"There is no safe place to turn the bowels of Hell upon, Neteru," Monk Lin said calmly. "Tibet has been bloodied at the hands of human destruction, but is spiritually sound enough to take an invasion. As a member of the Covenant, we are to accompany you to points along your path, and you have made a wise choice. I will be waiting for you in Tibet when the time comes for you to journey there. For now, my remaining brethren will accompany you."

Panic seized Damali's voice as she looked at Monk Lin's resigned, peaceful expression.

"My journey ends, Neteru, in Algeria," Imam Asula said. "You have learned well. Our task is nearly done. Only the Guardians will soon be necessary. That is why we stop there."

Her gaze shot around the small cabin and landed on Father Patrick. "Tell me you're not leaving us, too? You and Father Lopez..."

"Child... our Neteru, we lead you to the Christian strongholds, then my work is most likely done. From there, Father Lopez will be your link to us, but we will never be far away."

"You sound like you're dying," Carlos said, interjecting himself into the conversation for the first time since they'd entered the aircraft. His voice hitched without censure. "Man, all of you are family. You just can't up and leave. It ain't right."

"The winds of change are upon us, son," Father Patrick said gently. "Monk Lin and Imam Asula have been sent visions instructing them where they need to go now. My impression of what I'm to do is still hazy, even though I am the father-seer for the group. But I promise you, I will not just up and leave," he said with emphasis, "without telling you. We've become too close for that."

The groups looked between Carlos and Father Patrick, and no one spoke until Carlos's shoulders relaxed and he nodded.

"All right. Cool."

Father Patrick's gaze was tender, his voice warm. "I will not abandon you. I promise."

Carlos nodded and moved into the aisle. He kept his head held high and his back very straight and faced the door. Damali watched the muscles in his jaw working, and for the first time since the hellish nightmare in Sydney concluded, she realized that she wasn't locked in on his thoughts. It wasn't that she was blocked; there was simply no connection. The awareness made her chest heavy. She wanted to reach out to him and hug him, but knew better than to do that just now.

Sensing the tension, Marlene faced the group. "Father Patrick, this is your convoy. How do we proceed?"

"We will board a knights of Templar jumbo jet. All identification as diplomats of the church have been processed and are in order. The plane has already passed security clearance. But that brings me to another very critical point."

All eyes were on the senior cleric as he paused, took a deep breath, and continued.

"No weapons."

"What!" Rider shouted. "We've got senior levels of Hell on our asses and no weapons?"

"Marlene has a sea salt and herbal compound, and we have a bottle of holy water for each of you. Before you get on the plane, we will go to a private hanger that has been outfitted for VIPs. You will shower, get the blood off of you, will scrub your bodies with Marlene's compound and rinse it off with holy water, and get out of these military fatigues. We will put on the white cotton embroidered dashikis, pantaloons, and crocheted knit caps of the faithful Ethiopian. You will travel as pilgrims led by clerics. You will be unarmed, and pose no international threat when we go through the heavy inspection in Manila and upon arrival in war-torn Ethiopia. The only weapons on board will be the Isis dagger and blades-which I will say have come from the Vatican... which, they did at one time, so technically, that is not a lie."

Rider opened and closed his mouth, but no sound came out. Carlos never even turned around.

"When we get to Algeria," Imam Asula said calmly, "there will be weapons stashed on the aircraft brought in on the food containers. You will be informed of where they are, as well as each given a new roll of clothes and toiletries. With the death of the Transylvanian, Europe is hot."

"Hey, ain't no friends in this game, brother," Rider said. "We smoked masters from Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe; and our boy, Carlos, who was representing the U.S. and South America, also got smoked, so to speak. So why is Europe any hotter than Africa or Asia right now?" Rider's gaze settled on Asula after it briefly scanned the group.

"Europe had been the most recent epicenter of world power, with other forces diverted to the Middle East," Asula said in a patient tone. "That was the dark empire's most severe blow, and where they will most likely reconstitute quickly, just as they will have to redress the loss to the U.S. territory. Therefore, you may be able to travel in relative safety on the mother continent and Asia, for now, but Europe and the United States are in total chaos after this most effective strike."

"Why does that make sense, but not make me feel much better?" Rider said, although he nodded to signal that he would relent. "Makes me want to just go fishing in the Caribbean and call it a day."

SHE HAD been prepared to melt under the hot water in the shower. She nearly passed out from the relief as Marlene massaged grime out of her scalp. She had been prepared to just want to drop from exhaustion and terrible cramps. She had even been prepared to feel the lump of anxiety forming in her chest as she got her nerves ready to say good-bye to dear Monk Lin in only a few hours once they arrived in Manila.

However nothing could have prepared her to see Carlos step out of the men's room, freshly showered, wearing a stark white-on-white satin embroidered knee-length dashiki, flowing white pantaloons, his feet shod in handcrafted leather slip-on sandals, his hair wet and slicked back under a crocheted skullcap, his jaw set hard, his eyes hidden behind dark shades and staring at nothing.

It was that blank stare that did her in. Suddenly it was hard to breathe, the slight hurt so badly.

Damali let her gaze roam past her all-white-clad team, soaking in their regal beauty. They looked like a wedding party. She wanted to weep, but refused to do so. Rider made her smile, as he looked miserable in the skullcap and kept fussing under his breath about not having anywhere to stash a weapon.

So she forced her mind to cling to the mundane, the inane, anything but the fact that the person she wanted to wrap his arms around her and lie and tell her it would be all right, wasn't all right. Carlos was gone. When he'd return, she couldn't tell. All she could hope was he would soon.

And in that small sliver of grief that she allowed herself, she felt gypped, truly cheated by fate. The Light had brought him back, but hadn't brought him back whole. She wondered if other women had ever felt like she did now, hoping and sending up prayers that their man would safely come home from wherever... prison, the service, some job far, far away, only to get back his body but a very different mind. She knew the answer as soon as it had slid into her consciousness. Unfortunately, she was not alone. She just felt alone.

There was nothing to do now but wait. Wait to get on the flight to Manila. Wait to get from Manila to Addis Ababa, wait to travel from there to Dubai, and wait for the interminable flight from there to Khartoum, and from there, more waiting to skip through Cairo, Paris Orly, then Algiers, to wait some more. Then they would have to wait for time to be alone to talk, time to readjust to being in the same space, they'd have to wait for her body to heal before they could be as one, and wait to see if that was even possible any longer.

As she waited in the cool hangar, Damali studied the seed pearls and intricate white beadwork on the front of the new gown Marlene had given her. She fingered the small cowry shells that rimmed her flowing bell sleeves. She'd only briefly glimpsed herself in the mirror as Marlene had rewrapped her hair in a clean, new, starched white cotton fabric. It had been too painful to watch Marlene's attention to her, as though she were a bride getting ready for her big day. She'd never have a big day, and not with the one she'd always hoped to. It felt so impossible now, and there had been so much they'd both taken for granted. Now that was all gone.

Damali pushed herself up from the soft lounge chair and walked over to Father Patrick and his weary band of clerics. Without saying a word, she gave them each a long hug, even Monk Lin and Imam Asula, who technically weren't supposed to accept one from her. But as an adopted daughter, they seemed to make the allowance, returning her hug warmly, with deep affection embedded within the embrace.

"Thank you guys so much," she said to them quietly, "for arranging all of this, even down to the clothes, shower, and food."

Father Patrick held her more closely and stroked her back as he spoke. "The churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples are wealthy beyond your comprehension, daughter. If we couldn't provide for the one who has been sent to help us save the world, then what are we doing this for?" He held her back and smiled tenderly. "You've given up a lot and deserve much. That has always been my prayer."

The other clerics nodded as the eldest in the group released her.

"And you have lost much... the rabbi, the ninjas, the-"

Father Patrick held up his hand and placed two fingers against her lips. "They have simply transitioned to the new place of peace. We will not mourn the dead and gnash our teeth over the fallen, not while we have been gifted with life and have still much work to do."

Damali kissed his cheek and slipped away from their small circle, knowing that his words had a hidden message within it for her to heed. She soaked in his wisdom as she found her teammates sprawled on the lush furniture. "You guys ready to roll?"

He thought he had adequately braced himself for this new surreal journey, the reentry into human civilian life. But nothing could have made him ready to deal with Damali's regal presence. Only twenty-four hours ago she'd worn a white sheath for him at the vampire's Master's Cup ball. Now she was standing in a full beam of sunlight that washed her golden bronze, the light catching in pearls, creating a dazzling display of light work against her. She'd gone from vampress to Madonna in one shower change. Street urchin to light bearer. A queen of light.

She'd been his wife, too, for a very short and unsanctioned time, when he had been a master of the night. Now, she wasn't that. Just like he wasn't what he'd been. She had more important titles to bear than that of Councilman Rivera's wife. She was the Neteru. He simply had to get with that.

He couldn't look at her in all-white. Not now. The wound was still too fresh and bleeding inside erratically, irrationally, hemorrhaging him to the core. And the fact that she and her team carried enough VIP weight to have the Vatican send a jumbo jet, outfitted like Air Force One, was creating a deeper conflict within him than he cared to address.

So, he took his time climbing up the steep incline of steps behind Shabazz, Rider, and Big Mike, with Father Patrick at his back. He was cargo, potentially dangerous cargo, in their minds. Or, perhaps, it was just in his weary brain that he was any of those things. He wondered if they viewed him as a HAZMAT that might turn, or combust, or whatever. Nothing could be certain except that he wasn't a real member of their team, just their ward to be handled with care.

"Oh, my God!" Berkfield yelled, hopping off the gurney and brushing past the cardinal and doctors. "You, my friend, are a sight for sore eyes!"

Berkfield rushed Carlos and hugged him so hard that all Carlos could do was chuckle. Tears were streaming down Berkfield's face and he pulled Carlos in a circle, his gaze darting between Carlos and Damali.

"In broad freakin' daylight! Look at you! You kids made it!" Berkfield laughed and did a little jig, and then ran down the wide aisle slapping the whole team high-five.

"Yeah, in broad freaking daylight, it's good to see you, too, man," Rider said, laughing. "You cool?"

"Just get me to my wife and kids, then I'll be perfection," Berkfield said, still giddy. He shook his head, smoothing his palm over the skullcap that clung to his semibald scalp. "I hope they have a fully stocked bar on this contraption, because a man could surely use a shot of something serious after all this bullshit."

All the clerics on board blanched, but reserved comment.

"Word," Shabazz said, smiling and pounding Big Mike's fist.

"You check out the digs?" Rider said, glancing around. "Wood grains rich enough to make your eyes squint, leather seats that could accommodate an NBA player. I know they have liquor on board. I can smell it. The bar is thataway."

The members of the Guardian team laughed, releasing pent-up tension until there was not a dry eye on the plane. Finally Father Patrick corralled the group and brought order.

"We must first thank the Almighty that we are all here and whole," he said. "We must thank Cardinal Muldavey for his intercession to Rome to get us the supplies and transportation we required. We must thank the good doctors that have stood by Richard's side, and who will attend to Damali's needs... may their hands be steady, their minds keen. And we must pray for safe journeys, that our missions be accomplished without further tragedy or loss. We will pray for those who have fallen, may their souls rest in peace. And we will ask forgiveness for our own trespasses, and for the Almighty to allow these teams to rest securely, to eat well, and restore their fatigued souls. Amen."

A resounding amen rippled through the group. Rider glanced at the bar, and Shabazz and Big Mike tucked away smiles.

"I will not be on this flight, as I am stationed here. But I do understand there's been some concern about safety and the lack of weapons," the cardinal said cautiously, gripping the silver medical case he carried tighter.

"I'll be honest," Damali said, her voice filled with appreciation, but also worry. "There's a lot of heat in the system right now, and during the night while we're in the air, we need something beside the Isis to protect ourselves if we're attacked."

The cardinal nodded. "That's why we put you on this. There's a full video conference room that the pontiff uses for media relations just up that spiral staircase in the center of the plane, a dining room, full cabin staff, doctors... and this aircraft can be refueled in midair, should it be impossible to touch down until dawn. She also carries missiles and a machine-gun turret, as a precaution. The pilots, although clergy, are sharpshooters and armed-but we didn't want an accidental firefight to break out on board where a stray bullet or shoulder-propelled rocket might accidentally open a hole in the side of the aircraft and depressurize the flight at thirty thousand feet. You're carrying precious cargo, and the pontiff only had two of these in his fleet. We'd hate to lose one, and your team has a bit of a reputation for property damage."

"Well why the heck didn't you say so?" Rider said with a sigh. "NowI feel better, and amdefinitely ready for that drink."

Jose smiled, noting how Rider had intentionally checked his language for the cardinal. "I'm glad you think we're precious cargo, sir. If this is the pope's plane, then I guess we're cool."

The cardinal smiled tensely. "It is Mr. Berkfield who is our deep concern and we need to be sure he is guarded at your maximum capacity. He was insistent that he wanted to join the group, and frankly, Rome is worried. But, er, uh, we accept his decision with grace." The cardinal bowed and stood, his eyes on Richard Berkfield as the rest of the group gaped.

"Not the Neteru?" Marlene stammered.

"Not until we know that she is still the Neteru," the cardinal said carefully.

Silence filled the interior of the plane. The captain's voice over the intercom was the only thing that broke it.

"Your Excellency, we have been given permission by the tower to begin taxiing into position. I have to ask all crew members to begin preparing for takeoff, sir."

The cardinal nodded and an attendant near a stern intercom relayed the message that the senior cleric had heard the captain's warning. There were no long speeches, no explanations. The cardinal simply held out his ring for Father Patrick and Father Lopez to kiss, nodded, bid the teams a safe journey, and strode off the plane clutching the case.

Dumbfounded, the teams slowly found their seats and watched the crew engage the stair motor, seal the hatch, and prepare everyone for takeoff.

Damali heard the crew explain the emergency procedures. But she heard it with numb ears. What rang in her head were the cardinal's words, "... if she is still the Neteru." She felt a crew member check her seat belt. But she still felt the words cut to her core. "If she is still the Neteru." She felt the plane gain speed, its massive turbines whirring, then felt the huge aircraft lift off the ground, but she strangely felt like she was falling.

The moment the captain turned off the seat belt sign and told them they were free to move about the cabin, Rider was out of his chair like a shot. Big Mike was right behind him, quickly followed by Shabazz.

"Fucking-A. Team meeting," Rider said, holding up a new bottle of Jack Daniel's and four rocks glasses upside down on his fingers.

"You heard the man," Shabazz said, brandishing a bottle of Courvoisier. "This is some way serious shit."

Big Mike edged down the aisles with two armloads of glasses. "They got a conference room, let's conference."

"You're damned right," Father Patrick said, his tone strident. "Would you gentlemen happen to have found a bottle of Irish whiskey in there reserved for diplomats? If so, point me toward it. This is insane."

The team filed down the aisle, their disgruntled murmurs wafting through the cabin, and then snaked their way up the spiral staircase to the large conference room. Rider flipped on the light switch, shook his head at the opulent leather seats and highly polished oval table, while J.L. noted the communications technology with a gentle touch as he passed the elaborate, walnut-encased boards. Shabazz set the bottle he was carrying down hard, and scored the seal as the large group took their seats. Carlos touched the wood, remembering the boardroom table that had once been on his yacht.

"Okay, roll call the situation," Rider said, throwing back a shot of Jack Daniel's and making a grimace as it slid down his throat.

"Like I told y'all when we got on the small jet, Rome ain't taking no chances," Shabazz said, and handed off several glasses of dark brown liquor. "Right now, everybody seems cool and is standing in sunlight. But they don't know whether or not somebody will die in their sleep and wake up a problem. So, they're obviously sending us on this zigzag flight pattern for three days and nights as insurance. Feel me?"

Marlene took a neat sip from her glass and rolled the crystal between her palms. "Damali needs to be downstairs with the doctors. Let's keep our priorities in focus. Screw what they think. We know the deal."

"Thanks, Mar, and I'll go down there in a minute," Damali said, her tone patient as she glanced at Marlene. "But this is also a priority. What do they mean, if I'm still the Neteru?"

Father Patrick sighed. Shame and throttled rage turned his cheeks a light crimson color. He waited until Rider poured him a drink, then he took a quick jolt from his glass and set it down hard. "Berkfield has had the Blood of Christ in his veins, and I'm sure is impervious to a bite. The experience has changed him, and I'm sure they are interested in what powers he may now possess that can hold sway the battle we all wage."

"So, what's that got to do with D?" Big Mike asked, leaning forward as he polished off his drink and Rider poured him a second shot.

Father Lopez looked at Carlos. "They don't know if you'll turn." He sighed and raked his fingers through his hair. "They're not sure if you're a daywalker or not, and given your relationship to Damali, they know you'll take her and she'll ultimately go to Hell and back with you."

"If you haven't noticed," Carlos said evenly, anger roiling within him, "I haven't dropped fang since I got blasted by the damned Light."

"True dat," Shabazz said, no judgment in his tone, "but you haven't made it through the night, either, my brother. Daywalkers can eat regular food, right?"

Carlos nodded. The team was so still they seemed like they'd been frozen in marble.

"They can deal with the sun, right?" Shabazz pressed on. But his gaze slid to Damali as he delivered the balance of what he had to say. "And they can obviously sire with a fertile, willing, Neteru, correct?"

When Carlos didn't answer Shabazz, he nodded. "My point exactly.They don't know ." Shabazz rubbed his jaw and sipped his drink slowly, then made a face, and let his breath out hard. "Right now, all they can detect is that she's bleeding. Until she has a D&C, the clerical doctors won't know if they got it all, and I'm sure they're as concerned about that as we all are." He looked at Damali, his eyes filled with so much sadness that they glittered. "I hate to have to have said that in this room, like this, baby, but we have to just put it out there and deal."

Damali wrapped her arms around herself and pushed a tumbler to the center of the table. "Pour me a little Jack, huh, Rider? Something to take the edge off."

Rider nodded and complied. For a moment, silence again shrouded the team.

"You know, we've all been set up, right?" Carlos said, his tone calm, as he pushed his glass toward Shabazz to be filled.

Shabazz refilled Carlos's glass and the team watched him sip it. "You got knowledge, drop it."

"Shabazz is right. If anyone on this team were bitten, given the length of these nights and the crazy route they've put us on, we'll be in the air near turn time. If there's a female Neteru carrying a daywalker, and if I'm still one, the bet is I'll cancel a new male vamp's ass out. If Marlene turns, she's toast, because she'll instinctively rush my Neteru." He glanced at Berkfield. "The only one they're really worried about is you,hombre . But since you've had the sacred in you, you won't get bitten. They just wanna be sure the plane doesn't go down hard. Feel me?"

Carlos took a very slow sip of liquor, shook it off, and smiled. "Not bad, but still tastes weird without a little color."

"That's not funny, man," Rider said, pouring himself a new drink.

"If we've been sacrificed to a contained, suicide air battle," Imam Asula said, glancing at Monk Lin and then standing to reach for a glass at the center of the table, "then what harm is a drink?"

"So, you are sitting here calmly telling us that the entire clerical community expects this plane to have a last vampire outbreak on it? For Carlos to wipe out whichever of us drops fang, and then what?" J.L. shook his head and rubbed his face with both palms.

"I cannot go to Tibet now," Monk Lin said. "Not even to warn the others. I could poison the brotherhood if I am unclean."

"We sit here, as members of the Covenant, and can do nothing but wait for a fight to break out on this aircraft?" Father Lopez's voice held as much quiet rage as disbelief. "They,our church , would do that to us?"

"Yes," Father Patrick said flatly, and raised his glass. "For the cause. Haven't you attended your religious history classes, Padre?" The older man looked at Carlos and saluted him before downing his drink.

"And, in the battle, Guardians that may be slow to turn from a nick would try to separate me from her," Carlos said, not looking at Damali. "If I'm still what they think I am, without weapons on board, there is no chance in Hell any of you'd make it out alive. No weapons would fire; therefore, this plane would stay airborne while the carnage takes place. It would only be me and Damali and the pilots left standing-and Berkfield, if he didn't get in the way. Which he wouldn't. He isn't a Guardian and doesn't have that kill-vampires-or-die-trying instinct. But for me, after the crew, he might be a food source until I could find a safe place to put down a lair. I wouldn't do the pilots unless I was starving and out of fuel-unlikely given how many of you are on board. They know I wouldn't risk nicking Berkfield to fry my insides with the sacred blood that runs through his veins, no matter how hungry I was, and he'd be a good hostage, if I found myself surrounded by the Light. Besides, they must know that me getting her pregnant before council's schedule set off a civil war between me and council, so I wouldn't be anxious to jettison her in a tornado... which I'm not even sure vampires can do this high up. Never tried it."

"Sonofabitch!" Berkfield shouted and stood. "They've got my wife and kids behind the walls of the Vatican."

"Ironic, ain't it?" Carlos said without emotion. "But that's also the safest place for them."

Berkfield walked in a circle. Big Mike grabbed Rider's bottle and poured another drink.

"Logical. Chilling. With all the intrigue of old Rome," Rider said with disgust as his gaze went toward the windows. "The powerful all function the same." He looked at Carlos hard, but his tone held an air of acceptance and friendship. "Thanks for the heads-up. So, if we ain't gonna break out into a round of prayer, judging by the current mental condition of our clerical leaders here, then I vote for going out snot-slinging drunk."

"Much obliged,hombre ." Carlos tipped his drink in Rider's direction. "I have to admit that that's why I'm always a little skeptical about things that are too good to be true." He glanced around the sumptuous environs and sighed. "Sometimes ignorance really is bliss."

"Up until this moment," Rider said, studying his glass in the light, "I was a pretty ignorant and happy bastard."

"How much you wanna bet that the pilots are sealed behind a reinforced steel door?" Carlos added. "To further blow your bliss, think about this. Why would I make this plane drop by killing the pilots with my woman and child on board? Therefore, their real cargo, Berkfield, wouldn't die, either. But, then again," Carlos said with a sigh as he sipped his drink, "they've already extracted the sacred from Berkfield. One SOS transmission, and they could shoot this bitch out of the sky." He rubbed his jaw. "I don't know if I'm still a vampire or not, but I do know how people with a lot at stake think. Men of power who plan on winning would have war-gamed multiple options."

"We should be having this conversation in our own compound, back home, in our own war room," Shabazz said through his teeth. "Brotherman is too on-target, and what he's saying makes too much sense. I know they had to take precautions, but I hate being cannon fodder."

Father Patrick nodded and his angry gaze locked with Imam Asula, Monk Lin, and Father Lopez. "I hate that we're so expendable in this grand war game. Every time I lose one of my men, I ask myself, how high the cost... at what price?" He stood and began pacing. "I could take dying in the full heat of battle, getting attacked by the other side. But to know that our own set us up as cheap insurance... to know that they'd sent us down into the mines like canaries, and if we came out alive, there was no gas leak, or if we didn't, then the mine was polluted and they wouldn't drill for the natural resource Berkfield has in his veins. This is an outrage!"

Damali stood, her gaze steady on Marlene. "I'm going downstairs, so we can all be sure and then get a few hours sleep."

Carlos looked up at her but didn't move. "I wish you wouldn't go down there to let them hack on you. What if they accidentally-"

"Then nobody will die," she said bluntly. "This isn't your decision, or your body. It's mine." She looked at Shabazz. "Carlos stays in the conference room. You and Big Mike cover him. Take shifts. I'm not sacrificing the teams on a maybe. Get my Isis, use it if he drops fang."

She pushed her chair out of her way so hard that the mount in the floor creaked and the chair spun, slamming the back of it against the table. No one intervened. Marlene kept her gaze straight ahead as both women left the room. For a long time no one in the conference room spoke. No one picked up a glass, but each man stared into his drink lost in his own private thoughts.

"It wasn't supposed to go down like this," Jose finally said, his voice quiet as he looked toward the invisible wake Damali had left.

"Tell me about it," Carlos muttered.

NO ONE said a word as Shabazz slowly left the room with Father Patrick. They returned with the two Isis blades and a Bible. Both men slid their weapons toward the center of the large conference table, one shoving blades, one shoving the Word across the gleaming expanse.

"We all stay in the room together," Big Mike said. "We fought together as brothers, we go down together as brothers."

Jose nodded as he looked around the room. "If anybody turns, it'll probably be me and Lopez first." He let his breath out in resignation, his tone calm and yet still not defeated. "I coulda gotten nicked by one of the harpies in the storm while me and D was riding. I already have vamp in my DNA from way back, so hey. Whatcha gonna do?"

Padre Lopez agreed, his eyes blazing with determination. "Do what you have to do, okay? I already know that if Carlos turns, I'll stand with him."

Carlos cocked his head and studied the young priest. "Man, now is not the time to be abandoning your faith or casting idle threats-as much as I appreciate the loyalty. These old boys are seasoned vets, and they will do you if there's any question.Comprendo ?"

"Yeah," Father Lopez shot back. "I do understand. But do you?"

For the first time since he'd met the young priest, he really didn't understand. His facial expression must have shown it because Padre Lopez simply shook his head.

"School me, then," Carlos said, "since we have time."

"You're one of us," Father Patrick said in a tone so quiet and so deadly that every man at the table stood slowly and took a position of safety in the room. "I have already been down this road and I'm not going down it again."

"Steady, Father," Rider said, his voice filled with worry. "That's Irish whiskey talking, and not a good thing right through here." Rider glanced at the teams.

"Irish whiskey doesn't eclipse the truth, and you know what they say, a drunk man tells the truth, says what's really on his mind." Father Patrick stalked away, circling the room, his eyes slowly becoming wild with confusion. "The Covenant is made up of every major religion on the planet, and we have all done our share of harm." He pointed at Imam Asula. "Our so-called holy wars and jihads of the past and present have killed the innocent, am I wrong? If the rabbi were here, or the others from our team that have fallen, they would also have to hide their eyes in shame for what we all, men of faith, have done. Native people slaughtered for what they believed... men, women, and children. Tribe against tribe, nation against nation, monk against monk, army against army, since the beginning. Tell me I'm a liar."

Imam Asula lowered his eyes. "There has been much carnage worldwide in the name of the Almighty."

"Monks in Tibet have been slaughtered, just as others have," Monk Lin said in a quiet, firm voice. "Our brother speaks truth. There is no unblemished soil. The earth has been desecrated by man."

"And that was not to be!" Father Patrick bellowed. "Do you think that pleases Him, or makes Him sick enough to weep?" He snatched the Bible off the table and flipped through it, his finger landing on a passage. "How am I supposed to kill one of our brethren? If we are in the last days, and I know that we are, go to whatever book, but in this one, Revelations, chapter three, verses one through twenty-two, it says that John was instructed by the thing that had the seven spirits of God and the seven stars, it told him to write unto the angel of the church in Sardis, 'I know thy works, thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Be watchful and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die.'"Father Patrick looked up at the group. "It says it here! 'He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment, and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life.' There were few in Sardis who have not defiled their garments and they shall walk with Him in white." He looked up. "You need to read this and sit with it a while before you pick up a blade or weapon against another living soul."

Father Patrick began walking again, his gaze upon the team members as he spoke. "The Almighty has found egregious works withinall the churches, interpreted asall faiths, except the one of Philadelphia. Read it and weep! We have not been on our jobs. We have all built monuments, temples, created wars, killed, and colonized." He glanced around the immaculate, expensive room. "This plane cost how much? Should it not be cargoing food, supplies, refugees, the common man and woman... and what have we all done to women in the name of the Most High?"

Members of the Covenant fanned out as though bracing themselves to body slam Father Patrick if his passion escalated into a nervous breakdown. Their strategic stances made the tension in the room nearly crackle with airborne static current.

"Father," Padre Lopez said, his voice soothing and psychiatric, "please sit down. You've been under tremendous strain, as we all have. But as our group seer, your nervous system may have been impacted the most." The young cleric held out his hand. "I will pray with you, if you will just sit down and rest."

"Please summon calm and rest," Monk Lin said, his eyes sad as his voice echoed Father Lopez's plea.

"Rest! Rest? There is no rest as long as weapons to kill are before me! I can no more put a blade in the center of that young man's chest, or behead him, than I could my own son," Father Patrick said, his voice fracturing. "I have watched my own wife and son die already. I swore never again."

"You had a son, man?" Shabazz said, slowly nearing the cleric, attempting to help Father Lopez calm Father Patrick. "But you're a priest."

"I was aman , first." Father Patrick spat, going to the table and pouring another drink. He looked at Berkfield hard. "We're all men, flesh and blood,first . We all make mistakes, we all sin. That is what we have to understand and have compassion about. No one down here is God. Kiss a cardinal's ring? Dogma! If he were a man of true faith, he'd be on this plane. But he left us, taking blood that's worth gold in a silver case with him!"

"You said you had a wife and son," Berkfield said, his voice steady as his line of vision went around the group, receiving nods of quiet support as he attempted to intervene. "What happened, Father?"

Father Patrick sighed, the tears that had risen in his eyes now streaming down his cheeks in a disillusioned cascade. "My boy, probably like yours does, listened to loud music to drown out the images and voices in his head. Then he went to marijuana, then pills, then anything he could to drown out the noise until heroin killed him. The young people can see what we are blind to, hear what we refuse to listen to, know what we refuse to acknowledge," he said, pointing a finger at his temple. "Theyknow something is wrong and broken within all these systems. They sense the corruption. But we're losing them daily because we have given no direction... we've lost our own way, but they know enough not to follow us, yet the darkness swallows them whole. How can I kill a young man who lost his way, but found it?"

Father Patrick briefly closed his eyes as he tore at his hair with a clenched fist. "So talk to your son, before the other side does. An overdose of Valium and booze took my grieving wife. End of story."

"Whoa..." Berkfield said slowly. "Voices? You have to explain." He glanced around the room, gaining nods to keep the priest talking, lest the cleric trip over the edge of sanity.

"What is there to say?" Father Patrick said too calmly, tossing back a jigger of whiskey. "I was gifted, and it passed to my son. But I didn't know what it was and was afraid of it myself. So I hid in the military and jobs and ignored it, and I didn't spend the time with my child. Now he's gone. He was like Mike, an audiovoyant. That's why the music calmed him, spoke to him, made sense to him. My boy got the wrong vibrations, heard the wrong messages as he turned up his speakers. Michael here was lucky. He listened to music from an era that had not yet been lost and was led, not consumed."

Big Mike crossed the room and he gently placed a hand on the cleric's shoulder. "None of us knew what this was about, man. You've gotta let it go."

Father Patrick shrugged away and crossed the room again, making all eyes follow him. "My church has just sacrificed an entire crew of their best warriors! I fought for them, bled for them, lost family and men for them, and I am now expendable? And you say I have to let it go?" His hot gaze landed on Carlos. "And this young man who I have come to love as my own was brought back from the ashes, literally, before my very eyes, and now, because of some unknown twist of fate, I'm supposed to take his head off with the Isis? After overcoming the fact that he was a drug dealer-the same sort that put my own son in the ground from an overdose? I have to forget all that, have to now do the unthinkable after I already passed the test to love my enemy-a drug-dealing vampire, like a son?" He laughed. The sound of it was filled with a shrill hysteria. "Never happen. Not becausethe system says I should. I will only do that," he exclaimed, pointing a shaky finger upward, "if He tells me to. Not because menthink Carlos might be a threat. Never again."

Father Patrick smoothed the front of his robes, and looked down at the crest on his medallion. "It is time for the commoners to band together, to take direct instruction from On High, not middlemen strutting around in robes or professions of power. The final battle will be waged by those with nothing except faith to protect them. The meek shall inherit the earth. Our religions have been twisted by dogma, rhetoric, politics, greed, you name it." A bitter sob choked off Father Patrick's words. "I trusted them," he whispered, his eyes frantic as he looked up, holding Imam Asula's gaze. "You and I go way back, my dear brother, just like me and Lin. The triumvirate. We are the eldest living members of the Covenant, and have been friends for so long, so you know what pain is in my heart. Our religious orders have abandoned us, and have become numb to the principles of love and compassion. I cannot go on carrying their banner this way."

"We have not been abandoned," Imam Asula said, trying to restore reason to his fracturing Covenant brother. "This is simply a test. We should pray, now, I believe." He paused and began walking toward Father Patrick slowly.

"In stillness we find clarity. In friendship we find the threads of faith. My dear brother and loyal friend, please do not lose your hope," Monk Lin murmured, bowing toward Father Patrick.

"Don't kill that boy," Father Patrick whispered through a sob. "Not on my 'watch.' "

"Come my friend," Imam Asula said, opening his arms to offer an embrace as he walked toward Father Patrick. "There are times when the burden is too massive for one set of shoulders. Let me and Lin share your load. We will not raise arms unless absolutely necessary, but praying now is a must. Hold the mustard seed of faith, my friend. Come."

"That sounds like a good idea, dude," Rider said, making all eyes turn toward him as Imam Asula gathered Father Patrick in his arms and held him close. "With this turbulence kicking up, and all of us losing it, who knows what forces are at work making the teams wig. Weall need to pray."

Carlos watched the Isis blades vibrate on the table and worry wrapped itself around his spinal cord, strangling each disc in his back. Damali's was on a hospital table downstairs, and the doctors had to work with unsteady hands. That reality fought for dominance over the scene that was unfolding within the conference room.

Father Patrick's pain and disillusionment hurt him to his soul. He could identify with the old man's sense of being robbed. He'd known that violation all his life. He wanted to shore his mentor and friend up, give him something to cling to, and yet, what could he say at this moment? At the same time, turbulence was rocking the plane, making Damali's situation on the table precarious. If he didn't exist and could just die peacefully without struggle, to his way of thinking no one else would have to suffer.

"Listen," Carlos said after a long pause, his tone careful and measured. "If Damali is on the table downstairs and they are scraping the insides of her uterus out, one bad bump, one false move, and one of those doctors could puncture her womb. My baby girl could bleed to death trying to save the group from a midair nightmare. And it is fucking me up. So everybody chill, get focused, and if you know how to pray, pray for the doctor to have a steady hand."

Carlos raked his hands through his hair and began pacing. He was glad that no one drew away from him as though he had the plague. If he was still a vampire, it sure didn't feel like it. His power was gone; most of all what was missing in his arsenal was the power to make sure Damali was safe or to take away Father Patrick's anguish.

"Tell you what," Carlos said after a moment. "What if you just do me now, get her off the table, then when you touch down in Manila you can have her seen by doctors on steady ground and can incinerate my body. Fuck it. There's no more fight left in me, and in this condition of weakness, I don't want to live anyway. But more than anything, I don't want her bleeding to death up here and I don't want her made sterile for the rest of her life because of some bullshit I did to her."

Carlos snatched the short Isis blade from the table before Father Lopez could reach it, and slashed his palm. "See, red blood. It's not black. But I still don't care. I can't help you all. I don't have any special powers! I'm not a Guardian, not a vampire, notanything anymore. So it doesn't matter if you do me-I'm only slowing down the team, creating a variable that's weakening your faiths-and you're gonna need that to fight what's chasing you. So be men and just do it, and get your shit together and keep my woman safe from this till the end of time!"

Red blood bubbled from Carlos's clenched fist and splattered on the table, creating a crimson puddle. The teams looked at the growing pool, mesmerized by the strange iridescence it contained.

Berkfield went to Carlos's side, snatching off his skullcap.

"Everybody relax," Berkfield said. "We're all at the brink and need to just calm down." He took Carlos's wrist and held it firmly not allowing him to snatch it away.

"Aren't you afraid that I'll bite you?" Carlos said, his gaze hard as he stared at Berkfield.

"Cut the crap and the theatrics, Rivera," Berkfield said, wrapping the deep gash with the crocheted cap and applying pressure to it. "They said I'm immune. Who knows and who cares at this point? All I know is that if we're gonna survive, we have to all pull together. So, whatever beef we've got with the powers-that-be, we have to settle that later. We've got a young woman on the table who needs a steady hand and no turbulence." His gaze went to the seat-belt signs posted in the room, making the others note that the yellow caution lights had flicked on.

"My point, exactly," Carlos said, wincing as Berkfield squeezed the cut harder. It felt like his hand was on fire as Berkfield applied greater pressure. He could feel beads of sweat begin to form on his brow, and with his uninjured hand he wiped it, suddenly feeling so weak that he almost slumped against the man at his side.

"Steady, holmes," Jose said, hurrying to Carlos's other side and catching his weight to help him into a chair.

"He must have lost a lot of blood before," Berkfield said, huffing suddenly, his breaths coming in short pants as his face flushed and Father Patrick caught him before he went down.

"Oh, shit," Rider said, helping to sprawl both men in their chairs. "We just had a blood transfer up here, no Marlene to-"

"Look at his wound," Father Patrick said, turning Berkfield's hand over as his palm split, bubbled with blood, and then slowly sealed.

Carlos stared at his hand and removed the soaked skullcap from it, his gaze darting between his hand and Berkfield's. "I didn't do that. It came from him. I felt the current pass into my hand, not out of it."

"He's a healer," Imam Asula said in awe. "The sacred blood he carries heals."

"I don't understand," Berkfield croaked out and leaned forward as the entire group gathered around them.

Father Patrick took the Isis dagger and flipped the blade to the clean side that Carlos hadn't used. He made a small cut on the back of his hand. "Cover it," he commanded Berkfield, his gaze never leaving the oozing gash.

"Yo, hold up," Jose said. "Wash his hands first. Don't be crazy and mix Rivera's blood from the first healing with yours, Father. I ain't trying to be funny, but if you're up here experimenting, then you need to do it right and with precautions. Vampires heal themselves, too. We need to be sure that Berkfield did it, not Rivera."

Berkfield and Carlos nodded.

"No lie," Shabazz said, moving so Berkfield could stand. "Hurry up though."

With Big Mike at his side for assistance, Berkfield rushed to the bathroom and soaped and rinsed his hands, quickly returning to the conference room with Big Mike holding him up. All eyes were on Berkfield as he took Father Patrick's hand within his, closed his eyes, and waited. Soon a peaceful heat entered his palms and covered the old priest's wound.

They all watched Berkfield's hand open in a small cut just under the knuckles. The gash dripped in a slow line of blood onto the table, and then sealed. When he removed his hands from the cleric's, Father Patrick's wound also sealed.

"Well I'll just be damned," Rider whispered, staring at Berkfield. "Marlene's healings work differently... I can't explain it, but yours is... I don't know."

"Marlene's is internal, spiritual, she seals breaks in the aura and soul. Berkfield has the touch to seal broken flesh," Shabazz said, his eyes riveted to the healed wounds. "All I know is, we need this gift on our team if we're going into the Armageddon, brother. Coulda used you when we got our asses kicked in Hell, too."

"Word," Jose murmured, his line of vision going to Father Patrick.

"Like I said," Carlos murmured, still staring at his hand, "I'm no threat. I can't even heal myself or regenerate from a simple cut. Killing me oughta be easy at this point."

Father Lopez peered at the table, motioning to the pool of shimmering crimson blood that Carlos's wound had left. He poked at it with the tip of the long Isis and then set the short blade down slowly. All of them watched silently as Carlos's blood beaded up and formed small clusters of a reddish, mercury-like substance on the table.

"Then tell us why you have silver running through your veins," Father Lopez said in a reverent tone. "We don't know what your gift is yet,hombre , but you've obviously got one."

The walk through the cabin toward the sick bay felt like a death march. Each time the plane shifted from the turbulence, Damali could feel her pulse quicken. She could also feel Marlene's worried gaze boring into her back, trying to reach her, make her stop walking, and silently begging her to give up her mission to be done with it all.

"I'm not going to have a buncha drama kick off on this plane," Damali said without turning to address Marlene. "We both know this tension is about to blow, and innocent people could get hurt. There's only one way to handle this-just do the damned thing."

Although Marlene didn't verbally answer her, she knew her words had been accepted with silent, begrudging resignation. The palpable energy seal between her and Marlene receded as the older woman dropped her resistance and it became easier to move forward.

"Thank you," Damali said quietly as her hand touched the sickbay door.

"I don't agree, but I respect your decision," Marlene said as they entered the state-of-the-art medical room. Marlene stared at the doctors. "Be very careful. She's also precious cargo, if to no one else, she is to me."

The two doctors nodded and handed Damali a white hospital gown, then pulled the drape.

"Please put this on," one doctor said. "Open in the back, put the tissue sheet across your lap and place your feet in the stirrups, and then we'll begin."

"Don't worry, Ms. Stone," the lead doctor assured Marlene. "We have state-of-the-art heart equipment on board. Our pontiff and many of his ambassadors are elderly and suffer from chronic health conditions. Therefore, our medical room is well equipped to handle any emergency that should arise."

Damali and Marlene shared a glance as both women nodded, unconvinced, but prepared to do what was necessary. She stared at the head doctor. He hadn't even told her his name. His eyes were cold blue. He seemed near sixty, if a day, and the fact that he couldn't look her in the eye didn't inspire her confidence. The younger one at his side looked like an older version of Dan, and seemed just as skittish. Heaven make this quick. She already didn't like who was going to do the medical job.

"I would feel better," Marlene said with a weary sigh, "if there wasn't so much turbulence."

"We'll strap her to the table," the assisting doctor assured Marlene. "Once we apply a local anesthesia, she shouldn't experience too much discomfort."

Damali handed her clothes to Marlene and continued to talk to the doctors who'd given her privacy on the other side of the drape. She didn't care who they were or what they thought, so long as they hurried up and did what needed to be done. "I took a couple of shots of Jack Daniels, though."

Both women stopped moving as the doctors never replied.

Damali pulled the drape open and slowly pushed herself to the edge of the table, noting the sharp instruments on the tray beyond her head. Her gaze went to what appeared to be a large plastic sump pump with a clear hose attached to it, and she studied the masked men who had scrubbed their hands and covered them with a sheath of latex.

"We're hesitant to give you anesthesia with liquor in your system," the head doctor said, glancing at Marlene as his assistant secured the table harness over Damali's arms, torso, and opened thighs. He took great care to wrap her calves and ankles in nylon fabric belts to keep her legs from jerking during the procedure.

"I don't need it," Damali said, her throat suddenly dry as she continued to stare at the pump container.

"Baby, when they start working just stare at the ceiling. Don't concentrate on the sound," Marlene murmured as she stroked Damali's hair.

Tears filled her eyes and she focused on the ceiling. "Just do it."

The doctors nodded and turned on the pump.

"Oh, great Isis have mercy," Marlene whispered, turning her face away as a doctor neared Damali. "Don't let them do this to you, baby." Marlene squeezed Damali's hand. "You can change your mind-"

Damali and Marlene froze as a gun barrel suddenly dug into Marlene's temple, the distinctive click of a hammer being cocked drowning out the sound of the pump.

"We have express orders to remove the daywalker and destroy it. Please, good woman, do not interfere with the business at hand."

The gun was pressed against Marlene's temple so hard that she dared not turn.

"Put the gun away," Damali whispered. "If turbulence hits, it could accidentally go off, killing her for no reason. She won't resist. We know we have to do this."

P/S: Copyright -->www_novelfreereadonline_Com