Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Eighteen

He could barely keep his hands off of her in the chopper, but settled for kissing her wounded palms to seal the cuts, then clasping one of her hands tightly within his. She was blind to the lines, was trailing gold - something he'd never seen her do... and she hadn't dropped fang to come to his aid in a sure extinction. Clearly she was no longer vampire. Whatever was inside her was stronger than vampire. Whatever fired her system up out there had transformed her again, and he could actually feel the raw Neteru power still pulsing through her. A will of iron, confidence, no fear.

Yet it was a frustrating transition for him to observe, bittersweet to the bone on many levels. Tonight, her being human would be a problem, like the way she trustingly tilted her head back against his shoulder, desire, relief, and pride in him running all through her and therefore running all through him. He closed his eyes, his nose grazing her hair, indulging his senses before he pulled away. Oh, yeah, this was a serious problem.

Carlos glanced down and out the window, seeing his dogs lagging behind the choppers in the distance, their wobbly flight pattern showing their fatigue. There was so much to tell her, so many questions he had... so many things he owed her an apology for. She'd literally put the world at his feet, had lands ceded from every nation, all for him. Had given him an immunity never even granted vampire line-founding kings. Even in a full vamp transformation, she had bargained for the life of a child... had tried to restore his honor, and hers, in a room of violent aggressors and had averted a cold-blooded coup... her Isis before her, head high.

This amazing, wondrous creation, this woman... had chosen him. A Neteru, bending cosmic rules, risking her life, playing the game - even playing him, at critical times, for his own good. She'd taken every dark corner of his heart, even his world, and had stood it on its head, flipped the script, and made it all work out. Yeah, he'd been shrewd enough to keep pace with her quick strategy moves, but she was the one with the real magic. Spellbound, how could he ever leave that... his temptation, sweet addiction... apasionada?

His chopper landed first, and the butler brought out the full staff with him, flanking two lines before it. When the door was opened, the entire staff line went down on one knee and bowed as he and Damali disembarked and strolled up the castle's massive front steps without looking back. Behind him he could hear the other choppers land, and soon the voice of the manservant addressed him.

"I am honored to be in your employ, Councilman Rivera. I do hope you will elect to allow me to continue to serve you and your lovely wife?"

Carlos just nodded and kept walking.

"Sir, the banquet?"

"Prepare for the guests as my wife had specified earlier. We'll be down for dinner shortly after we change."

"As you wish, sir."

Carlos kept his eyes forward, taking Damali up the stairs on his arm. She wasn't vampire, and after the hunt, they didn't need to see that she couldn't just transition into a ball gown at the door. It was certain that none of the other masters would rush him for her now, their agreements were registered in blood. He had to get her out of there before she dehydrated and dropped from fatigue and lack of food. She needed to get to her team, and get away from him... get away from the castle and to stay human for her performance tomorrow night... and for the rest of her life. That's also why she had to get away from him, because his willpower was not his own.

When they got to the room, he ushered her to the door, and opened it the traditional way, only going in first to make sure the room was secure. Once satisfied that it was safe, he held out his hand to her. But she didn't fill it with hers. Instead Damali barreled into his arms and buried her face in his shoulder.

He stared at the wall until he had to close his eyes, his chin against her temple. Telepathy was impossible, but it wasn't necessary. He'd heard her. No, he wasn't going to die on her again. Never. Couldn't if he'd wanted to. Her touch, palms holding his back tight, told him everything that it would have told any man. But the sweet fact was, she was telling him - not any man.

"We have to go downstairs for a toast, and accept the ceded lands." He spoke slowly, calmly, making his heartbeat still just so he could breathe. "Then, I'm going to come up with an acceptable excuse about why we have to leave." The words were so painful to say that they momentarily paralyzed his throat. Then, against his will, he mentally told her the real reason. From now on, you have to stay human. I love you too much to turn you into anything else. He broke from the caress of her mind.

She touched his face. They think you have the power of the biblical seal because you crossed a prayer line and have the Neteru. The master who stole the key will want to cut a deal, trust me. "We've made it this far," she murmured, gazing up to him, her deep brown eyes threatening to drown him.

"But I won't make it through the night," he said honestly, his eyes never leaving hers, no longer caring if the walls had ears.

They both knew that an assassination attempt was imminent, and the only thing keeping that at bay was they weren't sure which of the pair knew the exact location of the seal that matched the key.

She didn't move for seconds that became a torturous minute, then drew away "All right," she whispered, and walked toward her trunk.

For a while he couldn't move as he watched her resignation. The utter disappointment in her voice cut into his reason deeper than her Isis ever could.

While her back was turned, he walked to the bathroom. He wanted an old-fashioned shower, and to do something simple like dress the way he had in his human days. Hot water splashed his face and wet his body. He lathered the soap with relish, allowing the hot water to beat against him.

He needed the real sensations, not illusion, no matter how long it took. He watched Damali watch him as he began to dress in the formal tuxedo that the occasion required. He took his time, pulling on underwear, socks, his pants, zippering them, finding his shirt, buttoning it up slowly. He held his bow tie in his hands for a moment, becoming sad that he'd almost forgotten how to manually tie one. He liked that she was waiting for him, just watched him, understanding.

"I guess I should go take a bath," she said quietly, standing and walking toward the bathroom.

When he shook his head no, she halted without turning around. They were so linked.

"I was going to wash you, but thought better of it before dinner."

He could feel her smile, even though her back was turned. "I'll just be a moment," she murmured.

"Let me wash and dress you one last time... in my way... is that all right?"

When she didn't move and simply nodded, he closed his eyes and rendered her dripping wet and naked, and then let out a sigh of satisfaction that sent a warm, gentle breeze to dry her from where he stood across the room. She turned and stared at him, their gazes locked. He couldn't help adorning her in what he'd always envisioned her... in a long, white silk sheath, regal like she was, elegant, flowing down her legs like semi-sheer falls from Victoria, sweeping her hair up and adorning it with pearls, affixing diamond tears to her earlobes... her throat bare, like her back, nude beneath her gown, natural... a bronze goddess who had saved his life and quite possibly his soul.

The sight of her like that brought sudden moisture to his eyes that burned away. It was in the way she looked at him, beyond deep appreciation, with adoration glittering in her eyes. He glanced at her hand and gave her the ring he'd always wanted to give her... no crest, nothing to pollute what it meant to him for her to wear it. A blood-pact would never stain it. Blue-white heart solitaire set high in platinum - unique, like her - and the same color as the prayer lines that had passed him over.

"No matter what happens from this point forward," he whispered, "always know that I love you."

He could feel her about to approach him, but he shook his head no. He was what he was... a vampire and a man. And she was what she was... human and a woman.

"Let's go downstairs," she murmured, once again reading his mind without telepathy, and wise enough not to say right then that she loved him, too.

The entire room went silent as they arrived at the darkened ballroom door. Each guest turned and lowered his head when Carlos passed them with Damali on his arm. Moonlight and candles cast dancing shadows on the walls. The sound of their shoes hitting marble caused an eerie echo across the dim expanse. Diplomat guests carefully went to a seat and stood behind it, quietly waiting.

Carlos kept his gaze focused on the head of the table where two elaborately carved onyx high-backed throne chairs with red velvet upholstery had been placed side by side. The aisle leading to their seats felt like it was half a block long, the silence suffocating, the flickering candelabras sputtering and sizzling as they passed them, only goblets and black bottles on the table as Damali had ordered, no horrific offering that would surely revolt her. This was so eerily natural, yet so obscenely unnatural. He could feel her grip tighten, worry threading through her magnetic touch. The toast. Yes, she would have to endure it.

Once in front of his chair, he guided her to stand before hers. All eyes trained on him, seeking. Quiet mental murmurs filtered into his awareness. The alignment of power; who would be left standing by the end of dinner? Obsequious wives slipping him mental favors for just an opportunity to stay well-kept while fawning false smiles in Damali's direction, feigned submission for the sake of power - no pride. Their husbands no better, making his stomach lurch, making him wonder why he'd ever descended to this level for such an ephemeral thing as power under these circumstances... especially when he'd already experienced the greatest and most unconquerable power in the universe: loving someone else so much that your own survival didn't matter.

Their silent grasping for whatever crumbs he might cast from the table nauseated him. He chose his words carefully, addressing them from his new position with full authority and respect. In his mind he halted the lascivious mental gazes at his wife. Yes, she was beautiful, flawless - but from the inside out, is what they failed to understand, would always be too blind to see or fully appreciate. She wasn't for sale, wager, or land concession. Death for an untoward advance would be a merciful outcome. The very real threat rippled through the table as a subtle energy, snuffing candles as it went down the long, polished onyx, leaving only the moon as the room's source of light.

"Tonight, we have had a number of realignments. We have not decided yet how to parcel these lands so you can at least feed. The size of each new territory will be awarded based upon merit, however. The old days of nation against nation are done. The realignment will be a federation - not independent turfs. We will unite under a common banner, with a common currency, a singular purpose - one army." Carlos looked out at the guests, his gaze resting on each master briefly. He could feel the relief in each one's body as he held them in his mind for a moment, and then withdrew. He looked at Damali. "I said we, because my wife is the actual landowner - this was her fair wager, for a prize more priceless than any lands she's acquired." He tore his gaze from her too-tender one.

To recover, he spoke of her conquest, as he would have of any other masters'. Pride for her filled him. "Hand-to-hand combat, a blazing line, no fear - just pure instinct and focus, her blade raised, head back, battle cry filling the air. Gentlemen, raise your glasses, a new era and a new master has been invited to our table... and you will treat my wife, my mate, with honor."

She gazed at him with such appreciation that the air around her actually shimmered in the iridescent moonlight. Then she turned and looked out at the crowd. He studied the line of her jaw, the bend of her neck, the melodic sound of her voice... and the certain authority she possessed as she spoke - devastated by her.

"Gentlemen, ladies, if for one night, peace. We have all fought hard, and we each put much at risk. But, my greatest treasure is standing beside me," she said, her voice firm yet tender, "so I have won more than the wagers offered, and since he bested me fair and square, I willingly cede all that I have acquired to my mate... as a matter of choice."

Adrenaline from the other masters saturated the room. Yes, he understood what they'd seen her do, what the hunt had done to all of them. He understood the effect of Neteru more than they could imagine. And could truly understand their disappointment that none of them would have her tonight. Even though he'd almost been scorched from the face of the earth just for that honor... and by rights, winner takes all.

Before the thought could take root and fester in his mind, he raised his filled goblet. "To a new empire!"

He downed his toast, each master following suit, the instant gratification so necessary after a hunt. So critical, standing beside her, denied. Their mates salivating for a vein, their own goblet of blood, but having to wait for Damali to consume hers first - protocol they dared not breach now. Their lives had just been spared and the peace was too fragile.

Her sudden alarm made him glance at her, then hold her gaze steady, his hand going to her cheek, a sealed telepathy lock necessary to help her through this. Swallow the blood, just one sip, so these boys don't ever question you when I'm not by your side.

Her eyes were wide, the answer in them was immediate and panicked. She couldn't do it. He knew it before she thought it.

The room was hovering between post-hunt bacchanalia and disaster, patience shredding in males that needed desperately to feed, still saturated with adrenaline, testosterone, and blitzed on Neteru. An unstoppable feeding frenzy near.

Hair-trigger reflexes were coalescing with the need to complete a seduction with whatever available female presented willing in the room - their wife or not, it didn't matter. They might even turn that battle adrenaline on each other and fight to the death in the ballroom. This was after a hunt, they'd just lost all their lands causing a fear spike that fed dark fury; each knew it might well be their last night to exist. They were exhausted, irrationally dangerous because of what fatigue did to their willpower. They'd seen her negotiate, deceive them, hunt and best them. Infuriating, intoxicating. The females at their sides were teetering on the edge of desire collapse after having done near battle in the parlor, then had watched blood sport and a council-level master cross prayer lines to behead a demon with his bare hands. They'd witnessed outrageous history being made - something new, a sure aphrodisiac within their long, bored lives. Damali's panic became his. Swallow the blood. Now.

He could feel Damali about to vomit as water came to her eyes and she practically heaved. Then as swift as a cobra she reached up, grabbed the nape of his neck, and forced his head down, his mouth to hers hard, and sent everything her cheeks were holding into his. Blood hit the back of his throat, almost choking him. She weaved a bit, and pressed her wrist to her lips, panting to probably keep from throwing up. His gaze quickly scanned the table; her sweet essence in his mouth, mixed with blood.

Two masters, Tetrosky and McGuire, held onto their chairs and looked away, devastated, full fangs dropped. Evelyn's gasp cut through Carlos's skeleton as she swooned against McGuire and bit him. Xe's wife could barely hold her goblet, her hands were shaking so badly. Amin pulled his wife to him hard and bit her with such force that he nearly ripped out her throat. The chain reaction was insane. His variable a loose cannon by his side.

The openly sexual act, done in public, at a time like this, under these circumstances by a councilman's wife denoted total commitment, sheer submission, control not to feed, discipline beyond comprehension in his world, and that she hadn't dropped fang and stood meekly by his side, after they knew what she could transform into, had blown them away. It had rocked his world, too. He had to get her out of there now.

All formality bled away from him as he folded her into his arms and became vapor, fusing every cell of hers with his until she was transparent, the wind, to safely bring her to the terrace beyond their suite. Materializing was instantaneous. What had she done... forced him to taste her mouth, given him yet more power by the awed cessation of control by four masters and their mates, made him enter her mind, once again, to feel the impact of her emotions, her need to be with him, her memories of them together echoing through her system like wildfire, then forcing him to protect her with a significant transport beyond the cellular level, down to the atomic... before a solid feed.

"I love you," she whispered hard against his cheek. "What about this don't you get?"

He couldn't breathe with her in his arms, so his hands held the side of her face, his mouth crushing her words away, siphoning the residual blood in it to clean her palate, and to fulfill his. She was human; he wasn't. He needed her to leave; her hard shudder begged him to stay. Sweet surrender washed through him.

Didn't he understand? Her hands slid up his back. He'd almost died - again. They had almost assassinated him right in front of her. He'd touched the depths of her mind with his, found the depths of her heart with his honor. And his gentleness with her knew no bounds. He'd prayed for her. Willed her back to life. She'd shared her soul with him just so he'd have one, if Heaven wouldn't provide then she would. Love beyond the rules, giving every fiber of who she was... unable to say no, even understanding all that he was and all that he was not. It didn't matter, not right now. He'd loved her. He'd saved her. He'd been butchered for her. That counted for something - it had to. If there was mercy anywhere in the universe, they had to know what he meant to her. He had to know and never forget.

His punishing kiss was an echo that she sent back hard, crushing, intense. He'd given his entire kingdom for one night with her, and had defended any other claim to her. He was more than worthy of redemption in her eyes, even if that choice wasn't hers to make, or in her power to give - she'd try to bestow it in her arms.

Tears cascaded down her cheeks as she pulled her mouth away. "Time cheated us. Don't send me back to being alone," she said, her voice cracking, her breaths unsteady as she took his mouth hard again. What more was there for him to understand... when the shudder he sent through her was beyond definition... his tongue harshly probing the insides of her mouth, sending phantom pulses of ecstasy to enflame her skin, turning her legs to putty ready to wrap around his waist the moment his will snapped. This wasn't up for negotiation. She needed him. Had surrendered. Only moments mattered. This was primal.

He tore his mouth from hers, looked into her eyes, a question trapped by a plea in them. He, like she, was beyond speech. Telepathy failed. But his body understood. His hands understood all that she'd been trying to say, but couldn't... and he gathered her gown under his palms, one arm crushing her torso to his, the other pulling her hip to fit tightly against him, the kiss so hard now that he nicked her lip. Hot breath scathed her neck, and a swift strike, blinding - her voice drowning the surf, coming from a place within her that she never knew existed.

The railing was only matter, dissolving, as her backside slammed against it, him an inseparable brand coating her like second skin. Consciousness ebbing as fast as the two-hundred-foot drop - the wind the only thing beneath her, the surf the earth's heartbeat, becoming hers. His arms, solid rock, enclosed her. The siphon pulling everything up and out of her in a long wail, hers, as they fell.

No impact, just rebirth in the sand far away. Swirling dust became their bodies, giving them shape and form while joined. The moonlight was their blanket. Desert wind was their music. Twenty-thousand-year-old song lines a didgeridoo pulse in the red earth, protecting, anointing, barring all predators from their union. X-ray art beings - turned inside out by pleasure. The howl of the wolf, part his, part dingo. Hours passed, but time was trivial. Make it last. Iron ore beneath her fingernails, embedded in her knees, but she couldn't stop if her life depended on it.

A burning hand holding her belly, the rhythm older than prayer itself. His sweat dripping onto her back, creating a salty stream down her spine. Another lubricant to help him slide against her harder. She felt the heat of his breath in her ear as he panted her name on fervent exhales. Her breasts lowered to the sandy ground, her hips lifted to meet him each time he returned, her tears creating red-dust face paint on her cheek. Her spine a flex-snap response to his intense wind chants. Another sudden strike flattening her body spread-eagle with his name leaving her lungs. Approaching dawn be damned, don't stop...

He had to look at her face. Feel her belly against his, her cradle of life, witness her force of nature in her eyes as he filled her with seed, dead or alive. She was a creator, a giver of life, what no man could ever be. The alpha and the omega of profound ecstasy. Woman... owner of oblivion.

The impending seizure she caused gathered clouds in the sky, touched off lightning to kiss the distance, but brought no rain. Only she was moisture, wrested it from all around her, including him, then made it pour.

Conflicted, but so certain... returning to her primordial essence with each stroke, her hard arches a call-and-response tide that had only one answer. Sudden death, his, hers, theirs, but still breathing.

Her head in his hands, caressing it with all her dreams inside it, a promise to honor them, pebbles and grit tearing at his knees, cutting his thighs, his love a protection at her back, not one scratch would he allow, not a drop of her blood would the ground steal from him... but she could take it all. Her strike staggering. Pulse-stopping. His mind opening so fast that it tore and issued forth every image of her that he'd ever held. An infant at her breast causing sobs with his release, unending, as hers joined his and echoed back the pleasure until he had to lift his head to stop feeding the sweet agony.

Fangs catching the last of starlight. The road to Hell paved with good intentions. Redemption in her arms. Resurrection, whenever she wanted him... for however long. Dawn on the horizon, serious warning not to play with nature. Don't stop, a refrain in her chant. His name a shuddered stanza. Hers, hard shivers down his spine when he gasped it.

Oh, sweetness, yes, he understood promises made in passion... he was a man... knew about saying anything to keep wet flesh moving. He wasn't mad. Been there. He felt the same way; her body was a narcotic. A flat-line overdose. The median between lust and love was thin. He could dig it. Him now chasing her arch like chasing a crack hit. Blitzed, her voice calling his name now the only way he'd remember it. Not a mild transition, undergoing sea change lodged inside her... needing to turn her to keep her with him forever... just like he needed his next breath. Trying to hold back that intent was nearly impossible. Thinking of the future without her making him almost weep. Baby... you just don't know... Disaster imminent, brought on by blinding ejaculation seizures. Peristaltic. Involuntary, like his throbbing lunges. His promises more than that, though - a blood oath, his seed a seal, whatever she wanted - Name it, mi tresora. I'll never leave you... will try my best not to hurt you. I love you. Always did.

Common sense abandoned. Not an option. Follow the sound lines - sound wisdom from a priest. A safe house another answer to a prayer. Withdrawal from her impossible. Not yet. Vacuum-sealed hot fusion, liquefied heat. His woman limp in his arms. Pull out or die. Don't kill her.

Darkness, a sure sanctuary... like her body. The presence of her warmth beneath him a necessity. Her tremble an indelible print on his skin. Her mouth his oasis. Her sudden shudder, increasing octaves, rippling up sections of his vertebrae like standing stones. Her moans radiating from her chest into his and out through the tips of his fingers, raw energy. The wetness of her mouth, sucrose-lacquered blood. Her scent a stimulant that knew no tranquilizer. Muscles aching but still moving. His back her bridge to sure salvation, driving, as she dragged her nails the length of it.

Every thrust now taking him to the vanishing point and beyond, crossing parallel lines of existence, bending to collide into an optical illusion so real, wishing he'd never left the lair... but unable to share even her airborne cries with another master, much less her scent - her sacred mind transmissions, never... wallowing in the dust on a hard roll-over, to follow the lines and make it to the safe house with his last ounce of strength to save them both, or die trying. Winner takes all, and then some. But daylight didn't negotiate.

Dark eyes in ebony faces shining in the breaking night looked up from the fire. White paint dotted and smeared against their skins, giving them the eerie ancestral quality of ancient spirits, all-knowing from Dreamtime.

Language a barrier, but an intense plea in his eyes for help, a woman nearly dead draped in his arms, created universal understanding. They all knew he would drop to his knees and beg for sanctuary if he had to. They understood. No shame, it was about survival. Compassion. The human heart a treasure. At least save his woman. Please... for the love of God... get her out of the coming sun!

An old man's satisfied nod, walking stick pointed toward a cavern with a wry smile. Daylight be damned, he wasn't done. Time had robbed them. He'd seal the cave and transform it for her - turn it into the lair she deserved... and love her through the morning. Just one more time before handing her over. Just so he could remember every inch of her when he had to let her go. She'd branded him. Did that with her eyes when they'd first met... no matter what he was.

Dawn would suffocate her then burn her. Their ancient barriers to the cave were impenetrable now without their permission. He stretched out his arms, offering her body to them, and knelt on one knee. Would gladly sacrifice his own instead. Time was a thief. Take her; I'll burn in her place. Without her there was nothing to exist for. Just give her sanctuary.

Another nod of approval from a tribal elder. No words were needed. A dense energy lifted. He almost wept at their grace. Discreet glances returned to the business of staring into the flames and packing pipes was all that was needed to effect the territory transfer. His shoulders dropped from fatigue and relief. That's when the old men smiled, and he could begin to see a ring of white light beneath their bright orange-yellow fire with etchings that were almost blinding. It was as though they were sitting on a blue-white platter, the diameter twelve feet, with a thickness he couldn't judge. Its brilliance almost made it impossible to look at, the Aramaic markings were so encrypted and sacred, he dared not allow his eyes to linger upon it. Then it became so crystal clear as the elderly humans became illuminated, X-ray art marking their dark bodies - but it wasn't paint. It was pure light. Their images blurred and in an instant he knew. These were spirits, shamen... rock art, living prayer lines. They were the keepers of the sixth seal. They said one word that he understood as their low harmony of chants sent embers up to the heavens from their now blue-white fire - Neteru.

Carlos nodded with his eyes closed, his head bowed in reverence to their generosity and mercy. He brought Damali's body to his chest and held her against him hard, stroking her hair as her arms slowly awakened to hold him when he stood. Power was relative. He was forever in their debt. Their twenty-thousand-year-old prayer lines and unshakable courage surrounded the seal. They'd also sealed this secret within his soul, but had left the choice up to him to divulge it or not. Knowledge was a heavy burden. They smiled wider as he looked down at Damali in his arms. No matter what was going on in his empire, right now, these old men ruled the world.

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