"Tell me about Lilith," Damali said, her eyes never leaving the man's face.

He brought his attention back to Damali and stared at her with a firm gaze. "We are about the size of Texas on your country's map. But we withstood the greatest powers of the eras, and were never conquered to be made slaves. With all we had against us, we used our natural environment-the Simien Mountains, and those to the north, where they call it Eritrea now, but they are the same as us, Ethiopians. All one family, same people, but split by wars and misunderstandings too much to discuss now. However, when we were one, evil could not come down from the Red Sea and take us; we stood our ground. You follow?"

Damali stopped breathing for a second and watched this man's eyes, nodding yes slowly. Although he hadn't answered her question directly, the words, "Red Sea," echoed in her mind like a train-crossing warning. Although she didn't understand it all, she understood enough. She also understood his need to be cagey about delivering the information. Level seven ruled the airwaves and could pick up a message in an instant. She'd been foolish to mention Lilith's name openly and admonished herself to not do that again.

But the fact remained, a tiny country that sat like a spec within the huge continent had withstood an invading power that had ransacked and razed nations ten times its size, but these humble folks with no arms to speak of had never succumbed. And that was possible because for all their diversity, they had all come together to fight as one and take a stand. Yeah, she definitely got it. Her skin itched to get reunited with her team. She almost stood and dragged the man by his arm, but decided that would be rude and too rash.

She leaned forward instead. "How did you do it?" Her voice came out an awed whisper.

"We are God's people," he said with a wave of his hand. "We are part of old Kemet, which stretched to the Nubian Empire." He leaned in close over the food and peered at her. "Askum will show you. We know our ancestors back to five thousand years. Even the queen of Sheba visited King Solomon joining nations, and her son became the first emperor here, this we know for a fact. We had the Nile, water, a source of power and commerce. We predate biblical history of Christ-we were Jews, first, and then we converted... some became Muslims. Fifty-fifty," he said, offhandedly.

Again, the whole issue of water. The clue was said so obtusely that if she hadn't been listening carefully, she would have missed it... just like the Druid told her-listen.

"I got it," Damali said, looking into his eyes without blinking. "I'm home, back in the last frontier of people who were never taken." As she said it, she could feel the earth's energy beneath her feet soaking into her. "They were outgunned, outmanned, but were not conquered-and they came from a complex blend of the Nubian and Kemetian empires."

He smiled and clasped her hands like a pleased schoolteacher. "Be inspired. Have faith and hope. Famines, droughts, wars, disease... plagues, but we never bowed to greater powers. Remember from your teachings that the meek shall inherit the earth. But we are not meek, the word was mistranslated-we believe it is the small, the downtrodden, andwe have the original Bible." He stopped as though allowing that last point to sink in. "The original one, the orthodox one, and our people, although small, have held their ground." He drew back and nodded. "Hold yours against that which comes against you."

"Always been my plan," Damali said, her voice strong. "I just need a good blade."

"We will travel by air," he said, dismissing her request for a weapon.

Damali let her breath out slowly. "Do we have to get on a plane?"

"No," he said in a casual tone.

"Good." She let out an audible breath and took a swig of water. Air travel had not been good to her lately.

"It will be by helicopter. My brother works at the airport."

Damali almost choked on her sparkling water.

"That is the only solution. Many of the Ethiopian Christian priests became monks and hermits in order to keep the religion alive during the ongoing attempts at invasion," he said without missing a beat. "We will pass Lake Tana, which sits as a basin beyond the thunderous Tis Isat Falls... we will see this from the air along the way. This is where some of the holy men held up on the many islands-some of them just small rocky places in the lake where they built monasteries." His eyes became sad. "You can only see from the air because many of the islands do not allow women."

Made sense. If they were up against Lilith, any female crossing a threshold would be suspect, and would make identifying her easier.

"That's cool," Damali finally said, hoping they could travel by rickety Jeep instead. Whatever, so long as they got moving.

"It is' my apologies to you, though," he said, seeming to fret about the dilemma.

She really didn't care. A lot of monasteries had strict policies against women setting foot on their grounds. What concerned her more was getting to where they had to go in one piece. She wasn't feeling air travel at all.

"No," he said, actually cutting off her thought. "To go by Jeep is too long a journey to get there before nightfall... and too dangerous, as there are still many unfound land mines along the back roads and in riverbeds. Foreigners aren't even allowed to really enter Askum freely-but that is no matter, we can provide papers to say you are here as my wife... we shall work that out."

His sense of agitation made her wary. Why was this brother intent on getting her into some chopper, and more specifically, why was it necessary that she go to this crazy lake that had monasteries around it? But she could definitely go with his aversion to nightfall and unseen land mines. For now, she'd let some of her questions rest. But he was so suddenly nervous that it was making her edgy, too. She followed his gaze as it traveled toward the horizon.

"You weren't supposed to be a woman," he said quietly, now picking at his discarded bread, then reaching for his water.

"Excuse me?" she said, not offended, but curious as a knot unfurled in her stomach.

"Heaven has imparted a riddle. I was told that the Neteru would first go to the monks, and then to my father in Askum." He studied her hard. "Without violating what is sacred, how can that be?"

Damali smiled, thinking of Carlos. "Have faith."

PANIC MADE him forget what he could no longer do. It was impossible to open the plane door alone with Dan slung over his shoulder and the junior Guardian's heavy backpack still strapped to his body creating deadweight. There was no way to judge what was beneath them-ground, a steep drop off the side of a cliff, treetops-they were blinded so badly by smoke and choking on gasoline fumes. Carlos handed off Dan's limp body to Monk Lin, and worked with Imam Asula's raw strength to force open the door. Were it not for Asula, Carlos would have tumbled out of it as the heavy metal creaked open and swung wide.

To his amazement, there was no need to scrabble at the inflatable slide. The flat surface of the ground was only a three-foot drop to safety, as the plane listed to the side, billowing clouds of noxious fumes. No discussion was necessary. Coughing and hacking the polluted air from his lungs, Carlos jumped down, turned, and accepted Dan's body as Asula lowered it to him. Marlene was still clutching her satchel and fighting stick in shock as Shabazz pushed her forward next, and in less than a minute, everyone was out and half jogging, half limping away from the potential inferno.

They all knew the deal. The plane was gonna blow. Father Patrick and the other clerics turned back once. Marlene shook her head no to signify that the pilots were already lost. The team put more than a hundred yards between them and the aircraft, scrambling over the rocky terrain around the rim of the lake, coughing, running while vomiting, trying to find shelter around the bend of a small crag. The moment they rounded the bend came the sound of thunder and the resounding shock wave that knocked them off their feet.

They hit the ground with a simultaneous thud, covered their heads and held stiff and shuddering waiting for airplane parts and fuselage to come back to the ground with fiery conviction. No one moved, no one turned to stare, no one breathed as the sound of heavy objects returning to earth and metal colliding with rocks rang out. The sky rained fire and death for nearly five minutes, and then all became still.

Shabazz was the first to lift his head and peer around. His movements made the others slowly begin to lift their heads, but it was a long while before anyone could speak.

"We've gotta move," Shabazz finally said, his voice a raw whisper.

Father Patrick pushed himself to sit up and crossed himself. His eyes met Padre Lopez's, and then Monk Lin's, and finally settled on Imam Asula. "Heaven help them," he murmured, his gaze toward the plume of black smoke in the distance.

There was no need for him to say more as everyone bowed their heads and said a silent prayer for the crew that was lost. Slowly the teams stood, the unharmed helping the injured, every person still wobbly as they tried to get their balance.

Dan roused to semiconsciousness and rubbed the back of his head, his backpack causing added inertia. He winced as he looked around, tears streaming down his face. Berkfield stood, but then slowly plopped back down, his legs unable to hold him. Jose seemed like he was about to pass out while Big Mike steadied him with one good arm.

Rider touched Big Mike's flaccid biceps. "Can you move it?"

Big Mike shook his head no. "Broke, clean through, I think." Sweat poured off Mike's face and he was shivering.

" 'Bazz, this man's going into shock," Rider said, making Shabazz hustle to Big Mike's side just before the gentle giant went down.

They caught Mike while Carlos steadied Jose. Marlene dropped her satchel and stick and was at their side as they stretched Big Mike out on the ground while she ran her hands over the known wound then his entire body.

Marlene began to examine each team member quickly and efficiently. With the exception of Mike, injuries appeared to be surface wounds and smoke inhalation.

"I'll be all right," Mike protested, as she examined him. "It's just an arm."

"Lie your big, lurchy ass down," Rider said, "and let Mar see what she can do."

The group had gathered in a small, ragged circle. Carlos squatted down and peered at Mike.

"I ain't never been hurt before," Big Mike said. "I hate this shit."

Carlos nodded. "Let her work on it. We need your strength, man. Mar's good. That's what she does."

Marlene glanced at Carlos, thanking him with her eyes. But the team stared at Berkfield as he stood and staggered toward them.

"Maybe I can help?" Berkfield said, glancing around the team. "I worked in the conference room on Carlos's cut."

"Wait," Father Patrick warned. "I've seen the laying on of hands before." He looked at Marlene. "Many times healers take on the wounds, just like what happened on the plane. When you healed Carlos's hand, it was a minor cut, This is a major break, and the pain from it can be staggering. I've seen healers go into shock themselves, and require medical attention."

"I can try to dull the pain in Mike," Marlene said quietly, "but I don't think I can shield his psyche from it all."

"I don't need her to take the pain," Mike said, closing his eyes tightly as agony swept through him. "I'm cool."

"Yeah," Berkfield muttered. "But I do."

The comment made the group look at him. Even Big Mike opened his eyes and squinted at Berkfield.

"Listen, I don't know if this will work, or if I can even do it. But I had an idea... like if we work as a team, Marlene. If you can stop some of the pain so I can lay hands on him, maybe I can help the injury. Like I said, we tried an experiment up in the conference room. I sealed Carlos's cut." Berkfield studied his hands as he spoke. "But it hurt like hell. If I try to heal him and have to pull that from him, Father is right, my ticker could give out." He glanced at the group, and then down at Mike. "I'm a lot older and not as strong as your big, burly ass... so I'm being honest about my limitations-but I'm willing to give it a shot." When Marlene nodded, Berkfield knelt beside Mike.

"No, he don't have to do that for me," Mike said through a pant.

"Yo, man, we family," Jose said, glancing at Berkfield. "Mar took a lot of the agony out of that near-turn I went through. She pulled the poison up and out and kept me going for days until y'all could get to Nuit, right? So, at least let her try, Mike."

"That was a spirit wound, brother," Shabazz said carefully. "Only time I seen a body injury healed was when Damali covered Marlene's chest. We need a Neteru, and this one ain't ready yet."

Jose's gaze went to Carlos. "No time like the present to learn some new shit,hombre . Our brother here is in agony. See if you can go in with Mar and draw some of the pain, or with Berkfield in a three-way, and draw it to you. Berkfield can't hang by himself. None of the rest of us has the ability like that. Plus, from your old life, you know how to seal a body blow, right?"

"I'm down," Carlos said, stepping forward.

"Your ass is strong as shit," Jose said. "I've seen it myself, and if you can't deal with it, it ain't to be dealt with."

"I don't want Mar on this detail alone, feel me?" Shabazz said, staring at Carlos. He motioned toward Berkfield. "This man could be in jeopardy of a heart attack. If you're down..."

"I said I was," Carlos said evenly, stooping beside Big Mike. He looked up at the others. "Y'all wanna debate it, or do this before this man passes out?"

Marlene clasped Carlos's hand. They each covered Mike's forehead with a palm and sat quietly, her lips moving, her shut eyelids fluttering, Carlos taking deep breaths. Marlene's eyes abruptly opened as Carlos cried out and a loud snap sounded. Two Guardians were at his side.

"Don't break the connection," Shabazz said. "If you pull out now, the injury could transfer."

"Oh, shit..." Carlos said, panting. His head dropped forward, sweat stung his eyes, and his body flashed cold then hot. Pain shot through his arm, up his shoulder, and pierced his brain. He struggled to tuck it beneath the layers of pain he'd remembered from Hell before he blacked out. This was bad, but not the worst he'd felt.

Slowly, calmness started to enter him. He could hear people asking him if he was all right, and could feel Marlene's gentle squeeze. It was almost as though he could mentally see the pain seek him, radiating in a jagged red line toward Marlene's hand, then stop and find his. Memories of the past collided with the present. He knew the art of healing, but then it had been supernatural, not a gift. But the human body worked the same way, nonetheless. Meridians, energy fields, all he had to do was stay focused on the damaged field and draw that energy to him, away from Marlene, away from Big Mike, and trap it until Berkfield could do his thing.

Another searing pulse ran up his arm. He let go of Mike. Pain slammed him to the ground. He was shuddering so hard his teeth chattered. He tried to send his mind elsewhere, think of anything but the broken bones. But his brain worried it like the tongue hunts for a missing tooth, pushing into the soft, tender spots, making him holler.

Marlene didn't let go of his hand, her grip tightening until the grimace on Mike's face was gone. And as slowly as the agony left Mike's face, Carlos could soon feel the pain abating to a dull ache.

"How do you feel, big man?" Rider asked Mike, as Marlene withdrew her hand.

"Way better. Thanks, Ma. You always got da juice," Mike admitted as he stared up at Marlene and looked over to Carlos. "Thanks, man-you cool?"

Rider knelt beside Carlos, who had only nodded with his eyes closed. "That was some cowboy shit, brother. You okay?"

Again, Carlos only nodded and continued to breathe deeply.

"This man went down hard," Shabazz said, stooping beside Rider with concern. "He went above and beyond, and I don't think-"

"I'm holding it," Carlos whispered through his teeth. "Let Berkfield fix that break fast, 'Bazz... this shit hurts like a motherfucker."

Berkfield moved quickly to Mike's side, glancing back toward Carlos once.

Marlene focused on Berkfield, her eyes intense. "Give it your best shot, partner. I don't know if it'll transfer, or how long the pain block will last."

Berkfield nodded, his gaze concentrated along Mike's arm as his palms slid down it. He winced and stopped, then held the place that brought tears to his eyes. But he didn't cry out, just made a face as though uncomfortable. After a moment, they all watched as the bone in Berkfield's upper arm began to move beneath his skin, and they all turned away as a sudden hard snap made them cringe.

Panting, Berkfield kept his hold on Mike's arm; cold sweat leaked down his forehead as shivers consumed him. Then suddenly he let go and vomited. Carlos curled up in a ball and shuddered.

"Test your arm," Berkfield wheezed. "That's the best I can do. I couldn't hold on anymore."

Mike flexed his fist and slowly lifted the tender limb. "Y'all got skillz. Thank you." He sat up with assistance from Shabazz and Rider, and then glanced at Carlos and Berkfield who'd both begun to relax.

Jose looked at Dan. "A head injury ain't no joke, though."

Carlos rolled over on his back and kept his eyes closed.

Berkfield stretched out beside him. "So, what are we now," he chuckled as he slung an arm over his eyes and breathed deeply, "the team's doctors?"

"Hired," Rider said, helping Dan to lie back.

"Seems we are gonna be in the ER a lot, Dr. Berkfield and Dr. Rivera," Marlene said with a smile, though still winded. "This mangy group is always getting themselves busted up."

"This is my cousin, Dori," her guide said as they quickly greeted the man who possessed a wide, infectious smile.

Damali extended her hand and shook Dori's, totally amazed at how the two men shared such a striking likeness. Dori was a little younger than the man who'd introduced him, a head shorter, a bit leaner and browner than her guide, but the family resemblance was undeniable.

Dori assessed her from head to toe and then bowed. "You're the famous one-the singer of truths!"

Damali tried her best to smile. That was all she needed-a fan to recognize her and to alert the media hounds. For once, things needed to be easy, go smoothly, and with no added drama.

"I have all your CDs," Dori said in awe. "I am honored to be your pilot. My cousin, Telek, tells me you are quite nice and have an invitation to our family elder's home in Askum."

"But you know we must be discreet," Telek warned. "Grandfather will-"

"No, no, no. I have told no one," Dori assured him. "This mission I will take to my grave as a secret."

"Thank you for taking us, and for keeping everything cool," Damali said, simply relieved to have finally arrived at the airport. The harrowing drive through Addis Ababa was enough to make her think it was safer to be in the clouds. However, the man's comment about taking the mission to the grave worried her no end.

"My pleasure," Dori said as they began to walk along the tarmac toward the helicopters. "You heard about the terrorists?" He had spoken to his cousin and had not even turned to glimpse Damali.

"No," Telek said, making the small threesome stop progressing toward the craft. "We were at the market, and we ate, but were engrossed in conversation. What has happened now?"

A sinking feeling crept into Damali's abdomen as she listened hard.

"A rocket-propelled missile, it is rumored, hit a passenger plane over Somalia this morning at dawn. But the aircraft returned fire, so it couldn't have been a passenger plane-probably military spies versus rebel forces," Dori said with uncertain authority. "It was smoking badly, went right past the airport in a Mayday landing, swept down, and went boom!" he exclaimed, talking with both hands and waving to show the force of the explosion. "They say it crashed out by Lake Tana. No one knows for certain, but it has made it difficult to get tower clearance."

Before he'd finished his vivid description, Damali knew it was her team. She willed herself not to scream. She needed answers and information. The one thing she'd learned was that things were not always what they seemed. She bit her lips to keep from speaking.

"But I trust that your government connections..." his cousin said, obviously unsure if they'd be allowed to fly today.

Dori smiled. "A chopper can go," he said with flourish and began walking. "I have friends who know me well. It's just the commercial jets that must wait." He walked taller and put more emphasis in his stride. "Let us go see Grandfather."

As Damali entered the helicopter and strapped herself into a seat, the hair remained raised on her arms. Something was so terribly wrong. She'd arrived in this strange land well after dawn. Could it have been possible that she was out of time-sync with her team? Why hadn't she seen a smoking jet cross the clear blue sky? And if that were the case, why wouldn't Telek have seen it-unless he hadn't been here until she'd arrived.

She prayed with all her might that the downed plane wasn't the one that kept flashing through her mind, yanking at the fibers of hair pushing through her skin.Please, God, not them. Please, God, not anybody, for that matter . Damali closed her eyes.

With only an hour left before sunrise, Yonnie stared down at the witch's red hair-spread across the pillow, looking like blood-and considered his options. She was all right. Might make a decent lair queen, as lair queens went. But in truth, he just wasn't feeling her. The succubus that he'd tried first had offered so much more of a mental diversion. Crazy hoe wanted to know how to get to council chambers.

He chuckled to himself, remembering how she almost came on herself from just the mental picture of the descent through the caverns he offered while doing her. Succubae were too easy of a conquest, though. Their bites, phantom. However, he had to admit, girlfriend was awesome, knew exactly what a master liked... this chick was just okay. He sighed. The coven was cool, and they had plenty of playthings to sample, but they just weren't what he really wanted tonight. Tara.

He withdrew from the witch's curvaceous body, studying the two punctures in her throat that he hadn't bothered to seal, and glanced at the sated expression on her face.

"Will I turn?" she asked, her eyes filled with excitement. "We never get masters through here, only second- or third-gens." She sighed and closed her eyes. "A master's bite. My sisters will be green with envy."

"It wasn't a turn bite," Yonnie said, materializing his clothes and dressing himself. He glanced at the changing light. It was time to go, and fast.

"What!" She sat up, indignant. "You promised to-"

"I said I'd give you an evening you wouldn't forget in exchange for info on why my territory was being overrun by were-demons." Yonnie looked out the window. This bitch was truly getting on his nerves. He didn't have to explain anything to her. After being denied Tara, he was still in a truly foul mood. "And given the way you were just hollering in here, I'd say I lived up to my end of the bargain."

She stood, snatching up the sheets to cover herself. "You arrogant vampire bastards are all alike."

"Correction," Yonnie replied, bored. "There's nothing like a master-so you need to get with that."

"Why won't you turn me?" she asked, coming to stand in front of him. She thrust her chin up and narrowed her gaze.

He sighed. "I haven't been sanctioned to, that's why, and I don't know if I'd feel like it, anyway."

She folded her arms over her ample, silicon-created breasts. "If you're a master and coming here to get your rocks off, then obviously the lair queens at your disposal aren't worth a damn," she taunted, glowering at him. "And if you have to wait for permission, then some mast-"

He reached out and held her jaw between his forefinger and thumb, stopping her argument while critically studying the now-bulging vein in her neck. It would be so easy to simply rip her throat out, to tear into the paper-thin flesh that was already devoid of color from his earlier bites. "Then I'd have to listen to your bullshit all night long, sis." He let her go and prepared to make a hasty exit before he committed himself to flat-lining her just because she'd gotten on his nerves.

"I'm sorry," she murmured, looking disappointed. "Don't go. It's just that I was hoping."

"You'd have to die. What about this don't you get?" Yonnie shook his head and gazed at the prosthetic fangs in her lovely mouth. True, she'd used them like the pro she was, but damn. This chick had a death wish that wasn't healthy.

"My sisters will come in here and join us in bed, if that's why you're displeased, Master." Tears filled her green eyes and she tried to blink them away without success. "All you had to do was say you needed all of us at your disposal."

He closed his eyes. This had definitely been a bad idea, but her concept had merit. Yonnie glanced at the window. "Five of y'all, and a brother's only got an hour."

"We've got a lair in the basement-concrete, reinforced metal door, and an hour with a real master would-"

"Nah. You crazy? I don't know your asses, and you think I'd allow myself to get set up to get smoked like that? Fuck it, I'm out. The info you gave me was weak, anyway. How you gonna tell me a succubus wreaked all this havoc in my camp and try to let that bullshit stand as info? Shoulda known." He shook his head and smoothed the front of his suit. "I did one in here tonight, and trust me, she wasn't strong enough to do much more than get a good nut. Probably blew your minds and got you all confused. I'm out."

"No. Seriously. My eldest sister, Gabrielle, has been doing the divinations. Let me call her, okay?" she pleaded, hurrying toward the door. "We didn't authorize a succubus to come in here. If one got in and..." Her words trailed off as she stared at him. "Something's not right."

Yonnie waited, feigning disinterest, studying his manicure as a shrill female voice sliced into his senses. Her voice alone was reason enough not to want her in his lair each night, but information was information-so he waited while worry formed a small knot in his stomach. He'd just fucked a succubus, and fucked her good, but girlfriend had gotten the path to council chambers, too.

Within minutes, three of the unoccupied sisters rushed through the door, the eldest one stepping forward with appreciation in her eyes.

"I'm Gabrielle," she said on a sexy breath. "When you picked Susan over the rest of us, we cannot begin to tell you how envious we were. Tell us you're going to make amends and heal this little family riff."

Man... he didn't have time for this shit. Yonnie appraised the three sisters, each owning the same dazzling green eyes and waiflike figures plumped by silicon and a little black magic, but they'd hard-dyed their long hair to unnatural black, blond, and copper, which gave them each a ghostly appearance. The stark contrast of the black thong lingerie made them seem as though they might disappear right before his very eyes. They practically looked like skeletons with tits. He could count each rib bone as Gabrielle sauntered toward him, donning glistening, red, spiked heels, thigh-high black silk stockings, a thong, and push-up bra. Her hipbones jutted out at glaring angles. If he was gonna get his turn-on, he would have preferred a coupla babes with thick thighs and bootylicious behinds and a little color-but hey, he did have almost an hour to kill.

"I don't mind turning you out," he said with unfiltered disdain, "but a man needs to know what's going on in his zones before all that. Feel me?"

Gabrielle leaned against him, stroking him with one palm. "Yeah... I feel you, lover. It's simple. They're opening the gates."

"An unsanctioned succubus got in here, too," Susan said, glancing nervously between Yonnie and her sister.

"That concerns me," Gabrielle said evenly. "Especially since there's a disruption in the gates."

Yonnie stepped back a bit and stared at her hard. Witches had been known to lie almost as well as vampires. They both smiled. Her sisters began to tremble as he exuded a slow seduction trance.

"It's true," she pressed on, glancing at her forlorn sisters. "We're getting all sorts of traffic that we normally don't get, and our regulars from your lower gens haven't been aroundat all . Someone is obviously hunting your energy trail very hard through your linesmen, Yonnie." She offered him a triumphant smile. "And nowyou're here? You do the math."

"You do the math," he said, sweeping his nose along her jugular. "I have about forty-five minutes, and there's how many of y'all in the room?" Yonnie glanced past Gabrielle toward her sisters. "Very tacky. Not my style. I could turn one of y'all tonight, if you can tell me who sanctioned the openings... but tomorrow night, I could come back to do this right."

"You've already bitten me," Susan said, coming forward quickly and yanking Gabrielle's arm. "Finish it."

"I'm the eldest-"

"Ladies. Please," Yonnie said, chuckling. "Susan did come with a good attempt," he said, moving toward the redhead and running the pad of his thumb over her mouth and fake fangs. "I guess I could give her a real pair." He watched the eldest sister move back with a scowl as the youngest one filled his arms. But he kept his eye on Gabrielle. That was the smart one, the one who had information, the one who had to live to explain what he needed to know before daylight.

"Can we at least watch you turn her?" Gabrielle whispered with a quaky voice as her hand slid down her abdomen.

Yonnie filled his fist with Susan's hair and jerked her head back to expose her throat, his eyes never leaving the eldest sister's as a moan escaped her lips. "Just talk to me while I do it," he murmured. "Nice and slow-you stop talking, I'll stop in the middle of the turn and flat-line this hoe without blinking."

The blonde and the coppertop were practically holding each other up as Gabrielle swooned against them. Susan had become a panting rag in his arms, waiting for the strike. He took mild pride in the showmanship of it all-if they talked, he'd give them pure theater. He almost laughed out loud as he allowed his fangs to drop to battle length and one of the sisters nearly fainted. Yeah... a brother was packing. "So," he murmured, lowering his mouth to Susan's jugular and adjusting his fangs for realistic turn length.

"Word is on the street," Gabrielle whispered, "that there's a bounty on Rivera's head." She gasped as Yonnie broke Susan's skin and began the slow siphon, their gazes locked while the youngest witch writhed within his arms. "The were-wolfen clans are making a territory grab, and I've heard the Amanthras have unleashed a few of their own to get in on the available assets, just border testers at this point... incubi and succubae are also trying to materialize themselves for the onslaught." She stopped, swallowed hard as her sister went limp, and whispered, "Yolando!"

He lifted his head. "Tell me something I don't know," he said, momentarily glancing at Susan as her nails dug into his arms. "I already know a council bounty is on my brother's head." But he didn't tell her that he didn't know the other legions could cash in on it. That bit of info was worth something. Council had never done a hit that involved the other levels. The chairman had to want Carlos real bad to go there. Unless...

"Don't stop," Susan wheezed, her gaze furtive and weakly going toward Gabrielle. "Tell him what he wants to know!"

"Appreciated," Yonnie said, lowering his mouth to her throat again, teasing her with a nick. "You all were saying?"

"We did a pentagram ritual to level seven," Gabrielle said quickly.

Yonnie bit down hard and closed his eyes, the women's gasps passing through his skeleton as he sucked hard.Yeah... and the Dark Lord said what ?

Instantly, he could tell something had gone wrong. The sweet blood in his mouth became acidic, forcing him to pull out and spit. Stunned, he stared at Susan's stricken expression. Screams from her sisters surrounded him. Their screeches intensified as Susan's body temperature heated up. They covered their faces and screamed louder as her flesh began to smolder. He dropped her and stepped back.

"You murderer! Ingrate!" Gabrielle yelled, rushing to Susan's fallen body as she began to quiver and her eyes liquefied.

"What did you do to our sister?" another yelled, going to her knees and crawling beside the slowly charring remains.

Susan was making guttural sounds deep in her throat. Her skin blackened at her throat where she had been bitten and then fanned out to cover her neck, shoulders, and face, running down her arms and torso until she was totally consumed. An internal blaze could be seen through her empty eye sockets.

"No!" the third sister screamed, walking in a circle around the ghastly carnage that was taking place in the center of the floor.

"We will have your head!" Gabrielle shouted, her finger pointing at Yonnie as she sent a black electrical current toward him.

He deflected it with ease, but went to Susan's body. Shoving her sisters away from her as she instantly turned to ash, he tried to reach out to her but couldn't. "I didn't do that!" he shouted, now pacing. "What purpose would torching her serve? Think!"

The three remaining witches huddled together, sobbing.

"Use your skills," Yonnie demanded. "I was in the middle of a legitimate turn, and she flamed. What the fuck?" He wasn't sure if he was more outraged than shaken. Never in all his years had he witnessed anything so foul.

Gabrielle wiped at her eyes hard and went to the dresser on the far side of the room. Extracting a small black velvet bag, she murmured quietly as she dumped stone runes over her sister's ashes. "We'll get to the bottom of this, vampire!"

"You do that, sis. I need to know who's jacking my turns. Blocking a turn, if you've lost council favor, is one thing. Torching them is another. Level six doesn't have that power. This is bullshit!"

The other teary-eyed sisters nodded as Gabrielle looked up, her expression confused.

"But this came from your own council," she said in a barely audible voice. "You're neutered," she said, her voice holding disbelief. "Your turn bite isn't just blocked, it's lethal."

"I'm what?" Yonnie stepped toward her and held both her arms, yanking her forward. Only hours ago he'd elevated Tara, and nothing like this had happened.

"You can't turn anyone. You cannot replenish your territory."

It didn't make sense. Yes, they would assassinate him. Yes, they would keep him from making more of his own, but the torch bite? Never done on six. Maybe they hadn't been lying. Level seven was definitely involved. Panic swept through him as he began to assess all the territorial damage.

He dropped her arms and walked away from her. "I don't understand. That is not our way. Cast the runes again!" Yonnie looked at her hard and then stared at the divination on the floor. "We always replace territory, immediately. You're wrong." The sweepers made sense. Level seven didn't have to come up for a basic vamp dispute. A new master would be made to bump him off. What the fuck did Rivera do?

Gabrielle carefully gathered up the stones while everyone in the room remained silent, waiting for her to get a second opinion. Again, she flung the stones against the pile of ash. "Your own chairman did this," she said in a faraway voice. "You were made by Rivera, and he's purging the entire zone of all he made, of all that could ever be made by his line."

"I know that!" Yonnie shouted. "Tell me about level seven and this damned succubus you claim-"

"You mean Lilith?" Gabrielle said coolly, her eyes studying him as he began to pace.

"That's bullshit," Yonnie whispered. The mention of that name chilled him. He backed up, studied the sky, his focus divided between the facts before him and Tara. "I have to go," he said, sure now that the transmission cover that he'd provided Tara hadn't held.

"We are now sworn enemies of the vampire nations, and level seven," Gabrielle said, picking up each rune stone one by one and kissing away her sister's ashes as she replaced them in the velvet pouch. She clutched it in her soot-covered palm.

"Good," Yonnie said, holding her gaze, "because, now, so am I."

"She's his lover."

Yonnie stared at Gabrielle. "She's the devil's wife? Get serious. Him, you don't fuck with."

"Your chairman."

Again, Yonnie just stared at her for a moment. "Now Iknow you're crazy."

"Am I?" she asked coolly, looking him dead in the eyes.

It was so treacherous that he couldn't speak. What could Carlos have done to make the chairman risk sure extinction? There had to be more to the puzzle than blowing a shot at the Neteru. "If you're lying, I'll kill your ass. If you're right, I owe you."

Gabrielle cocked her head to the side, wrestling with the proposed alliance.

"Obviously, my chairman hasn't been able to take all my powers back-for some reason. But if he did this hit with her..."

Gabrielle nodded, joining hands with her remaining sisters as the fourth platinum-haired sister entered the room and covered her mouth. "You'll swear allegiance to help us avenge Susan's death?"

"If you'll swear allegiance to help me avenge my councilman, Carlos Rivera's abuse."

The four sisters spoke in unison. "Done."

"My transmission was compromised!" Tara yelled as Yonnie entered the basement lair. "Where were you?"

"You got through?" Yonnie spun on her as he sealed the door against approaching daylight.

"Yes, and-"

"Save the drama about where I might have been. Talk to me!"

She stared at him. "Yonnie, what happened?"

"They torched a turn of mine-while she was in my arms, Tara!" He walked a hot path across the concrete floor. "Sonofabitch just-"

"You were actually going to turn an innocent? Get out!" Tara shrieked. "Get out before you-"

He waved his hand and knocked the wind out of her, making her fall to the bed. "Shut up and listen!" He raked his fingers through his hair, his eyes wild. "It was a willing witch, not an innocent. A barter; so these barriers aren't compromised. The only thing keeping us alive is whatever your people laid down here." He walked over to the walls, feeling them for the approaching heat of dawn. "I don't know if they'll hold, though. The Guardian compound had to have a better seal than this hovel, and black lightning struck it and the heat from that caused the brush fire. You saw that with your own eyes."

Tara swallowed hard and stood, going to the walls, testing with Yonnie for heat. "He's so weak," she whispered. "I tried to give him the code, and he had to write it down."

Yonnie froze. "What do you mean he had towrite it down' ? Stop playing, woman! I had to form an alliance with a weak-assed coven in order to watch our flanks. That's what we're dealing with, and now isn't the time to let some jealousy corrupt your logic. We have a major crisis to-"

"It was himand he had to use pen and paperlike a human ," she said slowly, succinctly, cutting off Yonnie's question while her even tone stoked his horror. "While you were out getting your swerve on, dawn fractured my ability to hold onto the connection." Tara locked and trapped Yonnie's line of vision within hers. "He was so weak I was ashamed for him."

Yonnie shook his head and backed away from Tara, tears rising in his eyes as he pointed at her. "You He!"

"I wish I were," she said quietly, finding the edge of the bed before she collapsed.

"Nothing!" Lilith said, blue-black smoke billowing from beneath her gown as she walked before the council table. "No Neteru! No Rivera! I personally looked in every man's face on that plane, and not one of them even resembled him." She stared at the chairman through red glowing slits. "Do you know what this means?"

"No," he said evenly. "Tell me, darling. Your fangs are showing." Pointed, leathery wings ripped through her shoulder blades casting a twelve-foot shadow over the table as bats above took shelter.

Her scaled, serpentine tail emerged, altering her spine and tearing through her gown to bear a spaded razor that sliced his cheek before he could pull away. As her rage mounted, her shapely legs transformed into gargoyle gray granite, the varicose veins in them thick and corded by stagnant black blood. Her once sexy spike heels became yellowed, clawed talons that now dug into the marble floor. Only her arms, torso, and head remained the sultry female she'd just been, although her lush mouth was brutally distended by a hideous set of jagged, demon fangs.

"Ipersonally intercepted the transmission from his lieutenants! They put a weak Guardian on the phone, and everything he said was garbled-damn their barriers. But it wasn't Rivera." Lilith's voice rumbled in a deep, threatening baritone, her breaths a ragged gasp between each word as fury overtook her reason. "All that's left of him is two last holdout vampires that aren't worth the bother to pursue beyond troublesome Native American shaman barriers. The master Rivera made was so weak he's taken to beddinghuman witches instead of real vampire lair mates!"

"That's because there aren't any left in his territory, except one, darling. A man has to do what a man has to do, especially if he's about to be exterminated. Have a goblet and relax."

She stormed away from the chairman and pointed at him. "I was so infuriated that I torched that little redheaded bitch while he was turning her. I should have incinerated him, too, and would have, if I didn't think he might still have access to Rivera. He only lives as bait." Her eyes flickered darker. "But that did send him a very serious message to call his maker, ASAP. So we wait."

"I know," the chairman said in an amused tone to stoke her ire. He glanced around unconcerned as the torches in the chamber went out and bats screeched in fear at her thundering. "I've also blocked his turns so he can twist for a century or so without a lair mate. The female is so weak that she barely took the elevation he attempted. I'll dust her when I have time-maybe while he's on top of her, who knows? But do not waste your precious time micromanaging this minor detail; it will be excruciating for both of them when I'm done amusing myself with their panic,that I assure you. I'm a patient man." He smiled. "Why didn't you just abduct and torture the information out of him?"

"Because Rivera would never come out in the open then, once he heard Yolando's howls. Are you insane? You saw how Rivera resisted my harpies! Neteru information about the female was locked inside his mind like one of our best vaults! It's clear those two loser vampires don't know where he is any more than you or I do!"

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