First Edition: June 2003
DEDICATION AND SPECIAL ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This book is dedicated to those people who believe in things unseen and have walked by faith for so long that it's second nature. All of us know the elders who have that unshakable belief that there's a spiritual plane, and without those individuals holding the line, who knows what shape this world would be in? And yet while predators come in all forms, and have besieged our communities on many levels, there still seems to be a force that keeps a total eclipse of the light at bay. These elders teach, impart quiet wisdom, and ready another generation to take the baton as they pass it.
On the surface it may appear that the battle is a hopeless cause, and that there are no young, strong replacements. . . one could easily buy into "the illusion" that all is lost. Not so, because there are so many young warriors out there whose names we have yet to learn, and so many old guardians still keeping the lantern lit. Some say it's myth, others call it legend - but I have seen these people moving in mysterious ways. Therefore, do not believe in the smallness of things, believe in the light within.
In his inauguration speech, Nelson Mandela said it best: "Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our dark-
ness, that most frightens us. . . . As we are liberated from our own fear our presence automatically liberates others. " Keep your lights on!
To my spiritual team of women warriors of light, I thank you: Mom, Aunt Julia, Aunt Hettie, Aunt Ruby, Aunt Ruth, Grandmom Pete, Grandmom Thornton - y'all were awesome while on the planet! Count them . . . there were seven, who have now crossed over into the light. . . and who keep me there in my darkest moments. Thank you, Father God.
* * *
Special acknowledgments go to: My editor, Monique Patterson - whose creative vision and chutzpah allowed this project to be realized; my agent, Manie Barren of William Morris Agency, Inc. - the crazy man who dreamt up and pitched the concept! To the Evening Star writers of Philadelphia: Hilary, Kamal, Karen, Jenice, and Sheila . . . thanks, guys, for guiding me and reading scary stories that nobody wanted to read. To my sister, Liza Peterson, a spoken-word, hip-hop artist/actress extraordinaire! Thanks, sis, for keeping it real. Last, but not least, thanks to my husband and children for putting up with my dark side, my late nights, and total immersion in the realms of otherworld-liness while I went into the mind-set and half-turned personae of vampiri in order to create a story about keeping the light.
Twenty Years Ago
sarah richardsstood in the middle of her bedroom try-ing to console her infant who was wailing at the top of her tiny lungs. Yes, she knew what pain was, and wanted to cry out as much as her baby was carrying on right now. Instead, silent tears slid down the sides of her face as she turned her chin up to the ceiling and shut her eyes. How, Lord, was a preacher's wife supposed to deal with the fact that her husband was having an affair?
For months she'd denied the obvious. But now her husband's lies regarding his whereabouts had been found out. He'd even violated the sanctity of their home by bringing this woman to their bed - their marital bed. Evidence, in the form of the marriage-violator's perfume and blood, still clung to the sheets. She'd only been gone an hour on a church errand her husband had contrived for her to do. One hour, and now this?
Sarah covered her mouth and turned away, hastening from the sight and stench of the filth, taking her baby girl to lay her in her crib. With her hands trembling, she left the screaming infant, whose wails intensified as she turned away from her. Shame burned through her. How could she call the church elders, or talk to Mother Stone about something like this? How did a preacher's wife, the first lady of the church, force her lips to say that her husband, the Reverend Richards, had lost his natural black mind?
Amid the now hiccupping bleats from the nursery, Sarah became very still as she heard movement in the small clapboard house below her. There were two voices. One soft, seductive; the other was that of her husband. He'd brought this whore back to his home again! Once was not enough? Did he think she was so foolish as to run another church errand to an elderly neighbor, at night, again, so he could be doing God knows what? Couldn't he hear his own child screaming her lungs out - and wouldn't he know that his wife was upstairs? Did he have so little respect for her, or was it that this whore's pull was that strong?
Tears of bitter rage and hurt stung Sarah's eyes, the pain of her acknowledgment almost crushing her rib cage as the muscles around her heart constricted. This woman, this transgressor, had a hold on her husband that not even the Lord could seem to break . . . because, Father God knew, she'd prayed on it from the first inkling of doubt. Now, her husband had brought a violator back into his house? Her house. A home designed for a minister, his wife, and children, across the street from hallowed ground? Sarah felt her knees begin to buckle as she envisioned the faces of loyal parishioners who hung on the good Reverend's every word . . . just as she once had. This house was not a home, nor was it a place where she or her child could find peace.
She resisted her first instinct, which was to barrel downstairs to confront her husband and the heifer that had crossed her threshold. But something slithered inside Sarah's soul and gave her pause. The green-eyed monster raised its ugly head. She had to know what this hussy looked like . . . who was this woman that could break up hearth and home using something that all women had? She wanted to spy and know the things her hus-
band said to this home-wrecker. What lies had Armand Richards told?
Silently, like a thief in the night, Sarah Richards crept down the hall, hugging the wall. She knew this house by heart and easily avoided the creaky floorboards. Stretching her body, she clung to the very paint as she peered around the corner of the landing. The baby's cries escalated, her pulse rising along with it. She held her breath as she rounded the corner - and froze.
A tall, handsome, male figure the color of cafe au lait and dressed in an impeccable black suit, ran a palm across her husband's jaw. The caress was sensuality personified. The sight stole the scream from Sarah's lungs, as her husband closed his eyes and dropped his head back in a display of sheer feminine submission. Sarah took the stairs one by one, clutching the handrail to keep from passing out. She couldn't breathe as she watched in abject horror while this man . . . a man . . . not a woman . . . embraced her husband like a lover and lowered his head to Armand's exposed throat.
When she heard her husband groan, something fragile within her snapped.
Everything became a blur. Her feet flew down the stairs; her screams outstripped her infant daughter's. The words became a chant - "God, no! Not that!" She would crucify this beast, the fouler of her household! There was no rational thought as she hurled herself forward trying to grab hold of his broad shoulders. She wanted blood. A pound of flesh! But the agile intruder simply swept her husband up in his arms as though he were sweeping away his bride, and deftly slipped through the door with him.
Sarah gave chase into the front yard, screaming, crying, hollering behind them, but only the night heard her. She spun in a crazed circle, searching the darkness for them. Where had this lover taken her husband? And so quickly? Sarah fell to her knees in the gravel driveway. The stones cut through her nightgown and pierced her knees. Bloodied, she lay outstretched, sobbing a futile prayer. A man? It was a man. Dear Jesus in Heaven, no! A man, gorgeous, with jet-black, penetrating eyes, a regal carriage, flawless skin, thick, black lashes, onyx curls that would shame any woman . . . a man . . . please no . . . a man that stood six foot two, with a solid frame, and strong enough to lift her husband as if Armand was a baby! No!
She heaved and vomited, wiped
Right now, Sarah Richards had an errand to run. One that she'd put off all these months. She needed something more than prayer. Her husband was with a man, and the church elders didn't know nothing about pain like that. The old lady who lived on the edge of the swamps had potions and such to correct these kinds of abominations. And what Sarah would tell her would stay between her and the old witch.
* * *
For three days Sarah sat at the living room window as the church elders held the prayer vigil at her home. Young Marlene had brought them with her when Sarah had hysterically called for a baby-sitter at that odd hour of the night, and had told the girl that her husband was gone. What else had she expected? One didn't call at that hour and think the girl wouldn't have to explain things to a mother, who would then call in church rein-
forcements - not when there was a problem at the church head's house.
But desperation had kept Sarah from thinking things through that far. If they thought he'd just run off, fine. That had been enough for the old folks to mount a prayer posse - Minister was nowhere to be found, his wife and child had been abandoned. Evil was at work. That was all Sarah would say on the matter.
She slept in the parlor chair while she struggled with her plan, unable to ever go back to her own bed, unable to even lie down on the couch. She refused to eat, barely took a sip of water, didn't move, just stared. Who knew what other piece of furniture had been violated within her home? Each day that passed the black bag she'd hidden in the pantry issued a more urgent call for her to take matters into her own hands. Yet, to do so would be a death of all she'd been brought up to believe in. It would be flying directly in the face of the Lord. Three days, and three long nights, Sarah pondered the seductive choice.
She quietly thanked the praying people that had descended upon her house, never saying so out loud, just in her mind. Their eyes remained lowered and she appreciated their discretion, and she said a prayer of thanks that young Marlene Stone was taking such good care of her child while her nerves took leave.
Sarah Richards knew that she had checked out of life. Her eyes simply watched the point of nothing beyond the window. But on this third night, she also knew what she had to do. The elders, for all their prayers, didn't know where her husband's car had disappeared to, or where the good Reverend was, for that matter. But the old seer had spoken of a mansion - a plantation. Had given her directions and landmarks to follow. And she would arm herself with her spell and a butcher knife to right this wrong as soon as the sun set. . . just as the witch had advised.
Without a word, Sarah stood and feigned illness, leaving the prayer warriors who had murmured without relent since the night she'd seen too much. Sarah went to the bathroom and splashed water on her face, then snuck into the pantry to collect her bag that had been secretly readied. In her bare feet and robe, she slipped from the house and into the night without a sound. She was gonna fetch back her husband, or die trying.
* * *
Sarah stood in the center of a circle of weeping willows with tears streaming down her cheeks and stared at the expansive estate. Elaborate ironwork graced the veranda that rimmed the entire second floor of the mansion. Tall white columns created a formidable entrance to the place she'd dared to go. Spanish moss billowed from the trees and nary a cricket sounded. Her husband's car was in the driveway, just as the old woman had prophesized. Sarah's hand clutched the satchel and her feet never consulted her brain as she moved forward, rounding the mansion to the back door that was surprisingly unlocked.
The mansion was eerily quiet as she slipped into the darkness within. Money, power. . . what riches had been promised her husband by this wealthy perversion of a lover, she wondered? How could a man she'd loved with all her heart and soul do this to her? How could he live such a lie, allow her to bear a child for him? How could he do this to his baby girl?
New tears replenished the salty stream that had dried on Sarah's face. She'd loved Armand Richards since they were children, and had never known any other man in the world but him.
Her footsteps took her through the house, each room making her walk more quickly as she saw sumptuous wealth - but not her husband. She hurried up the winding staircase toward the upper levels of the mansion, listening intently for the sounds of her husband in the throes of passion, but heard nothing. Every well-appointed room was vacant. The seer had been wrong. Armand was not here. But it was clear that her husband had been here at one time. Perhaps he and his man-friend were out on the town, or secluded in another love nest? Sarah's mind took a sinister turn; she squeezed her eyes shut as she saw them naked together. Bile rose within her throat as images of her husband with this seductive man lacerated her spirit. No. This had to be fixed! This was the only way.
The opportunity their absence provided was perfect. She would do what she had to do - go into the wine cellar, the base of the house, and cast the spell. Sarah covered her heart and said a prayer for her child, and asked for forgiveness. She knew her prescription was wrong as she tiptoed down the long hallway, found the stairs, and descended to the first floor. The long walk gave her time to explain with contrition that she had to do something, could not just sit and wait for this to be made right. All she asked was that Father God would understand and spare her baby girl - despite what it said in the Good Book about soothsayers and spell-casters. . . or taking matters into one's own hands. This was a special case, and He had to understand her desperation.
Her bare feet stung with the cuts and abrasions she sustained from walking, crazed, through the woods, over bramble, across driveway gravel for five miles in the dark. The bag of black magic weighed heavily in her hand as she shifted the bulk of it onto her hip, extracted a black candle and a small box of stick matches, lit the candle, then clumsily stowed away the matches, and resumed her slow descent down into the damp cavern of the first level of the mansion.
Slick stone walls reflected the light from the sputtering flame, and the coolness of the room belied the humidity that made her summer robe and gown cling to her skin. Perspiration due to her shattered nerves seeped from her pores, sending a rivulet of adrenaline-filled sweat between her breasts and down her back. Undaunted, she began making the circle in the dirt, using the butcher knife to carve the strange star shape that the old woman had drawn for her on a crumpled piece of paper. Sarah's lips moved with purpose as she opened the Mason jar and splashed blood from the gutted rooster upon each point of the star. And as she set each black candle in place, and closed her eyes, constantly murmuring, the floor beneath her began to move.
Immediately plumes of thick, yellowish smoke rose, choking her in a sulfuric, blackening haze. The rack of wine bottles on the wall began to explode, sending shards of glass to cover her. Splinters from flying wood and glass cut into her skin like shrapnel. A scream choked by spit, terror, and smoke was torn from her throat as she ran and huddled in a corner against the wall.
* * *
He could not believe his good fortune. Fallon Nuit contained his amusement as his strategy took root. Providence of this magnitude couldn't have been conjured by the highest sorcerers of old. A fluke. A variable. A tiny rip in the fabric of supernatural law, all caused by a frightened, but foolish, woman. Jealousy had ironically released the green-eyed monster within her - along with another, more dangerous entity that the poor human creature obviously hadn't anticipated . . . nor had the Vampire Council. Pity. A gross oversight. They couldn't keep him incarcerated for a violation of their staunch, outdated High Council rules, as they had planned. There were things that even vampires frowned upon. Then again, there was this variable called
"You have inadvertently been summoned to my lair," Nuit crooned in a seductive tone toward the demon that arose with him from the billowing cloud of smoke.
"I was called, yes. That gives me the right - "
"No," Nuit replied with a lethal warning between his teeth. "You have no rights, but you do have the misfortune to be a demon trapped in a master vampire's lair. "
Two formidable adversaries stared at each other for a moment. The snakelike creature appeared stunned, then outraged. However, when it offered no rebuttal, Nuit pressed on, his hunger for the fresh taste of blood, stoked by the scent of the frail female human trying to hide herself in the corner of his wine cellar, notwithstanding.
"Cohabitation without cooperation is not an option. " Nuit studied his manicured nails and sighed. "Do remember that I am of the more evolved order of the dark realms, and now freed, I could make existence for you here torturous. But I am a man of reason. "
The demon looked at him, and then glanced at the cowering woman on the floor. "We could come to terms. Fair exchange is no robbery. "
Fallon Nuit threw his head back and laughed. "Indeed!"
Being unconquerable lies within yourself; being conquerable lies within the enemy.
- Sun-tzu, The Art of War
damali richardscould still feel the electricity of the crowd and the adrenaline rush of her spoken-word performance pulsing through her veins as she entered the backstage dressing room. The club was jumping so hard it seemed like even the walls were sweating. The bass thumping from the extensive speaker system was like an insistent heartbeat that she could feel vibrating through the floor and smoke-thickened air until it entered her body through the soles of her feet. Dirty aqua-colored paint peeled at the corners of the cramped space, as though it was trying to escape the throbbing scene.
She glanced around at the ugly, stained brown sofa, and the sparse collection of wooden and metal chairs, immediately opting to stand rather than flop on any of the seating choices. How many performers' body funk had been permanently tattooed on that sorry excuse for a couch, she wondered? Even the one mirror in the room was covered with a white, filmy layer of grime. Yuck. And people thought this was the glamorous life? She, Mar-lene, and a five-man squad crammed into a dump. Pullease.
Sweat, icy yet burning, made her clothes stick to her skin. Her heavily beaded, Nzinga queen warrior headdress had suddenly become an intolerable weight on her damp scalp. Damali roughly removed it, tossing it onto a chair, and she held her shoulder-length locks up off her neck to give her overheated body a much-needed waft of air. The semiprecious stone and lion's teeth adornments, affixed to her locks with silver and copper wire, gently clinked as she moved her hair. She grimaced at the sound that was now too close to her skull. All five feet seven inches of her felt on fire. Being an artist was great, but this was no way to live.
"Lot of activity on radar tonight," Marlene said in a near whisper, as though talking to herself. "Most times we get a visit from one or two vampires. I'm sensing many. "
"Yeah," Damali croaked. Her vocal chords still ached from the intense performance, so she kept her response short. Besides, what else was there to say to her manager, who was like a surrogate mother to their group?
Damali and Marlene shared a glance. They both knew what had to be done. Things were heating up. Before, one vamp might follow them, at most two. But ever since they'd turned the tables and went on the offensive a couple of times, seeking out the action instead of waiting for it to come to them, nothing had been the same. The rare random ambushes were now becoming a regular phenomenon. Valuable junior team members had been lost because if it. Irritation coiled within Damali. She'd told Marlene this shit would go down like that once they started hunting. Shoulda let sleeping dogs lie.
Marlene shot her a look that said don't start. Screw Marlene and her pious yang. Not tonight. Sure, she loved Mar like a mom and all, but wasn't feeling sister-girl right now. Yeah, they only went after vampires that were acting up. But that wasn't the point.
"You didn't hear me, did you?"
Damali cut Marlene a hard glance, then looked away. "No. What did you say?"
Marlene waited until the two women's eyes met again. "I didn't say anything. I thought it, and you didn't hear me in your head. But I'm able to read you loud and clear. That concerns me. "
Total annoyance wrapped itself around Damali and she gave Marlene another glare to make her back off. She felt invaded. "I'm just tired, that's all. The past is the past. It's done now, anyway. Drop it. "
"You need to tell us when you're having sensory blackouts. They're becoming more frequent, aren't they? You could have sent that to me without a word. "
The other members of the team gave Damali a quick look of concern, but were wise enough not to get in the middle of the brewing dispute. More than likely they'd let the bullshit pass, because she and Marlene were always at it. Whatever.
Instead of answering Marlene, Damali forced her attention toward the Native American flutes, cowbells, and chimes that rested against large conga drums in the corner of the room. Her gaze scanned the sharp, titanium-based, silver-plated anchors that held the drumhead skins in place. She refused to answer Marlene's question. She didn't feel like dealing with that crap right now. There was something making the hair stand up on the back of her neck.
Tonight, the drum anchors were going in her belt, even if that music gear was Jose's, a. k. a. Wizard. He was da bomb in concert, but he didn't know how to use the disguised weapons as well as she did out in the streets. Summoning inner strength, Damali blocked Marlene's intrusion into her thoughts. She'd give Marlene a mental blank to consider while taking her time to figure out how to better arm herself.
The crew was so quiet it was eerie. Nobody said a •word, and all were simply packing gear. That was not her team's normal behavior after a gig. The walls of the tiny room felt like they were closing in on her, swallowing her crew whole. Damali studied her weapons options.
Maybe a few silver-plated chimes would be a safe bet, too? Jose could do his thing on crossbow, his favorite weapon anyway. A sister could back somethin' up off her with the dagger-edges off the drum anchors and chimes, if it got crazy out there - same deal with the cymbals. Even though she reminded herself that when a cymbal disc was thrown dead-aim the edge was sharp enough to slice paper without hearing it rip, that fact didn't make her feel better tonight. Why not?
Her gaze instantly went to the Fender- - Jake Rider's electric guitar, and to Shabazz's bass, and then to Marlene's electric violin. Marlene's line of vision followed Damali's for a moment before Marlene began assisting the others with equipment breakdown.
As Marlene moved to work with Shabazz, renewed tension wound its way up Damali's spine. Yeah, they'd better restring the instruments and put in the steel cables across the reinforced metal bridges. Tonight felt like a crossbow-necessary night, and the string instruments were easier to roll with. She might even get Wizard to hook up the light poles through the phony strap loops to lock and load additional crossbows. But Marlene needed to give up the walking stick as her only protection. Sistah better recognize, and deal with her violin like it had been designed - put the steel-based bow across the bridge and be ready to rock.
It felt like they'd need the light cannons out there, too, although at the moment, she couldn't exactly say why. Nah . . . this was no way to live.
She walked over to the drums and ignored the look Marlene cast in her direction. The dense scent of frankincense, sage, and myrrh had trailed into the room behind her from the stage. Damali licked her parched lips, tasting salt on them, and tried to inhale the protective fragrance, but felt herself almost retch.
Usually the aroma calmed her, its elements anointing her stage space - a required opening before a purple haze of dry-ice smoke was released as she'd enter a performance and claim it. The ring of holy wate
"You all right?"
Marlene's question hung in the air as the other crew members paused in their tasks for a moment, considered her, and glanced at each other as though waiting for the green light to continue their equipment breakdown.
Damali just nodded. The crew resumed motion, but kept glancing at her from the corners of their eyes. She wanted to get back to the compound, where they stowed off the hook weapons. The equipment they took on the road was disguised enough to get through new airport security screenings, which meant it wasn't the real heavy artillery. And, yeah, it would be enough to stop a few predators. But if her senses were right, they were in for sho 'nuff action tonight.
The problem was, she couldn't half see. Her normal sight was fine, but inside her head, everything was blurry. Her third-eye was down. Had been that way for a couple of weeks, like static on a television. Intermittent static. Sometimes her mental radar was crystal clear, but at other times, like tonight, it was all snow. She hated this bull.
"We need to hurry up," Damali said out of the blue. Her crew stared at her. One by one they nodded, but nobody said a word. Damn, it was hot in there.
For some reason, the air-conditioned confines didn't cool her off either. Her skin-tight, thigh-slit leather pants felt like they were suffocating her, while the ropes of semiprecious amulets and stones set in thick silver around her wrists, and especially about her neck, began feeling like a humid noose. She began stripping them off, ignoring Marlene's expression of disapproval. The necklaces were practically strangling her. She'd have to chance having her throat exposed, just so she could breathe.
Unable to bear the weight of it, Damali cast off her wide silver belt, and the clatter of it against a nearby coffee table almost made her cringe from the piercing sound of metal connecting with the wood. The ankh earrings of amber and silver and onyx had to come off - they were all too heavy, no matter what Marlene said about the protective talismans that hung as guards to her jugular. Everything felt like it was holding on to her, grasping at her. She couldn't breathe!
"You're sure you're all right?" Marlene had stopped working over an equipment bag to hold her in a steady gaze.
"I'm cool, y'all. For real, for real," Damali finally muttered. There was no need to bring her foul vibe to the group. It wasn't their fault. Why alarm them if this was only a case of raw nerves? She studied the drum anchors one last time and then walked away from them. "Guess I'm just tired from giving it a hundred and fifty percent tonight. "
The others in the room simply stared at her, their silence filling in the gaps with quiet apprehension. Yeah, they all felt it, she could tell. Oh, well, shit happens. They knew that, too. None of them wanted to do this destiny thing, especially her. They were trapped as guardians, just like she was trapped as a vampire huntress. There was only one choice that they'd all learned the hard way - band together or die, or worse.
"Let's just keep moving, people. Anybody seen my Tims?"
Marlene extracted the flat-heeled, amber-colored suede boots Damali had requested from a corner in the room and tossed them to her. Damali caught each shoe and bent to put them on. Slowly, her crew resumed their packing.
The sleek high-heeled boots she'd worn during the performance had become like anvils on her legs. This was not a high-heel, be fly and cute kinda night. This was a possible kick ass after a show deal. Despite the sheerness of the color-splashed, tie-dyed duster and embroidered midriff brassiere she performed in, they too felt like they were cutting off her blood flow, and made her want to scream. Her breasts, which she had always believed to be too small, now felt oddly pendulous, heavy, too constricted by her costume. The fragile silver waist-chain she donned seemed to push bile up from her gullet and into her throat. If she weren't almost twenty-one years old, and in top athletic form, she would have sworn that she was having a mild heart attack.
Damali peered in the mirror, appraising her once-bronze complexion that now seemed pallid - but was eerily relieved to see that at least she still had a reflection. What the hell was wrong with her?
"Somebody throw me a T-shirt. "
Shabazz complied, and flung a shirt with the band's logo on it in her direction.
"Thanks. " Damali gave her crew her back and stripped off the offending sheer top of her stage costume. The guys averted their eyes, as was normal, and as soon as she pulled on the cotton, she sighed. "That's much better. Now I'm good. "
"You put a lot of energy into the show," Marlene said after a long pause while the group resumed breakdown. But she spoke in a calm voice, one almost too calm.
"Got a reputation to maintain, Mar. " Damali made eye contact with Marlene and held her with a brief stare. Read the double meaning in that, sis. Don't front on me - not with my crew standing around. Address it later.
Marlene nodded but said nothing.
by L. A. Banks / Science Fiction & Fantasy / Romance / Mystery & Thrillers have rating 2.1 out of 5 / Based on31 votes