CHAPTER ONE

The dense black smoke that swirled in the abyss-like ceiling high above the Vampire Council table formed a moaning funnel. A long strand of it touched down as though a violent twister, depositing a hooded messenger before sucking back into itself like a giant vacuum to resume its previous whirling mass. Now Carlos understood what was in the screeching cloud - things that went for food, bodies, and anything else the Vampire Council requested.

The messenger used his scythe to motion for Carlos to follow him. "The Vampire Council occupies the sixth realm, with which you have been made familiar. What you have not seen here is for the knowledge of the council members only. As we go, we will stop on each of the five demon realms with brevity. I am told you are valuable cargo, and the upper realms have formed a resistance."

Carlos nodded. The council chairman waved his hand. Just as quickly as he'd consented without words, the funnel reappeared, creating a whining turbine sound. A putrid wind rushed against Carlos's face. This time no terror entered Carlos as the bony messenger's hand clutched him and the tornado-like cloud enveloped them. He was on a mission. He'd been granted temporary immunity. He'd cut the deal of life. The powerful strength of master vampire status surged through his veins. Curiosity about this strange new life replaced fear.

Soon the jettison slowed. Carlos landed hard on his feet and heard a crunching noise under them like twigs snapping. Screams of agony met him as they echoed through the distance. The messenger's eyes narrowed as he pointed ahead of them with his scythe. They were standing in a clearing at the edge of dense black woods. Tall, disfigured trees with no leaves rose and twisted amid a climbing bramble of thorns that seemed alive with motion. It was so dim that even with his heightened ability to see in the dark, he had to strain to differentiate the shapes of objects before him. Slowly but surely, he could begin to make out the strange new environment, relying partly on his physical awareness, and partly on his mental sight.

"Look deeply," the entity whispered. "This is the were-realm."

As soon as the messenger had spoken, Carlos heard several mournful howls echo in the distance. The screams that sounded human were everpresent, and the wolf-like mourn pierced those cries to create a chilling call and response in the darkness. Within seconds, golden-yellow eyes opened in the shadows within the thicket. Carlos glanced down at his feet and saw human skulls and bones instead of twigs. He was speechless.

"There are many different mutations within a demon species. The were-creatures are one evolutionary turn from vampiri. Vampires have their wolfen trait from one of their particular lineages, but are more sophisticated. The were-creatures can deliver a vicious bite, turn their prey, or eat them, but they cannot hold their shape permanently. They are beholden to the moon. This is what gives the vampire realm the advantage. Our bite is permanent, hence our superiority. Our human turns do not shape-shift based upon the phases of the moon."

Curious, Carlos glanced around. "How do you keep humans alive down here so the werewolves can feed on live prey?"

The messenger chuckled. "Ah, you refer to the perpetual night sounds here?"

"The human screams," Carlos said impatiently.

"Those are harvested souls, not living humans. The were-creatures, like other demons, are released through their topside portals by a curse or ritual levied by a human with a soul. They eat topside, as do we all. But what remains here are the souls of the damned to also be feasted upon in perpetuity. The damned fuel the transformations and give each demon species strength. The damned feel each topside human attack."

Carlos rubbed his jaw and continued to monitor the distance of the sounds, which were advancing. "The souls take the weight?"

"Correct." The messenger nodded. "Each demon is created by the deepest, darkest, most twisted human thought and desire. You are aware that thoughts and beliefs manifest?"

"I am now."

"Good. You learn fast. The thoughts create the density of the demon. Determine its range of power, or its horror. The lower realms are of the darkest thoughts, most twisted human conception of evil... with a little creative license from our Dark Lord. And, so it is with the souls. The greater the sin, the deeper the soul is sent into our realms to contend with the most ravenous of our demons. Sometimes the soul of an unredeemed sinner is ripped apart to experience multiple levels of Hell. Their harvest location all depends on what the primary focus of their human life has been; vengeance, lust, greed, murder, pick one. As we visit the upper levels, you will notice that the density is less, as is the darkness. It is all relative."

A series of howls turned into snarls, and Carlos could detect misshapen, low stalking forms advancing just from the increasing volume of the sounds. Thoroughly intrigued, he decided to wait until they had found a less dangerous location before he'd fire another round of questions. The messenger had said two things that he wanted to learn more about. One was the part about souls being harvested. If he was damned, and if he was dead, then where was his own soul and what was feeding on it? The second issue was the question of unredeemed sinners. The messenger had not just plainly said sinners. By now Carlos had learned that everything meant something here, and an omission of a word spoke volumes.

"We go to level four. The were-creatures - wolfen, panthers, jaguars, bears, all manner of earthly predators made hybrid with human - envy vampiri. It is not safe to linger."

Again Carlos nodded, and felt the touch of the messenger's hand. Growls and snarls continued to draw near him, and oddly it sent adrenaline through his system. He felt his jaw become filled with a sharp hardness as the golden eyes stalked forward. His shoulders now also felt thicker, more powerful, and he was not afraid, just poised for attack. His own fingernails sliced into his fists like razors as he clenched them, prepared to ward off a potential lunge from something in the woods. But a sudden wind encircled him as the beasts before him hesitated. He heard the messenger chuckle. It was so dark in this realm he couldn't even make out the blackened smoke that was lifting them to safety.

"You are coming into your master's strength," the messenger noted, as soon as they'd landed again. "The were-creatures would have rushed a weaker vampire. They are excellent trackers... you gave them pause."

Interesting. If he was a master, then the messenger couldn't enter his mind. His thoughts had been sealed, even against Nuit. This was good. There was much to think about. There were many strategies to grapple with. He needed a plan.

"Where are we now?"

Carlos glanced around a damp, mucus-coated area that was the color of dark-gray charcoal on all surfaces. Everything dripped from the slick, smooth surfaces and smelled dank. Clingy vines, Spanish moss, and wet spiderwebs made advancing treacherous, as he brushed them aside to see farther into the infested terrain. Maggots rained intermittently from overhead, making little plopping sounds as they splashed into the unmoving waters.

Tiny flying gnats and other insect pests added a bothersome distraction as Carlos swatted them away. Glowing-eyed vermin scurried and disappeared into the endless network of standing water ponds, wider black lakes, and puddles within the caverns. Moans of despair vibrated through him as he stared off in the distance toward a tar gully that had a low blue flame burning on its thick, slow bubbling surface. Carlos took a step forward and was suddenly knee-deep in vile standing water. "Shit!"

Things wriggled in the sewer-like swamp at his calves and he immediately jumped back from the cesspool that sent the rotting smell of human flesh, feces, and garbage into his nose, the smell covering his tongue. Ugh! It wasn't as dark as the previous black forest, but it was much wetter.

"Shake it off," the messenger chuckled, "and stay close. Use thought to clean and dry yourself. In fact, change your clothes, if you so desire. Always remember that you are from the lowest realm, which gives you authority over the weaker realms. Sheer thought. Use your ability to materialize your comfort - or safety."

Point well taken. Carlos released his disgust and focused his thoughts on having the crap off of him. Instantly he felt dry, and even the smells around him abated enough for him to think. "What's on level four? It doesn't feel as dense." He had a sudden, inexplicable need to know what souls were trapped here.

"We are in the realm of nightmare entities... things that swim and slither and creep. These are dark dreams, creatures made of dark desires and black thoughts. There are so many varieties of this demon, and they remain hidden, stay within the haunted spaces of the human mind." His guide waved its arm as it spoke. "Pure hatred lives here, incest lives here, as well as many other dark emotions that become manifest. Vampires have lost the wet, slithering, snakelike forms of these amorphous creatures, but have retained the sophistication of their ability to permeate dreams and thought. Their whispers are mesmerizing. We go now. You are not strong enough to fight the mental pull of these alluring creatures yet. Soon, however. This is a realm of dark desires where even seasoned vampires can go mad. Nuit remained here too long."

Carlos didn't even nod as the messenger beckoned him. Sinister thoughts were attempting to attack his brain, and invisible tendrils slithered up his legs, stroked his groin, and dazed him. The pull of his transport broke the spell, but he looked down as he ascended to the next realm, awed by the power he'd just been wrenched from. Oddly, his eyes adjusted to the speed this time. This was some twisted shit, indeed. Somebody should have shown him this much earlier in his life. Had he only known... But where was his soul? Where was Alejandro's?

"We are on level two," the messenger announced as they landed in a barren, desert-like place that was merely dark gray all around.

Rocks and jagged gray cliffs surrounded him, and Carlos looked up from a deep canyon to a lighter realm above. He was glad it was dry at least. "We skipped level three," he murmured, listening to his voice echo. Sobs surrounded his voice, sending it back to him with piteous wails.

"Level three is where the Amanthras reside. That is not a part of our tour. Too dangerous."

"Why?"

"The Amanthra are poised to detect any vampire encroachment in their territories. The many species of vengeance demons are formidable."

Carlos nodded, continuing to stare at the barren crags above.

"This is the realm of lost hopes, lost dreams, lost faith. Angry ghosts live here." Rocks began to fall and pummel them, and the messenger held out his cloak to protect Carlos. "Poltergeists. A pain in the ass," it sneered. "Nothing here to see. They have no form, just move matter, but we have retained their ability to transform into nothingness, and to move about as mist. We go. Very boring here, but useful."

"Let me ask you something, though, hombre," Carlos said fast, holding the arm of the messenger. "Where do vampires' souls go? Assuming we're all damned... our essence must go somewhere, right? Who feeds on us?"

The messenger gave him a suspicious, appraising look. "They go to the Vampire Council's vault where they are registered; hence nothing feeds on us... unless that soul gets tossed into the sea of perpetual agony - which you crossed to enter the council chambers. Why do you ask?"

More rocks skipped down the cliffs, but Carlos held up his hand, stopping the assault as a huge boulder came toward them, but was deflected. He looked at his hand, assessing the awesome power it had. The messenger smiled with approval.

"Just curious," Carlos said slowly, still awed at what he'd just done. He continued to look at his hand as he pressed his question. "So, my soul is in the vault... and so is my brother's, right? Safe?" He had openly displayed concern that his spirit would be kept by the council to throw off the messenger's concerns. It apparently worked when the messenger seemed to relax.

"Yes. Your brother's has been registered, as have your friends." But then its voice took on a strange tone of worry. "Yours, we are still trying to locate, however. There was a dispute, and it was wrested away during the border battle at the edges of Purgatory. No matter at this juncture. We have rightful ownership... after all our years of work on you. We will find it, or reclaim it."

"No matter?" Carlos was incredulous. "After seeing this shit, you tell me no matter?"

"No matter. We are predators. The density of your unredeemed soul will have to bottom out, unmolested, on level six - the realm of predators. This was your lifestyle. You preyed on the weak-minded for material gain. Power, blind ambition... yours will come to where all like you come."

The dissection of his life gave Carlos serious pause. While he was aware that his business transactions required the weaknesses of others to keep the cash flowing, it never really dawned upon him. "Tell me two things, and then we can go," Carlos hedged, "since you guys have been sloppy - seems only right."

The messenger cocked his head to the side and waited.

"Which souls get cast in the lava around the council's chamber? You feel me? I'm just trying to know: What could get a man thrown in the joint?"

"Wise information to have," the messenger replied. "Those without a prayer who get staked by us for transgressions... should they violate the council's policies, or those who fall victim to the humans. If a made vampire was an innocent victim, was turned without agreement, when that vampire is extinguished he goes to the realms above - assuming he didn't have other issues to damn him. But, alas, if he was of the redeemed, he is escorted to the province of the angels by the warrior legions."

"Now that's some deep shit."

"Yes," the messenger stated flatly. "This is why we try to kill all innocents, first, then feed. They are a waste of energy in our realms. This is also why the cleric being turned was such a flagrant violation - it brought warrior angels deep into our realms to collect his soul... and they also tried to take additional borderline souls up with them in the battle... and were successful in a few cases. We speak of that no more. It is a history that nags the council. But those under our aegis that are cast by the council into the pit around the sacred council chamber feel us feed on every victim, as well as feel the blood hunger that cannot be quenched while in the pit."

Dozens more questions entered his brain, but Carlos focused on the one priority he had: Nuit. "Then if Nuit was cast into the pit, where's his soul now? Can't the Vampire Council just - "

"No," the messenger spat, cutting him off. "His was in the pit, and in our registry. His lair was sealed and he writhed in pain for only a short time - until his lair was disturbed. After his term of incarceration, his soul was to be sent through the demon realms for them to have their rightful torture split, since his damnation levels were manifold... but when Nuit escaped, he was able to convey it to a hiding place on level three where the Amanthras control. His deal put his spirit in their safety zone. They have it, but do not attack it. This is what makes him so dangerous - he is rogue, with no way for us to sanction him like the others."

"And if I drive a stake in his heart for you guys? Where will it go?"

The messenger chuckled. Carlos wished it had a face so he could read more into the thing's voice or expression than just the scant narrowing or widening of its glowing red eyes.

"Straight to level seven, beneath even the Vampire Council's realm. If Nuit fails his betrayal of us, he will have a permanent appointment with the Dark Lord... and ask me no more, for I do not want to even fathom what that consequence could bring."

"Sho' you right." That's all he needed to know. For now.

This time, Carlos anxiously awaited the last level, curiosity pulling him upward as much as his guide's hand. They landed in a light gray, barren sandy area, and there were illusive human figures milling about seeming disoriented, arguing, bickering, and screaming invectives at each other - some laughing with insane, vacant stares.

"Pathetic," the messenger spat. "The realm of confusion... addictions, excesses, wantonness. Some of these transparent specters don't even realize that they're dead. We don't use much from this realm, save the ability to create turmoil and their capacity to throw voices, which rise to the surface. When humans hear ghostly sounds that frighten them, or hear voices that propel them to evil deeds, more often than not, they come from this region. Sometimes we bring one of them up as a zombie, but it is a tiresome, noisy realm that I cannot tolerate."

"I hear you," Carlos muttered. "Let's roll. This is getting on my nerves."

"Yes. A vampire's sensibilities are utterly invaded by this clamor. We go now."

Again the black smoke pulled at Carlos's body, and his guide didn't bother to touch him. Somehow Carlos could sense that he was in no imminent danger in the upper levels. The only thing he'd been there was aggravated.

"The council felt it wise to deliver you to the gray zone here, in Fallon Nuit's territory. It is necessary that he continue to believe that he has control over you. Kill well on the topside, and feed heartily. You will need your strength," the messenger said with a nod, and was gone.

Carlos stood in front of his grandmother's house and stared at the front door. A pang of mourning inside him became a dull ache. His family... things would never be the same. The tiny, impoverished house seemed so frail against the night. Carlos shook his head. Why hadn't his mother and grandmother simply agreed to his offer to move them to a lush home in a much better place? Just look at it, he told himself, as he stared at the aged clapboard frame, peeling, ugly gray paint, and flimsy metal bars that covered the screen door and windows. The front yard was a postage stamp of withered grass. They should have let him do what he could, when he could, to move them all to somewhere safe. But they were so stubborn, the women in his family.

The porch seemed like it could barely support the white plastic chairs on it. Cheap flowerpots sat on the steps filled with half-dead plants. The windows were covered inside with cheap, sheer fabric curtains. Traffic and night noise blared around the huddles of young-bloods standing down the street on the corner. This was no way to live.

However, a wave of concern came over him as the hunger for blood regained its topside strength. Perhaps it was the scent of humanity in the air that had ignited it, he wasn't sure. While on his zoo-exhibit-like tour through the dark realms, looking at all the grotesque abominations of demons, he hadn't felt it. Not this strong and not like this. Not here, he admonished himself, but the familiar ground had such a pull.

He wanted to wrap his arms around his mother, beg her forgiveness, see that she was all right. He closed his eyes, breathed in, and saw within the home. Yes, she was on the telephone in tears - just as he'd witnessed as he was dying. His grandmother was in her room, her lips moving in what he knew to be a fervent prayer, but he was now deaf to it. Juanita was inside trying to comfort his mama. She was always a good girl.

Tears of earnest remorse welled in Carlos's eyes. What had he done... what had he become? The paradox claimed him; when he had been alive he could not submit to live like them, and now dead, he still could not.

Yet the need to eat created a ravenous draw to the front steps of what had once been his home. These were the people who had given him life, and this was where he'd grown up. The alpha and the omega; his beginning in life through them; their end of life through him. Full circle. He could smell the living behind the door. Their blood was so ripe, so thick... Carlos licked his lips. Guilt and shame battled with the hunger and loss.

Like a junkie, he was drawn up the front steps. Like a junkie he knew he would pillage his own home for one hit. Like a junkie he knew that he would prey on his own family - just as every junkie he'd created had. As a dealer, he'd made humans that were like vampires, too. They were also the living dead. They would feed on their families, with remorse. They would make excuses and apologies, but would quench their hunger. Fair exchange is no robbery, he told himself, as he prepared to enter through the mail slot as smoke. His family would hesitate to fire a weapon, fight off an attack, or drive a stake through his heart - just like living families always hesitated when a junkie of theirs came home.

It was the way of predators, junkies, addicts. Bring down the weakest in the herd. Pick off family first. Open a sitting pocket-book, steal money from a drawer, but feed your hunger. Family, for a while, will not bar the door or change the locks. They'll weep. Family, unlike an outsider, would try to beg and plead and hope. Family would try to negotiate and get their predator help. Family would hesitate in the crucial moment of truth. Family had love, and that made them vulnerable.

He almost cried out as the images flashed through his mind. Hot tears rolled down his face and spilled with knowing. He couldn't even call out to God to help him. The thought made him bring his hands to the sides of his head as a stabbing pain shot through it. But it was enough to sober him slightly. Carlos knocked on the door, and immediately his hand was scorched.

Yelling with pain, he drew away his wounded knuckles. Immediately, he heard the locks turn, and his mother stood inside, just beyond the threshold with Juanita and his grandmother behind her. Tears were cascading down his mother's puffed face, and she covered her mouth with her hand for a moment as she stared at him.

"Oh... my son..." she whispered. "Madre de Dios, you have taken all of my children." Her voice faltered and broke into a sob.

Carlos glanced at his appearance. He was normal, projecting pure human. What was she talking about? Even her mind was shut to him.

"Mama," he crooned. "Come outside. We should talk. I know Alejandro's death is killing you, but you still have one - "

"No!" His grandmother wrapped her aged, gnarled fingers around his mother's upper arms. "You may not enter! You are demon now!"

What? His own grandmother... and how did she know?

His mother turned from him and sought her mother's shoulder. Juanita's stricken expression drew him and he entered her mind. His grandmother had anointed the house. She had put down a barrier and had been screaming about demons and vampires all day. It was her house, too, shared with his mother now. He could not cross the line without permission of the owner. Juanita thought it was all superstition and was torn. She still loved him. Her heart was breaking as she watched his mother give in to the old ways. He called her with the most seductive voice he could muster within his mind.

Juanita opened the door as the eldest of the women shrieked and grabbed at her. His grandmother and mother were screaming in Spanish, shouting prayers, trying to get her to come back into the sanctuary of the protected home. But his focus was singular. Juanita walked toward him, down the steps as the older women yelled behind the now locked screen. They called him vile things. They said his grandmother had had a vision... a dream. Yes, the humans did indeed have gifts. Blood.

"Come to me, baby," he whispered, drawing Juanita farther away from the house. "Just a few more steps, and I will make it better. The pain will go away... you won't ever have to be afraid. The old women are foolish, look at how they've hurt me, have turned on their own son. They break my heart."

The smell of her as she entered his arms was intoxicating. The smell of her sweat, her blood, fused with the smell of her cheap perfume. He could feel her pain flowing under her skin. She'd yielded so easily, was so trusting as she clung to him. Desire kindled within him. He'd make it easy for her, would make sure she enjoyed it. She trembled against him. He smelled the moisture of her vulva. This was power. Yes, come to me.

Foolish child had leaned her head against his chest and hugged him. Carlos closed his eyes and nuzzled the damp hair away from her neck with his face. Street traffic noise disappeared. The sobs beyond the door were so distant. Boom box music had gone mute. All he could hear now was the sound of Juanita's heartbeat and the blood that gushed through her veins. He felt his jaw tense, his incisors painfully release from their captivity behind his gums.

"Yo, man, sorry to hear about your brother and your boys!"

Carlos's incisors instantly retracted, his head jerked up and he turned, training his glare on his neighbor who was crossing the street.

"It was fucked up, man," his childhood homeboy continued, a large silver cross hanging to the center of his chest. "Your mama and gran'ma are all freaked out. Me and my posse will help you find the motherfuckers, hombre. Nobody should roll on one'a ours like dat." The twenty-year-old extended his fist for Carlos to pound. "We need revenge."

Carlos studied the hand, eyed the huge crucifix, released Juanita with a shove, and then returned the fist pound, collecting himself. He warily avoided the thing that would burn him. Juanita seemed dazed, but he sensed that she'd attributed his abruptness to his righteous anger over his brother's death. His boy came near to hug him in respect. Carlos jerked back.

"You see that?" his grandmother shrieked. "You see!"

"Yo, what up, man?" His neighbor glanced at him, confused.

"I'm just freaked myself. Gotta go," Carlos murmured. He turned and looked back at Juanita. His mother's sobs were now fusing with his grandmother's piteous wails. "Mama!" Words became trapped in his throat. Total despair claimed him. He'd almost taken from his beloved family, his inner circle. He was a predator and truly damned.

Oh, the realm of confusion was indeed at work, and he had not been the master of it tonight. "Mama!" Carlos called again, regaining his composure. He studied her weeping form as Juanita slipped back into the house to join the huddle of women. "I am so sorry... forgive me. I will never hurt you - but keep the seal on your house. Stay in at night, and keep Nita protected, too. Do that for me... it's the last thing I'll ever ask you." He burned their images into his mind for the last time. "I love you."

His friend put a hand on his shoulder. "Damn, man. This is all fucked up."

"Word." Then Carlos was gone.

Carlos glanced around the desolate underground parking garage, moving with silent footsteps. Guilt stabbed into his gut as much as the hunger for blood consumed him. He'd almost jacked his own family. He had to summon the mental control of his rank - a master. Never again, he repeated like a mantra. Never again. He would have discipline, patience, strategy, finesse. He would not be a beast.

But, he needed to feed. That was real. There were certain practicalities that had to be addressed. Half stooping from the pain, he sucked in a huge inhale and kept walking. The thought of going back to Raven to feed from disgusted him. He'd dropped so low that he'd actually fucked and fed from something that could transform into a panther, something that had eaten the entrails of men. Yet, he needed a body, and what better place than to lay in wait for another of Nuit's minions in the lot beneath his enemy's office building? At least he could feed from something he hadn't screwed.

Yeah. Made sense. He'd drop one of those vampire fuckers, for sure. He'd gut them, fill his hunger on whatever they'd already eaten, just like Raven had demonstrated could be done. He'd never submit to having an innocent's blood on his hands... at least not right away. He refused to be made into a junkie, be it drugs or blood. Then, he'd find Nuit.

Profound hunger tore at him as he quickened his pace and he gasped, breathing hard, fighting against the urge. Perhaps after he killed the bastard Nuit, tonight, he'd go find a crack-head, a homeless person, or some other society castaway, something - but never his family again. Shame christened his eyes with new tears, making his vision blur as he skulked through the parking lot, picking up the trail of where one of Nuit's weaker vampires had just been.

There was so much he didn't know yet about the power he now possessed, but one thing was for sure: he was clear about the existence of Hell.

Carlos passed the security attendant's booth and stopped, the lingering scent of blood drawing his attention. When he peered through the shattered glass pane, he sniffed the dead victim. Raven. Oh, yeah, he was definitely near Nuit's operations.

He bent to siphon what little blood remained in the limp, fat body. The man was a slob and stank. But he kept pulling the salty, thick fluid from the body with abandon. He despised himself as he did so. Now he was a garbage picker, accepting sloppy seconds from a female vamp. His ego was revolted. Had he no dignity left? Then he pulled back and studied his bite signature. Something was different. Two small puncture wounds, instead of the brutal mess Raven had left. A twisted satisfaction filled him. The Vampire Council's action had worked.

At least the small amount he'd consumed staved off the hunger a bit. Yet, at the same time, it made him thirst for another hit. He lowered his head, hoping to find one more drop. Just like a fucking addict. Carlos lifted his head from the dead body and wiped his mouth on his sleeve, then spat with disgust. This was definitely no way to live.

Quickening footsteps forced him to glance at the security monitors. He also noticed that he had no reflection in the mirrors within the tiny space. Deep. The sight of a young blond male entering the parking lot with a terror-stricken expression made Carlos become very still. He stared at the image on the small screens, trying to remember where he'd seen the face, heard those same steps. His own club came into focus. This was the young wannabe who had relentlessly pestered his people to allow Damali to perform there, initially without her consent.

Then it dawned on him - this human could be a tool to get him closer to Damali. He had to warn her. Just thinking about where he wanted to go, Carlos felt a swift wind lift him as though he were air. To his surprise, he immediately found himself standing behind the trotting man in a silent, drifting manifestation. Very deep. Then Carlos breathed in a hint of sulfur and went on guard.

From between two parked cars Raven appeared, hissing and spitting and bearing fangs. Tacky. No style, he thought, as he watched her hunt. The blond intended victim yelled in horror and crouched down as she was on him in two paces. Carlos quickly took on solid form. Knocking the man aside, Carlos came between the would-be victim and Raven. She jumped ten feet back, obviously prepared to duel for her potential kill until recognition spread across her face.

"He's mine," Carlos snarled at her. "You just ate."

"That's because you drained me, lover. I was going to bring this one to you - so you could also finish where you left off with me. You left me hanging." She moved closer to him with a lazy, sexy lope in his direction and tilted her neck for him to consider. "You know you want it. It's fresh. The guard was okay, save the forty of beer - and the spaghetti he had for dinner," she murmured in a seductive tone. "Want some... or something else?"

Carlos shut his eyes briefly, staving off the hunger that she and the scent of the recent kill on her lips created. "Go back to your lair. Not this one."

"What is with you? Is he marked or something?"

"Don't argue with me, bitch. I said to leave this one alone!" He hated the fact that he'd even considered her offer for a moment. Rage filled him as he fought against both urges she produced.

Snarling, Raven backed away, glared at the cowering man on the ground, and vanished into the shadows.

"Oh shit, oh shit, man!" the innocent yelled as he scrambled up from where he'd dropped to cover his head with his arms. "What the fuck was that - man, if you hadn't come along, I would have been dog meat. Did you see that shit? I'm not high, I swear to God! I saw it - you saw it, and it wasn't human. I knew something was following me - I could sense it, but damn! A fucking vampire? This cannot be happening - shit like this only happens in the movies. God in Heaven! I must be losing my mind!"

Each time the innocent had said the word that named the Most High, it had sent a stabbing pain through Carlos's head, intestines, and the center of his chest. The words hurt so badly that Carlos staggered away for a moment and held onto the side of a car for support. Powerful. Just the name alone... but it had also loosened the mental hold of the Vampire Council's trackers, he noted. As he recovered, he sensed another presence. He'd felt it earlier, but had been too hungry before to address it. Hmmm...

Carlos turned around slowly with renewed calm. The hysterical man was walking in circles, babbling to himself and shaking his head. Carlos could feel his fangs retract. When he faced the human, evidence that he was a vampire had vanished.

"What's your name?" Carlos asked coolly.

"Dan, man! Daniel Weinstein. Oh shit." The human named Daniel continued to walk around in a circle, hyped, clutching his head in his hands.

"My advice is that you chill," Carlos said, low in his throat. "There could be others, and you just missed being dinner."

Dan stared at him, sweat pouring down the sides of his blanched face. His lips had gone light blue, and he seemed to be in mild shock. "More of them?" He leaned over and began to retch.

"Get yourself together, and go somewhere safe." The smell of the human's adrenaline, terror, and blood were making Carlos's hands tremble with need.

"Somewhere safe! Where in God's name is that?!" Dan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and breathed in huge gulps of air. "I'm not going home alone. The only things that saved my ass were probably you and my Star of David," he said quickly, bringing the small gold piece of jewelry to his lips to kiss it three times. "Damali told me not to come here at night, she said there were barracudas and shit, not fucking vampires!"

"You're with Damali's crew, right? Go seek sanctuary with them."

"I used to be with them," Dan corrected. "I... I... was just here in Beverly Hills to seal a deal with Blood Music and Warriors of Light, though."

Dan's frightened eyes darted around the parking lot, but each time they landed on Carlos, he edged closer as though Carlos was a protective shield. It took Carlos everything within him to keep from reaching out for the fool. All he had to do was snatch the quivering body to him, snap his neck, and fill himself with the elixir of life. So very, very close with the scent of life wafting over him. A heart beating so hard it slammed against the innocent's breastbone and nearly vibrated within Carlos's own chest. The human's pores oozed with sweat and fear. Carlos licked his lips. "Talk to me," he murmured, forcing himself to remain smooth. "I need an address."

"I got Light a hookup on Extra, Access Hollywood, Evening Mag, for the big concert, dude. But, truth be told, we always work by phones - I never knew exactly where they actually camped, ya know? Last gig, I showed up at the club, but they wouldn't let me go to their spot. I wouldn't know how to get to them if my life depended on it - and it does."

"Yes, it does," Carlos said with a wry half smile.

Daniel spun around, tears rising in his eyes as he glanced at his car with fear. "I'm no punk, usually - and I know, running Club Vengeance and all, you see a lot of shit, maybe even had to do a lot of shit - but seriously, I can't get in my car. I'm about to drop a brick in my pants behind this shit. Oh, fuck me... you got a gun, man? In your line of business, I know you have a gun."

"Bullets don't work on them," Carlos muttered, walking over to the man's car and opening the door without a key. He glanced in to check that it was clear, hesitating as he again saw that his image made no reflection in the side or rearview mirrors. But he kept his motions fluid to keep from tipping off the innocent. Deeply disturbed by what he'd just seen, or not seen, Carlos's focus splintered for a split second. What had he done?

Once he was sure that the coast was clear, Carlos then nodded to Daniel who still appeared so traumatized that he couldn't seem to move.

"Get in, say a prayer, and roll up your windows, for all the good that will do. Call Damali on your cell phone and get her to bring you into a sanctuary. And, you need to move fast."

"You need a ride, man - I mean, we can share. It might be better if we found her, or a place to go together, right?"

Carlos shook his head. "I left my car a ways from here and - "

"You're going to walk around out here in a deserted lot at night with vampires stalking people? What, are you crazy? Either that, or you are one bad motherfucker. Me, I'm out."

Carlos held the car door open for Daniel; the sweet smell of his blood that close became so tempting that Carlos had to quickly shut the door and step away. Dan was a walking blood drug, a beacon for vamps as his terror carried every flash hormone of fight or flight - much of it being flight.

"Don't stop at the barrier," Carlos instructed. "Take it out. Run right through it if you have to. Don't put your arm out the window to try to drop a token. Make the call while you drive. Get D to bring you in." He moved away from Dan's car, watching him.

Dan nodded, his hands fumbling with the keys, dropping them once before he got the right piece of metal into the ignition. In an instant, Dan gunned the motor, slapped the gears in reverse, hitting both parked cars on either side of his silver Honda when he backed out of his space. Carlos didn't relax until he heard the sound of wheels screeching level by level, rubber burning as Dan rounded each curve, metal scraping the divider walls. A heavy snap echoed, followed by more rubber burning as Dan tore away from the building.

"Carlos Rivera poses an unfathomable risk for the Vampire Council," the attorney murmured once the messenger reported that Carlos was topside.

"A dangerous variable," another council member agreed.

"He died with a prayer in him," another insisted.

The chairman's gaze swept the group. "We must find his soul for our vault. What happened?"

"We don't know, exactly. But if he doesn't deliver the vampire huntress in three days when she ovulates, or during the fragile period... and we miss this lunar cycle of fertility, her womb will be immune to our seed. An opportunity will not present itself again for years - till her next Vulnerability. Even if he brings her to us, after her twenty-first birthday, later in the month during this first ripening, for every successive day that passes her antibodies will build, and the heir will be at risk of spontaneous abortion. Or, Mr. Chairman... even if our seed takes, it could be deformed - it could be human, or worse. Part Neteru human."

"I know, Parliamentarian Vlak. I am aware of the situation. But please try to calm yourself," the council chairman sighed. "So sad. Rivera has such potential, too bad that we must drive a stake through his heart when he brings her in. Rivera should have signed. I do not like dangling threads. He could have ruled Latin America, and picked up Nuit's territories, too."

"Too much of a risk, Mr. Chairman," the member at the far point of the table argued. "I don't like being leveraged. In our own haste and desperation, we've protected him from Nuit's call, and given the humans Rivera has designated amnesty. Once we set that in motion, it is irrevocable - so, if he reneges, we have an imbalance of negotiations. That makes us vulnerable, and I don't like it. I was against this from the onset, but was overruled."

All heads nodded and loudly murmured the concern amongst themselves until the chairman spoke again.

"We had no choice. We had to take risky measures. But, we must deal with the severely problematic issue that none of us wants to discuss."

"Yes," the attorney agreed. "The prayer. He hasn't technically died, just transformed. We had to intercept Rivera before he was completely expired in order to get around the loophole in the supernatural law governing Nuit's aegis over him - and while he hovered in between states. If the light should suddenly attempt to begin litigation to place a claim on Rivera as their asset, particularly given the preponderance of evidence, the religious relic and a prayer... gentlemen, this could be a long-waged, resource-intensive dispute for this soul - which by right, should be ours. Almost his entire adult life, if not all of it, has been under our purview. But, the redemption clause - "

"Don't utter it. Words have power. You have left topside roadblocks?"

"Absolutely. We need him to hunger and feed on an innocent to drive away the forces of light. He has only taken his first feeding from the veins of the already damned, and now from a dead man. You just never know - Rivera seemed more aggressive and didn't strike me as a second-tier carrion feeder. Another variable. He needs to feed the traditional way."

"He's a master now," the chairman said with forced confidence. "The disorientation from our cloak to Nuit just confused him, perhaps. No master will accept carrion, or blood from another vampire's veins, indefinitely, gentlemen. Let us not panic. That is not our way. He will also want to experience the erotic rush of the kill."

The council members returned skeptical glances. The attorney nodded, and that seemed to mollify the group.

"We can only hope that our esteemed chairman is correct. However, Rivera's car and the money are still near two dead Minion members that we'd compromised, but Nuit discovered among his ranks. Another innocent will find Rivera's artifacts and link him to the crime, should he not sign the eternal contract - and make the wrong choice to side with the light. That contract is the only way we can ensure his soul gets correctly deposited into our realm... as we have a bit of an inventory problem now - we can't find it. Like the others sent here, no contract would have been necessary, his lifestyle would have given it enough weight to sink... but something happened. We are still investigating."

A hush fell over the group. The chairman stood slowly, leaning in the counselor's direction as he issued him a warning glare. "I suggest you rectify this before yours accidentally gets placed in the pit beyond our doors."

"Rivera will have no life in the gray zone, if the realms of the place that shall remain nameless above earth try to give him a second chance," the attorney assured the council nervously, glancing around the group. "He will not renege, if he is a thinking man."

"Very good, then," the chairman sighed, sitting with effort and pushing back in his throne. "And, we also need to continue to monitor him... as we have more than an illusion-projected master topside now. Rivera is indeed a real master who has direct connection to our Neteru. I don't like the windows of invisibility with a master on the trail of a huntress in near ripening."

"Extremely dangerous."

"Our concern all along, Mr. Chairman."

"Mine, too. Which is why we must have him under complete surveillance at all times. Although his thoughts are impenetrable to us at this juncture - given his master status - have our people keep abreast of his activities. His lair, unlike Nuit's, will be accessible. We only need him to lead us to her, beyond the blind spot of the Neteru's protective prayers. Her trust in Rivera gets him through that barrier... even Nuit cannot fully see her, can only track her remotely, and cannot get through her barriers without three layers of light forces battling him. Nuit knows that, which is the only reason he walked away from that meeting in the woods without Rivera's head in his talons. Once Rivera is in, we must move in unison - he will be eliminated; she will have the barrier around her breached. She already desires him, so we use Rivera as an instrument to gain her compliance, then we eliminate him."

The attorney nodded. "This needs to happen before Nuit turns two hundred and fifty thousand concertgoers on each of the five continental shelves with his armies in the audiences. This concert is an abomination to the order. Our spies have told us his plans... before the two of them were so brutally fed upon in the woods. The North Hollywood incident... it was very disgusting, and I will spare the council the details."

"I could care less about two FBI-agent humans who were vampire hopefuls! What is of greater concern is why would Nuit care about our policies when he and his army will be able to walk by day, feast at will on more than blood, and retain all the powers of darkness? He will not have to worry about empire exposure - within short order, he would be able to sweep the gray zone, and food supply won't be an issue for him - only for those of us left to perish with the blood thirst." The council member at the table's far point closed his eyes.

"Have a messenger bring more blood to the council from above. This will be a long siege - three tense eves when all of our concentration must be focused. We cannot go under the heel of demons turned high-ranking vampires prepared to flood the sixth realm, and Nuit's Minion to take over the gray zone as daywalkers. He will be unstoppable. It will be an end of a civilized era. Plus, the Dark Lord is becoming supportive of these efforts... he has grown anxious for the Armageddon ever since the millennium turned. We are losing support from below."

"Council members, gentlemen, I understand your concern," the chairman hissed. "There is much at risk. Stay near Rivera at all times.

"There could be brief times when Rivera eludes our monitors, who must be weaker family members to avoid the possibility of our monitors attempting a double cross."

The members at the table nodded, their expressions grave.

"We may experience our own intermittent blackouts when we cannot track him or sense his motion, Mr. Chairman," the attorney warned. "Our power over him could also occasionally waver because it is not solidly aligned with supernatural law. This can occur when his strong maker, Nuit, a past council member, struggles to locate him... or, if the forces of light make contact and render us blind."

"Will we know which of our enemies is blocking our location-monitoring thoughts, should this happen?"

The group waited, seeming to hold its breath as the attorney stood, leaned across the table, and lifted the crest before him with a claw. Not even a murmur transpired between them as he produced a huge leather-bound black book with the seal of darkness on it, and began flipping through the code.

"Parliamentarian Vlak. Our patience escapes us. Your verdict indicates... ?"

The attorney shook his head. "We have a serious problem."

"Damali, get dressed, a nine-one-one in the weapons room!"

Marlene had said the words so fast and had dashed away from her so quickly that, without hesitation, Damali pulled on her jeans and a T-shirt, and then shoved her feet into her boots. So much for chilling. She picked up Madame Isis and shoved her little sister dagger into her waistband.

Damali got down the hall within minutes, and she could hear Shabazz and Marlene trying to talk Daniel down from a hysterical state, to no avail.

"Dan, where are you?" Marlene walked in a circle of frustration as Dan's voice boomed. Traffic could be heard in the background.

"I don't know! I was in Beverly Hills at Blood finishing the deal and this female vampire jumped out of the damned night on me! I can't go home, and Carlos told me to keep my windows up. Shit!"

"Carlos?" Shabazz bellowed.

"God bless him! He saved my life."

"Where is he?" Damali asked, trying to keep her voice level and authoritative.

"He said he didn't believe in that shit and stayed behind to walk to his car!"

Daniel's voice had broken off into sobs. "I shoulda made him come with me, but I was too scared to wait for him - and he was arguing and shit, D. I practically begged him!"

She walked over to the steel-protected window, closed her eyes, and pressed her palm to it, watching the heat of her hand fan out and make a ring of mist.

"Okay, okay, Dan, it's not your fault," Damali said as calmly as she could over her shoulder, ignoring the glare Shabazz and Marlene gave her. "What streets did you pass?"

"I was on Rodeo, then shot up to Sunset, then - then, I guess I'm on Coldwater Canyon Drive! I'm lost; my tank is on a quarter - whaduldo? What the fuck do I do?"

"He's headed north, if he passed those streets in that sequence," J.L. confirmed from the map showing on the wall from the computer projector.

"Dan, head east, that's going to be toward your right, onto Mulholland, toward Hollywood Hills," Damali said, her heart slamming inside her chest as she tried to speak calmly for Dan's sake. "Okay? Dan?"

"Yeah, yeah, okay," he stammered. "I can't go home, Damali. I'm scared."

"We're not going to leave you out there. We got'chure back. Stay calm."

"Stay calm! Stay calm? You should have seen that thing! I could feel something creepy walking up on me and I started running. I had on my star like you said, D. Swear to God!"

"She's bringing him in - oh, we're fucked with a breach," Rider said, beginning to pace in an agitated state.

"No, not a good idea," Big Mike agreed.

Marlene pushed the mute button as Dan hysterically railed on.

"Look, guys, we can't in good conscience leave an innocent man out there like that. Jesus, y'all!"

"Damali - what if this is a setup?" Shabazz walked around the table, studying the weapons array.

"Listen to him," Damali urged. "The man is about to piss himself. The guy is traumatized. He's no vamp - and Carlos is out there, too. We need to bring them both in."

"No!" J.L. said, making a swift cutting motion with his hand. "What if Carlos is already compromised from being in that parking lot too long? Bad move."

Damali paused for a moment. "If we coach him in, we can hit Dan's ride with UV when he pulls into the garage, and wait until the sensors tell us there's nothing left to materialize, then open the door and let the poor guy in. Or, we can go get him and keep his eyes covered - if that would make you feel better. Same with Carlos. What is with y'all? We've got an innocent being pursued, plus another in serious danger."

"Guys, guys, talk to me! There's something hovering near my back windows!"

Damali slapped the mute button. "Step on it, Dan!" she yelled. "That's it - I've heard enough. We're coming to get you. When you see our Hum-V, pull over on the shoulder, but do not jump out of the car until one of us comes and gets you.

"Rider, Big Mike - grab a coupla heat seekers and a cannon, crossbows... let's rock and roll!"

"You are not going out there tonight!" Marlene said fast. Her expression was frenzied and her words had come out in a quick rush of horror.

"Marlene, I love you, but save it. Keep talking to him, guys. J.L., keep us on a Lo Jack radar blip, and keep com going, and I want a three-way to the vehicle with you guys and Dan so I can hear him and talk to him - Shabazz, you got the compound. Bring Jose into the weapons room and let him rest in here. We all stay in eyesight of somebody. Nobody goes it alone."

Damali was in instant motion and the team begrudgingly nodded as she harnessed herself with shells, a handheld cannon, holy water grenades, and her Isis blade. As long as she could hear Dan's voice she was okay - but she wasn't sure of what she'd do if she heard him scream, or heard the sounds of him being ripped apart and eaten alive. It was as though everyone shared the same thought all at once as they each paused and looked at one another. Big Mike and Rider grabbed an armload of artillery and followed Damali, who was already halfway down the hall.


Tags: L.A. Banks Vampire Huntress Legend Vampires
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