"I want to go into the Light," the voice said, and the wafting white mist that had been following Damali moved across the floor like morning fog. "I'm trapped."

Damali shook her head. She wasn't about to help some unknown entity by releasing it from wherever it was, especially if it wasn't already in the Light. "Can't help you, sis," she said firmly. "Not my job. Got things to do. Don't even know your name."

"If I help you," it whispered, "will you help me?"

Damali tilted her head. She'd taken a short walk on the dark side and knew a negotiation ploy when she heard one. Everything she'd ever experienced in that realm might also be to her benefit. She forced a chuckle. "Maybe," she hedged. "About the only thing I want now is the chairman's head on a silver platter."

"That can be arranged," the mist said, gaining in energy and swirling up to the ceiling. "But he never leaves council chambers."

Damali froze. Okay, this was a ghost, but how did it have intimate knowledge of the vamp empire? Something wasn't right. Her gaze followed the floating vapors. "Then, get me down there to blow the fucking hinges off his doors."

She watched as the vapor formed into a tight ball and ricocheted around the room.

"I don't know the way," the voice murmured, sounding agitated. "Only masters know. You used to be one, you should know." Then it let out a long, lonely moan and the sound of sobs echoed through the large room. "Oh, you're like the others and won't help me!"

Feeling an opportunity about to slip from her grasp, Damali peered up at the ball that was now in the corner of the ceiling. "I've fluxed back to my old self," Damali said, trying to keep contact with the dissolving vapor. "I have basic info, but not the route. I was never taken to chambers."

"Ask Carlos!"

The voice became angry and aggressive. Damali stared at the mist that was growing dark like a gray storm cloud, covering frescos and almost sucking the light out of the room. "Councilman Rivera torched in the sun."

The vapor lightened to a pale gray. "Oh... nooooo... then how can you help me?" More sobs echoed through the chamber. "The only one left hides where I can't go!"

Damali tilted her head. "There's one left?" Terror raced through her veins, making her do a quick calculation. They'd made another one that quickly?


"Where is he?"

"I can't... I'm no longer a vampire since our fight. I'm just a disembodied-"

For a second Damali was speechless, but she worked with her gut hunch. This was either Dee Dee or Raven.

"I can't help you, if you won't help me." Damali put one hand on her hip. "You're a ghost! Can't you invade his dreams; suck his mind dry? You used to be one of the hottest female vamps in L.A. Find out how to get down to the Vampire Council, and I'll gladly send your pathetic, wailing ass into the Light."

The moment she'd leveled the challenge, the vapors rushed down from the ceiling and began taking shape in the far corner of the room. A svelte, gaseous female body began to form. Damali took a fighter's stance and held the stick in readiness for attack. But she blinked twice as the facial features of the transparent entity filled in. "Raven?"

Raven covered her face. "I want to go home. They opened the portals. I never knew what I was getting into." She looked up at Damali, tears streaming down her face. "Help our mother, Marlene. She was right."

It took Damali a moment to answer. There were no words.

"I messed up my life," Raven wailed, becoming vapors again, her voice reverberating off the walls. "I made hers a living Hell. I cannot rest. I am so tired. There is chaos. They don't know I'm missing, because the leaders are hunting for you."

The voice moved around the room so quickly that Damali almost fell as she moved in a circle, keeping it in front of her.

"What's coming will kill my mother. She'll die trying to protect you. I want to be in the Light when she comes. Tell her I am so sorry!"

"Okay, okay," Damali said quickly as the voice began to fade. "I have to get to Marlene first. But you and I could work together to get what we both want-Marlene alive, you in the Light, and me down at Vamp Chambers to go one-on-one with the chairman."

Raven immediately materialized, but stood back from Damali. "You would do that?"

"I want him, bad, girl." Damali stared at her. "I want Mar safe at all costs."

Raven nodded. Then she glimpsed the slow filter of light streaming through the window. "I cannot come to you on hallowed ground. But I'll lure the master from hiding and dredge his mind." She smiled. "He's new. I was Fallon's best lair companion. I'll know what he likes... what he needs." She gave Damali a wistful glance. "You've been one. You know what they like. Just don't renege on me, or I'll haunt you forever."

"You keep Marlene safe, and get me in front of the chairman, sis, and my word is good."

Raven nodded. "It always was. For what it's worth, I respected that... envied it. I've got a little Amanthra in me, too... but more succubae." She slowly dissolved, leaving Damali rattled. "Go home and wait for me to bring you information soon. I must work while he regenerates."

Raven vanished. Damali held on to the stick so tightly she felt like her hands would bleed. Several emotions crowded into her mind at once. When this was all over, she was moving out. It was settled. Marlene had served her time, had mothered so long till it didn't make sense. It was time for her to be given some peace, and not because death claimed her. The rest of the fellas needed that, too. The young bucks needed to have a life and experience-what she and Carlos once had, the full spectrum of love. Her man needed his powers back and some space to get his head together. Shit, she needed that, too. It was time for a change. Big change. To her way of thinking, the only way any of them would have a life is if she handled her business and addressed a very old debt. The chairman was going down. Lilith's head would roll. Then she was gonna chill. It didn't get any simpler than that. Win or die trying.

Damali let out a hard breath, stretched out her arms, and closed her eyes as she lifted her chin toward the ceiling, resolute. "Aset, I want to go home and to know where I am to be in this world. I open myself as a positive vessel to be used for the good, and only that. Please help me."

"Come child," she heard a female voice say. "Sit and learn."

When she opened her eyes, the face of Hathor was speaking.

Fear rose gooseflesh on her arms, but she advanced up the carpeted steps and sat down on the throne that was modeled after the ones that had once held great queens. The buzzing returned to her ears and the stick in her hand became a scepter that stretched into a golden rod. The head of it became a cobra that swayed to life as purple light enveloped her hand.

A sudden power rush filled her, making her arch her back and perspiration roll down her spine. It was so swift-moving and intense that she cried out, almost unable to bear the sweet heat. In dagger-sharp images she was connected to what Carlos had seen on his throne, a mirror opposite of hers. Worlds collided, armies warred, math and science and technology stretched her mind, languages bombarded her, and chunks of history flooded into her consciousness while scrolls of secrets wrapped in papyrus swam against the spiral of truths. She saw portals opened beneath the ground, lights in major cities going out, leaving a blackened landscape. The moon was eclipsed, a man with silver glowing eyes stretched out his hand toward her, his body rimmed in pulsing silver-lit energy. She called out his name and he came to her with opened arms. Then she was in a subway, running with her team, vermin squeaking and fleeing, tumbling over her feet to escape something horrible. A child wailed, and so did she. Then it all became so still in the bright tunnel.

Two entities approached her, the light behind them so bright that she couldn't make out their faces.

"Daughter," a soft female voice said. "I should have never left you, and won't now."

"My baby girl," a deep, familiar male voice said, holding out his hand. "We watch over you day and night. The Cradle of Humanity awaits you."

The moment they embraced her, she knew who they were. "Mom... Dad?"

"Yes," they said in unison. "Let us take you home. You have learned what you need to know. Let the guides help you make sense of it along the path."

Warmth radiated around her, lifting her closer to the light that cloaked them. A violet pyramid opened just beyond her reach, and her parents let her go. She could feel her body being sucked into the triangular vortex as they dropped their hold on her.

"No! Mommy! Daddy!"

But it was too late. They were gone.

Damali landed hard and cracked her head against a stone step. The thick emotion of parental loss still covered her and hurt as much as, if not more than, bumping her head. The dusty streets, colorful and chaotic, surrounded her and made her head spin. She tried using her stick to help her stand, but it was gone. She peered up at the brilliant blue sky and the dazzling sunlight made her squint. The warm temperature didn't stave off the chills that wracked her body. She shaded her eyes and tried to read the marker on the building, but could not. Yet she knew the language was Amharic. "Addis Ababa." The capital of Ethiopia.

Father Patrick nestled deeper into his seat as a fitful sleep claimed him. It had been so long since he'd seen his wife's smiling face, that when she came to him and hugged him, he openly wept.

He touched her soft cheek, remembering how much joy they once shared. Her large hazel eyes drank him in, and he filled his hands with her beautiful auburn hair, lifting it off her shoulders, the silken strands falling between his fingers. He stared at her heart-shaped face, remembering her mouth, the gentle swell of her breasts, and the curves of her petite frame. He knew he had to be dreaming as she kissed his lips gently and her body molded to his, still as svelte as she'd been when they'd first met. She had been so pretty...

"I have missed you so," he whispered against her cheek.

"It has been so horrible here without you."

He stroked her hair, watching the shimmering highlights in it while still allowing his fingers to luxuriate in the silken texture of it. "It cannot be so terrible in Heaven, my angel. I always prayed that you'd go there, no matter how you died. Our son, how is he?"

"Fine," she murmured, and kissed his neck. "But you seem to have been doing well for yourself," she said, pulling back with a gentle smile. "You have a new young man to care after. He's kept you busy."

He nodded and chuckled, kissing her forehead. "Yes, my wayward one, Carlos. He does keep me busy."

She gently brushed his mouth with a kiss, making his body stir in a way it hadn't in years. "Tell me about him. How did you bring him back?"

He sighed. "I didn't," he murmured. "Have you come to finally take me home, darling? Tell me my days are over, and that I can be with you and our son again."

Tears filled his eyes, making her form blur.

She stroked his face. "I'll take you into the Light. But first, tell me, whatever became of Carlos?"

He paused and held her back. "What? I didn't think death was conditional." The hair raised on the back of his neck. "Who are you?" he demanded. "What are you?"

In that instant she was gone, but he could not wake up.

Father Lopez stirred at the muffled cries he heard coming from Father Patrick, but a deep, paralyzing sleep kept him from fully rousing. A young woman ran toward him, naked and dripping wet, her eyes wild and beautiful as she opened her arms.

"Save me," she said.

Juanita's warm, young nakedness filled his arms. How could he forget her? Carlos had used her as a taunt, but he could never forget the sensation of lying with her. She was the only woman he'd ever known, even if it had been a vision, an illusion. She peered up at him.

"The vampires have surrounded my home and I cannot go back. Please let me spend the night with you."

She began crying and he held her more closely, trying to calm her as he stroked her bare back.

"I won't let them harm you. Where are your clothes?"

"I escaped through the bathroom window when I heard them enter the house. I have nothing but you... I am so ashamed." She looked up, tears brimming in her eyes. "The other clerics are all asleep. They won't know that I'm in your bed."

He glanced away. "But... I shouldn't. You can take the bed and I'll guard the door."

Her hand traveled down his chest. "But we've already been lovers."

He stared at her.

"Carlos gave me to you as a gift. I felt it that night and have wanted to be with you ever since. That's why I ran to you. But if you don't want me..." Her wide brown eyes searched his face and tears spilled down her cheeks. "Tell me you don't want me and I'll leave," she whispered, bringing her mouth close to his.

It was against everything he stood for, every vow he'd taken, and everything he'd been trained to do, but he was still a man. His mouth found hers, and the sweetness of her tongue twining with his produced near-delirium. "Don't leave," he murmured against her hair as she pulled away. "I'll protect you with my very life."

She removed his collar. "Did you feel it when he joined us?"

He swallowed hard and nodded.

"It was your first time?"

He nodded again and closed his eyes as her hand slid down his belly.

"I can show you more," she whispered.

"I really... I shouldn't, not here, not in the safe house with my brethren."

"We can go down into Carlos's old lair and be quiet as mice."

He looked around the safe-house living room at his sleeping Covenant brothers.

"Just like they went down there. Do you want me?"

"Yes," he said, closing his eyes as her touch produced a shudder.

"You are so much like Carlos... I loved him once. He was good to me, to us," she whispered. "He never really wanted me, and always loved Damali... so he gave me away to you that night in the illusion. It was a taunt, but also a gift for both of us."

"It was a gift," he said, stroking her cheek. He stared into her eyes, hypnotized by the urgency he saw within them. Just staring into them made him burn. Then every sensation he'd felt that night concentrated in his groin. He couldn't breathe.

"You have a little vampire in you, true?"

He nodded and took her mouth hard, rewarded by her hard rake down his back.

"Since he did so much for you, tell me, what did you do for him? Did you save him?"

"Oh, God..." he murmured as her hand slid beneath his pants and held him tight.

She stiffened, but relaxed when his head dropped to her shoulder. "Tell me, did you save him?"

He was breathing so hard he couldn't get out the words. "No... we... weren't..."

Suddenly a hard shake snapped Father Lopez awake. Men bearing weapons surrounded him.

A huge screech owl exited Father Lopez's chest in an eerie black mist and then materialized and careened across the room, as everyone ducked for cover.

"What did you tell her, man?" Carlos said, his eyes gleaming as he took aim at the creature.

Father Patrick slapped Padre Lopez's face. "Wake up, man. Talk to us! She's visited every man in here who has fallen asleep!"

Marlene brandished her stick as the owl dove at her, deadly talons extended. Shabazz hurled a holy-water bottle at it and sent shards of glass and water spraying against the far side of the cabin. Jose ducked as the owl screamed and flew up the spiral staircase. Dan and Big Mike rushed to the foot of the stairs and took aim with homemade slingshots, missed, and then were forced to take cover behind seats as the angry creature turned on them.

Berkfield threw a blood-tipped scalpel toward Jose, who caught it and flung it at the creature. His aim nicked the edge of the creature's wing, and billowing sulfuric smoke poured out of the wound as the owl dropped to the floor and began to elongate, a knotty spine sending feathers flying. Its beak became a razor's edge, talons lengthened, and a swishing, leathery, spaded tail stretched out of where its tail feathers had been. The creature now sported a six-foot wingspan within the cabin, its tail an instrument of death, and massive hooked talons strong enough to open a man's chest.

Rider hurled a holy-water bottle that splashed the wing, creating more smoke. "She can't fly in here-her wings are too big to get airborne," he hollered. "Open fire!"

Shabazz sent water bombs toward the beast two at a time as it snapped and screeched. Marlene and Berkfield kept its tail busy, stabbing it, drawing black blood, and dueling with the prehensile limb. Dan and Big Mike backed it up toward Rider, Jose, J.L., and Carlos, while the Covenant assaulted the beast from both flanks as it screeched in the wide center aisle from atop seats.

But its measures seemed defensive, not offensive, as though it were looking for something. Its gaze met Carlos's, raked him, then it let out an eerie scream that dropped Big Mike to his knees. Its blazing green eyes swept the airplane cabin again as if still searching for someone.

"She's not here!" Marlene yelled. "He's not here! You killed them!"

As soon as Marlene said that, the twisted creature flapped its wings, and rushed headlong into a row of windows along the wall, and vanished through them. The plane rocked, and then righted itself. The captain was yelling for everyone to take their seats. The terrified crew never came down the steps, but remained locked behind the conference-room doors.

"Sonofabitch!" Rider shouted. He looked at the clerics with disdain. "I thought you said this plane was sealed shut and impervious to a breach?"

The Covenant members shared stricken and confused expressions.

"I don't know how it got in here," Father Patrick said, his gaze sweeping the group. "It was strong enough to withstand a holy water assault."

"Well, a succubus got in here," Shabazz said flatly. "She messed with everybody, fishing for info."

Carlos nodded. "They go for your vulnerable spot, and every man has one." He looked at Jose, no longer furious at him. "She came to you as Damali." When Jose looked away, Carlos looked at Berkfield. "You saw your wife, didn't you?"

Berkfield nodded. "Sure as shit I was sitting in my living room, back home, my kids safe and sound in the house. Yeah, she got me good, but I didn't tell her nothin' because when she started asking about you, I know my wife well enough to know, that's the last thing Marj would wanna know about. But this thing showed me my deepest desire-to be home like none of this ever happened."

"That's exactly how I knew, too," Father Patrick said. "My wife is dead, and while I miss her dearly, I knew she wouldn't condition my entrance into the Light. She wanted me to tell her about Carlos."

"Right, like I'd tell some stray vamp tail from New Orleans about my brother here," Big Mike scoffed. "Never happen."

Rider began picking up weapons.

"Yo, man, every one of us who was asleep has to give it up to the group to be sure there were no leaks," J.L. said, his voice easy as he looked at Rider. "She got me with the images from Brazil."

"Me, too," Dan said. "But I didn't know her well enough to tell her team secrets."

"She came as Tara, all right," Rider said, his tone brittle. "She threatened to leave me for some punk vampire named Yonnie who's supposedly a master vamp sleeping inmy damned house and..." Rider kicked a chair as he passed it. "I know it was all an illusion, but that shit still vibrates so real I'm pissed off. Can you believe it? Tara has some vampire in my house? Wait till we get fucking home."

The team stared at Rider.

"Thought that was twenty years ago, brother," Shabazz said evenly. "You need to grip up and get your head right."

Big Mike looked out the window. "If you're telling us something we need to know as a team, man, you know that's some dangerous shit. Even I only did Mardi Grasonce -and it ain't nothing to wrap a love jones around. That's a sure way to get fucked up."

Carlos watched the team dynamics in the aircraft unravel. Stunned clerics took a very cautious position, and he could almost feel their muscles go to readiness. But Rider had had his back on the cliffs. His secret wasn't a dangerous one, to his way of thinking. He knew for a fact that Rider hadn't been nicked in a year. This was his boy, and it was time to cover his man and take the weight.

"He's cool," Carlos assured the team. "Every man has a woman he can't forget. Tara was his, so squash it."

"I don't want to fucking discuss it," Rider snapped. "Obviously, what we had was history. All she was talking about was Yonnie and Carlos! Who the hell is Yonnie?"

Marlene studied Rider, her gaze gentle, but her voice was firm. "No judgment. We all have some dark corners in our minds that we don't want anyone, even God, to know about. That's what makes us human. All I'ma say is, you need to letme know if you need something out of my black bag, on any given night."

Carlos just stared at Rider's back.Yonnie ...

Jose went to Rider and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Yo, man, it was a succubus. They're supposed to jack with your mind. What did you tell her, man?"

"Nothing," Rider said, shrugging Jose's hand off him as the group continued to stare. "Why do you think I'm so pissed off?"

Shabazz swallowed away a smile. "Yeah, you cool."

"Yonnie made it?" Carlos said carefully, staying out of Rider's swing range. "I really need to understand what she showed you, man."

Both men stared at each other for a moment.

"Who the fuck is Yonnie?" Rider said, slowly approaching Carlos.

"A good brother. He had my back when I was in the empire. I gave him master status while me and Damali had to do the thing in Australia so he could keep my territory cool."


Before Carlos could react, Rider hauled off and hit Carlos, knocking spit and blood from his mouth. Carlos went down hard in a seat. Rider was coming over the seat before him with four team members pulling him back.

"You made a master, and let that sonofabitch run loose in my backyard with my woman out there? She's a fourth! You fucking know that, Rivera! I thought we were cool and had an understanding. If he finds her and calls her, she has to go to him! If your territory is disintegrating out there and there are no vamp females left but mine, what the fuck do you think is going to happen?" Veins were standing up in Rider's throat as his team brothers tried to restrain him. He pulled back and shrugged off his stunned Guardian team's hold. "For more than twenty goddamned years I've kept her from whatever master was running the Los Angeles yard. That house is a fucking shrine to that woman-and a succubus waltzes onto a supposedly prayer-guarded plane and throws that bullshit in my face?" He walked away from the team. "I'm done."

"Oh, shit..." Shabazz walked in a circle, raking his locks as his eyes scanned the group.

Stunned expressions stared back at him. Marlene closed her eyes and took in a deep breath.

"Over twenty years?" Big Mike said, shaking his head. He looked at Imam Asula who was about to move on Rider. "He's my brother, man. I got him, if there's a problem. Chill."

Father Patrick nodded, and the clerics stood down. Jose, Dan, and J.L. sat down slowly, frozen in shock.

Carlos rubbed his jaw as he stood slowly, amazed when he tasted his own blood. He'd never even seen the punch coming.

"Clearly, he's no longer vamp," Big Mike said, glancing at Carlos and then Shabazz.

"No. Not at all," Shabazz said, shaking his head. "Okay, one problem solved."

Carlos watched the team from a remote place in his mind. Rider, a forty-five-year-old guy had caught him blind and tagged him. Shit. He wasn't sure if he was stunned more from the fact that Rider actually laid hands on him, or from the punch itself.

"Next problem," Shabazz said, looking at Rider, "is how long have you had a relationship with this female vampire?"

Father Patrick cast a nervous glance at his brothers. "Maybe we should all calm down before we try to dissect-"

"To answer your accusation, Rider, if the Covenant hadn't been double-crossed," Carlos said, spitting blood, "there wouldn't have been a breach in the prayer line."

"Tell me about Yonnie," Rider said, breathing hard. "He exists?"

"He does," Carlos said. "But that also means so does Tara. If they're the only two left standing from my old territory, then they're also on the run. But if they're holed up in your safe house, and your lines around the safe house are solid, they can't be gotten to."

"That isnot a safe house for vamps! It is a sanctuary for my lady!"

"Let's get back to the part about you seeing her repeatedly over the years-"

"Her grandmother is a shaman and took care of Rider's cleansings," Marlene said with a weary tone. "It's only once a year, anyway. Let it rest. This is a fresh wound and we don't need this in here. If Rider hasn't dropped fang in all these years, then he won't."

Shabazz stared at her in shock. "You know her grandmother? Baby how long you been-"

"Not now, Shabazz!" Marlene stormed past him and went to Rider. "Have faith. Tara needs a master to help her fight against something that we've just experienced. He needs her to get to a lair that hasn't been compromised. He won't violate her. He needs her."

After long, tension-filled seconds, Rider finally nodded.

Marlene kissed Rider's cheek. "If Yonnie was made by Carlos, then he had to have something going on that was cool." She glanced over at Carlos.

"The man is like a brother to me. He got played, like me, back in the day. The other territory masters dogged him. I gave him a chance and a little juice. He knows the teams and anybody that's attached to them are off limits. Vamps do have a code, you know."

Carlos skulked away and flopped down on a nearby seat.

After a while, Shabazz sat down, too. "Bottom line is, the succubus came in here looking for Councilman Rivera and didn't find him-or Damali."

"No, she didn't," Carlos said flatly. "She saw a guy that had similar energy, but then passed me over. I could feel the probe, but she was confused because I'm not a vampire. Not even a fucking second-gen." He looked out the window.

"The question is, how do we kill it, though?" Shabazz said. "We used up a lotta ammo on one invasion."

"You can either set up barriers and prayer circles under where you sleep to keep them out as a defensive measure, or on offense, you have to wait for them to manifest and then behead them. On the astral plane where they suck out your dreams, they're too strong," Marlene said in a weary voice. "The double-cross from the people who anointed this vessel allowed foul intent to make the lines weak.That's why we got breached."

"I hear you, Mar," Shabazz said in a sullen tone. "But fact is, it did materialize, and we did hit it with everything we had, and the bitch walked."

"Didn't behead it," Marlene said quietly. "Every entity has a weakness. Succubae mess with the mind, that's why you have to take their heads."

The group nodded, but Big Mike seemed unsure. "But what's a succuba doing looking for Rivera? I thought the realms didn't deal with each other? And why Rivera?" He glanced at Carlos. "What if it was a strong vamp coming for him, like the Brazilian job? With almost all topside masters gone but one, maybe one of 'em is doing a power grab?"

Carlos nodded. "Mike's got a point. The realms don't mingle. A regular succubus wouldn't have the audacity to try to take a vamp territory, and couldn't hold it if she did. Could've been topside sweepers from level six using the power of female persuasion to locate me for council, just to be sure I was ash," Carlos said, half wishing the creature would have killed him. "They're going through my zones, apparently, trashing everything I had my seal on before rebuilding clean. When I can get to Yonnie, I'll know more. I need to find out what's-"

"That was a whole different lifetime ago," Father Patrick said carefully.

"That might have been a different lifetime ago to you, but my mother and grandmother, and my boy's sister, Juanita, were also under my seal, just like Berkfield was. Don't tell me not to worry or not to talk to my boy, Yonnie. Hell yeah, I hope his ass is strong as shit and remembers who made him!"

The cabin went still at the mention of the other innocent humans dear to Carlos.

"We'll get to Yonnie, man," Shabazz said. "And Tara." He looked at Rider. "Right now, we could use help from several quarters, as long as they've got good hearts."

Big Mike nodded. "Yo, brother, we gonna check on your momma and grandmom as soon as we can figure out how to get back. Any way you can call your boy, like you used to, when we get on the ground at night?"

Carlos shook his head. "I ran North America, South America, and the Caribbean. I'm way out of my old zones. They've probably got a communications block on my transmissions, if I could, and if I were able to open a channel in a hostile zone, we'd all get jacked. I need to get back to L.A., man." He looked at Shabazz, Big Mike, and then Rider. "I need to find Damali, first."

Shabazz let out a breath hard. "It's a messed-up situation, but right now, we have three serious problems that we have to deal with. One, we need to find our Neteru. Two, our plane has been breached, and we could be attacked again. Three, it was a succubus that attacked us, in all likelihood. I heard what Carlos said, but I didn't feel vamp. It took on demon form to fight us, instead of coming as a strong female vamp. But, check it out-succubae can't just materialize as demons, they come in the form of the human body they've inhabited." He glanced at Marlene, who nodded.

Carlos closed his eyes. His worst fears had been realized, and Shabazz had picked up on it. He hadn't wanted to go there with the team to create additional panic, but the cat was out of the bag. "It wasn't sweepers."

Father Patrick nodded and glanced around the silent group. "We just got a visit from level seven."

TARA'S BREATH stopped as she stood motionless at the edge of the cabin. It was not from fear, but pure awe, as she watched the majestic creature lope toward her from between the trees. Trees Rider had planted. She lowered her weapon as her pulse quickened. He moved in long, fluid strides toward her.

Of course she recognized him instantly and it was the most spectacular transformation she'd ever witnessed. He'd used his power to take from the realms above theirs to transform into something that he knew would mesmerize her. His form was the wolf. Standing three feet at the shoulders, his coat shimmered pitch-black in the moonlight. His eyes were such a deep dark gold that they were almost bronze. Thick ropes of muscles moved beneath his coat as he silently came closer. He looked at her with longing, threw his head back, and howled.

The sound of his call swept through her as the night sounds around them went still. In a slow, sultry shape-shift, he gave up his wolf form and stood before her. He motioned with his chin toward a fallen elk strewn in the brush nearby.

"I had to eat after the fight," he murmured, coming closer to her and unbuttoning the top onyx stud in his crimson silk shirt. "You should, too, baby."

She stared at him, willing herself not to drool.

"You did good tonight. Fought like a second," he said with appreciation in his voice.

"Thanks, Yonnie," she said, finding it hard to speak. His body was still damp beneath his shirt, making the lightweight fabric cling to his broad chest and every well-defined ripple in his abdomen. His black leather pants clung to his narrow hips and long, lean legs. She looked away. "I was afraid, though," she admitted. "If we had only gotten there sooner."

"We did what we could," Yonnie said, his tone comforting. "I wish we could have gotten there sooner, too. But we did what we could."

He studied her solemn expression under the Halloween moon. She was absolutely gorgeous. She looked like she'd been made from the fabric of the universe to roam free and wild as a huntress of the night. Her hair shone like Stardust was in it, her motions were liquid and effortless, as though she were a stream. Even dead, the color of her skin looked like the sun had kissed it. Her voice a mere murmur, like the whispering night breeze. But her eyes definitely rivaled the moon. Everything about her seemed more natural than supernatural; then again, the fact that she was one of his kind suited him just fine.

He'd chosen to wear the wolfen form for her, knowing how much her people held the creature in esteem. He was glad that his choice had pleased her, because her courage in battle had more than pleased him. He allowed his gaze to scan her again. He loved the way her fawn-colored pants and skin-toned tank gave the illusion that she was nude. She should have been naked right now, her dark eyes smoldering, her thick velvety hair flowing over his pillow. "You smoked that second like a pro," he finally said, wanting her to know how much respect he had for her.

"It was sloppy," she countered, not taking her eyes off him.

"No," he murmured, coming closer and caressing her jaw with the pad of his thumb. "We got there late. The old woman was already dead. Your maneuver saved at least one of Carlos's marks. I sent the ambulance with his mother's body in it to the hospital, convinced the medics she died from smoke inhalation. I couldn't do much about the grandmother. But at least she died instantly and didn't suffer. It was better that way. They could have tortured them for information instead."

She stared up at him, her eyes searching his, and he could feel himself teetering on the edge of control. He shouldn't have touched her.

She was practically trembling where she stood. She'd never taken down another vampire in her life. A second? It had been exhilarating and she'd done it with a master at her side, worked in tandem with him, following his lead in an invisible dance. She'd been in hiding, spent most of her immortal life avoiding all confrontation. Her only encounter with another vampire had been when she'd been turned. But Yonnie had shown her another side of her life.

She drew away. "I must feed," she said.

"I know," he murmured, and unbuttoned another onyx stud on his shirt. "After the hunt... the things one's body needs after a battle-"

"Please," she whispered, and tried to back away, but couldn't seem to force herself to do it. "I've never-"

"Felt like this," he whispered. He trapped her gaze with his. "Take off the silver collar."

She shook her head no.

"Take off the collar." He made a small cut in his neck with the edge of his thumbnail, and watched her stare at the thin line of blood that trickled down his throat and pooled in his collarbone. When her fangs lowered, he closed his eyes.

"I'm not going to make love with you tonight, no matter what," she told him.

He nodded, keeping his eyes closed. He heard her unfasten the collar. How odd that she called what he wanted to do making love. He had always thought of it as fucking. "You don't trust me?"

She hesitated so long that he opened his eyes and looked at her. "I don't trust myself."

"I won't make you do anything you don't want to," he said. "But after a battle, you need to feed." He stepped closer. "Please, let me feed you, Tara."

She took the paper that Juanita had given her from her pocket and held it out to Yonnie. "We should get in touch with Carlos."

Yonnie nodded, but his gaze was locked on her throat. "Yeah, we should," he murmured. "As soon as you feed so you'll be strong enough to do it." He hesitated. "We need our combined energy to reach him undetected, since he's obviously out of our zone. You send. I'll mask your call. But you have to feed first."

Against her better judgment, Tara stepped closer to him. She half expected him to snatch her to him, but he didn't. Instead he folded her in and she crumpled the piece of paper in her fist. She held her other fist away from him so that the heavy silver collar wouldn't touch him. Then she leaned in tentatively and gently licked the trickle of blood, crossing his collarbone with her tongue, following the delicious trail up his throat, until she was standing on her tiptoes to reach the open wound.

He drew a sharp hiss of air through his teeth as she lapped at his flesh, and she felt the erotic connection to him quake her torso the moment the sound carried on the wind. She'd never been with a master, never dreamed that one would offer her, a fourth-gen, his throat. And this one was not just handsome and kind, but also had a deep sense of honor. He'd gone on a risky mission to save three humans. He had put aside his own personal safety, to protect Carlos's people-just because it was right. There had been a debt of friendship acknowledged that went deeper than his first lieutenant rank.

Tara stared up into a pair of warm brown eyes, her gaze accepting his rugged cinnamon beauty. Her hands ached to touch his thick, springy twists of hair and she wondered what the kinky texture would feel like, wondered what the fullness of his mouth would feel like against hers. His earthy male scent filled her nostrils. It clung to his glistening, dark skin and wrapped itself around her.

"Take it," he said quietly, no force in his tone. "What I've got will make you stronger."

She nestled in against him. He shuddered when her pelvis slid against the hard length of him. She studied his vein with care, needing just a sip to satisfy her. He leaned down to give her full access to his throat.

Before she could change her mind, his hands slid around her back and yanked her to his body in a tight seal. She was lost. She seized upon his throat, breaking the vein in one swift strike.

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