Beverly Hills, California

I t frustrated her no end that the heated exchange with Carlos had gotten way off the primary subject and had devolved into a stupid argument about Juanita--a chick that clearly didn't have a clue. What he failed to realize was that it didn't have a thing to do with that heifer!

Damali nearly screamed in the car as she drove. He was so blind! This was about trust, his previous lack of respect for and acceptance of her role as a Neteru--his copartner... and that he'd allowed some old, archaic, man-woman double-standard nonsense to compromise the foundation of what they had, as well as jeopardize the overall safety and well-being of the whole family behind his ego. It was unforgivable. That's what had cut to the bone, not his old flame. Him thinking it was about his so- called 'Nita was again nothing but Carlos's male ego in full effect!

But how the mess got off onto a stupid tangent was still a mystery. Damali blew a frazzled lock up off her forehead and continued to drive away from Carlos's place like a bat out of Hell. He didn't get it; the fact that he didn't made her want to snatch every hair out of his thick head by the roots. It was so basic! Heaven help her get this point across to that man!

They were supposed to be fighting evil as one, be the vanguards of justice, not arguing about the ridiculous. And, yet, she was only human. This shit with Carlos hurt so badly she couldn't breathe. She needed a day or two to chill. Time. A minute to pull it together. If time could just stop for a few to allow it--but she was supposed to be taking the new-bies through their paces this afternoon. Oh, God, if time could just stop... where were her other stones? No new insights, no new powers--and now this! Life needed just to slow down

"A prayer said in anger," Lilith whispered, cupping her hands around the black, smoldering orb in her palms. She blew a cool breath on it and brought it into Lucifer's dark chambers. "My prince of the airwaves, I have an intercepted gift for you."

He looked up from his contemplation of the world, his dark gaze leaving the swirling globe before him, his hands a tent before his mouth. All was gargoyle stillness about him. Not even solicitous Harpies dared to scamper at his feet. The cavern was pitch-black, the only light emanating within it came from the model of the earth before him, and the gleaming blackness within his goat-eye- shaped irises.

Lilith hesitated, her line of vision darting between each darkened mark he'd made on the blue-and-white marble that slowly turned on a broken axis in the center of his single throne room, and then him. It was nearly impossible to see his form in the overwhelming shadows, but she could feel the power of his presence enveloping her as she struggled with speech.

"As you know, Lilith, I am always busy. Be swift, as my patience wanes. What is this gift?"

Lilith swallowed hard as the thunderous voice rumbled through her. "A Neteru going dark and praying for vengeance... wanting to hurt her soul mate as much as he's hurt her."

Lilith watched her husband arch his brow and then give a satisfied half-smile.

"You would never tease me with such a gift, would you, my dear? I thought you knew the extent of my wrath when displeased."

His voice was low, sensual, and dangerously melodic, sending a renewed shiver of terror through her. Yet his form had normalized, and he seemed relaxed and in quiet repose on his black marble throne. Lilith squinted through the darkness that was so complete that it even shielded him to her night vision. She released small sips of air when he gave her a knowing smile and relented, allowing her to witness his handsome self. She almost wept with relief at the sight of him cloaked beneath his large, raven-black, fallen-angel feathered wings, rather than the leathery ones used for battle.

She opened her hands and the snatched thought orb hovered above her palms for a moment before she blew her icy breath against it to send it toward him. He caught it with one fist, and then rolled it against his cheek and laughed.

"For as long as I've known you, Lilith, you always manage to delight me." He shook his head, causing his flowing jet black curls to cascade over his broad shoulders. "All right, my very bad girl... go ahead with your plan to release the forsaken." He laughed low and deeply and in earnest. " This I have got to see."

Damali had tried to rush in and out of the compound in a flash, not trusting herself to stay longer. All she wanted was to borrow Dan's car-- a ridiculous two-seater, drop-top, red Porsche racer treat to himself that had absolutely no usefulness in battle. But it was fast. She and Dan were both adrenaline junkies in that way--speed demons. Damali laughed just thinking about it.

Marlene had given her the eye, as had Shabazz, but who cared? She'd agreed to go through some battle paces with the group, but her goal was singular: to go out hunting tonight alone. Right now that goal was coming true. She was out in the night air, "Gold Digger" blaring from the radio, Kanye was kicking it, and just remembering what it felt like to perform live on stage was threatening to give her the blues.

She needed to kill something, find a demon; any kind would be all right with her. In fact, the old vamp club where Carlos used to operate his best game was calling her. Since he and Yonnie had abandoned it, the place was probably infested. Good.

Just one vamp, maybe a werewolf. She felt dangerous tonight. Even her clothes were dangerous and not fit for battle. Damali laughed as the wind caught her locks while she sped along the old roads she knew by heart. It wasn't about listening to Inez or anybody who could talk her out of where she was headed. She didn't want to hear another thing from another living soul. She wanted to kill or be killed, and had zoomed home to throw on a red leather mini and the wildest pair of hooker boots she could find in her closet. She was gonna eat, drink, and be merry--and kick some ass--then come home to sleep it off. That would get her straight. Old times. When life was simple. Yeah.

"Thanks for the heads-up, man," Carlos said quietly, too humiliated to stare at Yonnie directly.

"Weird energy is going down, brother. I ain't in your business, but a Neteru blazing silver-and-black aura makes me nervous... especially when it's my boy's woman and she's walking the alleys in vamp territory by herself. Even though there's only lower-level gens inside, if enough of 'em rush her, she could get herself in a jam." Yonnie leaned against the Porsche with Carlos and nodded toward the darkened alley behind the club. "In that getup, girlfriend don't look like she's hunting... used to seeing D in leather pants and Tims, ya mean?"

"Yeah, I hear you," Carlos said, trying to keep a low growl out of his throat. He was damned if he went in there after her, damned if he didn't. So rather than get into an all-out public brawl with Damali, he focused his attention on Yonnie for the moment. "I felt her drawing to our old joint, man, but like you said, there's some serious weird energy out here."

Yonnie nodded. "Thought for a minute I was a damned councilman, bro." The two men stared at each other. "For a half a minute, Tara asked me for a human near V-Point, and I almost messed up."

"Tara asked you for what?" Incredulous, Carlos pushed away from the vehicle.

"You heard me, so watch your back," Yonnie muttered as they saw Damali stroll past a Dumpster to place her hand against the brick wall, sensing for dark energies. "She's got the Isis on her, man... but. . ."

"Yeah, I know," Carlos said, internal worry colliding with rage. Damali looked fabulous, but the outfit was a little too revealing and way over the top for a sister about to throw down in battle. "I got this, man," he finally muttered to his friend, hoping Yonnie would take the hint and mist off. The last thing he needed was a hot argument to be seen by the family. Yonnie just smiled, shook his head, and offered Carlos a fist pound. "I don't know what you gonna do with that," he said as they watched Damali lean into the bricks spread-eagled, close her eyes, and release a slow groan. "But my suggestion is that you handle your business." Then just as suddenly as he'd appeared, Yonnie was vapor before Carlos could form a response.

Complete outrage made Carlos begin to walk forward against his better judgment. What had gotten into her? Sensing was one thing, baiting the hook to this degree was another--especially when there weren't that many entities in the region still foolish enough to try her. As he approached, his footfalls made her look up and push away from the wall with a scowl.

"What's your problem?" she said, gripping the Isis tighter than was necessary.

Carlos looked her up and down, assessing her revealing outfit with disdain. "I was about to ask you the same thing. If you wanted to go out hunting, I thought it was the house rule to do two-by-two detail from now on?"

"Puhlease. I wasn't going anywhere with you tonight."

"I didn't say it had to be me," Carlos shot back, "just another Guardian, at least."

Damali put her foot against the wall and began tightening the laces in her boot. With the mini and her pose, she was serving all thong, and had no modesty about it whatsoever. He could only assume that she was trying to really piss him off, and it was working.

"Look, I don't know what you're trying to prove out here," he said, crossing his arms, "but--"

"I don't have to prove anything, Carlos. This place drew me, had some crazy energy, but I went through the entire club and couldn't even get a good beat-down going." She dropped her foot to the ground and then began working on the other laces. "If you would stop being so muy macho and feel the wall, you'd see what I'm talking about."

Angered by the charge she lobbed, he walked over to the wall, spread out both palms, and tried to focus. "Nada."

"Figures." Damali cut him a glare, sheathed her Isis, and began walking toward Dan's car.

"What's that supposed to mean, 'figures'?" Exasperated, he walked in long strides to catch up to her, and grabbed her arm, forcing her to stop.

Damali looked down at his hand until he removed it. "You didn't feel the bodies... the faces... the hands on that wall pushing like they were caught inside and trying to get out of it? It wasn't a pure demon presence, or a vamp or werewolf sensation." She sucked her teeth when Carlos looked back at the wall. "Like I said. Figures. You're so worried about your so-called woman doing whatever, and dressing however, you can't focus on the real."

"That's bullshit," he muttered, walking toward the wall and opening his hands against it again. "And if it was all that you said, what the hell is wrong with you, getting all up on it until you knew what it was?"

She arched an eyebrow and gave him a wicked smile. "It felt good. What can I say? I'm going home."

He whirled on her as she jumped over the door and slid into the driver's seat. "Just like that--no, 'Baby, you need a ride?' "

"Just like you blew in here, now that you can do transport with accuracy, you can take your own ass home. I drove because I wanted to feel the motion and keep my mind occupied with some music, okaaay? If that's all right with you."

He stood in the darkened alley listening to air-conditioning compressors and club music thudding through the walls as she turned on the engine and careened away.

Something was so wrong with his baby that he could only look up at the full moon and stare. Fury was spiking through him so hard that it almost stopped his pulse. About to leave, Carlos turned as he felt it, or rather, felt them.

Twenty very foolish, lower-level male vampires eased into the alley with smug expressions. Carlos just stared at them. They had no idea how badly he needed to kill something to vent the bubbling rage within him right now. Every chest before him had a bull's-eye on it.

"Where's your shield, Neteru?" the boldest one in the group said, stepping forward. The blond vampire chuckled as the others began to fan out in a semicircle around Carlos. "What... ain't got no blade?" The vampire shook his head. "A dark alley is a real bad place for an ex-Councilman to be caught solo."

Carlos rubbed his jaw and smiled, appraising the biker-looking vamp with a bad mousse job on his spiked platinum blond hair. Skinny motherfucker was gonna get his heart ripped out. The Goth crew with him, serving hard-dyed black-and-red punk-style haircuts with black hps and nails, made the muscles in his forearm twitch. "I'm not in the frame of mind," Carlos said in a quiet, lethal tone. "Just be advised." He looked around. "Damn... this used to be my club, too."

One copper-coiffed, very high vamp giggled in a squeaky-pitched tone. He adjusted his twisted nail-and-leather dog collar and then opened his black leather vest to stick out his bony, naked chest at Carlos in a dare. "He's claiming old territory, fellas--is gonna hurt something with no fangs and no blade. Oh, I'm soooo scared! He used to hold check here, yeah, I remember, just like he used to hold check on his woman, but don't now."

The high vampire glanced around smiling a snaggletooth grin as all twenty vampires suddenly bulked to bodybuilder proportions. "Just like his lady came out here for a fight, was gonna hurt somethin'. Oooohhhh... Sends chills down my spine. Makes my dick hard, just thinking about it."

That was it. Slow rage set off something crazy within Carlos that had no limit. It was all the excuse he needed to kick some ass, and he surveyed the group deciding which one would die first.

"Yeah, she was gonna hurt something all right," another vamp said from the sidelines, taunting Carlos. "The outfit was killer, for sure. But at least she had sense enough to bring her blade--unlike this dumb bastard."

Carlos didn't even turn as they fully encircled him. He kept his eyes on the ringleader and released a very slow breath. This was just what he wanted, and he could actually feel an invisible block break his contact with Yonnie and Damali. The threatening sensation crackled through his aura as though a black net had been dropped around him. Good.

"Thank you," Carlos said evenly. "Tonight I really needed this one-on-many beat down.... Y'all just don't know."

"Be cool, man, his boy is a Master and might come back--or that bitch with the Isis could," a smaller vamp warned the group in a low, nervous whisper. "Just 'cause Yonnie ain't in good standing, don't mean he can't get in it, feel me?"

Carlos looked at the lead entity and spoke in a calm, deliberate tone as he began to slowly walk forward. "You ain't gotta worry about my boy... you need to worry about what you just called my wife."

"Chivalry is not dead, huh?" the platinum blond said with a snarling laugh. "But it will be soon."

It just took a glib second. The moment the vamp before Carlos briefly turned his head to gain another round of laughter from his friends, eight inches of battle-length fangs instantly filled Carlos's mouth. He bulked to stand, six-foot-eight, towering above the six- foot-two blond, and had reached in for a snatch so quickly that the entity before him just stood there for a moment, dazed, chest cavity cleaned out, organ gone. Carlos had yanked it out so fast that the vamp's lungs and esophagus dangled from his fist still attached to the severed heart: The copper-haired one that was talking trash instantly lost his throat all the way down to the bone, causing his head to drop back, hanging by only the thin ligaments and tendons that still kept it attached to his shoulders.

"Oh, shit!" a vamp beside the blond shouted as their leader dropped to his knees with a thud, then keeled over and torched beside the smoldering vamp with no throat. "This motherfucker still got fangs! Still got the speed snatch--get him!"

Carlos left the ground before their muscles could react to send them airborne. Heart tissue and an Adam's apple squeezed between his clenched fists like oozing black mud. The punch that he landed on the vamp that had just spoken disconnected his jaw and sent it skittering under a Dumpster. The deadly group lunged in a blur, and Carlos pivoted, slammed his fists through two chests, coming away with spinal columns and then used them like bloody chains to bullwhip around throats and lacerate once-smug faces. "I told you I was not in the frame!" Carlos shouted, disemboweling four entities in a windmill rake as he spun then kicked several back, his black Timberlands connecting to temples, noses, and cheeks, and coming away with fangs in the sole of his shoe. "But you kept fucking with me tonight!"

Three half-wounded vamps tried to scramble up the fire escape, and Carlos grabbed the bottom rung of the iron bar, flipped up above them, crouched low in a saliva-dripping growl, and then lunged. Throats were between his jaws like old times. Adam's apples were summarily crushed, then gone. He glanced up with silver gleaming eyes and burned right through a beginning swirl of bats, then leapt off the fire escape right into the fray of nine remaining attackers.

He came away with a thigh bone, and plunged it into a chest, breaking it off and leaving part of it planted in a screeching vamp that became cinders. Noting the short bone dagger in his hand, eight vampires backed away but were too injured to propel themselves away to escape.

"What are you, man!" one screamed, holding where his arm had been, black blood gushing everywhere.

"I'm the brother who told your ass that I was not in the frame," Carlos said through a snarl, then instantly lunged and sliced through the entity's windpipe with the bone dagger.

Bloodlust and moonlight madness filled him as the entities tried to flee. Their backs were a target, that was all he could see, the place where their skulls ended and their spines began. He claimed that anatomy with sudden, ruthless fury, two at a time, leaving quivering, twitching forms on the dank alley ground and using the gore to strangle another that fell gasping.

"Take it back," Carlos said in a low growl, standing up from the lifeless form beneath him that he'd beheaded with vertebrae. Leaving smoldering ash at his feet, Carlos advanced to where three remaining vampires cowered behind a Dumpster and snarled with a spit of fury against the ground.

"Okay, okay," one called out. "She ain't no bitch!"

"Then what is she?" Carlos yelled, overturning the Dumpster and watching his burning gaze sizzle against the speaker's chest. "Tell me!"

"She's a queen!" the entity screamed, trying to put his hands in front of the smoldering area, which only ignited his arms and hands.

"Do I look like I need a fucking blade or shield?" Carlos shouted, sending a silver bolt of energy to fillet the entity's chest and expose his heart, searing away skin and snapping back breastbone and ribs one at a time. "I'm just coming out of an apex, motherfucker--do you know who I am?"

"Naw, man, shit... you don't need nothin'.... You da weapon, boss," another one said, breaking down into sobs. "We was just playing, man. Ease up. We ain't know you was still holding Council powers!"

"I'm holding a lot of deep shit," Carlos whispered, his tone deadly. "Got a lotta pent up aggression tonight. You wanted to play... let's play."

"Neterus ain't supposed to be able to do that shit, enjoying it, too!" the other said, covering his head as the two vamps huddled against the wall watched their howling comrade's heart burn.

Carlos tore a metal panel away from the Dumpster and folded it over into a wide, sharp-edged instrument of death. "A lotta shit ain't what it's supposed to be these days or nights," he said evenly, then hurled the metal like a discus, severing two heads against the wall.

The alley became eerily silent, save the hum of compressors. Carlos rolled his shoulders and spit on the ground again, still too hyped to normalize. A Level-Seven pulse was in the air. He could feel it, taste it, knew it like he knew his name. The bodies around him had slowly combusted into cinders one by one after each death blow had been dealt, and he stood wide-legged surveying the carnage of splattered guts and ash, a strange sense of satisfaction overtaking him. "Anybody else feel like playing tonight?" Carlos asked the darkness, hoping a werewolf pack or something stronger might lunge at him while the rush of adrenaline was still coursing through him.

Yonnie slid out of a corner, and Carlos whirred on him breathing hard.

"Yo, yo, yo!" Yonnie said quickly, holding up two hands in front of his chest. "It's me--drop the silver shit before you torch a brother."

Carlos rubbed the back of his neck and spit, trying to get the taste of sulfur off his palate and sending his gaze elsewhere.

"Felt good, didn't it?" Yonnie said with a sly smile. "Got the juices flowing."

"Like old times," Carlos muttered. "Nothing like it." "Yeah, well... I was gonna double back and get in it, but figured you needed this."

Carlos gave him a sidelong glance and a half-smile. "I did, man."

Yonnie nodded. "Cool." He began walking though the piles of ash, chuckling. "Damn, man... but lemme ask you this--did you feel a communications dropout between us for a minute, or was it me?"

The two friends stared at each other for a moment.

"Naw, man, I felt it, too," Carlos finally admitted. "Maybe 'cause I was spiking pure Neteru fury, you couldn't pick me up... or maybe 'cause I really needed to do this myself?"

"Yeah, maybe," Yonnie said with a concerned glance as he stared at the remnants of the battle. "But like I said earlier, there's some real strange energy out here. Soon as we broke connection, I doubled back just to check on a brother. Feel me?"

Carlos nodded. "I hear you." He let out a hard sigh. "Just wish there were some Masters left to keep it interesting. This wasn't shit."

In an odd way, he could understand where Damali was at. There was nothing left to kill, nothing of real consequence left to fight. He could only hope that's what was making her battle herself--a worthy adversary. Maybe that had something to do with why she was battling him. There was too much to think about. Right now, he was simply out for blood.

Yonnie calmly stepped back and became very still. "There is one left," he remarked calmly. "Me. But you ain't going Neteru loco on me, right? We still cool, man, or did something change that I need to know about?"

Carlos gave his friend a sidelong glance and smiled with battle-length fangs still in his mouth. "C'mon, brother. What kinda question is that? You family. We peace til the end."

Yonnie straightened the lapels of his black Armani suit. "Just checking, 'cause twenty-to-one as a ratio... hey... they mighta been lower-gens, but that's still some shit to consider. Major props." He gave Carlos a once-over. "You'd better have Marlene purge all them nicks, man, I'm serious. You got cut up pretty bad."

Carlos smiled. "I'ma show you some Neteru shit I ain't even showed D, yet," he said with a wink, extending his arm that was badly lacerated. "Check this out... male Net purge."

Yonnie stood where he was, not moving, and gazed at Carlos's ripped chest, his torn, bloodied jeans, and then focused on the gashes in Carlos's arms. But he didn't speak as Carlos closed his eyes and the blood running from the wounds suddenly went silver.

"Oh, shit," Yonnie said, gagging and backing away while covering his mouth. "Smells like pus to me, man. I don't know how you deal with it!"

"An hour in a white bath, a half a gallon of holy water to wash it through my system, and a brother will be good ta go."

"Nasty... holy water... you gotta drink that? Damn!" Yonnie shook his head and looked like he was about to dry heave. "That's deep science, man," Yonnie said, going to the alley exit and then taking a deep gulp of fresh air. "But you're gonna have to whirl your own ass home. You my boy, and all, but I can't touch you with the silver leaking like that. Don't even pound my fist with that shit on you."

Carlos nodded, looking up at the beauty of the night sky, remembering and then jettisoning the thought. After a battle like this, if his woman would just be halfway reasonable... show a brother a little affection. Then he remembered they weren't speaking.

"It's cool. It's all good," Carlos finally said, grabbing the invisible edges of the darkness around him and enveloping himself with it. "Need the air, got some soul-searching to do, anyway. Catch you later."

"Later," Yonnie said, and then hocked and spit. "Crazy-azz Neteru."

With effort, Damali finally pushed the argument with Carlos out of her consciousness, telling herself that she refused to let negativity rule her. Later for that. It wasn't about allowing perpetual man-drama to take her off focus and away from her inner light. Juanita had always been a nut case anyway, Guardian or not, so what else was new? There was no stated rule that she had to like everybody in her Guardian family. Just like any other family, there were those who were favorites, those most cherished, then folks who simply got on your last nerve.

The drive had cleared her head. Her mind was on creative fire. Maybe it was the welcomed proximity to a club. It didn't matter. Lyrics, harmonies, keys between keys practically sizzled within her--something that hadn't freely occurred in almost a year. Conceiving new music was the closest thing to natural conception that she'd ever experienced. It felt so good, so comforting, so real that it produced a heady, natural high.

She couldn't wait to be alone, quiet, and cloistered, so that she could release the building creative flood of composition within her. This was so much more productive than staying enmeshed in anger. Developing artistically blocked pain, even if surreal emotional trauma often inspired it. That made sense to her way of looking at things. Most artists' best works had come from bone-deep pain or knowledge from hard-learned experiences, sometimes both. She certainly had enough to give her music a razor's edge for years. She'd use that and work with that--a much better option than cutting out Juanita's and Carlos's gizzards.

Music was the answer. She reminded herself of that as she went into the house. This outlet was from the strong side of her being, rather than the weakness that took root in rage and jealousy. And there was something about the artistic process that was so intensely private that this part of who she was couldn't even be shared with Carlos. He was many things, but an artist he was not. He couldn't take that from her. Damali smiled and sighed. This gift was hers.

By mutual respect, before the Juanita thing went down, they gave each other space when she was grooving on the universe like this, even though it had taken many conversations and heavy negotiations to bring about that understanding and change. His resistance to her need for a creative envelope had initially evoked a reaction from him at a level of jealousy that was nothing short of primal. That, she'd never understand, but had agreed to let it rest when he'd relented.

Come to think about it, there were a lot of things about this brother that irked her, but she'd let them all ride--up until now.

Damali closed her eyes and lolled her shoulders, dropping her clothes in a lazy trail as she walked across her bedroom. Peace filled her and made her contented, relaxed, and balanced in spirit. For the first evening in as long as she could remember, she was home, in her own space, alone.

After a half-day of training newbies, a four-hour, hard physical workout of putting the team through its paces before she could get Dan to part with his ride, but not before spending more time than she probably should have first thing in the morning arguing with Carlos, she was finally able to enjoy the meditative solitude of silence.

Her music was crying, begging for her to return to it. Tonight she would. A white bath soothed her frayed nervous system as she slid into the large oval tub and sank into the healing salt water. Music swirled within her at the cellular level, and she hummed softly as the water buoyed her creative purpose. Oh, yeah, she had enough pain to create something really deep tonight. Wounded lover... let me explain how this all went down . . .

Incense leaked from Tibetan pots, the smoky trails quietly infusing the healing mint-hued sanctuary with calming aromas. Long white tapers added gentle illumination to the room burgeoning with ferns. Prayers protected her like silent sentries. Starlight and a full blue moon sparkled through the stained-glass skylight, sending prisms of color all around her. Heat emanated from the bath's surface, covering her body in a blanket of wet warmth. She thought of Jose's color-splashed quilt, now languishing in her cedar chest at the foot of her bed. Tonight would be the perfect night to pull it out and wrap it around her. Wounded lover . . .

Life was good. Yes, there were horrible struggles still battering the world. The earth was weeping. She'd prayed for the healing of the planet and all who faced any pain on any level before she gave homage to her inner song spirit. But for this momentary slice of time, it was as though she could slip between the dimensions of it to make reality cease for just an instant, a fraction of a second, to allow her to experience stillness. In that regard, life was good... the water was warm, her family safe, and her man was a pain in her ass but alive. These blessings and more she cherished as she quietly dozed in light mediation, whispering to her muse to please return.

It wasn't about stressing over the need for another CD, or the demands of her profession as an artist, or even as a Neteru... no. Not tonight. Pure music, the healing balm for the soul, was where she'd reside. Total appreciation for every gift she'd received, every lesson learned, even the hard ones, the extraordinary ones, became her inner mantra, for there was only now, this moment-- no past or future when time stopped like this for the birth of new music.

"I agree," a low, gentle, male voice said. "And that's a beautiful gift, too. Embrace it."

Peace instantly evaporated. Damali struggled to sit up, but her limbs were sluggish. Then she remembered that she'd been dozing in the tub. Common sense told her that she was thoroughly protected by every conceivable white-light barrier, but still, the sound of a male voice in the bathroom with her had shot panic through her.

No weapon on her, her mind began to process a thousand variables in lightning synaptic waves: the portals had been closed, all major vampire threats had been wiped out, all were demons had been sealed away, in-cubi didn't have enough power to encroach, she'd barred herself from astral plane projections... the voice was unfamiliar. Male. The imperative was immediate: Get out of the tub.

"Time stopped," the voice said in an easy manner. "You called for your muse. So, let's talk."

Bullshit. Her muse, if there was such a manifestation, had to be female, just like her Neteru Council. War swept through her bones. Her senses immediately keened. But oddly, the hair wasn't standing up on her neck. She wasn't bolting out of the tub, either. Nothing Neteru within her sounded an internal alarm, and there wasn't anything natural or supernatural that was registering as a threat.

"Show yourself," she said, sitting up in the tub unconcerned with her nudity. If there was a fight to be had, saving her life was way more important than that.

A form slowly took shape at the foot of the tub. She studied it, nearly squinting as she tucked her legs beneath her and prepared to defend herself. She watched the air move in heatless waves as something stepped between what appeared to be folds of invisible fabric. She wasn't sure what she'd expected, but it definitely wasn't an older, extremely handsome male being.

He sat down on the side of the tub with a casual smile, but his dark eyes burned with intensity as they roved over her damp breasts. A slight blue-white electric charge ignited the surface of the water, producing a tingling sensation across her skin.

Sudden modesty failed her. She couldn't take her eyes off him to even cover herself. His skin was the color of deep copper. Within his strong features, she could see many nations, and his ethnicity was impossible to judge. His hair was a jet-black profusion of thick curls inter-

spersed with waist-length locks and a bit of silver gray that seemed to kiss his temples. His jaw was square, solid, and her eyes carefully appraised it for the slightest trace of fangs, but her assessment came away wanting. He wore a long white cotton robe, as though just coming off a pilgrimage, and his feet were bare. His body was so symmetrically toned that the word perfection came to her mind. And his voice was smooth... easy, melodic, and didn't inspire fear. The sound of it continued to ripple through her gently as though it were water. He was an enigma; she didn't know what to make of him.

"Say the Twenty-third, or you're outta here," she demanded, testing him. "As you wish. I know it by heart," he murmured, and then indulged her, not taking his eyes from hers.

When he concluded, she immediately covered herself, not sure what else to do. If he could say biblical prayers, he definitely wasn't anything she'd encountered before... instinct kicked in, telling her it could be a guide, an angel, a Heaven-sent spirit... then her eyes became wide enough to split at the corners. "You're... you're not... are you?" She almost fell as she stood, clumsily hiding her body and grabbing a nearby towel.

The entity before her tilted his head, gave her a surprised look, and then burst out laughing. The sound of his mirth coated her insides, and her sudden arousal from the rich timbre of his voice caused her to clutch the towel around her more tightly.

"No," he finally said, recovering slowly from deep, booming chuckles. "I have been mistaken for a lot of things and a lot of people, but certainly not Him. I love you, Damali. You tickle me. Always have. But I have so missed communing over your prose and lyrics. We must do better at staying connected."

Damali was breathing hard as she bound the towel around her more firmly, got out of the tub, and quickly walked to stand by the door, ready to bolt toward her Isis. Panic and curiosity had become united, but she was still no fool. Something had manifest in her bathroom!

"Okay, okay," she said, regulating her breaths as she spoke. "I'm not asleep or on the astral plane. But you're from the spirit realm and are in my condo--how'd you get here?"

"You asked for your muse, stilled your mind, and stopped your time... just like the earth wobbled on its axis and time stopped within the earth's universe, you stopped time within your own universe, stilling the bands of matter around you." Merriment filled his eyes, making them crinkle in the corners. He shrugged and offered her a dashing smile.

When she didn't budge, he stood and she gazed up at his six-foot-five frame that moved like living fluid beneath his robe as he calmly approached her. "I have been waiting so long for you to learn how to do that." He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. "But tonight, I am here just to talk... at your request."

Dazed, for a moment she didn't move. Not because she couldn't, but because in this stopped slice of time, she really didn't want to. Pure sensuality oozed from this being in a very disturbing way. And yet there was also something familiar about his features... he was more than handsome, there was a stillness, a settled beauty that glowed from just under the surface of his burnished skin. He also looked so much like an older, wiser version of Carlos that she almost reached out to touch his face, just to be sure she wasn't hallucinating.

"I'm not him, either," the entity before her murmured in a low, sensual rumble. "Trust that to be true."

Damali backed up so far so fast that she bumped into the bathroom door. Sure, entities had chased her, frightened her, scared the mess out of her, but this one... shit.

"Uh, listen, I was speaking metaphorically about a muse. I know there are angels and spirits that reside over the arts, and I was-- look, I'm not ready to deal with this, okay? I need more information about what you do, how and where you came from before I just get all happy and think I've rubbed the genie in the lamp. I need--" Words were failing her, causing her to stop and begin her sentences in jags. "I may be a lotta things, but crazy ain't one of them." There. It was said. He had to leave.

His laughter was so deep and rich and resounding that she found herself smiling with him, despite the circumstances. He walked away from her and again sat on the edge of her tub, shaking his head. But when he finally looked up at her, the expression of pure desire on his face momentarily burned the saliva away from her mouth.

"Sweetness... I'm no angel... but if you want me to be a genie tonight, name your wish."

"All right, you're out!" She made a beeline for her Isis on the dresser, unsheathed it, and came back into the bathroom feeling much improved. The fact that she couldn't focus enough to zap it into her hand really bugged her out.

"Put it down," he said, practically trembling as he stood. "We're not allowed to use that on each other."

"Who said?" Incredulous, she held the blade so hard it bounced.

He turned around, and she could see him take in a deep, steadying breath. He'd actually turned his back on an armed Neteru? Either this brother had a death wish or he might just be the baddest mutha in the valley.

"Level Seven? Speak to me! Answers. Now!" Her heart was thudding hard enough to crack her breastbone, and she couldn't breathe. The freakin' Devil was in her house? "Oh, shit! Father God protect me from all that's unholy. If--"

"Beauty of the Universe, put it down," the being urged with his back still turned to her. "Please," he whispered. "I'm not him, either."

The tone of his voice was so low and sensual that it ran through her, lighting pulse points that had once belonged solely to Carlos. The sword almost fell out of her hand, but she renewed her grip. If whatever it was could exude that much power, wreak that much sexual charge, it was a definite threat and had to go. Panicked, she lunged. He turned, sidestepped her, and unsheathed a blade too similar to hers.

Leveling his blade at her, he spoke in a low warning. "Put yours away and I will put mine away. You want to speak of the mysteries of music and harmonics, then I will teach you all that I have come to learn. It is inspired mathematics. But you must put the blade away, before I forget why you called me here tonight." Breathing hard, he sheathed his blade beneath his robe down the center of his spine and walked deeper into her bathroom, giving her his back to stare at again.

"You have no right--"

"I have every right," he said, his voice thundering, "I was there when they made you. I was there when you scribbled your first pain-filled poem in a schoolgirl's notebook!" He whirled on her, his eyes filled with anguish. "Do you think I would hurt you? You?" He sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly through his nose. "Your first impassioned song... I was with you the whole time, bringing the high notes, the low resonance, the timbres of sheer ecstasy that stopped time for millions. Sound, Damali. Sound. That upon airwaves is in my DNA, and you have stopped time for me since you whispered your first echo into my world."

"Where the hell are you from?" Her voice was so quiet that she barely heard it herself. Still unconvinced that he wasn't the one who would remain nameless, she clutched her sword tighter, her pulse strumming through her limbs, muscles tensed for the brawl for it all. Her brain screamed an SOS to any Light-bearing receiver that would hear her. Reality was making her hyperventilate. She was possibly in the midst of something she was not ready for. Lord Jesus, help me, Lord Jesus, help me, I can't go up against this one all by myself. The Armageddon is supposed to be the whole host of Heaven, the Forces of Light... Lord Jesus, don't leave me in here with... oh, my God, nooooo... She stopped breathing.

He closed his eyes, walked away, and placed his hands on top his head, lacing his fingers together and then took several deep breaths.

"It looks like Eden in here. Why do you do that? None of us can go back there. Leave it. That is the past. Bless Eve. And then you call me here like this for a Neteru-to-Neteru challenge and expect..." He spun on her, raked her with a hot gaze, and pointed toward her blade. "Put. It. Down. Now."

Her blade lowered to her side. "Neteru to Neteru?" She was speechless.

"I told you what I was not. You never gave me allowance for what I might have been. But do not ever again make the comparison to the one who I never name. Not in my presence or I refuse to be in yours." He ripped his robe from his thick shoulders, exposing his massive chest. The shredded fabric pooled at his feet. Sudden rage made the muscles beneath his damp brown skin expand and contract, as golden-silver threads began to overtake his irises. She stared at his eyes and watched his breath hitch at her visual invasion. Hers matched the pause, and then her eyes followed the silvery mark that covered his heart. It was all she could do to tear her sight away from his sculpted, naked torso and bring her line of vision back up to his handsome face.

"No demon can reproduce one of those," she whispered. "Not even in illusion." "No. They cannot. Not even at the bottom of the realms." His statement came out on a ragged breath. "I am the second male of our kind ever created," he added proudly, "and I function from a place of honor." He straightened his already perfect posture, still seeming indignant from her previous assumption of who he could have been.

For a moment, only their shallow breaths were heard echoing within the now-too-constricted confines of her spacious bathroom. Her brain scrambled to assimilate the information. Second male Neteru ever made? If this was a fact, he was a seriously older being... had to be spirit... and if this was what was guiding her music, Lord have mercy.

"Where did you come from?" Her tone had mellowed in the wake of pure awe. Curiosity and something else she wasn't prepared to name strangled her reason.

His gaze caressed hers. "From the Land of Nod."

She stepped forward, the pain within him drawing her closer than advisable. The reference dangled within her overloaded mind, but she couldn't geographically place where he meant. Slowly, the earthy, alluring scent of him wafted toward her, causing her lids to become heavy. This was the sexiest entity she'd ever encountered in her life. She had to remember that she wasn't supposed to allow her brain to go anywhere near there. Before she knew it, she heard her Isis clatter to the tile floor, abandoned. "What is your name?"

He shook his head and looked away. "It will make you pick up your blade again, and that cannot happen. Suffice it to say that, this time around, I am my brother's keeper. His will be done." He chuckled sadly, walked toward her, and then reached out an unsteady hand to touch her cheek with the tips of trembling fingers. "Oh, Damali, I have learned, and time teaches with a hard rod. Love, if I could save you time and turmoil, I would. But it is not my place, but if it were... if only it were."

She almost closed her eyes and fought within herself to back away a bit. The light touch burned where it fell. The level of pent-up need beneath it transmitted right into her skin and fused with the shiver he'd sent down her spine. "Then how did you get in here as a spirit?"

He stepped closer. "I'm both spirit and flesh," he murmured. "There was a time when I could . . ."

"Don't come closer. Explain." She needed distance, battle space, if necessary, but definitely a moment to get her head together. This being was setting off erotic depth charges within her that had awakened her body to a level of desire that was only supposed to be experienced with the one man she'd committed herself to.

"My apologies," the entity said quietly, but his eyes told her he was anything but sorry. "I may have been abrupt in approaching you in this manner... but I was so moved." He lifted his chin, the muscle pulsing in his jaw, and crossed the room. "An explanation is, indeed, in order."

"Thank you," she said, able to catch her breath only once he'd crossed the room.

"You feel guilt because you have committed to another in the flesh. I understand."

They stared at each other. She wasn't sure where this was going, and knew in her soul she shouldn't inquire more... but . . .

He nodded. "I was your first lover. Do not forget that."

"Okay, now you're tripping." She forced herself to chuckle, but her laughter faded as she stared at his intensely serious eyes. It was hard to laugh off a warm-bodied, fine, very naked spirit entity that was sculpted to perfection, standing in her bathroom with an erection that wouldn't quit. She had to get him out of her house, now.

"During your first yearnings, I was there. I came through your music. I, alone, was with you during your first Neteru ripening." He drew a long, shuddering breath, and sent his gaze beyond her window, and then closed his eyes. "You wanted to be loved so badly it came through your music. The moment of conception of each line... sweet agony." As she stared at him, he began to slowly pace back and forth at the far side of the room wearing only a Neteru blade harnessed down the center of his back, and leaving her trapped between feeling horrified, flattered, violated, and extremely turned on. His primal male scent filled the room in indigo spires that ransomed her senses. She couldn't help but stare at the sculpted symmetry of his back, watching a labyrinth of steel-cable sinew work under his polished copper skin all the way down to the dip that created a valley in his spine and gave rise to a tight, muscular ass... and thighs... and calves. He was a gorgeous male specimen if ever there was one.

Swirls of color began to fill his aura as he made a tent with his long graceful fingers in front of his mouth and collected his thoughts, his body-light literally beginning to fuse with the multihued prisms coming through the stained glass. It was the most sublimely erotic thing she'd ever witnessed as his skin absorbed and reflected the light. Then he suddenly stopped, turned, looked at her hard, and opened his arms.

"Damali, I am apexing. For an entire year you left me--for him! You married him in a realm that is not even to be spoken of, and your loyalty shunned me for that. If you have so chosen to be his wife, then te his wife in the Light. Make it a legitimate bond from the high realms so that I may not cross to you again, but as long as there is ambiguity, you torment me!" he shouted. Tears filled his eyes and his voice became gravelly. "I could take it, before. Before the veil between our worlds had been pierced and I was mere spirit, I could take it! But I cannot take it as flesh."

"I didn't know, I never knew--"

"Tonight, you wanted to be alone with me, on this summer solstice eve, while I am apexing... while I need you now more than you can comprehend... after a year of abstinence from you, your body quivered for the touch of creative conception." He pointed toward the filled bath. "Salt water carries a charge, a current. Your voice carried the caress di-rectly to me. Your spirit opened the door and willed me through it. Your skin ignited the tub, and if I were a younger man without some measure of will, I would have become manifest right in there with you when you opened your beautiful legs to the suds! Why do you haunt me so?"

She opened her mouth and closed it. Watching his desire build fed hers until she almost couldn't stand. Damali reached out her hand to lean against the door frame. "Listen," she said, her words coming out in a breathy pant, "I . . ."

He walked to the foot of the tub and snatched up his torn robe. "And you now have extreme carnal knowledge to add to my misery? Before you knew, when you were still a virgin, even then I could withstand... but after, I will never rest!" he said, briefly closing his eyes. "Your music is different, deeper, huskier, sultrier, and builds on experience to crescendo in a way that only a woman with such knowledge could make happen. Mercy. I implore your compassion."

He looked up toward her skylight, as though addressing Heaven as he continued to speak. "I was to learn selfless sacrifice for my offenses. I did that. Eons of what you call lessons are only masqueraded torture for me. And this last trial is beyond my endurance--I cannot teach her and remain distant! It is her choice; free will. We must all abide by that."

His eyes lowered to meet hers, his voice a hoarse whisper of want that radiated in heat waves throughout the semilit room, making the candles sputter. "Damali, my love, there have been nights when I have wanted to take my own blade to my throat." His voice faltered, and he pulled on the ragged garment. "Do you not understand the relationship between creative conception, sound waves, and emotion? We were lovers. Oh, yes, Damali, and I loved you well," he whispered, "and the things you did to me are beyond compare."

Her jaw went slack. His impassioned confession was turning her legs to jelly. He'd already caused her to swell and slick moisture to build between her thighs. Her nipples stung so badly that it was all she could do not to cover them with her hands.

"Tonight, after your panic, whereby you thought I was what shall not be named, your lover will come to you, and he will benefit from this conversation." He looked at her, not allowing her eyes to leave his. "I have accepted that. You should as well. There is no guilt to be had in such things. Your body requires it, and my desire is that you never suffer want. But do know that just as he has provided for you, so have I. Do not diminish my value or my commitment."

She raked her fingers through her locks. Her brain was screaming. "I can't be with him and be with you at the same time. I can't think of you while I'm making love to him. What are you saying?" She clutched her hair as the renewed horror of it shot through her. "That isn't right." His eyes glittered with a level of knowledge that she couldn't fathom, and his lush mouth offered her a sly, primal, sexy smile. "Damali," he breathed, "every high note you've hit belonged, in part, to me."

"No, no, no no, no," she said, beginning to frantically pace. "There were times when it was just him and me and no music in the mix. Most times. Only on occasion was I composing in my head while with him. No."

"Oh, yes . . ." he said, the bass in the tone of his response bottoming out at the pit of her stomach, causing it to clench. "You compose your best music when you are making love. I will admit that there were times you denied me. I acknowledge his private possession of you with the utmost respect." He nodded and gave her a slight bow with a disarming smile. "However, just before and just after, you are always mine. When he was not there, and you needed to be touched, I was always there. He is not the only one that produces delirium... or gives you white knuckles as you clench the sheets. Do be honest with yourself, if not with me." He inhaled sharply, and let the thought fester between them for a moment. "When you are--"

"Stop," she murmured, holding up her hand.


She stared at him for a moment. "Because."

He nodded. "I understand that, as well." He waited a beat, his devastating smile drawing her eyes to his mouth. "When you thought he was dead, and you ripened alone... lover, I was there for it all. Thank you."

"Don't," she said, and gathered her arms around herself, closing her eyes against her will. "Too raw."

"Yes. Very. And Jose became superimposed on that urgent impression because he felt every shiver in your music... he, too, is an artist, and could appreciate the depth of the emotion in your creation. He didn't just hear it, like me, he felt it, and it spawned his own creation amid the torment." The entity released a long, steady exhale. "I cannot fathom how he hved in the same house with you, in the flesh, and remained faithful. I must study that further, and meditate upon it for my own strength. But, then, he is also not a Neteru, thus, perhaps his torment was more manageable? However, when you sing, your voice still slaughters him. You might as well be making love to the man."

"I know. Leave Jose out of this discussion," she whispered, not looking at him. She couldn't. She wanted to fill his arms so badly she was almost rocking.

"For a long time, even some nights, you have haunted him. Is that why you do not create with the group now? Are you afraid of what could manifest?"

Damali simply nodded.

The being sighed and nodded. "Misplaced guilt. You must correct that error within your mind. You will no more cross that unspoken boundary than he will. You each are grounded and tethered to others within this incarnation--but you must deal with it, or you are bound to repeat it."

Her eyes sought his, holding a plea. "I can't go through this again. Everything I've been through. No."

"Then address whatever you must address, now." The silver within his eyes flared slightly with an inhale that made his nostrils follow suit. "I have been doomed to repeatedly incarnate until I have mastered this last lesson of selfless sacrifice. This is why I implore you to learn your lessons well during this gift of human experience." He smiled sadly. "You are my greatest challenge, yet."

"I don't want to kick up any mess on the team, or do anything that could--"

"All artists feed off each other," he said flatly. "Inspired works in one dimension ignite inspiration in another, an unending fractal of pure light, combined thought... energy cells splitting and forming something new. Do not fear your art. Do not give it away or close it off, no matter where it takes you. Abandon it not. No more than you would give away your Isis for fear of how it cuts; your music is a part of your soul. No husband should make you fear its genesis or revelations. That is your alpha and omega within this life-- not your lover. Not flesh."

Again, she nodded but refused to meet his eyes with her own. "Which is why waves of similar songs, books, films, and three- dimensional art often seem to be born in the same eras?"

His low gasp cut through her skeleton. "Yes, oh God, yes."

"Your voice, I can't. . ." she admitted. "Resist."

"Nor I, yours," he said. "Not when you are learning, creating, building to a crescendo of pure knowledge, thought. I have all but surrendered to it." Urgency filled his eyes as they searched her face. "Just tell me yes... permit me, just once, to hear it with you, now, in the flesh. Speak to me as I love you in total."

Her lips parted as he walked toward her. She could feel the warmth oozing from his skin, capturing the light off the floor, adding to the pure sexuality he radiated. "I can't."

He stopped, but his breaths dragged in and out of his chest like a man drowning. "Then create for me... your most desire-filled work. Tonight... please."

She nodded. "This feels like I'm having an affair." She smiled weakly.

"You are. Surrender to it."

Again, only silence and a very small portion of bathroom tile stood between them. Guilt clawed at her insides, leaving her conflicted by the pure want that had overtaken the whole of her. "Carlos did a lot of shit, but doesn't deserve that."

He nodded. "My condition makes me irrational." The being sighed and walked away from her. "Then, perhaps," he murmured, keeping his back to her, "you might compose a very heart-wrenching selection of whit it is, like to burn for something you should not have?"

She nodded. "That you have inspired, for sure."

"Anything," he whispered, "will devastate me now." He turned slowly, a sensual smile gracing his beautiful mouth. "There is always a way for us to be together, within the limits of righteousness." She chuckled to break the tension. "Now you sound more like a male vampire than a male Neteru."

He laughed low and deep and sensually, and shook his head. "I am everything that you have experienced... and most assuredly male." Again, his smile faded to burn her with an expression of unfulfilled want. "Admit it, if not to me, then to yourself. You want to fully know me in the worst way, right now."

She couldn't, or better stated, wouldn't answer the charge. Not while wearing a towel, him half-naked, and this much heat radiating between them. All she had to do was think about the music that swept through her while she grieved Carlos, or to remember the lusty nights of splendor in his arms that gave birth to her best work. Days of laughter, jamming with Jose, endless moments alone, doodling in her journal, sparking ideas, working out lyrics, getting in touch with every emotion that had ever filled her. Her eyes locked with his as a hard shudder ran through him.

"You know me, Damali. I am no stranger or violator."

"I know," she whispered. "Thank you for always being with me." She swept her hand down her stomach. "I just can't sync up the physical manifestation with the spiritual. As long as you were the spirit of creativity, I could cope."

"As could I. But all that has changed."

"What do we do about it?" "You tell me?"

She looked away. "I don't know."

"We have more in common than you will admit."

She chuckled. "You're working me, brother."

"Yes, I am." He smiled. "But I have also been honest about my condition."

"True," she said, no judgment in her tone. The thing that was still blowing her mind was the fact that an apexing male spirit Neteru was in her bathroom. How in the . . .

"Do not ask me again, please." His voice was an urgent whisper. Palpable desire made the colors on the floor around him shimmer brighter. "To revisit that just runs through me like a river."

His hands found her upper arms and delivered a firm yet gentle pull toward him. Her first instinct was to resist, but what was that now, she wondered? The moment her body fused against his, the moan he released set off a tremor through her womb that parted her lips.

A hot mouth covered hers and the sweetness contained within it was

like pure narcotic. His tongue ravaged the soft tissue of hers, gliding against her teeth, finding the roof of her mouth, and then deepened as the pressure of his hold increased. His kiss of life created a tremor that stirred a bubbling whimper that made her nearly faint. Music tore through her, blinding her mind with its intensity. Colors shot beneath her lids and buckled her knees. The sound he emitted inside her mouth fractured her conscience, and produced a vibrating echo in her lungs, dredging up a low moan from her that should have never been released.

The next thing she knew, her towel was on the floor. A strange new pair of male hands covered her back like hot wax, melting her beneath them with every stroke, and her returned kisses were harder than they ever should have been. The song roiled inside her, quickly escalating from a sultry slow pulse of bass to implode with a demanding staccato fusion treble. Acapella agony changed key, bridged to punishing instrumental, and ended on a long mental carry near a soprano shriek that she delivered right into his mouth.

"Your voice," he gasped, breaking the kiss to breathe the words out against her neck. "That is my river. My weakness. Your mind, my undoing. Damali, let me love you hard, right here, right now, in this key." His damp forehead dropped to her shoulder. "For the love of God, do not deny me."

"We can't do this," she said, practically losing consciousness in his hold. "Then give yourself to him tonight, like this, with me in your mind. Just call me."

When he dragged his jaw along her throat and bit her, she literally saw stars. But that's when she also held him by the shoulders and put an inch between them. He dropped his hold on her, ran his fingers through his hair, and walked to the far side of the room.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "That was never supposed to happen. You're already marked, and I know that." He was panting, beginning to walk in a circle, the level of agitation and frustration making several candle flames dance wildly before going out. "The Neteru mind lock is... Damali, I have to go." His eyes held a quiet plea. "I have been with many women and have had many wives over decades of apexes, but never . . ." He stopped, swallowed hard, and leaned on the far wall with one hand, staring at the floor, steadying his breaths. "You will make me sire in the flesh, and that also cannot happen. With you, it is forbidden."

Still breathless from the near miss, she hunted him for an explanation with her eyes. "What is your name?" she asked in a gentle tone that made him close his eyes and swallow hard again. "If you're Heaven sent then you're safe." Immediately, she shook her head. "What am I saying!" She snatched up her towel and wrapped it around her body with precision. "I've lost my freakin' mind."

He nodded, winded, and kept his gaze to the floor until she was covered, and then closed them again to stem the pain. "So have I." When he opened his eyes he simply stared at her. "No. I'm not safe. But now I truly understand so much more." His gaze searched hers. "The conundrum is neither are you, detriment of my soul. I must leave."

"No, wait," she heard herself say while her mind yelled the central question: Was she crazy? But she had to know what had just happened in this very insane moment. "I have so much more to ask you," she whispered. "You've been just the music before. I don't understand how you could have materialized like this."

"You loved it so hard, and it was the only way I could love you in return. Through sound. We have just crossed a barrier that should not have been trifled with, all emotion notwithstanding." His chest was heaving as he spoke. "I want to fill you with living music so badly right now that I cannot summon reason."

She stared at him, a hundred new questions slamming into her mind as her gaze locked with his dark, intense eyes. There were times when it felt like the music was literally making love to her... in her mind, inside her spirit, releasing her soul... something so profoundly intimate as it was being created that not even her living lover could fathom from whence it came.

As the awareness filled her, the being shuddered, shut his eyes tightly, and turned his face away as though she'd slapped him.

"Yes... and I have told you, that was when it was only the two of us," he whispered, breathing out the words.

The pull to this unnamed male being was so intense that she had to redouble her efforts to keep her feet firmly planted where she stood. He'd actually let his head drop back, exposing his throat, and the urge to score his jugular made her tremble.

"If you do that which you are battling not to do," he said in a low warning, looking up slowly, "we shall be lost. Score me, and it will be all over. No going back to what was only spirit. Then you will have to tell him." He began to move toward her again, raw lust making his strides long and slow. "Or, if you find that too daunting, I can tell him?"

"I'm committed, have a person who... I didn't mean to manifest... and I also didn't mean to bring you pain, in any way. I can't do this to him, but I have to be able to sing, do my music, work." Tears were brimming in her eyes, the frustration to go to him more acute than anything she'd ever experienced. She let out a breath of relief when he stopped advancing. The sound of her voice had become so strident it almost shattered the windows. Pure panic swelled within her as she fought her own emotions. "I don't understand this male Neteru stuff, you being one in spirit, but also being a muse... are you from the Male Neteru Council? I don't know what they have on their side, his side--but you can't come to me like this again, it's too . . ."

"Intense," he murmured, slowly bringing his gaze up to decimate her. "Like nothing I have ever encountered." He stared at her and stroked her neck with his thumb by merely touching his own. She covered his hand by hiding the phantom- caressed place that burned against her throat and stopped the sensual invasion that caused a near gasp. Her Sankofa tattoo was burning up, sending waves of desire up her back. She watched him place his hand over his heart, as though trying to stop the burn tormenting the angry, silver symbol lit beneath his palm. The moment he touched it, her head dropped back from the shudder it released within her.

"Oh, God . . ." The words pressed past her lips on an elongated gasp.

"Damali, you have to work without me. I cannot withstand this any longer." He brought his hand away from his chest trembling, the fabric covering his symbol smoldering.

"I know." But she didn't move away like she knew she should have.

Again, his gaze flowed over her and came to rest at her mouth. "If I stay much longer, I promise you I'll break my younger brother's heart... and that will ultimately kill him... which will be my second offense of a similar nature. I need to go. The music between us will keep for another night when we can handle it."

"Who is your brother?" Quiet panic knotted her stomach. He was becoming mist and the frustration of not knowing felt like a stab wound. "Please, if you don't share anything else, at least tell me that." "Carlos," he whispered, then was gone.

Damali walked back and forth between the door and the far wall, punching the door each time she passed it. Oh, shit, oh shit, oh fucking shit!

Her head jerked up when she heard pounding on her front door. She knew who it was, and it was the last person that needed to be there-- even though her SOS had probably summoned him.

"What's wrong?" Carlos yelled, materializing inside her bedroom and crossing the room in battle mode.

Damali closed her eyes and picked up her Isis. What was she gonna tell him?

"Where is it? Level Seven--baby, get out of here, now!"

"It wasn't what I thought it was," she said carefully.

Carlos stopped, looked around the bathroom and at her blade, confusion glittering in his eyes. "You put out an all-points bulletin. You were mentally shouting--"

"I know, I know, I know--"

"Guardians are on the way and the Covenant is mounting up. Baby, if who we think blew through your bathroom did, then--"

She shut her eyes, held up her hand, and couldn't look at him. "I wigged. I was in here composing, dark thoughts, uh, I thought, listen, I'm cool."

He blinked twice and stared at her. "You're lit up like a Christmas tree, girl. Got a fucking Isis blade in your grip and you're squeezing it so hard the metal is digging into your fist. Now, I may be many things, but stupid ain't one of 'em."

Carlos walked around the bathroom, inspecting. He looked at the white bath and the dead candles and inhaled. "Something male came in here and freaked you out. If you were in a white bath and it manifested, then you need to give it to me straight, give the team a full breakdown of what could have made you bug like that, feel me?"

She nodded, too ashamed to speak. What was she going to say, I almost laid my muse, and what's in here is the sloppy aftermath of a musi-cal tryst that went carnal? "Baby," she said, unshed tears catching in her throat, "I love you."

He pulled her to him hard with possessiveness and crushed her head to his chest. "I love you, too, girl. I'm not gonna let anything happen to you, no matter what."

She hid her face against his T-shirt and breathed in deeply, a repressed sob making her body shake. "I know." She could feel Carlos's gaze scanning the room.

"Like I said, whatever it was, it was male, with high sexual charge on the shit, too. I can feel that rippling over my skin, and the motherfucker wanted you bad, baby." He pulled Damali away from him and stared at her, his eyes glowing solid silver. "Did it try to violate you? Tell me, and I'll take its head off."

That's when the tears started flowing in earnest. What was there to say? Yeah, true, he'd had near misses with were demons, female vamps, even Juanita and probably a bunch of shit she'd never know about... but, still.

"I knew it!" he yelled, not waiting for her answer. Carlos stalked away from her, punched the door, and stalked back to her. "Damn! That's it, no more arguments, you're moving in with me--period."

She just stared at the man. How in the hell was she gonna move in with him, now, and risk a possible catastrophe? It was that, or abandon her muse forever, which, strangely, she wasn't exactly ready to do. However, Carlos's deadly accurate male instinct unnerved her. She picked at a lame excuse and offered it to him slowly. "Let's not jump to conclusions, baby, we should--" "No, Damali!" he hollered. "I have never heard you put out a fear SOS like that since we've been together. Ever! That shit ran all through me, you were pleading with Jesus to save you, girl. You and I have been to Hell, done master vamps together, freaking demons from every level, and you were never cold-bloodedly afraid, like that. So, whatever blew through here had to be serious. It had to be something you and I have never dealt with, right?"

"It was," she said quietly, and went to the tub to calmly let the water out. Man, if this was what he felt when he'd almost gotten with that Amazon, or got temporarily freaky with 'Nita, she would never say a mumblin' word to the man for his past indiscretions. She vowed from this point forward to live in the moment, no signifying, no mild references, nada. Cold busted. All she could think of was what would have happened if a few more moments had passed, if she'd totally just lost her mind... for him to walk in on that... there would be no words. Humiliation made her face burn. "Then my point remains."

She nodded and kept her back to Carlos, watching the water swirl down the drain and all her dreams along with it.

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