Standing in the Middle of Hell...
Carlos assessed his situation fast. Payback for all that he'd done in life was a true bitch. There was no way out. He was dead. Or, more like half dead - undead - a vampire. Topside, he had a woman who he'd give his life for. Perhaps, to some extent, he already had... only to find out that the sister he was protecting was a vampire huntress. Not to mention the fact that the woman he wanted more than his next breath was surrounded by a gang of weapons-toting brothers and an off-the-hook momma who could fight. Crazy.
The old vampires had called Damali a Neteru, and then thinking him ignorant and stupid, and being themselves arrogant, had attempted to simplify the concept for him by describing her as a slayer. Carlos smiled. The tension in their faces was a dead giveaway that, for all their power, they couldn't hide. Yeah, they had reason to worry.
But didn't they realize what he'd known all his life? Now dead, there was no loss of that knowledge about what she was - special. Always had been, to him. There was no simplifying Damali. Neteru fit her. To call her anything else would be a clumsy summation of what she was.
His awareness from just a quick hit of Nuit's throne had given him a glimpse of all who had hunted vampires in the past. For centuries humans had cast spells, or those with mild forms of extrasensory awareness had come for what was now, unfortunately, his kind. Shamans had performed rituals and secret societies had made their own legends. But this one, this huntress... a Neteru was divinely created and specially anointed. Damali was something that he could not put into words.
Carlos drew a hard breath just thinking about her. This woman could shift the balance of world power, realign the energies in the universe. She had every gift to go along with her force of nature - not all of them realized, but definitely there, waiting - and a team of seasoned hunters at her side to give guidance, then ultimately follow her lead. From her womb great empires could be birthed, on the side of light or dark, and she held the key: her choice in the matter - the ultimate power of free will. The sister had divine authority. Even the old boys were awed, nervous, and craved what she had come by as a birthright.
And she is mine...
But he couldn't worry about all that right now.
Above ground, he had the Asian, Russian, Dominican, and Jamaican drug mobs, plus the federal authorities and another master vampire, looking for his head on a silver platter. Beneath the earth's surface, he had the entire Vampire Council on his ass. And now he was about to receive a tour of Hell itself.
This was beyond f**ked up.
The dense black smoke that swirled in the abyss-like ceiling high above the Vampire Council table formed a moaning funnel. A long strand of it touched down as though a violent twister, depositing a hooded messenger before sucking back into itself like a giant vacuum to resume its previous whirling mass. Now Carlos understood what was in the screeching cloud - things that went for food, bodies, and anything else the Vampire Council requested.
The messenger used his scythe to motion for Carlos to follow him. "The Vampire Council occupies the sixth realm, with which you have been made familiar. What you have not seen here is for the knowledge of the council members only. As we go, we will stop on each of the five demon realms with brevity. I am told you are valuable cargo, and the upper realms have formed a resistance."
Carlos nodded. The council chairman waved his hand. Just as quickly as he'd consented without words, the funnel reappeared, creating a whining turbine sound. A putrid wind rushed against Carlos's face. This time no terror entered Carlos as the bony messenger's hand clutched him and the tornado-like cloud enveloped them. He was on a mission. He'd been granted temporary immunity. He'd cut the deal of life. The powerful strength of master vampire status surged through his veins. Curiosity about this strange new life replaced fear.
Soon the jettison slowed. Carlos landed hard on his feet and heard a crunching noise under them like twigs snapping. Screams of agony met him as they echoed through the distance. The messenger's eyes narrowed as he pointed ahead of them with his scythe. They were standing in a clearing at the edge of dense black woods. Tall, disfigured trees with no leaves rose and twisted amid a climbing bramble of thorns that seemed alive with motion. It was so dim that even with his heightened ability to see in the dark, he had to strain to differentiate the shapes of objects before him. Slowly but surely, he could begin to make out the strange new environment, relying partly on his physical awareness, and partly on his mental sight.
"Look deeply," the entity whispered. "This is the were-realm."
As soon as the messenger had spoken, Carlos heard several mournful howls echo in the distance. The screams that sounded human were everpresent, and the wolf-like mourn pierced those cries to create a chilling call and response in the darkness. Within seconds, golden-yellow eyes opened in the shadows within the thicket. Carlos glanced down at his feet and saw human skulls and bones instead of twigs. He was speechless.
"There are many different mutations within a demon species. The were-creatures are one evolutionary turn from vampiri. Vampires have their wolfen trait from one of their particular lineages, but are more sophisticated. The were-creatures can deliver a vicious bite, turn their prey, or eat them, but they cannot hold their shape permanently. They are beholden to the moon. This is what gives the vampire realm the advantage. Our bite is permanent, hence our superiority. Our human turns do not shape-shift based upon the phases of the moon."
Curious, Carlos glanced around. "How do you keep humans alive down here so the werewolves can feed on live prey?"
The messenger chuckled. "Ah, you refer to the perpetual night sounds here?"
"The human screams," Carlos said impatiently.
"Those are harvested souls, not living humans. The were-creatures, like other demons, are released through their topside portals by a curse or ritual levied by a human with a soul. They eat topside, as do we all. But what remains here are the souls of the damned to also be feasted upon in perpetuity. The damned fuel the transformations and give each demon species strength. The damned feel each topside human attack."
Carlos rubbed his jaw and continued to monitor the distance of the sounds, which were advancing. "The souls take the weight?"
"Correct." The messenger nodded. "Each demon is created by the deepest, darkest, most twisted human thought and desire. You are aware that thoughts and beliefs manifest?"