THE glare of harsh hospital lamps made him squint as he came to. Berkfield immediately tried to sit up, but realized instantly that his hands and feet were strapped to a cold metal table. He tried to cry out, but his vocal cords were frozen. White-masked men in green surgeon's gowns peered down at him.
"Is the key ready?" an eerily distant, accented voice asked.
One of the masked men around the table nodded and held up a huge needle containing a silvery red fluid. Terror seized Berkfield as he stared at the epidural-sized syringe. He shook his head no, wildly resisting in vain. That only produced strange, out-of-body laughter from an unknown source within the sterile lab.
"Inject him," the voice said. "Then bring him to my chambers for the ritual."
Seated comfortably in the rec room around the poker table, seven guardians sat in a circle, hands joined, eyes closed. Four members of the Covenant stood watch, each positioned in the four earth directions, north, south, east, and west. The men at the Guardians' backs kept vigil to prevent evil from attacking from all directions, murmuring prayers in different languages. Marlene's mouth moved, her silent meditation calling down the Light to watch over them, requesting discernment to open their eyes, to sharpen their gifts, and to locate their baby girl.
"I can't see her and I can't feel her," Marlene said quietly, her voice tight with frustration, "and I've been trying for nearly an hour."
Beads of sweat dotted her brow, and she dabbed at the offending moisture with the back of her forearm, not breaking the human circle.
"They're obviously blinding both the seers in the group to their whereabouts," Father Patrick said. "But they can't block all of us."
Marlene nodded. "We'll have to track them through a back door. If one of the other members at the table can pick up a sensitivity, then we might have a chance. One of us will eventually feel their vibrations, or hear them, perhaps pick up a scent."
"Up to now, Marlene, you've been trying to get an immediate sightline on them. Let's see if we can redirect that energy to the olfactory sensors, or the tacticals. Maybe Mike can hear something that will clue us in?"
"It's worth a shot, Mar," Rider said. "If Jose and I can pick up some kinda tracer, then Father Pat's crew can trail it. We'll talk them through on walkie-talkie while keeping the circle connection going."
"All right, people," Marlene said on a weary sigh. "Let's clear our thoughts, stretch our minds. We know she mentioned a lair in Beverly Hills, so envision the environment, the surroundings, the streets, feel the trees, and see the colors, close your eyes, open up your minds, hear the traffic, smell the freshly cut lawns, let your gifts guide you and send those impressions to each other then to me."
Only the sound of deep, steady inhales could be heard. Air-conditioner compressors around the compound hummed in the distance. A wall clock ticked ever so slightly. Water from a faucet in the next room dripped.
Then Jose breathed in deeply and tilted his head at the same moment Father Lopez did.
"Talk to us, Jose," Marlene said, her voice low, melodic, calm. "Impression... scent?"
Jose took a deeper breath and squeezed Rider's hand harder. "Smells so good," he murmured.
"Rider," Marlene said, keeping the group steady, "you picking up?"
"No, Mar. The young buck got this one. I'm not picking up anything."
When Jose shuddered, everyone opened their eyes and stared at him.
"Stay focused everybody, keep hands joined, stay relaxed. Jose, where are you?"
A palpable tension could be felt in the room. The squat white candle in the center of the ring of hands sputtered and flickered as an energy charged the atmosphere around it.
"I don't know, but shit."
"Are you hurt?" Marlene asked quickly, but her voice was still low and controlled.
"No," Jose murmured.
"Are you by yourself?"
He shook his head no. His breathing deepened as his T-shirt became damp from sweat.
"The scent, is it vampire?"
"No," Jose said on a heavy exhale. "Female, straight up."
"Mar," Rider said. "He found Damali. Think he's got a lock with our girl."
"Yeah, bro," Jose said, slowly. "Roses... blood ... oh, baby."
Marlene stiffened. "Roses... are they outside?"
"No," Jose whispered. "Red everywhere..."
"He's picking up tactical senses, which is beyond his gift range. Mar, pull him out."
"No, Shabazz," she said through clenched teeth. "He saw a color, which means that he's got a visual, something we haven't been able to get."
Shabazz eased back in his chair, casting a concerned glance around the team. Father Lopez stepped forward, bringing the other three Covenant members to the table with him, walking almost in lockstep with them so they wouldn't lose their protective directional position. Father Lopez laid his hand on Jose's shoulder.
"I'll connect with him directly, stay with his spirit to guide him and to be a second source of strength." Father Lopez looked away shyly. "I feel things... and no offense, but I picked it up before Shabazz and J.L. did. I guess I'm a tactical sensor, too."
"Good," Rider said, nodding. "We almost lost our brother once before to some freak accident and I don't want to go there again."
"No he," Big Mike said.
Once Father Lopez was squarely at Jose's back, Marlene began her inquiry again, pushing harder for answers.
"Red," she told Jose, "concentrate on red. Is it blood?"
"No, soft..." he said and sighed. "Satin and roses."
"Why am I not surprised?" Rider asked, blowing his breath out hard.
"Rider, please," Marlene warned. "Jose, baby, open your mind's eye wider. Let Father Lopez's energy help you. Work with it."
"It's all in the air... Neteru," Jose said, taking in a deep breath and shuddering. "Her skin is like butter... and her throat." He licked his lips, and squeezed his shut eyes tighter.
The group went still.
"Where?" Marlene's voice was strained. Her gaze bore into Jose as sweat coursed down the sides of his face.
Father Patrick put his hand on Marlene's shoulders. "Steady, Mar. You'll lose the connection if you panic."
"In the mansion - "
All of a sudden Father Lopez dropped his hands from Jose's shoulders and backed away from the group, hugging his arms about himself. "I cannot do it," he said, shaking his head. "No."
"What did you feel, or see?" Father Patrick asked.
"It wasn't what I saw," Father Lopez said quietly. "It was what I felt." He staggered over to the wall, and leaned against it. The front of his black robe had a darkening stain that spread down his leg.
The team watched horrified as blood splattered the top of his shoe and oozed out onto the floor.
"It's his femoral artery! Break circle! Now!" Rider yelled.
Shabazz and Big Mike leapt forward and caught Father Lopez before he hit the ground. They slowly laid him on the floor. Two Guardians held their hands against the wound, applying pressure to the young cleric's inner thigh. J.L. ripped off his belt, and tossed it to Shabazz. Rider held the cleric's head up from the floor as his Guardian brothers worked to stop the hemorrhage. Marlene kept one hand on Jose's shoulders, Imam Asula kept one hand on the other. Father Patrick and Monk Lin covered their fallen brother with prayers, while the rest of the team stood in the distance, poised to act but not sure what to do.
Snatching the bowie knife from his hip, Rider passed the blade to Shabazz, who pushed up Father Lopez's robe and cut a long slit in the wounded cleric's pants. There was so much blood, they couldn't see the extent of the wound.
"Get some holy water to clean the site," Big Mike yelled to Dan, who immediately dashed away and came back with a plastic jug from the weapon's room containing what Mike had requested.
Shabazz doused the wound. Father Lopez screamed and convulsed. Marlene gasped when she saw two puncture wounds on the young man's inner thigh.
"Oh, shit, he bit her!" Marlene shrieked, breaking the connection. "He's bleeding her out!"
"No he's not," Jose said in a low, sensual tone. "She bit him."
"What!" Father Patrick said, staring at Jose in shock. He looked down at Lopez and slapped his face. "C'mon, son."
But just as quickly, the two puncture wounds sealed and the flow of blood stopped. Slowly, Father Lopez roused, his face ashen before it flushed a deep red, his breaths uneven.
He crossed himself, and struggled to sit up. The other guardians helped him.
"Oh, my God! Oh Father Christ!" he said, his voice fracturing as he pushed hands away from him and made the sign of the cross over his chest again. "She bit me... never in my life - "
"Steady," Father Patrick said, soothing the distraught junior priest. "What happened? Tell us exactly what happened."
Father Lopez shook his head, and shut his eyes tightly.
Father Lopez covered his face with his hands and breathed slowly. "I am so ashamed. Don't ask me to tell you with a woman in the room."
Rider threw up his hands. "Y'all gonna make me start smoking again. I'll tell you what the hell happened." He raked his fingers through his hair, hocked and spit in the wastebasket. "Blood fucks with my sinuses," he muttered, dismissing the group's glare. "She went down on hombre and took out his femoral artery at the moment of truth. Lopez and Jose were locked in on the master, not Damali."
Rider nodded in Jose's direction, causing everyone to look toward Jose. "Shabazz was right, shoulda pulled the man out. No human male can go the distance of a full vamp seduction. Get Jose unlocked before he has a fucking heart attack."
The group quickly moved toward the young guardian. Jose's head hung down, one hand on his forehead. His forearm braced him on the table, his fist clenched, and the muscle in his jaw working. His T-shirt stuck to his back.
"Shit," he said in a voice so deep and so unnatural for Jose that for a moment no one moved. His fist pounded on the table, his breathing escalated, his eyes rolled beneath his lids. When he moaned low in his throat, Marlene grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled off and slapped him. Jose just gave her a lazy, satisfied laugh.
Shabazz stepped forward and dashed the remaining holy water in Jose's face, but Jose still didn't come around. "He's blitzed on Neteru. Pull him out, Mar, before Damali takes his jugular!"
Father Lopez stood, weaving. "I took the first bite and oh, God, it felt so good," he whispered. "Pull us both out of this bond�now - before she takes the jugular."
Total pandemonium erupted as the team broke into two squads, each slapping, dousing, working on the two connected men. Marlene was in Jose's face, recanting the connection, trying to bring him up out of the trance, while the other seer, Father Patrick, worked on his young cleric, anxiety rising by the minute when the fallen wouldn't respond.
"We have to shoot them before Damali turns them," Shabazz said, unholstering his weapon and pointing the barrel of the gun at Jose's temple. Jose immediately lifted his head and looked at Shabazz.
"Are you insane, man?" Rider yelled, slamming into Shabazz, throwing his aim off.
But as soon as Shabazz had pointed the gun at Jose, the trance had been broken. Jose sat there looking dazed. Imam Asula nodded, whipped out his machete, and pressed it to Father Lopez's throat. Father Lopez immediately snapped out of it as well.
"What the fuck?" Rider said angrily.
Shabazz holstered Sleeping Beauty. "A master is most vulnerable when he's asleep, when he hasn't fed, or when he's gettin' busy, but will always pull up when there's an eminent threat." He stroked his gun, and nodded in Asula's direction. "So me and brotherman provided an eminent threat."
Marlene sat down slowly at the table and let her head drop into her hands. "I know you two gentlemen have just been through something outrageous, and I'm sorry you had to go there," she said, speaking to Jose and Lopez. "But can you tell us anything about where they are?"
Father Lopez nodded. "They're at the mansion in Beverly Hills."
Jose nodded weakly. "Nuit's old joint," he said slowly. "Carlos is seriously pissed off, and something is trailing enough sulfur there for Rider to track it. There's weird noises, barking, that Mike can track. I don't know what it was but if I caught the scent again, I'd know it." He looked away, his face suddenly stained with embarrassment. "And I can track Damali now, easy." He rubbed his nose with the back of his hand, and shuddered one last time.
"Jesus." Marlene stood and paced away from the table. "Okay, okay, we have to mount up. Maybe there's a chance."
"You're right, baby," Shabazz said quietly, going to her, "we have to mount up a posse, but not to save her. We're gonna have to find them and smoke 'em both."
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