way to attend Marlene's side as she battled two demons on her own.
The two women, in tandem, went back to back, forcing the creatures into Jake's firing range. Shabazz reloaded, flanking Jake, but the magazine jammed. The two creatures were on him in an instant, and he used a trash can to fend them off, kick-boxing the entities back until his arm could reach a stake still mounted in the bricks. Deftly breaking it off, he speared one, avoided a swipe by the second one, catching the stick Damali hurled at him, and plugging the creature as he went down on one knee. But the creature that had escaped being staked had caught Sha-bazz in the back of the head with a sharp kick just as he got up.
"We've got a man down!" Without weapon in hand, Damali hauled to Shabazz's side. "Freestyle combat, motherfucker!" she hollered, avoiding a swipe, and using a hard kick to repel a creature. "Keep firing, Rider! Cover us, Shabazz is wide open!"
Rider's dead aim incinerated the creature Damali had kicked. J.L.'s crossbow released a stake that connected with another in the base of its spine. Jose fried the side of another monster's face, a beam of light blinding it just long enough for Marlene to retrieve a stake off the ground and finish the job. Big Mike dropped a load of holy water explosive near Shabazz and Damali so that Marlene could help him while Damali continued to fight.
"You see how they move?" Damali yelled, breathing hard, her glance darting from predator to predator. "You all peepin' how much of Rider's ammo we need to put one of them down?"
Marlene tossed Damali her stick, and joined the unarmed Shabazz at his side. With two canes at her disposal, Damali spun, catching one advancing beast with a broadside slam against its jaw, and staking the other that had leapt at her without needing to turn around. Her vision was back. She could sense them coming at her. The heat of battle snapped her focus into keen awareness. Adrenaline pumped through her system. Her ears rang.
As the first creature she'd hit ran at her again, Damali fly-kicked it, her boot landing against its stomach and making it lose enough balance for her to spear it. She kept vigil to protect the fallen Shabazz and Marlene, who was helping him, circling her downed teammates, brandishing the walking sticks. Three more creatures came at her, and she ducked as Jose's crossbow released a stake that whirred past her and caught the beast in the center of its forehead. Smoke rose from the flaming target, nearly choking her and making her want to vomit. Big Mike had brought one of them down with a trash can, so she could finish the job with a stake. He then released more holy water vials, sending a bombardment of liquid that torched two creatures that were trying to get near Shabazz and Marlene.
Putrid smoke was everywhere, making the team's eyes burn and sending foul, scorched air down their throats and into their lungs. Rider dry heaved, and covered his face as he kept firing. The dazed Shabazz was on his feet now. Marlene had an arm under his elbow as they both stood side-by-side, ready to join the fight again.
"You scratched?" Marlene coughed, her line of vision constantly sweeping the area as she spoke.
"No. The cut is from the fall," Shabazz muttered, wiping blood away from his eyebrow.
"Big Mike, douse it with holy water, ASAP. I love you, too, Shabazz. But let's not play with any open wounds." Marlene glanced at Shabazz with concern, then her focus instantly returned to the retreating hissing forms that their group now outnumbered.
"Sonofabitch!" Rider hollered, still pumped with adrenaline and turning around in a wild circle as his gun failed, too. "It had to be at least fifteen of them out there. I had to hit 'em with four or five hallowed-earth bullets to put one of those bastards down. It was never like this, gang. Freaking dirt jamming my magazine, and shit. Look at this shit!"
"It was thirteen of them to be exact," Damali muttered, kicking at a pile of ash. "Never seen this many, or like this."
"Anybody else cut?" Marlene repeated, carefully appraising her team. "Status, before we start moving and get ambushed. Reload what we have left."
"Opened my knee up when I went down for a second," J.L. muttered, looking at the gash in his fatigues.
"Douse it, and close up the wound, fast. The blood'll draw 'em back like sharks," Damali ordered, bending over with her hands on her knees as she took in huge gulps of air. Then she stood up and walked slowly toward her teammate who was hanging back from the protective circle of the group. "Wizard ...Jose. Jose!"
Jose didn't answer. His line of vision was trained to a dark corner of the alley behind them. His battery pack had dimmed and his lamp was on the ground. Damali saw him swallow hard and slowly bring his crossbow up to his chest.
"Let him do it," Marlene murmured, stopping Damali's advance.
"No. I told him I got his back," Big Mike interjected, stepping in front of Marlene and Damali. "No man should have to put his own woman down."
"She's in there, man," Jose choked out on a strangled swallow. "She's calling me."
Two red, glowing eyes appeared in the corner of the dark alley.
"Give me your weapon, Wizard," Big Mike ordered.
A hiss came from the corner where Jose stared.
"There must be something Marlene can do - some spells, something, man. Take her to a priest, an exorcist..."
"We been through this, little brother. Now give me your weapon. There's nothing we can do for Dee Dee now. Did she nick you?"
"No ... but all she wants me to do is hold her before she dies, she wants to be at peace. Just once."
The group nodded, which seemed to be the assurance Jose required. He slowly handed Big Mike the weapon.
"You'll give me a chance to say good-bye, right?" he asked, stepping toward the shadows.
"Steady, Mike," Shabazz said low in his throat. "Over our brother's shoulder. Let him draw her to where you can see her."
"Be prepared to take Jose, too," Marlene murmured to J.L., "if Big Mike misses. Dee Dee will be on him in two seconds."
Jose hesitated, and looked back at his teammates. "She's afraid, that's all, and so alone. Can't you hear what she's saying?"
"Yeah, I can hear her," Big Mike replied quietly. "She ain't saying what you think, though."
The two eyes in the corner of the alley disappeared for a moment, and then reappeared in the same spot as though the creature had slowly blinked. A form stealthily came forward. The group held in a collective gasp. The alley was silent, save for the hum of the air conditioners. What was once their beloved Dee Dee flicked a long, pronged black tongue out upon a hiss. Talons had replaced her once-neat French manicure. Her grayish-green skin was peeling away from the skeleton of her face, and her glowing eyes sat in black, dark sockets. Her nose was merely two holes. This abomination of their friend had a sly smile on its face, a taunting grin that flashed huge, saliva-slicked fangs. Damali wanted to hurl.
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