"He wasn't leaving any more to chance. You didn't even have enough power to get past the chest brand the female put on Rivera to rip his heart out. Dante, that's pitiful." She sighed as he glared at her. She swallowed away an evil smile, and allowed his ego to eat him alive, further strangling his objectivity in the process. "Your father is giving the were-realm a shot at killing him. Not the big cats, even though they are stronger. He's opted for the wolfen clans. Rivera is connected to North America, which is the werewolves' primary territory, as is Europe."

She walked back to the table and hopped up on it. Dark blood soaked into her dress and she doodled in it with her finger. "The Amanthras can only send up one of their best serpents. They missed the opportunity with Nuit to make daywalkers and they've been duly chastised, but you know your father has a weakness for the serpents."

"What about the upper levels, the poltergeists and-"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. They each can send up an assassin. Only one, though, because they are usually so ineffective. But the ghost gangs won the bid to participate by agreeing to partner to send up a single succubus and incubus. The concept intrigued your father."

"A succubusand incubus?"

"Don't underestimate them. A good succubus can drive a man to his death, if she knows what she's doing. We want him dead. We aren't picky about methodology."

She stared beyond him at nothing for a moment. "The Guardian team and the Covenant have been traveling without either a male or female Neteru presence in their midst. However, we think one of the teams will lead us to them. We need them as bait for the moment. After that, they're expendable."

He looked at her hard, a slow smile crossing his lips. "Lilith, I have known your wicked ways for a long time. What's thereal bounty... because if I'd offended you that badly, you wouldn't be disclosing all of this to me."

"I don't want to lose," she said in a falsely demure tone. "What else would there be, darling? I obviously cannot rule level seven-your father does not share power, and while I adore level six, he has forbidden me to reside here, as you and I well know. The other levels are interesting and I can rule all of them, which I have a fair shot of doing-if I win this little joust. So, I've made my peace with the available options."

"What's the real bounty, Lilith?" he asked again, casually coming up to her to trace her cheek. "We're too old for games."

"Winner takes all," she said, lapsing into their native mind-bending tongue of negotiation. "Why don't you trust me?"

"And my cut if I assist you in besting all your opponents?" He'd breathed the question against her throat inDananu , and let his hands trail down her arms.

"Wouldn't the satisfaction of killing Rivera be enough?"

He chuckled and kissed her neck. "Not hardly."

She leaned back and scooted away from him so that she sat on the table's center crest, then made her dress vanish. She chuckled as she opened her thighs and allowed her wetness to ooze down over the symbol of his realm's power. "Why are you determined to haggle with me tonight?"

"Impressive, but not worth half the world." He laughed with her.

"Touch�. I'm getting old and must be losing my skills."

"I miss sparring with you, Lilith. You haven't lost any of your skills," he said with honest appreciation as his gaze swept her curvaceous body and settled between her legs. "And I haven't lost any of mine."

She smiled a crooked smile and let her head fall back. "Half the world? You drive a hard bargain."

"Half the world," he said, dematerializing the white linen cloth around his waist. "And I want the female Neteru delivered to me with her mind bent and willing. I have a little gift for her."

He climbed up on the table and crouching above her on all fours as he kissed the gully between her breasts, his breath warm against her cool skin. He suckled one of her nipples and looked up at her with a wry smile. "Do we have a deal?"

She shuddered. "What is this gift you have for the Neteru?"

He chuckled and shook his head no, evading her bite. "My father is old and obsessed with power. He doesn't do this to you very often, does he?"

"You know I've always had a weakness for vampires," she breathed, arching up to him, and allowing her question to fade away for the time being. They both knew she'd revisit it later, but enjoyed the game of pretending she wouldn't. "Topside has been pathetic this generation... I've been meaning to visit council for a while... but I've been so preoccupied."

"All you had to do was call me."

"You know how he gets when I come to see you. It's ridiculous, but you're the only one he gets really jealous of. You're evading my question."

"Does he know you're here now?"

"No, you know, as they say, the Devil is always busy."

"Do we have a deal?"

"Seal it over the crest," she whispered, nearly panting with anticipation, and then slapped him hard. "And act like you mean it. It's been decades." Her eyes went to near slits as she arched again, waiting.

He smiled, touched his cheek where she'd opened a gash in his face, and came away with black blood. Bringing each digit to his lips, his hand trembled as he sucked them one by one while the gash slowly sealed and disappeared. Suddenly he slammed her wrists down hard over her head, bloodying his fists in the oozing marble table as he brutally entered her. Then he dropped ten inches of fangs and ripped out her throat.

He missed the look of cunning in her eyes.

DAMALI WALKED silently before her mother-seer, swaying from the mild turbulence of the plane. She could deal with this. What choice did she have? Millions of women had known this heartbreak, and theirs was probably worse than hers. She'd only been pregnant for twenty-four hours.

That's what she told herself as she clutched her abdomen and kept moving forward. It wasn't like she had felt life move within her. Nor did she have to face the horror of disease or senseless tragedy taking her child.

But she'd been robbed, nonetheless. The sense of loss was profound. She tried to shove it to the back of her mind; she just couldn't. Her hopes for a child with Carlos had been torn away. She'd been violated-theyhad been violated.

It was a damned vampire! Mild hysteria overtook her for a moment and made Marlene put a hand on her shoulder.

"I'm all right," she told Marlene as she straightened her back. "Just laughing at my own insanity." Now she knew how Carlos felt. Laughing to keep from crying. Losing his mind slowly right before her very eyes. The psyche was a fragile thing. Get to a body and you could bend a mind. Get to a mind, and you could co-opt a body. Damage a spirit, and you could take it all.

Yeah. She had work to do, the timing had been bad, and the whole situation was messed up. That's what she had to remember. Now she'd have to allow frightened men, doctors, to invade her body, and perform the barbaric act of a D&C. She wondered, if men could conceive and miscarried, would medicine have advanced beyond the scraping out of their wombs? Probably.

The murky thought made her weary. But the strained expressions on everyone's faces really wore her out. It was time for a change. She'd been a lightning rod, bringing all sorts of calamity their way. She needed space, not the group-home living arrangement. Once they got back home, she was moving out. They needed peace; she needed peace. There was nothing left to fear now. Her aging team didn't need to be put in harm's way, and she wasn't afraid of the dark.

But even a bad ass needed a mom at a time like this. God bless Marlene. Damali briefly shut her eyes as they entered the tight confines of the bathroom. Marlene hadn't said a word as she lowered the toilet lid and climbed up to stand on it, motioning for Damali to step into a small plastic food container from the jet's kitchen that had been placed on the floor.

She needed to cry so badly, but no tears would come. She was all cried out. Determination filled her. A crippling contraction almost doubled her over. She would slaughter the chairman first.

Her mother-seer filled the sink with warm water, making suds from the liquid hand soap on the wall. She placed paper towels and a new kitchen sponge on the sink. Damali carefully laid the Isis dagger on the edge of the sink as well and removed her blood-soaked clothes. Marlene took each piece from her before it hit the floor. Each woman worked silently in unison with complete comprehension.

Then as gently as though she'd just been born, Marlene dabbed cleansing water on Damali's face, her throat, her hands, and her arms, intermittently breaking the silence with a soft murmur as she rinsed off her back. The older woman's voice was a soothing balm, reinforcing with gentle whispers that this too would pass... the Father had a plan. Damali desperately needed those words, just as she needed Marlene's gentle ministrations and the light cluck of her mother-seer's tongue while older female hands passed a nasty war gash, wiped away demon gook and splattered innards, battle residue, and took away the ache from the surface of her skin.

"The next plane has a bigger bathroom. I'll wash your hair once we're on board, baby," Marlene reassured her. She paused then said into the silence, "It's gonna be all right. If this happened, then something was wrong with what you carried, and this was the most merciful outcome. If it were normal, the Light would not have allowed it to be taken."

Damali stared at Marlene for a moment. "I know," she finally said. "Make sure you burn everything when you're done."

"Don't worry. We've taken further precautions than mere fire. We've prayed over every drop. The darkness will not reclaim it, or be able to resurrect it."

Damali simply closed her eyes again as Marlene refilled the sink . with fresh water, patted her with the sponge, cleaning that only someone who has given birth to one should. Yes, God bless Marlene for serving as midwife to a miscarriage. It wasn't supposed to go down like this. What had transpired in Sydney was her miscarriage of justice as much as it was her miscarriage of flesh. With that thought came the first wave of real tears since Carlos had bubbled back to the surface in a new crimson beginning. The Light had been kind; had heard her cries... but the trade still seemed so terribly unfair.

Silent tears coursed down Damali's cheeks, and the older woman who knew healing told her to let them fall like rain to wash it all out. It was done. Soon Marlene applied creams to her skin as though that could smooth over memories... Marlene kept talc in her bag, but it smelled like what a baby would have, and knowing that made her cry harder, but more privately, as the pure scent became almost too much to bear. She knew Marlene must have seen some of this coming. Marlene was always prepared; her bag was a deep, magical chasm, like a reservoir that contained whatever was necessary to heal the fallen. Now they shared yet another female loss that bound them more tightly, the loss of a child.

And as Marlene worked on her body, and by extension her spirit and mind, she also knew that Marlene's loss of her own child was much more profound than what she was experiencing now. How did a woman cope with losing the flesh of her flesh after nurturing it in her womb, bringing it forth to the Light, suckling it at her breasts, watching it grow? That was so different than it being taken before ever feeling it stir within. But that was intellectual understanding; it was a knowing that didn't completely remove the sense of grief that quaked her with each ebbing contraction.

Damali sucked in a deep breath, allowing newfound respect and understanding to strengthen her. Even with all that she'd been through, her mother-seer had been through so much more and had kept the faith. Damali drew on that strength, watching Marlene's wise eyes. No words were necessary for the telepathic transaction; one woman's mind and eyes said,Thank you, I'm blessed, despite it all . The other's said,Ashe, I love you, dwell on it no more... pain is relative. I am your mother, and this hurts me for you more than you can know . They both nodded.

When Marlene offered her a pair of clean, white cotton panties and a pad, Damali accepted the items as the gifts they were. She kissed Marlene's temple then her hands. "Thank you," Damali said quietly. "Guess you're never too old to need a mom, huh?"

Marlene just stroked her hair as she pulled on the shield.

"I have a dress for you," Marlene said in a quiet tone, offering yet another balm to her senses.

Damali accepted the soft Egyptian linen from Marlene and donned the long sheath with bell sleeves. Marlene dried her legs and feet, dropping a towel for Damali to stand on as she dumped the red water from the food container into the toilet, said a prayer over it, and flushed it away.

"Put on these sandals," Marlene murmured as she handed Damali soft, butter-almond-hued leather, and then fetched a long, white gauze wrap from her bag. Moving methodically, Marlene wrapped Damali's hair in a regal twist of fabric. "Queen daughter," Marlene whispered, "today you wear unbleached white. It is a new day. We are about to go into lands where women wear their hair covered, their arms covered, their legs covered. We will honor the traditions of old in a very old land, where a people have been independent for two thousand years. Rest and I will guard the Isis blades until you need them again."

There was no struggle in Damali's countenance as she allowed Marlene to do what was culturally correct. There was no more fight left in her, and she didn't want to think about why women had to cover the natural gift of their bodies, why men got to do whatever they liked, and why there was so much injustice in the world, much of it aimed at the majority of the species. Women.

Battle weary and near broken, she put on the flowing gown that had replaced her torn, vampiric one, and stared at the bathroom door. She refused to contemplate the depth of her rage and heartbreak. Mending would come later and would take time; that much she'd learned from Marlene's quiet brand of strength. Right now, all she wanted was to get horizontal.

"I have to lie down," Damali admitted in a subdued voice. A slight shiver ran through her. "I feel like I'm going to pass out."

Although her movements were steady, Damali could feel a level of frantic energy just beneath the surface of Marlene's skin as the older woman ushered her from the bathroom and into a seat beside her. She didn't question Marlene's seating choice as Marlene lifted a window shade to put Damali in the sun beside her.

Clasping Damali's hand, Marlene reached around her, fastened a seat belt and reclined the chair for her.

"I'm going to bring you some special tea, an herbal mix from the motherland." Marlene stood and left Damali's side, and returned quickly with a piping hot brew.

"Sip it slowly," Marlene said, stroking her back. "Then, if you can hold that down, water, plenty of it, and then we'll clean you out with fruit."

Damali took the porcelain mug and did as she was told, her gaze never traveling toward Carlos. Her mind could only focus on one problem at a time. The sweet elixir had a hint of ginger in it, but she knew Marlene had more in the concoction than that.

When Yonnie opened his eyes, he was looking down the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun. Exhausted, he gave into his fate. Extinction was eminent, and death by hallowed earth-packed shells was far more merciful than being torn limb from limb by werewolves.

"Just do it," he murmured to the female staring at him, her finger flexing on the trigger.

To his amazement, she lifted the barrel and stepped closer to him, and then offered him her wrist.

"We have an hour till dawn. Feed quickly and then transport us to a place I'll show you. Look in my eyes to see where."

Confusion forced him to stand. True, she had silently rolled up on him as only his kind could, but how did she dare to carry hallowed earth-packed shells? Even more troubling was the thick silver-and-turquoise necklace she wore. No vampire could wear that without it burning a hole into her chest. For a moment, neither moved. Yonnie allowed his gaze to ruthlessly assess the woman who stood before him. She appeared to be in her early forties, her long black hair streaked with strands of silver-gray. Her dark eyes smoldered with the knowledge of his realms. Her body was lithe, curved, yet was sleek with muscle. The body of a soldier.

"You're a fourth-gen," Yonnie said, his gaze going from her throat to her weapon.

"Yes. And we don't have time. Feed," she commanded. "At my level, I do not have the power of transport, but when Councilman Rivera made you a lieutenant in his inner circle, you acquired that power. Take us both to safety and don't be foolish. We're the only ones left in the zone."

"How can that be?" Nervous, Yonnie stepped back. "It could be a trick sent from the new master that-"

"There are no more masters topside," she said with a too-peaceful smile. When he didn't immediately respond, she let out a hard breath of frustration. "Carlos obviously made you a master. Didn't you feel it as he was swept away into the Harpies tornado near dawn? I was the only female he trusted with his SOS beacon. My orders were to find you. Now feed."

Too stunned to move, Yonnie just stared at her. Deep sadness mixed with guilt, respect, pride, and sudden elation flowed through him. His boy, Carlos, must have known he was gonna die and sent this last quiet gift to him so he could continue the line. Tears filled Yonnie's eyes, but in front of this unknown female, he blinked them away. Suddenly he remembered the strange surge that had rippled through him just before everything in his world went to ash. He had thought it had only been a power spike from his master who was kickin' some ass. But Carlos had elevated him before he died. Carlos had loved him like that... and even sent the last female in his territory tohim ? There were no words. A quiet vow that went beyond mere revenge for Carlos's death filled Yonnie's mind. No matter what, from this point forward, he would do his boy proud, would honor all of Carlos's pacts, protect every mark, whatever foundation of Carlos's that had been destroyed, he'd resurrect. It was the least he could do.

Astonished, he held his hand out for hers, the smell of the blood within her veins too intoxicating to resist. Wary of the heavy silver near her throat, he took a submissive stance and lowered his head to her wrist. For a moment he studied the pattern of everlasting life that moved just under the surface of her honey-brown skin, then scored her flesh in one ferocious slash, greedily sucking from her veins until she struggled to break his hold. The click of the gun hammer ripped through his awareness, as did cold steel positioned in the center of his chest.

"Don't be stupid. You bleed me out and flat-line me this close to dawn, we'll both fry. Be advised, there's only one safe place for us now, and only I know how to enter it." She glanced at Carlos's abandoned Beverly Hills lair. "That's a death trap. So are all his other lairs."

Yonnie wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, feeling his body begin to regenerate. He looked at his skeletal fingers, and watched them become covered with the even, brown, tight skin of an eighteen-year-old youth.

"How can a fourth-generation carry hallowed earth, wear silver, and know of the only safe place in town? Sis, if you're a vampire wannabe, you just brought yourself a ticket to a very wild ride." Yonnie shook his head and walked around her in a circle. "If you want me to fuck you good for the rest of the night, not a problem. Done. But you need to stop drinking deer blood and soft-packs from the Red Cross, trying to front like the real thing. That shit will get you smoked one night, and even at your age, you're too fine for that with your black Cherokee self."

He watched her eyes narrow and become glowing, golden slits of fury as her fangs lowered. "Listen, you dumb bastard. I have aged in a few hours to what I would have been if I had not died at eighteen. You have aged to what you would have been, were you not Vampire. Every seal that was set by Carlos has been torched. Every member of his circle has aged to the point of progressive time. Only you and I are left standing, although I'm not sure why."

She was definitely not human. Her eyes and fangs confirmed that. However, her words inspired a slow, smoldering terror within him and left many unanswered questions. Revived from her blood, his first impulse was to make a run for it, solo. But if she knew where Carlos was, or what had happened, he needed her to tell him more.

"The silver," Yonnie said, motioning to her throat. "How?"

"My grandmother was a shaman seer," she said simply. "It was mine when I was destined to be a Guardian. The energy drain hit me... made me feel... I thought I was dying and went to her home where she's buried. The Neteru's light was gone. My grandmother must have known, seen the end of days. Her spirit had left it hanging on a tree beyond the hallowed-earth perimeter. Maybe she wanted to protect me, knowing that everyone who might have given me haven would perish. I don't know. But with nothing to lose after I felt the one Guardian I'm linked to snatched by Harpies, I began the death chant of my people and put it on... to die with honor. I didn't want to be taken under the reign of a new master. Carlos was the only one I'd serve-he allowed me at least my dignity. Any others would not. Now I'm afraid that he's gone, too."

She blinked back tears and cast her gaze toward the blackened sky. "But I didn't burn," she whispered. "Then I heard your call. Your love for him was a beacon; it may have saved your life. You seek the one I'm now supposed to guard and we have to find him before they do, if he still exists. That's all I know."

"Guardians? Are you delirious? Carlos was a councilman when he made me a master. Who's they? If you heard a master's call, then-"

"Yes. I'm something we cannot explain at the moment. Andthey are to be discovered. But you just ate from my-"

"It was venison!"

"Correct. Because never since my turn have I befouled a living human being. Blood from stolen packs, deer, but never feasting from the living... that may be the only reason I'm still standing. But I am not about to tempt the sun."

Yonnie nodded. It was the first rational thing she'd said that made sense since she'd rolled up on him. "Were-demons, the wolfen clans, have compromised every place I know."

She smiled. "My people have a long history of dealing with the clan of the wolf." She stroked her silver necklace that he now knew to be an amulet. "Look into my mind. You'll see a cabin in the woods. Even council cannot breach it. The barriers are formidable and many. There's only one way into it. The perimeter is hallowed ground, and has been littered with wolf bane. I keep silver shells packed with hallowed earth for insurance." She tossed him a Clock from her shoulder holster. "It'll heat up your hands. If you don't shoot yourself, you'll live."

The weapon felt like it was searing his palm as he caught it, but he appreciated the gesture and held it steady, the barrel pointed skyward. "Thank you," he murmured, now appraising her once again. This woman was fine, brazen, and would make a wonderful lair companion. Although a little old for his tastes, she was stunning in her tight deerskin pants and the suede halter was slaying him. Her figure was awesome, not an ounce of body fat on her petite frame. He felt a smile tugging at his mouth. Maybe Carlos wasn't dead after all. "Later on, you've gotta lose the silver collar, baby, if you want to go to the vanishing point."

She smiled. "Go to Hell. I'm spoken for. Try my throat and your ass will fry."

Yonnie shrugged and chuckled. "Okay. I'll chill. Why didn't you just say you were Rivera's from the jump?"

"Because I'm not," she said, tossing her long, velvety hair over her shoulder as she retracted her fangs. "I'm Rider's."

Yonnie blinked twice and cocked his head to the side. "That Guardian dude on Rivera's 'do not touch' list?"

She glanced at the sky. "Yeah, and you're burning moonlight. I need to take you to the safe house."

"What? A Guardian compound? Are you-"

"Do you want to survive?" she asked, drawing each word out slowly. "Yes or no?"

"Yeah," he said, no longer in the mood to argue with her. "You know we could both be getting set up in a Guardian rig?"

"Or we could both see what effects dawn might have on us. You in or out?"

"I'm in, but Rider-"

"Has had my back for over twenty years."

For a moment, he just stared at her. "And Rivera was cool with that going down in his territory?"

"You and I both know that Carlos has always had a soft spot for that team."

Yonnie nodded and began to gather the transport clouds about them. He concentrated; it was taking longer to generate the swirling winds than ever before. "I don't know if I can do it," he whispered, closing his eyes tightly, summoning the energy for their dematerialization. Humiliation and rage filled him. The sun would be rising soon. He redoubled his efforts to no avail.

He looked at the lower-generation female, the panic in her eyes clear. "I may need your help," he said, shame singeing his tone. "Whatever is being sucked out of the territory is weakening my powers. Has anyone ever moved you through the night? Do you know how to summon the winds? Command velocity?"

She shook her head sadly. "I've never been taken by a master, and can't tell you much more than you already know." She walked in closer to Yonnie and placed her hand in his, her eyes searching his. "But I know I was sent to find you. There is purpose in our being together. We are from the same lands, from the same stolen tribes; our human bloodlines intersect with Carlos's. My people were native to this earth, just like his... yours were brought here by force, just like mine were forced into near extinction. Draw from that. Summon the wind. Take us to the place that I showed you. I believe in you... you're all I have left to count on."

His eyes never left hers as he felt a current bind their hands. He literally felt the energy of the ground beneath his feet pulse alive within the small spot of earth where her feet were planted, issuing forth concentric circles of fluctuating power. He locked into that power and rode it, seeing the real beauty of her face for the very first time. Aware of the silver at her throat, he leaned in close to her, nearly brushing her mouth as the winds gathered and swirled, the energy connecting as their bodies began to disintegrate. "I know you're spoken for, pretty shaman," he murmured as the winds howled and picked up, "but tell me your name."

"Tara," she whispered as they disappeared.

Struggling to sit up, Berkfield scanned the room in panic. Small windows, narrow confines, medical equipment everywhere, flashes of the laboratory that began his nightmare entered his mind while he stared at two men in white lab coats. If he could just reach something to use as a weapon. Then slowly he comprehended what he was seeing. The doctors were taking blood, not injecting him. Vials were being placed in a silver box with a religious crest-a crucifix. This was not the work of vampires. Sunlight streamed through the windows. The man speaking behind him was a cleric.

Tears came to Berkfield's eyes when he saw the heavy silver cross hanging from the man's neck, his white clerical collar, as he prayed in an Australian accent.

"My wife, my children," Berkfield croaked. "I have to get off this ship before dark falls again."

The cleric kissed his crucifix and came to Berkfield's side, wrapping his shaking hand around it as both men grasped it and held onto it for dear life.

"They are in the Vatican, Richard," the cleric assured him. "Father Patrick flew them to Rome when they showed up at his safe house. You're on a plane and are going somewhere safe until you can meet them again. The Darkness no longer imprisons you."

Slowly Berkfield relaxed and nodded as his memory came back in jagged pieces... being submerged in jasmine-scented water within the cathedral font. Frankincense. Dousing. Incessant liturgical mutterings as his clothes were stripped and burned. He looked at the cleric and began to sob. Doctors joined his side.

"This man has been under a lot of stress," he heard one voice say. "Do you want us to give him a tranquilizer so he can make it through the long flight? He's near collapse."

"No," the cleric said. "Our orders are to just give him water and some clear broths, fresh fruit, something to nourish him and make him comfortable-butdo not pollute his blood."

The moment the cleric mentioned his blood, Richard Berkfield was off the table and fighting against the many arms and hands that held him. Screaming for help, he punched and kicked at his attackers. "No more blood!" he yelled. "Get the beasts away from me!" His voice rose, shrill with hysteria. "I won't let you take me to them! Get off me! Get the hell off me!"

A hard slap across his face. Dazed, it took a moment for him to respond, but it was long enough for the cleric to say quickly, "I'm sorry my hand has offended. We are men of God. We mean you no harm. We protect you and your family. You've had the Lamb's Blood within your veins and must be kept from all harm. Stop fighting us so we can help you." Two large tears rolled down the cleric's weathered cheeks and he drew a shaky breath. "No human being on the planet has ever held the honor... I've never witnessed such a miracle in all my years of faith. There are so many questions I want to ask you.Please . Trust me."

Totally stunned, Berkfield watched in awe as the cleric went down on his knees, shielding his face in his palms and began sobbing. By some odd twist of events, the doctors now assisted the elderly, white-haired man with the collar, giving a male nurse instruction to get a needle ready with a tranquilizer injection.

"No. Don't," Berkfield said, clarity coming from some unknown source despite the chaos still roaming through his mind. "The poor man is just overwhelmed, like all of us. Let him sit down and bring him some water." He bent and helped the older cleric up, but that seemed to make him sob even harder. Every place that Berkfield's hand landed in assistance, the cleric touched in awe and reverence, and began wailing anew.

It took almost ten minutes for the man to collect himself and then rise with the help of Berkfield and two doctors, and finally become calm enough to sit down in a chair facing the table that Berkfield had been lying on. For a long while, the cleric just sat, simply staring at him, holding a cup of water without drinking it. Berkfield sat on the gurney staring at him, waiting.

"When we touch down in Manila, they have military facilities with state-of-the-art equipment to give you an MRI, full set of X-rays, run a battery of tests, and-"

"Hold it right there," Berkfield said, his voice tense as he stared at the doctor who had spoken. "I don't do military nuthin'. Been there, done that. Sick militaristic SOBs sold their souls to develop new weapons, and I'm not trying to be their lab rat ever again." Fear tore through him as he stared at the cleric. "Father, don't let them take me there. Please."

"We have equipment in Rome," the cleric said, finding his voice and his strength. "Do as he asks."

To Berkfield's surprise, the doctors deferred to the older man.

"As you wish, Cardinal," one said.

"We meant no harm, just wanted to get him to the most modern facilities possible, as soon as possible, in case his body had been harmed in some way, given his ordeal. We didn't want him to have to try to get any tests done in Ethiopia, where their medical facilities are strained beyond comprehension," another doctor said quickly, trying not to further offend. "It will be such a long flight, and he cannot be left injured. What if there was internal organ damage or hemorrhaging that we didn't discover?"

Berkfield's eyes widened. "You're a cardinal?"

The cleric nodded but averted his gaze toward the floor. "Yes, Your Eminence. And these doctors are also men of the faith-clerics. No one but those of the order has touched you. That I assure you. Their concerns are real, however, and I'm no doctor."

"What did you call me?" Stunned, Berkfield stood slowly, but held on to the edge of the ambulance gurney for support.

"Your Eminence," the cardinal whispered and then bowed with the others as they stood within the tight confines of the aircraft.

"Wait, wait, wait," Berkfield said, becoming agitated as he waved his hands. "I'm not Him, by any stretch of the imagination, and you guys need to let the boys in the Vatican know that. I'm just a regular Joe that got caught up in something really bizarre."

One by one the bowed clerics peered up at Berkfield, awe still filling their expressions.

"Are you sure?" the cardinal asked, seeming so disappointed that fresh tears glittered in his eyes.

"Yeah," Berkfield whispered.

"Do you feel any pains? Soreness? Nausea? Anything that might suggest there's an injury we haven't treated?"

Berkfield looked at the frightened medical team and slowly shook his head no.

"But you've had the Living Blood within your veins. No human being has ever-"

"I'm just a regular guy who misses his wife and is scared shitless." Berkfield let out a weary sigh. "I want to go home, hug Marjorie, tell her it's gonna be all right." Tears threatened Berkfield's composure. "I wanna kiss my daughter and drop her off at the mall, and yell at my son for playing his music too loud." His voice broke. "I want to drink a beer and wave at my neighbor while I'm grilling burgers. I don't want to be on the run for the rest of my life, or have my family live in the shadows. I can't live like this!"

"The first shall be last and the last shall be first," one cleric said above Berkfield's sobs.

"When the stigmata occurred, is it possible that it all came out of him and soaked into the holy robes?" the cardinal asked, going to Berkfield to place a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"Whatever soaked into the robes, Cardinal, evacuated itself into the challis as soon as those clerics entered the cathedral," another said. "That's been sent directly to Rome on a separate charter with a clerical army on board to protect it."

The cardinal nodded. "I was given orders to follow your lead... to grant you whatever you asked. We were told we would know from your words what to do, because the pontiff believes that a man cannot experience the Ultimate Light without being subject to profound change." He looked at Berkfield, his aged gray eyes searching for answers. "There is so much that we want to know about what it felt like to have His grace enter your cells, to fill you up with the Light. We have lived all our lives hoping to experience a small measure of that... yet a man with no particular religious zeal, no special gifts, nothing other than a good heart has been so blessed." He chuckled sadly and turned to one of the doctors and sighed. "Just as it is written, so it was done... as it has always been. The least likely is given the highest honor."

"But where are Carlos and Damali and the rest of the team?" Berkfield cried. He looked at the faces around him, fear, anger, and frustration colliding to become one emotion.

"I don't know how many of them made it," the cardinal said, fingering his cross and then taking it off, holding it out for Berkfield to accept. "If they don't turn, or weren't polluted..."

Berkfield's eyes went to the cross, but he didn't take it from the cardinal's hand. "You should have seen the way they fought! They were on the front line and got their asses kicked. Do you hear me? I've seen that same shit when I was doing my bid in 'Nam... young kids on both sides, barely out of high school, haven't even lived, but slaughtered. And for what? Same thing is going on now over in Iraq, same thing has been going on over and over again in world history. Call it Desert Storm, the Gulf War, Korea, or we can go all the way back to the beginning of caveman versus caveman, the Crusades, whatever. For what? Nobody wins. Wrongs get done on both sides. Mothers and father bury their children, blood soaks the land, the women wail, and all of humanity suffers. Don't you guys get it? People have to stop fighting each other. We have to go after the real enemy, or it never ends. And I know where he lives... about seven levels underground." Berkfield held his head in his hands as a wave of nausea suddenly overcame him.

Unable to speak, the clerics bowed. He could almost feel their shame of wanting a safe haven mingling with their misplaced reverence. He wasn't the Most High; they didn't need to bow to him. In that instant he felt it with clarity, as though someone had called him by name. These men of the cloth had been hiding behind safe walls, while the world suffered. They ate well, lived well, had been sheltered from horrors, and their deep resources had kept jets flying and spectacular cathedrals as monuments, while people begged in the streets. They lived in oasislike compounds while the common man lived in a spiritual and physical wasteland. This one sect of faith wasn't the only guilty party. Every major religion had done no less. But they all had seemingly forgotten that the battle was in the streets, their prayers necessary, that until one's body was out on the front line, it didn't mean a damn.

As soon as the thought ebbed, Berkfield felt his body slump from sudden, inexplicable fatigue. But his new awareness made him bold as he looked at the men before him.

"I can't tell you how I know, but I do. The vamps can kill me, but they can never bite me. If I die fighting for the side of good, I go into the Light. So I don't need a cross, it flows through my veins these days. Thanks, anyway."

The cardinal nodded. "Forgive us and don't judge us so harshly."

"I don't judge anymore," Berkfield said, stretching out. "I've seen too much to do that." He reclined and closed his eyes.

"Then, what would you have us do with you?" the cardinal asked, confusion slowing his response.

"If any of that Guardian team made it out alive, I'm going with them. My family is going with them. I don't know what else to do. I can't go back home and act like none of this ever happened. There's no safe place to put your head in the sand and hide. This whole thing is about to blow. So, I'll wait for a sign. Got it?"

CARLOS CONTINUED to stare out of the jet window. He needed a moment to think, put everything into perspective, and figure out his next move. In his currently weakened state, with all his most cherished powers stripped from him, what would be his strategy now?

He was glad that silence had fallen over the cabin. The only sound that punctuated the oppressive quiet was the low drone of the engine and Big Mike's snoring. Then he heard someone opening a bottle of water. The sound of deep swallows suddenly made him aware of the burning dryness of his own throat. But he'd declined the water offered by Monk Lin. He wasn't ready for the reality that he might, indeed, be able to drink it without color. He wasn't ready to face that until he was someplace private.

There was a surreal comfort in knowing the rules of the game, whatever game a man played, and he'd played Hell to the bone-literally. For whatever it was worth, at the moment he allowed himself some small measure of pride in having bested the most ruthless bastards at their own game. Problem now was, to what end? Maybe he'd played himself.

Carlos sighed and kept his eyes trained on the sun, remembering how he'd finally embraced his fate and how delicious the power had been. True, he'd been in Hell, but what a ride it had been...

He shook his head slowly, quietly admonishing himself for the perverse thought. Yeah... the Light was awesome, but on the other side, the women, the cars, the villas, walking on air, the clubs, the money, the sex... damn, it had been good, and when Damali had turned, there'd been nothing like it.

A new, frightening thought made his chest tight. He was now, possibly, just an average human being. Again, he was trapped in a situation with no money, unable to use the full range of his personal power, and probably owed a higher authority, just like before. They hadn't approached him, but he knew it had to be coming sooner or later. There was always barter, always a payoff. Nothing was free.

True, being a council-level vamp had been a rush, but he had to remember all the heartbreak that came with it. His brother, Alejandro, and his boys had all perished. His mom, grandmom, Juanita-all hidden away from him, lest he turn them in a moment of bestial lust. The torture, the blood, the insatiable hunger. He had to stop being sentimental about it. Had to stop romanticizing the past like an old man who'd done a thirty-year prison bid, thinking about the good times and laughs and not about the lack of freedom, shit food, and the destruction of one's personal dignity in the process. He remembered those old drunken fools, and how as kids they would shake their heads and laugh at their stupidity when they'd come back to the corners talking about the joint, and how they ran the yard, as though they'd been down to the Bahamas. Crazy. Had he already become like them?

Maybe the old padre was right. Father Pat was a deep old dude, and had always made him stop and think about choices and consequences. No good was going to come in the long run from the vampire life, he told himself. He had to stay focused and convince himself that this change in circumstances was for the best, that it would be cool, or else he'd go nuts. All he had to do was remember the baby that was clawed from Damali's womb.

Now, he had someone who really depended on him, but he had no income, was dead with no assets, according to the cleanup Berkfield had done before on his behalf, and the chairman had it out for Damali. How was he supposed to be the Neteru's man? How was he supposed to protect her, even if he didn't go seeking revenge? These were the types of things the clerics never dealt with or thought about.

In his human world it was still about resources, and to be turned out with nothing to his name was a position of vulnerability. He hated that predicament worse than death. At least death was sort of final, even if one did come back on the other side. But in the coming back, resources were available, either from the Light or the Darkness, whatever side one happened to find themselves on, of that he was sure. But what was an average guy supposed to do-a dead man walking, with no formally recognized education, no work history, no nothing? Go work at a convenience store for minimum wage and no health benefits? What, after having great cosmic power and the knowledge of the history of the world and all its technology within one's mind... he'd seen too much, experienced too much, and knew too much to ever go back to a normal life.

Even if he hung with the Guardians, they all had special powers, extra juice to their games. It would take him forever to learn martial arts, how to swing a blade, or find an expertise that could be of benefit to them. He wouldn't be running shit on the team; Shabazz was the male leader-position already filled. Mike was the strong man, J.L. the tech whiz, Dan the business ace, Rider the sharpshooter, Jose the master tracker, Marlene was the healer, and his baby girl was all that and then some. He definitely wasn't the religious type who could fit in with Father Pat's boys on the Covenant squad. He wasn't no cop, so he couldn't even roll with Berkfield as a partner. So, what the fuck was he? Assed out.

Carlos refused to glimpse at Damali and struggled not to turn his head to do so. It was so strangely cool between them when he was what he'd been and she was what she was-the vampire and the virgin. Again, he almost laughed to keep from crying.

What the hell was he going to do now? She had only known one man in her life-him-but as a council-level master vampire. His woman had known him at his apex of power, and he'd marked her, rewired her sexual circuitry to only respond to the most acute sensory lock with him. And what did that mean? Truth be told, what could he deliver as a regular guy? He damned sure couldn't take her to the vanishing point again. Carlos closed his eyes. They might as well have driven a stake through his chest. His woman had been turned out by the baddest motherfucker on the planet-him-and he was no longer that. She liked it rough, could take a fang drop in her jugular like a pro, and could still get up and walk on the beach at high noon. So what was a mere male supposed to do when his woman became the baddest mutha on earth without him?

No, it definitely wasn't supposed to go down like this.

Carlos opened his eyes and stared at his hands. To him, they were dead. They contained no special powers. He couldn't transform a room, gather the winds, he'd never be a panther again-not even on a whim to feel the thrill of a hunt. He'd have to use a door with a key. Carlos shuddered at the thought. He couldn't walk through a wall at will or rip out an enemy's heart with a glance. Damn, this was beyond fucked up. And his woman had a team of martial arts boyz... hell, she could fight like a demon herself, and was poetry in motion. When he really thought about it, she could probably outrun him; she had the Neteru speed and the endurance to match it. He hated to admit it, but she could probably go round for round, pound for pound, and might just be able to kickhis ass... given she knew all that fly kick shit that Shabazz had taught her. And if she'd been made a junkie for vamp bad boys, by his own hand, then sooner or later she'd want what she was missing in him... might go out one night and take a walk on the wild side. He'd never be able to live with that, if she slept with another man, especially another master vampire.

The thought was so unsettling that he jettisoned it from his mind as he stood to go get a bottle of water. Another man? A bad, smooth, fly, Hell fiend that could make her scream his name? Never. His hands were shaking as he retrieved a cold bottle from the jet's kitchen, broke the seal, and guzzled it. Somehombre that could stand in his face, laugh at him, and outright challenge him for Damali, and could beat his ass down so hard he'd die of humiliation before he died from the attack.

Carlos grabbed another bottle of water, threw his head back, and downed it quickly. As he brought his gaze level with the seated teams, he saw that everyone was staring at him. He glanced at the bottle in his hand and then hurled it at the trash chute, missing it, then sulked to his seat and flopped down. Why did they ever bring him back? This was no gift; it was a curse... pure punishment, if ever he'd witnessed it.

Damali quietly watched Carlos from her seat next to Marlene. Her mother-seer only squeezed her hand in acknowledgment of what they both now knew was true. Carlos was human. But what did that mean?

She checked the back of her dress to make sure she hadn't bled through onto the light fabric, and started to stand, but Marlene's grip tightened on her hand.

"Give him some space," Marlene said in a barely audible tone. "Brother is tripping right now, and as a man, has a lot to think about."

Damali stared at Marlene for a moment but didn't argue. "Third eye or common sense?"

"Common sense," Marlene replied in a whisper.

Damali nodded. "I'm just glad he's alive."

Marlene nodded. "But he isn't, and that may take a while. Let Rider or Shabazz talk to him until he finds his place on the team."

Damali settled back in her seat and closed her eyes. "I can't worry about that right now."

Marlene stroked her hair and followed suit, closing her eyes with a weary sigh. "I know. So, don't. Get some rest and steady your nerves. The problem will be there when you wake up."

Damali glimpsed at Marlene and yawned. "But what the-"

"It's drama as old as Adam and Eve," Marlene said in a low, gentle voice without even opening her eyes.

The plane's rapid descent once they reached Brisbane roused everyone from their slumber. Slowly, bleary-eyed passengers sat up straight, stretched, and yawned.

"I'll be glad when we get on the flight to Manila," Shabazz muttered. "Seven hours or so will do us all good."

Rider nodded through a loud yawn. "Yep, just like when we were touring. Sleep in the air, rock 'n' roll on the ground. Whatever, as long as I get some shut-eye during the day."

"You put touring in past tense, man," Big Mike said cautiously. "Any special insight you trying to deliver?"

Rider looked at Mike, dumbfounded. "Did I say it past tense?"

"Yeah,hombre , you did," Jose said, staring at Rider.

The teams looked at Marlene and Father Patrick for confirmation.

"We don't know what's going to happen," Marlene said. "Let's stay positive and not freak ourselves out."

"Mar," Dan said, glancing around the now-standing group. "All of her commercials have been taped and are done. I hadn't signed her to anything beyond Sydney, because we didn't know the situation. I also never inked any movie deals, because going into Sydney, we didn't know if Damali could cast a reflection. We don't have any upcoming concerts committed yet, but residuals from commercials and the Sydney concert, plus royalties on all the CDs should float the team for a while. However, given what could be after us, my suggestion is that we put her portfolio of income in some unmarked accounts in Swiss and Cayman Island banks."

"Yo, Dan," Shabazz said, his tone surly and flat. "Let's get our teams to a safe house, then we can sit down and start thinking about money and whatnot." Shabazz released a weary sigh and moved into the aisle.

"He's got a point, though," J.L. countered. "We used up a lot of ammo, lost a lot of gear, and we don't know what we'll face when we get back to the compound stateside. We have to be thinking about public relations and damage control, if we have to stay on the move and underground for a while."

"That's what I'm trying to say, 'Bazz," Dan added, coming into the aisle with Shabazz. "When we get on that flight, we need a team meeting about next steps-before everyone goes to sleep, before it gets dark, and before we lose another day when I can make some calls and make some wire transfers."

"Yeah," Damali said. She stretched her back and kept her eyes on Dan, fighting not to look at Carlos. "We have to handle our business. Without resources, we're sitting ducks. Until the Covenant gives us the green light to move this squad in relative safety, we need a cover story about why I've suddenly dropped from the scene."

Dan nodded. "She's at the apex of her career, man. I have to feed the media vultures something to keep them interested in what Damali will do next, and to keep her fans hungry for her next move. I can play this sudden drop out of sight as her going on a religious pilgrimage or something, mix the truth in with the fiction... which will also make the dark side think she was so torn up that she can't perform."

For a moment, no one said a word. Dan's comment was so close to the bone that it almost cut when he'd said it. Damali drew in a silent breath and spoke with a steady voice.

"Yeah, Dan is right. That is very close to what happened. Tell them that after Sydney, I'm going to... hmmm... Tibet." She smiled. "Cool?"

Dan smiled and the group relaxed.

"We'll be headed in the opposite direction toward Africa and then Europe, so if anyone checks that we flew into Manila, it will make sense. They'll be roaming over Tibet while we're getting papal clearance to enter the Vatican on the other side of the world." She smoothed the front of her gown and entered the narrow jet aisle with Shabazz and Dan. "Hopefully, by the time we get through all of this, I'll have some slammin' new cuts, inspired from wherever we go. Maybe."

Monk Lin moved to her side slowly. His expression was grim, but his eyes were gentle. "This is the right course of action, Neteru. Therefore, in Manila, my journey ends. I must go prepare my brothers for a possible attack."

"Hold it, then," Damali said quickly. "I wasn't even thinking that a mention of Tibet would send a search-and-destroy team your way! Let's pick someplace else to use as a decoy." Her gaze frantically searched the group for answers but only blank stares returned. Damn... where would she send the vamps? She didn't want any innocent blood on her hands in any country.

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