Chapter Twenty

"Awesome, isn't it?" he heard the chairman say.

"Yes," Carlos whispered.

"Let the dark energy fill you. All of this could be yours, if we can come to terms. We don't offer this to every made brother ... never to a second. If we allow you to keep it, you will instantly become a master."

Carlos leaned his head back and behind his lids he could see the past fate of nations that had risen. Empires and armies marched into armed conflict. Near delirium, his hands felt electrified and his ears buzzed. Blood was in his mouth. Tears of pleasure rolled down his cheeks. He felt on the brink of orgasm. He cried out from the sheer pleasure of it all.

"Stand," the chairman ordered, his harsh tone and steely gaze bringing Carlos around. Immediately the power ebbed and the throne went dead.

As soon as Carlos stood, he could feel his knees buckle. "What do you want?" His question came out on a weak whisper, his gaze still affixed to the throne.

"You were turned immediately^which is not our normal policy. It was a risk we took to snatch your spirit in the death throes, to essentially hijack it while Nuit was siphoning you. There was a split-second window of opportunity caused by your internal struggle and, ironically, the slowness of your soul's descent because of, all things, a prayer and a crucifix you still had on your body. An interesting paradox. However, this poses a risk to beginning another all-out war with the other realms above, as it temporarily violates our ecosystem. But, desperate times called for desperate measures."

Dazed, Carlos could barely focus his attention on what he was being told. The chair he'd just sat in was whispering to him, calling him, and he wanted more of what it contained.

The counselor appraised him hard; his impatient glare finally forcing Carlos to look at him. "When a vampire delivers a bite, according to supernatural law, it takes three eves before the dark power enters the victim to raise it and mark it into an existing territory. However, Nuit has been running amuck. We normally only allow a certain number of second-generation bites. Only masters can come below - the lesser vampires... second and third generations, remain topside, six feet under in graves, or in dark hiding places. We have to keep the territories within pragmatic growth parameters. Second and third generations must kill the victims, then feed. No turns are allowed, as it will make the humans grow wary ... much like the natural order of things, where wolves populate more slowly than deer, the supernatural ecosystem must be kept in balance. Nuit has violated even that basic principle."

"Yes," the chairman concurred. "Our way keeps our numbers low enough to avoid detection, and the power within the individual vampire family lines diffuse enough to disallow a potential coup. We cannot go back to the old way before the Vampire Council was formed." The chairman folded his hands in front of him on the table and leveled his gaze at Carlos. "You have been spared, and made immediately - and given immunity to Nuit. You are his equal. You are a master ... should you accept our proposition."

"We'll break the hold on Nuit's ring," one creature near the chairman said in a hissing whisper. "You can remove Nuit's crest at will, but it is advisable that you wear it, lest he become suspicious. Keep it concealed from human eyes as well. Simply project the thought, and it will not be seen."

"All right," Carlos said breathing hard, looking at his hand and extending it to them, "but I still don't understand what that has to do with me. Why not use an older vamp? You could have easily dispatched any of them."

"In Nuit's haste, he bit a guardian's child, mistaking it for a Neteru - and made Raven, after his escape. A female. She, a second-generation vampire, has been making thirds. We know this because each new vampire is entered on our docket and is registered, just like every vampire slain is registered. He overstepped his bounds, topside, in search of the millennium Neteru. We could not let the older vampires in the territories know about the extent of the breech, or what was actually driving Nuit, because each would have searched for the vessel that was previously believed to be mere myth." The chairman's stare raked Carlos's mind. "The millennium bridge vampire huntress is no legend. She exists. But our regional masters do not need to know this information."

Incredulous, Carlos tried to get words to form a simple question that might answer the hundreds of questions stabbing into his brain. "A millennium bridge vampire huntress?"

"It is a female human vessel that is made by the heavens once every thousand years. These warriors are deadly to our kind in particular, and they also exact a heavy toll of losses on the demon realms as well. Neterus are rare. She has a ripening time where her womb can either bear another slayer, a guardian, or a daywalker - one of our vampire seed that is impervious to light, and that can breed. At any other time, we can only breed through the bite. However, daywalkers have the ability to impregnate ... their seed is not dead. This Neteru's presence was made known to us by the alignment of the planets. Only high-ranking council members like those you see currently seated know such information. Nuit used his seat at our table to gain access to our information vaults and crafted his own rogue plan."

Carlos allowed his gaze to settle on the chairman. "But I still don't understand - "

"As above, so below," the attorney said, jerking Carlos's attention toward him. "The vampire empire is held together by an evolving, but fragile thread. Each line master hungers for power, but to date, none have been so bold as to challenge this council. We needed an unregistered new blood. You were dark enough from your life, had been marked as a member of the Minion ... when you were bitten we seized the opportunity. Nuit's impatience, no doubt from his demon influences running through his system, led him to make a fatal mistake. You're a hybrid, but with a third element running through your veins now -  ours."

Carlos looked at the attorney hard.

"You died with a prayer of sacrilege in your heart." The thing shook his gruesome head. "And a crucifix on your person?" The beast had an expression of total disdain. "A crucifix  - a direct channel conductor to the realms above, anointed, christened on a human baby, an innocent, and still on the personage selected by a master to turn? Unheard of. We do not conduct business that way! This is of the new breed - no sense of decorum, which is why we are at war with this heresy. I am offended beyond description. This Vampire Council is deeply, irrevocably offended!" The counselor spat, and the others growled their agreed discontent.

Now Carlos stared at the chairman. How had his call to God -

"Not here! Not even in your thoughts!" the chairman bellowed, setting off a round of hisses at the table. "Never think of He who shall remain nameless in our realm."

"All right, all right," Carlos stated quickly. "I'm new. My bad."

The chairman paced behind the table, agitated. "You want to bring upon the end of our empire? Do you want our Dark Lord to come up from the last realm to begin an inquiry? Are you mad?" Breathing hard, the chairman wiped his forehead and looked at the group. "We must educate him quickly. He has no concept of the potential wrath."

"Who is the huntress?" Carlos glanced around the table, trying to read them but came away with no image. Instinctively he knew they'd locked him out of their minds as they conferred among themselves for a moment, intermittently speaking loud enough for him to hear scattered fragments of their conversation. But he would chill. And no, he didn't want to deal with, or have a run-in with the Dark Lord. Common sense took over. His conceding thought seemed to make the tension in their bodies drain away.

"Our territories are already running rampant with rumors. The demons no doubt have fueled the dissent. Their alliance with Nuit gives them leverage to become transformed into us, but above us, if the vessel is filled ..."

"Yes," the attorney agreed, speaking to a council member beside him. "Rivera's prayer sacrilege and carrying that thing in his pocket - I can't even say it - gave us a slight window of opportunity. Nuit's full venom could not take root." He looked up at Carlos. "We were able to circumvent Nuit's full authority over you and give you enough strength in the moment in between while you fell. But in three eves of moonlight, the very thing that opened you to the gray zone of choice, will close. If you die to us, you will awaken to him - and he will not be pleased with you. Need I say more?"

"And?" An eerie confidence filled Carlos. Yes, this was indeed becoming interesting.

"And," the attorney said quickly, "although Nuit made you, we dispatched a messenger immediately to collect you, just like we immediately turned you - as well as gave you access to a knowledge and power throne. In a few hours, you will adapt in mental capacity as a master vampire ... we won't have to tell you things, you'll know. This is another indication of our generosity. A good-faith offer, and a vital weapon you'll need to deceive Nuit and get past guardian forces to bring us the Net-eru."

"But if all you want is some chick, then another master vampire could have - "

"No," the attorney spat. "Not possible."

"You haven't told me her - "

The chairman smiled. "We know." He took papers from the attorney and slid them across the table toward Carlos. "We have a time-frame issue. Our council gave you all the powers of a master so you could combat a master - an immediate turn without the wait."

"He has to do it before the vessel ripens with ova," an ancient council member whispered from a far point on the table. "We only have a few eves. Her twenty-first birthday approaches."

"If he does not comply, all five of us, if we count in Rivera, will not be able to collectively fill the vessel - offering us a share of equal power. Nuit will have her to himself." Another member of the council made a tent with his hands before him and stared at the counselor.

The attorney pointed to the papers. "Sign."

Carlos looked up. "Why?"

The council members leaned in toward each other and conferred, then assessed him. It was also becoming apparent, and quite intriguing that, since he'd sat in the chair and some time had elapsed during the tense meeting, they now seemed to only have the ability to pick up part of his thoughts, not all of them. Maybe it was the only thing that Nuit's double-cross had afforded him. A modest advantage. It was in that moment that Carlos became clear that while they had almost infinite power, he still had a few aces in his hand. The problem was, he didn't exactly know what the sum total of his leverage entailed.

"You drive a hard bargain, Rivera," the attorney finally said through his teeth.

"Tell him," the chairman ordered. "We are losing precious moonlight."

Carlos cocked his head to the side in confusion. Again, the mention of a woman. He remembered Nuit's unnamed request.

"Bring us Damali Richards," the attorney whispered.

A part of Carlos froze, but he kept his exterior cool. As the vampires bickered among themselves, he could feel their claw-hold on his mind recede. Damali? A Neteru? A freakin' vampire huntress? In the midst of all of this? The only -woman that had ever made him feel? Panic aligned itself with anger and remorse. No. They couldn't have another one of the people he loved. But there was only one way to play this. He had to be strategic and stay business-cold.

"Let me ask you gentlemen a simple question," Carlos said, now pacing slowly in front of the table with his hands behind his back, watching their faces. "Why couldn't you send a messenger for her, or why couldn't Nuit - who is formidable topside? Anyone with power could go get her, correct? In fact, when Nuit told me to bring him a woman, he didn't name her."

The chairman let out a long, death-stench breath. "None of us, not even the topside clerics, ever know when a female Neteru will be born. But, Nuit was the protege of a true legendary member of our legions, Dracula. Nuit's mentor uncovered a partial scent years back - he had only followed the trail to uncover a carrier of the recessive gene, not the actual vessel. The Neteru wasn't even born, yet. But Dracula was on the trail of the human line that might produce her. His quest also became his demise - but he was from the era prior to the Vampire Council's formation. This madness was passed on to Nuit, the master that was made from Dracula's line ... we just never suspected Dracula's madness would have been passed. Our error in judgment, indeed."

The counselor cut in upon the chairman's glance. "For years since Dracula's termination, Nuit had secretly hunted for the Neteru his mentor had foretold - we all believed it to be legend. We did not see evidence of a Neteru having been made in the millennium in which Dracula searched ... until the stars aligned in May."

Carlos smiled. "Mr. Chairman, Mr. Counselor, Council, forgive me, but you still have not answered my question. Why not send in your forces to bring her in, since you've now identified her? Why me?"

The chairman hissed and leaned forward in an open threat. "After the planets aligned we sent out topside sniffers - third and fourth generations too weak to fulfill the prophecy alone!" He banged his fist on the table again, making it quake and bleed onto the floor with his rage.

"Don't you understand by now how valuable a Neteru is to our realm?" The attorney walked around the table to stand before Carlos with the papers in his hand as he continued his snarling argument.

"For centuries we had been locked in feudal struggles within the vampire nation. Each territory battling for control of the other, and adding to their domains with unregistered turns. The Vampire Council was formed to bring order - lest our own anarchy propel humans to hunt us to extinction. Fear of demons and vampires and ghosts, what they term monsters, draws the humans to hallowed ground in panic, strengthens the houses of worship."

Another council member was on his feet. "We needed the humans to go into a false malaise of spiritual apathy. If our empires did not form an alliance and cease battling, the humans would have redoubled their faiths - giving over too many souls to the light. One redeemed sinner is worth the soul-weight of one hundred holy men, and one compromised holy man is worth the soul-weight of one hundred sinners. This has been the equation of the struggle between darkness and the light since the dawn of time, when our Master fell from Grace. Each time their side garners one of ours, we must replace it with one of theirs, or more. Our Dark Lord was very, very displeased that our regional activities were sending people into the arms of faith in droves - it was come together or perish. Thus, the only logical alternative."

Now both beasts were circling him, and Carlos remained very, very still. Even the chairman and the fourth council member had stood slowly and leaned forward from behind the giant marble pentagram. Carlos eyed them as they moved, their robes wafting behind them as they walked. The swishing sounds from their black velvet robes had a hypnotic effect, and he understood how close he was to the edge of this delicate negotiation.

"If any one master vampire were to know where to track the scent of a ripening Neteru, and find her to use her as his vessel, then he would become a singular empire ruler. The new emperor could shift the balance of council power," the attorney pressed on. "Power would concentrate, and not be diffused. That is dangerous to order."

The second council member hissed, his eyes going to slits. "That ruler would have sanction over us. Only his territories would prosper, and all others would become second-class citizens - Nuit would never state her name in front of his second generation, as they might attempt a coup, like he is attempting now. He violated the council oath. We were to all simultaneously mount her through temporary incorporation in one virile body, and send our collective seed to produce one heir from many; we would all be the new heir's master, thus assuring the equal distribution of power amongst all territories."

Carlos studied his fingernails and began cleaning flesh, dirt, and tree bark from under them in a nonchalant gesture, then sighed. "Interesting history. But, I will ask again. Why didn't you send one of your own to claim her?"

The two entities walked away from him in frustration and returned to their seats. The chairman sat down with the fourth council member, as the attorney cast the papers on the table as he passed.

"We couldn't get to her," the chairman muttered, seething. "She's a Neteru, and protected by prayers and a team of guardians. She is at the core of a trinity of formidable forces. A ring of guardians, the Templars, the warrior angels." The chairman's eyes had narrowed at the mention of angels and he'd growled, shaking his head.

Carlos looked up and held the red glowing eyes in a lethal stare. "And Nuit?"

The members at the council table shook their heads.

"The only one who can get to her in thought projection, or close enough for an abduction, is someone she wants... someone she trusts, someone that can make her drop her guard and come to him," the attorney retorted, drawing a series of threatening hisses from the table.

"But even with an abduction," the chairman warned, "when she gives herself, it must be of her own free will, or the vampire seed might not take root in her womb. That is the only way Neteru souls are kidnapped. Her will must be in alignment with the ritual. This is what Nuit never knew. We discovered his plan before he fully dredged our knowledge chambers. Unless she is seduced, the vampire seed within her won't harvest. The Neteru physiology, combined with an iron will and a strong spiritual nature, fights off an unwanted inhabitant or possession like a virus. This is why they are impervious to a bite, once fully mature. We must get to her before she crosses over."

The attorney's eyes searched Carlos's with desperation. "We need someone to get to her whom she will freely surrender to -  someone who can corrupt her so that she will subject herself to the ritual. If she refuses... we'll need someone to kill her. We cannot allow a Neteru, young enough to cross both millennia, to begin to produce more Neterus. It's a chance we get only once every thousand years, but the realms of Heaven haven't made females in a very long time. And there's never been any huntress to bridge a millennium like this ... so dangerous with the Armageddon so near."

"Hmmm. ..." Carlos nodded. "I have seen her in my dreams recently." He watched the seated council erupt in excitement, communicating in the foreign language that he was starting to understand. He knew he had to get them to a point of trust, frenzy for the product, in order to buy him leverage, room to maneuver.

"Her scent is intoxicating," Carlos murmured, teasing them with the description - and using their own wiles against them. He closed his eyes and brought Damali to his mind, and deeply inhaled and shivered, sending a collective shiver through the group.

"We haven't had a female Neteru grace the blue planet in the gray zone of choice in more than three thousand years," the chairman breathed out. "Not since Kemetian times in what is now referred to as Egypt. Prior to that, we located one in the Nubian empire. These female Neterus were so strong we had to literally destroy human empires to eradicate their lines, which still flourish! The recessive gene is so strong that it floats amongst the human population, hiding in human bloodlines, waiting for an anointment above to be released. None of us ever know exactly when a Neteru might be created by them."

Carlos opened his eyes and snatched the vision from them. "Talk to me, hombre. What's in it for me, and what assurances do I have that if I deliver her, I won't get whacked?"

The group fell silent.

"It's in your contract," the attorney said coolly, and then col-

lected the papers and pushed them forward again, laying a quill pen dipped in blood from his goblet beside it.

Carlos shook his head. "It's written in a language I can't yet understand - and it's got a lot of fine print."

"You have three days to bring her to us, or we take away your immediate turn!" Again, the chairman was on his feet. "Let him feel our withdrawal of protection, since he apparently doesn't appreciate our offering!"

Instantly, hunger tore through Carlos's abdomen, and the pain of Nuit's bite began to sizzle and burn. The agony made him cry out and drop to his knees.

"Let him hear his master's call - which we have cloaked from him!"

An earsplitting decibel sounded inside Carlos's head that made him yell and hold the sides of his head. He could see Nuit's eyes behind his lids, and the urge to go to him was so great that it made him stand. Then, just as quickly, it was gone.

"Do you see what we have spared you from?" the attorney murmured in an even tone. "In three moonlights, or less I believe, your brother, your cousin, and your best friends will be under Nuit's siren call. They will go home, first, to feed - to their mothers, dear Juanita ... an old lover of yours... and to your mother, your grandmother, and all your friends."

Satisfied that Carlos had been duly reprimanded, the chairman sighed, his tone weary. "This feeding will fan out to consume all in your immediate family until it is exhausted, and then it will continue in concentric rings. While the dilution of the fourth-generation bite will not produce more vampires, it will produce madness, and human family members that are predators, cannibals, serial killers, and the like. This is the nature of the fourth and weaker vampire generations, which will beget a fifth, and then a sixth, and so on - we populate with an exponential fury, unless we self-contain. Think about it. This is what Nuit has visited upon your human family, as well as upon your new vampire family. All we ask for is one human girl to stop this carnage."

Breathing hard, Carlos held on to the edge of the council table for support and then wiped his brow. "I want to cut a deal."

"We have already given you extreme latitude before this council table," the chairman said in a bored voice, the threat fully disclosed in it.

"You want this Neteru, you talk to me. I can get you in, or you can let another thousand years pass. I could go to Nuit, kill off my family to save their souls before he does them, and suffer the consequences until he's pissed off enough to stake me himself - or we can cut a deal."

The group exchanged nervous glances with each other and then the chairman spoke. "Your proposal?"

"Number one," Carlos huffed, slowly regaining his composure as the pain abated. "I need to be able to move between Nuit's camp and this one undetected. Keep his monitoring blind to my activities. Let me project only those images I want him to see, undetected."

The chairman nodded. "This makes sense, and is of value to our council."

"Okay," Carlos said, his voice gaining strength. "I want to put my brother and my boys down. And I want the rest of my undead family marked as off-limits."

The seated members again erupted with dissention at the request.

"Order, order," the Parliamentarian shouted. "A seal of off-limits for unclaimed humans is easy. But we do not easily put down second or third generations, unless you want your own lieutenants? That is understandable, but your closest allies in life not coming under you, once Nuit is terminated, gives us pause. Why?"

Carlos glanced around nervously. He could not divulge that he wanted his brother's and his friend's souls saved. But a lie came to his lips quickly. "I don't want anyone in my inner circle possessed by an Amanthra."

"You propose to wipe out all of Nuit's made vampires, his Minion, too?" The attorney glanced at the group. "Ambitious. Very ambitious. We may have made a correct choice." He returned his attention to Carlos. "We generally never leave territory open - which is also why we didn't eliminate Nuit until we had a replacement. But you make a valid point. The entire Nuit line, the Minion, has been polluted. We can give you blank lines within his registry to fill. As you kill one of his, you can replace it with one of yours, until the line is purged. Feed well."

"Ruthless. Ambitious. I like it." The chairman nodded. "So be it. If you come with us, you take Nuit's territory, rebuild at will, and you will also get one-sixth of the Neteru vessel heritage. If we are able to compromise the Neteru, her heir will be a daywalker - which will produce more daywalkers. One-sixth of that number will come under your leadership."

"She's beautiful," Carlos murmured, using the mere mention of the Neteru to buy time. "And I owe Nuit. He'll pay."

"Yes. Vengeance is such a driving force."

Carlos nodded.

"Then, you're with us?"

He picked up the papers, but left the pen, and skimmed the documents he couldn't read. "I want a translation. I want to see my requests in blood - especially the part about me being the one to enter the slayer for the group. I also want to sign it just before my delivery of her to you, and after I have had a chance to peruse the fine print. I want amnesty from the agony pit - if Nuit does me first. But know that I will hunt that bastard down for the return of the double-cross ... it's personal, and it ain't business between him and me. I want to be the one to take him out. And this discussion will be considered a verbal contract." The attorney leaned in to the chairman. A low murmur ensued and then both beasts parted.

"We don't like verbal commitments - but given the pressure of time, and the unusual circumstances of all of this, plus your palpable hatred of Nuit - a wondrous emotion - we are willing to seal the bond the old-fashioned way." The attorney accepted the papers back from Carlos. "I will have new documents drawn up in human blood, forthwith."

Carlos nodded. "I'll need a layout of his lair and the demon realms so I can know how he moves."

"We'll send it by messenger," the chairman said with an uneasy smile. "You ask for difficult information, however. We know some of it, but not all. But we will give you a tour of Hell before you go."

"Send what you have then," Carlos said, turning to leave. "And I'll need an escort to the topside."

The chairman nodded. "Then, we have an agreement?"

Without turning fully around, Carlos cut a sharp glance at the group. "I will off Nuit, and I will find the Neteru," he intoned flatly.

The group hissed its acceptance.

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