The Bitten / Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty


Chapter Twenty

Berkfield roused with a gasp. He could smell dirt within the cramped, pitch-black confines when he came to. Where had they taken him? Everything was cool and soft around him. The scent of earth was everywhere. He couldn't move his arms and legs, as he struggled against the satiny surfaces around him. Soon he became aware that he was shackled within a tight, oblong space.

Immediately he felt his throat, sliding his bound hands up his torso with terror. Although disoriented, snatches of images careened into his head. He began to remember the bodies, horror making him go still. Blood had been everywhere. Scientists slaughtered where they stood... hearts ripped out of chests while still beating. Glazed, dead eyes looking up from the lab floor, screams frozen on faces... and a beast that he couldn't have conceived in his wildest nightmares had turned, looked at him with red glowing eyes, blood running from his mouth, his fist clenching a dripping human heart, and had laughed.

Even though he was already in total darkness, Berkfield tightly shut his eyes. Where were his wife and children? Father God, help them all!

The moment the prayer entered his mind, he could smell smoke, and the soft substance beneath him began to smolder. A loud thud rocked the box he was in.

"Never in my coffin! Ever!" the strangely accented voice he'd never forget bellowed. "Not within my sacred resting chamber, human!"

Berkfield froze. He was in a casket? Just as suddenly as the voice had spoken, he felt a painful jolt of electricity course through him, creating a seizure that made him convulse so hard he bit his tongue. He could barely breathe. Knowing what he was trapped within was creating claustrophobia, and with that came hysteria that bred a futile struggle against the immoveable lid.

Sweating, panting, his thoughts turned to Carlos. He remembered what he'd been told... but why hadn't Rivera come?

"He can't help you in here," the floating voice said. "He cannot even hear you. Pity. He should have taken better care of you. But you can't trust his kind... the newly made. Sydney is wonderful, however."

Who the hell was Sydney? A laugh echoed out beyond his confining box. Berkfield strained to hear, as the voice got further away.

"Stop struggling and save your breath. There's only so much air in the coffin... then again, you might be lucky and suffocate before this is done. Your prayer may be answered after all, and you can die before the final ceremony."

With every sense keened, he noticed the subtle sway of the coffin. He was being transported. He scavenged every facet he could recall. His memory danced between the images in the lab and a dungeon. There had been a castle. Torches were everywhere, black hooded robes, deafening, indecipherable words chanted... pain, burning, searing, horrific pain that entered his bones and temporarily stole his sight. Delirium, heat, blood, strange symbols, military men and men of science, saying words from old black books, appearing dazed and insane as they spoke in unison. Then the black funnel cloud had scorched the air within his lungs. It had opened up the slate dungeon floor within the center of the pentagram these madmen and creatures had created from fresh human blood.

Berkfield sucked in a huge breath and tried to stifle a strangled cough as he dry heaved and almost vomited. The longer he lay there, the more he understood why Carlos had gone deep underground and into hiding. The man had vanished. But he'd also learned that Rivera had turned into a beast like the thing that had kidnapped him.

Every instinct he had told him that - if he lived through the ordeal - he had to remember it all so he could hunt this beast down and snuff it, before it got to his family.

Just as suddenly as the thought crossed his mind, he heard a deep, echoing snarl. Berkfield cringed as a thunderous bang rocked the coffin, sending a fiery current through the wall of it to crawl over his face, seal his mouth against a scream, blind his eyes, and shatter his eardrums.

He was glad that she'd relaxed enough to allow him to take her to the top of Westfield Centrepoint Tower to look out at the amazing view. He'd lied; he wasn't ashamed to admit that to himself. There was no real compelling reason to go there. But he just wanted to have a reason to hold her alone for a little while longer under the stars... while the night was his and the world was still under his dominion. Once he gave her back to Marlene that was it. His world would be gone.

"See," he murmured, swallowing hard. "That's where there's safety zones." He pointed for her, hating to let one of his arms break contact with her soft skin. "Over there, bad energy."

She just allowed her line of vision to follow where he pointed, but he could tell she wasn't paying attention as she leaned against him closer and swallowed hard. They had both lied to themselves.

The ruse had been plausible, served a dual purpose. Denial was a wonderful drug at the moment, numbed the pain like morphine. Yeah, she needed to see the entire layout of the city for her own safety, to know that Darling Harbor was to the west, beaches were to the east, and north of Sydney was the commercial district and Taronga Zoo - where creatures could be transformed by weres. She needed to see how the Sydney Harbor Bridge divided the city north by south, and to see the concentration of activity on the south side, Chinatown... all of that was good information if she had to cut and run.

But more than she needed that, he needed to feel her heartbeat against his chest while the early evening air whipped her dwindling fragrance about him, his nose nuzzling the soft crown of her head, his hands aching to stroke her belly and sense what he'd planted there. She needed him to hold her and never let her go... they both knew the deal.

He chanced a kiss on the top of her head, and felt her eyes close, could taste the salt tears run down her cheeks as soon as they hit the air.

"We better go," he murmured. "You've only got a couple of hours before you have to perform."

"Yeah," she said, her tone flat, disconnected. "And I don't even have a plan."

There was no denying that. All there was left to do was bring her in. Give her up. And try to fight the whole world to give her and his baby a chance to live.

Never in a million years would she have thought she'd be coming to her mother-seer like this, dragging her Isis behind her like she was dragging her tail, knocked up, no plan, a man caught up in a dangerous life, and scared as shit... and still so crazy that she didn't want to leave him. Insane in love.

She glanced up at the old general post office that had been converted into the five-star Westin Sydney. The thirty-one-story tower atrium seemed like a perfect place to hurl oneself off of—too dramatic, but the thought crossed her mind. It was so complicated a situation that she couldn't even think, but had to, as they passed soaring ceilings and windows in the ornate old structure that was littered with impressive antiques and every modern convenience imaginable, working on an opening line. Hi, guys... guess what? Damali closed her eyes as the elevator sealed her and Carlos away from the spectacular lobby. She felt like it had swallowed her whole: wishful thinking.

"You ready?" he asked, as they exited the elevator and walked down the hall to the Heritage suites.

"No," she said, honestly. "I don't know what the hell we can tell them."

"You gonna tell them tonight?"

"Not advisable to send them into battle with a divided mind."

"Then we're on the same page," he said, knocking on the door.

She held her breath, put on a performance smile, and let it out slowly when Marlene opened the door.

The looks on the faces of her team were as if they'd walked into a funeral. They didn't even draw weapons when she and Carlos crossed the threshold, and the clerics just sighed and looked out the shut terrace doors. Marlene didn't say hello or hug her. She just turned and walked deeper into the room, beckoning them with her body language to follow. They did, and then parted. Carlos found an empty wall to lean against on one side of the room by the door, and she found the edge of the bar to lean against. Sitting down would be impossible. Nerves wouldn't allow for it.

Rider seemed like he'd aged ten years - it was in his eyes. Shabazz just sat there by Rider on the sofa, his eyes closed, like he was meditating away a stroke. Big Mike was in a huge leather chair, looking down, counting carpet nap in the rug. J.L. and Dan were sitting by her on bar stools tearing sections of their cuticles out, one biting his, the other picking his thumb till it bled. Father Pat's mouth was moving in silent prayer, his eyes on the dark horizon with his brethren. Jose's gaze was steady on the crease in his pants, his forefinger and thumbnail zipping up and down either side of it like a razor. Marlene looked at them, pain so deep in her eyes that it almost stole her breath.

"Talk to me," Marlene whispered, making the rest of the group look up.

"Everything's cool," Damali lied, her voice calm, slow, even, her gaze holding Marlene's. Having learned from Carlos, she found a bit of truth to give her cover. "I'm human, and will cast a reflection tonight. We can put the tapes on standby."

Tension hissed, popped, and sputtered like a candle touched by a drop of water. But for a moment, no one said a word.

"The plan?" Marlene said coolly. "Or do we have one?"

"I had to go in deep, Mar. Was in the Australian's castle, and I understand their ways now better than I ever did. Gained valuable information. I learned how they fight, felt their power surges, know how skilled they are at dredging memories, and what their preferred creature is to transform into. I also know what they've lost as a result of a bad gambles, and both us know that it's creating a temporary weakened power state within them until they can regroup, so it's hit 'em now or never. Had to pass myself off as a female vamp, and it worked." She could feel her chest constrict from the evasion. How in the world did Carlos do this all the time and sleep, she wondered. "I need to eat before the concert."

Shabazz snapped his head in Carlos's direction so fast that Carlos backed up. He stood in a slowly unfurling rage, shaking his head.

"Nachos!" Damali shouted. "Juice! Anything with salt, something to put a base on before I have to go on stage."

" 'Bazz, man," Carlos said, his tone controlled as though talking to a guard dog about to lunge, "she couldn't eat human food in the castle - they'd've smelled it on her, and she'd've blown her cover. She's straight."

Slowly, begrudgingly, Shabazz found his seat again on the edge of the sofa, and it made the other Guardians' muscles relax.

"The plan," Marlene repeated, her voice so low that it was hard to hear her.

Damali glanced at Carlos, whose back was now pressed to the door.

"Seal the room," he said, directing the request to the clerics. "I need a barrier to be sure nobody can hear what we have to put down." He nervously glanced at Damali, both knowing he was stalling for time, even though what he'd said was true.

Marlene waited, her gaze never wavering as the clerics did what had been requested. She was stone. Granite. Would not be moved. Stood like a brown statue in the middle of the floor, arms folded, eyes unblinking, radar up. "The plan?" she said again, this time through her teeth.

"At the concert," Damali said, trying to sound authoritative. "Four master vampires and their wives will be - "

"Four master vampires," Rider said, standing, drawing out the words as he walked toward her. "And their mates. All at one time. All under the same roof. With however many innocent humans that we can't hit in a shootout." He opened his arms, leaned in toward her. "All waiting for a bunch of fucking musicians to leap from the stage with stakes in hand to save the goddamned world?"

He walked away from her, grabbed Jose by the shoulder, pulling him to his feet and toppling the stool. "Fuck this. Me and you, bro, we're hitting a bar." He glared at Damali, then Carlos. "We're out. You've got your nose standing there by the door - and that SOB is already dead. We're just human, Damali. I am never sitting up all night tearing my guts out worrying about you again!"

Jose pounded Rider's fist and swallowed hard, his gaze locked with Carlos's.

"Guys, I'm sor - "

"Do not say it, Damali!" Shabazz was on his feet, his finger pointed in accusation. "Do not say, 'I'm sorry.' " He stormed away and stood with the clerics, his back to the group. "This is the first time I've been able to breathe in two nights."

"So, there's no plan?" Dan stood, coming off his stool slowly, incredulous. His blue eyes blazed with pure shock. "You were with him for two days and two nights and you guys didn't come up with the master plan? You want us to rush four master vampires and a bunch of second-level females without a plan? Just freestyle?"

"We have a plan but you're not listening to - "

"Call it off, D. We ain't got a plan, so we don't go in till we do. We do the concert, and get more info on which one of those bastards stole the key, dust him, and hope we can get on a plane with everybody still walking." Big Mike shook his head, glanced at her, then Carlos, his eyes filled with disappointment. "I hope you both had fun, got everything out of your systems - because tonight, we're on the defensive, not the offensive." He stood slowly, his tall tree-trunk body erecting six foot eight inches of mass up from the chair. "I don't know where you went, or where you've been." He looked at Damali. "As somebody who loves you, I deserved more respect than that." His glare settled on Rivera. "We thought you'd be able to sniff out some more info than y'all are bringing."

When she took a breath to speak, Big Mike held up his hand. His gaze on her narrowed, and for the first time in her life, she saw something in the team's gentle giant's eyes that hit her harder than a slap could have.

"You put the family at risk!" Big Mike bellowed, his voice thunderous, shaking the windows. "Never in my damned life have I been brought to my knees in prayer like this for your ass, girl! Sobbing and crying and begging and rocking and pleading with God to bring my baby back home... If you ever disappear like that - " In a slow storm, Big Mike cut off his own words, walked to the far side of the room, punched the wall leaving a hole and dust, then whirled on Carlos. His voice was an even rumble. "Let's me and you take a walk outside, old school - style." He cast off his gun. "One on one, motherfucker."

"Mike..." Damali said, but his glare almost stopped her heart.

"I have had it, D!" Big Mike hollered. "I'm done! I'm angry with both of us this time!"

"We might not have a complete plan," she said fast, her gaze darting to Carlos, who hadn't even bulked for the battle, his resignation frightening her, "but - "

"Then what the fuck was all this drama about, anyway?" J.L. said, suddenly standing, shaking his head and walking in a circle. "We could have stayed in LA. I mean, what's the point?" He stopped, opened his arms, closed his eyes, and tilted his chin up to the ceiling, tears now slipping from beneath his lids. "Oh, God, what is the point?"

Marlene was practically hyperventilating, and the clerics each walked to a corner of the room, their mouths moving silently, until Father Pat's voice shattered the silence. "Damn it to Hell, man! What is wrong with you?"

The elderly priest swished past Marlene and Damali, his rapid movements drawing the group's focus, his blue robes sounding the air, but his pace nearly blinding as he came to Carlos, drew back his fist, punched him, and then grabbed him by the T-shirt at his chest. "Where's the key? Tonight, I am ready to die, young man!" he yelled, slamming Carlos against the door. "Tear out my throat, rip out my heart, there is nothing you can do to me that hurts more than this." He shoved Carlos and walked away, no fear, his backed turned, total disgust his shield, righteous indignation his sword. Father Patrick covered his face with his hands and breathed into them slowly, then stood tall, eyes glittering with rage and so much more.

The emotion in the exchange - the care, the love, the disappointment, the hurt in Father Pat's fury, in his punch, his entire being - entered Carlos and held him. What none of them could understand was that he was bound to them now, could feel all of them as though they were one. Knowing how much they loved Damali, knowing how much they cared about him, had hoped for him, even prayed for him, too. Knew that in the beginning it was just because she was so bonded to him, but then after he'd proven himself in their eyes, in Hell, in Brazil... and now, they were hurt beyond words. He'd left her vulnerable, the team vulnerable to four master vampires and an army. What had he done... all because he'd wanted her in his arms?

He looked away until the wall became blurry, washed with shame, tears he couldn't shed in public, ever. Father forgive him, he never meant for this to happen. He rubbed his jaw, not from the punch - that hadn't even registered. But the family's pain sent a blade into his heart as he took it all in. They were just this upset because she'd been missing, but they had no idea what else was wrong... they didn't even know... and there'd be no way to tell them... what had gone down defied explanation.

"We have a plan," he said, his voice rough with emotion. "We wouldn't let you down like that." Carlos looked at Damali, who was breathing slow, trying not to cry. Don't cry, baby. Not now. We'll both lose it up in here. Stay strong.

This is bad, Carlos. We've gotta make this right. The family doesn't deserve this. I don't even know what to say to them.

"What was your plan going in, Carlos?" Father Pat said, his voice quivering with rage. "Tell me!"

"With four masters coming into the castle, and me as the councilman, I had to be formally introduced to each, in the open, as well as have occasions where I could sense if they'd bitten my marked man, Berkfield, during the key hijack, or smell the key on them, and - "

Father Patrick slapped his forehead as he paced back and forth in an agitated line, his blue robes swishing. "Are you mad? I thought you were there to detect which of them had a secret, fraud in their - "

"Are you mad?" Carlos asked evenly. "They are master vampires. They all have secrets, lies, fraud, and deception. It runs all through them, it's like a cesspool in their systems. There's no way to cleanly sense that and sort out thousands of years of lies without getting that bullshit twisted. Get real." Indignant, Carlos stared off toward the wall.

"We didn't know you were trying to sense for the Living Blood! I cannot believe your whole strategy hinged on that aspect! This was the problem with not being able to caucus with Damali, properly, as a team, before you all went off on your own!" Father Patrick shook his head and let it drop to his hands in defeat. "Oh, God... had we known... Yes, you can sense Berkfield, but you can never smell the Blood of the Lamb - "

"Father, the ability to track a blood scent is - "

" - Beyond your capacity, even if you were Lucifer himself!" Father Patrick's panicked gaze shot around the room.

Damali covered her mouth with her hand as Marlene closed her eyes. Her gaze darted around to the stricken expressions of her teammates.

"But the council never told me that," Carlos whispered, caught up in his own new awareness. "I never gained that knowledge, even after taking a throne..."

All eyes were on Father Patrick as he spoke. "You wouldn't, because that information doesn't reside down there." The elderly cleric began pacing again. "Just like your realm has certain powers and hidden information - rules of engagement - so does mine. Welcome to my world, Carlos Rivera!" Father Patrick slapped his chest hard and his voice trembled with rage. "This is what I do - what we do, as the Covenant. We know things that the darkness cannot even conceive! That is our strategic advantage... so for all your powers, you'd better know that some things you simply cannot fathom, young man."

Father Patrick walked a hot path away from Carlos, spun on him, and leveled his finger toward him. "Vampires, nor any other form of demon, can ever pick up the scent of the key. The only thing you can sense is the vampire who might have been involved in the heist. That's it. But to sense the Living Blood, as though it were mere human, or food for your craven bellies - never." He let out an angry, weary sigh. "So that was your plan, to smell the key on one of your own and track it to where it might be? Have you any idea..." The cleric shook his head and closed his eyes. "Your kind cannot even handle the substance, let alone ingest it. That's why they need a human, someone with a soul, to courier it!"

Carlos nodded, but was thoroughly blown away. "I had to take her inside deep," he said, his voice firm, regaining its former authoritative tone. "All right. Our plan had a flaw. But Damali is still human and could get to the key, even if I can't smell it. She had to take a walk on the dark side to go up against four masters, and I saw her do it. She's all-pro, and ready to take the heat. I've got your back, always did. I stand with you against the world - stand with her against the universe. I have to. That's my job as her man. The game ain't over, yet. Where's your faith?"

Slowly, perspectives opened. The fury in gazes subsided. Hurt began to give way to listening in earnest. He took his time. This was a negotiation far more delicate than facing the council. Family peace was always more fragile, and at the moment, more important to him than world peace. This was home - his woman's people... now therefore his people, joined by something smaller than his fingernail, but more powerful than anything he'd ever seen, his baby.

He waited, gathering elements of what could be said, what couldn't, separating them out, a lie of omission, but no fraud. They deserved better than that. Damali deserved better than that. He watched them all find seats on the sofa, available chairs, the end of a table, and on bar stools in the living room section of the suite, spreading out in the room, weary, but suddenly not defeated. That was critical. They had to go in strong, or die, and he didn't want to lose a single soul on his watch. Tonight, that was his intent, and he planned to honor it. That was the plan.

Rider glanced at Damali's hand, then up at Carlos. "So, what did you kids do, run off to Vegas, or something?"

"She's my wife," Carlos said, his voice tense as he walked in closer, not caring if they smoked him. "That part of what we did in the castle was no bullshit."

"Shit," Marlene's voice was a quiet rush, as her glance went from Damali to Carlos, then quickly scanned the group. "How far did you turn her, Carlos?"

He could hear heartbeats thump inside chests that couldn't draw air. "I didn't turn her, she turned me."

Eyes searched, blood drained from faces, but no one spoke.

"Get her something to eat," he said. "She's human. Made me find my own humanity." He looked at Damali. "And I can't allow anything to happen to her now." He sent his gaze back to Marlene. "So, everything that I've learned, I'm going to do a knowledge transfer and teach you within one hour." He scanned the group, holding them bound by the truth. "I am what I am, a council-level master vampire - your worst nightmare and best ally." He turned his hands up. "And she can have everything in my hands, thousands of years of vampiric knowledge from all five continents... fair exchange is no robbery when this woman has given me the world."

Damali's gaze upon him was so tender that he had to look away. He held Shabazz's instead, talking to the only father she had ever known. "Test me, man. Use your Guardian sensory skills and see if I'm bullshitting you."

He waited as Shabazz walked up to him, no fear, eyes hard, a hand placed strong on his shoulder, drawing it away with a begrudging nod that relaxed the group.

"Talk to us," Shabazz said, walking away to find a bar stool.

"She gave you the whole world," Big Mike said, still unbelieving. "Talk to me," he said, pointing at his own chest.

"She ran a game so lovely on four master vampires blitzed on pure Neteru that they ceded their four continental territories in a blood match - winner take all. I won."

Father Patrick blinked as he strode closer to Damali, his line of vision going between her, Carlos, and the Covenant brethren. "You bet your body in a fortress full of master vampires... winner take all? To what end?"

"It was the only way for it to go down, Father," Damali said quietly, but her head was held high and her gaze at Carlos filled with pride. "He protected me until there was a feeding frenzy, then he pulled me out as his wife. They couldn't rush him because he'd amassed too much power in the pacts we'd stamped under crest. They thought I knew where the seal was that will match the key, buying us time to learn where it is."

The priest backed away. Rider was on his feet. The rest of the team members slowly stood.

"Oh heavenly shit," Rider whispered, standing stock-still. "She was in the middle of a feeding frenzy near four battle-amped masters, and they couldn't rush you?" He looked at Damali. "And you're sure you only want nachos?"

"The crest pact," Father Patrick wheezed. "Tell me you didn't ransom your soul, child!"

"I told you," Damali said, going to stand by Carlos. "He kept me safe. He even rolled over prayer lines to win the master's hunt so they couldn't have me. I couldn't put my soul on the line - as far as they knew, I didn't have one. It was one night for a nation."

"It was a fair trade," Carlos murmured, looking at her with a long gaze, then he pulled it away.

"You are not making me feel better, D. Because, if that bastard rolled over ancient prayer lines in a blood battle, his ass is strong as shit," Rider said, pointing at the couple, but looking at the group. He quickly returned his line of vision to Carlos and Damali. "If he can do that, what else can he do? I mean, this is good, but I have a feeling it's also very bad. Seven years from now, people, we have a crisis."

Carlos chose his words very carefully. Rider wasn't wrong; he wasn't offended by the statement. Truth was truth. Problem was, Rider was just a few years off.

"Worry about seven years in seven years. Right now, Rider, I have enough power to make her walk on water," Carlos said, closing his eyes, and for the first time really becoming aware of the true power at his disposal. All the drama, the emotional upheaval, and their night together had literally pushed that reality into the background of his thoughts. "I am the air. I am the night. I am the elements of the planet. I am dark energy that can move matter and steal dreams. I can send my whisper on the wind. I'll find out which one of them has the key. New strategy."

He walked into the center of the room and opened the ceiling for them, swirling a dark cloud above them. "I can enter minds and bend them until they snap. I can assume any shape, and you would never know. I can walk through walls, and hurl my energy over distances at a rate of speed you can't even fathom. Silver will leave a nasty scar, but won't incinerate me. Hallowed earth will slow me down and sting, but won't kill me. Holy water will leave a third-degree burn, but I'll heal. You're right. I am as strong as shit, and not the one to fuck with. If one of them knows where the key is, I will snap his punk mind like a twig - now that I just got stronger, due to Damali's sweet game."

He opened his eyes and stared at the group. "I know everything that has happened in every language on the four continents she gave me, plus the one I had at throne level... back to the time before kings - and the only thing that I'm vulnerable to now is daylight, and a stake, well placed, in my heart. But the chances of someone smoking me in my lair with daylight are slim... and I don't think the hand holding the stake would ever make it to the center of my chest. Maybe I could be beheaded, if I didn't see the swing coming in my three hundred and sixty-degree peripheral vision."

He smiled and sealed the ceiling, waiting for them to breathe. "When I tell you that I've got your back, say a prayer and be glad that I'm the one on your side. I won't let anything happen to her on my watch."

After a moment Rider walked past him, sat down on the sofa, and blew out a long whistle. "Why didn't you say so, dude? Shit—welcome to the family."

One by one, each Guardian took a seat. Marlene sank onto a bar stool.

"Seven years from now, we're gonna have to move to Alaska for six months a year when there's perpetual sun." Marlene dropped her face into her hands, leaned over, and breathed in and out slowly.

"No we ain't, Mar," Big Mike grumbled and then motioned to the clerics. "Got us some old dirt from some real old hallowed ground right here in Australia - feel me?" He glared at Carlos. "Yeah, we went to see some people who know some people to get strapped for the concert, too. But if you think your little floor show impressed somebody, brother - "

"We're running out of time, folks," Damali said, her palm resting on Carlos's folded arms. "Tell them the plan, baby," she murmured, her eyes filled with new panic when she glanced at the clock. Tell me you have one. Damali hesitated, thinking fast on her feet.

"Number one, we have to locate the key." She glanced at Carlos. "He found the seal but - "

"What?" Father Patrick whispered, horrified.

"But the keepers of the seal are some seriously old Aborigines, ancestral spirit walkers who saved our lives," Carlos said as he glanced at his shoes, the humiliation still fresh. "None of the other masters are strong enough right now to break their circle."

"And what about you, motherfu - "

"They saved Damali's life, 'Bazz. Give me a little credit. I'm in a don't-ask, don't-tell frame of mind about that. The old men are safe. They've got twenty-thousand-year-old prayer lines hottin' their compound. So let's get back to what Damali was talking about, namely, finding the key."

"We've gotta cause chaos right after the concert, create some mega after-party VIP function to get them all together again so we can each be posted by one of them for a strategic takedown, once Carlos gets a location lock on the key. The plan is to get them all jockeying for position to acquire what they believe is the former Neteru and seal, and going after each other's throats," Damali said as calmly as possible. "Right now, the African master ceded the most, and wants me the worst, to regain his power and then some, so he's an easy target. His power center is in turmoil and he's been weakened by the land grab. The Aussie is also very vulnerable, because he thinks I'm coming to his room after the show with my blade as a role-play prop to do him, not do him - follow? That's an easy hit."

Rider slapped his forehead but withheld comment.

Damali glanced at Rider and returned her gaze to Marlene. "I told you I went in deep undercover, and right about now, that's working to our advantage. They saw Carlos practically drag me out of the castle by my hair and - "

"We get the picture," Shabazz muttered. "Get back to the key."

"If all four masters are here, then the key has to be nearby—because I can't imagine them leaving lower-level vamps to guard it, or entrusting human helpers alone, especially if they're pretty sure council is hunting for it, too. However, we know that Carlos is council's representative, and it's unlikely that one of the old boys will risk surfacing with four aggressive masters all in one location. But even with that going on, the Neteru scent and the thrill of acquiring me along with the seal is making the topside masters greedy, take risks, and get sloppy."

"Which creates the opportunity for chaos and a variable like us to crop up in the mix," Carlos stated, nodding in Damali's direction with pride. "I watched the African master almost blow his lands in the master's hunt trying to save Damali. The damned Transylvanian went down on his knees in the parlor and begged her to slit his throat while she had the Isis on her, he's hurting for her so bad. Gentlemen, I don't think you understand what she does to my species."

Big Mike shook his head. "Shoulda cut that bastard's throat right then, girl. But I suppose you had to play it out."

"The timing wasn't right," Damali said, her tone gentle as she stared at Big Mike. "Their wives ain't no joke, either. We have to take out masters plus very old and very strong second-gen females. Understand? And if I'd iced the Transylvanian then..."

"We believe you, D, and follow," Jose said, unnecessarily coming to her defense.

"If they think they can snatch her after the concert, and assassinate Carlos to get all of the empire he's amassed, plus Damali and possibly the location of the seal," Shabazz said, rubbing his jaw, "then this key has to be near wherever they plan to convene for the blowout after party. I'm sure they didn't bank on Carlos coming away with world power. We need to use that variable to our advantage."

"Right," Damali said, her gaze going to each member of the team one by one.

"The clerical team should insure the safety of the key, once we locate it," Father Patrick said, "because the highest priority will be getting it safely to hallowed ground during the battle. Carlos, you're going to have to use your new, increased power to quickly locate it. If it falls into the wrong hands..."

"It won't," Carlos said, his eyes holding a promise as he and Father Pat stared at each other. "I have every reason in the world, now, to make sure that doesn't happen. Can't be no Armageddon... no time soon, anyway." He stalked away from the group and leaned against the wall, aware that all eyes were boring into his back. "My boys have been searching for Berkfield, and I've been trying to sense for him, to no avail. The only thing that could block my sight is if he's on hallowed ground - but that wouldn't block the Guardian seers - or if he were stashed in a strong master's lair coffin, covered by his original earth."

For a moment Damali held her breath. "So, uh, I have to get them all amped at the concert to mess with their concentration while Carlos works them with hollow promises, to share the seal, pitting them against each other, and then we do the after party, each of us assigned to a particular master and his wife - based upon our skills and their potential strength. The moment Carlos transmits that he's located the key, we ice 'em."

"Yeah, I hear you," Shabazz said, worry clear in his tone. "But we can't bank on you fluxing hot with Neteru to disorient them. Like you said, these boyz are old and shrewd, and if the key is nearby, we need a sure bet that they'll get distracted by your offer and Carlos's. No offense, baby, but even at your concert best, if you ain't trailing ripe Neteru, they'll be sharp and on guard."

"Aw'ight, listen up," Carlos said, going to sit on the sofa next to Rider and to use the coffee table as a drawing board. "D told me to leverage the darkness for good, and what I'm about to do is low treason - I can still be smoked at the council level, all theater aside. The shit I'ma tell you, humans probably were never told or shown about my kind." For a moment, he stopped, then shook off the gnawing inner conflict. Then talking as he gestured with his hands, he cast the illusion of a small replica of Sydney.

"Here's the city grid of portals, temporary lairs," Carlos said drawing with his finger, "and prayer lines. The clerics can spread a handful of hallowed earth at each location while the show is going on, to keep the vamps from having a way to go subterranean in retreat, or for any of their troops amassing and coming up here to join the party. Damali already said we have to wipe out the masters and top lieutenants to weaken each nation in one night. Near dawn, after partying, they won't have enough energy to project all the way back to Queensland where the castle is, if one gets away. And Hell won't send a courier that close to dawn, if we time this right - unless there's a legitimate dispute, which there won't be."

"That's some deep shit," Big Mike finally said, stooping to gaze at the hologram image. "All right, I'm listening."

"Thanks, man," Carlos said, meaning it. What he'd just done on the table was pretty cool, and he liked that Mike was impressed. Plus, for what they had to do, he needed the team's strong man on their side. "If what I'm about to show you doesn't disorient them, they'll know where it came from, and I'll be toast, which leaves your asses vulnerable."

Puzzled glances passed around the group.

"If I won all their territory in a blood match, so be it. That's just a land transfer, not unauthorized extinctions. No problem. If four female seconds bite the dust, so what, according to realm's point of view. But if I personally dust four masters without delivering the seal or the key to council, it will look like assassinations, an unauthorized coup, and the council will send up an inquiry."

He held their gazes. "You don't want to know." He returned focus back to the coffee table and rubbed his jaw. "We have to make them turn on each other, so when Hell's registers run blood, it was not solely by my hand. It was survival, self-defense, inarguable. Even we have rules. Strict ones. Murder is condoned, but only under certain circumstances at our rank, within our rank. My story to them has to be that the human Guardians got wise, double-crossed me, took the key to hallowed ground, and snatched back the Neteru to purge her while I was battling for the empire."

Carlos sat back, his gaze going out the window. "If a Guardian gets one or two, and the Neteru gets one, I can hit at least one and call it defense of my package, Damali, without there being an issue, I think. Or I can say it was self-defense, if one of them goes down by my hand. They know you guys go after our kind; their blind spot is me. I'm on the inside, a sleeper within, and someone supposed to protect the empire, my line, and the package, and council's interests at all costs. They'll never see it coming."

"Well, wouldn't her scent send them into a brawl, anyway?" Rider tilted his head to issue Carlos a sideline glance. "And you need to be more positive than 'I think,' dude."

Rider's question and admonishment had validity, but the problem was, Damali wasn't trailing Neteru any longer, now that she was already filled. Variables, variables, fucking variables. Carlos kept his gaze on Rider's eyes, unable to glance at Damali.

"Like me, they're building up a tolerance for it. Plus they would never go against me, even if she was red-hot seven years from now, given the power I've just acquired." He stood, needing space to give the lie air.

"Then, if I'm not making them wig anymore," Damali said, her voice cautious, "then... how are we going to create a diversion in that house of horrors on the cliffs off the barrier reef? It's a two-hundred-foot drop, over a hundred-some-odd vamps and human staff ready to go down and take a bullet, Black Hawk choppers. Your Hell-hounds aren't even a match for them in flight. The inside is like a labyrinth of corridors - "

"I know, I know," Carlos said fast. "Okay, always choose your battlefield. We don't do the castle; it's impenetrable. They've added staff for the extra diplomats. Damali's right. I'll bring a yacht down the harbor, a party boat that will make Hugh Hefner's Playboy estate look like a convent - no offense, Fathers."

"Wait," Father Patrick said, raking his frazzled gray hair as he spoke and looked at Carlos hard. "A boat? Vampires cannot cross large bodies of water without losing power, without their energy getting - "

Carlos's weary sigh stopped the elderly cleric's words. "Father Pat, these are masters. Okay?" He looked at the man with a combination of respect and impatience. "Witches, seriously lower-level vampires, whatever, have that problem, but not at our level. It won't even make their wives seasick, and I can bet any VIPs they invite from their camp will be above the watermark, too. Back in the day, travel by ship in a casket in the hull was the way to move between continents if you couldn't get a subterranean pass. The old boys will love it, and it will take them back to the glory days of being out in the open when humans believed in monsters and demons, unlike today. That was when they were at their boldest and most arrogant... and we all know that arrogance is the best way to become sloppy."

Rider nodded and glanced at Shabazz, Marlene, and Mike. "Seems like we need to update our books while we're at it. Right now I'm having a confidence crisis - like everything I thought I knew might be mythology, and the things I oughta know to keep me alive and human, I'm about to flunk the test on."

"That's why I'm trying to school you, hombre," Carlos said, his gaze locking with Rider's for a moment before he released it.

Rider sat back and rubbed his face, seeming temporarily dazed. "Dude is definitely stronger. Damn. Don't do that again. Cool?"

"My apologies, Force of habit." Carlos smiled and gazed at the men in the room. "I want that boat rocking off the water, these boys seriously distracted, high, looped, off guard, and ready to party. Only one of them will be extra careful, which will be a dead giveaway. My dogs patrolling the rails. Yeah, that's the ticket." He glanced at Rider again. "I hope you've got your head right, man, because I'ma load the joint with female vamps from my territories in LA, the Caribbean, and blessed South America, so fine they'll make you weep."

Rider's smile broadened when Carlos looked at Big Mike. "Brother, there won't be no ship doctor, so forewarned is forearmed - this ain't New Orleans. Take a nick from one of these babes, your ass will turn, hear?"

"We cool," Big Mike said, smiling. "Later."

"Precisely." Carlos studied the group. "Mike, you take the African master - he's a big brother, and you're the team's strong man. Hell, I didn't even want to tackle his ass, but if he's under the influence, you've got a shot. Make it a good one."

Big Mike nodded. "Done. He goes down. Just point him out."

Carlos laughed. "Look in the mirror, you could be family."

"Mighta been, but what the fuck," Mike chuckled. "He went dark."

"Rider, Shabazz, I want you guys on the Asian master - Rider's a sharpshooter, Shabazz has got martial arts skills. Dude is ancient Samurai. Real shrewd, real fast, like lightning." Carlos became still for a moment. "I'm going to see if I can draw the wives away, to me, separate out those two, maybe get the Transylvanian to rush the Asian - if the Transylvanian misses, you brothers take aim, and dust him. That will back off the count, make him feel like you had his back. He'll spare you and move on, will come to me with a complaint, while Damali is in with the Aussie."

"Wait, hold up. This is the part that has me concerned," Jose said, glancing at Damali. "She's going into a room, alone, with the Aussie? I'm not feeling that part of the plan, hombre."

"Me neither," Shabazz said, standing and pacing, but not angry, just worried.

"It's the only way," Damali said, exasperated.

"He's got it bad for her, worse than the others," Carlos said as calmly as possible. "He'd been promised a night alone with her, then had that snatched away after the hunt." He could feel resistance gather and smolder within the group, and he looked at Damali for support. "You got it in you, baby? If you don't feel like - "

"I will smoke his ass," she said, evenly. Conflicting emotions began to eat away at the insides of her brain. This was her team. She'd always been the one to come up with the plans without any outside help. This was her war room. Was this what being married was like - sharing everything... down to personal control? Was this what being pregnant meant, feeling like you didn't even have control over your own body, and having people look at you like you were some kinda invalid? She didn't like it one bit, and forced renewed authority into her tone.

"Listen up," she said, walking around the coffee table and couch to plop down in the chair facing Carlos. "I'll sing the last song of the concert and aim it toward McGuire. I'll hold his focus; like I'm singing directly to him. After we break down equipment, I won't change - will keep on the sweaty, damp dress from the performance, with adrenaline in it and will go to Carlos. You hold me close, like you might renege on the barter when I go into the vamp VIP box with you. Then you lean in, make him a tender offer, and explain that you just want to get us all safely to the boat without the other masters in the room making a power-play. I'll diddle around on top deck, talk to him, mess with his mind, and get him to go into his stateroom with me, while you draw away the wife. By then, he'll be real manageable... and I'll bring my Isis with me, just as he wanted... will straddle him and put it to his chest, ask him if he wants a double plunge, and then I'll lean in like I'm going to kiss him, and gore him." Carlos stood up and walked to the terrace windows. He knew what she had to do, but it sent a chill down his spine that detonated in fury. "No. Bad plan. You are not going to straddle him." He was walking back and forth, shaking his head no, ignoring the sly smiles coming from the others in the room. "I don't want his hands in your hair, telling you shit... no, fuck it. New plan for the Aussie."

"It's the only way I can get close enough to - "

"I'm not arguing with you, Damali. No!"

"We talked about this, you were even the one - "

"I know - but that was before..." Carlos paced away. "No." A standoff with two worthy adversaries coiled the tension in the room. Marlene's chuckle snapped it.

"How about if I chaperone her in there, Carlos, as her handmaid," Marlene said in a sheepish voice, and then winked at Shabazz. "No. That's my final decision."

The group looked at each other and burst out laughing.

"Dude, this is what she does for a living," Rider said, standing and wiping his tired eyes with both fists. "Oh, my God... she married an old-fashioned kinda guy, a cold-blooded chauvinist from the Victorian era. Help me."

"This is between me and my wife!" Carlos shouted.

Damali sighed. "I know you're worried, but I'm no amateur. And this ain't my first time around the block - sorry to say, but you didn't marry a battle virgin, and we're wasting time."

"Damali - "

"Listen," she snapped, both hands on her hips. " We are wasting time. I do the Aussie, we get the Transylvanian to whack the Asian - or have Rider and Shabazz put him down. Big Mike and you make sure that huge bastard from the Motherland doesn't catch on to the fact that I'm in a stateroom alone." She glanced at her team, ignoring Carlos. "That's who I'm worried about rushing me or anybody else, comprendo?" She shot her gaze back to Carlos. "He is not to be played with."

She walked away, and studied her sword as it lay on the bar, speaking to the clerics. "No kids or innocent humans will be on the boat - councilman's wife's orders. The masters think I'm eccentric, and they love it. So, once our team is off the yacht, Big Mike can blow the sucker. We'll need two speedboats to get us all off that ship and out of range as soon as possible. You guys trailing holy water and incense in your hair and skins won't be able to get past vamp security." She looked at Marlene. "I don't want you on there, either. You're female. The second- and third-level female vamps will rush you, and I can't be by your side, the brothers can't leave their posts - and if a hyped male master goes for you, looking for a new turn with a strong will to conquer and add to his harem... It's just a variable we can't afford right now."

Marlene nodded, but begrudgingly. "It's true. I can keep my radar up and on you, baby. Me and the clerics can man the getaway boats and search for the key in the Opera House. If I see you in no-way-out danger, I'll take out the side of the ship with one of Mike's shoulder cannons."

"What do we do?" Jose said, glancing at J.L. and Dan.

"You're private security," Carlos said. "Jose is point."

"What!" J.L. stepped back and laughed.

"Now I know you're nuts," Dan said, shaking his head. "Us, alone, without Rider, and 'Bazz, and Mike?"

"You said I'm point," Jose said, lifting his chin high. "Talk to me."

"You've got my line in you from way back." Carlos paused as the magnitude of what he was saying entered the groups' collective conscious. "They know I would never allow Damali to be escorted in by a second- or third-level vamp lieutenant that might rush her. You leave a marker, Jose. So you stand by her side and bring her to me in the VIP box. There will be an international courier at the door. He'll sniff you, then will let you pass with your band members, J.L., and Dan."

Carlos motioned toward the two younger guardians. "They can come fully armed with stakes, crossbows, whatever - because as human helpers, their orders are to take any vamp down that blinks at her wrong. The masters in the box will nod, fully appreciating my precautions, and will let you in the room and on the ship with the kinda stuff we need to nail any of them. That's also what we'll say when Rider, Mike, and Shabazz come locked and loaded—they're guarding the councilman's wife on a vampire pleasure vessel. Standard procedure."

"Smooth, brother," Shabazz said, nodding. "I'm impressed. Owe you both an apology for the doubt."

"It's cool," Carlos said, unable to keep direct eye contact with Shabazz. "All right. Y'all do your thing on stage. I tell the vamps that she casts an image because I will it so, and we have a tape—right?"

"Yeah, got it," Jose said.

"Cool. We roll that tape on the box monitors and on the big screens in the joint, and broadcast the real concert elsewhere. That keeps her cover. They know her image is coming from tape because of her reflection deficit syndrome, but think that's what's going out to the world."

"Works," J.L. said.

"But, what if they get distracted from the performance, and get hip?"

"I won't let them get distracted," Damali said. "They won't be there for all the libations pouring and stuff, but will come in for the part they want to see. Show 'em what I'm wearing for that final number."

Her smile was destabilizing, made him remember too much, and now was not the time. But as she stood there waiting, Damali and her team needing confidence, he closed his eyes and thought of what she looked like in the parlor the day she transformed and gave him the world. Magenta and deep purple smoke swirled at her feet, fanning out, creating a lit haze, the hotel room lights dimmed, and crimson spotlight fired on her.

From within a very private place in his mind he added a backless purple-black iridescent gown, deep plunging neckline, ripped and shredded across the torso and hips, showing skin beneath it, her shapely legs sliding out of the outrageous slit as she walked slowly in it barefoot, one black ankle bracelet that looked like a bondage cuff, long sleeves trailing with ragged points that almost concealed her beautiful hands as she opened her arms and closed her eyes, leaning back offering her throat.

He heard the music that was in her head, the pulse from the native instrument that had become his lifeline, Shabazz's bass adding bottom, weight, density to what that tonal drone really meant to him - their last night together as lovers. Marlene's shakers became a passion hiss and rattle that sent a shiver down his spine. Jose's percussion was too much to tolerate with J.L.'s melodic keyboard pulling emotion to the surface in a lazy samba... not when she was humming about a bittersweet transition. He could see her in the kitchen doorway of his Beverly Hill lair giving him a private performance. Uh-uh.

With a snap, he pulled out of the mind lock, walked away from her, evaporating the smoke and bringing back normal lights, but left the gown for her to wear. "They'll be distracted," he muttered, and found the far side of the room. He wasn't trying to see her triumphant smile.

"McGuire won't bite me until I tell him he has my permission. Trust me."

Carlos kept his gaze on the bar. He couldn't argue with her in that dress. But this shit was dangerous, and she was carrying!

"Damn, man..." Big Mike said. "Now I understand why she was gone for two days. My bad."

Once again, she'd taken him somewhere in front of this team that he wasn't prepared to go. Rather than answer Mike, or address the sideline smirks he received, he simply focused on the matter at hand - survival for the group.

"After the performance, you three bring her to me, then Shabazz, Mike, and Rider follow and get in the limos I'm providing all VIPs - you'll see a crest that looks like my ring. Be sure to only get in mine with me and Damali, so track us hard and stay sharp." Carlos flashed his ring, his hand a tight fist, then walked to stand by the terrace doors. "Those are mine, don't get in any others, and stay on my flank."

The group nodded.

"When we get on the ship, brace yourselves. You're gonna see some shit that'll make you want to barf, but stay cool. Observe, and keep walking. The music is going to be loud, and you're going to have to look alive, watch your back, and turn down any offers given. My dogs will be hungry, but given orders to only eat anything that tries to rush the onboard team, Damali, or me. When you see me come up on main deck from the Aussie's stateroom with Damali, you'll need to get near me, if possible, so I can jettison you in a fast transport to the ships."

He spoke slowly, trying to convey the severity of what could go down, hoping Damali wouldn't balk. "I'll be keeping four vamp second-level females occupied, and might have to drop a few bodies along the way. My energy could be compromised, and at some point, I'll have to stop to feed."

"Wait," Damali said, her tone brittle. "You are going to be where, with who?"

"Oh, shit," Rider murmured, and moved out of her way.

"And you had a problem with what?"

"D, listen, in my world - "

"Find some other way to distract those heifers!"

"Aw'ight," Carlos shouted, walking away from her glare. Damn, what was a man supposed to do? His way was expedient, thoroughly efficient, and wouldn't take a lot of time, given the state they'd already be in.

"I heard that all the way across the room," Damali said, heated. "New plan, brother." She was drawing fast breaths, her arm was extended in his direction, and she was pointing at him so hard that her fist bounced from the strain.

The teams glanced at each other; even Father Patrick's crew chuckled to themselves and sighed.

"Everything is peace," Shabazz said, trying to break the standoff. He glanced at Damali, then looked back at Carlos, offering a shrug of support. "We gotchure back so you can maintain a chill factor here, man. Do what'chu gotta do to keep them females from rushing D, then dust them. Saves us ammo. But my main question is, what if we don't see you, man?"

Shabazz held Carlos' gaze. His question a fair one, the concern in his eyes appreciated.

"Like before, we all have one objective. Protect the package. Get D out of there and blow the ship."

"And if you're still on it?" Damali could feel panic rise within her, eclipsing the anger. Something in her was registering an intent that chilled her. "This is not supposed to be a suicide mission, Carlos. The reason we're going through all of this is so that all of us get off that boat before it blows."

Carlos stared at her, and came to her, then stopped. "Just like in Hell... you go on ahead of me, if I can't keep up because I have to put a barrier between you and the team. If any variable comes up - you go. Then, you wait for me."

"Where?" Her voice wavered.

"I'll send you a transmission - "

"What if you can't?" she said, her voice escalating. "I want a word with you outside. Alone."

He shook his head, no. "I need to stay focused. So do you. Later." He touched her cheek, the voice in his head soft. We'll talk about this later, and please don't kiss me. I'm not going to sleep with them, just play with their heads. Cool?

She covered his hand for a moment and then drew away and nodded, wrapping her arms around her waist.

"All right. We all clear?" Carlos said, restoring order in the room as much as he was restoring it within himself. He wiped away the illusion on the table, needing to draw his energy inward. The multiple kills would send up an inquiry. He'd probably have to go down to Hell for a few hours before being released from council chambers. There'd be much to explain, especially when he didn't have the key or the seal. But the party boat, the feeding frenzy, Damali's armed Guardians, all of that would sound reasonable to some very unreasonable old men - as long as their package wasn't damaged.

Marlene stood slowly, glancing at Father Patrick. "These are pretty old masters, Carlos," she said, her voice calm, but her eyes penetrating. "They've probably seen it all, been everywhere in the world and are jaded. I'd bet good money that plain old human terror at seeing fangs drop doesn't give them a rush anymore. So, before we all walk into certain death, what are you going to do to distract them beyond our girl's enticing performance? No disrespect intended, she's good, so are you, but as an old doll, I like multiple assurances. Call me crazy, but I've got a bad feeling about all of this."

It was a logical question. He had a bad feeling about this, too. Using Damali as a distraction wasn't going to work without some assistance. Carlos nodded and walked over to the coffee table and sat on the couch. He paused, wondering when he'd allowed Damali to extract his brain from his head. This was potentially the stupidest thing he was ever going to do. If council ever found out about this... He blotted out the chairman's possible reaction from his mind.

"Yup, Marlene's right," he said, so casual that it sounded like silk. "I'm going to show you the secret held in blood. The old masters can separate out the scents within it down to a thousand parts per million concentration, like a wine taster would roll a fine cabernet or merlot on their tongue, and can give you the ingredients of its bouquet."

"No shit?" Rider said, glancing at Jose. "You guys have noses that good?" He shook his head and moved in closed, rubbing his jaw, awed.

Carlos glanced up at the fascinated expressions. "It's an art. Our noses are our strong point, which makes it our weak point, same with our sense of touch, and our greatest erogenous zone is our mind." Carlos looked up at Rider. "Once we get an impression, it stays with us forever. A scent," he added, "can linger for hundreds of years." He turned his attention to Big Mike. "The timbre of a voice can take a male master places that - " He glanced at Damali and held her gaze. "Her music will stay in their minds, and her voice is perfect pitch," he said with appreciation, then looked back at the table. "Them seeing her, and what they have seen of her, will lock an image in their skulls. The combination is maddening."

His gaze slid to Shabazz, trying to get them to understand why everything had gone down the way it did between him and Damali, without directly explaining. For some strange reason, that was very important to him now. Father Patrick's anger had hurt, not physically, but his faraway soul. It wasn't about disrespect; it was about something natural to his species that he had about as much control over as breathing, maybe less. There was no way to be with her without biting her.

"A touch is unforgettable." Carlos closed his eyes. Damali's touch, everything about her, was like a drug that left a man disoriented and needing more. "That's why one of the most respected masters in our vampire history - Dracula - woke up after a few hundred years with a woman on his mind, found her reincarnated, and got himself dusted by a young kid and a priest." He waited for Shabazz's nod. "He had smelled her, had tasted her, had touched her, had seen her... and had the sound of her voice driving him nuts in-coffin—he was strung out by the time he got out, became relentless in his quest, got sloppy." The information was a face-saving apology. "Down in Hell, we don't talk about it; was humiliating to lose a venerated master to that, but trust me, it happens to the best of us."

"Locks in your minds like that?" Big Mike asked. "Damn, you bastards must suffer." He shook his head and stepped back, letting out a long breath of compassion.

"That's why they call it Hell, dude," Rider said, no amusement in his tone.

Carlos wasn't offended. What Rider has said was the truth. "The greatest strength is the greatest weakness - just like ego. Anything can be flipped to turn the tables. Normally, we use it, and are in control," Carlos said, trying to salvage his dignity. "But once in a blue moon," he said, his gaze sliding to Damali against his will, "a male will get an impression imprinted on his senses that will literally fuse with his DNA, and he can't shake it, has no control over it, and it will blow him away." He wanted them to hear that, to truly know he wasn't playing with their girl, especially when they found out later that things were much deeper then they'd imagined. Yeah, she was definitely like a drug... something in his bloodstream.

He jerked his gaze away from Damali; he had to. But the thoughts beginning to ignite within him came together like a quiet nightfall. The room had gone still, the group was looking at him too hard, and he had said too much. "That's why I'm about to create something called 'Oblivion.' It's something that will blow their minds. The negative aspects of my old life are coming in handy, might be useful for something good - damn my territory was bittersweet."

Was... past tense, she was his territory. Sweetness like he couldn't describe. He had to let it go. Bitter reality to the bone. He sat for a moment concentrating, just staring at the table. Now because of a variable, he had to make this stuff in front of her team that he wasn't going to tell her about; they had to know how volatile a substance it was, how it made his kind really react, especially once he found out she was pregnant. The masters and their wives would smell the baby in Damali as soon as she hit the VIP box, unless they had something else stronger in their noses. Last night, that wasn't something they had to deal with. This is what he hated about this whole plan; too many variables.

Damali came near him, squatted by his side, and glanced up.

"You don't have to do what I think you're going to do," she murmured. "We can go in without pure Neteru."

He shook his head. "Marlene is right. I don't want to risk you, not at this point."

"If you make this in here, are you gonna be all right, is the question." She looked at him hard, and shot a nervous glance around the room.

"I'll be cool," Carlos said, rolling his shoulders. "Just back up off me, aw'ight? Won't be able to handle the fumes from the contact and the touch, understand?"

She nodded and went to the far side of the room, all eyes on her, then on Carlos. "Watch the man and learn some deep science about vampires," she said, trying not to sound shaken. "This info is beyond valuable, and could save your life."

"Thanks, baby," Carlos murmured, and then glanced at Marlene to clear his mind. "Mar, you're right. They've seen it all, but they've never seen this." He opened his palm as the group gathered around him tighter, and slit it with his nail.

Dark ruby blood bubbled up in the center of it, and he made a fist and dripped a slowly spreading circle of it on the table. "Watch what the atmosphere does to it," he said, standing and walking away from the table. "You put holy water, hallowed earth, or silver to the black side, and it will torch. A little bit of sacred substance ignites at the source of impact and then rockets through our systems like touching a match to an internal gasoline line, our veins - that's why the Isis, or a silver-tipped arrow dipped in holy water, whatever, explodes vampires from the inside out." He looked up for a moment. "We can't take a nick, either, from some stuff."

The group kept their gaze fixed to the blood as it beaded up and separated into two smaller circles - one blot, black; one blot a deep crimson with an iridescent shimmer to it. Carlos covered his nose and mouth with his hand as his eyes began to water. He was grateful that Damali had the presence of mind not to go to him or even lacerate with her lovely voice.

"You all right, man?" Big Mike asked, making the group stare at Carlos.

Carlos shook his head. "No," he said on a heavy exhale. "Throw me your dagger, Damali, and somebody go get me a wet towel so I can breathe long enough to cut this product."

He coughed and walked toward the terrace, opened the doors, and bent over the rail. There wasn't enough fresh air on the planet to get the scent of ripening Neteru, saturated with adrenaline, out of his system. Her essence after a demon blood hunt with a double-plunge siphon kick - hurling toward the vanishing point—there was no substance close to it. This was from a bite before she'd conceived, he hadn't bitten her after that - had to find the safe house and had burned his fuel out by then. Bittersweet irony; a variable on their side for once. But what was filling the air was making his eyes cross.

No one said a word as Carlos caught the towel Dan tossed him, and he covered his face, then just his mouth and nose with it. Damali didn't throw him the dagger, but instead gave it to Big Mike, who placed it on the coffee table and backed up for Carlos.

On shaky legs Carlos came back into the room, shut the doors behind him to keep the prayer barrier seal in place, sat down fast, and removed the towel, blowing out a slow stream of air to freeze and crystallize the two drying blood puddles. In twenty-four hours, this rare hemoglobin extract would be gone from his system, and hers would never produce it again... not that strong, not that pure - he knew it as he stared at the frozen ovals of life. She wouldn't allow another vampire to come near her like this, and no human male could take her system there to radiate it with endorphin rush the way he had. Maybe it was the drug talking, but a part of him was becoming depressed as he thought of how precious what had been spilled on the table was... and so like them, frozen. In stasis. Unable to come together, because it was unnatural.

"You all right, man?" Rider's voice was like a call across an ocean.

"Yeah," Carlos murmured, and began working with shaky hands. "Being a councilman has its added powers," he said, trying to joke away his pain. He tried not to think of anything but the task before him, tried not to let the product rule him as he used Damali's dagger to crush the red crystals into a fine powder. He almost licked the blade, but nipped the dagger to use the clean side—then remembered. If he touched the black blood with it, he'd start a fire in the room. Yeah, he was fucked up just from the contact. Having to keep the doors to the terrace shut was messing him up.

"Get me something to cut with - just make sure it doesn't have silver in it. I have to hurry up and cut the other side without blowing up the room."

Relief wafted through him as Rider tossed him his bowie knife. He could transcend this shit. He was a councilman. Sweat broke out on his brow.

Quickly, he performed the same procedure on his black blood, put the towel up to his face for a moment, and materialized empty gelatin capsules, drew the contents into them to seal off the airborne fragrance, then quickly stood and walked toward the terrace.

Sweat poured down his temples, wet his back, and made his nose run. His incisors had lowered, and for a few seconds, he could only see red. "Somebody go wash that Isis blade off," he ordered, unable to even look at it when Big Mike took it off the table. "Rider, you, too... the black blood is like acid on human skin, will fuck you up bad if you touch it."

Carlos pulled in several breaths of cool night air, thankful that council-level status gave him a little more resistance and willpower, albeit not much. He shut his eyes when the train of Damali's dress came into his peripheral vision. "Tell her to walk across the room and fucking stay there!"

He heard her swift footsteps, the swish of her dress like a hard rake down his back, could feel her pulse across the room - could smell her. He shut his eyes tight. Not here, and not in her condition.

"Aw'ight," he said, once Damali was out of arm's reach, and then came back into the room, shutting the doors again to keep the privacy prayer barriers intact. "Like she once said, whatever you died knowing how to do alive, you take with you when dead, so listen up." He nodded toward the table, but had to talk away from it, pointing behind him. "That right there, is the equivalent of master vampire kryptonite." He shuddered and started pacing, trying of get it out of his system. "It cannot be found anywhere on the planet. No one else but Damali can manufacture it, and only under certain conditions... I just happened to have it in my system from the last twenty-four hours - do not ask."

"Damn, man, it fucks y'all up like that?" Shabazz stooped down and looked at the red capsules. "What's in the black ones?"

"That's my blood. Hers is red with an iridescence that burns your insides like quicksilver, then cools it to a shiver. The shit is near-lethal, man. Will make you burst blood vessels in your brain and black out if you take in too much too fast."

"Her blood can turn those SOBs on so much they could have a pleasure stroke?" Rider was incredulous.

"Normal human blood drenched with adrenaline has a kick, but not like this stuff," Carlos said through labored breaths. "My blood is for the wives we have to deal with. It'll make them come to me instead of their masters." Carlos let out a slow breath. "With the charge that's running through that, you guys can stake the masters right in front of their wives, and the females won't care. Trust me. The black pill is vampire Ecstasy."

"Deep." Shabazz picked up the red pill and held it up to the light, squinting at it with one eye closed. "This don't seem to amp them down, though, brother." He looked at Carlos "If anything, it makes them strong as shit."

"Let the air around that shit settle, 'Bazz. Give me a minute." Carlos bent over and tried to take in slow breaths, but failed. "Oh, damn."

"I think this is way too dangerous a substance to be carrying into a vamp fest," Marlene warned.

"That's why Jose is gonna have to be my mule. I can't carry it, and he's the only one with enough diluted tracer to pass as a lower-level lieutenant. This shit makes 'em distracted," Carlos said, breathing hard. "Focused on one thing. They get sloppy. Senses concentrated on a single objective." He walked out to the terrace again as the team just stared at his back. He blotted his brow with the back of his forearm, and after a moment came back in. But he kept to the perimeter of the room, and refused to look at Damali.

"Here's the deal," he said, finally able to get himself together enough to speak. "The female vamps are programmed to defend their master if he's about to get smoked. The black pill will make them so buzzed, they'll laugh when he calls. They'll be too high to care what else is going on. The red pill will make the masters wide open to Damali's suggestions - and very unlikely to work as a unit to try to smoke me. Just don't mix up the pills when you mule a delivery for me, Jose. The reverse will be problematic. And don't touch the black ones; scrape them off the table into a plastic bag, or something; might be powder on the outside of the caps. Wipe that table down, good, too, so the maid doesn't lose a finger."

"What the hell is in this stuff, man?" Rider stood up and raked his fingers through his hair. "You don't have this in circulation in LA, do you?"

Damali gave Carlos a sly glance and looked at the floor. That slight action drew his focus to her, but he pulled his gaze away. He couldn't even look at her. His hands were trembling.

"No. It ain't nowhere else, man. This is the only batch. She knows about our kind from close study and from going undercover," Carlos murmured. "Ask her, but don't ask me what's in it. All I'ma say is, I hope in this little home demonstration that Marlene's valid, but unnecessary, concern about how to break their focus has been answered." He looked at Damali hard, unable to do anything else. "That's the only reason I did this - put myself through this bullshit, is so you all could see what you're dealing with when you guard a Neteru."

"Information is power," Damali said quietly, stepping back when Carlos winced from the sound of her voice. "Sorry..."

"Yup," Marlene said, staring at Damali carefully. "They can't even get this with the rare occurrence of a Neteru on earth if they bit her now," she said, her voice wise, as she went to Carlos with caution. She placed her hand on his shoulder, sensing, healing, stabilizing him. "This isn't just about a ripening, her normal blood, is it?"

"No, ma'am."

Marlene patted his thickened shoulder and stared up at him. "I didn't think it was." She touched his face. "So, we'll use this wisely, will protect the package, and make sure we don't raise Hell. Need you around, brother... and I know it was hard to slit a vein and give that to us."

All he could do was nod and look away from Marlene. "Thanks, Mar. This is between A and B, right?"

"Absolutely. You're on our side."

"Cool. Thanks."

"Jose, man. Can I have a word? Mano y mano." Carlos nodded toward the door, and wasn't offended when the young Guardian hesitated and the others got tense. "It's peace. But if you're gonna mule for me, and be first body next to my woman - you have got to get schooled on some serious protocol... and I have got to get out of this room."

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