Yonnie and Tara touched down in the alley on Bourbon Street and looked around.

"I wouldn't have brought you to Gabrielle's unless it was an emergency," Yonnie said, his gaze going toward the pedestrians beyond the shadows. "So be cool when we get in there."

"No problem," Tara said, her voice as distant as her gaze. "I don't have any issues with Gabrielle or her profession. She is what she is, just like we are what we are."

Yonnie brought his attention back to Tara, conflict wafting through him as he studied her calm demeanor. "No, I don't suppose you do," he said in a tight voice after a moment, and then began walking. "I was foolish to think you might."

Tara didn't respond. What was there to say? It was better that Yonnie. relive his desires at a coven brothel in New Orleans than to insist on sex from her after he fed each night.

"For the record," he snarled as they exited the alley and blended in with the party people in the street, "I never insisted on anything."

"All right," she said, no judgment in her tone, simply fatigue. "Let's not argue about what is."

He grabbed her arm. She looked down at his hold with curious disdain.

"You know for a fact that since the Chairman's throne has been vacated, as a master, I can't deliver a bite that isn't fatal. No turns, no passion nicks, nothing, if it's on a human. No elevations on one of our own. So my visits to Gabrielle's place haven't been all you think." He dropped her arm when he realized that frustration was making him squeeze it harder than he'd intended. "You're the only one who can take my bites."

She nodded and touched his face. "I know." Her hand fell away, and she let out a long breath. "That's why, from time to time - "

"From a sense of pity," he said in a low rumble, "or to protect an innocent human?" He strode ahead of her muttering. "Either reason is unacceptable. Especially tonight."

Tara watched him alight the front stairs of the old French-quarter dwelling with the grace of the wind. She stared at his strong back and straight posture, as he held his head high. His dark Afro-style hair shone under the night stars and street lamps, glistening like a king's crown. Under any other circumstances, this man would have been a good choice, given the options her world presented. Yonnie was honorable, handsome, had defended their territory well, his only flaw was, he wasn't Jack Rider.

She took the stone stairs behind him, and leaned on the ornately curved brass rail that replaced what should have been wrought iron, waiting for one of Gabrielle's girls to open the door. Witches didn't do iron, Tara reminded herself, as she slipped off the silver shaman necklace that could cause any were-demon working girls offense.

"Thank you," Yonnie muttered and then depressed the bell as Tara put the jewelry into her coat pocket. "At least for appearance's sake, you could fake being with me as a real lover, not simply my semi-estranged wife."

Tara threaded her arm through Yonnie's, and leaned her head on his shoulder. "I need to go talk to him, so I can finally put things to rest the way I should." She stared up at Yonnie as shadows moved behind the wide, lace-covered, leaded-beveled glass panels in the door. "Let me go see Rider - just to talk. This isn't doing any of us any good."

"I forbid it," Yonnie said in a quiet tone as the door tumblers turned.

"I cannot be with him for the same reasons you can't be with a human. The last time... I almost killed him. You know that."

Yonnie's eyes shone with quiet, repressed desperation. "Then maybe I should have let you go see him a long time ago. But then you'd still mourn him."

"I'll always mourn him," Tara said with a sigh. "But at least - "

"I'll consider it. Now drop it," Yonnie said as a petite Asian hostess appeared at the door.

The young woman smiled, her upper and lower canines prominent and glistening. She wore a cocky air of confidence and a skimpy silk kimono that was a mere profusion of red and gold swirls amid patches of mink fur. "Is Madame expecting you, sir?"

Yonnie smiled and pulled Tara closer to his side. "Always."

The young woman nodded, offered him a slight bow, and motioned for him and Tara to follow her. The door creaked shut behind them with no aid of hands evident. On the way to the parlor, they passed an elaborate foyer covered in period tapestry, marble flooring, with a brightly burning crystal chandelier.

Tara's gaze took in the sumptuous space. Red velvet was everywhere, cushioning dark cherry mahogany love seats, chaise longues, and Queen Anne chairs all expertly arranged in gallery seating by a fire.

She sat on the edge of the sofa next to Yonnie, her back a little too rigid for the environment, which seemed to make the young female werewolf smile wider.

"Sir, let me be sure to go over our policies of the house, since your lady friend is obviously new to our establishment here," the hostess said in a demure, silky voice that flowed over the faux couple. "Accept my apologies in advance for what I'm about to say. However, we've recently had some unfortunate results from passion nicks delivered by much lower-level vampires than you and your lady... which I'm sure you can understand. But as a precaution - "

Yonnie held up his hand and gave the hostess a sly smile, showing just a hint of fang. "I brought my own," he said, motioning to Tara with his chin. "She knows to only do me."

The hostess smiled. "Very good, sir. I will go fetch the Madame to welcome you for the evening, and so that you may select from our varied offerings."

Tara peered around, more intrigued than offended. She watched a tall, voluptuous female with shoulder-length blond hair walk through the wall. But her fangs were a little over the top, just like her melon-size breasts. She also had the unmistakable glow of recognition on her face. Yonnie stood. Tara's gaze went from one to the other as they gently embraced.

"Love, when Madame said you'd be here, I had to briefly leave a client to personally welcome you to the house." The entity smiled at Tara, sweeping up her hand and kissing the back of it, then transforming into a man. The towering Swedish blond male looked at Yonnie. "She's gorgeous. Beautiful, dark, smoky eyes; delectable, cinnamon skin; hair like black velvet; and her body carved from a goddess statue of old. Sir, you have indeed outdone yourself." The entity's gaze raked Tara in a lusty, open invitation. "What is your name?" His patient gaze held Tara's as he transformed back into the long-stemmed female beauty he'd once been.

"Her name is Tara," Yonnie said with pride. "Five feet nothing worth of fine, ain't she?"

Tara smiled and looked at the entity. "Incubus or succubus?"

The entity kissed Tara's cheek. "Does it matter, as long as I can take a throat bite?" It glanced at Yonnie. "As soon as I finish up, which shouldn't be long - he's just a warlock, I could join the two of you? You know, we original Lilith are the only ones left that can take a passion nick without dire consequences, unless you prefer we fetch a human for a little bite-to-ash bondage? However, that is becoming an extremely expensive sport these days, and Madame has issues with the practice in her establishments. She feels it's bad for business, long-term... you understand, love."

"No, baby. I'm not going there," Yonnie murmured, stroking her flaxen hair, and eyeing Tara from his peripheral vision. So what if he'd lied. The brothels were still somewhat viable, and she hadn't been treating him right. "It's such a waste of natural resources," he added, returning his full attention to the blonde.

She sighed, shook her head, and straightened the thin strap of her short red negligee. "I'm glad you understand, love. The whole business is so sordid. What has become of the realms whereby one has to utilize excess energy to protect oneself from a simple nick? We truly miss our VIP vampire clientele." She breathed out, tracing his jugular with one finger. "You all were simply the best, and all of the girls are so glad there's at least one master still around." She brushed Yonnie's mouth with hers. "That's why when you visit we spoil you so."

He chuckled as his hands trailed down her back. "Yes, I must admit... you ladies do know how to show a brother some love."

"Oh, Yolando," she whispered. "I remember sooooo long ago, it seems, when a love bite wouldn't exterminate and the human girls could add a bit of color to our love games. What do they propose, a dental dam?"

"Yeah, I remember those days, too, baby," Yonnie said, chuckling as he swept the entity's cheek with a brief kiss. "But I'm just here tonight for a divination. Then I'm gonna call it an evening."

The entity pouted. "Oh, poo... wait till I tell the girls on the third floor. They have been positively writhing for one of your extended visits."

"Give Zaire my best regards when you tell them," Yonnie said with a wink. "Better get back to the warlock. Curses can be a nasty thing to have to shake in the morning, especially with all this crazy energy floating around."

The entity nodded and waved over her shoulder as she walked through the wall. "Toodles," she called out, momentarily leaving behind her wriggling fingers and a visible red kiss hovering on them before blowing it to land on Yonnie's cheek through the wood.

Yonnie laughed, rubbed his cheek where the sensation landed, and sat down. "T, the folks in here are cool."

"Like I said, no problem," Tara replied, swallowing away any traces of jealousy that tugged at her. But she lifted her feet up from the floor quickly and hissed, alighting on the sofa like a cat, as a thick-bodied black adder slithered toward Yonnie's shoes and went up his leather pant leg.

"Oh, stop, girl," Yonnie crooned, laughing and struggling with his zipper to let the snake out. "I told y'all, I wasn't coming up to the third floor tonight. I'm with my lady."

Tara leaped back and dug her nails into the wall panel above the fireplace, hanging from it like a treed feline that had seen something to arch its back.

In a slow, sultry, serpentine sway, the adder drew itself out of Yonnie's pants, the head and torso of the entity transforming while her gleaming, black-scaled body remained partially submerged and pulsing beneath the leather.

A dark-skinned black beauty sat on Yonnie's lap, hypnotically swaying from side to side, her long microbraids moving like a thousand miniserpents over her muscular back. Her green eyes sparkled like emeralds beneath the chandelier, and she closed her smoky, charcoal-colored lids down to slits, hissing a hot breath of air against Yonnie's neck.

"Baby, pleasssse, tell me you are going to come sssseee Zaire a little later? It'sssss been soooo long," she murmured, every s holding a snakelike sibilance as she fussed with Yonnie, but never left his lap. "I missssss your anaconda... how issss he?"

"Baby, right through here, I can't do Amanthras. You know that's my weakness," he said in a playful tone. "As fine as you are, I'd have to bite you for real without an energy barrier, then you'd be ash before morning. C'mon, girl, stop."

The entity on his lap sighed and drew the lower half of her snake form out of his pants and stood. She caressed his cheek and glared at Tara, who remained on the wall, perched upside down and hissing.

"She needs to chill and learn to respect a little diversity," the shapely Amanthra said, covering her naked form with a thin sheath of transparent snakeskin. She put one hand on her hip, and flipped her middle finger toward Tara with the other hand, as Tara came off the wall. Her body continued to sway in slow, predatory motion as she flashed Tara a pair of huge, venom-dripping viper fangs. "Any day, bitch. I can take a bite as good as give one - so back up off the master when in Gabrielle's house."

"Don't you have a client to service?" Tara said, not retracting her fangs.

The Amanthra put up her hand in Tara's face, then looked around it, blew Yonnie a kiss, and slid out the door.

"T, didn't I ask you to be cool?"

"No, you told me to," Tara said, folding her arms and staring at the door.

Yonnie smiled. He liked her anger. He wasn't sure what it was that had set Tara off, but it was very flattering. Did something nice to her skin tone, made those dark Native American eyes of hers glisten and almost glow red. "If you treated me nicer, with a little more regularity," Yonnie murmured, "I'd have no reason to come here."

Tara moved around the polished wood coffee table. "The Madame is on her way. Focus on whatever's in her crystal ball, would be my suggestion."

Yonnie laughed, stood, and opened his arms for Gabrielle to fill them when she swept into the room.

"Yonnie," she said, careful not to spill her goblet of blood on him as she hugged him hard. She then held him away from her to allow her gaze to rake him. "I was with a client. Oh darling, don't be offended. We've lost so many girls to ash recently that I've had to help out with some of the more aggressive VIPs." She spun to greet Tara and gave her an air kiss. "Things are not what they were. People are literally possessed. Insane. What happened to the pleasure principle, I ask? It is driving costs skyward!"

Tara gave Gabrielle a gentle hug and held her hand for a bit, but kept glancing at the goblet and the red stain on Gabrielle's mouth. "Gabby, are there many weres in the house tonight? I know your girls are strictly business, but the client guys from Level Five..."

"Oh," Gabrielle scoffed and took a dip sip for her goblet. "All in caged rooms for the night with their female selection from the house. No worries. We haven't seen any senators for a long while now, and those in here aren't going to be of too much concern. Our bars and chains will hold. I reassure you, our bouncers all have silver bullets, should any of them get a little too rowdy."

"Good," Yonnie said, nodding, and picking up Tara's concern as he watched Gabrielle practically guzzle blood. "Like I said when I called, baby, there's been some strange shit going on subterranean. I felt a power surge; so did Tara. Our main man is missing, and yet instinct was telling me he was nearby, but I couldn't spot him."

Gabrielle had changed her hair, he noted. It had once been dyed black. Now she was heavier, thicker, more voluptuous. All of it was disconcerting.

For the first time since they'd been in Gabrielle's house, Tara drew close to Yonnie without having to be asked to do so. Gabrielle tightened the belt on her long, floor-length, black silk robe and flipped her auburn tresses over her shoulder. As she walked deeper into the parlor, feathers from her spiked ostrich-plumed mules gently shifted with the disturbance of air that her hem caused.

Reaching up into the Louis XIV breakfront, she lifted down a large crystal ball and beckoned with a gentle sweep of her hand for Yonnie and Tara to join her at the small round Chippendale table in the private back room.

"Baby," Yonnie said carefully. "What's with the blood? How you feelin' lately?"

"Oh, this," Gabrielle replied in a distracted tone. "I don't know. About a month ago, I started picking up some of my clients' bad habits." She chuckled and placed her hands flat on the table, staring into the crystal ball. "Nothing to worry about."

"Have you been having any bouts of rage... yearnings to eat human flesh?" Tara sat slowly and placed a gentle hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.

The two women stared at each other, and then Gabrielle glanced up at Yonnie.

"I only have one body in the refrigerator," Gabrielle said, not answering the question and becoming defensive. "He was a serial killer. We took him out of the general population before he hurt any more innocents, and his soul was damned anyway... We keep food supplies on hand for our werewolves. It's just business. Child molesters, murderers, I think we do a better job at ridding the planet than the human prison system. Don't tell me you've gone - "

"Gabby," Yonnie said quietly, as he stood behind her, held her shoulders, and kissed her temple. "I want you to try to lay off the human food. There's a really bad virus, or contagion, spreading up from the portals. That's why we're here." He stroked her hair, took up one of her hands, and sat beside her. "No judgment, and I know you all just clean up the human scum as a public service... but, honey, one night you might cross the line and start going after normal civilians. Then Carlos and Damali, or even your sister, Marjorie, won't be able to petition for you in any kinda way. Feel me? And, you do not want to close your eyes to this life and wake up in the realms where you've got a lot of enemies. All right? I can't go subterranean to help you, if that happens... and I can't bring you into my family by a turn to give you a way out."

Her eyes shone with quiet desperation. "You think I'm infected?"

"Given the line of work you're in, baby..." Yonnie squeezed her hand. "That's why we've gotta find our boy, so we can close this shit up."

Gabrielle's nervous gaze shot to Tara, and then she dropped Yonnie's hand and stared into the crystal ball. "We all knew that since Lilith fled, things had been different. But we assumed after she and her husband patched up their rift, everything would go back to normal."

"So did we," Tara said quietly, her gaze intent as she stared at Yonnie. "We thought the Chairman might even work his way back into his old position, so that things could... stabilize."

"He's still not on his throne?" Gabrielle covered her heart with a flat palm. "He still exists, though?"

Yonnie nodded. "I can't locate my boy; Carlos, but I felt a power surge that gave me ridiculous wood," Yonnie muttered. He glanced at Tara and then sent his gaze into the crystal globe. "It happened so hard and so fast... I haven't felt like this since I got made. So, I'm hoping that this is a positive development. Like maybe the energy leaks are sealing up and the portals are closing, that's why the power felt like it had concentrated."

Gabrielle nodded and caressed the crystal ball as her eyes slid shut. "My sight has been a little... off. But let me see what I can do."

Yonnie and Tara waited, their breathing becoming so shallow it was practically nonexistent. The ball filled with charcoal smoke as Gabrielle coaxed her divination tool to respond. Tara watched Yonnie as his gaze went out the window, the muscle in his jaw working hard.

Every so often, he'd run his tongue over his teeth, and little by little his eyelids lowered by a fraction.

"You got anything yet?" He finally said, standing abruptly to pace to the window.

He stood with his hand at either side of the window frame, his back to the table, taking in slow breaths and releasing them with effort. His desire was palpable even from across the room.

"The portals are wide open," Gabrielle whispered, her gaze riveted to the ball. "I can't see any activity below... It's like everything's vacated."

"Can you pick up Carlos's essence?" Tara's voice had become strident.

"No," Gabrielle murmured, a frown of confusion crossing her face. "There's no trace of him there. I felt it for a fleeting moment, but if he'd transported through Hell, I know his signature well enough to have felt it, even if he went in as a Neteru. Especially that, because I would have immediately seen silver tracer and human aura where it shouldn't have been." Gabrielle looked at Tara. "He would have stood out like a sore thumb."

"Go deeper," Tara said, her breaths becoming stilted as she spoke. "Go into the Chairman's Chambers and see if you can get a glimpse of his throne. If he's been reinstated, it should be intact, blood from the table flowing. Maybe that's why, as vampires, we felt the surge... and its effects. Check his torture wall, any place that Carlos might have been dragged to and held hostage."

"If you go that deep," Yonnie said in a low rumble without turning around, "then I'ma need a room for the night."

Tara and Gabrielle glanced up from the crystal ball and stared at his back.

"I can arrange that," Gabrielle said quietly, almost standing to go to him.

"But can she?" Yonnie asked, referring to Tara. "This is more than an elevation rush I got here."

Tara nodded, and placed a hand over Gabrielle's. "I'll stay with him. Stock the suite bar. He'll torch you or flatline me in this condition."

Yonnie turned away from the window slowly, his eyes glowing red as he appraised Tara, and simply nodded.

"You all right, man?" Jose said quietly as he came onto the porch. He peered at Rider, whose jaw muscle kept working as though he were chewing tobacco. His gaze discreetly slid to the bottle of Jack Daniel's and fresh pack of smokes that sat beside Rider, untouched.

"Yeah," Rider said. His voice was low and he never turned to look at Jose when he'd spoken. "Time for a change, partner."

Jose nodded and came down a step to plop down beside Rider. "Yeah."

They sat that way for a long time, staring out at the stars and saying nothing.

"You taught me a lot of things along the way, man," Jose said in a cautious tone. "I appreciate that."

"It was my job," Rider said flatly.

Jose smiled. "No it wasn't. Not all the things you taught me since I was a kid. But it kept my head right."

Rider nodded and spit over the edge of the step. "Then I suppose I served my purpose."

"Things change, man," Jose said, his tone gentle, probing lightly as he collected each word. "You taught me that. I had to accept things and move on."

"You are gonna make me open this bottle of Jack and pull out a butt, if you keep traveling down this particular road, partner. Not tonight, okay?"

Jose leaned over, reached around Rider's stone posture, and gathered up the booze and cigarettes to place them neatly by his side. "You told me I couldn't die from this shit, and you know what? You were right."

"I lied," Rider said in a flat tone, and began polishing the barrel of his gun.

"Nah, you didn't lie. I lived, made my peace; I see her with who she's supposed to be with, found somebody else. We cool. It's all good."

For the first time since Jose had sat down, Rider offered him a sidelong glance. "Yeah, you do see her every day, don't you?"

"With him, too," Jose said, opening the Jack Daniel's and taking a swig. "First time they went into a hotel room together, was about to put a nine to my skull... And hearing that shit down the hall?" Jose shook his head. "Wasn't right for weeks. But, like you told me, I had to suck it up. That's where she was supposed to be. The two of them are a matched pair; they have the same energy, same lifestyle and mission. The sooner you let it go and realize that it wasn't because she didn't care, wasn't like she didn't ever love you..." Jose held out the bottle, but Rider held up his hand and closed his eyes as he took in a deep whiff of its fragrance.

"I still got that shit in my nose," Rider said. "Cap it up for me, would ya?"

Jose quickly complied. "My bad."

"One day I'll be able to smell it, be around it, and it won't give me the shakes, but tonight, while I'm trying to go cold turkey, I can't tolerate it."

"You're gonna feel like shit for a while," Jose said, nodding and hiding the bottle behind him. "If you need a coach, you call me. Sheeit, I still need a coach myself."

Rider smiled a half smile. "Once an addict, always an addict."

Jose pounded his fist. "No relapse, brother."

"No relapse, brother." Rider stared at the horizon. "Yeah. Time to shake this and move on. Might even go buy me a brand-new Harley - red seat this time. Maybe flaming-fucking-yellow. Who knows?"

"New people, places, and things," Jose said, standing and collecting the bottle and smokes.

Rider stood and stretched. "You think Mar is serious about going to Tibet? I can see it now, going on another Marlene-inspired, spiritual, monastic quest to no-man's-land."

"Marlene has more reason to go to Tibet than any of us are talking about', man," Jose said quietly. "How's your nose?"

Rider absently pounded Jose's fist and kept his eyes on the horizon. "Were-jag all in it. How's our brother Shabazz holding up under the pressure?"

"Like me and you - fucked up one minute, cool the next. Sometimes when I get too deep into my own drama, I forget I got brothers dealing with the same pain. But, hey, I'm human. At least I am for the next thirty days."

Rider nodded and sighed. "Yeah... Tibet might be a good change of scene."

"Mar already called Chief Quiet Eagle. We're leaving the computers and ammo for them to fend off whatever, like we always do when we leave civilians. Can't ship it no way. Shabazz already made contact in L.A. for whatever ammo we'll need there on a temporary basis. All we gotta do is get our individual gear packed. Everything else gets donated back here for families in need, and we'll argue about the money we outlaid to build, later, Dan said. So, I'd take that as a readiness call to move out. Marlene wants to get back to L.A., find real estate fast on the fly so we'll have something to come back to."

Rider chuckled. "Just like Mar to try to put a positive spin on things and act like this is a normal, run-of-the-mill job."

"Keep hope alive, man," Jose said, but carefully unscrewed the bottle and took another swig of Jack Daniel's. "She's got J.L. sending plans to Covenant-referred contractors by e-mail; we get our travel shots as soon as we get into L.A. Marlene wants the necessary renovations on whatever we buy done by the time we come home. You know Mar - efficient."

Rider leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "The woman is insane. Tibet is yak country!" Rider lifted his head, opened his eyes, and sighed as he stared at Jose, not at all amused to find Jose smiling. "Dude, it's worse than Arizona. This is not how a man is supposed to go to war or live out his possible last thirty days of life. We are not going to a bachelor's paradise of Far-East exploration. There will be no Japanese geishas, no Thai cottages, or Philippine oasis, or even a good brothel in Nepal along the way. This isn't even the red-light district in Communist China, Jose. Are you hearing me?"

Jose laughed. "I think Marlene is one step ahead of you on the changing of people, places, and things. No packaged-goods stores, no - "

"See, you don't understand my angst. I need at least one vice left to cling to so that I know I'm human - a red-blooded American male."

"Like 'Bazz always says, there's a reason for everything. There are no coincidences in the universe."

"Kiss my ass," Rider said, chuckling, although peeved. "I'd prefer to go out in a blaze of glory."

"Assuming we live, Bobby and Dan gotta learn to focus, get the job done, and tough it out from watching a master tough it out... just like our male Neteru might have to get some sage advice about kicking his old drinking addiction from a temporarily celibate male in that last crucial month, hombre. That's why we're heading off to Confucius country."

"Why me? Why not the goddamned Covenant!" Rider closed his eyes. "I'm almost fifty. I can't tolerate - "

"Last round it was me, remember? And what did you tell me?" Jose asked, laughing.

Rider snorted and rubbed his palms down his face, shutting his eyes tighter, grimacing.

"Think about this, then," Jose said, teasing him and making him open his eyes with a poke in the ribs. "Bobby is in his teens. Dan is in his twenties. They are in pain. This contagion ain't helping."

"Well, since you put it that way," Rider said, shaking his head and rubbing the back of his neck.

"You need to talk to our boy, J.L., too. Now if anyone ever needed a Zen master to get through this mission, it's him. Brother can't even concentrate on wiring tubes or designing radar, much less sending a basic e-mail. Every time Krissy flits by and flops in a chair beside him..."

"I know, I know, his circuits blow."

"See, that's why you have a purpose," Jose said with a broad smile, and elbowing Rider in the ribs again as he passed him.

Rider flipped Jose the bird and then smiled. "Since you and Mike don't do nights out with the boys anymore, I guess you won't mind if I take Bobby and Dan to go watch the girls dance the poles in L.A. before we head out?"

"With my blessings," Jose said, bowing like a martial arts instructor with the bottle balanced between both palms. "I cannot go watch the girls without severe consequences, but I can help you pick out a Harley once we return home, oh enlightened one."

Both men chuckled as Jose stood up straight. But slowly, Rider's expression became serious.

"I'm cutting back on the Jack and giving up the smokes."

"Good," Jose said, looking at Rider's grave expression.

"Let me ask you something, though."

Jose nodded as he continued to stare at Rider, new worry lacing through him and sobering his mood.

"Is my nose off, or did you smell metallic substance when we were all out there?"

Jose hesitated, and took in a deep inhale. He walked over to the rail, hocked and spat. "Yeah, man. Ain't nothing wrong with your snoz."

"Then why didn't you back up my position in the yard?"

Jose paused and stared at Rider confused. "What are you talking about, man?"

Brilliant morning sun chased the last of the shadows that clung to the living room furniture. Carlos stroked Damali's hair as she finally slid into heavy REM, the nightmares only ceasing their torture at dawn. He stared at the coffee table, where two wineglasses stood near a depleted bottle of wine. Her glass was filled; his was not. Damali hadn't even taken a sip in his presence, but had snuggled against him once they'd sat down and was immediately out.

Despite her conscious confusion, her subconscious spirit apparently guided her not to share a drink of anything with him, not even water, while in the house... just as it seemed to block his advances by conveniently making her fall fast asleep and light up internally with protective inner silver. He could have attempted to physically violate her while she slept, but her will was strong even in her unnatural slumber, presenting an impenetrable barrier. She hadn't dropped that, even though he'd fucked her brain real good.

Carlos paused. What was he thinking? It sounded so crude even in his mind. He had never fucked Damali. He gently extricated himself from her embrace and stood, needing space to really call it what it was.

He hadn't just violated her mind last night; he'd raped it. He wiped his hands over his face and began to pace, not sure what to do. It didn't matter that, at the moment, she'd never know. The fact remained, he knew. What had happened to him last night? All he did was accidentally sit in the Chairman's throne - but he'd gone to Hell and had been forced into one of those before, yet never lost his true self. Why was this time so different? Could the contagion have altered his ability to cope? What if... ?

Carlos became still for a moment. He'd violated a direct angelic command to not sit in the throne. Was he insane? They had said wait for a sign, and he hadn't. He rubbed his palms down his face. His judgment was all fucked up.

The reality frightened him. It was as though there were two entities constantly warring within him. He could practically feel it beneath the surface of his skin. Every decision was an acute struggle to do the right thing. By day, he felt different. By night, he had something within his psyche that was too terrible to name.

New fear covered him in a sheen of cold sweat. What if, with this contagion in him and whatever else he'd picked up on Level Six, he didn't have a line? Just like he'd pried open Damali's brain and licked her gray matter until it trembled and shrieked and begged for mercy, one night he might brutally pry open her thighs to do the same to the sacred orifice between them. It would most assuredly not be his tongue that battered her... What if he totally flipped dark, kept her on her knees, and sodomized her - some twisted shit like that?

Last night he'd just come into the throne power, didn't know how to wield it, but like all things, he'd be able to in time, and her barriers would come crashing down. Carlos backed away from her shaking his head. No! What? His brain was flipping back and forth between right and wrong even in pure daylight! He needed to purge his system, and do it fast - but how!

He had to get out of there. He was losing touch with any mission he'd clung to, losing touch with who he had been before he fell into the dark throne and came back as something that now, in the cold light of day, truly scared him.

First her mind, then her body, and ultimately that might break her spirit. It was the way of that realm. Pure darkness knew no limits. Level Seven had no delimiters, no boundaries. Such an assault coming from him, a known, trusted source, might be more soul-scarring than from a stranger, an unknown predator that she could fight to the death before ever submitting.

"Give her back her blade," he whispered to himself as he glanced at her, retrieved and covered her with Jose's blanket, then made his way out the back door. He crossed the deck with purpose. He needed the sun, the Light, to explain.

Stopping abruptly as he made his way to stand twenty-five yards away from the house, Carlos lowered his head in shame, bent his knees, and dropped, not caring that small rocks and sand stones cut into his flesh.

"Please forgive me," he said, clasping his hands. "Don't let this thing take hold in me. Preserve my spirit. Get it out of me. I'm clinging to the thin thread of silver lining. I disobeyed, I know, but we're all infected... Don't leave me. Don't let me hurt her or the family."

She woke up with what felt like a horrible hangover. Damali sat up slowly and glanced down at the blanket that covered her. Vaguely, she remembered that Carlos had been there last night. In slow increments the accident and burning his clothes came back to her, but as she gathered the blanket closer to her, guilt stabbed at her. He'd wrapped Jose's blanket around her?

When she attempted to stand, she was forced to hold her head with both hands. She looked at the small coffee table and the remnants of dirty wineglasses and groaned. "No more, never again," she said with a wince. "How much of this crap did I drink?"

She allowed the rhetorical question to follow her to the bathroom, and then into the bedroom. Catching her profile in a mirror, she looked like pure hell in the disheveled clothes that she'd obviously slept in.

Blurred memories of insane, terror-filled dreams flitted through her brain like snatches of dark confetti, but she couldn't string together anything that made sense. All that remained was the sensation of pure horror and a throbbing headache that culminated at the base of her skull. Did Carlos leave already?

Then she remembered his potential relapse and began walking through the house with urgency. Her gaze tore through every room, half afraid of what she might see. God forbid that anything might have happened to him. If a pile of ash greeted her somewhere, she'd die on the spot of a heart attack.

But when she ran out onto the deck, bright sunlight made her shield her eyes. Relief dropped her shoulders and slowed her frantic pace.

She stood in awe, slowly lowering her hand from her eyes. He was on his knees with a lemon yellow towel wrapped around his waist, consumed in silent prayer near the cactus that had transformed into her long blade in the earlier vision. The way the new day's light played across his bare shoulders and sent a prism of color between him and the desert plant, made her squint.

Immobilized by the spectacle of watching him send his inner thoughts skyward, she added her own fervent message in silent refrain: Please let him be all right. Watch over him.

As though sensing her presence, Carlos lifted his head, stood, and turned to face her. When he stepped before the cactus, Damali stopped breathing. He was in the same position as he was in her vision, his brown eyes begging her with a question that she didn't understand. Pained, worried, glassy eyes filled with unshed tears stared back at her. He was shadowed, and outlined in a luminous frame of sunlight.

Suddenly, she flinched, mentally hearing the wind catch her blade, followed by the inevitable thud.

P/S: Copyright -->www_novelfreereadonline_Com