The stench became thicker, concentrated, and it filled her nose and coated her tongue, making her spit. It was as though roaches were crawling over her skin. Her breaths came in short pants now. She didn't blink, as the darkness suddenly no longer became an issue. All her senses were heightened more than she'd ever known them to be. It was disorienting, yet thrilling at the same time. She could see layers of reality. A heat trail from a cat. A vicious stray dog saw her and quickly backed up, abandoning it's feeding in the garbage. Yeah, something else not human was with her out there, just as she'd thought. The dog was the tip-off. Animals always knew.
Heavy fumes of grease and garbage collided as steam from a kitchen vent filtered over a Dumpster. Dampness was all around her. The sound of a steady drip, drop, drip, drop came from the air-conditioner condensers. Their hum everpresent, she heard beyond that and listened to the small stream of water flowing down the alley's gutters in a noisy trickle. The garbage dripped a yellow, icky liquid that was the telltale sign of maggots. She shivered as she now heard the larva squirm. Her own footsteps echoed. Something skittered by. Fuck it. It was on.
She swung before she saw what it was. All she had to do was feel the hair on her arms shift and she knew where to strike. A pair of red-glowing eyes opened, then the form quickly filled in around them. The puff of lingering smoke transformed into a feminine shape of blackness in the dimly lit space. Yellow floodlights glinted off massive fangs, and a hiss escaped the creature's face on a black, pronged tongue. Half hidden by the shadows, only a hint of vulgar, scaled cheek could be seen. Sulfur trailed the entity like cheap perfume.
Electrified, Damali moved with sudden force. Making a slice against the night as the thing before her vanished, she missed. Instantly off balance, she used the momentum to spin around and to keep the beast from attacking her from behind. The screech of rage the creature released filled the air, and her blade was still vibrating. Madame Isis was singing, creating a harmonic frequency that sent another surge of strength through her.
In the distance she heard the four-by-four door slam. Two more figures stepped from the Dumpster shadows. Males. She watched as their jaws unhinged and the dead-flesh scales on their faces split and bled green ooze to accommodate the massive fangs. She kept the female in her peripheral vision. It was smiling, watching the show. She'd deal with that skank in a minute. But she could feel it, sense that the two males were about to spring. It was as though their thoughts moved the air ever so slightly, like a subtle breeze. She was ready when they leapt.
Damali ducked, rose, and caught one in the chest, puncturing its lung with the direct point of her blade, and struck the other with a long slice across its throat. As the second creature fell back, grasping its neck, Damali doubled back and delivered another blow across its already wounded windpipe – but this time she landed the blow with more force. The female leaned its head back and released a bloodcurdling scream. A head rolled to Damali's feet and she kicked it away, and stood legs wide, Madame Isis held at a ninety-degree angle while the skull burned and turned to dust. Satisfaction claimed her as the first creature writhed in a slow incineration from the hole her sword had made.
Sudden movement – the female vampire sprang at her. Rider was about to be toast as he neared the battle-hot area by the Dumpsters. Damali somersaulted away from the lunging female to quickly stand in front of Rider, her sword leveled and her gaze darting to every surface, every puff of steam, and every skittering insect in the alley.
"I told you to stay in the car," she yelled at Rider.
"Screw that!" he said fast, holding his Clock above his shoulder with both hands. "The general gave other orders."
Three beasts came out of the shadows bearing fangs. When Rider took aim, Damali blocked his shot, using the wall as leverage to immediately mount an attack. She flipped toward them. When she landed, and spun, one was at her back, the other two were in front of her. Rider fired. The creatures before her hesitated for a second to hiss in Rider's direction. She could feel the one behind her become airborne. Rider was screaming for her to watch her back. An opportunity flashed. The advantage was opened as another round of Rider's ammo went off.
Damali's response was immediate. Isis was aimed to take out a heart – one jab, she plunged her sword with her full weight behind it. The crack of breastbone, then softness echoed against the brick walls. Creature slime ran down the trilogy of blood gutters on her blade. A direct hit – through a vampire heart. Madame Isis had been baptized. Flames burned where vampire blood polluted the weapon until it once again gleamed silver. The second vampire hesitated then rushed her. His abdomen was Damali's target. Isis found it. The creature wailed as silver entered his gizzard and came away with entrails. The disemboweled entity dropped to its knees clutching its stomach, trying to hold in its slowly igniting intestines. It all happened so fast, but to Damali it felt like slow motion. Seconds to react.
Moving with feline speed, Damali stepped aside, avoiding the swipe from behind as the third creature landed against the ground, making a lunge at the naming dust. She summarily severed its head while it roasted with its brethren vamps. Breathing hard, Damali spun around in a circle. Then looked up as something identifiable as a female entity dropped down to the Dump-ster.
"Bring it, bitch! You're the one I want anyway!"
"Damali, no! Leave that one, and get back in the Jeep! Get outta here before more of 'em show up!"
She couldn't help herself. Rider's hysterical pleas seemed to drive her forward. As long as there was a human in the alley, an innocent, she couldn't stop fighting. Something fragile within her had snapped. She wanted this female vampire like a junkie craved crack. Damali rounded the Dumpster, ascending to the top of it with one pull, leveraging her weight with the bottom of her boot against the side of the metal container. A claw made a swipe. She ducked, swung her sword, but missed. Rider was circling, trying to get a shot off, but Damali's boot found the beast's chest and connected, making both the creature and Damali fall backward.
Landing on the ground with a thud, and although temporarily dazed, Damali immediately jumped up, angrier than she had been when she began. The creature hung from a precarious grip on the end of the fire escape. Rider fired a round, but missed as it swung upward and grabbed the next rungs. Damali was back on top of the Dumpster in a flash. The beast turned and smiled at her.
"You can't take my place," she hissed. "He's mine." Then it slithered through a vent and was gone.
"Damn!" Damali walked back and forth on the Dumpster top for a moment then jumped down, appraising Rider. "You nicked?"
"No," he said very carefully. "You?"
"Hell no. I wish one of them would even think about it."
His expression was very calm. Too calm. "I think they already have, li'l sis. What the hell was on your mind, going into an alley with no backup, and trying to do that many vamps alone? That's not procedure – ever."
"I don't need a lecture, Rider." Damali began walking, but didn't sheath her blade. "I need your ass to shut up and drive. And we ain't going back to the hospital until I find that bitch."
"Okay." His tone was laced with sarcasm as they reached the four-by-four. He held her arm as she opened the door. "Standard op – we always sweep a vehicle before we get in."
"Bullshit," she snapped, shrugging out of his hold. "If there's something in there, I got something for it." She hopped in, drawing a dagger from her waistband, thrusting Isis into the floor of the vehicle with vicious force.
"I'm sick of this shit! My people are dropping like flies, we're practically imprisoned in our own home! I want a life. So, either way, dead or alive, or otherwise, the bullshit ends tonight! We track that bitch, and drip holy water on her head, torture the truth out of her. I wanna know where the main lair is."
Rider climbed in behind her warily, and his gaze went to the sword stuck two inches into the steel floor of the Jeep. "I'm calling Marlene as we drive," he said, reaching for the radio, and flipping on the UV high beams that rimmed the Jeep's roof.
"You do that." Damali fumed as they backed out of the alley. Punk.
"Where are we going, and how are we supposed to find something that just slithered through a Chinese kitchen vent? Huh? Answer me that?"
"We track it – just like I brought you here. Or are you losing your skills, Rider?"
Her breaths were now coming in short bursts. Perspiration ran down the center of her back and beaded on her forehead and upper lip. The muscles in her arms and legs twitched. Her hair stuck to her scalp. Her heart was beating a hole in her chest. Images flashed in her mind, the bright colors making her close her eyes to the blur of passing traffic. She couldn't sit still. The feeling of maggots covered her skin. Each exhale was bringing a guttural sound up from her throat. She began to rock.
"West on Wilshire to La Brea," she ordered with her eyes still shut tight.
She could feel the vehicle turn and move, and although Rider had stepped on the gas, he was driving too slowly. "Now!"
"Mar, Shabazz, J.L., this is Rider. We have a situation."
"Speak to me," Shabazz replied in a tense command.
"OurNeteruis… well… going through some pretty fucked-up changes. Dig?"
"Where are you?" Marlene yelled. "Talk to me, Rider. What's going on?!"
"I've got a lock on them," J.L. said fast. "Wilshire, in Chinatown."
"Mar, she's rocking, and burning up." Rider glanced at Damali, and then trained his eyes toward the street as he drove faster. "She jumped out of the Jeep before I could stop her, and ran down a blind alley with Isis drawn like a freakin' Samurai, and took out three of them by herself."
"Blood lust," Shabazz murmured. "Bring her in."
"Now," Marlene said, the panic clear in her voice.
"Fuck you, Marlene!" Damali came out of her daze, and put her hand on the wheel, making Rider swerve. "I'll cut his freakin' heart out if he doesn't follow this scent."
"Uh," Rider stammered. "Look, you heard the lady. I'm not arguing with her and Madame Isis. New plan, gang."
"Damali, listen, baby," Marlene crooned through the radio. "Come home. You don't understand what's happening to you."
Damali leaned her head back. Something inside her bubbled up, a strange heat that connected with sound and forced a battle cry through her lips. The primal yell echoed and bounced off the interior of the Jeep cab. Rider swerved to take the speed up to eighty as he rounded the corner onto Venice Boulevard on two wheels.
Rider glanced at his gun – Damali's eyes met his.
"Don't even think about it," she warned. "Draw it and you lose an arm."
"You hear that shit? You hear that shit, man?! What the fuck? Is she turning, what the fuck is happening?! Am I driving a vamp, or is our girl over the edge? Explain some shit to me! Now?' Rider's gaze shot between the radio, Damali, and the road.
"It's going down," Shabazz said in a controlled voice. "Phase one. Battle prep. Stay with her, Rider. J.L., get me audio to Big Mike."
"You do that," Rider said, watching Damali as she closed her eyes and began rocking again. "Yeah, you get that big, lurchy motherfucker on the horn and tell him I need backup, stat! We're getting ready to hit the Santa Monica Freeway – going west."
"Stay west," Damali said quickly. "Don't lose it."
"Li'l sis," Big Mike said softly. "It's time to come home."
She ignored Mike's entreaties as the images in her head tore at the gray matter in her skull. Blood was everywhere. A bedroom. A man. Mirrors. Police. Sulfur. A black cavern. Female eyes. A hiss. Waves. The beach. Then she saw Carlos and almost vomited. Thick, salty emulsion covered the inside of her mouth and her hand cupped over her lips while she choked the sensation back down.
"She's about to lose her cookies in this Jeep, guys. Our girl don't look good."
"Baby," Marlene said, calling to Damali. "Baby, talk to me. Tell me how you feel."
"Like shit," Damali replied, gulping hard, then taking in and letting out fast, shallow sips of air. "I'm burning up. Can't get the scent out of my nose. My skin – it's in my skin. The beach. It's down at the beach. Under the pier. But a house, or something. I can hear it hissing." Too nauseated to continue, she leaned her head back and panted, wiping at her forehead in anger. "I will cut that bitch's throat out! Five of our men, plus Jose – Dee Dee? I'll gut her."
"Rider. Did she pick up the scent before you did?" Shabazz's question had come quick, stabbing through the radio with its intensity.
"Yeah, now that you mention it." Rider peered over at Damali, then sent his gaze back to the highway signs on US-10.
"She's getting stronger."
"Rider. Chill. Put on a mobile transmitter so we can walk you through this."
Rider complied, watching Damali as she yelled again, writhing in her seat.
"Talk to me, y'all," Rider said. "I'm dealing with something here I've never seen happen. Understood?"
"You're in no imminent danger as long as you stay out of her way when she hunts," Shabazz told him. "Do not get between her and a kill. Stay alongside her, watch her back and yours, but do not try to bring her hunt down for her. Natural law is in full effect."
"You ain't gotta tell me twice, brother."
"Yo, Rider," Mike said. "Her hearing, her nose, tactical senses – everything is overloading right now. Don't touch her, because the reaction is swift. She's wired."
"I am looking at a young woman who stuck a sword into the floor of the Jeep – plunged two inches deep through steel like it was a butter knife and the fucking Jeep was Parkay – with a three-bladed dagger in the other hand, and you are counseling me not to touch her to hold her back? What are y'all? Nuts?"
"Rider, you need me to leave Jose and come out there for backup, brother?"
For a moment there was no answer over the radio from any of the guardians.
"No," Rider said slowly, still appraising Damali from the corner of his eye. "Can't leave Jose alone. I'm just worried, is all. She doesn't look good."
"Mike, man your post and stay with Jose," Shabazz said after a moment. "If he's better, bring him in tomorrow morning - do not travel at night. There's a lot of activity topside, right through here."
J.L. looked at his monitors, drawing nods from both Marlene and Shabazz. "It's not real good for any of you guys to be rolling at night," J.L. told them, strain lacing his voice. "The terrain is red-hot. Rider, if you can get Damali back in, and if Mike can stay put, we might be able to get everyone home in one piece."
"Got you," Mike said with a nod. He leveled his gaze at a nurse who came in to check on Jose. When she opened her mouth and looked at her watch to signal visiting hours were over, he stood. " This is my brother. I don't leave till he leaves - now handle your business. You want to be the one to call security on me?" He continued to stand as the nurse checked Jose's pulse and IV and then made a hasty retreat.
"How's Jose?" Marlene asked.
"Sleeping. Rehydrating. His color is back. He looks good."
"Uh, folks? We're coming up near the pier. You want to return to the immediate issue at hand?"
"Let her get her run out," Shabazz ordered. "When she crashes and burns in the morning, we'll all talk. For now, you have one job. Bring her back here safe – untouched. Put that •wire in your ear and turn on your transmitter so we can stay in communication with you as this goes down."
Before Rider could bring the Jeep to a full stop, Damali was leaping out of the vehicle and had yanked the sword out behind her. She immediately began running, her legs eating up the distance with a lightness and a freedom she'd never experienced. The cement gave way to wood, which gave way to sand, and her locks lifted from her shoulders; breeze and salt air slapped her face as she ran. Every cell in her body felt beyond alive. The sword in one hand and a dagger in the other, there was no such thing as fear. An aura of faint blue light covered her outstretched sword arm. Sand hit her backside as she parted the grains of it with furious boot thuds – running, hunting, whatever was out there, she would chase it back to Hell.
"She's on the move," Rider puffed into the narrow electronic bar that bounced over his mouth as he ran, trying to keep pace.
He pushed his tiny earpiece in deeper to keep it from falling out, then released the safety on his gun.
"Stay with her!" Marlene's voice had gone from panic to a near-shriek.
"Easy for you to say. I'm forty-five. It's sand. She's twenty yards ahead of me, and stroking like Flo Jo, dammit. I can barely keep a visual." Drawing ragged breaths, Rider gave chase, and then stopped short of the edge of the pier as Damali's form disappeared.
"Houston," he murmured through deep huffs into his mouthpiece, "we've got a problem."
"Talk to me," Shabazz said in a whisper. "Where is she?"
"Under the pier, and it's waaaaay too quiet for my liking."
"She's in a den," Big Mike said. "How's your ammo, Rider?"
"Low as shit – to be in a zone."
"Rider, use the lights. Get back to the Jeep and hit the lights," J.L. told him.
"I can't leave her under the pier," Rider said, his breaths steadying as he went in deeper under the pier.
"Get out of there, Rider," Mike pleaded. "She'll be all right, man. You won't be."
Ignoring the team, Rider went still deeper, listening to the waves lap against the shore and the poles, his feet sinking in the wet sand as he walked. A whiff of sulfur made him turn. Slits of glowing red opened before him from behind a pole. Hisses - claws at his ankles began to pull him down. His gun dropped when something strong slammed into him, the weapon summarily eaten by a wave. He struggled as he felt himself grabbed from behind and his head forced down. The cross on his neck strangled him from the hold at his back; something clutched his shirt. He tried to fight against it but his punches connected with air. He managed to yell; he heard a chime and a whooshing noise, then a bloodcurdling screech as the sulfur smell thickened. His boots were in a vacuum seal that felt like cement.
He could hear the team calling to him, Marlene hollering prayers. His head was being forced to the side. Whatever had him from behind would not let go. Then he heard the chime again, followed by a whoosh. Two sets of eyes before him parted and scattered deeper into the darkness. The pull at his feet suddenly released and he dropped to wetness, covering his neck with both hands. The waves licked him. He shut his eyes, waiting for them to descend upon him like sharks and begin feeding. Prayers echoed from his mind and from his mouth. "Dear God, not like this!"
Traumatized, Rider kept his eyes shut to the voice in pitch black. "Fuck you! Just do it and get it done!"
"Rider, get up," a familiar voice said in an amused tone. "We need to get out of here."
Almost afraid to look up, he peered into the blue-black around him, his eyes adjusting slowly to the moonlight that filtered between the pier boards high above.READ MORE >>