T he sun warmed Carlos's face, and he stretched and yawned, blindly feeling for Damali beside him. Then he remembered that she'd left him for her muse. He'd vowed not to come between her and her creative process, but damn.

He sat up, rubbed his face with both hands, and let his breath out hard. It would have been nice to wake up beside her, and to have another little private interlude with her before having to deal with the whole family. Glancing at the height of the sun, it wouldn't be long before the entire compound came alive, and then that level of privacy just wouldn't be there.

Thoroughly annoyed, he looked down at the tent his body made in the sheets. A wake-up salute greeted him, but his woman was gone. What was wrong in the universe when something so simple had to be this complicated?

Standing with effort, he went to the bathroom and splashed water on his face. He looked down and grimaced. He was so damned hard he couldn't even take a whiz. This was ridiculous.

Carlos stalked out of the bathroom, found his pants, and pulled them on. Why Damali always had him on a mission was beyond him. Even while he argued with himself about it, he still found himself walking through the house toward the studio. Later, maybe, after breakfast, he'd give her a piece of his mind... she'd promised to come back in a little while, and hadn't.

As he neared the studio, he watched her for a moment through the glass. She was singing, tears running down her beautiful face, in total rapture--how could he be angry or begrudge her ecstasy like that?

Carlos sighed, tempered his annoyance, and continued to gaze at her through the glass. It reminded him so much of how he used to pine outside her window, able to see her but not touch her... and the way she was moving before the mic made him need to hear her voice. He remembered how they used to press their hands to the glass, heat radiating beyond the barrier, to feel each other's vibe.

He glanced up at the lit recoding light that was on and sighed. All right. He'd wait for her to finish and just watch her.

But as she moved and her hands caressed the mic, the morning erection she'd left him to endure throbbed harder, and he knew her voice would decimate him... he'd be as quiet as a mouse, would just slip into the studio and stand by the exit, just so he could hear her sing... and before his hand fully consulted his brain, he'd opened the door.

Carlos took two paces into the room, her song was winding down, and he was sad that he'd probably missed the crescendo of it. She was so beautiful, just wailing like that. Desire flared and drew him to her like a magnet.

He walked toward her as quietly as he could, vamp stealth. Her eyes were closed, her head back, and her hands were clenched in fists. It was never his intention to interrupt her flow, but as she opened her eyes she stopped abruptly and jumped back, almost screaming.

A gold blade ripped through the nothingness, just came at him from thin air. Millisecond reflexes made him dip back and avoid the swing that was aimed at taking his head off his shoulders. He heard her scream; fire and bright white light tore through the opening, and a huge entity stepped through the flames, radiating like the sun and wearing gold armor.

His natural response was to bulk and move out of the way of another potentially lethal swing. Carlos spun, pivoted, and dropped battle-length fang.

"Never in my house!" the entity thundered. "Never when she's with me!" Flames rippled down the edge of the blade and arced to draw a line between it and Damali.

Total confusion made Carlos hesitate for a second. It was as though he were watching events unfold in slow motion. Was it an angel, a demon? What the hell was it?

He saw Damali run toward the huge brother and shout, "No! Don't hurt him!" Was he fucking hallucinating?

"Somebody talk to me!" Carlos shouted. The entity before him stood seven-feet tall, had him by a head in height, and definitely had him by weight. Battle-length fangs glistened a warning that only his kind knew well, but it was broad goddamned daylight! He was the only one that could do that!

"Never, ever, come into my lair when I'm with her!" The entity growled, circling Carlos in preparation for an all-out battle lunge. Blue flames flickered at the rim of his nostrils and his eyes glowed gold-silver.

"Your lair, motherfucker, are you mad?" Carlos spat on the floor. He could still feel the burn mark where the entity's sword had grazed his throat. "In here, when I'm with her, and she's finishing a song, do not ever interrupt her!"

The sound of the entity's voice thundered. Carlos's gaze shot between Damali and the thing that was slowly circling.

"You promised!" Damali shouted. "Stand down! Put the blade away!"

Carlos's attention fractured as it tried to hold the deadly image before him and move counterclockwise to it, and also make sense of what Damali was saying.

"When I'm with you, and we are fusing, he is never to interrupt that," the thing said, snarling. "That is beyond my control point, woman-- know that."

"Oh, wait a fucking minute," Carlos said, the growl coming from him so low that it vibrated within his chest.

"Baby, listen," Damali said, unable to get between them. "It's not what you think, it's--"

"Tell him who I am to you!" the entity roared, leveling his blade at Damali. "He will assuredly get himself killed if you do not."

Judgment left Carlos at the same moment he left the floor. Carlos lunged, and the entity swung, missed, and he landed a hard right to its jaw. The entity landed, narrowed his gaze, and flung the blade down, and then ripped the gold armor from his chest as Carlos snatched the mic stand, broke it over his knee, and made a weapon to impale it.

"Let us do this as was once done," the entity said through a low snarl.

"Old-school, motherfucker--it's on!"

Carlos's gaze narrowed, but seeing a Neteru symbol blazing on the entity's massive chest was disorienting. Still, it was a matter of honor. Carlos flung down the sharp-edged pole. An apexing male had rolled up on his woman, had breached the compound, and had drawn on him. Instantly both were airborne and collided with a deadlock thud. His throat was being strangled by what he now knew to be the stronger male. A lot of shit had happened to him in his life, but never this.

Leveraging the heavier weight, Carlos flip-rolled the being off of him. But it landed on its feet and threw a punch that sent Carlos sprawling across the floor. Dazed, it took Carlos a second to flip himself back up and to regain floor positioning.

"Stop!" Damali yelled. "You two have to stop!"

She went for the blade; the entity drew it to him by kinetic force and flung it through the air to disappear on the other side of nothing. In the few seconds that had passed, Carlos gained a healthy respect for the strength of what he was up against. His woman's voice was screaming at fever pitch, but what she was saying was incomprehensible.

"If you hurt him, I'll never come to you again. If he dies, it's over!"

Stupefied, Carlos backed up. "Damali, what's going on?"

"Baby, you weren't supposed to find out like this, I swear!"

Carlos looked at the entity, looked at her; renewed fury sent him headlong into the entity's abdomen. The entity lost his footing from the force of the collision. Carlos swung and landed a punch that sent red blood splattering. But the returned punch knocked him across the room to slam against the wall. He was off it before the entity blinked, and the two combatants hurled against the studio glass. Pain shot through Carlos's system as his spine and head took out a section of the double-thick glass plates. The next thing he knew, he had been jettisoned outside the studio, and a lair seal as strong as the shield of Heru kept him at bay.

Rage and frustration made him bang on the golden seal to no avail. He knew how strong a. master's-lair seal was, as well as the impossibility of breaking a Neteru's gold shield. The dichotomy only spiked his adrenaline higher. Everything about this entity told Carlos the interloper was from the old dark realms. Panic, fury, hurt, confusion filled him as he hollered and banged to no avail, sending his shoulder against the shield, yelling at the tops of his lungs.

Guardians' footfalls pummeled the steps like soldiers called to war. He was beyond speech. His voice was a series of roars. His woman was on the wrong side of a seal. A male vamp had her. The contender had council-level strength. It carried a Neteru blade. Came out in daylight. Arched gold-white energy. Had a Neteru tattoo, just like his. "Damali!"

This thing on the other side of the barrier was whispering to her, holding her arms, trying to talk some shit--he could see it through the glass. His woman was listening to the bullshit! She hadn't gone into battle mode, what the fuck? His ass was taller, older, wiser, and built--cut up! Dropped twelve inches of fang to his ten. Oh, hell no!

"Stand back," Mike said, "a cannon might blow the seal."

"No, my fucking woman is in there with some motherfucker she knows, and she's been with him before!" Carlos shouted. Tears fused with blood in his mouth as he pounded the impenetrable divide like a madman. Hysteria blacked out judgment. She'd left his bed to be with another man. There was a lair in the family house--for another vamp, not him? He whirled on the family, every conceivable weapon was drawn and pointed at the seal, but he didn't care. Saliva and snot slung from his nose as he roared rapid- fire questions. "How long have you known she had somebody else? How long has she been playing me, y'all! Talk to me, I'll kill this motherfucker, if it's the last thing I do! Y'all feed him, too? He family, or what the fuck?"

A sob stole his complaint, and he turned back to the seal, then charged it, only to fracture his collarbone for the effort. But when he saw the entity stroke Damali's face, lower his mouth to hers, and the Guardians look away--he lost it. Something within his fragile psyche snapped. His collarbone didn't hurt; he was going through that seal. And the instant the entity dropped focus for a split second during a good-bye kiss, Carlos was through the barrier with the team behind him.

His feet never touched the floor. The velocity of the hurdle whirled him past Damali to intersect with the entity's midsection, and they both flew backward and were gone.

Chaos imploded. Damali was walking back and forth in front of the invisible rip with her hands clutching her hair, sobbing. Unfired rounds remained in gun barrels, but everyone was yelling at once.

"We couldn't shoot it, Mar, without hitting Carlos!" Big Mike yelled.

"They moved too fast, and with D in the room," Rider said, breathing hard. "No way to get a shot off."

"Shit, oh, holy shit," Jose was yelling, walking back and forth in front of the invisible place Carlos had disappeared. "D, how could you do my boy like that, baby? In his house, the family house--girl, he ain't neva gonna be right!"

"It wasn't like that!" Damali screamed. "You of all people should know!" "What the hell does that mean?" Juanita shouted, whirling on Damali.

"Fuck you! I am tired of your signifying ass!" Damali said, tears making her sputter. "Marlene, get that bitch outta my face. Where's my blade? I'm going in!"

"Going in where?" Shabazz shouted. "How, D? You know how to breach that void?"

"If she called him before, maybe she can call him again," Marlene said, breathing hard. "That'll open a--"

"What do you mean, called him, Marlene?" Shabazz was walking in circles. "You knew about this?"

"No, Mar, this time you've gone too far!"

Shabazz stalked away from Marlene and Damali. Big Mike put a hand on his shoulder.

"D, listen,-if you can explain to Carlos about what happened earlier this morning, maybe--"

"Shut up, Inez," Damali said, bitter sobs making her rock. "They're over there on the other side in a death struggle. There isn't time to explain!"

"Earlier this morning?" Bike Mike looked at Inez. "When you left the room, you knew what was up?" "Baby, see," Inez said. "It was--"

"Aw, hell no!" Big Mike boomed. "You keep some serious shit like this from me, then what else you got to hide?"

"Stop it!" Damali shrieked, covering her face. What was happening to everything she knew?

"If she was in here with it earlier, and was recording, we have it on disk," J.L. said, running to the board. "They've fucked up the boards, but I can maybe pull something off there that can open a door to the other side."

"No! Don't play that!" Damali said, body-blocking J.L. "You can't. It'll make him stronger, more determined than ever to kill Carlos." "What's on the hard drives, D?" Rider said, hocking and spitting on the floor. "There's only one thing I can think of that would take him there, and I'm praying it ain't that."

"It is," Damali wailed. "Okay? Satisfied?"

"Who is it?" Berkfield said, his voice filled with judgment. "If we have to take a body, we need to know what we're huntin'."

"He's older, stronger, and a Neteru. You're not going to be able to take him down, like that," Damali said, her voice leveling off as she wiped her face. "Carlos doesn't even have a blade on him."

Marjorie ran her fingers through her hair. "Then, honey, you're gonna have to coax him to our side with sugar. Call his name; beg him sweetly not to hurt that man. We've all been there, had somebody that we shouldn't have, and--"

"What!" Berkfield's voice imploded within the room as he crossed it to snatch his wife by the arm. Immediately Bobby and Krissy jumped between their parents.

"Don't even think about hitting her, Dad," Bobby said, his eyes filling. "You worked a lot of nights, did a lot of shit that left her all alone. You don't fucking hit her."

Krissy walked away with her hands over her face as Dan gathered Marjorie Berkfield into his arms to comfort her.

"We need to get back on mission," Dan said, his quiet authority quelling the chaos. "There'll be time to sort this all out later, once we get Carlos back, and put this other thing down. Whatever we saw, or think we saw, could have been illusion--never forget that. We don't turn on each other. We're family. We work it out. We're one." For a moment, no one spoke. Lines had been drawn, sides taken, and nothing would ever be quite the same.

"For what it's worth," Damali said, her breaths still shaky, "I never slept with him."

Again, silence permeated the battered room and hung between everyone in it.

"I love Carlos, wouldn't do that to him, and the kiss you saw was my attempt to appease that being and send it away before anything worse happened. I was in here singing to appease it, to keep it from manifesting, but Carlos interrupted me before I finished the song, and the entity wigged."

Marjorie looked up from her hands. Her face was red, tear-streaked and her mouth quivered as she spoke. "I believe you," she said in a resolute tone, and then lifted her chin higher. "I know that that's possible. And while the attention was flattering, and the temptation great, I trust you when you tell us that you never did anything... anything permanent."

Marjorie's hot gaze shot around the room, landing on every male within it. "Tell me none of you have ever thought about it? Ever saw another person who simply turned your head for a moment, but then you remembered what was at risk.... Because maybe you were lonely, weary, unappreciated, felt like your whole life was spent giving for everyone but yourself," she said, her voice growing shrill as she leveled her charges.

Marjorie held Rider in her glare, and went to Shabazz, Big Mike, then the younger Guardians, and held her husband's eyes until he looked away. "I won't let you be hypocrites and denigrate Damali in front of me. Don't you dare make assumptions about any woman in this house!"

Marjorie stormed out of the room. Krissy went with her.

Rider nodded. "Well said, and duly noted." He sighed and holstered his weapon. "What's the bastard's name, so I can put a bullet in his head if--"

"She doesn't know," Marlene said quietly, once the storm had passed. "C'mon, D... you don't even know his name?" Jose walked away, disgusted, leaving Juanita fuming.

"Put your guns away," Marlene said in a sad voice. "You can't kill him." "Why not?" Shabazz snapped and looked at her hard. "Because he's her muse--the muse of Damali's music."

Crash landing in the middle of a grassy knoll, hands clenched around throats, neither would relent nor drop his grip.

"You can't die on this side," the entity growled through his teeth.

"But I can enjoy strangling your ass.until the end of fucking time," Carlos snarled.

The entity released Carlos and pushed him off him so hard that Carlos went sprawling across the grass. The entity stood and stared at Carlos, who was back on his feet in seconds.

"This is futile," the entity snarled. "Enough!"

"It was way fucking enough when you put your hands on my woman!"

"She was mine, first. Be clear!"

"Bullshit!" Carlos walked back and forth, trying to decide which limb to detach from the arrogant thing's body. But the fact that it was sunny outside was jacking with his mind. "When'd you meet her?"

"I am her muse; I have always been with her. You cannot compete for her in this regard!"

Stunned, Carlos stared at the thing before him. Both beings wiped the blood from their noses. "Look around. It is daylight. This is not the dark realms."

Carlos glanced around quickly, but kept his eyes on the thing before him. The fact that it was built like a tank, and by male standards all-right looking, was really eating him up. "You got fangs, man, so you need to--"

"As do you," the entity said, glaring at him and retrieving the blade that he spied off in the distance. "Same fathers."

Carlos hurried behind the thing that had nearly stopped his heart when he'd leaned down and kissed his boo. But this new information was setting off a new wave of concerns. "You need to stop jacking with my head! My father was a Rivera, all human. And if you're trying to say some shit about my mother, the blade ain't gonna help your ass at all!"

"I cast no aspersions on your mother," the entity said, glaring at him as it picked up the blade. "Mine has suffered more public ridicule than ever deserved, therefore I do not speak ill of another man's mother-- ever. We are brothers, by right, by Neteru law. All Neterus are brothers."

Carlos slightly relaxed, but not much. Having to come face to face with a slightly more robust equal was not something he was ready to deal with. It was always the thing that one had never had to contend with that presented the greatest challenges. Shabazz hadn't lied. Although, at the moment, he failed to see where any so-called growth would come from this experience.

"Aw'ight. I see the tattoo. You got da silver. Neteru moves. Blade to match it. Fine. But the crack about same fathers--"

"Dante," the entity said flatly. "He made you, that is why you still have his fangs. He made me in the Garden with Eve, which is why I still bear the family resemblance. Is your poor battered mind satisfied?"

Carlos stood very, very still. "Dante made you?"

"Correct. The old-fashioned way. Through conception, before he was made sterile for the offense and banished to rule the dark realms on Level Six by his father. I trust you know who that is?"

Carlos didn't even blink. Hell yeah, he knew who Dante's daddy was, and he remained nameless. So, if Dante made this guy . . .

"Eve gave birth to only three sons. The first one was banished. The second one killed by the first. The third went on to prosper. I know my Bible history, so stop playing with my head!" Carlos shouted, new terror increasing the volume of his voice.

"The first son was named Cain, me," the entity said in a weary tone. "Made by the first female Neteru and Dante, otherwise known as the Chairman." He looked at Carlos and smiled.

"Little brother, you and I share much in common. My name begins with the letter C, which carries the resonance of scattered energy, but is the marrying type--numerically represents three. I slayed my younger brother, Abel, whose name begins with the letter A, which carries the numerical property of one, like Adam's. Your name begins with C, and regrettably, you, too, killed your younger brother, Alejandro, although for different reasons... but he was your father's favorite son. We both were destined to be Neterus, but we both made several grievous choices along the way. My mission is to learn selfless sacrifice, to give the world back a harvest through, of all things, Damali's music."

"Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait!" Carlos ran his fingers through his hair. What this entity was telling him was gonna make him scalp himself.

"It is very, simple. What lessons you do not master in one lifetime, you are destined to repeat in the next. I have had to incarnate many times to learn many lessons, and my final challenge was through the arts. I have not always been a muse, trust me."

"Then, after Adam, you were the second male Neteru ever made?" The entity nodded and began walking away.

"Yo! But that don't have jack shit to do with you trying to push up on my woman!"

The entity spun and unsheathed his blade with lightning quickness and leveled it at Carlos's chest. "With her, do not test my resolve to stay in the Light."

Carlos slapped the blade away. "Likewise."

The two remained immobile, glaring at each other.

"Ultimately, it is her choice." The entity lowered his blade.

"Yeah, it is, isn't it," Carlos sneered. "And, if you know like I know, you'll stay away from her."

"That, too, is her choice."

Deafening silence bound them. Nothing but the howling wind from the hills could be heard.

"She makes it very difficult for me not to kill you," the entity finally said, his eyes blazing. "But it is not allowed."

"If you wanna go, we can go," Carlos said in a low threat. "Any time, any day. Step back to where we can dust each other, and it's on."

"You are not allowed to kill me, either."

"Says who?" Carlos spat.

The entity smiled and pointed his blade skyward. "Presents a dilemma, yes?" He chuckled. "I have the mark, as do you. The choice is simple. Disobey the Father, and we will be sent to the one that made us. Given Dante's demise, you are aware of his next of kin on Level Seven."

Carlos didn't move, but he'd heard Cain loud and clear. That was not an option. He could only stare at the now six-foot-five being that obviously had wisdom, discipline, and shared all his best moves. A strange feeling of sadness entered him as he began to realize that perhaps he wasn't so unique, wasn't firstborn in a line of proud men like he'd always thought. His mission was unclear now. Everything he thought he'd understood was very tenuous and this older brother had blown him away with information he didn't own.

The worst of it all was he seemed a very strong contender to turn Damali's head--and shared something with her that he couldn't begin to--music. But there was no way, in any realm, that he could bring himself to ask the question that he most needed to know. Had she gotten with Cain? If so, when, how, where, what led up to it, what would have made her go there, how could she? Did the Juanita thing really make her do something like this? Or was it that this brother's game was so righteous that, the transgression with Juanita or not, Damali had been seduced, wanted him, and went for it... couldn't help herself. He wasn't sure which possibility hurt more.

"I'm going home," Carlos said. Defeat laced his tone. "Where's the door?"

Cain sighed. "I don't know."

"Stop with the games," Carlos said, now beginning to feel every blow that had landed on him. "I'm out."

"There is a rip. But none of us know where it is. Here, until I safely courier you back to the other side, you are unfortunately my charge. I am, for lack of a better term, my brother's keeper. I never wanted that, either. However, it is what it is."

"Then how did you get back and forth to talk to my woman? What was all that shit you said about her studio being your lair, hombre? You need to come with stronger game than that!" Just thinking about it was making Carlos pace.

"I can only come when she calls me," the entity said in a flat, disgusted tone. He briefly closed his eyes. "No matter where I am, no matter what I am doing, the world stops and I'm on the other side."

"Watching the sheer want ripple through Cain lowered Carlos's defenses. He had to know. "How many times she call you, man?" The entity opened his eyes. "Calm yourself. Although it would give me great pleasure to torture you with a he, I have learned from my past. She calls me through her music. When she composes, it summons me."

Slightly improved by the admission, Carlos tried to be cool. "Aw'ight. Then we have to wait until she does."

"The likelihood that she will be composing at all in the near future is remote!" the entity suddenly bellowed. "Why could you not allow her that? I never interfered with what she gave you in the flesh. The only thing that was mine to share with her was music. Why did you--"

"Because that's my woman, motherfucker, and the last I heard, muses were supposed to be spirits only, positive ones, not some guy breathing down her neck with fangs!"

"Do you think I wanted to be in the flesh? Are you insane? That carries the burdens of every earthly desire!"

The entity walked in a circle, and Carlos watched him whip himself into a new rage. He walked up to Carlos, flexing his fist.

"Young and foolish! If I could have passed this last test, I would never have had to come back!" Cain walked away, took in several deep breaths, and turned to face Carlos. "Thousands of years have passed. I've endured the gain and loss of wives, children, experienced birth, death, worry, sickness, desire. I was spirit. I was free of that! Then the earth stopped moving during a disaster of biblical proportions, a rip occurred, and for some reason I have yet to fathom, I go between spirit and flesh-- but when in spirit, carry all the same intensities of the earth plane now."

Speechless, Carlos watched Cain's eyes for any sign of fraud. Rather than detecting a lie, he saw tears brim and then burn away. Either this brother was kicking the most profound truth he'd ever heard, or he had more game than him. Unable to give into the concept that anybody had more game, the truth could be the only culprit.

"So, up until recently, you were spirit, didn't feel things like on the earth plane?" Carlos couldn't help it; he definitely had to know.

"Pure love and pure creation is the only thing allowed to reside in the upper realms, you know that," Cain said, walking away. His tone had carried a level of shame in it that Carlos immediately honed in on.

"So, you had a pure ether love vibe happening for her and her work, up until recently?"

"Yes, why do you dwell upon it?"

Carlos jogged to catch up to Cain's slightly longer strides. "I'm just trying to understand how this place works."

"That is a lie," Cain said, and stopped walking. He turned to face Carlos squarely. "If you have a direct question, ask it." They stared at each other for a moment.

"I have a lot of questions," Carlos finally admitted.

Cain sighed and waited. "It appears that you have an indefinite amount of time to ask them."

"Aw'ight then," Carlos said, hedging, but too curious to let the opportunity pass. "Like, when she was grooving to her music, before the rip, you helped her, watched over her, and was cool. Because all during her growing up years, I never saw you around."

"I was ether," Cain snarled. "My feelings were pure."

"So what made you lose your mind and try to come on my side to get a bone snatched outta your ass by me--"

Cain had grabbed Carlos by the throat so fast that he hadn't seen it coming. Cain's eyes blazed gold then went silver, his grip threatened, but didn't strangle. Carlos remained cool, standing his ground in the challenge to let Cain know he wasn't impressed. But that was getting harder to do by the moment as he truly studied the muscular bandwidth of Cain's outstretched arm.

"The rip tore me to shreds," Cain said through lowered incisors. "Her voice is like a knife. Sound became touch. She was innocent of that and didn't know. Every composition, even her laughter now, I feel as flesh. I respected your union. From our old world, she is scored at the throat as your wife--and you by her incredible bite. However, every man has his limits. A year of abstinence from her creating, because of you... a year of no communication with her, because of you... when on a summer solstice night, the eve of my solo apex, she called out low and sweet and naked in her tub, 'Muse, where are you, come back to me,' I was finished!"

He flung Carlos away from him, and Carlos landed on his feet a yard away. Carlos rubbed his throat, pissed off, but also understanding the brother's dilemma.

"I had never crossed the line, and rue the night that I did. What I thought had been insufferable, experiencing it on this side... I was not prepared for the intensity of the vibrations once I stepped through the rip to go to her. Now I have put her in a very delicate position of making an impossible choice--me, her music, or you."

Cain had kept his back to Carlos as he spoke, and Carlos understood that to mean this being was beyond the point of fearing an attack. Duly noted. Been there a time or two himself. Sometimes truth just fucked a man up like that, and there was no reason to go to war about it, especially when the more he heard, the better he felt about what might have possibly gone down. But there was still a question that lingered.

"You will have to ask her that," Cain said, his tone weary as he began to walk.

"I plan to, as soon as I get back."

"Then follow me, and if she ever composes again, we'll go see her." Carlos stopped walking. "We, hell. I'm going back; your ass is staying here."

Cain looked at him. "If she calls me, know that I will go to her." "Over my dead body." Carlos folded his arms. "Once we cross over, my pleasure."

"You're talking out of both sides of your mouth, hombre. One minute you said we're not allowed to kill each other, and all this respect bullshit for Damali. Then the next minute--"

"Let us be realistic. We are both male. Both hunters. Both Neterus, and we both know that being a vampire, Council-level, does have some sufferable attributes that she does not fear, in fact, enjoys. There is one female Neteru while we are both in season. If you are honest with yourself, you also know that even you have gone to Hell to claim her."

Cain chuckled and folded his arms over his barrel chest when Carlos was rendered speechless. "I am, for better or worse, Dante's son, made by the seed of raw passion, not the mere bite. That attribute is encoded in my cells--passion. My father ruled the pleasure principle, just as his father is master of negotiations and the airwaves. My lineage is complex and not to be taken lightly. My undoing as the second male Neteru ever made on the planet, and your senior by many years, is her. Warring for her is not out of the realm of my sensibilities or capacity. Do not test me."

Haughty disdain flickered in Cain's glowing, silver gaze. "How many men have gone to war over a woman? You have sat in a throne and should well know your history. Is she not worth all of Rome, rivaling Cleopatra? Is she not the face that could launch a thousand ships to reduce Troy to rubble? Tell me, young Neteru brother, have men lost all reason before in the past and sent infantries into the desert to reclaim something more valuable than gold?"

Cain nodded with triumph when Carlos didn't immediately answer. "I am not speaking from both sides of my mouth. I am telling you the truth, as honestly as any man can. My mission is as I originally stated. However, she represents a potential change in plans. The Armageddon may be in the offing, but challenge me over her and I assure you that it will seem like a minor border dispute."

Carlos nodded but didn't verbally respond. This brother talked more shit than he did. Only problem was, he seemed like he could back it up. Carlos's mind scrambled to assess the challenge. Yeah, all right, if it was war, so be it. He could dig it; Damali would make a man lose all judgment, especially one with a little vamp in him--and this brother had serious juice in his DNA. He glanced around at the rich, fertile valley below that was teeming with entities and glasslike structures, trying to gauge how many troops the brother could raise should the shit get real crazy.

The dilemma pissed him off; he didn't have an army, except human Guardians and his boy, Yonnie, maybe Tara, and any witches Gabrielle could get as mercenaries. If other teams joined his, which was unlikely for a personal dispute of this nature, at best he could count 144,000 Guardians on Earth at any one time. Although the urge to go to battle, just outright slay this motherfucker, was as strong as his old vamp blood hunger, Damali would never go for putting good people in harm's way to start a war over her, anyhow. Plus, he didn't know what preternatural powers the beings in this realm wielded, or how many of them there were. He didn't like the odds of not knowing. A solid bluff was therefore in order.

"As Neterus, it's between me and you, not a brawl throughout the planet where civilians could get hurt. D ain't going for that, and you know it--so stop frontin'. But since we being real, even if you happen to kill me, which your ass won't, then you still lose. The Light will snuff your ass out and send you back to your daddy's people. The way I see it, you're screwed." Triumphant, Carlos folded his arms over his chest and cocked his head to the side in challenge.

"I know the resultant risks and consequences of killing you--a second younger brother--for the sake of envy. Heaven would close her doors." Cain smiled, retracting his fangs. "Given what I have honestly presented, how much wisdom do you think I have acquired?"

"Enough," Carlos begrudgingly said.

Cain nodded. "Therefore, a word of wisdom from me to you, younger brother. I will contend for her with everything at my disposal. Pure ether love converted to earthly love is a very powerful energy, laden with many desires. Duel. Outright battle. Gifts. Romance. Seduction. Honor. Neteru status. Good deeds. Or a Council-level war. Name your weapon."

Carlos nodded. "Bet. I can appreciate an honest man."

"Good," Cain said. "So can I. Then welcome to the Land of Nod."

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