Chapter Six

Chapter Six

Freedom, precious freedom. Carlos stood in the dense woods where he had first been made and breathed in the scents of the night. Things were so different now that there was no fear. The cicadas' call merged with that of the night frogs. The leathery sounds of bats' wings flapping echoed through him with the lonely hoot of a hunting owl. But the call of his female kind, now that he was beyond the barriers, was so visceral that he shuddered. But he couldn't blow his cover. The empire needed to think he was still somewhere injured.

As a mental diversion to sure temptation, he became mist, then indulged himself to transform into a large, black panther stalking nothing and everything until the cry of wolves seduced him to change again and become one of them, howling until they went still from known terror.

Yes! Every sensation was heightened as he took his own form again, his peripheral vision casing the landscape, his night vision capable of detecting the slightest movement within the tall redwoods. From afar he looked up at an insect burrowing into the bark of a high branch. It seemed so close that he could reach it with his hands. The pleasure of being outdoors at night sent another shudder of sudden arousal through him that was stronger than had been anticipated. What a rush...

Standing there breathing in the night, he realized just how much his vampire nature had been repressed. Out here, all alone, yeah, the clerics had reason to worry. He needed to hunt so badly that his fangs suddenly lowered without his permission. The erection that came with it felt like a lead pipe straining against his leather pants.

Perspiration wet his brow as he thought of the human throat, what the veins looked like under the skin, how the blood sounded as it pulsed life through a body, and he trembled. He was for sure gonna drop a body tonight... go check out the ladies, establish a lair. Fuck going back into captivity. It was a wise choice for them to let him out tonight, probably for their own safety, but it was also the stupidest thing they could have ever done. Letting a master vampire out that hadn't been fed right in a month?

Carlos began walking, trying to decide what part of LA to dine in. Then he stopped. Oh, shit... He was like a virgin. He laughed and shook his head.

His amusement soon dissipated as the harsh truth entered him. He'd only tasted blood from another vampire's veins. Had only fed on the carrion Raven left behind - an already dead, half-drained security guard. Disgust filled him. Damn. He'd only taken a drink from the tap and bottled blood within the Dominican don's vampire lair, and now was being sustained by monks. Their blood was as devoid of adrenaline as grain-fed beef. It was laughable. It was pitiful. It was a waste of sheer power. He was a disgrace as a master vampire. He was a virgin, after all. "Kiss my natural ass..."

Gathering self-control, Carlos smoothed out the arms of his suit jacket. He couldn't afford to psyche himself out. The erection would go down, just like the urge to sink fangs into a fragile throat would. Hopefully. He had business to attend to. Couldn't go back into his territory and clean out poachers without having his shit straight. Not. And as badly as he also wanted to get laid at the moment, it was not about screwing himself for a little bit of tail. He'd never allowed pussy to come before business, not even while alive - no matter how raw it was. Not hardly. Hombre was many things, but foolish was not one of them.

Carlos focused his energy and siphoned more from the life energy around him within the night. The smell of death entered his nose. It tasted like metal at the back of his throat. Good. The messengers were on their way. 'Bout time.

The trees looked liked they'd split cells and doubled as four hooded entities stepped out of the shadows, their red eyes glowing in faceless black holes within their dark robes. Carlos smiled.

Brandishing scythes, one moved forward, pointing a skeletal finger in Carlos's direction. "You called us."

"Yeah, man. Que pasa? I need to get word to the Vampire Council."

Carlos waited, knowing that there was an inspection to pass.

"He is clean," one of the others said without advancing. "He still bears the council's mark. It is Rivera."

"We were concerned," two said in unison. "You did not report in after the battle in the tunnels. The slayer was lost for three days. You left no trail."

Carlos put his hands behind his back and let his gaze settle on each entity one by one before speaking. "I was to bring her to the council, and also hit Nuit. I did that - hit Nuit. But I ran into a roadblock."

"Continue," the lead messenger said. "We have registered that kill, as well as many others by your hand. Of that, the Vampire Council is pleased."

"Aw'ight, then chill. I had her in my arms, trying to get her through the tunnels, when I was ambushed. You know that, because your squads got there late." Carlos allowed his fangs to come down in a mock show of sudden rage. "I was calling for backup, and you slow motherfuckers left me out there hanging, hombre. I got half my face ripped off, my shit jacked, you feel me? The best I could do was put my body between Nuit's forces and the Neteru to ensure the cargo didn't get damaged."

All four entities nodded. They blinked, the red orbs in their eye sockets disappearing.

"This is a statement of truth," the lead messenger said.

"Damn straight it's the truth. Now I have a message - "

"Wait," the entity said, holding up his hand. "How did you regenerate? They left you for dead in the desert. We tortured one of theirs and learned that much before eliminating the captured - "

"Long story," Carlos scoffed. "Suffice to say, I feared failing the Vampire Council more than the sun. So I crawled my mauled ass into a cave as far as I could. Some carrion feeders came to eat from what they thought was dead meat - and lemme just say that all I needed was for one coyote to get within my reach. You dig?"

The messengers all nodded.

"There was a pack of them," Carlos went on, knowing the messengers were blocked to his mind unless he gave them permission to see certain images. Enjoying the game, he embellished the story to make it gruesome enough to pass their test. "Desert dogs, however, only gave me enough strength to repair the basics... but later, there was this quaint little Mexican town nearby... filled with innocents. Until I fed, I didn't even have telepathy or projection capability. Had to take them down one by one the old-fashioned way. It was regrettably messy, but effective."

He could feel palpable excitement run through the eerie foursome like an electric current. "Come, smell," he offered, knowing that the donated monk blood reeked of innocence and had no adrenaline trail to it. That alone would be enough to convince the messengers that he'd fed on a school yard of children.

The leader leaned in close to Carlos, its decaying scent stinging the insides of Carlos's nostrils. But the thing came away from him with no glowing orbs showing. It hissed, and released a sigh that was the things' version of ecstasy.

"Ohhh... yeeesss... the Vampire Council will be pleased with this transmission." The entity shuddered and opened its eyes, which had gone from red to dark green then red again as it spoke. "They are pleasured beyond your scope of understanding, as am I, your messenger, Master Rivera."

Another of the entities approached the lead messenger and touched its shoulder, sending a collective shudder through the group. "It is almost as good as when he had ripening Neteru in his nose. You must tell us of this town where the blood runs so pure."

Carlos nodded, not about to send a pack of vampires to descend upon a defenseless country town. "Later. Back to the point, so we don't piss off the council with delayed info."

The messengers all nodded, apparently aware of the extent of the Vampire Council's potential wrath.

"After I recovered," Carlos said, resuming his story, "I got back on point and tracked down the Neteru. She'll let me in - she thinks I saved her and her team's lives."

"Brilliant," the leader said. He cocked his head, as if listening to some inner voice, then said, "The Vampire Council has monitored and heard this conversation, and would like a word with you - personally."

"Oh, no," Carlos said fast, putting up both hands and walking backward. Maybe the blood scent thing was over the top. "I don't do the tunnels ever again in life - or death, you know what I'm saying. Been there, seen it, and don't ever want to do it again."

"While we can appreciate your trepidation, Mr. Rivera, the Vampire Council's word is final. That is why they sent four of us to escort you to their chambers."

This was mad-crazy bullshit. A meeting below would eat up precious night. He still had to feed, and had other things he wanted to do. All he was trying to accomplish was to keep council off his ass and at bay - not go downstairs for some corporate conversation. Shit! "I'm done with subterranean meetings, man."

The lead messenger conferred with the other hooded creatures behind it for a moment, and their eyes disappeared in their hoods. Carlos waited until their transmission was sent, and when their eyes opened again, he eagerly anticipated the determination.

Shaking its head no, the lead messenger pulled out a scythe. "The Vampire Council says the conditions on all levels above six are inconsequential and they will assure your safety through the realms on your descent to chambers."

"Inconsequential?" Carlos walked in a wide circle. "Tar pits, and black maggot-covered stagnant ponds, it even fuckin' rains maggots and whatnot on the levels above ours down there - plus it stinks like the worst garbage day you can imagine, and I need to establish a lair. I have been rehabbing for a full month, trying not to burn excess energy or draw poachers from other territories to me who might be following a female's trail to me, which means I was out there solo, without - "

"They understand your delicate master vampire sensibilities, and say that passage will be brief. On level four, the Amanthras are engaged in a civil war, as their supreme council has sent legions after the rogues that dared band with Fallon Nuit's vampires to form the Minion. That side of the equation guarantees our quick passage - and topside, we have hunted down and eliminated all of Nuit's remaining lair supporters. The Minion has been broken. Even our human consultants have eradicated his dens of human helpers."

"Can't it wait till tomorrow night, man? Can't you just let them know - "

The lead messenger shook his head slowly. "The Vampire Council will not wait, and they demand a word. It is done."

The messenger lowered his scythe to the ground and violated the earth - just as he had when Carlos had been first summoned. But this time, Carlos had no fear in his heart, nor did the phenomenal speed suck the air from his lungs as the earth opened, uprooting trees, forming a giant pit that pulled him down into the blackness. He changed into something more appropriate to wear while hurtling downward. Old World conservative.

He looked on with pure disinterest as the four messengers used their blades to hack at demon hands and tentacles that grabbed for their cargo, him. He might as well have been riding the subway, watching the dark columns go by, watching the freaks come out at night. But when he passed level five, a slight shudder ran through him. It was an erotic pull, not a frightening one. Hmmm... later. Level five was the black forest where the things that could only temporarily hold their human shape lived - were-demons. He returned his focus to the matter at hand. You didn't fuck around with the Vampire Council.

"You know the procedure," the lead messenger said, pointing down the long corridor of blackened stalactites and stalagmites when they landed in a swirl of charcoal smoke.

Carlos brushed the splinters of tree branches, tiny rocks, and earth from his tailored black suit, and willed his shirt white again, then smoothed his hair. They needed to figure out a much less dramatic way to roll, he noted, stepping over rotting bodies as he made his way toward the chamber.

This time the stinging smell of bat urine in the damp cavern didn't make him wretch, it was just mildly annoying - they also needed to do something about their messenger service. He heard the titter of laughter coming from the high, vermin-covered ceiling. Bats huddled and winked at him with red, glowing eyes, and treacherous fangs.

But one could never be quite ready for crossing the moat around the Vampire Council's chambers. Carlos looked down into the orange-red lava, the inferno of the bubbling pool created translucent heat waves just above its surface. He had to cover his ears to the shrieks and cries coming from the Sea of Perpetual Agony. Poor bastards, he thought to himself, as he crossed the narrow, slippery strip of rock-bridge. Coulda been him. Hell, if he didn't play his cards right, that would be him.

Using his energy as a magnet, he hurried across to the other side and stood before the huge, black marble doors that bore golden knockers with fangs. This time, though, he knew not to grab them. They would bite. Instead, he pounded on the massive double doors with his fist and waited for the left side to eerily creak open. Shit, they had his scent and could do the security check a little smoother.

There was no period of disorientation, and the denser air didn't make his lungs struggle to absorb it. He walked through the double doors, his shiny Bali slip-on loafers echoing against the black marble as he strode toward the pentagram-shaped table and bowed slightly in deference to the four-seated council members. He noted that there was still an empty, tall black throne positioned at one of the table's star points. Yet, the table still held power, its red blood veins flowing through the black marble and keeping each council member's gold goblet filled with the ruby power liquid. Blood.

Carlos assessed the elderly entities, who did not bother to waste illusion energy to make themselves look more appealing. Things seemed in order. The walls still bore torches in huge iron holders, black tallow dripped from the candles mounted in heavy iron floor candelabras. Above the table still swirled the screeching, black funnel cloud of smoke that carried messengers and served as his transport out of there. But this time, he could read what had been strange hieroglyphics that covered the room's arches, graced each throne, and surrounded the huge, fanged gold crest in the middle of the table. It was the history of each of the five original vampire lines on the five continents, with the history of the empire's founder in the center of the crest. Deep.

Now if he could only read the expressionless faces that studied him. Their pale grayish-blue skin showed the black blood flowing through their veins. That it was moving slow was a good sign. When excited, he remembered, or angered, you could see their blood pulsing faster beneath their pale skins. Everybody's eyes were glowing gold. Cool. Nobody was in the red zone. Nobody's claws were growing, and all fangs were at the normal two-inch, non-hostile level. Civility was in order. Carlos bowed again. The Vampire Council nodded.

"Mr. Chairman, Mr. Counselor, members of the council, I report per your request."

"We are extremely pleased with your efforts," the chairman said, adjusting his high black hat that resembled a pontiff's cap. "We understand the difficulty you've experienced, as well as your period of incommunicado. Your plan to restore our cargo, Mr. Rivera - now that she knows you are a master vampire?"

"Since there is no need for pretense, normal seduction should work... I've held her in my arms, been inside her head, and she clung to me in the tunnels. I can get to her. I have seven years, correct?"

The council members passed a nervous glance between them.

"We would like to know that she is fully compromised of her own free will well before the next ripening window. While we appreciate your efforts, seven years is - "

"A blink in the eye of time," Carlos said fast, chancing the break in protocol by cutting off the chairman. He instantly regretted the move, but kept steady.

The chairman replied with an even glare, his tone distant, and very cool. "We have other plans for you. There is an empty throne, which you have already experienced. Its power is unparalleled. One so valuable as you should not be lost to minor topside battles. You are a general, not a foot soldier. Now that we know the slayer's whereabouts, we can most assuredly break her spirit with another, insignificant human male. One from our compromised human pool. We wouldn't send a vampire on such an easy assignment - that would be a waste. This would achieve our aim, and seven years from now, we'll send our best, nonmasters to collect her for the planting ritual."

Carlos remained very still - but that was not going to happen. He listened to the chairman but wasn't hearing him. He didn't care what the old man was talking about. Human or not, nobody but him was breaking Damali in, and after that, fuck it. They could stake him, but he wasn't letting another male near her - unless he heard her say she wanted it that way... even then... sheeit.

"As you know, the effect that a Neteru has on master vampires, when she's in cycle, is too strong a temptation... she's like a drug, Carlos. We need you clean and in a stable frame of mind," the chairman pressed on, trying to persuade Carlos of what was in his supposed own best interest. "Plus, we have already lost many of our top generals in the battle with Nuit. We cannot send a master of value for the collection - we have come to understand... only third- or fourth-level lieutenants that pose no threat to our goal can bring her in without tampering with our vessel."

"Even second levels hold aspirations. We would have to take harsh measures while you were not yourself, while you were under the influence. Too risky," the counselor said, shaking his head. "We have fortunately retrieved you, and would never dream of imperiling one of our rising stars again. You stay down here with us until your territory is realigned and cleaned out of any potential rebel forces."

This was not a part of his plan, and Carlos watched in dread as the attorney slid the eternal contract across the table toward him.

"Sign," the attorney hissed. "The last time you left our chambers without a signature. This is a policy breach. But, as men of our word, we all kept our bargains. Good faith had been demonstrated on both sides, therefore let us seal this in the appropriate manner."

Desperate for a diversion, Carlos clung to the only information he had that would make them hesitate. No vampire in his right mind would refuse a throne of all power and knowledge. To do so would blow his cover and end his game - and start a very long period of torture. Carlos glanced around. He was so far down in the pit that no sources of light would be able to evacuate him. The Vampire Council knew it; he knew it. There was only one option. Go for the jugular.

"I'm not signing shit under these circumstances. This is a bullshit deal, and you know it! First of all, Damali Richards was my hit," he said in a defensive tone, his eyes roving over the group with an expression of frustration. "I was the one who was supposed to bring her in, and I want my name going down in the history as the one who brought in the millennium slayer. Let's start my complaint there, Mr. Counselor."

The chairman smiled. "Raw, unadulterated ambition. Passion. This is why he is such wonderful new blood for our council table. He reminds me so much of myself in my younger days." The chairman sat back and watched the brewing debate, his fanged smile widening.

The attorney paused and begrudgingly nodded toward the others. "That minor amendment can be made in the documents - however, he still needs to sign the eternal contracts."

"Why?" Carlos shot back. "I thought that practice was pass�, and did any other council member have to sign? Oh, so because I'm a young blood, right, and a brother..."

They didn't answer, but the attorney's eyes narrowed.

"By the way... where's my soul? On what level is it? One of the transport messengers said y'all were looking for it. I wanna be sure it doesn't wind up lost on level four with the Amanthras." Carlos folded his arms over his chest as the full council responded with silent, stricken expressions. "Now, I have been gone a full calendar month, putting my limbs back together and slowly restoring my power off of coyote blood, then nonadrenaline-spiked innocents and damned highway roadkill - before I sign anything, fair exchange is no robbery. Where's my damned soul? It needs to be in the right hands, or the contract is void anyway." Checkmate.

"We can assure you that our vigilant search continues, and that our alliance with the old Amanthra Supreme Council - "

"You know what," Carlos said evenly, taking the risk to show fangs for theatrical measure, "this is bullshit!" He walked to the table and slammed his fist down, causing the blood within its marble veins to spill over the edges.

"I infiltrate the Minion, alone, risk going after a rogue master with Neteru in my nose, and his, literally castrate the bastard - then I off several of his top-ranking, second-level rebel generals; single-handedly get inside the Neteru compound to keep a lock on her, then carry her while she's wearing silver, no less, through demon-infested tunnels - and you guys send my backup late! Your boys were late. I almost died on this mission. Now, you promise me the throne, but I have to sign some shit to show my good faith? And let's not forget about the matter of my lost soul. Down in your own territories? Fuck you. I finish this mission the way we agreed - I bring in the Neteru, then I sign the papers and the throne is mine. In fact, I shouldn't even have to sign that shit for the power in it to be ceded to me, since I was the one who hit Nuit! You need to give me a seat just on general principle."

The chairman nodded, the blood within his transparent veins not even quickening. "Hmmm... hatred, pure rage... intelligence, strategy. Absolute ruthless ambition - and balls enough to challenge a seated councilman? No fear - down here?" He suddenly laughed. "You're going to bring much to this council. So be it. We'll discuss the possibility in the near future." Without looking up, the Chairman waved his hand. "Gentlemen, on to the next item on the agenda."

Carlos stood there for a moment dumbfounded. He'd expected more of a fight. In truth, the other council members seemed shocked, especially the attorney.

"Uh... Mr. Chairman," the counselor said in a slow, cautious tone. "We do need that signature."

"Mr. Rivera has shown more loyalty than some of our current council members," the chairman snarled. "In fact, Mr. Counselor, he has also demonstrated greater effectiveness than our member responsible for corridor containment." The blood sped up in the chairman's veins under his skin as he looked down the table at a nervous council member at the far end. "Please do not provoke me to explore this discussion any further tonight. Mr. Rivera has slayer scent in his system, and asks the small favor of this council to allow him to bring her in before she ripens. It is done. This is the way we used to do business in the old days - when a man's word was his bond, his actions were his oath. I am satisfied."

"I have a question, though," Carlos pressed after a moment, testing his luck. "There have been mountain climbers killed on topside... and when I passed level five - "

"That is out of your jurisdiction," the counselor cut in.

"I only asked because I want to know everything that's going on that could endanger the Neteru while she's topside. If I'm protecting the package, hey." Carlos shrugged and began to walk away.

Again the chairman nodded and waved his hand. Another council member from a far point of the star-shaped table spoke in a hushed tone, making Carlos turn around slowly.

"There's been a breach on level five. We do not know the extent�as it is, again, in the most insidious of the demon provinces. Our fight was with the Amanthras on level four, and we can ill afford to scatter our energies to contest a breach on the formidable level five were-demon realms. If not for our civil war, we would have dealt with it swiftly."

"Well how did some whack shit like that happen?" Carlos was appalled. These old boys weren't handlin' their business.

The counselor narrowed his gaze and hissed. "Apparently, Nuit's international Raise the Dead concert opened several portals to demon energies on our five continents, but not all the portals have been re-sealed. We quickly sent forces to North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa, which includes our guarded Middle East provinces that are being held fallow for the Armageddon - places where commerce interruption would be highly visible and problematic for our financial arrangements. A few nagging elements escaped topside, but nothing to trouble oneself about. It shall be rectified."

"Why didn't you send anybody to check out South America? That's a major piece of real estate in my territory that should have been on lockdown while I was rehabbing. See, here again, y'all haven't had my back proper and - "

"South America was illegally ceded to you by Nuit. He was only to cover the US and Canada, North America, and he assassinated the South American ambassador to annex that area, and to pick up the Caribbean. It caused major alignment issues, because we must keep the Biblical city for level seven - with three of the most powerful world religions battling over it. We must have a continent to feed from, as council. We had to elevate a second-level vampire in Australia to keep the balance, so that we had five continents covered, with two to match the realms that never venture topside. Do not quibble with this council over your land distribution issues."

"Quibble? What?" Carlos was leaning forward across the table glaring at Counselor Vlak. "Motherfucker," he yelled, pointing at Vlak, "your ass may be council, but I tore North America and South America out of Nuit's ass. Matter fact, he'd ceded the Islands and South America before we even came to blows - just from a hit of Neteru." Carlos pushed away from the table; this time the rage was no act. "You keep sending me through changes about shit that is by right mine... sign this, leave the package and let some other bastard unwrap it. Now you're taking my land? Oh Hell no!"

"I will kill this young bastard with my bare hands!" The counselor said, standing quickly, about to reach for Carlos's chest, but his arm was immediately slapped away by a mere glance from the chairman.

The chairman smiled. "Vlak, sit, and do not be hasty." The chairman looked at Carlos. "Young man, have a seat in the throne and calm yourself, get a power surge from it. Your nerves are frayed to the limit. You haven't established a lair yet, nor responded to the insistent female calls in your region, given your rehabilitation... and that has made you volatile. I understand... the counselor understands, don't you, Counselor? Let's see what we can siphon from his seat. If he does well, I might be so moved to give it to him."

The chairman's smile went to a chuckle as he glanced at Counselor Vlak. "Indulge me this once, gentlemen. He delights me. He hasn't fed well for a month, hasn't sated himself with a harem... but he came to us, first, to handle his land issues." The chairman made a tent before his lips with his gnarled fingers. "This is a real businessman. You want him to sign trivial documents, when his ambition is a palpable lust?" He looked at Carlos and he dropped his voice to a seductive murmur. "Young man, sit in the chair. Please."

With trepidation, Carlos sat slowly, hoping like hell that whatever was there wasn't strong enough to break the black box Father Patrick had around his thoughts. He watched the old vampires close their eyes and touch the table gently, caressing it with the tips of their clawed fingers. A current ran through his producing a rush like he'd never felt before, along with it a power hit that made him shut his eyes and arch his back away from the chair. Damn... He gripped the throne's arms with trembling hands. He almost couldn't take it all in. The first time they let him sit there, he'd absorbed centuries of knowledge, this time absolute carnal pleasure ran through him, along with the knowledge of how to deliver it with a bite.

"Oh, shit," Carlos murmured, tears brimming beneath his lids. "It's almost as good as pure Neteru."

"You feel that?" the chairman whispered to the other seated vampires. "You feel how much he wants her... but he came here about business, first. You feel that pent-up desire... sheer aggression, but with willpower enough to resist the call of five strong females in the most seductive regions of his territories, but he came here, first." The chairman closed his eyes. "This man hasn't even been on a proper blood hunt. He was made at twenty-three years old, and the stamina in that body... the virility... but to have the presence of mind to be strategic - I'm awed."

The chairman sat back, his hand trembling slightly as he released the table, causing the others to break the trance. "Give this young man his fucking South American territory and a throne, Vlak. He won it, earned it, winner takes all. Trim back another master's continent, if necessary - but I haven't felt a power erection like that in years." The chairman dabbed at his brow and let his breath out in a slow, controlled stream. "Damn. He was practically one of us before he'd turned. All predator."

The old men chuckled, and the councilman in charge of alignments smiled. "Makes you want a cigarette afterward, doesn't it, Mr. Chairman?" He shot his gaze at Counselor Vlak. "Give the young blood his territory, cede him a throne, and stop this bullshit. You've been on his ass since he got down here. We've got other business to address tonight... and after that, I might go topside myself." He shook his head and laughed, gaining nods from the others around the table.

"His South American provinces are not safe - if he is so valuable," the counselor shot back, fury making his eyes glow red. "Our amusement with what he brings to these chambers notwithstanding."

"What are you talking about?" Carlos mumbled fast, now sitting forward and trying to get ten inches of battle-length fangs to go back up into his gums with much effort. The hard-on had left a wet spot in his pants. It was ridiculous what they'd done - embarrassing. He could hardly speak around his fangs. Shit. He hadn't even gone there while fighting Nuit, that battle only produced six to eight inches. He watched them laugh harder as he used both thumbs to send his incisors up and into his jaw. "What's not safe in my turf?"

The chairman released a weary sigh. "We closed everything we could, but one portal remains partially opened, and we can only fathom that there were human forces leveraging the event. Nuit's cursed concert. For all we know, humans at one of the concert points might have performed a ritual. But we don't know what it was, or what it was designed to release. They could have then gone behind the concert and reopened one of the places we had shut down. Simple logic dictates that the site we cannot totally close has to be the primary ritual site, because the other portals were easier for us to re-seal. Our vampire forces of topside sniffers have been erstwhile diverted to tracking down any remaining Nuit Minions. That's our issue. The civil war has been a tremendous resource drain on the empire, and we do not have enough information, at this juncture, to immediately ferret out and cope with this minor breach."

The counselor glanced at the council members and then settled his line of vision on Carlos. "It's not the Amanthras. As we said, they are embroiled in their own subterranean civil war, at present."

"Where was the first breach?" Carlos asked carefully. "I need to keep the Neteru from that region - it's in her nature to go after it, though. She's already talking about doing concerts again."

The chairman nodded. "Brazil."

"I'll try my best to persuade her not to go there," Carlos said quietly, their combined voices mentally entering his head. "But, you're right. She is stubborn."

The chairman and the council simply nodded in unison.

"Do what you have to do to protect the package," the chairman said, dismissing him.

While it felt good to be topside again, and he'd narrowly missed getting offed at the Vampire Council's meeting by Vlak, worry consumed him as he loped through the woods back to the cabin. Eyes were everywhere, watching, waiting, and he'd have to figure out a way to communicate to Father Pat... maybe just before dawn, when the dark eyes of his world couldn't see. Once he got inside the monk's safe house, he was cool. Their protective barriers sealed out the dark forces' sight.

But he couldn't be detected entering or exiting a fortress of monks - at least not without a good story, which even he couldn't come up with to address that unlikely match. That meant he'd have to hang out in the woods all night, and couldn't get near his blood supply after using so much energy. If he did, it wouldn't be enough anyway. Sitting in that throne had literally been a bitch.

The monks would be at risk, then his soul would be in Vlak's claw. And after experiencing those old bastards again, he definitely knew he had to protect Damali.

If he went to her like this, he'd open up their package for sure�and the council would smoke him. If he went to any of the known lairs in his regions, five strong females would instantly gravitate there, and he'd definitely do 'em... there'd be no choice about it. But they'd also be a threat to Damali. They'd smell her as soon as he fantasized about her - shit, he could smell her right now, his brain was working overtime on just the thought of it. The old clerics were crazy. He had willpower; sure he loved her, but shit... Block the shot without taking a human body? Madness. If that young blood in her compound, Jose, got in her face, or one of the human helpers was already on her trail and couldn't pull up off it, his soul was history.

This was definitely being between a rock and a damned hard place.

Fatigue and hunger clawed at his gut, yet he was also filled with a new level of strength. He was breathing hard just from walking. Slow awareness entered him. Yes. Each time he went down he got stronger, more knowledgeable, darker. A doe lifted her head and froze. The scent of fear filled his nose, lowering his fangs. Run, sweet thing, his mind whispered. Run.

The night air felt awesome against her damp body as she reveled in the freedom of standing in the open air - alone. Her crew needed to chill. After the big argument, going out for a bite to eat with Jose had been good, but she'd brought him home to try to get everyone else to understand. They all needed to go out and do what they loved. She'd tried to convince Shabazz to go check out some jazz. Tried to get Rider to go get his Jack Daniels on with a good card game - him and JL and Jose were some gambling fools. She'd even tried to coax Big Mike to find a barbecue joint and to turn Dan on to some real soul food. Marlene's crazy ass wouldn't even budge to go check out a flick, her favorite pastime. Their loss. She'd tried. And she was out again!

Perspiration damped her skin, her T-shirt clung to her, and her leather pants were now vacuum-sealed to her thighs and butt. Clubbing was da bomb. Dancing put the music back into her veins, her heart was thumping. Yeah, it was all good.

Damali looked down the street. North Hollywood was alive at night. Neon lights flashed, horns blared, people dressed as outrageously as they could, waiting and hoping to be granted access into whatever happening spot. Pullease. All the freaks were out tonight and people were looking for get-high or a drag race. Yeah, the night was alive. So was she.

Danger was all around, certain eyes flickered gold beneath brown irises but didn't approach her. They betta act like they know. Betta recognize. She laughed as third- and fourth-generation vamps steered clear of her like she was their predator. She walked to her Hummer without a care in the world. Yeah, they were gonna get back in the game, start touring, shake the fear and frustration - would kick some more vampire ass. That was all she needed to focus on.

But then she stopped and listened. The night air stirred behind her.

Something familiar caught her nose... a deep, male, sensually musty scent - then was gone. She was tripping. Probably an average, run-of-the-mill vamp trying to push up on her. Demons always left a sulfur trail. Despite the warm night, the sensation had made gooseflesh come out on her arms. The erotic pull this one left was ridiculous, almost made her wet her panties. What was that all about? Adrenaline had shot through her, not fear. Damali put her palm on the handle of Madame Isis, slowly closing her fist around it. A deep ache almost swallowed her as her hand relaxed and the sensation eased. God, she missed Carlos.

He just needed to go to the graveyard before going back in. The club was nearly a disaster. What had been on his mind? Human bodies, vamps present, and Damali glistening with sweat, just seeing her had messed him up, bad.

Yeah, he'd eaten, but not what or how he'd wanted to. But this visit was destined to bring him down, make him think, help put things into perspective. It would have the same effect as Valium, no doubt. That was important before going back to the safe house just before dawn.

He drifted like vapor over the markers, watching disembodied spirits float by, dazed. Poor bastards were locked topside and didn't have a clue, couldn't feel, were just a waste of ectoplasm.

As he neared his brother's headstone, he materialized and walked toward it, stopping to touch the name. "You were too young, hombre," he whispered. A dull ache in the center of his chest wiped away all the hungers that had been competing for his attention. He glanced over at the others that had been buried side-by-side by request.

Shit, as young men they had all told their people, "If I go down, put me on my boy's flank." And so the families had honored those requests. All of them. His entire territory stretched out in a long, military-like row of men under twenty-five. The only marker that was missing was his. His body had not been found, didn't make it to a morgue to be tagged. Even though his brothers got up and walked, they were known by humans to be dead, so a memorial service had been conducted.

He studied each headstone. They were all so young ... It hit him now, finally, after going down to council again and having a seat. The throne had centuries of wisdom emanating from it. Twenty-something years on the planet was nothing. If he'd only known. And Father Pat had been right about one thing. He and his boys, as bad as they were, he seen shit that gave them pause.

Carlos closed his eyes, fully seeing how Alejandro was turned. He should have ripped Raven's heart out himself. No man deserved to go out like that. He could also remember his dead posse sitting around just kicking it. They'd watch the news together sometimes while laughing and drinking, or would read something in the paper, and despite their own proclivities to violent solutions, they'd been taken aback by some things they'd seen.

Yeah, every man had a limit. Bombs that went off and took out innocent bystanders were off limits. Molesting children was waaay off limits. Shooting up women and kids in a sloppy drive-by was off limits in his territory while alive. People's moms and elderly family had always been off limits. He and his boys would debate the craziness and become outraged that some things just weren't done. Even for them. Deep.

Shit... until he'd turned, he didn't think God gave a rat's ass about a little spec of blue planet in his universe. Before he'd seen what he had, he'd assumed that the Almighty didn't care and was too busy to be worried about things like that. But, if what everybody from both sides kept telling him was true, as above, so below, then territory was territory. If anybody moved on even the smallest bit of his, he knew he'd have that foolish individual seen... so why not the Almighty? He wouldn't brook the disrespect, neither.

Carlos slid his hands across the cool marble and spoke to his brother softly. "Damn, man, if I had known. Didn't think He put his eye on the projects, or anything going on in the barrios. Moms told us, right, though. I had no idea of how much one soul was worth to both sides - serious product, hombre, worth a lotta weight. Hope you understand why I had to dust you... was just trying put it back in the right territory."

Had he known that it wasn't all superstition, he might not have ever picked up a gun or sold product to finance himself out of Hell on earth. They'd all been deceived. Was messed up that he had to die to find out how much truth there was to the rumor about this thing called Heaven and Hell. And here he was, a lost soul trying to get his shit back together, and they wanted him to talk to Damali about hope... in a mind lock? With cold blood in his belly because the microwave would make the shit clot, they had expected him to just go in and chat with her.

Didn't they understand? He glanced down the row of graves. They shared too much. Both had sustained heavy losses. It was beyond the physical with her. This shit between him and Damali went way back, before he'd turned and she'd ripened into mature Neteru. It was volatile. Her music was like the language of ancient Babylon, it bent wills, morphed as she gained new experiences. It was the light's secret weapon. Her voice touched millions. Was as strong as anything he could bring. Yeah, they were too much alike, just on opposite sides of the fence, and ironically, she was all that he had left from his old life, topside.

Sudden tears blurred his vision as he drew back his hand from a headstone and looked up at the sky. Dawn would chase him home soon, and he needed to go check on his mother and grandmother... Juanita, too, just to make sure his markers had held. But as he concentrated on them, he couldn't even detect them. Only a searing heat entered his brain and made him back away from the thought.

He let his breath out slowly, the tears now coming down his face. He wiped them away quickly, and blinked new ones back. All right. They were safe. At least the light had done their part to make sure his people had a solid prayer ring around them that even he couldn't cross, if he got tempted to feed from home. If that failed, he'd marked them as off limits within his zones. It was cool, he told himself. It was all good. He wasn't gonna cry like no punk just 'cause he couldn't see his moms and grandma no more. Fuck it. The DEA had taken his club, liquidated the rest of his shit, moved them to safekeeping under the Witness Protection Program. Human drug lords he'd bested probably wouldn't find them. Vamps wouldn't violate them; the Covenant had surrounded them with light. It was all good, he repeated to himself as he wiped his face hard and swallowed down a sob. He'd watch their backs at night if they ever took a vacation outside his territory - but that cop bastard Berkfield had better have given his mother a maid!

Damn straight. Carlos began walking and then turned back to look at his row of homeboys. "I dusted your asses so you could go to the right place, motherfuckers. You best be looking in on my peeps as guardian angels. You owe me." His voice became gentler as he vaporized to nothingness. "Just do that much for me."

"I don't like it! The Covenant can't just call us and ask us to deal with a nuclear time-bomb like that!" Rider yelled. "Carlos is back - that part is cool, but the other half of the deal the Covenant is trying to work is some seriously risky shit."

"Damn, though, Mar," Big Mike said slowly, giving Rider a nod. "If brotherman can't go down with a stake - "

"You're saying the only one that can plant a sword in his chest is our Damali?" Shabazz, who was normally cool, was on his feet now, pacing with Rider. "If boss comes into this compound again, and loses control like he did on her before... you feel me?"

"Yeah," JL said nodding. "Remember what happened last time? He waltzed right in here on her invitation, which I don't think she's ever rescinded, and faked out our alarms, blew our generators, cut the power, held back the sprinklers - and that was after he'd just turned. Dude has been one of them for a while, at this point. He might have given that old Templar the wrong vision, might have compromised his judgment, ya know?"

"And if he presses up on our little sister like he did before," Big Mike said, growing more tense, "if we gotta put him down, the situation could get real ugly real fast. I agree with Rider. Too risky, Mar. For real, for real."

"But, guys, Carlos saved my ass when he was already a vamp, remember?" Dan stood and kicked a metal stool. "He kept me from getting eaten alive in a parking lot by Raven."

All eyes went to Marlene at the mention of her turned daughter's name. None of the team wanted to ever mention the incident that had broken Marlene's heart when Damali had to do Raven, but the facts were the facts.

"I know," Marlene said quietly. "But the last remaining members of the Covenant are strong, and they've been accurate so far. Plus, the choice is hers."

All eyes went to Jose who had been quiet. It was as though they were straining to hear the opinion of the one person in the group who knew what it was like to experience the loss of a lover. The team didn't move as they waited for him to speak.

"If I had the chance to see Dee Dee again... and learned that there was hope for her salvation... that there was a tiny window of light that she could grasp onto - I'd never forgive you guys for not having the faith to try it. I'd be done with you all until the end of time, if you didn't tell me." Jose sighed and closed his eyes, wiping his face with his palms. "Maybe if she really sees what he is and plants the Isis herself, it'll be over, once and for all, and she can live a normal life with a regular guy - once Rivera's soul rests in peace. Don't ask me to lie to her, though."

"Jose, do you know what they want him to do?" Rider used his hands to speak as he talked excitedly. "They want him to block the shot, dude! What part aren't you getting? These fucking crazy monks want a vampire to keep a normal human guy from coming near her by keeping her hope and attention on him!"

"It's fucking nuts," Shabazz said, shaking his head.

"What are you talking about, man?" Jose was off his stool, pacing.

"They think, rightfully so, that a regular guy - any guy, who is an innocent, who gets near her in the next seven years will be vamp bait." Marlene nodded and pursed her lips for a moment. Then she looked at Jose hard. "And, he will be. All heroics aside." She ran her fingers through her locks and looked out the window. "We could lose a lot of good, well-intentioned men that way. Conversely, if a vampire helper in the music industry gets to her, initially starts helping her career, sweet talks her, gets inside her head and then burns her, she'll become jaded. It'll come right out in her music."

"She'll have a strong facade," Mike said, his voice mellow. "The young lady has class, Jose, a tough exterior, but her heart, man... her heart. Another good man dies on her watch, or a snake burns her... So, the Covenant wants Carlos to cut a deal with the vamps to be the primary one to watch her, and to block the shot."

"Are they crazy?" Jose was nearly stuttering. "They want us to go along with that? And what if they just track him and snatch her, then what, people?"

"His name is stripped from their tracking capacity until his atonement period is over," Marlene said, trying to make her statement sound logical amid the bizarre facts. "The dark side can't register him, or track him, other than through crude methods because they don't have a hold on his soul. He still has a margin of choice. The Covenant has boyfriend under heavy prayer - "

"This is too crazy, Marlene," JL said. "But I hear you," he added, glancing at Jose, who was speechless. "If she was to hook up with somebody, have a kid, and the vamps went after it, she'd flip. Right now she's half blind and impulsive - just imagine if somebody else she cares about like that goes down."

Dan nodded. "If she can't see all the way, then she can't see into a man's soul, a human, to truly know a good one from a bad one. The vamps can manipulate things to happen to screw her career, too, and to leave her exposed without capital. Bad press. Shift in popularity. Fans swayed to lower sales. Blocked from hot venues. You can break a star in less than six months, fellas. I've seen it happen. We all have."

"That's what Father Pat was saying, Dan," Marlene added. "That's when they'll send in the vamp human-helper to be her lover. He'll be their conduit. Yep, I can see it: He'll be the one sent to enter her mind when her spirit is weary, when her own human needs are at their worst - when she ripens the next time."

Dan let his breath out hard. "I'm not trying to be negative, but she's human. Like, he's probably hovering around her now in the industry, we just haven't seen him yet?"

Marlene just nodded along with Shabazz. Rider had closed his eyes and Big Mike was slumped in his chair staring at the wall.

JL looked at Jose. "Man, I'd rather take a chance on Rivera than having some human-helper devastate her, or see a regular good guy get jacked." The two younger guardians stared at each other until Jose looked away. "Rivera needs to be the one to block the shot - I'd say, let's take the risk. He's already dead. Go with the clerics on this one, man."

"Right," Dan said quickly, his gaze going to the other guardians. "We should do this. Step out on faith. Rivera is strong, fast, has fangs like the other vamps... knows how to spot 'em, can even see marked human-helpers. Plus, he's street smart. Got enough resources to keep harm at bay. And we can't ice a human, bad or otherwise. Rivera might not be able to, either, if his soul is hanging in the balance, but I bet homeboy's got enough juice to draw her from some mere human. Shit..."

JL agreed emphatically, but didn't look at Jose, trying to get the others to listen to him and Dan. "Last time I saw what brother was bringing, hey. Besides, the risk ain't all that much. She can't turn if he does slip and bite her, and we know he won't take her underground, because he doesn't trust the tunnels... he laid his life down for her, too, to keep her from all the vamps - whatever side they were on. Saved all our asses in the mix."

"Yeah. We owe him," Jose said grudgingly, and then walked out of the room. "Whatever will keep Damali safe. Fuck it. Do it."

Rider slapped his forehead. Shabazz found a stool and sat down hard, and began cleaning Sleeping Beauty. Dan smiled. Marlene closed her eyes and leaned on her wooden walking stick. JL picked up a set of wooden crossbow stakes, threw them to the side, and began rooting around on the table for silver arrow tips to attach to them. Big Mike just shook his head.

Carlos stood across the street from the diner as pure mist, watching the rose-orange light filter through the clouds. He only had a few moments, but would not miss the sight of her in near daylight even for personal safety. It was the eeriest thing, but he knew he was okay, would be all right. The clerics told him they had a gift for him, if he'd promise on his honor to come back without incident, no bodies, no vamp females, no escapes... and he'd immediately known what carrot they dangled. A little bit of light.

Damali stepped out of the diner, turned her face to the not-yet full sun, leaned her head back, breathed in the surf, closed her eyes, and smiled. Her blood-red, spaghetti-strap tank top clung to her torso, proving her nakedness beneath it, and her black leather pants fit her like a second layer of skin. Dawn glinted off her Isis blade. Fans thought it was just a prop for Damali; the press, interestingly, found it funky and eccentric. If they only knew.

It was hard for him to inhale as he watched her simple joy. He wasn't sure if it was the dawn weakening him, thickening the air with slivers of light, or just the sight of her. The way the cresting sun played with the colors of her cocoa-bronze skin paralyzed him. Her lush mouth looked so soft, were it not so close to the hour of bright danger he would have made himself breeze to kiss it. And what that red cloth covering her breasts did to him... He could see her hardened nipples beneath the shirt, the tiny dark caramel pebbles of them pouting, straining to be tasted.

With his last ounce of discipline, he projected himself far away, back to his mountainside prison with the monks.

"It's done," Carlos announced, kicking open the flimsy steel cabin door.

Immediately four sleepy clerics scrambled to stand, brandish weapons, and gather their wits.

"We were worried!" Father Patrick fussed. "You were only supposed to be gone for two hours. Where have you been all night?"

"To Hell and back," Carlos grumbled. "The Vampire Council took my offer. I'm her cargo transport. I came back as promised, so dawn didn't burn me. A deal is a deal. I'm tired, and I need to sleep. Good new night."

"Wait," Asula said. Carlos stopped and looked at him. "You haven't fed - "

"I ate take-out," Carlos said, his lips curling. "Venison. Again."

Asula continued to eye him. Padre Lopez had gone white. Monk Lin raised an eyebrow. Father Patrick simply shook his head.

"How do we know that's true?" Padre Lopez stammered.

"You don't," Carlos warned. "Look, I am really not in a good mood, so I suggest you get out of my way and let me go downstairs in peace."

Father Patrick quietly chuckled and lowered his weapon. "Oh, yeah... he ate in the woods, and has not breached his promises to the Covenant."

Carlos gave the seer cleric a hard look and brushed past the others that had blocked his lair entrance. Once the door slammed shut, the stunned clerics gathered around Father Patrick.

"How can we be sure? He may have - "

The old seer held up his hand, cutting off Asula's question. "He is angry, surly, very agitated."

"Yes, and - "

"Lin... a man who has just feasted well, and sated his other desires, is generally not in such a bad mood."

Lin bowed with a wide grin. Asula nodded, chuckled, and walked away. Father Patrick sat down heavily in an overstuffed armchair and closed his eyes. Padre Lopez's gaze shot around the room.

"But... I don't understand?"

"Just stay out of his way."

"But - "

"Son, unlike the rest of us," the old priest sighed, "you took the vow very early... You will never totally understand his agony. Be thankful. You are blessed."

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