The guardians kept their aim steady, but didn't fire as the panther loped to the fore and slowly transformed into a lush, tall, black leather - clad female form.

"This is between her and me," the female entity said, straightening out the triangle of her leather halter-top and then studying her razor-sharp French manicure. "Has been for a long time." She nodded toward Damali, and then glanced at her squad, smoothing out the leather of her skin-tight pants. "You can feast on the others when I'm done - two of them for each one of you - I ate earlier. Italian. But first, she and I have some unfinished business."

"We can't feed on the blond - the one called Dan," one vamp in Raven's group replied evenly. "Remember what Nuit told us?"

"He'll get over it," Raven snarled. "It's a moot point - two minutes, she's dead."

Rider and Mike exchanged a look and glared at Dan, and then returned their focus to the threat before them.

"Later," Big Mike murmured in Damali's direction.

She glanced at him, conceding. This was a part of a larger equation, but she still sensed that Dan was innocent.

"What do you want, Raven?" Damali asked, her voice carrying across the expanse that separated both groups.

"You take my mother, and then my men... and you ask me what I want?"

"Damali," Rider said with caution, "she's a second generation, and I don't think - "

Damali held up her hand to quiet Rider.

"Your mother?" Damali opened her mind, her awareness so sharp now that what felt like an electric current ran through her.

Raven laughed, the sound cold and dead. She narrowed her eyes. Damali heard a car approach at a high speed and swerve to a stop, but she didn't turn. Damali kept her gaze trained on her vampire targets. The Jeep door slammed, her guardians glanced at it over their shoulders. Mike raised a weapon in Marlene's direction to cover her from a possible surprise attack. Dan's terrified eyes darted between the approaching guardian and the unbelievable sight before him. Damali didn't flinch. The male vampires tensed, considered the new Jeep and guardian, then glanced at Raven, but didn't move.

The desire to attack the haughty thing that was laughing at her lit a new fire within Damali. However, she garnered patience. A false move could cost a member of her team their lives. She could hear Marlene's footsteps behind her. Remain in control. Her odds had just improved as a seasoned fighter joined her ranks, and stepped beside her. She already knew it was Marlene. Damali studied the vampires, her focus on the one called Raven as it laughed even harder.

"Hello, Mother dearest," Raven said softly. Her tone was lethal and her expression was filled with hatred.

Daughter? Damali's concentration wavered. Pure shock gave way to disbelief as she held onto a thread of hope. No. Impossible. She knew vamps were masters of deceit, but something in Marlene's countenance told her to be still. This wasn't necessarily a lie. She watched Marlene and the entity claiming to be her daughter. There was no rage in Marlene, just bitter resignation. The realization made it hard for her to breathe.

"It's over, Raven," Marlene said flatly, her battle-ax raised.

"Fuck you! Follow what you said, or have infinite power, fame? Are you mad? You sound so pathetic, Marlene! It's on!"

"Then, bring it!" Damali hollered, stepping away from the group and Marlene as Raven hissed, and began circling.

"Gladly," Raven said with a snarl.

"Leave her to me, Damali," Marlene said. Deep, incomprehensible sadness made her command sound almost like a plea. "This is something I should have done years ago."

The guardian team glanced at each other. Damali stared at Marlene for a moment. A shudder went through her as she assessed Marlene. Her focus went back to Raven.

"Tell her, Mother. . ." Raven taunted from the thicket as she walked, bearing fangs, her eyes now glowing, her vampire henchmen snarling behind her. "You've told so many lies that you can't even remember, can you? But I was your first baby girl."

Damali glanced at Marlene when she didn't respond. Tears glistened in the older guardian's eyes as she stared at Raven. The center of Damali's chest hurt for a moment, and it felt as though her lungs were constricting as Marlene's pain became her own.

"Don't listen to her, Marlene," Damali said, still unable to process what she'd just heard and trying to break the trance Marlene was in. "They lie! Screw with your mind, and get things twisted. Shake it, Mar, and let's do this."

She could hear Rider and Big Mike suck in air hard behind her, as though battling for composure.

"Do her for Marlene," Big Mike said in a low murmur from where he stood. "Mar ain't got it in her. Shouldn't have to put down her own daughter."

"That's right," Raven interjected, her statement dissolving into a hiss. "Marlene never had it in her... couldn't take care of either of her girls." Then it laughed as Damali's gaze darted between Raven and Marlene.

Suddenly, Marlene lunged forward, her ax held high. Raven ducked. Marlene missed. Now Marlene was trapped on the wrong side of the line. Raven was between Damali and Marlene, with Marlene only feet away from the vamp henchmen, and the older guardian didn't move.

"Me and you," Damali shouted, trying to get an opening to her separated guardian. "I don't know what you're talking about, but you gotta come through me to get to Marlene!"

"No, I don't." Raven laughed. "Be serious."

Damali watched for a strategic advantage. Marlene was not going out like that on her watch! Remembering every skill she'd ever learned, she lowered her weapon and laughed, using the strategy of guile as her mind siphoned the second-generation vampire before her. "What do you have on Marlene? Some petty bullshit? Pullease," Damali scoffed. "I am so unimpressed."

The female creature whirled on Marlene, abandoned her in rage, and took two paces toward Damali. Both Damali and the Raven held up their hands as their male teams tensed to mount a sudden attack. Damali shot Marlene a quick glance. If Marlene would just raise her ax, plant it in that bitch's back... C'mon, Mar, what's the problem? She'd take Raven, and then Rider and Mike could get a shot off. Damali kept her eyes on Raven and smiled.

"You're stronger than I thought... got a master's skills." Raven cocked her head to the side and smiled. "Then see for yourself, huntress. See if you can deal with this."

Damali had Raven in her mental sight, but was not prepared for the images that careened before her. Immediately pain, grief, emotional agony riddled her. She saw her father go into a lair and become hunted. Her mother was holding her as she wailed as an infant in her arms, and felt her mother's confusion, her rage, her pain of mistaken betrayal. The ritual. Then smoke. Her mother's throat was ripped away, tissue shredded, flesh leaving bone, her mother's face became distorted... her father... oh, God. Her parents had been turned. She clutched her blade tighter. "Oh, Mom... no. It wasn't what you thought - don't do it!"

Damali could hear Marlene yelling for her not to look any deeper into Raven's eyes. Needles entered her back - where her tattoo covered her spine. She was an infant, Marlene applied the protective emblem... a young, frightened, tearful Marlene put the Sankofa symbol on her as she wailed as a baby inside her head. Then Marlene abandoned her.

Swallowing hard, Damali forced the hurtful impressions from her mind. But the truth lingered long after the image was gone. Her parents had been turned. Marlene had given her over to foster care and had not kept her. Marlene's daughter had been bitten the year Damali had been found living on the streets. All this time, and Marlene had never told her...

"That's right," Raven said with satisfaction. "She gave your ass up," she said, pointing toward Marlene.

Do her, Mar... Damali's mind screamed, as Raven transformed into a large, sleek panther in an instant and made an immediate lunge for Damali.

Madame Isis sent off a chime in the wind as Damali swung it to match a clawed swipe from Raven. Rider's gun fired, knocking one of the beasts away from Marlene. The vampires disappeared as one of their squad began to burn, then angrily repositioned themselves after the shot. Damali swung her blade again, missing Raven, but she heard Marlene yell as a male vampire's fist connected to Marlene's jaw. Big Mike sent cannon fire above Marlene's body to give her time to retreat. They had to get Marlene back in the huddle before the vamps ripped her apart. Marlene swung her battle-ax, but there were too many around her. Yet, the older guardian was not going down without a fight. Marlene took her Aikido stance amid the growling forms. The first one moved, she swung her ax, hit a second with a well-placed kick, and backed another off of her with the blunt end of the weapon.

"Explosives!" Damali called, and Big Mike responded to the threat by hurling a series of holy water grenades at Marlene's feet.

Mike's cover had been just enough to give Marlene a narrow chance to escape to the safety of the team's hunkered down position, while Rider frantically reloaded his and Big Mike's guns - Raven circling and stalking Damali in a slow threat the entire time.

Using both hands to hold onto the blade, Damali quickly turned to address the threat that was suddenly at her back. The group of vampires dispersed and had her team surrounded - but she couldn't get to them, unless she put Raven down.

"Watch them die," Raven said, her tone taunting. "It's worse than being killed yourself... hearing the screams for mercy, feeling their panic."

Anger made Damali swing again, and she nicked the forearm of the thing that reached for her. Raven drew back, her body returning to human female form as she studied the smoldering slice, growled, then leapt. Damali spun away, her elbow connecting with Raven's rib cage from behind, which sent the creature hurtling forward. Fury immediately transformed Raven into the huge panther once more. Landing on all fours, Raven glanced over her shoulder, and as fast as lightning was rushing toward Damali again. Prepared for the advance, Damali spun, her thigh lifting to connect a solid boot blow to Raven's fang-distorted jaw.

But the quick spin made Damali fall - Madame Isis was a hand reach away. Raven leapt, coming down, as Damali rolled away, her blade back in her possession. The spilt second that Raven tilted her head as though listening for something was all Damali needed to get back up. Raven took human-vampire form, apparently saving her energy.

Good, she must be getting tired, Damali thought as she heard Dan yell. A holy water vial broke at Damali's feet, making Raven draw back far enough to be in blade range. Rider's gun had stopped firing, but Damali could still hear Rider, Marlene, and Big Mike's grunts of exertion as the team behind her battled. For a second her focus went to those she loved, and a blow caught her in the center of her chest, knocking the wind out of her as Raven's boot connected with her body.

Temporarily dazed, Damali maneuvered herself out of the way of another kick, but realized that when she'd fallen her body had gone in one direction, and Madame Isis had gone in the other.

"Now, whatcha gonna do?" Raven asked through a fanged smile.

Drawing the dagger from her waist, Damali circled the beast. "Kick your unnatural black ass, bitch."

Raven immediately transformed again, using the strength of the shape-shift to her advantage. Crouching low, the panther kept shaking its head as it approached stealthily forward. Damali could feel the adrenaline inside her connecting to tissue, blood, bones, and cartilage. Her hand was on fire from holding the dagger so tightly - the beast's head turned to look into the darkness for a second, which was a second too long. Taking the offensive, Damali rushed the creature, slicing at the paw that spontaneously swiped in reflex, and dropping the animal's limb.

Raven instantly transformed where she was on the ground, holding the bloody stump, screeching, and that gave Damali enough time to reclaim her long blade. The sound of Raven's wails made the other vampires look up for a moment. Rider got one dead in the center of its chest with a short stake produced from his jeans back pocket, and Marlene summarily beheaded it. Big Mike had thrown a sucker-punch, connecting with another vamp - sending it hurdling toward Dan, who torched it with vials that broke around it. Rider ducked as Damali threw the dagger in his direction, connecting to the center of a vampire at his back, incinerating it immediately. Her team was back in control, and it was on.

Raven held the dismembered stub and began to draw away, her spine smacking against a tree. Mike got two more of them in one shot from his reloaded shoulder cannon, while Rider claimed one surrounding Dan with an abandoned crossbow, and Dan hurled his last set of vials. The vials didn't break, but the leather strap tangled around the creature's neck. The vials dangled against its chest and burst into flame, consuming the screeching entity in a slow burn that reeked of sulfur. From out of nowhere, a new vampire rushed Big Mike, but Marlene planted her silver battle-ax blade in the middle of the creature's spine.

Immediately, Raven pushed away from the tree to give flight, but Damali took her out - right in the center of her chest.

Damali pulled Madame Isis out of the wood slowly as ash crumbled and fell away from the tree. Thick plumes of sulfur wafted in the air, and her team - coughing, dirty, and exhausted, came to Damali's side. She studied the blade and then stopped to wipe the black ooze remains on the grass and watched them burn.

"Something was calling her back," Damali murmured. "That's the only reason I had a chance a coupla times."

"Well, who gives a shit why, D? The fine point here, I believe, is that something called her away." Rider picked up the small dagger and gave it to Damali, wiping off the muck on it with the bottom of his boot.

Damali nodded as she stood, accepting Rider's simple assessment.

"Might have been guardian angels, li'l sis, who knows?"

Damali glanced at Marlene for a moment and then looked away. "You should have told me, Mar." Multiple emotions zigzagged through Damali's thoughts. Her team stood still, listening to the quiet.

"I know," Marlene murmured. "My second of hesitation almost cost you and members of the team their lives."

Shaking her head, Damali began walking. "No. That's not why you should have told me, Mar. I deserved to know because it was the truth."

They all walked back to the Hum-V and Marlene's Jeep in silence. Damali allowed her thoughts to fuse with Marlene's as she tried to gather some understanding of why Marlene, of all people, would have deceived her with such a lie of omission. Hurt, anger, and disappointment filled her, almost making it impossible for her to summon her gift. But then she focused on the love... which became a mother's heartbreak. Marlene had been a young woman, frightened of her gift, and forced into the role. Damali heard Marlene swallow hard, and could see her eyes glisten with moisture in the moonlight as they cautiously approached their vehicles. She could feel Marlene opening her mind, allowing the connection to be made, as images floated through Damali's psyche.

Marlene had wanted a normal life... had been in love, was pregnant with Christine - who became Raven after the bite. The elders wanted Marlene to protect a Neteru baby... but how did a young, single mother do that without risk to her own unborn child? A choice was made. Marlene opted for safety and ran away. Only to have what she feared most ultimately hunt her down and mistake Marlene's baby girl for the sought vampire huntress - her. Damali released Marlene from the connection. Yes, she knew there was more to the story, but at this moment, she just couldn't deal. Fatigue clawed at her, as did major sadness. She'd trusted Marlene, but could understand... However, that still didn't take away the sting of it all.

"Guys," Dan said quietly, trailing behind the group, "you're not leaving me, right?"

"Hop in, Dan," Rider said with a sigh. "Because of your stupid ass, the rest of our team might be jacked. So, if you're gonna ride with us - shut up."

"Check him out, first," Big Mike instructed. "One of 'em said they couldn't eat the blond. Why not?"

"Probably because they wanted to use him as a decoy, is all," Damali said on a weary exhale. "Remember, when we found him, he was praying and holding onto his star. If he was a vamp helper, they would have used Dan another way... Dan was just a lure - bait - they knew we wouldn't leave him to be eaten alive." She shook her head, and motioned to Big Mike. "Ride shotgun with Marlene, please. I'll drive with Dan and Rider."

"We've gotta tell J.L. and Jose about Raven, and the other stuff," Mike said, his expression sad. "It's time for everybody to be on the same page."

"I know," Damali murmured as the team swept the vehicles for safety and climbed in.

Carlos watched Damali pull away from a distance. He now knew what a Neteru was. He'd seen her fight, and understood her disappointment in her family member all too well. Her pain made him ache to hold her.

Intense remorse filled him as he walked through the ashes of the dead. If he'd only known before. He'd told Raven to stay away from her and Daniel! But Raven had been so bold as to amass her third generations to disobey his telepathic order. It seemed other things besides a well-placed blade could make a vampire lose its head; jealousy, the green-eyed monster. So Raven wanted to wipe out Damali and have him battle Nuit - for her... foolish.

Carlos shook his head. In order not to blow his cover, there had been nothing he could do to help the guardians ward off the unauthorized attack, but remain unseen and yell for Raven to come to him. By the time he'd arrived, the battle was already under way. He could never let Damali see him for what he was now.

Frustration worked on his reason like a chisel, filing away at him. True, he couldn't say he'd never been told about faith in things unseen - but in those days, he didn't believe. Words he'd heard earlier in the night entered his mind... if a man loses faith, then he loses hope. How long had he walked the planet with no faith, and therefore hoping in all the wrong things? Without hope, one cannot love. When Alejandro went down, he'd lost hope, and they got him. Carlos shut his eyes and drifted through the blackness of the woods. But they had also said that if you still had love, the strongest of all gifts, then hope could be restored, as well as faith.

He opened his eyes and followed the Hum-V, watching the red taillights of both guardian vehicles disappear around a curve. The moment that Damali had become seized with worry for her team and electrified by the hunt, her sensations had run all through him. Her breaths had filled his lungs. Her increased heartbeat drummed a rhythm inside his chest. Her tender concern for someone she hardly knew made him taste tears. The sound of her voice made him tremble.

Carlos walked to the side of the road and stared at its vacancy, again closing his eyes, and shuddered when he deeply inhaled the fragrance Damali left behind once more.

"He's with the doctors," Shabazz said quietly as the team entered the waiting room. "I know you're still bent on going, but he won't make it to New Orleans tomorrow... By the time we got him out of the compound, he was almost in a coma."

Damali sat down slowly beside Mike as Shabazz leaned forward with his forearms resting on his thighs.

"We've never sustained a compound attack like that," he whispered, his gaze coming up from the floor to lock stares with each member of the group before going back to Damali. "J.L. almost bought it."

She looked up at J.L. who was pacing like a cat until Mike steadied him with a hand on his shoulder.

"I had to attempt to reboot the security systems to give us enough juice to at least get into the four-by-four and then hope we could get the automatic doors to open... I was only like thirty seconds behind Mar and Shabazz - who was carrying Jose, when the generators got knocked out."

"Mar kicked some butt in the dark, second sight - sister fought blind, like a pro. Took a head with a battle-ax, and her walking stick did the rest so she could catch up with you guys. Glad to see everybody made it back in one piece." Shabazz breathed out hard.

"She used her stick to keep them off my back while I threw a few grenades into the Jeeps to clear them out, and then dumped Jose in - but three of 'em slithered out from under them. They went for J.L. who got one crossbow shot off in the hall. He got one vamp, but then it was on. I almost couldn't get to him fast enough."

"Only thing that saved my ass," J.L. said in a distant voice, "was fiber-optic thread."

The team looked at J.L., and then glanced at each other.

"Me and Jose had been working on a new shark suit design for Damali. We had made these handheld concert lights with the leftovers, trying to think of things we could get mass produced for the audience."

From the back pockets in his jeans, J.L. pulled out two silver-plated, four-inch-long cylinders the width of a double-A battery that had a thicket of nylon-thread hairs sprouting from the tops.

"Looks like the average five-dollar concert trinket, but we put UV bulbs in them. Figured at the big show, we could do an anthem that tells everybody to turn on their light to make sure kids buy them on the way in, and we can sneak them past the vamp crew and any vamp helpers - because they look like nothing harmful. Standard concert junk."

Damali nodded as the group huddled closer, accepting the ingenious decoy with a slow smile. "J.L., you guys are brilliant."

"You shoulda seen him work with 'em though, D," Shabazz murmured, and pounded J.L.'s fist. "Jet Li - type vibe. Brotherman was fighting for his life, running up the sides of the garage walls, leaving a burn with every flip, and backed the two remaining ones up enough for me to get my stake on with Marlene. Then we had to manually open the door - which was not fun."

"You didn't get scratched on the way out, did you?" Big Mike asked, worried, inspecting Marlene, J.L., and Shabazz.

"Naw, man," J.L. said with a breath of relief. "Shabazz and Mar had my back, and I had theirs - we're cool. Was able to get power up, too, from the garage panels."

"So what do we do with Dan?" Rider asked, finally nodding to the one person that everyone had left out of the discussion.

Marlene assessed Dan critically. "You know, if he came running to us under siege like that... might he be a new guardian?"

Although Damali agreed, she was notably quiet. There was much to absorb, and now they even had a new person to contend with. She said nothing. Later. Her second sight was ebbing, as were her other senses. She was exhausted, needed to eat and lie down.

"You have got to be kidding us, Mar," Rider said after a hang-jawed moment, and then slapped his forehead and walked away to flop down in an empty chair.

Ignoring Rider, Marlene stood and walked over to where Dan leaned against the wall.

"Dan, earlier you said it felt like something was chasing you before you saw it, right?"

All eyes were on him, even Rider's now.

"Yeah," he nodded, glancing around the group. "I could tell."

"How?" Damali asked, her voice just a weary murmur as she glanced at Marlene - who still could not look her directly in the eyes. "Describe it."

"My skin got all tingly, like the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck. Like an electric current, or something. Then I felt all creepy, crawly - started sweating, and it was hard to breathe... I could feel myself panicking, but couldn't figure out why. I'd just been in the Blood Music offices, everything was jaky, they said they would hire me, and the next night would show me the deal - the way they did business - and then I split. I didn't even wonder why I had to meet them at night so late - figured, hey, whatever, they're busy, keep artist's hours, ya know? I was feeling great, just glad to be a part of something for once. But then in the elevator, I could almost feel something in there with me." Dan glanced around the group. "I know this all sounds really weird, like I'm tripping, but I swear - "

"No, you're not tripping," Marlene reassured him. "What else?"

"I... I... uh, got out, passed the lobby guard, kept thinking I was the luckiest man in the world, that God was good. Soon as I thought that, this woman came out of nowhere - and she was all that. Baboom," Dan murmured, his gaze going off into the distance as he made the shape of curves and breasts with his hands.

"I was like, now I know God is good, and then she was gone. I stood there for a moment because she had just been behind me, and then the creepy feeling started. I didn't know why, then, but I had the urge to run - so I was trying not to look like a fool in case she was watching me, but I started walking real fast, then trotted, then this terror vibe just slammed me - I said fuck it, and started running headlong toward my car."

"He's got the tactical sensory gift," Marlene whispered, closing her eyes and nodding. "I can see it. His story checks out."

Rider leaned back again with a sigh, as did Big Mike and Shabazz. J.L. sat down and extended a handshake to Dan.

"You're in for the ride of your life, new brother."

"What is going on?"

J.L. shook his head. "Mar will tell you. She briefs all the newbies."

"He's good on the vials, Mar," Big Mike confirmed. "Had dead aim - like a David and Goliath - type capacity. Want me to put him on explosives with me?"

Marlene nodded but glanced at Damali for approval. The team waited. Damali finally nodded.

"That's cool," she said in a distant voice.

"Wait," Dan whispered quickly. "You mean I'll have to hunt more of these things? We're not done?"

"Rude awakening, isn't it?" Rider closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall.

"For how long?" Dan's stricken gaze darted around the group.

"For the rest of your life... may it be a long one, too," Shabazz said, yawning.


"Keep your voice down," J.L. told him in a casual tone. "We're in a hospital."

"Dan, Dan, Dan - always be careful what you pray for, 'cause you just might get it," Marlene said on a stretch as she sat down, leaned on Shabazz, and began dozing. "You wanted the exciting, adventurous nightlife. Hmmmph."

But as soon as Marlene had touched Shabazz, he held her back from him, and then glanced at Big Mike and Rider, and then finally stared at Damali. She just nodded. Shit, what was there to say? Marlene studied the floor, as Shabazz pulled her against his chest. J.L. glanced at the group.

"Later," Big Mike suggested. "Was hard on everybody. We'll fill you in."

"The exciting life - vastly overrated," Rider commented with a yawn. He glanced at Damali and closed his eyes as though trying to keep the conversation light around Dan.

Good move. Rider did have a lot of sense for a wise ass in the group.

"Get some rest, dude," Damali said quietly to Dan as she stood, patting his shoulder and stretching. "Better learn how to catch forty winks in a chair and eat on the run, literally." She needed space. Time alone to process everything that had happened and she had learned.

"Where're you going?" Marlene asked in a weary voice.

Her expression was filled with pain and worry. Her tone was gentle, no longer having the den-mother stridence it often had. This time it sounded like a question asked to a peer, rather than to a child. That, too, oddly made Damali's heart hurt. She'd just lost the only mother she'd ever known; all she could hope for is that one day the trust would rebuild itself so they could be friends. But that would take time... did they have such a luxury?

Marlene's battery had to be on E, just like hers was. She was also beginning to learn that emotional stuff took a toll on second sight. Right now, Damali couldn't see a thing.

"You know where," Damali finally said with a sad smile, trying to leave the door to her heart cracked open for Marlene with the nonsarcastic reply. "To find a hospital vending machine for some chips and orange soda - and I promise to stay inside... I'll even take a concert light, and I've got baby Isis in a leg holster - momma Isis is in the Hum-V. Anybody else want anything?"

Dan looked at her in disbelief, covered his mouth, and dry heaved.

"Now you see why we weren't hungry after that gig in Philly? But noooo, you wanted to go get ribs, or Chinese food - noodles - after we'd smelled barbeque already, and splattered guts." Rider chuckled.

Damali walked away fast as she heard Dan hurl into his hands. Rites of passage; the first time out - the guardian team was a trip the way they teased the poor guy, but Dan was now in the fold. For better or for worse, their crew was formed by the happenstance of fate, as always.

Sudden hunger made her hasten her steps while she stuffed a light wand in her back pocket and tried to find the winding path to the vending area that a busy nurse pointed out.

"Hey" a familiar male voice said over her shoulder when she rounded a dim corridor.

She turned quickly, and then relaxed. "Oh, my God..." She breathed out in a rush. "Are you all right?"

Carlos nodded. "I've seen some things, though, in the last few hours that..." His voice trailed off and he just shook his head. "I was really worried about you."

"I know... you don't even have to tell me - but I'm okay, too. Carlos, I thought..."

His expression was so pained that she immediately filled his arms, and his hand went to her hair. He was cold, as though still in shock - just like Dan had been - his lowered body temperature no doubt the reason for the hard tremor that had run through him when she hugged him. She tried to warm him with her closeness, remembering what it was like the first time she'd had her own dark encounter, pouring all the tenderness and comfort she could into her touch. Sometimes that was the only antidote to fear - just human contact, which she now freely offered him, just like Shabazz had offered Marlene.

Her hands stroked Carlos's back and caressed his tense shoulder blades, and she nestled her head against his chest, closing her eyes to absorb the wonderful relief of connecting with him. Her prayer had been answered: Carlos wasn't dead.

Initially, a sensation of profound peace coated him with each gentle touch from her hands, but as her soft skin melted against his, its warmth created a burn that chased away the joyous freedom of feeling alive - replacing it with something else more primitive. Her skin and hair carried a fragrance that was an erotic lure as it threaded through his nasal passages and assaulted his mind. The feel of her locks under his fingers and against his palm awakened every nerve ending in him and permeated him with the desire to explore the other delicate textures she possessed.

When she'd nestled against him, her form fit so perfectly against his body, sending a shard of wanton agony the length of him that made his lungs now battle for air.

"Are you all right?" she whispered, peering up at him. "You didn't get hurt or scratched by anything, did you - that's not why you're here, is it?"

She'd pulled her head away briefly to look at him. Her sudden vacancy left a cool spot on his chest that immediately ached for her to return to it and cover it. His gaze locked with hers; he could feel his eyelids lower, her brown iris stare too intense for him not to react... her lips had parted to murmur her question, and the full lushness of her mouth fractured his reason as he struggled not to lower his own upon hers to consume it.

"Something was chasing Dan, and he got away... then I found my car, and got out of Dodge." He'd tell her anything to keep her within their embrace, to quiet her possible fears of him.

His words were escaping on stilted breaths as the sensation of her in his arms rocked him where he stood. He held her by her shoulders, allowing his hands the luxury of grazing her skin - the torture of it exquisite.

"After what I saw, I wanted to check some hospital records to see if I could find out what had happened to my family," he lied again. "But I have to wait until the admin offices are open in the morning." Baby, stay in my arms. Just a little longer, don't go.

Then she touched his face and whispered to him that it would be all right, baby. She had no idea... His mouth found the center of her palm, and it was all he could do not to moan into her flesh... Imagining what the rest of her felt like forced his surrender until he completely lowered his lids. Her whisper was the most effective weapon in her arsenal, didn't she know? He pulled a deep inhale of her through his nose and opened his eyes. Her face was upturned to his, her gaze seeking.

He could hear the blood rushing through her veins as her pulse quickened. She drew in shallow breaths that made her petite breasts rise and fall under the thin fabric of her damp T-shirt...

the tips of them now tiny pebbles - he could feel them sting with a request that he couldn't address, not here. The scent of battle and earth was on her. She'd moistened and he could smell it, the faint, fragrant hint of her that splintered his facade of cool, made him swallow hard and start breathing through his mouth. The silence was deafening in this abandoned strip of space and time in the corridor, and it begged him to consider the possibilities.

Intense female energy fused rapidly to invade his will, making him remember exactly what he was, above everything else - all male. Her belly, her thighs, her thickening delta was touching him from his waist down... and the question that he'd always wondered about began forming in her mind... what if?

It ripped at his discipline - he studied her throat with care, and leaned in, allowing his nose to trail the length of it in a heated nuzzle. She smelled so good. She was so soft. Her body was yielding and her mind was issuing a plea, making an offer too difficult to refuse. In her mind he heard her moan softly as he continued to nuzzle her, and he had to fight the urge not to verbally respond. On the edge, he teetered, savoring every moment of her will-shattering temptation. It was a personal brand. Oh, yes, he was marked - she owned him... always had, didn't she know?

The pulse of life in her jugular beat an insistent, seductive rhythm throughout his groin... blood, life, the motion to create life, friction, heat, it was one... and she had no idea how much he wanted to answer her questions... had for such a long time. Her mental gasp passed through his skeleton, tensing the muscles in his hips. Even a dead man could remember the ancient dance that made life worth living. She'd only been in his arms for a moment, but right now it felt like forever.

His thoughts penetrated hers, thrusting against her mind the way he wanted to take her, whispering the answers. Yes, Damali. I know... me, too... but I can't promise to be gentle, can only promise that it'll be good... and, you, like me, will want more till we both drop.

When her mind seized upon his and dragged him into an image of a shower, he saw her daydream, the fantasy... the premonition, he tasted her fear mixed with desire... in the shower she'd caused him to enter her, made it manifest until it had become real before he'd even been turned. He felt himself slipping as his discipline began to give way. Her nails slowly dug into his back. His lips found her ear and he sent a silent message into the hollow of it with his breath. Stop... because I can't.

She flooded his system. Yes, she was a drug; Neteru. His hands trembled for just one hit. He could feel his incisors lengthening. His grip tightened against her upper arms. Saliva built in his mouth and his jaw tensed in preparation to unhinge, making him fight both needs at once. He dropped his head back as his eyes rolled toward his skull under his lids. She had no idea...

"I gotta go," he said fast, pulling her to him hard and then pushing her away.

"You can stay with us - a lot of stuff is going down... and it might be the safest place for you... I know you can't understand it all now, but I don't want anything to happen to you," she called after him, making him stop and turn to look at her.

"Is that an open ended invitation?"

Baby, let me go right now - I ain't no good for you like this.

"Yeah," she whispered. "Any time. Mi casa es su casa... you once told me that."

So he had... when he was a guardian, a living human. Oh, Damali, you just don't understand...

Knowing that he was unable to restrain himself any longer, he paced farther away from her. He needed to get himself together, and distance from her was the only solution. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard again, fighting to steady his breathing.

"If I'm invited, I promise you, I'll take you up on the invitation... after I handle my business."

He had to turn and walk from her, the emotions she visited upon him were haunting. Forever now felt like a split second that gouged his body with want. "Live well... I'll be back... maybe on your birthday - stay safe, and say your prayers at night."

She nodded, closed her eyes, and held up her hand, spreading her fingers like she was touching one side of prison glass. He felt her remote palm through his back; it made him turn to face her and match her motion from across the hall. One more moment like this and he'd lose all control. Instead, he pulled away. He had to before he couldn't, but he made a fist to hold the sensation of her hand within his - and was gone.

When she felt the abandonment of his touch, she wrapped her arms around herself in weary consolation. The fire that had been lit inside her was so all-consuming that for a moment she couldn't move. She had actually felt him across the room, and when her body had melted against his, she'd almost cried out it had felt so damned good. Guilt immediately assaulted her - what was she doing? Her teammates had been attacked, she'd just come from a vamp battle, the compound had been compromised, and yet she'd fallen into his arms and he'd made her get wet... dear God in Heaven what was happening?

Still, to know that he was alive, safe, had made it through one more night just before dawn would crest through the large hospital plate glass windows, meant there was still hope, still time, no matter what he'd done wrong before.

Every instinct within her told her to trust him... she'd practically felt the man's soul through his chest. It was as though they breathed as one. His thoughts had seared her, and the rock-solid length of him had brought on sudden delirium. Six feet two inches of all male... she'd needed to touch his back to keep from running her fingers through his hair... had needed to find his shoulder to keep her lips from finding his... had willed her thighs shut to keep them from wrapping around his waist... didn't he know? Her skin still hurt, ached from where he'd grazed it... branded it with his caress.

The way he'd breathed a hot trail of desire against her throat had lit the ember that had always been there for him. The brief encounter simply made the fire burn hotter. It was as though her body was producing a secret river to put out the flame... she'd almost followed him when he walked away.

She stroked her cheek with the warmth of her palm, still able to feel where he'd kissed it, where his hand had covered hers from a distance... Heaven help her, she could still feel him everywhere on her skin.

Damali closed her eyes again, pulled by the sensation... she'd wanted him to kiss her so badly that her mouth had watered. She brought her hands up to her neck, needing to touch the frustrated place that had been left wanting. Whatever this thing was between them, it was so intense that it had left her trembling in the middle of the hospital hallway. She had to get it together, get some chips, and go back to the group. She took in several quick pants, then tried to breathe deeply to let out a hard exhale.

"Wow..." she murmured, running her fingers through her locks. If a hug could do all that... then... dayum... what if? That had always been the question - their question.

When she turned to find a machine, the sight of Marlene made her nearly jump out of her skin.

Tags: L.A. Banks Vampire Huntress Legend Vampires