Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Seventeen

The wait in the grand parlor was interminable. Evelyn's talk about home decoration, coupled with innuendo about the agreed upon post-concert tryst, was drilling a hole into Damali's brain. But that wasn't as bad as having to continue to strategically reposition herself during the conversation just to get away from McGuire's blatant advances.

When he finally left the room to join the other males in his study - so they could casually carve up the world over cigars and blood-spiked brandy - Damali sat hard on the sofa, exhaustion making her limbs feel heavy. She was too tired to delicately turn aside any more sly propositions, offers, and/or seductions.

And if the males were all drawing straws on the fate of the world, then naturally the wives gathered to chitchat about the merits of suckling baby as a delicacy versus pre-pubescent boys. But she wasn't fooled into thinking that this was a wickedly genteel meeting of the vampire ladies' home and garden club. There was some serious power pulsing throughout this room.

Not to mention, the other ambassadors' wives were so cool toward her that they were straight-up icy. Mistress Xe was on the far side of the room sipping blood from a cordial glass, careful not to stain her white linen sundress. Mistress Tetrosky sat next to Evelyn on the love seat, carefully smoothing her impeccably tailored navy and white summer skirt ensemble. She spoke only to the Aussie first lady, practically ignoring all the other first ladies in the room, and acting as though Damali wasn't there, which forced Evelyn to work hard to continue drawing Damali into a conversation she didn't want to be in anyway.

But Mistress Amin was blatant with her distain. She flashed a bit of fang as she brushed nonexistent lint from her coral-hued linen wrap-dress and passed Damali to take a seat in the overstuffed Queen Anne chair by the fireplace. The whole gathering looked like a Beverly Hills tea party.

Damali stood and went to the elaborate bookshelf and began scanning the volumes. She wasn't crazy. Even though she'd turned her back to them, her guard was up. She had to let them know she wasn't afraid of them and by turning her back on them sent the message - just try it.

What did vampires read, anyway, she wondered, zoning out on the boring madness the pampered pets of diplomats were discussing. She wanted so badly to be in the room with the big boys, at the table, hardball negotiating, witnessing how Carlos handled himself at high-stakes poker.

"And we want to thank you so much, Evelyn, for providing the human helper in our room. That was a lovely appetizer before the banquet tonight. Ursula and I got on famously. And can you imagine, she was begging to be turned?"

Damali cringed. But she felt much better knowing that at least it hadn't been a baby. If some human adult had made a choice to roll with these predators, then, hey, that was their choice. But what choice or chance did a little baby have?

She caught Mistress Xe eyeing her from the far side of the room.

"Yes, Evelyn," Mistress Xe said, her voice like silk. "The way you bound her hands and let her dangle from a wall hook over the crystal blood decanter was so clever." She gave Damali a nasty smile. "Some people do not appreciate the finer things in life."

Was that bitch signifying? Damali glanced over her shoulder and let the comment pass.

"Where did you find the women, Evelyn?" Mistress Amin said, her eyes on Damali the entire time she spoke. "A brothel?"

Again, Damali ignored her.

"Mistress Rivera," the sheer blonde from Transylvania said, "you didn't enjoy your plaything?"

"I had a baby earlier, and that was enough," Damali muttered, and tried to focus on the bookcase.

When dead silence surrounded her, Damali turned around and stared at them.

"Decorum, ladies," Evelyn said, her expression nervous, tight, and on-guard.

Mistress Xe walked deeper into the center of the room, anger heating her words. "You offered her a baby?"

Mistress Amin was on her feet. "I am highly offended, Evelyn! How could you present her with such a delicacy like that and snub the other wives?"

"She's the councilman's wife," Evelyn said nervously. "Some things are protocol, ladies. To do any less would be a grave offense."

Standing quickly, Mistress Tetrosky folded her arms over her chest and sneered down at Evelyn. "Wait until Gustav hears about this. I never - " She spun on Damali, her eyes blazing. "Someone of her ilk would know nothing about what to do with a suckling infant."

Oh, yeah... it was on. Damali could feel a very dark part of herself concentrating, being amplified by the oppressive energies in the castle, and drawing power from every cell in her body all the way to the marrow. It was such an old rage, so visceral, and so familiar, one she'd lived with as a child, people thinking they were better than her for no other reason than the accident of birth. It was as though the castle itself was bringing out the worst in her. And then she realized that it wasn't just the environment, these bitches had been quietly working on her head.

"Her, Evelyn?" Mistress Xe hissed, adding more venom to her argument. "I can trace my lineage all the way back to the Ming Dynasty, and Alani can go back to Kemet! Kiersten hails from the time before the Druids." Her gaze narrowed on Damali as she pointed at her. "And this little bitch probably doesn't even know who her own mother or grandmother was - just like you Aussies can't go back worth a damn!"

An image slammed into Damali that brought tears to her eyes. One of the females had shown her her mother in the dirt, crying and screaming in the driveway of their home on her hands and knees, pleading for her father to come back. Instantly, another hurtful image slammed into Damali's mind. She tried to ward it off, but her mother's ritual to call up Nuit came crashing into her head. Just as that image faded, she saw her foster father coming at her, then his face blurred and became her father's with fangs.

"She comes from pure human trash," Mistress Li said with a sly smile, "and you wasted a baby on her?"

The rage that had been building within Damali propelled her forward, stole her will, and eclipsed all judgment. They were talking about her dead parents - a real sore subject. Worse, they'd gotten into her mind. The tears burned away. Bad form, as Evelyn called it, from where she came from, too. Mass gathered in her bloodstream. Yeah, from her world a nasty comment about your momma meant a sho' nuff beat down. But laughing at her family tragedy wasn't even done among vamps of the same level, so she'd been told. Instantly, the image of Carlos with the were-demon in Brazil shot into her mind's eye. Oh, no... they had not taken her there... They'd thrown down the gauntlet. If she let this pass, they'd attack her for sure. Something within her snapped like a twig. It was on.

"Who you calling a bitch, bitch?"

Instantly, Lai Xe transformed. Suddenly she had six arms, three on each side, and her head moved hypnotically from side to side with a serpent's grace.

Evelyn was on her feet in a flash. "Ladies, please, let's not ruin - "

"Shut up, Evelyn," Alani Amin snarled, transforming instantly. What had once been a regal, statuesque beauty was now a fanged creature with the woman's face, but crouched low, the upper body of a woman, lower body of a lion, a twitching spaded tail, and large leathery wings.

Damali didn't move. It wasn't fear that held her, but strategy. If they'd transformed into forms stronger than regular vamp females with fangs, it meant that they were unsure of her strength. She watched them. They seemed to be waiting for her to show them her best shape-shift. Damali smiled. The fact that she was holding non-fang-bearing human form was messing with their minds. She could feel it as they began posturing for an attack, using the transformative abilities like were-demons from the realms above level six.

"I've had enough of this human scented pretender to the throne," Mistress Tetrosky roared, then threw her head back, shot a funnel of fire, and transformed into a griffin. "No council-level master should be tethered to a low-bred bitch like this - a waste of a valuable male resource in the empire!"

She didn't care what they'd turned into, there was nothing more dangerous than a pissed-off sister from 'round the way. Then Evelyn reluctantly dropped to all fours and transformed into a crocodile. Oh, so it was like that? Punk whore. She was supposed to have her back, had practically asked outright to go down on her in the parlor. But when it came time to stand her ground, Evelyn was with her girls.

Damali gripped the Isis handle so tightly that she could feel her palm bleed. Every affront she'd ever experienced, every clique she'd been shunned from, and every humiliation ever thrust upon her, galvanized in one central battle cry. "Bring it, bitch!"

Damali threw her head back, her voice now a weapon of its own, blood-spiked colors behind her shut lids. She could feel something happening to her, a bloodlust ramping into a vampiric flux, and the sensation was both disorienting and exhilarating at the same time. Her heart stopped for a second and then beat an erratic seizure against her breastbone, her gums ripped, and when she opened her eyes to lunge, she saw the females before her backing up. Near-stroke-level fury made her shudder as her voice drew density, velocity. The air began to stain red, then mix with an eerie purple magenta fusion. Male vampires instantly came through the walls into the room from all directions, forming a ring at the outskirts. Carlos rushed toward her and then stopped within a few feet of her. Their male presence, fangs in full battle mode, dredged a rage-induced scream which she let loose at the top of her lungs.

The huge bay window blew out, the bookcase rippled and shed its thick leatherbound classics like missiles, and the chandelier quaked and began separating from the ceiling. Tiffany lamps exploded as Damali's line of vision swept every male protecting a female vamp in the room, sending shards of colored glass everywhere.

Words seized in her throat, she couldn't draw in enough air fast enough as the rage almost made her levitate off the ground.

"You bitches have no concept of who you are fucking with tonight!"

Instantly, the Hell-hounds flew through the window, snarling and barking, sensing she was in danger, making the group back up, as they landed between Carlos and Damali, and the others, holding the other masters at bay.

"Go back on guard," Damali shouted at the animals, making them give her a confused glance, but then they sulked away and took flight out of the window.

"Baby..." a low, too-serene male voice said.

She whirled on the speaker. "Fuck detente!"

Carlos stepped back. Damali reached out her hand toward Mistress Tetrosky, her will pulling her from across the room. It was a standoff for a second, the woman trembling between them as her husband's hold loosened, and Damali's gained more strength against the magnetic force her husband was struggling to maintain to keep the woman at his side. A loud crack sounded as though a tree limb had been felled. Instantly, Damali drew the Transylvanian diplomat's wife from across the room, grabbed her throat, gripping it, causing her to transform back into the fragile blonde. Damali body slammed her on the Oriental carpet, raised the Isis with both hands tight at the handle, and stood over her, legs apart with the Isis pointed toward the center of the female vampire's chest.

"I may not be able to trace back to the Druids, bitch, but I will tell you this: your ass will respect me! And when you disrespect me, you disrespect my man - and that I ain't having from none of y'all!"

"Damali, baby..." Carlos said, very carefully.

Damali took two deep breaths, then angrily stepped away, grumbling about the momma comment. She stalked away from the female vamp and allowed her to scramble back to her husband's side. She looked at the Transylvanian master hard. "You'd better keep that bitch in check." She paced back and forth like a caged animal in front of the sofa, her gaze narrowing on the African diplomat's wife as she huddled against her man.

As Damali railed, the air in the room got darker and darker with the deep magenta-purple stain of her rage. Damali stalked back to the bookcase, punched it, making four more volumes fall as a shelf splintered, and then came back to the center of the room. What had begun as strategic theater had gotten a stranglehold on her. It was as though the castle and the mind dredge combined with the eminent threat all around her was producing an incredible flux between ultimate Neteru battle mode and vamp attack.

Try as she might, she couldn't stop herself. Words formed in her mouth and she spat them out as the strange flux imploded within her system.

Hot tears from years of bottled-up anger streamed down her face. But when Carlos stepped forward, she leveled her blade at him and he stood very, very still.

"I have always been more than what people see, and dead or alive that still holds true!" She moved in a slow semicircle before the group, the tip of her blade bouncing from the energy running the length of her arm, down the blood groves, and arcing a current at the end of it. "I am a female master. I am the night itself to you whores. I am my own woman, equal to any master in this fucking room, and I won't tolerate disrespect."

With that she flipped the Isis blade so the point was to the floor and rammed it into the polished stone beneath the rug. She glanced up at Carlos, and then at her clothes with disdain, and instantly changed into a T-shirt and a pair of fatigues and combat boots. "I refuse to ride in the choppers and be a spectator. I want a Jeep, a driver, and a helluva serious load of ammo."

"Councilman Rivera," McGuire said slowly, not moving from his wife's side. "It's too dangerous - "

Before he could finish the sentence, Damali was standing in front of McGuire. "Why are you talking to him? He doesn't run me, I choose to be with him. So you speak the fuck to me when I ask you a question. I am so tired of the paternalistic bullshit, McGuire, I will rip your punk heart out myself - and I'm supposed to come to your room? Pullease."

The other masters stared at McGuire, their gazes slowly raking him, then Damali, before settling upon Carlos.

"If the lady isn't pleased with your choice, Councilman," Master Amin said, his eyes devouring Damali, "perhaps she would feel less agitated if you sent her to me?"

McGuire cast a nervous glance at Damali. "You're not reconsid - "

"Get me a damned hunt car. Now!" she shouted, anger pulsing through her. "This is not open for discussion!"

"Mr. Councilman," the Transylvanian master said, his voice serious, his eyes watery as he sniffed hard and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "She must place a wager, if - "

Suddenly Tetrosky's head jerked back as though he'd been slapped. The sound of a hard strike echoed throughout the room, and the circle widened, each couple moving back as Damali walked forward, brushing past Carlos.

Her eyes narrowed and from a place of unknowing, words gathered, formed, translated, and were issued forth in a language she'd never been taught.

I told you to address me directly. Damali placed her hands on her hips. Tetrosky rubbed his jaw, his eyes on her as he shunted his wife aside, eyes glowing red, fangs now dripping saliva. I have something to wager. If anyone's gonna bet my ass, it's me, not him! she said, pointing back toward Carlos. You man enough? Winner takes all. London, if I win; first night after the hunt with me alone in your lair, if you win.

"You've taught her Dananu?" Tetrosky murmured, awe in his voice, his eyes riveted on Damali.

"She's a master," Carlos said quietly, pride lacing his comment. "She picked it up on her own."

Tetrosky walked forward, reached into his breast pocket, and pulled out a thin scroll of parchment. He held the wager document for a moment, his eyes raking Damali as he took a liberal inhale, unrolled it with flair and caused a pop to echo through the room, and pressed his crest ring to his own wrist vein until it bled into the insignia.

Staring at Damali, he then stamped the document hard, leaving his bloody seal. The document sizzled where he'd left his mark, then the seal bubbled, raised, and dried to a consistency of cooled wax. With desire emanating from him like a slow strobe, he extended the document to her, hands trembling, his storm-gray eyes never leaving hers.

When Damali snatched the ancient stationery from him and pulled her Isis dagger from her hip pocket, the Transylvanian master visibly shuddered. She slowly slit her palm with the baby Isis, dipped her insignia ring of Carlos's territory in her blood and stamped his paper hard, and thrust it back to him. Tetrosky dropped to his knees, leaned his head back, and opened his arms, closing his eyes. "Slit my throat and take London..."

Damali narrowed her eyes. "Gladly. Later."

"Promise me... if I win." His voice was gravelly, thick and hoarse.

"Yeah, whateva. I'll cut your heart out in there if you keep fucking with me." Damali gave his wife Kiersten a triumphant glance as she walked away from the Transylvanian and he stood slowly with his wife's help. But she waited, somehow knowing that she needed a parchment, too, to make it legit. And as soon as she thought it, a stripe of fire opened in thin air before her, and a duplicate scroll vomited from it like a Hell-sent fax.

Damali shook her head as she reached for the parchment, ripping it away from the sulfur slit, which immediately closed once the agreement was removed. She read it over carefully as she walked. Slimy, cheating bastards to the very end - like she wasn't smart enough to know that if it wasn't in writing, the agreement didn't exist. Hell always had a contract.

"Am I in the game, boys, or what?" She went up to the African diplomat and raked him with a hot gaze until his wife moved from his side, her eyes blazing with fury. "You in? Madagascar for a night? I like the beach."

"Madagascar, Ghana, Senegal, the Middle Passage routes... Name it." He wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his forearm and sniffed hard. He came toward her in a slow, seductive lope, held her gaze with a sensual aura thickening the air around her, and slowly dragged a cut the length of his palm with a fang. He let the blood ooze into the cup of his hand, first staring at it and then slowly bringing his gaze up to hold hers, and dipped his ring in it. "Any time, Huntress," he murmured, his voice husky. "My territory is very large. Trust me."

Damali nodded and stamped his parchment. "Size matters," she said, her eyes roving him. "If they told you different, brother, they lied."

"I'll put South Africa on the table, too," he said, moving closer to her.

"That's a fair trade, since there's never been a female master topside in your existence. If I lose, then I'll have to make it worth your while for the sizeable territory wagered." She gave him a sly smile. "Put it in writing, motherfucker." Then she glanced at McGuire as her copy spit from scorched air. "Don't worry, I haven't given your night away, but you'll have to earn it the old-fashioned way, no side deals - say, the Outback?"

He glanced at Carlos nervously. "The Outback?"

"Maybe you didn't hear the woman," Carlos said calmly. "She told you to talk to her. This is her negotiation, not mine. I traded for Tasmania and Indonesia. Apparently, the territory I'd bet wasn't mine wholesale as majority owner. My bad. I'll throw in the Hawaiian Islands, and a coupla Caribbean ones instead."

McGuire nodded. "The Outback... worth every square inch of her."

She walked away from the African diplomat, accepted McGuire's deal with a rip from the air, and looked at the Asian master. He was taking in long, steady breaths and his eyes were now closed. Perspiration dotted his brow, and he spoke methodically as though struggling to breathe. "Hong Kong, Tibet... Name it."

"For your ass, both," Damali said, her voice tight as she remembered his wife's disrespect.

With lightning swiftness he struck his wife's cheek with a backhanded slap that caused her to fall to her knees, instantly filling his crest with her blood, and then calmly walked up to Damali and presented her with his parchment to stamp. "Worthy competitor," he said, deadly sexuality threading through every word, "she has lost face, and therefore my favor. I add Vietnam... so that when you lose to me, no disrespect will linger to shadow our evening."

Damali allowed her voice to drop to a seductive octave as she accepted the paper from him, her stamp hovering over it. "Skill is also something a lady can't take for granted." She stared at him, watching his inhales slow to a standstill and then suddenly deepen. "What good is size," she murmured, "if you don't know how to work it?"

"I assure you the cadre of skills I possess from several thousand years of vast dynasties will make you feel as though you had won the match. I add North Korea."

"Throw in Japan, because, as I said, size does matter, baby... and I promise you I won't remember jack about what your bitch wife had to say to me."


When she stamped his parchment and thrust it against his chest, he closed his eyes and accepted it, taking a moment before stepping away from her. Then she calmly strolled away from him, accepting another bargain from the air.

Her gaze raked the group as she stuffed the papers into the back pocket of her pants, taking her time, knowing that they could feel her ass as their papers slid against it through her fatigues. She put away her dagger and folded her arms over her chest, satisfied. "What's a girl gotta do to get a drink around here?"

Tetrosky ripped the collar of his T-shirt under his flack jacket away from his throat and walked forward, but stopped suddenly at Carlos's low, warning growl.

"I am not that progressive," Carlos said to Tetrosky, then he gave Damali a threatening glare. His mind seized hers in a hard private message. Yeah, baby. You got game. But do not even think about disrespecting me like that in front of my masters!

He let her go mentally and then produced a black bottle, holding it tightly by the neck. She gave him a blase shrug when he tossed it to her and she caught it. But he didn't say a word while watching as she opened it easily with her thumb and turned it up to her mouth and swallowed. The private chat still held a charge, the touch a burning transmission, and yet it also sent valuable information into his awareness that gave him the control he required.

From his peripheral vision he could see the other masters almost swallow with each one of hers. Their cool was blown; their wives were pissed off, but cowed. As his rage simmered and died down, the effect of watching Damali feed shifted his focus. He could actually feel Damali working with the dark energy of the house, using it to her advantage, creating lovely chaos, not resisting in order to maintain her balance... ride it, flip it to make the outcome good.

He chided himself - she'd told him about this process. Had said to leverage the dark within. It made so much sense after watching her do it. All-pro... airtight game. The castle had the most mad-crazy energy, the female vamps had tapped into it and had also been affected by her heavy Neteru scent so close to their mates. Damali was relatively unarmed and outnumbered when they'd fanged on her. The masters' reaction to Damali was like gasoline on a flame to the wives.

Yeah, he got the picture. Under normal circumstances, these vampire ladies were smooth and shrewd enough to have laid in the cut for her, and would not have been so open... would have slit Damali's throat quietly, one-on-one in a ladies' room somewhere, would not have exposed their true feelings to foolishly bum-rush her in public in front of any turned-on master. Damali had sensed that, and had drawn them out into the open where she could fight better... just like a seasoned Neteru huntress would have. Made them reveal themselves, and then worked the protective strength of their masters against them to the bone - drawing it from them to guard her as a prize. They were diplomat's wives, but had been reduced to their base element by the combo. Carlos almost laughed. Pure instinct. He should have seen it coming.

As he watched her drain the bottle, he monitored the growing lust that was sweat-charging the room. He could almost feel the other masters' knees buckle from her slow, deliberate feed. Adrenaline and testosterone was clouding their judgment, strangling their control, blinding their focus about the hunt - or what they should have been doing, trying to kill her... but then, they'd pissed her off more than they'd frightened her. Bad move, gentlemen - if they would have asked him, he would have told them, Damali was not the one.

Carlos glanced around, also needing to distract himself from watching her leisurely feed. In this house, the split-second priority shift had created a vacuum, nature abhorred a vacuum... yes, since this was an unnatural environment, the dark transformation had pulled into her like a lightning rod, super-charging her... this wasn't a passion turn in his arms, she'd gone into it in battle mode. He almost laughed out loud, might have, if a nagging doubt didn't eat away at the back of his mind. Her fluxes with him were brought on by something pure - passion. This was fueled by something dark and with a lot more kick - anger. He just hoped that there was no permanent damage.

He shook off the worry, and stared at her. No. Don't lose focus. This was beyond beautiful. A variable wild card, and Damali was as wild as they got. His baby was gorgeous with her head back, eyes closed, the veins standing up in her neck from the sudden fury, the air stained darker than he'd ever seen it around her, the adrenaline kick to it... with fangs... a residue of Neteru bloodlust battle-heat on, having beat down four vamp females - or nearly so, and then amassing more territory in one wager than he ever could - without giving away one plot of dirt... dayum. Respect. And she'd spoken in Dananu and slapped a master's face from across the room... oh hell yeah, winner take all. He couldn't be angry with the masters around him, their wives, or Damali, about any of it. She'd played this hand well, and they'd played themselves.

This was definitely a way to bust up any alliances, he almost shook his head at the pure treachery of it... brilliance. She was a master, could have them all kill each other and wind up ruling the world with a council seat to go with it. Woman, thy name is evil. The seventh level probably didn't have nothin' for this... Yet she'd also fucked up the four competitors' confidence... it was a male thing that rippled through the room. Damali was also getting stronger, the more she drank, the longer she stayed in the room in vampire mode, just like he was getting stronger from the environment, enhancing his vocabulary, polishing it to more cultured diplomatic levels... feeling his throne-seat powers weigh in.

Plus, she'd told them that she'd chosen him, the one who had turned her, and if she was his female counterpart, they had to be wondering what the hell he could do when provoked. It was in their eyes, they way they looked at her, but they also lowered their gaze when assessing him. Yeah, any man in his right mind would wonder what it would take to harness that type of energy... crazy part that they would never be able to fathom was, he couldn't - it was her choice. It was easier to control the wind than to try to control her. But after what they'd just witnessed, the likelihood of a direct challenge was very slim.

As she chugged the last of the bottle, he could feel the masters around the room losing the last of their focus on the hunt, becoming concentrated on winning her favor as they openly sent her images that were about everything but the hunt. Dangling seductive offers of their realms to her, casting diamonds at her feet in their minds, and she blithely ignored their growing insistence, some offers of land so tempting that even he was shocked. The whole fucking continent, brother, if she'll go exclusive with you for a century? Damn... Russia... if she'll come whenever you call? Carlos shook his head, as all of India came up on his mental radar with a proposed exchange for a divorce and new bride bite, and Master Xe's wife stormed out of the room. Hey... what could he say? He could dig it. He'd put up all of North America and Canada, just so none of them could have her.

Damali wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and tossed the bottle into the fireplace, smashing it, then gazed at the group as though considering what had been put before her. "Evelyn, I swear, if you bring another baby into this castle for these ungrateful hoes... From now on, they get full, willing, adult vamp-helper at the banquet - I don't even want a baby, now, I'm so pissed off! In fact, I don't want to see that shit, either - just bottles! None of you deserve squat beyond that. Not even." She walked to the window and gave them all her back. "I have never been so offended in my life! I don't even want to eat here, much less stay another night."

Carlos watched her closely as the images went raw from the masters to her, each now descending on the erotic burn she'd created, murmuring to her seductively in Dananu in their thoughts, sending graphic images of what a night alone could entail... sending a fight charge through him that made him drop fang. Then she turned around, smiled and licked her bottom lip, and looked at him.

"What did you bet?"

Momentarily stunned by the question, Carlos took a second to regroup. "What do you mean, what did I bet?" He could feel his shoulders becoming tight, gaining bulk as outrage threaded through his system, and the other masters' expressions became hopeful�too hopeful.

"Yeah, what did you bet?" she asked low, seductive, walking toward him. "You put my ass on the line... so now I'm going to ask you again, Councilman Rivera - what did you bet?" She paused, and allowed her gaze to run the length of him. "Because you don't get this for free anymore... there are too many tender offers on the table, and this franchise is about to go public. Talk to me."

Fury flooded his system, meeting the outright lust she siphoned from him. This woman was not an obsession. She was an addiction, a dangerous one, right down to his core where his pride resided. She was a physical craving, a need, a part of his bloodstream, the very marrow in his bones. The combination was lethal.

The entire territory, plus a throne! He hollered in Dananu against his better judgment. Silence captured every halted breath. No other master breathed. Carlos's hand went to her throat: and if I win, I want more than you've put on the table for the others - because what I'm willing to lose they don't even have to offer!

Mr. Councilman, she purred in Dananu, every other territory I'll win in the match, plus a night that will scorch your mind for an eternity... and anything else you want from me - on demand. She stood up on her tiptoes and took his mouth tenderly, sending the private image of the baby to him. Play well tonight, and I'll die again in your arms... let the best man win. She pulled her mouth away from his, wet, and let her lids slide closed to half-mast. "Stamp it in blood, baby, so I know you're not playing with me." Then she sucked in air between her teeth, making the sound of a slow hiss as her head dropped back, exposing her throat to him. "I want some so bad right now, I could be compromised."

He tore a parchment from his pocket, and was so angry that blood filled his crest on its own. This was a grudge match now. He stamped the agreement, tore hers from the air and thrust it toward her. "You satisfied?"

She shook her head no, and the room went still. She turned away from Carlos and slowly assessed the waiting masters. Then a thought so devious, so loaded with treason entered her mind that he caught, and came from her lips so slow and husky as she addressed the other males, he couldn't move.

Gentlemen, she said in Dananu. You all have been thinking with the wrong head. She laughed and walked deeper into the center of the room, brushing past Carlos.

Damali's eyes closed and she breathed in deeply. At least one of you fine men have a fair shot at beating me. Think of the odds. She took her time, opened her eyes slowly, baiting them, toying with them, allowing the concept to sink it. But he doesn't, she murmured, motioning with a nod toward Carlos.

Spontaneous combustion was a definite possibility. He was so enraged that he could barely make out her form as mental flames burned his sight line to her. His thoughts scattered, then began to coalesce into a laser. He'd cut her heart out. She dangled in a very precarious position between breathing and extinction.

I know his greatest weakness like only a throat-bitten mate would...

A ring of fire surrounded her; he didn't move as she casually turned her head and looked at him, unfazed.

"Even Hell has rules, baby," she said as though talking about basketball. "You do me here, and I don't think you'll make it out of the room."

"No, he won't," the African master said, challenging Carlos. "We assure you."

The firewall around her shot to the ceiling, then sucked back into the floor, his rage blowing out the back wall.

Like I was saying, she went on, not even looking at Carlos. Soooo... if I beat him, I've now got a throne plus his entire region. If I beat several masters in the game, I'll own their shit, too. Then whoever beats me, wins not only a council-made female master that can spontaneously produce Neteru, but that lucky sonofabitch rules the world. Game over. You've been betting against the wrong horse, fellas... haven't placed your money on a thoroughbred. I'll give you one minute to revise and place your bets. Who's in?

The air crackled and popped, searing fire slits opening at dizzying speeds. Damali's laughter only made the revised agreements appear faster, masters breathing hard, looking at each others' bids, changing theirs, upping the ante, hollering at their wives to back off and stay out of a man's business. When they started arguing about who ruled the available territory in near space, several wives sat down on the sofas and wept - one even vomited blood. Mistress Xe had come back into the room and was on her knees begging her husband not to throw it all away, screeching and lamenting about losing all they'd ever worked for, their entire landed wealth to a crazy whore.

Yet Carlos could do nothing. This was business, and there were rules. It was surreal. The offer arrays transitioned so fast that they were mere blurs. It was worse than Wall Street traders at the opening bell with hot stock in their portfolios. Nations ceded everything - a full territory and an old coveted throne was on the bid floor; Neteru driving them nuts.

When there was nothing left for them to bid, Damali slowly walked around the room, collecting their insane offers. "Gentlemen, the floor is now closed for business." She sounded a bell, laughed, and blew them all a sexy air kiss. "Nice doin' business with all of you." It was a beautiful play and she'd played it to the bone. Damali shook her head. Master Vamps weren't that easy to blow away, not for a booty call. There was much more to this than that. They'd all obviously heard the rumor about the key, perhaps they thought that as the once-legendary Neteru, if they could get in her ear, they'd find the location - or the seal... or both? Carlos's senses hadn't gotten a lock on any of them, so it had been her turn. And judging from their reaction, her intuition had been dead on.

Master Amin stepped forward and grabbed the Aussie Master by his vest. "Bring the choppers."

Carlos kept his black-goggled gaze out of the helicopter window and listened to the engine, the blades cutting the air, focused on anything but Damali. For most of the ride, he didn't speak to her, saying only what was absolutely necessary about the rules of the hunt - one-syllable responses, and only when she asked - and only because it was in her best interest to beat everyone but him. There were no words. Damali was beyond defiant; she was incorrigible.

It was bad enough that she'd doubted his ability to defend her on the front steps - in front of aggressive masters, at that. And, not to mention, she'd had the nerve to quiver when that tall African bastard walked up to her, but she'd made her mate wager for her like the others? Put it all on the line? And she was about to go into a blood sport she knew nothing about - and had put her sweet ass on the line, too - like he could allow her not to win? Like he would just sit in the parlor and wait till she was finished doing a competitor, if she fucked around and lost! He was done!

She swallowed away a smile, her gaze fastened to the quickly passing ground, goggles keeping her eyes shielded from the devastation of the blurring blue-white lines below. This was so sweet a setup that she wanted to throw her head back and laugh. Chaos theory at its best.

Every male on the ground would be trying to dust the competition as much as score points by bringing down a beast. Each one not willing to ally with another region against her husband, because it was winner take a singular prize that they'd never share - the key, or access to the seal. And they'd half kill themselves trying to keep her, the secondary but very coveted prize on the battlefield, from getting hurt. Knowledge was power, and they thought she knew. It made sense. Classic. Old school - right from the streets.

Use the greatest strength as the greatest source of weakness - the art of war, subversion, dance on male ego... do a strip tease down it, pole dance that sucker... compare territories openly and make them define whose was bigger in public, then walk away from the lot of them... primal, make 'em fight it out, and make them think the councilman didn't have an advantage in her eyes... which would truly piss him off and make him go ballistic to be sure to win. This was like street basketball - mugs killing themselves to take the prize home after the game.

She'd have to remember to tell him why she did that... when she made it up to him later... it was no disrespect, just a li'l extra somethin' somethin' to give him the fury advantage, which was a stronger vamp reflex than lust - only one energy octave down, world dominance being the most seductive. Yeah, she knew how to play poker and sit at the table with the big boys. Doubting her was their blind spot. Oh... dangerous damned liaisons, that's what detente was any-ole-way.

The chopper's descent was swift. The craft lurched, dipped, and bounced twice on the hard, red surface, kicking up dust plumes as it came to a full stop. She could barely wait for the pilot to give the exit-okay nod before hopping out ahead of Carlos. They were gonna rock tonight! Together, they were unstoppable. Demons in the dark. Just like old times. Yeah... she bopped as she walked, stretching out her blade arm and flexing her muscles as she approached the vehicles assembled twenty-five yards away in a semicircle, rolling her shoulders to loosen up.

This was gonna be fun. She looked at the buff human vamp-helper drivers. Each stood somber, their eyes hidden behind military night-vision goggles, with a crash helmet under his arm beside an armored Range Rover 4x4 that had a driver safety cage added. The open pickup backs had a harpoon mount, roof lights-rack with no lights - just a steel bar for the hunters to grip. She could see where they'd reinforced the side panels and added extra chrome to the grills and back bumpers. In the dark the eerie effect of the added protection made the Rovers appear to have steel fangs.

She stooped to inspect how there was an added steel cage to protect the axle and chassis. Standing, satisfied, she glanced at the solid rubber wheels and the way deadly spikes had been welded to the lugs to keep the demons away from the tires. Excellent. No chance of a blowout or a wheel being knocked off.

He kept his eyes on her back. This was a perfect place for an abduction - and after that shit she just pulled, he wouldn't be surprised if one of the masters tried to just grab her and head for the hills. Carlos slowly scanned the group. None of them were focused on the hunt. Out in the pitch-black terrain, only stars and a full moon, were-demons be damned, every master standing there was weighing that option because she'd turned them on so badly. That crazy woman had sent uncut Neteru up their noses, dangled her sweet ass as a carrot, and then threw a throne on the floor like she was throwing down the gauntlet... had betrayed her eternal mate in public, then sent them into a bid frenzy without eating! Just downed a bottle of top-shelf in front of them so they could smell it in her veins? It was a nitroglycerine concoction - lust and power and blood - and she was juggling it in her pretty hands.

She didn't know what she was dealing with. It was in the way they looked at her long and hard, glanced the terrain, shook it off to study their ammo, absently checked their vehicles for potential sabotage, then looked at the terrain again like they wanted to drag her into the desert and take their chances with the weres. Probably the only thing stopping them was that four other very disappointed masters would make it a short night. This was some dangerous shit she was playing. Renewed fury coiled and snapped within him... and she'd made him bet, too?

"Drivers! Take your marks," McGuire finally yelled, his voice echoing in the night. "Readied?"

The Aussie master waited as the confirmations echoed back. "Ladies to the choppers... er, minus one." He glanced at Damali. "You sure about this, darlin'?"

Damali smiled and placed a firm hand on her driver's shoulder. "Fire this up."

McGuire drew a steadying breath. "Ma'am, I'ma love to see ya hunt." As though pulling away from a magnet, he removed his line of vision on her and looked at the group. "You know the rules and the boundary markers. Every man for himself. When the choppers drop the bloody human carcasses, they'll signal with a flare." He glanced back at the bait pilots and nodded once the female vampires had been secured in the spectator helicopter.

The masters mounted their vehicles, each stood in the open pickup back and took up a loaded weapon. The drivers put on their helmets, tightened the straps beneath their chins, and climbed into the driver's cages, then gunned their engines.

Each chopper lifted off and sent a cloud of grit and red sand that covered the landscape into the air. She couldn't see her hand in front of her face, but sheathed her Isis on her hip, and picked up the crossbow, holding onto the rack rail with a tight grip. Her eyes were trained on the blue-black sky lit by the moon and stars, waiting for the flare as the engine of her Range Rover roared. It was not about losing. It was about going to her core and being the best in the demon hunt. Always. But she couldn't see because of the dust plumes!

Then Damali closed her eyes, remembering everything she'd been taught as a Neteru. She was one with the universe, created by it, she was wind, she was water, she was fire, and ice, she was stone, earth, there was no particle of natural matter that she was not connected to. She didn't need normal sight to find the demons to hunt them down.

White light was a source shaped like the tip of her Isis blade to be drawn down through her crown chakra at the top of her head, through each chakra level, her spine one with it, grounding her, turning her entire body into steel - a weapon unparalleled. Her breaths were slow, her focus steady. She was the huntress; a warrior; the millennium had no other. Demons were the enemy. Humanity had to be saved. Anything coming up from Hell had to be eliminated. The were-demons were on the move, beneath the surface, attracted to the blood dripping, bodies falling from the choppers, freed to feed by the full moon. The goal was singular: bring them all down.

Sensing a direction, she signaled her driver to move out before the flare even torched the sly. She knew demon hunting like she knew her name, and she left the masters in the dust, getting an early start.

She could hear vehicles careening behind her.

"Mistress, we don't know where - "

"Just drive. Swing left," she commanded, using second sight the way Marlene had taught her... her nose like Rider had showed her... listening the way Big Mike would... feeling for the charge in the air so closely that Shabazz would have been proud. "Gun it to eighty miles per hour - flat out," she said, so sure she didn't have to think about it twice.

"Ma'am - "

"Do it, man, and stop questioning me, or I'll kick your ass out and drive myself!"

The flare streaked the sky, making the thick dust in the atmosphere glow orange. The wind was in her hair, the dust in her face, the speed exhilarating, adrenaline pumping, her weapon cocked and ready, and that's when she saw it.

Two huge, green glowing eyes parted the dense plumes created by the Range Rover and something leaned over to pick up a body on the ground. Yellow fangs dripping acid caught in the moonlight as the beast screeched in protest, and then the creature stood up, towering fifteen feet next to Damali's 4x4. Short front arms brandishing lethal hooked claws scrabbled at the air, and powerful back legs with blade-sharp spikes stretched, the monster pivoted, and a hard slam from its reptilian scaled tail sideswiped the vehicle.

The Range Rover wobbled and almost overturned on the first hit, but righted itself. She held on, looping her arm under the rail and taking aim over it as the creature began to run. She fired, missed, and reloaded, shouting to the driver to step on the gas.

This was her kill. She glanced back and the vehicle gunned to ninety-five miles an hour as the other masters gained on her. But when her vehicle suddenly swerved away from an opportunity shot, and the creature doubled back to go off in another direction, she lost it.

"What is the matter with you? Just a few more feet and we would have had him!"

"I've run this course before, ma'am - I'm their best driver because I basically know where the prayer lines are, even though I'm human. Didn't you see the lines?"

For a moment, Damali didn't respond. Then she looked around. Panic nearly stopped her heart. She couldn't see any blue or white lines. The other masters had dropped back long before she did. Oh, shit... she was no longer in the charged house, was out in prayer-rimmed natural lands, and had called down the white light in a Neteru meditation. Ooops. Unnerved, she forced false confidence into her voice.

"Just drive, and get me to that thing."

"Whatever the lady wants," the driver said, sounding unsure.

"The demon can't cross the lines either, so follow its path - if it disappears, loop in an arc and head in the opposite direction - it has to stay within the boundaries, too," she yelled above the 4x4 engine roar. "When it goes the other direction, we're gonna harpoon that sucker."

She wrapped the steel tow hook at the front of the open pickup over the grip rail, and traded her crossbow for the huge mounted harpoon gun, dropping the crossbow on the metal floor. She then hooked the towline to the harpoon gun. "If the harpoon gun breaks away from this rail, I still want a line on him. I'm not losing the bastard."

"He'll panic, drag the Rover, and could - "

But before the driver could finish his warning, the were-roo had surfaced, Damali had taken dead aim, fired, and it was a direct hit. The beast was punctured deep in its shoulder - but it wasn't an incineration heart hit. The wound smoldered. The beast reared up on its haunches, screeching, and began a flat-out dash across the plains.

Harpoon line running out at a high speed sounded like a razor cutting the air, then the strain on the weapon began making the grip rail groan. Damali crouched low to keep her balance and held onto the side of the Rover, staying away from the leaning, bending, rail.

"Cut the line, lady!" the driver yelled, panicking. "She'll drag, then flip us!"

Before Damali could respond, the harpoon and rail gave way, flying over the driver's cage, still attached to the beast. The tow-line whizzed out in a matter of seconds, stopped hard, lurching the Range Rover, then the demon on the move began to bounce, dragging the 4x4 past the other masters, who had to swerve to avoid it.

"She got a hit!" Carlos hollered. But as soon as he saw that there was no way for Damali to regain control of her vehicle, he made his driver turn and take his 4x4 to a speed to flank her. "Baby, cut the line!"

"No!" she screamed. "And don't you screw us by using your power to help me!" Then just as quickly as she'd spoken, her vehicle lurched when the demon changed direction in a wide arch that almost tipped it were it not for a championship driver at the wheel, and the space between her 4x4 and Carlos's widened.

A sudden side bang knocked Carlos's 4x4 as Master Amin rammed his side panel, took aim over Carlos's shoulder, making Carlos duck, and he nailed a second were-roo that dropped and incinerated fifty yards away. Amin pulled his vehicle off Carlos's flank with a glance of total victory and pursued Damali's runaway Rover.

"Drive!" Carlos hollered, making his driver change course to follow Amin. But then a slash of a tail nearly missed his head as one of the huge monsters suddenly appeared from an unseen under-ground tunnel, and made a fang swipe at Carlos. He dropped to his knees, aimed, and fired, sending the stake into the center of the creature's forehead, summarily exploding green gook to splatter the cab. His focus immediately returned to Damali. She was now more than a hundred yards away and heading right for a blue band.

"Slow your speed and tire this sucker out. Make him drag us," she hollered, holding onto the driver's cage with one hand and trying to aim at the beast with her crossbow in the other. This bastard was going down.

Repeatedly the 4x4 went airborne two feet and then came down hard with a jarring thud only to bounce and get dragged some more. The impact was so intense that she had to grit her teeth to keep from chipping them or biting off her own tongue. But the beast's panicked flight had a steady rhythm in a flat-out run. The cord would go tight as it came down from a long, loping hop, go slack for a few seconds as the animal's powerful hind legs pushed off the ground, then go tight again. Like music, it filtered into her awareness - she could hear it, feel the pulse of it, recognize the refrain - and she was determined to make that work to her advantage.

New strategy. Damali dropped her crossbow on the floor of the pickup, climbed over the top of the bent-up caged cab section, holding the wire taut until she could swing her body down to plant her feet on the vehicle's hood. She braced for the coming slack in the cable, knees bent, holding the cage, only to release it and grab the cable when it went tight again. The head of that monster had to come off, and the Isis could handle that. The problem was, the were-roo seemed to sense exactly what she was about to do and changed direction again, making her lose her footing.

The wire momentarily went slack with a change in the beast's rhythm. She rolled, caught herself on the cage, slamming her against the metal exterior and temporarily knocking the wind out of her. The driver tried to reach for her, but she couldn't let go to grab his hand. Cable had cut into her palms, the pain like a blowtorch. But summoning a deep breath, she swung her body with the centrifugal force of the next turn, landed on the hood with a grunting thud, and was thankful that her hands weren't between the cable and the metal - a sure amputation at that torque.

Now this thing had really pissed her off. Attempting the head-sever again, she quickly went hand over hand down the cable toward the animal during a ten-second taunt period, and when the cable went slack, she went with the dip, pulling her knees up, riding the air but keeping her legs off the ground, avoiding the wildly thrashing tail. The moment the cable went taut, she used the next hard snap to propel her body like a rocket forward and grasp onto its stinking fur.

The moment her body touched the creature's, it leapt straight up, twisting and writhing, trying to shake her off, but she dug her hands deeper into the offensive fur and gripped its body hard with her knees. The Rover was airborne, coming toward them, a direct collision with her riding the beast's back, imminent. But she held the protruding shoulder stake like a saddle grip, and her blade chimed in the wind as she drew it, saw the African diplomat's vehicle slow and swerve away, and she swung.

A demon screech sliced the night. The demon body beneath her stopped and dropped, bringing her crashing to the ground with it - the Isis flung far from her as the Range Rover being dragged by the tow cable flipped overhead, snap-jerking the demon carcass in a long slide toward a huge rock.

"No!" The African diplomat was out of the back of his vehicle and standing on the hood of his fast-moving 4x4, leaning out toward her, his grip on his driver's cage, one arm outstretched, yelling about the lines, his hand opened wide. "Baby, don't do it! It's not worth it. Let go!"

Truth was truth, whatever the source. She could feel the African master using his power to pull her to him. His expression was pained as he opened his arms, trying to spare her, putting himself in jeopardy of losing the game by leveling dark power. But she couldn't reach him even if she'd wanted to, and truth be told, at that second, part of her did. It was about survival.

She could feel his strength lifting the vehicle, his erotic charge entering her body, attempting to bend her will to give in and go off into the night with him as her prize. Yet, she was resolute and would not go to him. If she did, all that she'd wagered would be lost, and that was also a fate worse than death.

Their electric charges scorched the night sky, met in the air, and created a large sonic boom that cancelled each other out, leaving them both weakened. However, she'd gotten firsthand knowledge of just how strong he was.

Panic transformed into terror as the Range Rover came down on a massive sacred rock formation upside down and exploded with her driver trapped within the cab cage. Fire and gasoline lit up the night, the scent of burning flesh and fuel filled the air, and she was heading toward it all in an unbreakable momentum slide.

"Baby, come to me. Now!" Amin commanded, twisting and lifting Damali's body as she fought against him and the demon that was dragging her.

"Back off!" she yelled, trying to focus on the beast that was dragging her through dirt and rocks on a brutal ride. Her leg was trapped and she snatched her dagger, raised the baby Isis, hit the creature's heart from its rib cage, and torched it. Damali rolled off the creature, slapping cinders from her pants, and then lay very still on the ground for several minutes clutching her weapon. She peered up as three Range Rovers came next to her, and she shut her eyes and breathed out slowly. Good. Thank you. But she knew better than to even mentally reference the hallowed name of who'd probably helped. She was alive and still had all limbs. She hadn't rolled over the line, but her driver was dead and her vehicle totaled. Her body felt like she'd been beat-down by a girl gang in the streets. She slowly pushed herself up to stand, disgusted, and sheathed her dagger.

"Shit!" she hollered. "Only got one of them and my Rover is wrecked!"

Three foreign masters stared at her for a moment, glanced at each other, then motioned for their drivers to head off in a different direction.

She slapped the dust off her, glanced back at her flaming Range Rover, and went to go get Madame Isis. So it was like that, huh?

His Australian host was giving him a run for his money. They were two for two, and this was McGuire's back yard. Carlos brought his vehicle up beside McGuire's with a were-roo running flat-out in an eighty-mile-an-hour gallop between both Rovers. Problem was, the thing was playing them both, making them take aim at each other, then dipping into a portal, coming up alongside one of the 4 X 4s to slam it into the other one. When the Transylvanian master tailgated Carlos, the were-roo disappeared underground, came up dead-center of Carlos's vehicle, causing Tetrosky to ram him.

He had to get out of the center of the pack, and get on the sidelines for better maneuverability. Bunched up, they'd easily hit a light rail, and that was obviously the roo's objective. Then his synapses arced danger. Carlos ducked just as the Transylvanian's stake whirred over his back and took down the roo. Instant incineration, a marksman's shot. Carlos's Rover blew grizzly ash across the plains as it went through the smoldering remains. Fury coiled within him. Yeah it was a warning shot for him, too, right over the bow. Assassination was in the air, just like were-roo sulfur.

Tetrosky gave him a triumphant nod as the other vehicles pulled away to chase another fast-moving target. But Xe was already on it, and had dusted the beast from a hundred yards away.

"Score?" Carlos hollered at his driver, who registered kills on the dashboard.

"The lady has one marked as a twenty-point tackle even though it torched, because she left the vehicle and beheaded it first. She gets five bonus for the near-rail risk shot. All masters, two torches - twenty each. We'll allow for Amin's transgression, because he was attempting to save the mistress, not score on his own behalf."

Carlos nodded. This was way too close a score. The weres were also getting scarce. Then he saw a beauty riding the rails... and it had his name on it. He was out in the open after Tetrosky pulled back, and the other ambassadors had gone in Xe's direction. But this had to be a hand-to-hand bring down, near the rails, to put him out in front at forty-five points.

His driver shook his head no. "Too close to the rails, Mr. Councilman. That's why the odders pulled up."

"Take me to her," Carlos ordered. "She's mine."

"The roo, or the woman, sir?"


"We don't need to risk - "

"Do not argue with me!" Carlos had the crossbow to his chin, his aim steady, timing the hit to nick it, make it change course to avoid the rails if it fell from being wounded. Banking on the survival instinct of the beast, he released the stake, severing the animal's jaw. Timing was everything. It howled, ducked underground, and came up on the other side of the Range Rover. But that trapped the vehicle between the angry creature on one side, and the rails on the other.

Eight hundred pounds of furious, wounded animal slammed the vehicle's side panel, tipping the soupped-up 4x4 onto two wheels.

"We're going over!" the driver hollered. "Dismount, sir!"

"Hell no!" Carlos yelled back, the vision of what the African master had attempted making him reckless. No man was going to outdo him in front of Damali. He jumped to the opposite side of the open cargo space, righting the Rover with his own sudden weight. Choppers overhead followed his Rover. He was in the lead. In his mind's eye he could see a dusty trail of other masters fast approaching behind him, trying to get into position to aim and bring down his sure kill.

He felt a harpoon whiz by his head, and knew Amin had sent it his way dead-aim, and not by accident.

When the roo charged again, he got off a shot, which sent a stake into its shoulder. But it reared, slashed its tail under the axle from the front and flipped the vehicle. The force of the impact knocked Carlos out of the open back section, and he hit the ground sliding to a stop, then jumped up running toward the demon. The driver had crossed the line; Carlos was dangerously near it on foot on the ground. In its wounded fury the were-roo charged Carlos, stopped short, claws reaching. Bowie knife drawn, he severed one of the hooked talons, making it rear back dripping green slime, then a tail struck him so hard he went airborne, dazed.

From a remote place in his mind he heard McGuire yell his name. He heard vehicles slowing. Heard a chopper land, Damali's voice hit a panic decibel that roused him, and he rolled back toward the creature, her footfalls in the very dirt beneath him like a pulse, helping him to stand. The roo was down, wasn't burning. He was closer to it than any competitor. This was for her. Motion, awareness snapped back, and he ran... he was air, was night, was the speed of light in the darkness... and the roo was down, within his grasp, breathing hard, dying slow from his crossbow hit and bleeding out from the severed limb. It was a damned demon. Something foul that fed on human flesh and remains like a scavenger. A parasite against humanity. It was the one thing standing between him and his Neteru. And its head was coming off in his bare hands.

Triumphant, he held the head up over the twitching body on the ground, threw his head back, and let out a sound that went back to the beginning of time itself.

Blood filled his mouth from the internal injuries that were swiftly sealing, sweat stung his eyes and he couldn't see. Adrenaline shot through him so hard and so fast that it made him stagger where he stood, converting into a pure testosterone rush of sudden euphoria.

"Score?" he shouted with his eyes closed. No one answered. That's right, his driver was dead from the crash. His own voice was foreign, deeper than when in battle; he couldn't even close his mouth it was so packed with fangs. Something nudged his legs at both sides, and then loudly sniffed him, whimpering. Yeah, the dogs could have all the dead drivers and whatever demons hadn't flamed. Then something electrifying lit his system like a rocket and knocked his head back. The scent stole his equilibrium, made him search the air for it, blind, drop the beast's head for the dogs, and open his eyes, wiping at them with his dusty forearms.

It happened in what felt like slow motion. Golden, sparkling light created an unnatural luminescence before him. His flight-weary dogs that had flown from the castle to protect him backed away from it. Footfalls coming in his direction. The vibrations echoed a familiar sound. His name splitting atoms on the wind carried by the voice of an angel, hiccupping hysteria, the glint of a blade catching moonlight and a hot body flung against him so hard he almost fell.

Disorientation gave way to instant awareness as he buried his nose deep in her damp hair and encircled her perspiration-wet back, her sword tight in her fist against his spine, she was blood-saturated adrenaline, pure Guardian Neteru, clinging to him, tears stinging his wounds, making him lift her off her feet to spin her around, laughing. He'd won. For her. She'd been the only thing on his mind when he went for the roo... it was a matter of honor�hers, his, theirs. Didn't she know?

Slowly advancing vehicles soon drew his attention. He put Damali down easy, but didn't let her go. Victory made his spine straighten, every vertebra separating, lengthening, his jaw set hard, eyes unmoving. Yes. He'd won. Fair and square - no special powers, just brute strength. She was his.

"Score, gentlemen?" he said, confidence sending his voice across the divide to them like sudden thunder.

They just stared at him, and he could feel Damali tense and draw in to him closer. They had to be out of their minds if they even thought...

"You crossed a major prayer artery, Councilman," McGuire said, fear and awe in his voice.

Carlos glanced at the other masters, and then laughed. "Oh, bullshit! I got close, but I would have fried." He glanced down at Damali, and her complexion was ashen from apparent trauma. He felt his face, and was still showing eight inches. "Explain these, then," he yelled, pointing to his fangs.

The Transylvanian dropped to one knee and lowered his head in total submission. "Never in history, sir. We are not worthy to be in your presence."

The others followed suit, each dropping to one knee before Carlos, each rendered mute by the unfathomable in their world. It was so quiet for a moment that Carlos was sure he could hear their still breaths.

"We have seen a new era usher forth in the empire," Master Xe said, his head bowed. "Our generations will know of your great accomplishments for all eternity. My lands have been ceded to your wife, and my complete allegiance is yours."

"As are mine... and my allegiance to our councilman is unwavering. For generations, we have waited for such unstoppable power to concentrate," Master Amin said, his voice a murmur of respect as he lowered his gaze. "And your bride... I saw it with my own eyes, sir. She fought with equal ferocity to any of us here. She almost hit a line, and yet would not take my hand or use her powers that might jeopardize your claim. The commitment beyond self-survival... never have I witnessed such in all my years."

"You've won all of Europe, Mistress Rivera, and have my crest seal as my blood bond. I cede to you. And I humbly beg your husband's pardon for all transgressions." The Transylvanian's voice broke, and he took a deep breath.

The Aussie spoke, but dared not look up. "Sir... 'Sidney was made by Satan,' you told me a writer once said, when you arrived. Your Excellency... was that you?"

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