Lilith, the consort of the Unnamed One, has released the Damned, tortured souls from all levels of Hell, to walk the streets as the living dead. A dark chaos leaks onto Earth, taking the form of a deadly contagion that not even the Neteru team can handle. One touch from these deadly creatures infects a human, driving him to madness, death…and worse.
This time, Damali Richards, the Vampire Huntress (aka the millennium Neteru), Carlos, and the Guardians cannot effectively close ranks. The infection spreads to key team members and threatens to wipe out the entire squad. Even the Covenant is infected. They must track down the Chairman before members of the Neteru-Guardian team are lost and the team implodes. The only antidote is to behead Lilith. But first they must find her.
Release date: January 24, 2006
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 496
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L. A. Banks
Chinle, Arizona. Present Day.
She didn't need to look into Carlos's eyes or try to go inside his head to know he was pissed. The pulsing muscle in his jaw was always a dead giveaway. So was the attitude.
Damali watched him stare into the distance as she said her good-byes to the team at the front screen door. There wasn't even a flicker of silver in his irises. That hurt, but she'd live.
"Okay, listen, guys—I'm only five minutes down the road, so it's cool." Her smile was forced, her concerns about her man's mood growing as hugs got passed out on the front porch of Jose's grandfather's house.
"Call us in the mornings, though, D. You ain't gotta be longwinded," Shabazz said, fussing as he ran his palm across Sleeping Beauty. "All a brother wants to know is that you made it through the night. After that, we're cool."
"I will, I will," Damali said, kissing his cheek quickly.
"Any problems, we 'round the corner," Big Mike added, nodding toward Rider. "I'm gonna be in Houston with Inez to visit the baby at her momma's, but still call somebody."
"You send up a flare," Rider said, "and you know your crazy brother, Mike, if he's here, will launch a rocket-propelled grenade from his bedroom window to wake up the neighborhood, if he has to. If he ain't, I got whatever in rifle range. Jack Daniel's or not, I can still nail a target with my eyes closed."
"Sho' you right," Mike said giving Rider a pound.
Damali smiled. Way too much testosterone was flowing in the house this morning.
"Now, if you need anything, baby, you let me and Marj know, and we'll be sure you're stocked at the new place." Marlene sighed, gave Damali a defeated hug, and let her go slowly.
"I will," Damali said, wondering why this was so hard to do and why everyone was so worried at this point. It didn't make sense. She was grown, and had shown them she could hold her own in battle, but she knew some things were just instinct. It was always hard for mother birds to watch one of their own fly away—even if it was just around the corner. She squeezed Marlene's hand and let it go when the older woman smiled.
"You need anything, you call," Marlene repeated, gently placing a finger on her third eye.
The group seemed to be holding its breath, as though Marlene might say something at the last minute to get Damali to reconsider. But when Marlene nodded and moved away from Damali, shoulders slumped.
"That's right," Marj said with emphasis, picking up the mild guilt trip where Marlene had left off. "Towels, blankets, you have everything, right?"
"I'm well stocked," Damali affirmed, attempting to swallow a big smile without much success.
"How about some more rounds?" Berkfield said with skepticism in his voice. He looked at Jose, J.L., and Dan. "Her weapons room is righteous?"
"Yeah," J.L. said, stepping forward on the porch. "It's tight."
"I ain't just concerned about the realms," Jose hedged, glancing at the others. "You know, escaped convicts, crazy SOBs from off America's Most Wanted, and shit like that might not show up on radar."
"See, that's what I mean," Dan said, nodding emphatically. "She's a celeb, too. Somebody could snatch and ransom her, happens every day."
"I ain't worried about that," Shabazz said with a grudging smile. "Bastard will get his heart cut out first. It's nightfall that concerns me."
"We do have a coupla team members who specialize in night work," Damali reminded them, but without saying any names. Speaking of Tara in front of Rider, especially in the same breath with Yonnie, was taboo.
"You ain't scared?" Inez said, reaching for Damali's hand and clasping it. "Girl, I ain't trying to be funny, but—"
"Yeah," Bobby said, glancing at his sister. "Me and Kris could be over there with you as an extra pair of eyes and ears, especially on the computers. All you have to do is say the word, D."
"We could take shifts," Kristen offered eagerly. "It would be fun."
"Uh, that would be no," Damali said, laughing and ignoring their dejected expressions. "You two have to go into heavy training with the seasoned brothers. Nice try."
Juanita folded her arms and leaned against the doorframe. "If the Covenant brothers said she'd be fine and left this house, then I see no reason to worry." Her cool statement delivered with a frosty bite made everyone stop clamoring around Damali for a moment.
Damali ignored her, laughed, and kissed them all again, semiavoiding Jose, but offering him a quick peck on the cheek and then she stepped back. She didn't even approach Juanita or look at her, but quietly served Juanita her ass to kiss. "I'm just around the corner, dang," Damali said as gently as possible, making her tone upbeat. "I'll be fine."
Carlos cut her a sidelong glance from his position away from the group and near the steps. "She always is." He walked farther away from the group and walked down the steps to stand by the driver's side of her black Hummer.
If he didn't get out of here soon, his head was gonna explode. He understood where the brothers were coming from, but it was also the height of disrespect. Before, she didn't need no serious artillery—she had him as her weapon. He had been her night security system, locked and loaded. Fuck Yonnie and Tara being that. Now she needed some old motherfuckers to blow something up or shoot a target from their windows? Mike and Rider needed to step off. Even the young bucks were talking about going over to Damali's as a defense system? Right. The only one who had said anything that made sense had been Juanita. And if Damali called anybody on second-sight impulse, it, by rights, shoulda been him—her man!
Carlos walked a hot path toward her vehicle, his back straight. With that, everybody nervously waved and went into the house, but stood huddled just inside the screen door.
Damali took her time meeting Carlos by her vehicle. She had known he'd take it pretty bad when the day finally came, but she'd expected him to be cooler about it in front of the team. "It's gonna be all right," she said, trying to extend an olive branch of peace. "Your place will be finished in a couple of weeks, they said, and then you'll—"
"It's cool," he said, cutting her off and yanking open her Hummer door. "I'll see you around."
Damn. No kiss, no hug, muscle in his jaw still jumping, no effort to even act like—
"Act like what?" he said evenly, not hiding the fact that he'd read her surface thoughts. "Act like I'm okay with this bullshit? You oughta know me better than that, D. The one thing I don't do is front."
"All right," she said calmly. "I feel you. No problem." She got into her Hummer, casually closed the door, and started the engine. "I'll call you later. On the phone."
Carlos tilted his head. A nonverbal, "Say what?" passed between them. He lifted his chin, turned on his heels, and stormed back into the house. A screen door slamming was his answer.
Her Hummer took to the road as though on autopilot, kicking up dust as she leisurely drove to her destination. Her thoughts were miles away, the scene behind her competing for attention with the perfunctory motor skills required to drive. She wasn't angry, just annoyed. It was what it was. Instant marriage was out. Shacking still meant having a man and his dirty laundry and drama in her space. After what she'd just been through, she wasn't trying to have a baby anytime soon, anyway . . . and living with him 24–7 increased the odds that one day or night she might be moved to forget all about lighting her Sankofa.
Damali quietly laughed to herself. She knew how Carlos rolled. Not to mention, he still had a lot of inner personal development to do. By all indicators, the Light wasn't finished with him yet, and as wild as Carlos's ass was, she didn't need to be in lightning-strike range while they honed him. His mild apex in Philly had been rushed and temporary, spiked like a flux, just by seeing Lilith. If he fluxed and started trailing aphrodisiac to draw out lower levels, Tara would be near to protect him; if Yonnie bulked on him, there were enough brothers in the house to cope to make Yonnie stand down . . . and Carlos needed to learn how to work with that weapon, too. She couldn't teach him that. The Neteru Queens had intimated as much. This was his battle, not hers.
Naw. Carlos Rivera needed to get his head together, deal with his new circumstances on his own, before bringing that baggage to her door. Uh-uh. Plus, after the heat in bed cooled, and it had, she had enough sense to know that it got real basic—Marlene and Marjorie hadn't needed to tell her that. They were living examples.
Carlos would either get over it, or not. He'd better recognize that the Light worked in mysterious ways, and needed to stop challenging the Father for all the gifts he'd been given. Did the man realize that he was alive, had all body parts accounted for, with a for-real second chance, and had been elevated to Neteru status? Incredulous, she could only shake her head as she drove. "Carlos better stop, y'all. My name is Bennit, and I ain't in-it. Okaaaay."
Shoot, the way he was acting, thunder and freakin' lightning from the sky was likely—and she'd go into the pit for the brother, but wasn't even trying to get in trouble with the Most High. Nope. Not hardly. Especially not over some male ego yang. Puhlease. Hold the line, stay the course, handle her business as the female Neteru, that was it. They already took her long blade behind the nonsense, and she'd gone through too many changes to get back the baby Isis dagger. She'd learned her lesson, and had learned it well. She wasn't going backward, not for love nor money. Uh-uh. He had to step up to her level, this time.
She smiled wider. Live with him while he was challenging the Light's blessings? Hell no. Not until they were evenly yoked. When he got his head right, then she'd consider it. She needed time to breathe and assess. The whole meeting with the Neteru Council had given her serious pause, and before she made another rash move, she wanted to be sure the timing was right.
It wasn't about communal living arrangements any longer, either. Too much water had run under that particular bridge. If Juanita stepped to her wrong one more time . . . See, that was the problem; she couldn't just drag her narrow behind out into the front yard and kick her ass old-school style. That would be irresponsible as the Neteru, would have repercussions if the girl got seriously injured, and . . . no. Moving out solved a lot of problems, beyond Carlos's mess. A sister needed space, time, privacy, and room for all the thoughts tumbling around in her head.
Damali turned off the engine and hopped out of her vehicle, crossing the dusty driveway and listening to gravel crunch under her feet. What was there to fear, really? She'd literally been to Hell and back already and wasn't even twenty-five years old yet. She'd have her own place, not far from the others, just like Carlos would. But that whole thing of everybody living under one roof was beyond tired. It was better this way—much better.
She leaned on the porch rail, not ready to go inside the house, just staring at the pretty desert flowers and cacti in her front yard. Yeah, after doing the Philadelphia job, it was time to fly the coop . . . Even though, truth be told, settling in Chinle was a far cry from usual for a sister from around the way. However, once they'd all seen the majesty of Jose's people's land, all the arguing had stopped. The only one still opposed to the hallowed location had been Rider, who eventually relented. But she could understand that now, too.
Damali sent her gaze across the sheer sandstone canyon walls that towered some six to eight hundred feet above the wide expanse beyond Jose's grandfather's land. Sunlight played with the shadows, turning the layered rocks pink, orange, and red, depending upon its mood. As the sun danced with the wind, it cast vermilion stripes and pastel hues on the porch furniture. Here, in this sacred land, the light was alive, different, a living entity.
In the distance she could make out the sunbaked clay, multistoried, cliff-side dwellings left by the Anasazi people. Canyon de Chelly, tsegi, meaning rock canyon, in Navajo, held more than two thousand years of quiet, mystical wonders and rock art . . . profound spirituality within its panoramic vistas. Yes, this was where she and her team needed to be.
The grumbling about being so far from city life, access to modern conveniences, airports, and so-called civilization had ceased the moment they'd set foot upon the land. Spellbound, the group had reached consensus immediately and had squashed the bickering. Yet, deciding where to go had been a delicate balancing act indeed. There were many issues to consider. Some of those worries still lived in her soul.
Without the compound, they'd needed to be somewhere safe while the new construction was underway. They'd needed hallowed ground, but that would have made it virtually impossible for two of the team's valuable members to seek shelter in an emergency. It wasn't like Tara and Yonnie could just blow into a church or temple with the rest of the squad to take cover. But to leave them ass out in a firefight was unacceptable, even to Rider.
What it had come down to was access. Jose had tribal access to thirty-three pristine acres of land deeded to him from his Creek grandfather, who had married a Navajo woman. Under carefully written wills, the land went to his father when his mother passed first, and now eventually to him—something that all of her and Carlos's money combined couldn't buy. It wasn't for sale; birthright dictated reservation and nation acceptance status. Sure, the rest of the team could tag along as Jose's family, but the position of the Navajo nation was clear; if you weren't from the nation, forget real estate development.
Damali smiled as she leaned on the porch rail of her small ranch dwelling. The negotiations to build a couple of cottages and expand upon a simple house made of pine had seemed harder than bargaining for all the world territories she'd temporarily amassed in the Australian master's parlor. Jose's family's house had fallen into disrepair while abandoned, and was currently more shack than house. But to build anything new required a long, drawn-out process of permits and talks.
Perhaps it was the architectural drawings that had freaked them out. The significant technology and barriers, along with a helipad, had gone against the tribal council's sensibilities. They'd been aesthetically offended, so her team had to go back and redraft everything to look as natural a fit to the landscape on the outside as possible. Gone were the exterior, ultramodern-looking cement walls. Good riddance. She agreed with the tribal council on that.
Working with Jose and a good designer from the nation as go-between had finally rendered a concept that was both environmentally and politically correct, while doing what it had to do—namely, serve as a fortress for her Guardians. If it hadn't been for the respectful adherence to prophecy, they still might not have been able to get the deal done. The downside was that everyone who sat at the table knew who they were; their cover was blown within the Navajo community. Soon, that would spread like wildfire to other communities, but it didn't matter. You couldn't just roll up on Navajo reservation lands without permission like that, and the eyes of the people were everywhere to protect their own. Very cool arrangement.
Damali let her breath out hard, but refused to let her thoughts grow dark, even though her squad was holed up in a wood-frame structure with rickety old windows, with only shotguns and artillery, in case it got hectic, like the freakin' OK Corral. She hoped it wouldn't come to that, because the greatest thing they had going for them beyond skills and firepower was an old man and lady's very old prayer. Ancestral shaman guarded the joint.
Until all that was put to rest, she hadn't been able to just up and move out, and never in a million years would she leave her team unprotected, anyway. The big problem that had haunted them all had been where to go during the rebuilding, where to rebuild period? She was so glad once that nonsense had been settled that she'd almost praise-danced in the streets.
Months of living from pillar to post had given them all a case of raw nerves along with persistent headaches that made tempers flare at the slightest provocation. Peace was just beginning to be theirs, and she cherished it as she stared out at the sublime majesty.
Hotels required being constantly on the move to avoid night hazards and the media. There were new, uninitiated members, like Berkfield's kids and wife, to worry about, Inez . . . Juanita . . . plus the old guard was busted up pretty badly and on the mend. Shabazz was still walking slow, like Big Mike. Marlene's shoulder still wasn't right, and Rider's heart was broken. And until her small ranch was built down the road a piece, in the opposite direction from Carlos's, all of them had to cozy up in a one-bathroom, four-bedroom dwelling when night fell. Pure drama.
During the wait, she knew if they didn't kill each other while the compound was being constructed, then they'd survive. Vampires and werewolves were the least of her concerns. Damali nearly laughed out loud, just thinking about it. Everybody was snarling and barking at each other by now. The slow advance toward more room and freedom had seemed interminable, but she'd learned patience along the way.
Tara's grandmother, although Cherokee and not a Navajo, also had an impact on their decision to locate in Arizona. She took comfort in that. Despite the fact that the woman was long gone, when she'd moved in with Jose's grandfather, she'd made quiet magic . . . a path in the hallowed grounds to the house that only her granddaughter could cross . . . along with a male with a good heart.
Damali pushed away from the porch rail and went back into the apartment-size house. Her house. It felt good to say that, even in her own mind. The screen door softly clattered shut behind her; she liked the sound of that. It was her door. A regular door, not a hotel door. No compound grates and security-thick steel that made her feel like she was entering a federal lockup.
A persistent smile was on her face as she walked through the spartan sandstone-colored rooms filled with light pouring in from endless windows and skylights. The sun practically somersaulted off the oak flooring and then embraced the bright Native American hues trapped in handmade rugs, blankets, and wall art. When she hit the electronic hall panel, mellow instrumental music from the new CD she was crafting greeted her as she made her way toward her kitchen for a cool iced tea.
Yeah, the old girl was so wise. Tara's grandma had it right; a man with a good heart . . . on this land, that would be Rider, and truthfully, any of the guys on her squad, even Yonnie. She'd have to lay down her own barrier on the new joint like that, only letting the good ones in. Mischief crept into Damali's thoughts. Most assuredly Carlos was a good man. Jesus was he good . . . maybe Jose, too. She immediately straightened and banished the thought, swigging the iced tea right from the pitcher.
"It's my house," she said to the nothingness around her. "My thoughts. And it's my crazy-ass dreams," she said with more emphasis while laughing at herself. "Don't worry—a sister can think about stuff while alone in her own house, can't she?" Damali took another satisfying swig of sweet tea. "And in her own house, she can drink from the pitcher, no brothers or mommas in the joint! I don't have to share—yes."
She became still for a moment, realizing that for the first time in her natural-born life, she was living somewhere alone. She glanced around the cozy little nook of a kitchen and set the iced tea down slowly on the counter. Marlene and Marjorie had hovered in her space like worried mother hens, primping and fixing it up as the builders vacuumed their way out the door. Oh, no, the first order of business was to redecorate and organize things to her liking. She had to remember that this was her house.
Shabazz, Rider, and Big Mike had made her crazy with checking and double-checking the construction and door locks she didn't use or need. They'd loaded her minibase station room down with enough firearms and explosives to blow up half the state. Berkfield offered her rounds and set up a target range behind the house, while Marjorie cleaned and recleaned everything in sight, making sure her plates and cups matched in the process. Martha Stewart, watch out. Marj had even matched linens and towels with the curtains! Had Damali been left up to her own devices, some of those fine points of housekeeping might have been overlooked.
Damali shook her head, thinking about Marlene frenetically adjusting furniture in the most cosmically advantageous position, then doing her mojo thing after Marj cleaned. Those two were a trip. They'd wrung their hands like she was a freshman going off to college, and she loved them dearly for that. Damali hesitated. Maybe she would do that one day . . . something normal. "Wow, I never really thought about that," she whispered. She'd done a lot, but there were still so many things yet to explore. "College."
As annoying as the whole ordeal of trying to get away from them had been, she couldn't blame her two surrogate moms. Everyone had been displaced, needed to nest, and her new dwelling was the haven where they could vicariously take out their homemaking urges.
But the best part of it all was that soon they'd descend on Carlos—she couldn't wait to see how he'd cope. Her plan was to lean against the wall, an Inez-made pie in hand to gain her admission to the show, and to laugh till she cried as the feathers flew. Damali bent over and hollered: "Lord, let the compound get built soon so everybody can go nest in their own space!"
J.L. and Dan had retrofitted her office with so much computer and stereo equipment that she could probably talk down a NASA flight from that room. Her Guardian brothers had acted like she was moving to Siberia, but this afternoon was the first time that she'd been in her own space all alone.
Oddly, her girl Inez had only fallen by once, with Big Mike in tow—but girlfriend had left her the greatest gift of all. Food. Inez knew what time it was. Sister had come in there with trays of mac and cheese from scratch, lemon butter pound cake, candied yams, collards—it was clear that she'd already slaughtered Big Mike through his stomach. Probably the rest of the house, too. Brotherman almost seemed jealous that Inez had thrown down for her the way she did.
A rippling laugh came up from Damali's belly and filled the room. But she wasn't mad at Inez for being scarce; a brand-new love-jones was an all-consuming thing. She wasn't studdin' Carlos's ornery ass, though. Just because she refused to move in with him . . . whateva. He'd get over it. She needed her own space. He needed his own space. It wasn't about doing 24–7 with a brother going through new Neteru mood swings, transitional drama, and what have you. She put the iced tea back in the ivory-colored fridge with more force than was necessary, slamming the door. Good thing the Covenant brothers had blessed and anointed the joint up before they'd gone home!
The Berkfield kids had practically begged her for sanctuary, using poster art and CD donations as their offerings to get in her door. Damali laughed out loud again, shifting away from her attitude with Carlos to lighter thoughts. Poor Robert and Kristin, she could dig it. Stuck in an old grandparent-type home with all those edgy adults, now that was hell for any teenager. But she was sorry that Jose had only popped by once. It was such a strange visit, too . . . quiet, short, ended on a slow parting, then came what seemed like pure avoidance.
She walked down the hall thinking, chewing her bottom lip. Maybe she should take the blanket he gave her off the bed and put it on the sofa? It meant the world to her, as it came from his grandfather's cedar chest and had been in their family for generations. Juanita had been the only one that hadn't fallen by. Good. She didn't need Carlos's ex-woman to be bringing bad vibes through her door.
Everyone had brought something of themselves and left it as a good omen . . . except Carlos and Juanita. Tara had given her a small medicine wheel and further access to the land; she knew Yonnie would fall by with a bottle of bubbly sooner or later, that was hombre's style. But what was up with Carlos and his old flame? The thought nagged at her and she poked and pushed at it like a mental blister while staring at her bed. She would not go there. Nope.
Her gaze traveled along the edge of the rough-hewn, high, four-posted ponderosa pine. It was clear what Carlos could bring and leave . . . A sly smiled crossed her mouth and then turned into a pout. If the brother ever decided to stop being salty about her decision, he could bring plenty.
The scent of fresh-cut juniper branches called out to her from the open-air hearth across the room. Maybe she'd just drive to Sedona for the weekend, but after rock watching and art-gallery hopping, then what? Metaphysical classes and treks to vortexes were out. She wasn't a tourist, and anyway, she could teach enough to turn any participant's hair white.
While the group trip to the Grand Canyon had been awe-inspiring, true, doing some things alone wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. Rider's words followed her around the room as she went to the wide picture window and stared out at the landscape. Sunset would be like watching Heaven paint on a canvas of sky. Maybe she should have made her point to Carlos less bluntly?
She fought not to open her third eye to hone in on Carlos's whereabouts. She'd been firm, said she wanted to be alone this first weekend, and brother was done. Okay. Fine. It didn't have to be all that, though.
But dang . . . her new place was all feng shui correct, romantic, weapon-ready, and he hadn't been there to really appreciate it—or her. Yeah, yeah, part of that was her choice, but still. Lake Powell's surreal red rock spires and jewel-green waters set against rose-colored sand had insinuated themselves into the color scheme of her home, just as what the Navajos called "the rainbow turned to stone" bridge had influenced the delicate stone design of the fireplace mantle. But lighting that with a glass of wine and curled up in bed listening to music suddenly seemed such a waste all by herself. Sitting on her porch for the entire weekend, rocking in a wicker chair, and contemplating the vortexes of the universe wasn't gonna cut it, either. Maybe she'd work on some new music.
Personal space was one thing, but now that all the postbattle drama had settled down, she was out of her element. The fast pace of city life was making this new sanctuary feel more like they'd moved to another planet. L.A. clubs were calling her name. A good vamp fight was, too, even without her long blade. A game of poker, house music, a good party, maybe?
She'd never been the TV-watching type, and sitting still to write music wasn't what inspired her muse. Artistry came from living life and then getting so filled with emotion that it spilled out of her heart and mind onto a page. Again, Rider had been right on that score. It was going to be six more months before the compound was complete, and she was already rethinking the location. She had to chill.
They had everything in the world they needed out here. Money was not a problem. Maybe when the guys were fully healed, Dan could book a tour. Something? Anything! Damali placed her hand on the window and imagined heat from its surface fanning out to rim her fingers, then snatched it away. Too powerful a memory. Yeah, she had to chill.
How miraculously strange, she thought, staring out at the natural beauty that surrounded her, that for all their current assets, the things they needed most came from the ancestors, the elders, people who'd gone on to glory seemingly poor but indeed very rich.
She could feel the small Sankofa symbol on her spine tingle as the reality entered her mind. Waves of awareness slid between her boredom to visit like a friend and kept quiet company with her. It whispered deep truths: The ancient ones had spilled good spirit onto the earth, making it hallowed and impervious to demon inhabitation. By lineage, they had offered sanctuary and had baptized each of them with wisdom through experience. Every one of their past actions had created a bond, linking the fate of each team member, intertwining it with the subtlety of a spider's web, but it was a healing connection like the multicolored threads of Tara's medicine wheel. Now she understood that, too.
Damali nodded and wrapped her arms about herself. "Okay, y'all, I got it," she said softly and closed her eyes.
They'd indeed been graced by many blessings too profound to name. They were family. They were somewhat injured, but still alive. They were all half-crazy, but they'd mellowed. They loved one another, even though they all got on one another's nerves. They all wondered what the others were doing when apart. They all got in each other's business, constantly. They all fought over the bathroom. They argued and cussed each other out with regularity, but they all needed each other and wouldn't dream of having it any other way.
However, as she glanced around her house with a sly chuckle, she wa
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