"He should have been trailing blood, from the looks of this accident," Damali said, her keen eyes to the ground as their Hummer bumped over the rough, off-road terrain.
"Not picking up anything," Rider said, hanging his head out the window like a hunting dog.
"Hold up, y'all," Mike said. "Tara's voice."
Shabazz brought the Hummer to a stop. "Be cool, man," he said toward Rider. "She's not alone, dig?"
"Yeah, peace, whatever," Rider said, and sat back in the Hummer.
Damali jumped out and Yonnie and Tara materialized. "What's the word?" Damali said, her gaze going from Yonnie to Tara and back.
"No sign of him," Tara said nervously, "but Yonnie picked up a significant power surge."
"Subterranean," Yonnie said, glaring over Damali's shoulder toward Rider. "Ain't felt that since the Chairman went topside."
"What does it mean?" Damali clutched her baby Isis blade tighter.
The rest of the team piled out of the Hummer.
"Everything all right, D?" Shabazz said, looking at Yonnie hard.
Rider cocked back the safety on his weapon. "Any problem, li'l sis?"
"Everybody be cool," Big Mike said. "What happened underground, man?"
Yonnie shook his head, but kept a lethal glare on Rider. "That's just the thing. I don't know and don't have an underground pass no more to go check it out."
"Where is my fucking book!" Carlos bellowed, making the table shudder as his fist tore away a section of it.
The crest rolled back, opened again to the vacant space in its vault, and began to smolder as Carlos's glare remained on the emptiness.
"I know it's not here!" he shouted. "Tell me!"
Within seconds white mist began to form within the empty space, and Carlos blew on it, sending plumes of cloudlike smoke away from the opening so he could see the bottom of the vault. But instead of gleaming black marble, blue, snow-covered mountains appeared in a wavering hologram-like form. He stared at the illusion, his eyes narrowing as he received sensations, judged distance, and homed in on a location. The Himalayas. He nodded and waved his hand over the opening, and it sealed. The crest looked at him and bowed its head, shivering.
"Very good," Carlos muttered. "Very, very good."
"Transport!" he bellowed, and wrapped his wings around his naked body.
The doors to the chamber quickly opened, and several hooded messengers rushed through, bumping into each other, stumbling, and falling prostrate on the marble before him.
"Your Excellency," the one closest to his feet said in a shivering croak. "We are humbly at your service."
As his temper receded, Carlos's form began to slowly normalize.
"Mr. Chairman," another said, and then looked up, screamed, and covered his head as a black bolt of energy snuffed him from the floor, leaving ash in the entity's wake.
"Please, we beg you, Your Excellency, have pity on us. Do not take out his foolish mistake on the rest of us, we know who you are," the lead messenger groveled. "He was new, insane; please accept our apology on his behalf for titling you beneath your esteemed Level-Seven rank."
Carlos folded his arms, not sure how to respond. He thought he'd acquired the Chairman's title... but clearly that was not the case. He used the end of his spaded tail as a toothpick, cleaning a twelve-inch fang, thinking, then clothed himself as a distraction. The black designer suit and custom-tailored shirt felt good as they slid into place, and all evidence of his brief tryst with the throne did as well. He retracted his wings and tail, then walked around the messengers cowering on the floor, the sound of his black, alligator-skin slip-ons making soft taps against the polished stone. He smiled. Yeah, much more genteel than the clatter of hooves. A brother always had to be smooth.
"I want to check out the response on all the levels as I go up," Carlos said evenly. "Need to be sure respect is in the house across the board."
"Yes, sir," the lead entity whispered. "We assure you it is, though, sir."
The messengers hadn't lied. When Carlos's funnel cloud came to a swirling rest at the edge of the were-demon realms of Level Five, all howling ceased. Heads lowered, bodies shuddered, and he stared at an old werewolf senator that came out of hiding, his tail between his legs in dog-pack submission. A were-jaguar senator crept forward from the big cat clan and crouched low, holding his breath.
"Your Excellency," the wolfen clan senator said, keeping his head lowered, "we do hope you will forgive the previous... uh... disrespect shown to you while you were a vampire. The tensions between Level Five and Level Six are legendary, but had we known you were being groomed for ultimate descent - I assure you, our response would have been much different."
"Woulda, coulda, shoulda," Carlos said in a bored tone as he stared out into the black forest. Thousands of gleaming yellow eyes stared back at him, unblinking, waiting for his word and his determination of their realm's fate. He walked with his hands behind his back, a cunning smile on his face as he circled the huge werewolf senator and shook his head. Bones from thousands of years of feedings cracked and crunched under his feet like gravel.
"Forgiveness. Hmmm... Don't have it in me," Carlos said, removing his hands from behind his back and staring down at his neatly manicured nails. "Matter of fact, talk of forgiveness down here is considered blasphemy. Am I wrong?"
A collective gasp filtered through the looming, black trees.
The huge beast began to snuffle and whimper. "Sir, yes, but, really, all I am asking for is - "
"Mercy?" Carlos hollered. Then he laughed. "Motherfucker, you are trying my patience."
Wails and sulfuric ash followed Carlos in an angry chimney, the bright red glow of a total inferno helping to jettison his transport to Level Four. "I want that entire level smoked, do you hear me?" Carlos commanded his messenger as they came to the swamplands of the Amanthras. He absently brushed the intermittent rain of maggots off his shoulders and surveyed the bubbling black tars and slithering dampness all around them on Level Four. "If the fire goes out on Five, and the explosions stop, I'm holding every messenger on Six accountable."
Again, his courier was prostrate, shaking his head as hard as his scythe trembled. "Your desire is our every command, sir."
"Good. Then get up off this nasty, slimy shit, and be a man," Carlos said, pure disgust entering him. He snapped his fingers and the wetlands dried into desert region. Immediately, huge black serpentine Amanthras rushed forward, gasping.
"Your Excellency," the presiding member of the Amanthra Congress croaked. "We beseech you - we cannot survive without the liquid slurry of dark dreams and fetid desires."
Carlos watched the body of the huge serpent begin to decay without emotion. Once-gleaming black scales withered and began to peel off the beast, dripping yellow and green acidic blood to the dry ground, as they fell like singed roofing tiles to the hot sand. The gills behind its Volkswagen-size, serpentine head struggled open and then shut in shuddering gasps of agony. Smaller serpents squealed and writhed closer to their leader, until a knot of smoldering demon flesh began to melt in one putrid heap.
"Yo holmes," Carlos said smiling at his messenger. "Ain't these the guys that sided with Fallon Nuit against me and my lady?"
"Yeth, thirrrr," the messenger lisped, his eyes glowing red within his faceless hood. "Traitors."
The huge Amanthra banged its head against the hot sand, and Carlos watched the sand heat go from a low blue glow, to red, to white hot.
"Please..." it croaked, a viper fang dropping off and torching on impact as it hit the sand.
"Turn off the water on Levels Three and Four," Carlos ordered. "Send the wetlands to the fucking ghosts gangs - and let's see how they like their new decor on Levels One and Two. Fuck the terror cells, too. No more dry boulders and canyons for those motherfuckers to hide in. Let the succubae and incubi drown in their own bullshit. Vamanos."
Long agonized wails of pleas and shouts followed him. The word nooooooo still echoed in Carlos's ears as he materialized not far from where his Jeep had been wrecked.
The messenger bowed. "Your instructions will be adhered to with all the resources of our realm, sir."
"Cool," Carlos said, walking away. "Kill the sulfur and take your raggedy ass back from whence it came. Don't come up here unless I call you."
"Sir, your wish is my command. However, do you need protective escort?" The messenger seemed frightened and confused as it stared at Carlos. It began to amass a dark cloud around itself as a precaution in case Carlos's temper flared at the question. "Someone of your stature could be a direct assassination target by the dreaded Light," the entity added in an apologetic, shaky voice.
Carlos hesitated, and held up his hand, making his courier forestall his departure. The two stared at each other. The courier lowered his gaze and waited for instructions. Carlos wasn't angry, just concerned. In truth, he'd never considered that aspect of risk. But then he brushed aside his doubts.
He wasn't worried about the other demon realms, visiting them had told him all he needed to know. They had been sufficiently punked down. Anyway, the Light had sent him back down there to get the book. This was their mission, so why would they smoke him? The book was missing, and like before, he'd come back stronger and with critical information - plus he'd really fucked up the realms as a show of good faith. They knew the deal. Power was worthless unless one used it, and power always demanded that it be used. He could handle this shit, just like he'd handled everything else before.
True, he'd taken an accidental tumble in the chair he wasn't supposed to sit in, and had gotten a little blood in his mouth, but he also found out the semi-accurate location of the book. So, it was all good. It had to be. If it was topside, with all this new power at his disposal, he could get to it in no time - so what would be the problem?
Carlos yanked on his suit lapels to straighten them and lifted his chin, smoothing his collarless black silk shirt with a cool palm. "Naw, man," he finally said. "I always roll solo, and I don't need no witnesses to the throw down I'm about to lay on my woman."
The entity smiled as a sulfuric plume swirled at the hem of its robe. It cut into the earth with its scythe, creating a ragged fissure that belched black smoke. "As you command, sir. Always as you command."
The Chairman looked out over the pristine, deserted beach that sprawled beyond him like a crystalline white carpet beneath the moon. He'd always loved the Mediterranean, and had forgotten how majestic it was. A clandestine meeting with her, here? He'd already been seduced by her voice from the moment she called.
If she would agree to meet him here like this, alone and unarmed, her potential for getting whatever she wished to extract from him was excellent - even if she didn't need to know that.
He'd worn Greek gladiator armor for her, to suit the occasion. Had she any idea of what she did to him just from a call? He smiled and tried to stem the roiling anticipation that waiting for her produced. He just hoped that the diversions he'd thrown in the searchers' paths would keep his father off his trail at least for the night. But when he didn't immediately see her, it began to occur to him that his father's powers could have produced her call.
Panic swiftly set in. Topside pressures and atmospheric distortions had possibly eroded some of his keen perceptions. He should have known...
"It's been a long time, Dante," a low, gentle female voice said.
He watched her melt away from a palm, shimmering like the dark waters of the sea. It had been so long since she'd allowed him to even glimpse her that his mouth went dry.
As she turned to face him, her gleaming silver, heart-shaped Sankofa tattoo at the base of her spine became a beacon. His eyes followed the low ruby cut of her backless gown, drinking in her voluptuous body.
"Eve," he murmured as she slowly approached.
"Dante," she quietly replied. "Thank you for agreeing to meet with me like this."
He nodded. "When you called... how could I deny you?" He opened his arms for her, hoping she'd fill them. "I've missed you so."
She stepped forward a bit, but not close enough for him to embrace her. "I was a young girl, and you took advantage of me that way before."
He smiled and slowly lowered his arms, disappointed. "I was a young man, rash and impetuous, passionate. Yes, I took advantage of you, my love, but that doesn't mean my emotions were fraudulent."
She nodded and sighed sadly, and then flipped her long Egyptian braids over her shoulders. "I know, but - "
"Tell me, my still-gorgeous Neteru, do you ever think of that time we shared in true paradise?"
"I try to focus on the present, Dante. It's best that way."
He neared her and cupped her cheek. When she didn't flinch away, he closed his eyes and sighed. "I've missed you so, Eve. Level-Six banishment wasn't Hell. Being without you was."
Her hand covered his. "Then I suppose we both experienced our own brand of said same."
Her admission lowered his head to her neck and created a shudder that they both quietly shared. But she covered her jugular with her graceful hand.
"We need to talk about my younger sister Neteru."
"After so many years, might a lengthy discussion wait until near dawn?" he asked, breathing the question.
She smiled as his fangs crested and she stroked his dark, curly hair away from his face. "You came to me as Achilles," she murmured.
"You have caught the irony of this choice, yes?"
"It was very, very sweet of you to do that," she said in a soft, breathy whisper.
"You were always my weakness from the moment I laid eyes on you... you know that. Invincible to all but you."
She smiled and he traced her mouth with the trembling pass of his thumb.
"At least I can still make you smile, even if I can't bend your will to commit to me. I'll settle for that much right now." He studied her face, his thumb etching a distant memory into it. "When I look at you, I think of our son. How is he?"
"Well," she whispered, her gaze becoming pained. "Still resentful of his banishment sentence, but he seems resigned to serve it without incident."
The Chairman nodded. "He gets that from my side. The ability to endure until opportunity knocks. But I still think it was harsh to imprison a being with such potential and passion for life into a realm practically devoid of sensory - "
"Cain killed his brother." She looked at him hard, stepped back from him, and wrapped her arms around her waist. "Don't ever forget that, Abel may have been Adam's progeny, but he was still my child... one who, like Cain, I loved with my complete heart and soul, Dante. Do not minimize what Cain did."
He neared her and delicately collected her into his arms and stroked her hair. "I'm sorry. I know you were always torn... This is why I didn't want to belabor a conversation laden with guilt and pain when there are so many other pleasurable things we could do tonight. Let me make it up to you now."
She shook her head no.
He sighed and loosened his hold on her. "Yes. I forgot. How is Adam? Still coruling the male Neteru round table with Ausar and wielding an iron fist, or has he mellowed, like me, with age?" Jealousy swept through him as he stared at Eve. "I'm surprised he was secure enough to even allow this visit. What has changed?"
"He doesn't know I'm here."
Her statement riddled him with desire adrenaline. "You came to me on your own, unsanctioned? Again... like old times?" He was barely breathing as he stared into her dark, exquisitely beautiful brown eyes. "I promise you," he whispered through fangs, "I've learned so much more over the centuries, your transgression will not be in vain."
"Aset sanctioned it. My queen sisters know I'm here, but what stays at our oval table remains between us."
Her admission stabbed him. For just a fleeting moment he thought that she'd finally come to resume what had been torn asunder. There was no way for him to mask the disappointment. "Then I take it you are here on a mission, rather than for a tryst."
"Dante, please. This involves your realm as much as it does mine."
She had his attention. He wondered how much she truly knew of his Level-Six banishment.
"Lilith burned you," Eve said, placing her hand in the center of his chest. Then her hand went to his jaw as his once-brown eyes began to flicker red then black. "As long as you remained on your throne and the portals were closed, our respective sides kept a margin of order."
He captured her hand, kissed the back of it hard, and walked away. "That is what I always so loved about you, Eve. You were always the epitome of diplomacy. A gorgeous, fair, sensual diplomat that could always understand both sides of the equation and appreciate the delicate nature of things. But that bitch, Lilith - "
"I know," Eve said carefully. "However, our young Neterus were too emotionally traumatized to act quickly enough to behead her. It was their child. In Lilith's sloppy departure she left the gates opened from her previous scheme. Initially, the dark Realm's food sources, the Damned, began to escape sporadically. Now all original demons from those realms are currently flooding topside, like lemmings fleeing from something chasing them underground. But no order has yet been given to commence outright war. I came to you to understand why you would destroy your own human soul supply, and would allow your own armies to be turned to ash, if - "
"It wasn't me," he said flatly. He kept his gaze on the ocean. "You might as well know that my throne has been turned to rubble for assisting Lilith. I cannot return subterranean, even if I wanted to. Father's orders." He looked at her hard. "We go back many years, and I trust that you and I have at least some honor between us. For helping the young one I lost all that I owned. This stays between us."
Eve nodded. "Fair exchange."
He nodded. "Then do not rob me of my dignity."
"I won't." Eve allowed her voice to drop to a sensual murmur. Dante didn't need to know that they were fully apprised of his reasons for helping the Neteru team. She moved in closer to him, baiting him with his oldest vice - herself.
"I always loved you," he said quietly.
"I know," she murmured. "I could also never get you out of my mind. It cost me a throne, too, Dante. Aset rules the Council of Queens, not me. That is why I had to inform her."
"They made a very poor choice, then," he whispered, stroking her cheek. "The first Neteru on the planet... soft, innocent, trusting, and beautiful beyond comprehension... one that trailed ripening like..." He closed his eyes briefly. "There's been no other made like you."
She covered his hand and allowed a well-timed sigh to escape her lips as an answer, and watched him swallow hard.
"There's been no other like you, ever, Dante," she whispered, her tone husky enough to lower his fangs to passion length. She hadn't lied in any of her statements, therefore there was no way for him to detect fraud. She'd never forgotten him, or how he'd deceived her. There had been nothing like him ever created. It was all the truth.
"I was a virgin when we met," she added in a wistful tone. "Do you remember?"
"How could I forget?" he whispered, now embracing her fully and allowing his hands to trace her shoulders. "You still remember . . ;"
"Vividly," she said, nipping his neck and eliciting a gasp from him. "Where's your lair?"
"The Himalayas," he murmured, beginning to slip her gown off her shoulders. "We could go there tonight, if the Mediterranean doesn't please you."
She briefly captured his Adam's apple between her teeth, then released it, and spoke hotly against his skin. "Show me in my third eye, first. I need to be sure we won't be discovered or that Lilith won't intrude."
"You would allow me to lock with you?" he asked, his voice now gravelly as he began to move against her while nuzzling her hair.
"Only if you are honorable and do not attempt to harm me."
"I proved honorable when I assisted the current Neteru, did I not? Harming you, dear Eve, is the last thing on my mind. Believe me."
"I don't know," she said, pulling back a bit to string him along. She theatrically glanced at the sky and then back to him as though a lightning bolt might strike her. She used seconds to her advantage. Her hesitation made him pause and give her a bit of distance for her safety, not wanting anything to spoil the opportunity. But in the brief silence, she could feel his anxiety crest like his fangs.
Their side knew his actions had nothing to do with honor, but self-preservation, and a chance to keep what would have become his father's second heir from taking over the world so that he could. She was only here because Damali's call had registered on every ring of Heaven. The Neteru Council of Queens had dispatched her as the most efficient assailant to get critical information from the only source that had it.
"It was a very odd bargain," Eve finally said. "But you helped our Neteru and kept the Antichrist from the planet for a few more years. Thank-you." She glanced around nervously again. "Maybe if you let me know where to meet you, we can work something out."
He held her face with both hands and placed a kiss on the center of her forehead, making it burn. "Meet me there," he whispered, "and whatever they do to you for the offense will be worth it in the morning."
"It had better be," she chuckled. "Nzinga will cut my heart out, if you-know-who doesn't get to me first."
"Then tell Him to send you to me. Shit... I'll resurrect you," he said, becoming bolder as his desire built.
"Can you do that without your throne, and the assistance of the fallen angel... since I'm already dead?" she asked as innocently as possible, already knowing the answer was no. "Because, then..." She allowed the possibility to hang between them.
The Chairman sighed, appraising her beauty and wishing the tedious conversation could wait until another night.
"You are well aware that my father is insane and took issue with his wife's treachery... and my assisting your Neteru to injure her. Since the embryo went into the Light, Level Six cannot procreate. Vampiric turns are going to ash, until he is finished with his rage. I may have overstated my capacities at the moment, but for you, dear Eve, I would endure another thousand years of his wrath." He chuckled sadly. "If you visit me, and they find out, at least we'll be together in the realms, hmmm?"
"Oh, Dante," she whispered, her hand going to her mouth, avoiding the twisted offer and decisively changing the subject. "What does that mean for the vampire nations - and you?"
"Nothing," he said as calmly as possible, her concern for him a torch to his libido. "He simply replaced me with his other heir apparent. That's who flushed the pit in the midst of his young, blind fury."
Feeling suddenly trapped, the Chairman stepped away from Eve, walking back and forth as the gravity of the situation and the indignity of it accosted him. He began to talk with his hands as he sputtered in outrage. "Young, stupid, insolent bastard! He thought he could just step into a ruling-level throne and run six realms without grooming and experience!"
The more he paced, the more fury entered his system as Eve stared at him. "I would have shown him everything I knew... brought him into his season with majesty in due time! But the sonofabitch pulled one of the most treacherous coups I have ever witnessed. Then, he threw it all away by flooding the realms instead of closing the breach and rebuilding layer by layer. His dark energy is scattered, affecting everything, bringing notice!" He parted his hair with his fingers and stared at Eve for answers. "What is wrong with our children? What has become of our future? They don't take a stand. They waffle from the Light and into the darkness, and back. How can either side empire-build on sand?" He looked down at his Grecian sandal - clad feet and then bent to collect a fistful of the grainy beach, allowing it to filter away through his fingers.
She came to him and hugged him, and her compassion almost made him sob. "I don't know, Dante," she whispered. "I don't know. We have the same problem on our side."
"Things should be black or white, shouldn't they?"
He held her back to stare into her eyes.
She almost felt sorry for Dante as she watched him struggle with the way the world had changed since his time in it. It was so tempting to ask who this new heir was, and how to locate him, so that the young Neteru could slaughter him. But she didn't dare press for more information than she'd already gleaned through just the merest suggestion of an affair. Any more, and she would have to offer Dante a night - an unacceptable trade. So she gave him empathy instead.
"Things were indeed once black and white," she finally murmured, her tone wistful. "But your father's bargain created a gray zone..."
He came to her and leaned his head against her forehead. "My absolutely insane father..."
"Dante... listen to me," she said softly.
He kissed the top of her head, stopping her words. "I love the way you say my name, even under these circumstances... Say it again, on a deeper breath, and allow it to run all through me." He couldn't even bring himself to smile as her eyes searched his face. "I can't talk about this sordid shit in the realms anymore... Send me a pain block through your voice... my name lingering in your mouth as I capture it." He closed his eyes and attempted a mental siphon without her permission.
She chuckled. "The answer is no before you even ask. Do not go further into my mind for an immediate beachfront seduction."
He pretended to shudder just to keep her melodic laughter mingling with the pound of the surf. "Just another little mind lock, Eve, after all these years? They surely aren't still guarding you as though you were a teenager... You're a grown woman now, love... They'll never know."
She laughed and pushed him away, seizing his mercurial transition into a good mood as an opportunity. "Who is the new threat? I'd rather have you on your old throne, where order was maintained, than this new problem." She folded her arms over her breasts. "At least you and I understood each other. You were never rash and impetuous." She smiled and gave him a sexy wink. "Well, maybe just once."
"Ah... you do remember." He clucked his tongue and chuckled low in his throat as his hot gaze raked her. "Flattery will get you everywhere. But to extract that level of information, only a barter in Dananu would be acceptable."
"Propose your requirement," she whispered to him in Dananu.
Just allowing him to see that she remembered all he'd taught her at the base of the Tree of Knowledge compromised him fully, so a flat-out seduction attempt was more than fair, he reasoned. He filled his hands with her hair and took her mouth slowly.
"All night, once again... in a garden. Then we can discuss it."
He watched her study his face, then glance up at the stars as though seriously considering his offer. The seconds of hesitation that she drew out made him tremble. But suddenly every light that had been in the sky, save the moon, went out. She giggled and shook her head.
"No can do," she whispered seductively. "They'll do the Armageddon, first, before they cosign that."
He chuckled low in his throat and ran a sharp fang down her jugular. "I ought to bite you just for teasing me - just take the plunge out of spite."
"And torch on impact," she whispered. Running her hands over his broad shoulders. "I have very old silver in my veins that stirs hot when unwilling... Shall we be serious?"
"You're sure you're unwilling?" He nuzzled her hair. "Not even for old time's sake?"
"No," she cooed.
"Why are you so uncooperative, love?"
"It's my job," she said laughing low and sexy.
"Then I guess the new kid on the block is going to have to work this out on her own," he said, kissing Eve's temple as he fought off a shudder when she stroked his neck. "This one is formidable. Might be her Achilles' heel," he added, teasing her to keep her smile radiant.
"I guess we'll just have to see," she whispered, closing the small space between their bodies and allowing her hands to trail down his back. "Since you insist on being so stubborn."
"This is unfair, Eve." His eyes held a combination of amusement and anguish. "Your side is as ruthless as mine."
"How so?" She cocked her head to the side, waiting.
His arms enfolded her again as he openly inhaled her scent. "You come to me trailing Neteru from the Garden, and tell me your husband doesn't know you're with me," he said, his breathing beginning to labor. "Fill my arms, allow me to sample your skin, your mouth, your voice... and your touch." He shook his head with his eyes closed. "Ruthless negotiation ploy and damned near effective," he whispered, brushing her mouth. "They wait until a man is completely compromised to strike. Pit father against son, wait until that son is dethroned, and then put the woman of his dreams for millennia in his arms and ask him a question." He nicked her earlobe and let the drop of blood fall to her shoulder just to inhale it. "Then deny that poor bastard as he writhes while insisting that he give up information they want. Evil."
He chuckled as she smiled wider and touched the drop of blood to her lips to taunt him. "Eve, you are dangerously close to the edge of battle on this beach. I've been through a lot, lately, and am not quite as rational as you may believe." His voice dipped an octave. "Especially with you... I might attempt a violation to go out in a blaze."
"All right," she said with a sigh. "I'll stop, but I had to try."
"So did I," he said quietly in a defeated tone. "I thought everything in the universe was negotiable, love of my existence. Don't leave. I've no one to really talk to or rule... and have been alone for months."
She came to him and ran her fingers through his hair as she hugged him. "Sometimes there's room for negotiation."
This time when he shuddered, it was no act.
"Stop toying with me, Eve," he whispered. "There is no such thing as resistance around you. I have to go, if you're not willing. Merely talking to you when I'm like this is worse than a battle in Dananu."
She sighed and allowed her hand to fall to his shoulder. "Then at least close the portals and help us hunt down Lilith."
"I cannot close off what her Level-Seven energy opened as long as she's alive. But hunting her down to adequately repay her larceny is on my agenda."
"Thank you," Eve whispered and took his mouth in a long, sensuous kiss. "You'll help us dethrone the new threat we're blind to, as well?"
"Oh, to be sure," he said, taking her mouth again. "I will bring you his head." He deepened the kiss until a groan fought inside his chest. "You can't see him? Interesting."
"No," she said on a breathy exhalation, practically swooning in his arms from the long kiss. "For some reason he's shielded to hunter councils. That is why we are so concerned." She closed her eyes. "Damn... you get me every time, Dante."
"You didn't do too bad extracting from me, either," he said, reveling in the skin covering her spine. "You have gotten older and so much stronger." He took her mouth hard, punishing it, then attended to her throat, but didn't break the skin, just made her gasp. "You said you were concerned - how concerned - tell me now?" he asked in a hissing rush of air, pulling her against him hard.
His hands had begun to slowly dissolve her gown.
She opened her eyes and gave him a glare through a soft laugh. "Not that concerned."
"Let's get back to the part about everything being negotiable."
Again the stars disappeared and angry gray clouds passed over the moon.
The Chairman sighed and let Eve go. "They play hardball with no sense of humor," he muttered. He studied Eve for a moment; the complete darkness temporarily fracturing anything rational left within him. "Only Neteru who has my heart, let me propose a tender offer." He waited as she stared at him, more ravishing in the complete darkness. "If I deliver Lilith's head and dethrone this pretender prince to my throne by summarily exterminating his young, arrogant ass... would you be inclined to wager another visit on a moonless night and remove the will barrier to me... just for one night?" He waited, knowing that he should allow her to answer before speaking again, but couldn't help himself. "That's my final offer."
"Let me take the request up with authorities," she said, smiling at him in the completely blackened night.
"That you would even propose it to your council inspires me."
She chuckled deeply and began walking toward the water. "Oh, Dante, don't be silly. This has to be discussed way higher than in council."
Stunned, he held her with a magnetic bolt of dark energy to keep her from leaving. "You would do that for me?" he whispered in awe. "Take such a request that high up?" He closed his eyes.
"I have to go," she said, looking at the dark energy current.
"Wait," he said in a rush, wanting to keep her talking and interacting with him for the rest of the night. "I hear the young female Neteru no longer has her blade."
Eve smiled. "That was a very sloppy attempt to make me jealous, Dante. Really. That was beneath you." She shook her head as his gaze slid away with embarrassment. "If she gets into trouble, you know we'll make sure it's restored when necessary." Eve remained serene. "But if you'd rather take your chances with her..."
He laughed, contrite. "She tried to strangle me, Eve. Have you ever? In my own chambers!"
Eve laughed with him and covered her mouth with her hand. "Dante, you are from the Old World with a different set of sensibilities. However, if you insist on running after a younger woman..."
"You know you're irreplaceable. She was just a fantasy, a diversion because I missed you so." His smile faded as his face became serious. "With you, I could withstand the night for several more millennia." He stepped closer. "With you, no daywalker would be necessary for me to find contentment."
"Ah," Eve breathed. "Then I stand corrected."
"I am dead serious, no longer negotiating."
Her smile faded and her voice became gentler. "Then I really must go."
"Did I tell you that you're beautiful?" He looked up at the now pitch-black sky. "They can eclipse every star and every moon in the galaxy, but I would still be able to see your radiance in the dark. Stay with me tonight."
She shook her head no, and for the first time since he'd spotted her on the beach, fear reflected in her eyes.
"We have a son together, we made life - you and I. We have history and laughter... we made history, and - "
"Dante, don't," she said, honest tears shimmering. "This conversation is over."
"Why?" he argued, coming closer as a long blade materialized in her hand. "Because you don't trust me or yourself?"
He nodded, satisfied in part. He looked at the Isis blade in her hand and then sought her eyes. "It always looked better on you, anyway."
She lowered the blade, closed her eyes, and raised her chin as though consulting Heaven. It did something to him to see her that way, so near to the breaking point that the joints in her knees were about to bend. He replayed the incident in the Garden for her in vivid color, texture, and tone, and she redoubled her grip on the sword. But the fact that she was strong enough now at her age to resist every psychic bombardment he was leveling at her impaled him where he stood.
"Have that conversation, please, and see what they'll allow if I deliver," he whispered in Dananu.
She didn't commit, just began moving forward toward the violet pyramid opening at the crest of the next wave, leaving him to remember everything all alone.
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