Carlos's gaze narrowed on the dark blue horizon as he opened his arms, feeling the wind gather about him. Going down to Hell alone was not an issue at this point. One more night of freedom - for what? He was so worried about what might happen within the compound that he just willed himself to council chambers without waiting for the formal VIP escort that was on its way.
As the earth split at his feet, emitting a black cloud that swirled around him, pulling him down, he could sense slippery things reach out for him, then think better of it. Even the demons knew he was not to be messed with right now.
As soon as he landed in the black-stalactite-studded outer council chamber corridors, the messenger bats screeched their confusion, gossiping wildly, stirring their putrid ammonia-ridden stench. Several hooded domestic couriers stepped out of the sulfur fumes, and materialized from behind slick stalagmites, their eyes glowing red.
Two scythes dropped before him, blocking his approach, and the bolder of the two messengers that stopped him hissed its concern.
"Master Rivera, it is customary to be escorted to chambers by VIP escort at your level when the chairman has summoned you. We believe your furlough expires tomorrow night. Then and only then does your full installation as a councilman occur."
The tunnel went silent, all entities waiting for the proper response. From the corner of his eye Carlos could see the narrow path that led to the molten sea of Perpetual Agony that surrounded the main chamber. For a moment, the sight of the howling, begging, lost vampire souls within it gave him pause. Their relentless shrieks always made the hair stand up on his arms, but that would be the last thing he'd have to worry about if the chairman decided he didn't like what he had to say.
"I didn't send for a courier, because the international one I summoned broke protocol and reached for my package." Carlos gave the smaller, domestic couriers a threatening smile. "I had to... fire him. The chairman needs to know about things like that. Besides, I'm responding to a nine-one-one."
At once the corridor erupted with screeches and squeals of delight - juicy gossip always fed the blind. The messengers raised their scythes, and hissed their approval, signaling that Carlos could pass.
"How did you kill him?" a voice echoed behind Carlos.
"Tore his arm off when he reached for my package then ripped his heart out."
A chorus of delighted squeals cheered Carlos as he walked away.
He crossed the bubbling pit on a six-inch band of earth and once at the massive, black marble double doors, Carlos steadied himself before reaching for the golden, fanged door knockers and submitted to the required serpent strike on his hand that would identify his black blood for entry.
The doors slowly opened, and he was once again standing before the ancient power center. His footsteps echoed on the black marble floor veined with blood. Carlos held his head up, his jaw set hard, his eye contact with the chairman never wavering as he approached the pentagram-shaped council table. Dense smoke from the iron wall torches plumed in a spiral upward, joining with the ever-present black transport tornado that circled high above in the ceiling's arch.
Everything seemed to be in order, calm. He nodded at the chairman, who returned the gesture, lacing his long, clawed fingers together under his chin. Carlos then acknowledged the two remaining council members, detecting a level of nervousness.
"Mr. Chairman," Carlos said in his most confident voice. "Gentlemen. It is good to be back at this table."
The chairman stood and issued a sly smile with a raised eyebrow, and put his hands behind his back. He took his time rounding the table, his long onyx-colored robe making a soft swishing sound as he neared Carlos. The blue blood within his veins moved slowly under his paper-thin gray skin. And although that was a good sign that the chairman's mood was calm, even the cloud of transporter bats high above in the arched ceiling fell eerily silent.
"How were the islands?" the chairman asked, his tone cooing, almost amused.
"Fine, sir, but that's not why I'm here, right? You sent a high-priority message for me to..." Carlos's statement died as he watched the chairman continue to move toward him.
The chairman circled him slowly and Carlos knew better than to move. His body temperature dropped to a nervous twenty-eight degrees when the chairman came close enough to rip his heart out.
"You had one more night before your furlough expired." The chairman put a hooked claw to his lips and made a little tsking sound. The other senior members shook their heads, then began filling their golden goblets with blood that oozed from the table's pointed edges.
"Mr. Chairman, we've got major problems topside," Carlos said firmly, his chin still held high, his gaze level with the chairman's.
"I know we have major problems topside!" the chairman shouted, fangs suddenly eight inches and growing longer by the second as he grabbed Carlos by the throat. "We got a visit from the seventh level last night. They sent harpies to inform us that that the Neteru might have turned. Speak to me, now!"
The force of the chairman's grasp was crushing his Adam's apple, but Carlos managed to croak out, "She's not turning. She's in flux."
The chairman dropped him and began to pace. "Explain," he said in Dananu.
Thinking fast, Carlos threaded every truth he knew with the best lies. The fact that the senior council member had asked the question in the old language was not good, but it also meant that he was unnerved by the level-seven inquiry, and that was potentially advantageous.
"As you gentlemen know, I have been protecting this package since the day I was turned." Carlos took his time. This had to be an airtight game. "After the incident in Brazil, where we lost Counselor Vlak, and with Nuit's seat also open, our council was suddenly and extremely vulnerable. We need five points of the pentagram territories inhabited by a throne-level master to keep the power flow at peak levels."
"Dispense with the history," the chairman snapped, his patience gone. "Explain the flux."
"You gave me a month to work on her, to keep her confused, in an open state. I marked her, and even her family had its guard down after my team's performance in Brazil."
Carlos glanced at the still-seated councilmen, who nodded their approval, and he could feel his body temperature begin to normalize as the chairman moved away from him to take a seat at the table. But their icy glares said they were waiting for more answers.
"The repeated bites I delivered were not enough to turn her, just influence her. I know that she cannot be allowed to die, or be compromised."
He waited until the old chairman nodded.
"But I still had the tracer of ripening were-demon on me from... let's say... a brief indiscretion I had while tracking the Neteru."
Again, he waited, and when the old men around the table smiled, he began to relax. "Bottom line is, the scent caused an international courier to get confused, try to rush the Neteru, and he nicked her," Carlos said, puffing up to seem indignant. "To keep her family placated, I took her home so they can perform whatever rituals are necessary to flush her system of the bite overdose - the courier's is now added to mine. Her womb has to remain inviolate."
"That fool!" the chairman exclaimed, aghast. "If you had not exterminated him, surely I would have."
The chairman's statement was met with a round of murmurs from the others at the table.
"My point exactly," Carlos replied with confidence. "I had to smoke him right in front of her. But it worked to our advantage."
"The Guardians will be able to rectify this?" The chairman's eyes searched Carlos's.
"That's why I took her to her compound before responding to your urgent page. Nothing short of a serious emergency would have made me do something like that, Mr. Chairman."
It was a standoff. He could feel the chairman trying to break through his mental barriers. All he could hope was that the Covenant had not rescinded the prayers they'd had around him that created a Vampire Council blind spot.
Finally, the chairman sat back and closed his eyes. "Our apologies," he said in a soothing tone. "You do appear sufficiently alarmed by the incident. We are all under duress."
Carlos nodded and let his breath out slowly. "Thank you."
"The timing of this situation is very delicate." The chairman was on his feet again, slowly pacing behind the table.
"Don't worry, I've got this under control," Carlos said, holding up his hand, hoping to arrest the old man's agitation. "It was perfect."
All eyes were trained on Carlos as a lopsided smile tugged at his mouth. "I saved her, yet again, from danger when I dropped the courier. I brought her to her people and asked them to pray away the turn, to find an antidote. I, a vampire, asked them to pray."
The chairman stood so still that Carlos wasn't sure if the old man was even breathing. "Brilliant," the senior vampire whispered. "What then?"
"She argued with them, because, of course, they were angry at me for putting her in harm's way... but she 'went against her entire team and even the Covenant. . .for me. We have fully co-opted the Neteru, gentlemen." Carlos allowed the silent awe to sweep through the three elder vampires.
Triumphant, Carlos lifted his chin higher as fanged smiles slowly opened on the faces around the table. The chairman threw back his head and laughed.
"Rivera, each time you come to council chambers, you delight me. And, your plan, now, young man?"
This was it: the bargaining hour. Time to call in more resources, and to buy him and Damali more time.
"I still want her people protected until the very end so she doesn't get nervous and think I've started picking them off one by one. I've invested a lot to keep her on my side."
"Done," the chairman murmured, rubbing his long, pointed chin with satisfaction.
"I can't travel down here by courier for a while, even though I know the two empty seats creates a power drain, but it'd only be temporary. I can come down for serious business, meetings on significant topside matters, but I shouldn't risk going back and forth unescorted on a regular basis. I need to stay topside to keep the vessel out of harm's way. None of us knows how many scattered rebel forces from the civil war still remain at large."
All the bald heads around the table nodded their consent.
"These are indeed unstable times, Rivera. You have been our best insurance, thus far."
"But my lairs are wide open. I haven't had time to set up lieutenants I can trust. So, I'll need some Hell-dogs to watch my back while I handle my territory realignments."
"There are four other masters topside, Mr. Chairman," one of the other councilmen said with concern. "Each continent has one. Nuit's old territory was ceded to Carlos, and it is vast with breechable borders. Surely we can authorize some safeguards for our esteemed Councilman Rivera?"
The chairman nodded. "Absolutely. While he is in-lair, his perimeters must be held. But, as you travel you'll need bodyguards, of some sort."
"I'll work it out. I can make some bodyguards; that's not my primary concern. I just want to be sure that I don't get smoked in my sleep."
"These are dangerous times to be at our level, Carlos," the chairman said carefully. "Fallon Nuit's coup attempt has given the other masters ideas... and none of them is pleased with our choice to promote you before them. Envy is such a powerful emotion."
Carlos watched the elderly vampire's eyes, slowly becoming aware that while the Neteru situation was a problem, something much worse was brewing. When the chairman glanced at the other seated council members before proceeding, he was sure of it.
"Sir," Carlos asked with total deference in his tone, "if there's something compromising our position, I need to know."
The old vampire closed his eyes, let out a long, weary breath and laced his gnarled fingers together. "Your territory had a key hidden within it, as all the territories do. The gray zone of choice is where the catalysts of the Armageddon lie."
Cool beads of sweat crept between Carlos's shoulder blades until they united into a silent trickle down his spine. "You said, 'had'..."
"Damned scientists," the chairman muttered so quietly that no one at the table breathed for a moment. "Their ignorance... lack of knowledge and understanding."
Carlos and the others watched the chairman battle repressed rage, a slight tremor running through him as he stood and swept past the table to stop before the torture wall. He opened his fingers wide, stretching them until the ancient skin seemed like it would rip. They all watched as each digit soon glowed with an eerie red heat, and when he was satisfied that enough energy had collected within his now blue-white palm, he pointed to the wall, scorching it with laser-like flames as he drew the diagram for them.
"There is a key for the Seven Seals as specified within the sixth chapter of Revelations - contained within the book we never mention. Someone from the sixth realm - a master vampire - has stolen the key that will unlock the sixth seal."
Carlos was leaning forward so far in his throne that he almost fell to the floor. The key to the Sixth seal had been stolen?
"When opened, the sixth seal turns the sun to ash, making it black like sackcloth... perpetual night." The chairman paused as murmurs swept the chamber. "The moon will turn to blood. Heaven will roll away as though a scroll taken up." His hard gaze stabbed into every set of pupils that remained riveted to his. "The opener of the seal would be powerful enough to mark his territory with the sacred number of our empire. He would not need a daywalker bloodline, as night would be eternal! The sun would be forever banished. Heaven would have rolled away, giving rise to earthquakes and landmass realignments - our territories would be in chaos... and this victor would rule under a blood moon, rendering this council obsolete as a ruling body!"
All Carlos heard was the part about not needing a Neteru to make daywalkers. That meant Damali was instantly at risk. The only thing that had ever kept them from trying to kill her was the possible use of her womb. If that option vanished, her protection would disappear. Carlos was on his feet.
"But if this was already prophesized in Revelations, it was only a matter of time - "
"Our time!" the chairman shouted, pointing a bony finger toward Carlos to correct him. "Our Dark Lord has always been in pursuit of these hidden keys and seals. He, and he alone, would have handed them over to the most deserving realms, and our level-six council would have been the epitome of his empire. The daywalkers were our insurance. No one knows the true hour of the Armageddon, and for centuries we have all been in wait."
Weary resignation entered Carlos's body, just as it seemed to have slowed the chairman's complaint.
"Sir, you said it happened in my territory. North America, I take it?"
"Yes," the chairman hissed, as he slowly made his way back to his throne. "Your borders were weak, there were many insurgents - but that would not have been enough to find the keys." His lethal gaze swept the table. "Scientists. Bloody, foolish scientists have been conducting experiments to find and monitor our energy fields. They have created disturbances, opened portals, and demagnetized some force fields that once hid the seals and keys from us. They were doing advanced weapons research in the U.S., experimenting with electromagnetic fields, and that's how one of our topside masters came to know that the most critical of the keys was hidden in North America." He released a pained chuckle. "They wanted the ultimate weapon, and they have indeed created it."
"If a master vampire has his hands on the key, then we'll just have to jack him and get it back - basic," Carlos said, making a tent with his hands. "Assassinate the sonofabitch."
The chairman smiled. "While we all like how you think, Mr. Rivera, the critical element is we don't know which master has it." He glimpsed the other more senior councilmen. "You see, Carlos, that is why we summoned you. When the Neteru began to turn, and this all occurred in your territory, we had to invite you down here for an appraisal. Our initial assumption had to be governed by logic versus loyalty. If your bite turned her, and the threat of this council, as well as the loss of the opportunity to start a daywalker empire, was not enough to make you garner restraint... then we could only assume..."
"I understand, sir." Although Carlos was offended, he could appreciate the precaution and simply nodded.
"We now believe that she turned because of the power shift," one of the councilmen at the far end of the table admitted. "A Neteru, post-twenty-one years of age, should never turn. Not like that. Not within the same night. This happened when the breach occurred. When one of the Keys of Light fell into the hands of the Dark Realms, some of her immunity was possibly compromised."
Carlos concurred with a nod. "If you don't know who took it, please tell me you do know where it was taken from. North America is a lot of ground to cover on a treasure hunt."
"A church in Boston," the chairman said, wiping his brow. "Seems energy fluctuations reduced the barrier to evil around the key holder and exposed it, and he had a weakness... shall we call it a proclivity for little boys. The master who came to him trailed illusion and transformed into an irresistible youth, sources tell us, and was thus able to sweet-talk the cleric into fetching the key in order to make an impression."
The chairman let his breath out in disgust. "Everybody has a weakness, every power structure has an Achilles' heel - ironically, theirs has now become ours." He chuckled sadly and closed his eyes, the strain clear in his fatigued expression. "Almost karmic, wouldn't you agree?" When Carlos didn't reply to the rhetorical question, the chairman calmly returned to his seat. "Our only chance is the fact that they've never kept the keys with the seals. Each seal, we can only determine via logic, is most likely kept far away from each key. The quest then is to secure either the key or the seal to have bargaining power with the master who is attempting the coup."
"Or we can eliminate the bastard from the game before he can play it." Carlos stared at the chairman hard and could feel the electric agreement of the others course through him as they hissed their approval.
The chairman smiled.
Carlos stood and began to pace. "All right. What does the key look like?" His nerves were drawn so taunt that he had to put his hands behind his back as he paced.
"It's blood," the chairman whispered. "It's the blood of the Lamb. It's the Key of Life. When the blood is spilled upon the seal, it opens. The priest showed the master vampire a holy vial, which was then stolen."
Carlos stopped walking. The blood of Christ? Carlos chose his next words carefully. "The Light is going to send a serious militia for it. You know that, right?" He hesitated. "I can't imagine that they'd just sit back and - "
"Even their normal Guardian teams are gaining strength, becoming more aggressive. You are correct, Mr. Rivera. This has already begun to create repercussions that we are monitoring to develop a damage-control strategy against."
"Even if the priest left hallowed ground, the master wouldn't be able to hold onto the vial. If this blood really came from - "
"Yes," the chairman said quickly, again cutting Carlos off. "A human helper had to do the master's bidding, but the key can be contained within a living body. We must find the human that has been given the blood, and that human must be slain on the seal as a perfect sacrifice at the appointed hour. If we do not find this human before the other master uncovers the location of the sixth seal, existence as we know it is over."
"If I off the master vamp who did the heist, and bring you the key - "
"The Neteru is yours, fangs and all. We would have no more use for her and she would be less problematic as your vampire bride, Carlos, than as a huntress."
Carlos returned to his throne very slowly. The threat was implicit. Bring us the seal or we kill Damali. It was so obvious, yet so subtle, a knowing so clear that the chairman didn't even have to say it. The old vampire understood by now that Damali was worth more to his existence than even infinite power. The realization that the chairman recognized that deeply held secret left Carlos feeling naked. They could trust him to bring them the seal and not use it himself - it made too much sense.
He sat with great effort and in deep contemplation. What would he tell Damali? Every fiber within him knew that she'd never allow such a trade; her life for the sixth biblical seal. She'd fight to the death to protect it, even with fangs. That was her nature, just like to negotiate to the bone to save her was his. Another variable had arisen, but it was one he might not be able to live with.
"You seem hesitant," the chairman said, threading new tension throughout the chamber.
Carlos shook his head. "No. I'm trying to figure out who could have crossed my borders and when. It probably went down when I was in Brazil or in the Caribbean. The northern borders would have been wide open for a month." Renewed rage and frustration lowered his incisors as he raked his fingers through his hair. Damn!
The chairman sat back in his throne, appearing relaxed.
"Perhaps as the newest council member, I may call a topside meeting. The others, after all, are a level of power lesser than me, right? That is my prerogative." Carlos watched the chairman for a reaction.
"Do not take these old masters lightly, Carlos," the chairman warned. "They are shrewd and deadly. We cannot afford another power drain to the table. Do not act on an ill-conceived plan developed in haste and frustration."
"I know better than to go in blind-swinging because I'm pissed about a border breech." Carlos tried to temper the indignant tone that was making his statement too brittle. Mellowing slightly to show respect, he took a deep breath before continuing. "I just need a little time to work some things out, but duly noted. If they've lasted this long topside, against all the Neterus they've historically encountered, I have respect for what they can do." Carlos leaned forward and filled his goblet without looking at it, his gaze holding the throne-seated vampires' steely glares. "But they also need to respect this council."
The chairman smiled. "We had not made your descent full public knowledge while you were away... for your safety, and for that of the Neteru's, since she was your traveling companion. Perhaps we should?"
"Rub some salt in the wound and see who bristles the most," Carlos said, taking a casual sip from his goblet. "That ought to bring out the claws, and I can pick them off one by one."
"You are talking about wiping out four masters?" The councilman seated closest to Carlos stood and ran his palm over his bald scalp.
"If I have to." Carlos didn't blink as he stared at the group. "You can make more, we all can make more, if it comes to that. But what we cannot allow is for this council to be overturned. I just need to work out a plan to get them all together under the same roof. We have to be sure of where any allegiances may lie - more than one of them could be in on it."
The chairman's smile broadened. "It will represent a temporary and significant power drain, but well worth the topside purge under the circumstances. Very wise. Once the seal is opened under our control, the power drain will be inconsequential. Yes, and I have every confidence you will develop a suitable plan," the chairman said, raising a goblet to Carlos. "Come, sit, drink, and let us enjoy the evening. A couple of dogs are available to aid in your security - they're more loyal than men."
With a casual wave of his hand, the chairman dispatched a ceiling transport bat, and Carlos waited for his resources, trying to stay cool. A loud commotion beyond the council walls made everyone train their attention toward the sound. Bats screeched in terror, and incessant growls and barks careened through the cavernous space. The front doors blew open, and four super-strength international couriers paired off to hold the two beasts they held by chains.
Carlos noted how the couriers' bulging arms strained, and massive chests within their hooded messenger robes expanded and contracted under the exertion. Red eyes glowed in the faceless dark hollows of their hoods, flickering out and occasionally disappearing as they tried to control pit bulls from level seven.
Just as before, when he'd asked for assistance in Brazil, he'd been given beasts, each with six yellow glowing eyes that ringed the circumference of their huge skulls, standing three feet high at the shoulder, their muscular black chests rippling as they scrabbled against the slippery marble floor to get to Carlos. Their jaws were so packed with fangs that they couldn't fully close their mouths, and foamed, slick saliva dripped from them, leaving acid burns in the floor. They flapped their leathery wings, half flying, as they pulled the couriers along the floor, slashing at them with their spaded, double-blade tails.
The chairman turned to him and chuckled.
"You approve?" he asked. "The last time you declined my offer to adopt Brutus and Bath Sheba. Just look at them... they're beautiful."
Carlos wasn't sure how to respond. "This time I accept," he finally said with a nod of gratitude. "They are truly magnificent creatures." There was only awe in his tone. He'd never seen anything like them.
"Don't worry, turn them loose on your lair grounds, and we're fairly confident that you will have no intruders - day or night."
"Just let them go?" Carlos asked, very unsure.
"Pop the chains," the chairman said with a wicked grin. "Let them get to know their new master."
Before Carlos could object, the dogs had broken from their hold and were making a snarling hurdle toward him. He could feel the chairman silently communicate to stay seated - show fear, and they will not obey, might even attack. Every instinct within him was poised to bulk and do battle.
When the beasts got to the table, they slowed, sniffing each seated entity, passing them by until they spotted Carlos, then they sat back on their haunches, threw their heads back, and howled.
"Give them your fist so they can get the scent of your territory, and transmit who is considered off limits," the chairman said calmly.
Too on guard to speak, Carlos slowly extended his fist to the snarling beasts, projecting images and scents of Damali, her Guardians, the Covenant, his family - even that crazy cop, Berkfield. Immediately one of the dogs opened its jaws, and clamped down on his fist, drawing in his arm all the way up to his elbow - but never bore down. He could feel acid bubbling on his skin, but then the creature whimpered, and licked the ooze off, wagged its savage tail, nuzzled his leg, and dropped to Carlos's feet.
A trickle of sweat rolled down his temple. Had he been less than he was, he would have shit his pants. The second creature loped up to him, wings still flapping, muscles twisting and knotting in its back as it approached. It sniffed the creature that was lying on the floor, then went to Carlos, flicked a long, green forked tongue at him, and licked the sweat from Carlos's cheek, before flopping down with a satisfied grunt.
"Marvelous, aren't they?"
"Un-fucking-believable," Carlos murmured, still shaken. And he'd thought Nuit's panther had been something.
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