Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven

Damali and her team stood there watching Carlos's back as he turned from them, waved his dogs off, and simply folded away into nothingness. It was the way he did it with none of his usual decisive flair that concerned her. But there were many things competing for her attention at the moment, most immediately was her family, most importantly was the missing biblical key.

Gradually, her Madame Isis sword materialized at her side. Again, it was in the way it had been returned with such resignation that, for a moment, she and her team only stared at it.

"We never leave our own," she said, holding her head up high, and pulling the Isis from the earth. Damali tossed the blade and it landed point down in the grass at Marlene's feet. "You keep this until you think I'm worthy to have it. But my mission hasn't changed. I'm going to clean out some nests, as planned, and bring back the thing we need."

Full authority was in her tone. It was a command, not a request, as she pushed her shoulders back and stood firm. "Just understand that I never left you all, and I never left him - herein lies my dilemma. In my soul I know that he is just as much a part of my mission as being with you is."

Marlene studied the blade and went to it, extracting it from the ground with a sharp tug. Her eyes met Damali's and a quiet understanding passed between them. She ignored the nervous bristle of the other Guardians as she stepped in close to Damali, turned the blade handle out and offered it back to her, waiting patiently until Damali accepted the ornate handle.

"You did teach me better, Marlene," Damali said, no anger or apology in her voice. "That's why I did what I did - I wasn't playing. I wanted him on our side... still do, always have, and I wasn't afraid to go where I had to go to reach him." She gave Marlene a slight smile.

Marlene smiled, her finger moving a stray lock off Damali's shoulder. "You scared us half to death."

"Scared myself... still do sometimes."

Both women's eyes held a level of amusement that only the night could witness. They both turned back toward the team, feeling the group behind them growing restless.

"You coming with us, or what?" Rider shouted, his frustration rippling through the night. "Tell me after this you are leaving hombre - 'cause, girlfriend, you are way off mission, right about through here."

"She can no more leave him now than I could leave Shabazz," Marlene said firmly, dismissing Rider's question with a wave of her hand.

"It's time you guys clue me in to what else might be affecting my flux," Damali said, her gaze holding the group. "There's some serious yang going down in Australia. I was standing by Carlos when his squad showed up, and apparently another master breached his borders."

Marlene touched her face as she walked forward. "The sixth biblical seal is in jeopardy, baby," she said in a quiet tone. "We need our Neteru."

As clear as day, Damali heard Marlene's mental instruction: Go find the missing key - by any means necessary.

Damali touched Marlene's cheek. "Trust me, Marlene. Let me see."

Marlene's gaze opened to Damali, and images rushed into Damali's awareness. But with that information also came a sad understanding; if the seal that matched the stolen key was discovered, Carlos would trade it for her life.

Now his agitation and stress made all the sense in the world to her. She understood where all the posturing and hollering was coming from - brother was caught between a rock and a hard place and wasn't coping well at all. He knew that she'd give her life for humanity. The fact that he'd hunt down the key just to spare her, bartering it away for one human life, that in and of itself was enough to make her never want to speak to him again. Yet, she also couldn't ignore the fact that he'd done that simply because he couldn't bear the concept of her death under any circumstances. It was too complicated. Damali closed her eyes and let out a long, weary sigh.

"You know that's why I have to go with him," Damali said, her voice just above a whisper. "He's scared, Mar. I've seen him go through a lot of mess, but all the bravado is about fear."

Marlene nodded. "Definitely a male reaction, human or vamp, it's the same."

Both women shared a tender smile.

"Maybe that's why you had to intimately learn about his world," Marlene said after a moment, and then glanced at Father Patrick. "She has to go in under their radar as one of them. We'll back her up from the outside."

"This is what I was meant to do as the millennium Neteru," Damali said firmly "The timing of my birth... hey, we all know we're in the end of days, so, this is it, people. Win or die trying."

Father Patrick tossed Damali the small dagger that matched her Isis, and she caught it fast. "In Australia, follow the song lines of the Aborigines... tell him that will lead you both to a safe house."

Monk Lin nodded and glanced at his clerical team. "In case you need to know so they don't burn you, they appear like infrared, but blue-white lines, and stretch across the protected sites like an alarm grid might... hopefully, you'll never be able to see them like he can." The monk sighed. "Make sure you get a map of all the sites with hallowed ground between wherever you're going, and there."

"What!" Shabazz shouted, whirling around on the priests, his line of vision tearing between Father Patrick, Monk Lin, and Marlene. "She can't stay with him - one, and two - she cannot go over there and do a concert as a cover for an international vampire hit, dragging a master vampire with her! I don't care what she's searching for!" He looked at his team for support, and the other men stepped in closer toward him. "She's not stable, one more nick could turn her, and she'll be on their side and doesn't need the Isis in her possession!"

"Set up a concert over there, Dan," Marlene said flatly, ignoring Shabazz.

"Marlene, face it, the girl might not even be able to cast an image. The whole plan to go country-to-country dusting topside master vampires to weaken their empire and bring back our stolen property is an abort until she stabilizes," Rider said in a defeated rush, gaining a nod from Big Mike. "Accidental stroke of luck on their side, notwithstanding - they won. They took out our power center - Damali."

"No, D is still the Neteru," Jose said, his voice fervent, just like his eyes. "Come with us, baby. Please don't stay with him." His voice hitched and he opened his arms. "We'll make it all right... I'm begging you, D. We'll keep the plan, as it always was, all of us. Just come home."

"Even if she stayed with us and we flew out at night," Big Mike said, lowering his weapon as his shoulders slumped, "we'd be flying from night into day because of the layovers and time-zone changes... she's unstable, could torch on impact right in her seat on the plane."

"I'm aware of that risk, so I'm traveling a nontraditional route, if I can get a ride." Damali let her breath out hard, sharing a supportive glance with Marlene. "Which is why I'm going inside to do some damage repair on one critical member of our team. And that's also why you all are going to have to have more faith than you've ever had before." But it broke her heart to watch Jose slowly lower his arms and look away from her.

"See you in Sydney, kiddo," Marlene said calmly. "Travel safe. If we don't see you in a couple of nights..."

"We'll send a rescue and recovery party," Imam Asula said, glancing at the other members of the Covenant. "If you're beyond repair, we will bury you on hallowed ground... or scatter your ashes there - either way."

Rider hawked and spit, and even the clerics' expressions held unconcealed worry.

"Gentlemen, Mar," Damali said, looking at the doubts held in every pair of eyes, "maybe what I did was instinct, who knows? That's what's driving me now. A gut hunch."

"You don't even know if Carlos will go or still guide you to the lairs so you can pick them off one by one to eliminate the threat," Dan said, his gaze fervent. He glanced at the others; J.L. nodded and Jose let out a long, disgusted sigh.

"Oh, he'll take her to a lair, all right. But not to clean one out." Rider sputtered in fury, walking back and forth. "In this condition, he'll be setting up vampire housekeeping!"

"We're supposed to protect the Neteru, but also assist her destiny," Father Patrick said, his slight smile knowing, evolving on his face in slow increments. "If Heaven is willing to gamble, who are we to throw in our hand?"

Marlene kissed Damali's cheek and walked away from her. "Let's go, gentlemen. I think our girl just created something even Hell can't deal with."

The long walk back to the mansion gave her plenty of time to think. What could she tell Carlos that made any kind of sense? He had trusted her completely, and there were so many times she'd mistrusted him. He'd been up-front and had told her about what he could do to her, but she'd never explained all of that to him in equal measure. Truth was, even she didn't know at the time. She was making it up as she'd went along.

Yet, what she was sure of now, just as sure as she'd always been, was that there was pure intent behind the soul-sharing exchange. There was no fraud in it, no trickery or guile. She had gone into his depths to restart his heart, to dredge up every abandoned hope and dream inside him that he'd ever had, and had coated it with every ounce of love she could siphon from herself. That was real, and it wasn't a game.

As she entered the mansion, Carlos was pacing in the foyer.

"What are you doing here?" he muttered.

"I never run."

"Yeah, I forgot." His back was to her and his tone was angry and distant.

An eerie quiet filled the room, time standing still again in the balance between her response and his.

"Carlos, you do understand my concerns now, right?" She leaned on her Isis blade. "There is only one issue - the stolen key."

He looked at her hard.

"I had a need to know not just from them, but also from you," she snapped, her gaze roving over him so hotly that he turned around.

"Since you've been all inside my head, Damali, then I hope you can also feel the fatigue from my sitting up all day, worried fucking sick, praying, and beating my own ass about what I've allowed to happen to you."

She swallowed hard and looked down at her shoes.

"And you should have also picked up how your first awareness panic while they were purging you cut my soul to the bone and emotionally bled me out till I had to come to you. Funny thing is, you're in my system as much as I'm in yours. Now, that's fucked up, when I'm the one supposed to be running shit. So my main concern then was, as it always has been, to make sure you survive. Fuck a key, if it means you'll die - or worse."

When she looked up at him, the tears that glistened in her eyes made him glance away.

"If we don't find and return the key, all of humanity will get turned - or kept for vamp food. I just don't want to live like that," she whispered.

"Neither do I, baby, but I don't know how to fix this. All I've ever known how to do is play the hand I'm dealt to buy time. Now even that's running out."

"I felt the hunger burn," she said, her voice so quiet that he had to strain to hear her. "I've never been so repulsed or terrified in my life."

"It's a bitch," he said plainly, walking to stand by a massive living-room window. "And the absence of daylight, the taste of real food, everything you've always taken for granted, ain't no joke. So now you know."

"If I stay with you as a female vamp, I'll never see my family again. But I want to be with you so bad, it hurts. But you also know I'll do whatever I have to do to get the key."

Carlos sighed. "If you stay in the dark life, you'll never see daylight, your family, your friends, a lot of shit that seems unimportant until it's gone." He turned and looked at her squarely. "Believe me, I miss my mom, and Grams... I miss my brother, and my boyz. And I wanted to protect them all, just like I wanted to protect you, missing you most of all. But, hey, that's my trip, my atonement for all the foul shit I've done." Unable to look at her any longer, he rubbed his hand across his jaw, remembering the last of her touch. "Let me do at least one thing right, and take you home. You stay there, let me do what I have to do, and it'll be cool. I'll find the key and will work a deal. I promise."

"No, it won't be cool. Guarding humanity is my job. This is not something you can cut a deal with. You clear?"

Even though her tone was firm, her eyes held such empathy that he couldn't remain focused on them. "Just promise me one thing," he finally said, as he began walking toward the door.

"Name it."

"Don't ever tell a master vampire something like that," he chuckled, his voice hollow from the soul ache. "Hear me out, then make wise choices, baby."

"Talk to me."

He closed his eyes. He wasn't sure if it was the familiar line, or the timbre of her voice yearning to hear some feasible solution, or the fact that she still cared enough to listen to him despite the circumstances, but the simple statement messed him up.

"If you die on your mission - and I have to say that because I know you're so stubborn there's no stopping you once you've made your mind up," he said slowly, measuring his voice to be sure it didn't falter, "and they make you a warrior angel... look in on my people for me, D. Make sure my moms knows I loved her and died trying - but just took a wrong turn at the Light."

He would not allow the fact that her fingers had gone to her lips to change his path. He was walking out that door, going to handle his business and settle this issue, alone, once and for all. As for his fate, the Devil may care, but he didn't. All she had to do was cross the threshold, and he'd transport her to the edge of the lights beyond the compound.

"You coming?" he said in a hardened tone without looking back at where she stood. "Since you're siding with the Guardians, we go out side by side. No 'in your arms' bullshit. I ain't got that much integrity, animal-predator that I am."

When she didn't move, he turned around and glared at her. "We've got a time issue, dig?"

He could feel her mind working, trying to absorb all his pain and make it right. "You can't fix this, no more than I can fix it. Let it drop. Sometimes you lose when you gamble. I've gotten used to it. You want the key for your reasons, I want the key for mine. You're ready to die for the cause; I'm not waiting around to watch that happen. Now let's go."

He waited while she walked toward him slowly, and then lifted her chin to stand by his side. Every instinct within him told him to never let her leave, but everything he'd ever known about her also told him that if he held her there, one night she'd grow to hate him just as much as he hated himself now.

"I had a hand in this thing, as much as you did," she murmured. "We're partners. We work this situation together. Me and you and my Guardian team."

He wasn't trying to hear it. Didn't need to think about anything that might make it harder to do what he had to do.

"I bit you, you turned, and you fluxed back. My bad."

"I let you, and wanted you to, and encouraged you to do me."

"Yeah, well, woulda, coulda, shoulda."

"Then I went deep into your head, when you told me not to. Opened Pandora's box."

"Told you curiosity killed the cat."

She smiled a slow, sad smile. "You did."

"You satisfied now?"

She shook her head. "I'm sorry."

"Me, too... more than you'll ever know."

He glanced at her, and then glanced up at the moon. "This is an old conversation, D. You know where it leads."

"I know. Then why aren't you doing your transport thing, if you're hell-bent on sending me away?"

For a moment he didn't answer her, but then the truth came out. "Because I really don't want to. You actually ready to die?" He let his breath out hard. "There's a good chance that four masters against me, even at my level, will win. One, or all four of those bastards, might be in possession of the key. Against you and your team, they'll get slaughtered. I don't want to think about what they'll do to you if you're captured. That I cannot live with."

"No, I don't want any of us to die. Without the key being returned to hallowed ground, is there such a thing as life on this planet? There's a certain way I want to live."

He nodded. He could respect that, always did. But it didn't change his position. "Why didn't you just listen to me when I told you not to take me there in Rio? Why'd you have to go that deep into my mind?"

She smiled sadly and looked out into the night. "We're way off the subject, but if you must know, I was jealous."


"I wanted to be the only one you fantasized about. After some of the places you'd been..."

Carlos closed his eyes and shook his head. "Oh, shit, Damali. You didn't need to go there to be the one."

"I wanted to know what a double-plunge was, and to do that with you. I also wanted to experience going to the vanishing point with you, albeit you haven't taken me there yet. But now I have an idea." She sighed and looked down. "I didn't want some female vamp seducing you one night to try something that you couldn't get from me. I figured it was bound to happen sooner or later."

He looked at her, allowing his gaze to rake her, burning her into his memory for what might very well be the last time. "Go deep, right now, and get the question settled in your mind once and for all. Then, answer my question. Are you really ready to end our relationship like this? Because you know, if I find either the seal or the key, I'll turn it over to them to save your life, whether you want to be with me or not."

Her pull was so intense that she shuddered from the answer she siphoned from him. She took two steps toward him, but then stopped herself, although she never broke eye contact with him.

"That's what I thought," he murmured. "But in this condition, you can't have it both ways. If you haven't already totally crossed over by the end of the mission, I'll flat-line you to save you, and you want to live as a human."

"Yeah. I do. That's why I stopped walking."

His fangs dropped and were slow to recede. It took him a moment to answer her. "You sure you wanna leave and try to go after the key yourself?"

"What I want to do, and what I have to do, are two different things. Either we do this together, or I do it alone. But don't try to sweet-talk me into some bullshit compromise, Carlos. I'm not down for a vamp seduction."

He needed night air. Standing in the confines of the foyer with her was too much of a temptation to simply turn her all vamp and be done with the options. "Can't blame a man for trying," he said, smiling, but coming closer to her. "But what if it's too late? What if you really did die in my arms already?"

"What if I didn't?"

She looked away from him and out into the night, through the windows by the door.

He closed his eyes and walked away from her, his hand going to the nape of his neck as he tried to rub away the tension in it. "Going after them as a team is one helluva gamble, D."

"Wait for me," she murmured. "If you don't hear my call tomorrow night, then I'm history."

"What are you talking about - wait for you?" The insanity of her request made him pace from the door to the windows, and back to stand before her. "If you live through the first night in Australia without getting whacked, and if by some slim chance your system normalizes, I'm the last person in the world you want to come for you ever again." He stared at her hard. "If you're still human when this shit goes down, I'll definitely turn you to keep you strong and existing, enough of that death with honor bullshit!" She had to be crazy. If the sixth sea was opened there was only one safe position; master vamp.

"I was talking about not giving up, not leaving the team, if - "

"Do you hear yourself?" He looked at her hard, forcing her gaze to stay within his. "If you make it, and you now have a deep personal understanding of what this thing is that I live with - I cannot wait around for you to die a normal, human death. Period."

"Why not? You are destined to do something greater than - "

"There's only one thing I can be to you - your lover. I may be your friend, your bodyguard, your whatever you want to call me, but the bottom line is, if I'm near you, you're my woman. It's not in my DNA, or in my heart, to watch my woman unnecessarily die. You've got the wrong hombre, if that's what you want."

She only stared at him as he stated the facts as plainly as he knew them.

"I'm not playing, Damali. And with your system all jacked up, you're trailing the beginnings of the scent that fucks me around. Not to mention," he said, his voice escalating, "you bit me, dammit. You may have recovered from that, but I sure as hell haven't!"

The crystal pieces in the large foyer chandelier above him began to rattle. Damali looked up as the intensity built, sending a winding fissure across the ceiling, down the wall, opening a two-inch crack in the marble floor by her feet. She braced herself, waiting, not sure if he was going to rush her, or if the vibrating light fixture above them was gonna blow.

"You still don't get it, do you?" he asked, gesturing with his hands as pendulous crystal sections began to separate from the ornate chandelier, then jettison into the surrounding walls. His voice was low and even, and way too calm. "Maybe your master awareness hasn't kicked in yet, or maybe you haven't all the way turned, but let me make sure we are clear."

"All right," she said quietly, keeping her distance from him as more pieces of the chandelier separated, cracked, and whizzed past her to lodge in the door. "Talk to me."

"There are many types of bites we can deliver." Carlos paused, drew a deep breath, as though steadying himself.

She waited. Not even blinking.

"No self-respecting council-level master would ever allow some stray vamp tail to plunge his jugular! No one but you has been near my throat since I've turned."

Upon his statement, furious energy rippled up the winding staircase, popping out banister posts, exploding open the doors throughout the second floor.

"I don't care if it's a Roman orgy, and I don't care what type of entity attempts a seduction, a council master never takes it in the throat!" Carlos turned away from her and began walking deeper into the house and then returned, his breathing escalating as he spoke. "We deliver the ultimate bite, not take it, and we give it good, baby. Believe that. If we feed a lower level, or allow a passion nick," he said, speaking now through fangs and extending his arm to demonstrate, "it's at the wrist or the inside of the elbow, never at the throat - our power center."

Damali tilted her head, his rage an ebbing concern, her curiosity fueling her confidence. "Then... why - "

Every window on the first floor blew out, leaving the curtains to flutter wildly in the gathering night wind.

"A throat offering is the highest level of trust and respect. It's a bond, dammit! A siphon there is a mark, a permanent one. You only give that to your eternal mate, your queen. That's the only one you allow into your head, trusting that her lock on your thoughts is only about the survival of both of you. So, hell no, I'm not going to allow you to put yourself in harm's way against four masters!"

He closed his eyes, trembling. She wasn't sure if it was from rage, passion, frustration, or the combination. Instinct told her not to speak, and to ride it out, just listen to him.

"It is the ultimate power you can bestow, because it makes you vulnerable to her. Where I come from, power is not ceded, it's taken. So when it's given willingly, with intent, it is a serious alliance." Carlos leveled his gaze at her; the intense magnetic pull of it was so great that she almost lost her balance where she stood. "You're supposed to always side with me against anyone and anything - even finding this key! That you are standing here, questioning my judgment is so wrong, D, there are no words!"

"I am not trying to challenge your love for me, baby," she said, her voice soothing. "But you knew what I was before we even got together."

"The bites I delivered, Damali, were pure passion, which is why your wounds seal immediately when I pull out. Those transmit only the most excruciating pleasure, and radiate through your body until you weep. If I had meant to turn you, trust me, it would not have been pleasant. And if I had delivered a mind-control nick, you wouldn't even know your own fucking name right now."

She watched the way his lungs drew in and slowly released the air around them, monitoring the fact that he ran his tongue across his incisors but they never retracted.

"Yeah," he muttered, his gaze on her hard. "You didn't trust me not to run on you. So, here we are. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, like I said. Now, you've gone Neteru on me again and want to save the whole goddamned world."

"I didn't know, then, that the biblical key was missing."

"Neither did I, but still. When you dropped fang, my judgment got compromised," he admitted, his voice lowering a silky octave as his gaze raked her.

She instantly felt her body respond, making her become wet and swollen, just from the memory. Her nipples hardened and stung. Her body temp rose, making her face burn, and she took in small sips of air while fighting to hold her ground.

"What you delivered wasn't a feed bite, either," he murmured, his voice gravelly. "Woman, you have no concept. That shit will make you drool on yourself." He breathed in shallow inhales, then seemed to gather enough control to continue. "You almost nicked an artery, you went in so deep, so hard, so fast, and for so long. Once you were in, it was all over - it felt so damned good that I couldn't even nick you that first time, fangs down, notwithstanding. Now you want me to walk away from you and allow you to run headlong into some insane mission that will no doubt get you smoked. Never."

"You could have - "

"Stopped? Not bitten you back? Are you crazy?"

Carlos dragged his fingers through his hair, staring at her. "Me pull out, then? Impossible. Make you stop? Never happen. The wound wouldn't even immediately seal when you lifted your head from my throat. But in that state, I would have let you bleed me out dry."

"But I picked up that you wanted..."

"I did, baby. You have no idea how much. I ain't gonna lie - but only from you. That was my darkest fantasy, but I tried to tell you not to go there. I almost begged you to stop playing with me like that." He shook his head, and broke eye contact with her. "Masters have an Achilles' heel, too, you know, and you've been mine for a long time, girl."

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I just didn't understand that it was... I mean, that, I didn't - "

"Trust," he said, cutting her off, speaking slowly with a lethal quality to his words, "that I didn't have some bitch on my mind."

All she could do was nod, and look away from him. What was there to say?

He turned away and stretched out his arm, leaning on the cracked plaster of the wall, studying the ruined floor. "Then I had to suffer the ultimate humiliation and show your people just how bad it was, and they still didn't understand, didn't get it - that I wasn't feeding you from my wrists. You weren't on your knees as some submissive, scrambling for a blood hit. You're my fucking equal, and I tried to show them that. I had to stand there and listen to your boys question whether or not I knew when I'd delivered a turn bite or not, like I'm some damned amateur!"

"But at the compound, that was a feeding," she said fast. "I was - "

She stepped back two paces when his fist took out a section of the wall and he pushed away from it, his eyes glowing crimson.

"You are pissing me off, D! Even a feeding at the throat from a mate sends nothing but pleasure. That shit is so erotic that it makes time stand still. But after the bite, I didn't have it in me to explain it. I had to get out of there. Now they think I'm Satan."

When she didn't answer, he looked at her with total fury blazing in his eyes. "Don't you ever take me there again. Don't you know how private an exchange that is? And don't you know by now that's the most vulnerable moment for a master to be in? If they were to open my lair in the daylight, I would still have enough strength and awareness to take a body before I torched. But during a mate bite, of any kind, fuck it, they could smoke me before I'd ever know what hit me. I didn't even hear my own marked man, Berkfield, calling me. My lieutenants did! Your mate can only give you pleasure or open you up like that, that's why you choose one with care!" He walked in a hot circle. "And that's why they were able to take an innocent that had my mark of protection on him, while I was with you tonight!" He pointed a her. "Fuck a key."

She covered her mouth with her hand and closed her eyes. "Oh, shit..."

"Yeah. Oh shit. And I stood up for you in front of a room full of armed Guardians wide-open, totally blitzed. Die with honor-please. Then I send my squad off on boundary security detail, just to save your team and try to salvage my pride in front of my boyz, because I knew the details of this situation would come out on the south lawn! Don't you ever question how I feel about you!"

He flung the heavy front door open so hard that it banged against the side glass panels before it left its hinges, shattering what remained of them. "I'm taking your ass to the edge of the compound lights, and I'll pray that you live. But don't fucking call me, hear? What? Live in exile from you for four or five hundred years, if I'm lucky, or until I get dusted? I want you out of my system, Damali! So, don't start that shit, don't mess with me in dreams, do not go down memory lane and dredge up one of our encounters, especially not St. Lucia in your mind, or ever think about that last bite. Purge it. Don't even take that one to the grave. I can feel past the grave, remember, even if you're gone! Do not make my already jacked-up life a living hell. Fair? You know what this shit is like."

"I'm going after the key, Carlos. If I live, I'll do the best I can," she whispered, as the winds he called swept around him. "Because if I do accidentally think about us, it'll only be 'cause I couldn't help it. I'm human."

Carlos didn't say another word. He'd simply vanished. Weary from the confrontation, Damali looked at the mansion's front doors, which were still hanging off their hinges. She glanced around for the dogs, but they, too, were nowhere to be found. They didn't even growl when she walked deeper into the mansion, her gaze noting that the fissures in the walls, the broken-out windows, the shattered chandelier and banister posts, had not been repaired when Carlos vanished. This was bad. This was not Carlos. This was not how her man lived, or functioned.

Her feet moved on their own accord, drawing her deeper into the house, past the huge foyer, into the sumptuous living room, and then dining room, and she stood in the middle of the floor trying to figure out how to get down into his sealed lair. She'd never seen a trap door, or a way in - had only been transported in or out. Fact was, she wasn't even sure where he'd gone.

"Carlos!" she yelled out, causing an eerie echo. "I owe you an apology, and just want one more word. Five minutes, tops."

No response. She let her breath out hard. "Open the door."

Not even the breeze from outside circulated in the abandoned house. Men.

She plunged the Isis sword into the polished floor, put her dagger in her jeans' back pocket, and waited a moment before calling out again. "My team left me here with the Isis and you. That should count for something. Don't you at least want to know why?"

Slowly the large west wall fireplace began to dissolve, giving way to a black opening and marble steps. Only a narrow gap existed, and she quickly grabbed her blade and slipped through it. Immediately, total darkness surrounded her.

Twelve glowing eyes blinked, something let out a low grumbling growl, and an unseen mass before her parted, sending six eyes to either side of the opening. Not even the torches were on, and she let her breath out hard as she passed the invisible beasts to descend the stairs, feeling the wall.

She couldn't see a thing, and not even her night vision could help her. He'd obviously not just turned out the torches to create darkness, but had practically painted the air black. The oppressive density was suffocating, as she picked her way down the steps, and used her sword like a blind person uses a cane to detect furniture or foreign objects that might make her trip and fall.

Finally in some sort of clearing, she patiently gathered her thoughts, stood tall, and spoke as calmly as she could.

"Baby, listen - "

"Do not use that term of endearment," a sullen voice replied, reverberating off the walls. "Not on me."

"Okay," she murmured, leaning on her sword, trying to get a bead on where Carlos's unseeable form might be in the room. "That's fair."

Silence gathered the tension in the room as she formed her next verbal approach.

"I chose to come with you," she said slowly.

"Why, because they finally put your ass out?"

The voice had shifted, almost seemed to be circling her. She followed it blindly, trying to keep it in front of her and not at her back.

"They wouldn't have given me the Isis if they'd put me out, Carlos. You know better than that. It would be in my chest."

Again, silence, but she could tell he was thinking.

"Remember when you just told me that I had no concept about the bite... what the different ones meant?"

There was no answer, just a low snarl coming from the corner of the room.

"You rightfully got angry about my lack of understanding," she said, pressing on, her voice unfazed. "I should have trusted that you wouldn't go off with some stray female vamp. Yes, and I should have trusted you. Just give me a chance to explain the soul-sharing ceremony to you, so at least you know how it went down. I wasn't just playing with you, or working you," she said, resolute. "It is no less sacred than a mate bite, for a Neteru."

She waited, could hear the air crackle around her. "Just like I don't have full master awareness from your line because I'm not fully turned, you don't have full Neteru awareness from mine, because you haven't been fully turned. And at the time we did what we did to each other, I had about as much self control as you - none"

She could hear a heavy piece of furniture drag across the floor and smash into the wall. Good, at least she was getting some sort of reaction.

"You were warned about the dangers first, Damali. I wasn't!"

"Yeah, but see, that's just the thing, what I was doing to you wasn't dangerous. It would pull you closer to the Light, not - "

"In case you haven't already figured it out, pulling a master vampire toward the Light is lethal."

More furniture banged, but at least she was starting to be able to see. The foreign darkness was abating and giving way to the mere absence of light. She could make out the beginnings of shapes and forms and started to gain her bearings in the room, but he was still invisible.

"Carlos, seriously. There was only good intent when I held your hands and looked into your eyes. It was a pure rush of passion to give you only the best of me... but I never meant to hurt you. That consequence never even dawned on me, or I would have warned you."

"You should have given me the option, Damali."

"Baby, I was so turned on, so into what was happening between us... you've been there, right? I lost perspective."

When he didn't answer but just breathed out hard, she spoke more gently. Everything she was saying was true - that he had to feel. She spoke slowly and softly, trying to heal his wounded male ego. "I wanted everything you had to give, and wanted to give that right back from me to you."

"D... I don't want to talk about it, or go back to that, right now," the deep voice said, but with much less force. "What's done is done, and you're getting away from the subject at hand, namely, a solution."

"I'm not going to apologize for wanting a full life with you... a future, and normal, healthy babies one day... and friends and family all around, unafraid of creatures of the night preying on them... I refuse to apologize about the fact that ever since the day we met, I've wanted to be in your arms day and night, and - "

"I wanted all those things, too, but you took my pride in the transaction, girl," he said, cutting her off and materializing with his back to her. "My fucking respect. What good is a man with no respect?" He let his breath out hard. "My fucking nose ain't no better than Rider's now. No respect!"

"Respect?" This was some crazy man-shit that she knew she'd never figure out. Prowess bullshit was bad enough in normal human males, but she had no concept of what she'd be dealing with if she had to do circle logic with a master vampire. "Nadie duda de tu capacidad," she said as gently as possible.

"Oh, right, no one doubts my ability," he said in a low seethe, his angry breaths making his back expand and contract as he spoke. "You'd better stop trying to work me, D... talking to me in Spanish, and using that feminine bullshit on me. It won't work. Not tonight!"

Damali felt for the side of the lair bed and flopped down on it. She garnered her patience and drew from her human knowledge base, trying to soothe his wounded ego. "Baby, you're tripping. All your vampire senses are intact. Marlene was just... she was just pissed when she said all that. Rider was, too." Damali waved her arms about. "You can still do your vamp thing. There's nothing wrong with your nose, okay? And anyway, I would never disrespect you. Why would I do that - or want to be with some brother I didn't respect?"

"Not you," he snapped, finally whirling on her to face her. His eyes blazed red, flickering intermittently gold. "I'm a damned head of state! When I go to council meetings, I already have to stop my fucking heartbeat just to enter chambers. I can't go down there with the rest of my shit raggedy. They can't think I have any soft spots, least of all in my heart, woman. And you are disrespecting me by insisting on going after the seal and the key, with or without me. Are you crazy?"

Damali squinted at him in the darkness. Okay, point well taken about him having to keep up appearances in front of the other vampires, but saving humanity was nonnegotiable. She needed him on her side, for them to work as a team, and she was not going to allow him to give in to some unnecessary drama.

"I'm a Neteru - a head of state, too, if you will. A ruler. And, trust me, brother, I'm not supposed to have fangs."

She couldn't believe he was being so stubborn. "You've got problems?" she said, standing. "Yeah, well, I can tell you there's probably an angelic battalion up there ready to hand-deliver me to the other side. They're done. They'll probably drop-kick my butt into the pit, if this goes down wrong. I've temporarily disgraced my kind, too. But as long as we're both still in the game, we can make something positive and honorable come out of both our indiscretions. So what are we going to do about this shit?"

"I don't know," he muttered. "Mar can probably give you something or your system will purge it on its own. The good will purge the darkness, but the thing you forgot, Damali, is that the darkness can never completely banish the Light. It only works to your advantage, not mine. Metaphysics, baby, that's what this whole war is all about on the grand level. Remember?"

"And how is it not in your best interest to ultimately have the Light banish the darkness within you?" She put her hands on her hips, leaving the Isis on the bed, and looked at his now-solid image hard.

"I liked my powers," he said quietly. "All of them."

She didn't say a word, just stared at him.

"Girl, you know how I rolled. Even when I was alive, I always went top-shelf, was never no scrambler. I handled my business with authority. My territory was tight." He walked away from her, and raked his fingers through his hair down to the scalp. "There were things I wanted to give you, to show you, now my resources are all jacked up."

"You are going to have to explain that resource issue to me," she said, her voice firm, but also gentle. "And you know I never cared about - "

"That's the thing - you didn't; I did," he murmured. He turned and leaned against the wall, speaking to the floor. "You know, they tell young brothers to do the right thing... and yet, the options and results are really fucked up. Dead or alive, the people who say to do the right thing have the system rigged so that it's almost impossible to get your head above water by following their convoluted rules... rules that they never followed until after they'd gotten what they'd wanted." He glanced up and held her gaze while speaking in a far-off tone.

"I didn't have to become a vampire to see. A blind man could see it. I may not have been to college, but trust me, I've been schooled well. The powerful still plunder countries, neighborhoods, territories, for what they want to seize - by force. Robber barons, imperialists, mobsters turned presidents... then, they go legit. They've only cracked open the door to let a few not like them in, and under very controlled circumstances. Yeah, I messed up while alive, because I wanted the same power they had. I wanted the same respect. For me, then, like now, living or existing without that wasn't, and isn't, in my DNA."

For a moment, she had no answer for him. The world was indeed unfair; there was no argument about it. She knew what he was talking about, that's probably why she'd been created to tip the scales to bring forth the truth about a lot of things. Spoken word. However, getting sucked into the twisted game still wasn't the answer. What she knew she had to get across to him. Carlos had to understand that the real issue was in finding a way to flip the script without going dark oneself. Spiritual Jujitsu. Leverage the dark against itself so that something positive would come out of any negative situation that occurred.

"I hear you," she said after a while. "But there are a lot of ways to get and keep respect without doing the terrible things the oppressors of people have done. We saw how that messed up the were-demon in Brazil. You've gotta be creative, faster than them, smarter than them. You have been dead long enough to see where that leads, so why - "

"Because as a woman, you will never understand this thing that men need called respect." He looked up at her, his eyes hard but his tone calm and logical. "I liked being able to provide for me and mine," he said flatly. "I liked having motherfuckers step out of my path, afraid. Yeah." He pushed himself off the wall and stood proud. "I liked being able to take my woman wherever knowing that I could afford to get her anything she wanted; even if she didn't want a thing, it was, and always has been, about power. Dead or alive. I do not like going anywhere with a question in my mind about what if. I must have total control of my shit."

"All right," she said, losing patience. "Then who's to say you don't have more power now?" She swept her arm out, motioning toward the room. "What has changed, except your level of confidence?"

"Ain't nothing wrong with my confidence," he snarled, folding his arms over his chest.

"You haven't even expended the energy to fix the house after you went off. Got the damned dogs locked in your lair - "

"They need a hundred and eighty pounds of raw flesh a night to keep fed, and my resources could be - "

"Why? What's messed with your resources? Not me."

He grumbled and walked away from her. "If I want to go somewhere, I want to be able to roll with authority. I can't have some lower-level try me because they sense a power fluctuation or dip. Right now, because I have been messing with you, and not handling my business, my borders are raggedy, I don't have a strong inner circle to depend on if some madness jumps off, and - "

"Stop this male bullshit now!" she shouted, walking up to him, then stomping away. She was so angry with him for being so shortsighted that she almost couldn't speak. Words collided inside her head, nearly making her stutter, they wouldn't come out fast enough.

"They took my Isis from me, Carlos. You don't think that rocked my confidence and hurt my pride? I have to earn back my team's trust, rightfully so. I lost in this transaction; you gained. The Light always adds, the darkness always subtracts - basic cosmic law, metaphysics, or don't you remember?"

"How," he said, slapping his chest, "did I gain anything but aggravation and grief from all this drama, D? Tell me!"

"You have just been made the baddest mutha in the valley, and you are telling me I jacked your power? Brother, pulleeease!"

She stormed away from him again. "If you can't, then I'll feed your fucking dogs. What? They each need a vamp body a night? Done. No problem, and on my agenda anyway." She grabbed her Isis blade off the bed, huffing as she spoke. "What I gave you allows you to cross prayer barriers, walk on hallowed ground, and dulls the blood hunger! No other vampire on the planet can do that - oh, my bad! And so what if you like the way I smell, and it turns you on - my bad. But when you get like that, your ass still gets as strong as shit. Ask me how I know."

She leveled her blade at him, speaking from across the room, both because she needed space to think, and because she had to resist the urge to gore him. "Silver probably won't even burn you! And you're mad at me because I gave you that extra immunity? Oh, and you've got an attitude because you've been around ripening Neteru so much that you've built up a semi-tolerance - it doesn't get you cold blitzed, like it will any other master vamp? My bad!"

The look of surprise in his eyes grated her. Torches went on in the room, and his eyes flickered gold, then went normal deep brown.

"That's deep," he said slowly. "I, uh - "

"You and I are supposed to go to Australia to clean out that major nest, together to bring the stolen key back to the church - "

"Are you nuts?" he said quickly. "You still wanna go, with me, after all this?"

"Yes, to both questions. I am crazy and I want to go."

Neither of them spoke, but just stared at each other in a standoff.

"First of all, I'd need an international pass. You don't just roll up as a head of state on another territory unannounced. This ain't Brazil," Carlos finally replied, his tone irritable. "The empire is currently in a fragile peacetime truce. We have borders, and there's just basic protocol. Respect, master to master. And how am I going to keep you - "

"We work as a team," she said, lowering her blade. Her breathing was becoming steadier as she realized she'd broken down a bit of his resistance. "Look, I don't have to obey you just because you temporarily made me. I'm not that kinda girl," she said, swallowing away a sly smile that was about to cross her mouth. "I'm going to Australia, with or without you. But I'd prefer to go with you."

"Why are you so stubborn? Just determined to keep baiting disaster until you get yourself smoked."

"Because you messed around and bit a Neteru, not some average Jane. So learn to work with the Light, and get as strong using it as you've gotten while leveraging the dark. Use the new shit you've got to make you mo' betta, man. As your partner, I'll show you some new moves that are actually pretty cool."

Indignant, he walked toward her. "See, right here, is the major problem. We can't be partners, because you have never listened to me, and don't follow my lead when - "

She shook her head and made him stop speaking.


"That's not the definition of an equal, somebody to do what you say, just 'cause." Damali let out a short huff, now totally indignant herself. "You didn't want a love slave. You wanted an intelligent partner." She drew out the word for emphasis and thrust her chin up higher. "You wanted somebody who could work the room as good as you can, who was smooth, had finesse, and could go out swinging. Right? Am I lying?"

He gave her a grudging smile as he cut his eyes at her.

"I thought so," she said, triumphant. "That's what you asked the universe for and you got that. Now deal with it." A slight smile came out of hiding on his face. "The power of prayer is deep."

"Do not ever mention that again. It ain't right, D, and you know it. Not even in front of my dogs, and definitely not over with the Aussies!"

They held each other's line of vision, neither breaking eye contact nor conceding.

Carlos finally let out a weary sigh. "I'd be going over there without an entourage. They'd know the moment we got there that you were still vulnerable, still human. Not to mention that, after the Raise the Dead concert, every vamp on the planet knows who you are, okay."

She cast the blade onto the bed. Both hands went to her hips, and she cocked her head to the side in a challenge. "So, when we were in bed in St. Lucia, and you were leaning on me, breathing hard on my throat saying, 'Yeah, baby, I'll help you dust whoever you want, whenever you want,' was that just a love-jones talking, or - "

He held up his hand. "No, see, that's just the thing, D. I figured we'd take our time, that bad idea might work its way out of your - "

"You never intended to go hunting with me, tell the truth! And you hid critical information from me, then jump on my case because I don't trust you?" Her neck bobbed as she leveled the charge. "Lying ass, no-good vampire - "

"See, you got this all twisted, girl. I'm the one right now who's got the right to have an attitude, not you, and besides, half of a good ruse is presentation, subterfuge, illusion. Gotta have strong game to do an international hit. They'd wanna know where my bodyguards were, if I tried to pass you off as a vamp."

"In the other battles," she said coolly, studying her fingers like she'd seen him do so many times before, "we took the male approach. Direct force. Let's use some feminine wiles. That type of energy has felled nations, brother. Use my flux to your advantage to mess with their minds. You down?"

Intrigued, he walked around her, studying her, but unconvinced. He wasn't sure if it was Damali's street sense talking, her vamp self, or her crazy go-for-broke Neteru self. Whatever it was, he didn't like how she'd flipped the script on him. Female master or not, this was some tricked-up woman-type circle logic. "Talk to me."

"What kind of message do you think it would send if you came into town with only two Hell-dogs and your woman... the Neteru, who you'd turned?"

He rubbed his jaw, working the strategy like worry beads.

"To my way of thinking, Carlos, they'd have to assume that if you had the hounds, then you were authorized by the council to turn me, and if it was an accident, then you were still in their favor. You'd be going in-country not as a visiting master, but a council-level master who'd turned the Neteru. Big props. Plus, if I show up with fangs, and you haven't been smoked by council, then they might think you're in possession of the seal. They'd have to believe that if the Neteru, the council's only source of daywalkers, was turned and council was cool with it, then you had an ace up your sleeve. It raises a big question, which raises the odds. They won't want to assassinate you or me until they know what you're holding for sure, which buys us time to find the key and do them before they try to do us. Before they try to smoke either of us, they'll want to know if you or council already has the seal."

Satisfied that her statement had given him sufficient pause, she chuckled. "All you have to do is tell the old boys at the council you're using my intermittent fluctuations as a cover so no other master will try to tamper with their package, and so that they'll think council may have access to the seal. Tell them that you're using the human Guardian team to actually search for the key on hallowed ground, where the human helpers have probably stashed it so no other master but the thief can get to it. Since you have us all compromised, tell them you'll use me to lead you to it once it's been located."

Carlos cocked his head and peered at her. "And what if you flux pure human while we're in Australia and start trailing Neteru..."

"Tell the other masters that it's something I still wear for you. Just a female vampire illusion that I still have access to, since it was a part of my DNA when I died." Damali chuckled and shook her head. "Talk about creating chaos..."

Carlos drew in a deep inhale and walked away from her. "The plan is crazy, but has distinct possibilities."

Damali shrugged. "Then?"

"Coupla things worry me. Like, number one - we'd have to stay in the host master's lair estate. The walls would have ears, and I'd only be able to communicate with you in a mind lock."


"Uh-uh. And stay in the same room with you all night like a happily mated couple?"

"And?" she said, her hands still on her hips. "It's part of our cover. It's true, but not true. Perfect."

"I do not need to be distracted like that. I'm council level, D, and we're talking about drawing four masters to one meeting. They distrust each other so much that they rarely cross each other's lines topside, fearing a power grab hit that could fold their territory up under another master. Any of those bastards would attempt a council assassination to get a throne seat. That's why the old boys do not come up from Hell." He let his breath out hard, thoroughly annoyed with her shortsightedness.

When she didn't answer right away, he felt vindicated and spoke with more authority, less emotion. Yeah, baby, welcome to my world.

"If we're sleeping in the same bed, and I get with you while we're there, they could smoke us in the throes. I'm not going out like that and neither are you. I won't allow it," he said, growing more agitated as he began walking again. "If we're making love, I'll be vulnerable to an assassination attempt."

"All right. No sex while we're on the road. You set the rules of engagement. Your next point?"

Exasperated, he glared at her. "Second, we'd have to eat while there. They always roll out the red carpet for VIPs, would have a banquet, blood feasts, shit like that, and you'd never be able to deal with it. If they bring us a baby, or a child, you'll freak... we both will."

"Okay. Point taken." She moved in close to him, and breathed out her response. "So I'll simply tell them that I don't do children, take it away and let it live, I had a bad experience with one once, I'm eccentric, still, old Neteru perversions in me, which is why you love my twisted ways. Then I'll come to you and - "

"Uh-uh," he said, backing away from her. "I don't do public displays of affection, and definitely not in front of another master."

"See, here again, this is where male ego is messing you up." Damali folded her arms. "What is more powerful than making them think you have your woman so in check that she won't even feed from another vein or source?"

He stopped pacing and looked at her dead-on.

"Baby," she murmured. "I promise you I will slide up against you when they bring the blood, will give you a look that will stop your heart, and go to you in public like I just can't stand it and the other masters there will have much respect. Trust me. They won't be able to retract fang when I'm done."

For a moment, he didn't speak. She could see a combination of emotions battling for dominance within him.

"And what if you've fluctuated and don't have fangs?" he said coolly, regaining his composure.

"When I come away from your throat, there won't even be a mark, not a drop of blood, just the wet ring from my kiss. They'll say, 'Dayum, Rivera, you taught her to finesse you like that?'" Damali laughed and threw her locks over her shoulders. "I know men. Ain't much changed since Eve hit the planet. They'll go for it."

That was no lie. Her just saying what she might do had almost made his incisors come down. The plan was brilliant, but it still contained a lot of variables. "The sun," he said, ticking off new points on his fingers, determined to stay annoyed with her.

"I'll only go out at night. They'll never know, which is best for me to do, anyway, until my system levels off."

"Your image goes in and out and we could get busted."

"Tell them you project a false one for me while we're out, because I still make good money for you and have unaware human fans."

"What? Like I'm your pimp? Are you crazy - "

"You own a music empire, remember? Blood Records." She rolled her eyes at him. "You're supposed to be as rotten as they come, evil," she said, chuckling. "I'm your turned-out female at your beck and call. Damn, I may have messed you up after all. That one was pretty obvious."

"That shit is not funny, D," he said, now hollering as he pointed at her. "You're fucking relentless when you want something, won't take no for an answer, and this time you're dancing on the edge of disaster."

"See, now, I must have gotten that relendess-when-there's-something-I-want-that-I'm-not-supposed-to-have part from you. Hmmm... dancing on the edge... I believe that was in both our bloodstreams going into this mess."

"You are out of your mind," he said, seething and walking away again.

"Just tell them you've quietly pulled my production company under your label, and the general public doesn't need to know that. When I do concerts, the cash hits your coffers."

"Okay, right there," he said quickly. "How are we gonna pull that off, especially if you cast an image on the one hand, which will alert the vamps in the VIP boxes, or if you don't, which will really freak out the networks?"

"I don't know," she said, chewing her bottom lip as she thought. "Maybe we can tell the vamps that you're projecting from a human body double that my team uses for the videos over my voice. I can tell J.L. and Jose to edit a compilation from other concerts," she said, growing quiet. "When the local cameras scan me, you can block out what the masters will see."

"But even I can't do shit about what really broadcasts." He walked away from her. Damali wasn't crazy; she was insane. If they broadcasted the edited videos to fill in a lot of the time, swept the stage with a narrow pan, and held the cameras on the other team members, then went back to video clips... maybe. But there could be disastrous moments when she'd either appear, or not. Plus, this whole thing required tight choreography that the evaporating time didn't allow for. Her team wasn't even speaking to her, so how was she gonna practice this bull? That was the problem this stubborn woman was overlooking. Too risky.

He could feel her mind wrestling with the challenge, instead of giving in to the fact that some things just weren't prudent. "Besides," he went on, "you can't do the whole Bring the Light thing up there, anyway, and try to pass yourself off as a female vampire. That's a big stretch, D. For real."

"Why?" Her tone was flippant and her eyes glittered with mischief. "I'll stand back from the libations pouring, can ask Mar to go easy on the incense. You and your boys will be in a VIP box away from it, anyway. Tell them it's just business, box office draw. Then I can do my thing, yeah, without the silver suit, but I can give the crowd a new song to fill in for it and to appease the vamps, one that's been working in my head. Will blow the vamps' minds, and make them overly confident that I am what I seem to be. Illusion. Theater. Meanwhile, if we take out a few heads of state, your territory just increased again. You'll be the only topside master left standing."

She had her hands on her hips again, but not in defiance, just deep thought. She then rubbed the nape of her neck and began pacing. "Yeah. Flip the script. Nuit was going to take out the whole human race with one concert, let's take what we learned from him and put it to some good use. One concert to draw all the masters, you sense for deception, sniff them out to see which one stole the key and where it is, then we get Berkfield back and dust the entire topside vamp empire." She smiled. "We give the key back and topple the empire."

Even as he walked away from her into the kitchen toward the taps, he knew this was a bad idea. The amount of power she was talking about temporarily amassing under his control was sure to corrupt him. What bothered him more was the fact that he was even struggling with the concept of doing a power grab. That she'd come up with the plan, one so freaking devious that it had made him look at her twice, hard, to see if she had fangs, also worried him. What if she did? Permanent ones? He had laid his thing down pretty hard...

But if she wasn't darkening, contained within her wild scheme was blind trust. She trusted that he was worthy of amassing the power, and would do what, cede it to the Light? Insane. What if it got too good to him, and he couldn't? And the fact that he worried that she might have a dark side and decide to let the chips fall where they may to share the dark rule, worried him just as much. This was too crazy. She'd polluted him and had given him a damned conscience!

He could feel her following him, almost skipping; her step was so brisk to keep up with his long strides to get away from her. No, he was not having it. What she wanted to do presented too much of a risk. It was too bold, too crazy, too off the meter. Extreme. If she wanted to bring down the vampire nations, she needed to pace herself, be strategic, do it methodically, one brick at a time, just like he'd built his territory while still living. You just didn't rush in and do things all buck wild. That's how people got hurt. That's how she might get smoked.

"I'm not arguing with you, D," he said, his back to her as he filled a glass, knowing she was leaning on the kitchen door frame.

"Don't care 'bout the changes I go through for this man of mine," she said, her voice sexy, deep, melodic, as she began performing her new spoken-word cut for the vamps at the kitchen entry. "It ain't really a change, just a bittersweet transition... from time to time."

"No, woman, I told you!"

"They have no idea what crossing over in his arms is like - "


"Will make you leave Momma's house in the dead of night."

He wheeled on her, and set his jaw hard. "Cut it out. I'm serious." She wasn't fighting fair, was using all of her theatrical talent, and a whole lot of the others she possessed. Even though he swore he'd wring her neck instead of watching her, for a few moments she was winning the standoff; he was the one strangling on a hard swallow.

Damali pushed herself off the door frame, filling the divide as she held her head back and belted out the lyrics, working her body around an invisible floor microphone, then began walking in the small confines with it. "Can't stop, this sweet transition. Can't play with bittersweet madness. Can't resist, but don't judge till you've felt the burn... talk to me, baby, I'm ready to learn. It ain't wrong; it ain't right, just real. Give it up on demand. Pleasure coats the pain when you're with this man. So don't ask about my changes, just try to understand. It's a bittersweet transition that's like a brand."

When she closed her eyes and ran her palm down her torso on the last stanza, he was determined to warn her for the last time before transporting her out of his lair. But somehow what was supposed to be a harsh tone sounded half-hearted, even to him. "I'm serious, D."

"So am I," she murmured. "I want to go to Australia and do this thing. I think this new song will blow them away."

He knew it would, but that was not the point. "You're not doing that number on stage in front of my boys. No."

"Good, isn't it?"

Her eyes glittered with such mischief that he wanted to slap her. Instead he put his hands behind his back to keep from doing that, or anything else.

"Together, we're strong enough to take 'em, you know that. And, hopefully, you can tell the old boys that one or two of them reached for your package, which they probably will, so, a man had to do what a man had to do. Or that I had to plant the blade to protect my honor, since I'm so crazy about you. Meanwhile, we'll tell them that in the melee, the seal's whereabouts were never found, and the key got snatched by human forces and delivered to hallowed ground before either of us could get to it. That will make them have to go back to relying on me to be their only vessel in seven years, and we just bought ourselves some more time, brother. I don't see how this can fail."

She smiled when he didn't answer. "It would be the truth, Carlos, they just wouldn't understand the intent. But it's a lovely setup, don't you think?"

Still he didn't answer her, just stared at her. The treachery of her mind was messing with him, big time. It was so damned sexy, utterly defiant, and thoroughly brilliant...

"What you see was always in me," she murmured, going into her song again, and coming toward him slowly with a smile. "Couldn't hold back - no woman would. Wasn't that much of a stretch... just gotta work around the changes... like a bittersweet transition... from time to time."

He didn't move, nearly forgot he was holding his glass, but lifted his chin up, refusing to drop fang in front of her. What had he gotten himself into?

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