CHAPTER FOUR

He'd walked as far as was necessary, beyond human suspicion, before hurling himself to a quiet place, under the streets, a dark cavern of cement sewer tunnel that would give him shelter from the sun when it came up. This was no way to live... and the irony was, he wasn't alive.

Carlos placed both hands against the cool, damp, concrete wall, standing back from it, leaning on his palms as his head hung and he considered his fate.

He had to get Damali out of his thoughts, out of his nose, out of his skin, his bloodstream, and his mind. His fangs wouldn't even retract as he thought about her and shut his eyes. He'd come so close. He could still feel her lacerating him with her softness. His breathing hadn't steadied, nor had his pulse. The ache for her was becoming so unbearable that he threw his head back, let out the moan that he'd sheltered for the duration of her embrace, and punched the wall in frustration - crumbling cement to leave a crater.

"It's a real bitch, isn't it?"

Spinning on the intruder, the fact that it was male redoubled his strength in preparation for instant battle. When he recognized his adversary, he knew it was a perfect night for Nuit to die. But Nuit just laughed, kept his distance, and circled him, cool.

"Why don't you go eat and relax - you've got less than an hour before daylight, and this is no way for a man to try to sleep. Too late to go to New Orleans... the women are fantastic there, and the food excellent - blood alcohol levels are high, the cattle eat fantastic cuisine... a little wine in your system might help you drift off easier, but alas. Maybe another night."

A combination of fury and humiliation gripped him. Carlos snarled, and rolled his shoulders.

"That's better. You've got to pace yourself. I've heard a hit of Neteru will do that to you... You broke her off from the herd, didn't you?"

Carlos growled low in his throat. "You never gave me a name."

"Did I have to? You said name any one of them. I just did."

Nuit smiled and circled him, breathing in deeply. "I can smell her on you. Amazing... you got close to her, but had the presence of mind to remember our deal. I would have been able to pick up the scent if you'd violated her, too." Nuit relaxed. "Very good. I won't have to kill you."

Carlos narrowed his focus on Nuit, wondering which limb to tear from him first - not answering.

"Now I better understand the block to my calls to you all night... if you had that hunt rush pumping through your system... yes... makes sense."

"Then how did you find me?" Carlos paced back and forth, adrenaline spikes hard to shake as Nuit stoked and toyed with his anger.

"Your agony could be heard for miles. I began to worry that you'd just been staked." Nuit laughed at his own joke, his guard seeming to become more relaxed.

The two vampires stared at each other. Carlos analyzed the information contained in Nuit's statement, and immediately realized that it had opened an advantage - something he'd temporarily forgotten. One of his deals had made good. Nuit was blind to him, but didn't suspect the Vampire Council or the Covenant. Nuit assumed that the blocks to his calls had been produced by interaction with a Neteru's strong telepathic ability overriding his mental clarity. Perfect cover. Carlos almost smiled. Yeah, he had slayer in his system.

He needed to play this to the bone. To kill Nuit now would be premature - two masters in a death struggle would go beyond dawn. Nuit needed to believe he had the advantage in order to open another opportunity to get to the cocky bastard when there was more time. It was all about power and control, as well as perception, illusion. Who had the power... and who believed they had the power. Plus, Nuit had eaten, he hadn't. Right now, Nuit possibly had the endurance advantage. Carlos carefully weighed his options. Even though he had the rage advantage, this would be a long fight. But if he garnered patience, another opportunity could be created to bring Nuit down. Carlos studied the situation, and put the roulette wheel in motion.

"I got close, and couldn't raise anybody from our territorial pack by telepathy," Carlos finally said before Nuit became suspicious. "My focus was totally compromised... maybe overwhelmed is a better description," he added, feigning submission.

Nuit looked at him hard, and then grinned. "I guess you did get close to her, or you wouldn't be down here in a sewer losing your mind. But, odd... it requires a master's patience, will power, and discipline not to have just taken her in public, which is where I can only assume you found her. Unless you do have some deference to your maker... hmmm. I bet it was positively torturing you not to have been able to - "

"Fuck you!" The wound was too fresh for Nuit to dig his claws into it with a snide remark, and it was impossible to stop the visceral response. Carlos walked away from Nuit, but kept on his guard. The only thing that helped keep him from going for Nuit's throat was the fact that Nuit's comment exposed an important variable. Nuit didn't know he was looking at another master vampire.

Nuit returned a cruel smile, taunting him with a slow, seductive response designed to stoke Carlos's rage. "Fuck me? Ahhh... Anytime, but not tonight. What happened to Raven?"

"She went after the Neteru and got her ass kicked."

Nuit studied his nails. "That's a damned shame - she was good pussy. Well, you can always go make more."

Carlos stared at him, disgusted. He would kill this motherfucker.

"Oh, that's right - you're a second generation, and can only make thirds." Nuit laughed. "All right, all right, I know - you need me to make a female second to be on your level. We can arrange that. Just pick her out, since Raven misbehaved. I had also told her not to do the Neteru - ever. Just so you know, you and I are on the same page. Women can be so jealous at times. Foolish."

"Yeah, well, she almost botched the delivery by sending six vamps after Damali's team, and then by going after the huntress herself."

Nuit stared at Carlos hard. "The guardians are always expendable."

Carlos shook his head. "Not if you want the huntress to feel safe and come out of hiding on her own."

"That is brilliant... You do have a point."

"You told me to bring her to you, untouched. Correct? And, that she had to comply of her own free will, or some shit like that, right?"

Nuit nodded, no longer nonchalant. "You can get her to come to us freely?" Excitement exuded from him and he licked his lips, and then rubbed his jaw with his hand.

"Your fangs are showing," Carlos said evenly. "Chill."

"She'll do that to you. Forgive me," Nuit said on a deep breath. "Just one question... how in the hell did you back away?"

The question gave Carlos pause, because in all honesty, he didn't know.

"A sense of self-preservation," he finally replied, casting a disparaging glare toward Nuit. "I may be new, but I know better than to go against my maker... or a master vampire. If I chill, well, then it's all good."

"The ability to govern such restraint is laudable... and very wise. Maybe making you wasn't such a bad decision after all." Nuit studied him for a moment and rubbed his palm over his jaw. "But you've never come to me to feed from my kills."

"I ate from Raven, remember... and had a guard along the way," Carlos said quickly, trying to keep the ruse going. "Then, I went after the Neteru like I was told to - after that, I really haven't had feeding on my mind."

Nuit hesitated, then came near him and wiped at the sheen of perspiration still on Carlos's brow. "Understandable," he murmured and put his finger in his mouth. Carlos snarled and Nuit backed away with a smile.

"She's even in your bloodstream. I can taste her in your sweat." Nuit sucked in a low hiss with a gulp of air, closed his eyes for a moment, and shuddered. He ran his finger over his lips and his head tilted as he inhaled deeply. "But she had a white bath - a damned prayer chastity belt! How did you get past it to even sense what she'd be like?"

Carlos could feel his jaw beginning to unhinge at the sight of another male demonstrating such open desire for his woman. He ran his tongue over his incisors, sending them back into his skull. Not yet. The night would come soon when the game would be over. In that instant he made up his mind that there were only two pending offers to consider - the Vampire Council's or the other side. Nuit was a dead man walking.

"Because she trusts me. That's the only thing that will render her prayer guard ineffective. She has to willingly breach it and we have to draw her beyond it, remember? If I bring her to you struggling, you still won't be able to get past it - so let me work her."

Carlos leveled his gaze at Nuit. "You just sampled the product, and it opened up your nose, didn't it? I told you I had the goods. Don't fuck with me. Not tonight."

"I'll make you a second female, quickly. No man in my territory should have to suffer like this - unless he crosses me." Nuit gazed at Carlos and held him in an intense stare. "What was she like?"

So, Nuit had taken a hit... liked the product and was damned near strung out from just a taste. Everything he'd learned in the streets collated in Carlos's mind, and he leveraged his advantage, messing with Nuit without mercy. Let the bastard twist.

"I can't even discuss it," Carlos said, the truth of his statement not lost on Nuit. That was the best part of it all, he could tell the truth, and the credibility would come through in his tone. Carlos watched his enemy nearly writhe with impatience, and a deep sense of personal satisfaction took residence within him. To the victor go the spoils.

"I'll bring her to you, Nuit. Then we can deal with my options. For now, she looks like she's very close to doing the concert - maybe even signing with your label," Carlos lied, just to add more lure to the game. "I've been in her ear and in her mind, because she trusts me. We go way back; I can sway her... she doesn't even know I've turned - so don't blow my cover. That's how I got past her guardians and her radar."

"Are you serious?" Nuit leaned against the wall as though he now needed it to hold himself upright.

"She never even saw my fangs," Carlos said with pride. "It was smooth."

Both vampires looked at each other. Nuit was almost trembling.

"That's why I said to stop flushing my hunt," Carlos went on, relaxing as he felt his guile take root within Nuit. "That guy, Dan, he's a wannabe... but Damali cares for him. The kid got her to consider it, first, when one of the Minion threw the bait out for him to hook up with Blood. I was working on the huntress from a business perspective. Everything was cool, until Raven went after Dan, and her thirds attacked the compound. You have got to pull your people back, or make sure none of the other seconds are moving on your kill. I thought you had this territory locked down, man? There are breaches everywhere, and it's bullshit. We don't have a lotta time."

Nuit pushed himself off the wall and nodded. "No one has ever gotten us this close to her physically, or to shifting her will - from there, breaking her spirit is only a matter of time. And none of the others have ever been this loyal."

Carlos nodded and walked closer to Nuit. "You want to feel this agony?" He leaned in toward Nuit to let him smell where Damali's head had rested against his neck, then quickly backed away. "That's pain, hombre. My jaw almost unhinged - but I remembered the family."

"Shit..."

Nuit tried to come near him again, but Carlos held up his hand. You always had to give them just a taste to make them hunger for more.

"Si. So you understand the sacrifice - however, I don't have a lair, the sun is about to toast both of us, I got motherfuckers creating havoc, and I really am not in the mood to sleep in the sewer my first night out - and not after being this loyal. I need my rest, and I deserve - "

"A fucking throne and a harem, Carlos. The females I'll send to your lair as part of the package are insatiable. Yes. I completely agree. I'll make some territorial adjustments, and you can have one of the other dons' lairs."

"Give me the Dominican's joint. He and I go way back, and he did a few of my boys a while ago when I was making space for my own in the streets. Some shit never dies - territory is territory. As above, so below."

Nuit nodded. "Take his villa in Beverly Hills. He has a sumptuous vault in his basement. I'll do him myself, will explain to the others that it was just business. After a taste, I need one more body for the night, as it is."

Carlos chuckled. "I hear you. Then imagine how I feel."

Nuit laughed. "He might even have a third generation female already in there who might still be awake - might help take the Neteru edge off? You want her?"

"Naw, I'm cool, man," Carlos murmured. "Give whatever female you find to one of the other dons. I just ain't in the frame of mind. In fact, I might just hit a blood bank and take a few pints to bed. If I go hunting this late, I might forget what time it is and wind up on the Neteru's trail again. Could fuck around and sun bake myself by accident. I'm telling you, man, this slayer is all that."

"It is intense, isn't it... but so much so that you don't trust yourself to hunt?" Nuit rubbed his face and shook his head. "Absolutely amazing."

"She's equivalent to a master level, Nuit," Carlos said quietly, lacing the truth in his game to make it even more credible, but perhaps offering more than he wanted to, the pull of Damali still a toxin within his system. But at the same time, he had to drive a convincing point that would assure her temporary safety.

Carlos let out a long breath that made Nuit carefully watch him. He closed his eyes and projected images of Damali to Nuit in slow motion.

"She can hunt better than Raven ever could - you should see her in action, man... the adrenaline, the stamina, the very perspiration on her after the hunt reeks with the Neteru hormone... one whiff and you're intoxicated... she can see in the dark, almost like us." Although baiting his prey, the memory made Carlos inhale and have to pause. The game was rough, but he had to play it.

Carlos sighed. "I'm not talking myths and legends. I've seen her... held her. The woman is a telepath, a tactical sensory - her skin literally comes alive under your hands, she has the nose..." He pressed on. "Can project thought, and has a will of iron... can you imagine what she'll be like when she turns?"

Trying not to smile as Nuit's knees buckled, Carlos opened his eyes and glanced away.

"She's beyond awesome... think of what delivering that first break of skin will be like - especially if she turns her throat to you with her panties wet and begs you to take both her neck and her - "

"Stop." Nuit's fangs glistened in the darkness. He couldn't even pull them back. Water dripping from overhead provided the only sound that echoed between them. "Two more evenings - you just used up one..."

"That's why I said, back off with the random hits. If you kill her, or she gets hurt - or one of her people gets jacked, she will go into deep mourning... she'll never come to you for years."

"Whatever you want - work the strategy to bring her to me like that. If you can get inside her head, inside her compound... can get her to follow you to me - then do it! What else in the territory do you want? Name it."

Nuit stalked back and forth running his tongue over his incisors, trying to regain his composure. "Three thousand years since they made a female Neteru - and we thought they wouldn't make another one. Since that time, they've only made males." He held Carlos in a furtive gaze. "Do you understand?"

"Hell yeah, I understand what jonesing for Damali is like." Carlos chuckled, an earnest one from his core.

"You want the first daywalker female off the line?"

"Is that a rhetorical question, or are you playing with me?"

Nuit laughed with Carlos. "Done."

"Appreciate it, man, 'cause I'm all fucked up - don't trust myself to even run from the sun... 'cause I wanna sit outside her window so bad. I don't want anything you find at the don's when you clean out his place. Can't go there after getting a Neteru in my nose. You feel me?"

Nuit walked toward the tunnel exit nodding. "Yes. I definitely 'feel you,' and I imagine it is difficult to step down when you've been so close." Nuit paused and gave Carlos a furtive glance. "Fifteen minutes, and the lair will be yours. Bring me more word and scent of her next evening. I need to smell her again."

"Done." Carlos leaned against the wall as Nuit vanished.

Information was knowledge, and knowledge was a powerful thing. In the disgusting exchange, he'd moved up in the ranks, took out an old enemy, scored a plush lair, and bought Damali and her crew a valuable, temporary off-limits marker. Baby might have a coupla days of peace. But would he? Regardless, he had inadvertently become a triple agent by making alliances across three borders - Nuit, the Vampire Council, and possibly with the invisible DEA - the forces of light. Question was, how to play it.

Still, not bad for the first night on the job.

The stricken look on Marlene's face chilled Damali. If Marlene had seen them... Humiliation made her cheeks warm, and it was hard to hold her gaze.

"Big Mike told the others about what happened out there with Raven," Marlene whispered. She cast her gaze out the window as she spoke in a quiet voice that trembled. "I should have told all of you that she was my daughter... but... I couldn't deal with it. I wanted to put the fact that she was once my child out of my mind. I loved her, Damali," she murmured as she swallowed hard.

Marlene's eyes held such pain that Damali was almost forced to look away. "Carried her in my body, and put her to my breast. She was my baby... and Nuit took her when she was your age. She was like you in so many ways... beautiful, talented, headstrong, and fearless. Thought nothing could happen to her that she couldn't handle, and that I was just Mom who didn't understand the 'happening' new world. She wouldn't listen to me, wouldn't heed my advice, and the streets took her, and then he got her. She was wide open, and vulnerable... maybe that's why I was so hard on you. I was afraid that I was watching history repeat itself."

"Mar - "

"I know I didn't do right by you, child," Marlene said fast, cutting off Damali's words quickly and wrapping her arms about herself. "God forgive me... I just couldn't take care of you both, and I thought if I gave you to people who had resources, and if you were hidden... I just thought that maybe we'd all be spared. But he came, not knowing I was pregnant when I ran, and thought my Christine was you... then he turned her into Raven. The joke was on him, though. She wasn't a Neteru. You were safe, and that was my consolation for a long time. It's all good. I have to believe that, or else I just won't be able to go on."

Two large tears formed in Marlene's eyes, and Damali went to her. Although it had been a relief that Marlene hadn't witnessed her intimate exchange with Carlos, she didn't want a telepathy block from pain like this to be the reason Marlene's second sight was down. She was also sorry she'd been the one that had to kill Raven with the sword Raven's own mother had given her... and now, holding Marlene in a tender hug, she felt all the reasons Marlene kept things from her.

Yes, she could understand. How would a young, pregnant woman in love explain vampires to a lover? How would a young woman cope, in that day and age, with being left to bear a child alone, predators all around her, and no momma or family to help her because she had to run away and hide in order to protect them? How was Marlene to care for an infant that would bring vampires constantly sniffing, and still protect and provide for a baby, as well as her unborn child or herself, for that matter?

Damali closed her eyes, holding Marlene tighter. Oh, Marlene... Yes, she'd seen teenage mothers in the street with no support, no skills, no money, no education, no parenting skills, and preyed on by guys who'd just stop, drop, and roll them. Yeah, she'd witnessed how that struggle ravaged the hope and potential from so many young girls. It had been the thing that had kept her straight - seeing with her own eyes, and maybe having unknown second sight, at that time, had helped her make wiser choices. There but for the grace she went. She could have gone out like that, too. Marlene had been practically a child herself... young, alone, afraid - with no money, no real skills or education, no defenses, and had to live by her wits and her gift. God in heaven, what would she have done if she had to walk a mile in Marlene's shoes?

Damali stroked Marlene's back as she held her, hoping that the aging guardian still had enough sensory battery left to feel the healing of her touch and be able to sense without words the forgiveness being transmitted to her. Yes, it was so true. The things Marlene had taught her were right... judge not, lest ye be judged. You never know what scars another person carries deep within them that causes them to act the way they do. She remembered Rider's story, and the things Big Mike had said about his own childhood. Then there was Jose's pain. She knew Shabazz carried his secret hurts so deeply that no one on the team really had the full story about what had happened to him. And Lord knows what J.L. had experienced in Laos.

Her thoughts drifted to Carlos, and she wondered what scars he'd carried that had made him choose the life that he did. They all had long stories...

"Mar, I am so sorry I had to be the one to... release Raven's soul," Damali murmured into her hair. She couldn't even bring herself to call it what it was. She couldn't describe Raven's demise in the crude terms the team normally used to verbally distance themselves from what they had to do. How could she say "put down," "drop," "stake," "take out," "roll," "splatter," or "gut," when talking about the loss of Marlene's daughter? Marlene had been right about that, too. Words had power. Vocabulary was important. Maybe if people called it what it really was, then the very thought of "doing somebody" would give them pause, and they'd think twice about murdering another human being. But that's just the thing, Marlene's daughter wasn't human, which is what was breaking Marlene's heart.

"I'm so sorry," Damali repeated. "Oh, Mar... I won't even claim to know how you feel."

"No, thank you, baby," Marlene said on a shaky sigh. "You just put my daughter's soul to rest. I couldn't have done it. I didn't have it in me. That's why I hesitated in battle. I'd keep seeing her face when she was a toddler... I'd think about how she'd climb into bed at night with me so we could read stories, or how proud she was of her first little gold star in school." Marlene drew a ragged breath. "As a mother... you think about all the good, and wonder how it could have gotten so bad, and you lacerate yourself wondering where you went wrong... how could I have let her get taken by evil... and they call me a guardian? I couldn't even protect my own child."

Marlene's shoulders shook as Damali held her and rocked her for a long time. The sun peeked out from behind the deep gray haze of clouds as the sky gave birth. All Damali could do during the transition was stroke Marlene's hair and let her cry.

"We have to get back to the group," Marlene murmured. "None of us has really slept, the compound is breached... and I can't see. I was already weak from laying hands on Jose, then the fight to get out of the compound, and then... Raven. I'm totally blind, Damali. I'm no more good to you. My second sight is just blackness. I can't get past the pain to concentrate."

When Marlene pulled away, Damali held her by her shoulders.

"Marlene, you're worth more to me than your sight or ability to guard. Don't you know that by now?" Damali's hand went to Marlene's face and she caressed her cheek as she spoke. "I love you, Marlene, and understand why you gave me away. You just need some rest and some time to heal. This was hard, I know. Why don't you let me guard you for a change, and take care of you a little bit for once?"

"Letting go, and seeing your children grow up... and accepting that, is probably the hardest thing in the world to do," Marlene whispered, wiping the tears from her face. "I respect your choices," she said, nodding. "I'm proud of you... thank you for not hating me."

"Hating you?" Damali shook her head slowly. "For being human? For having a life and for wanting some joy of your own? No."

The two women shared a slight smile, both understanding each other within the unspoken exchange.

"C'mon. Let's get back to the team."

They walked the corridors in silence, Damali's arm about Marlene's shoulders as she guided her to where everyone else was sitting. The expressions the team held said it all. Hope was edging away from the group. Profound loss was taking its toll. They were exhausted, battle weary, down a good man, and on the run.

Damali helped Marlene to sit, and then she walked in front of the group, choosing her words carefully. "Listen, everybody. We need a break. Last night was... It was worse than we've ever had to deal with."

Rider and Big Mike nodded. Shabazz took up Marlene's hand as J.L. rubbed her back. Dan's face held such empathy that Big Mike slung an arm over his shoulder.

"Okay," Damali said on a long breath. "We need to post a couple of men here at the hospital to stay with Jose. Maybe even Mar can stay?" She glanced at Marlene who only nodded and looked out the window. "He needs your prayers, Marlene... even if you can't see."

"She can't see?" Rider whispered.

Damali shook her head and Shabazz lowered his gaze.

"Grief," Shabazz murmured. "Let me stay with her and Jose, here."

Damali nodded. "J.L., Dan - I need you guys to go back to the compound and work on getting all computer systems and security operable, as well as develop some new weapons for the concert. We need the generators stabilized, and electric lines - "

"You are not still thinking of doing the concert, li'l sis?" Big Mike ran his palm over his bald scalp and let out his breath hard.

"Yeah," Damali said evenly, feeling pure rage fill her. "After what just happened to Jose, and now Mar, not to mention the others we lost... we have to go to New Orleans today to scope out the lair in the daylight... and if we don't find what we're looking for, we'll need to do the concert to get on the inside of their operation. It's the only way to bring Jose fully back to us, and to bring back Marlene's sight. Maybe even put the other souls lost from our team to rest."

Rider pushed himself up, and nodded. "Better have me, you, and Big Mike go into the compound and sweep it for J.L. and Dan, then get on a flight."

"Yeah. That's where I was going," Damali said in a quiet voice. "Once the compound is safe, if Jose gets released again, Mar and Shabazz can bring him back and seal it before nightfall. While we're gone, we're also going to need some slamming material - three songs, Dan said, right?"

Dan nodded. "Yeah, and you have to be back in enough time to do some of the promo I've got lined up - by three P.M. at the latest so they can tape you."

"All right, we've got a full day ahead of us, and a lot of work to do. The three of us can scope out the last known lair, and get back in way before it gets dark."

"Sounds like a plan," Big Mike muttered. "Never went in without a seer to guide us, though. I mean no disrespect, li'l sis, but sometimes your sight is on, and sometimes it's not."

"I hear you." Damali gazed at him, her self-confidence eroding moment by moment. "You'll have to trust me, then. I'll be able to see."

Dan, like J.L., had been quiet except for one comment, and his line of vision swept the group, and then dropped to his hands that were folded between his legs. "I still feel awful, though. If they got the guy who saved me..."

"Carlos is fine," Damali said. "I just saw him."

The group stared at her and a mild electric current passed between them to settle upon her.

"When?" Marlene asked cautiously.

"A few minutes ago, just before you walked up. He was in shock, looking for hospital records of his family, trying to make logical sense of what isn't logical. Said he needed to come back when the admin offices opened this morning."

The group visibly relaxed.

"I gave him sanctuary to stay with us... like we gave Dan - if he gets hunted."

Again they stared at her, but didn't speak.

"We cannot leave an innocent man to get fed on by the dark side."

"Rivera isn't just an innocent like Dan. He's a drug dealer, darlin'." Rider began pacing. "Or, did you forget what he does for a living? Vamps ain't the only thing we gotta worry about - try a drug hit, drive-by to settle a score, the police, being brought in as accomplices to his shit, whatever. There are a whole lot of ways to die, sister."

"He's still human, and obviously not a vamp helper, and the sanctuary is only temporary until we wipe out the vamp line chasing all of us - then he can go back to whatever he chooses to do... He saved Dan's life, and that counts for something," she argued. A rush of defensive anger throttled her ability to remain calm. "Plus, if Dan hadn't made it out of the parking lot, and if they hadn't chased Dan to where we found him, then we wouldn't have been able to take out a second generation female, Rider! Everything happens for a reason - everyone has intrinsic value in this war, or did you forget?"

In their outburst they had momentarily forgotten Marlene's pain, and both Damali and Rider hung their heads when Marlene covered her mouth and stood, and then paced to a window.

"Mar, I'm sorry," Damali whispered.

"Oh, Marlene... listen. I'm sorry," Rider murmured.

Marlene kept her back to them and only shook her head.

"Go do what you have to do," Shabazz told them in a sad, quiet voice. "I'll stay with her and Jose."

"Pssst," a voice called to Carlos in the tunnel. "I have three minutes to give you this information before it will become too dangerous for you to travel. Dawn approaches."

Hesitant, Carlos waited, monitoring the heat of the environment around him. The pull of the dawn made everything around him feel like an oven. It sapped his strength, made his senses sluggish, and he could only hope that he'd have enough energy to travel to the Dominican's lair.

"Say whatchu gotta say, fast," Carlos replied, his chest heaving as though he were having an asthma attack. "I don't have much time."

The blue-clad knight stepped out of the shadows. "I took a risk. I'm not supposed to be here - but the warrior angels gave us word that you helped the Neteru defeat a second generation... and we saw you fight your vampire nature when you had our huntress in your arms - you even told her to pray! You could have violated her, but you didn't. There is a major conference about the whole situation now at the levels of mercy. Your love for her gives us hope."

"State your business," Carlos said, wheezing. "I'm running out of time." Pain began riddling his body; the air was becoming thick and polluted by slivers of light.

"We want the maps."

"I don't have them, yet. What else? One minute, and I'm out."

"Bring us the head of the master vampire who hunts her. When he falls, it will be easy for us to wipe out his line. That will also free the Neteru's parent's trapped soul. We'll be able to destroy many of the vampires, as well as the demons they live with."

"Easy, was already on my agenda. Talk fast, hombre."

"We'll give you ten minutes of amnesty to deliver the maps to her once you have them in your possession. I am a seer, that's why I guide my battalion, and chanced this meeting close to dawn. We'll clear a way to allow you to get the maps to her, but under guarded conditions."

Too weakened to argue, Carlos siphoned the remainder of his reserves to change shape, and drifted toward his new refuge in the Dominican's lair. The density on the planet was crushing. With his last burst of energy, he hurled himself back to safe darkness.

Rider slapped a newspaper across Damali's thighs as they sat and waited to board their flight to New Orleans in LAX.

"Have you seen this?" he said as Mike also gathered close. "Read it and weep. This is who you gave sanctuary to last night."

Damali stared at the headline. Carlos Rivera's car had been found in the North Hills, still running, with a silver briefcase filled with a hundred thousand dollars, a leather briefcase filled with a million dollars, enough artillery to stop a small army, and his handgun weapon fired into the ground. And, there was a high-ranking Dominican drug czar missing.

For a moment the threesome just looked at each other.

"You know what line of work Carlos is in, right?" Big Mike put his hand on Damali's shoulder. "Even if he's not a vamp, or one of their human traitors..."

"If he went out there at night," Rider said, agitated, "the sonofabitch got nicked, trust me. Rivera isn't the type to leave one-point-one mil lying in the dirt. Something's wrong."

"No, he didn't get nicked," Damali insisted, tossing the newspaper on an empty seat. "It takes three days to turn a vamp - and... He just didn't get nicked, I know that."

Tense silence drew and quartered the conversation to a halt. Damali could feel her pulse race with worry. Heaven help Carlos... what had he done? He was in so deep that they must have tried to ice him. Rider was right about one thing: vamps or the mob, both were dangerous predators that could have a man's life hanging in the balance - how many times had she tried to tell Carlos this! If a war was on, then the team's concern had merit - she couldn't let him in the compound... but she also couldn't let him get eaten alive. Choices. But at least, for the moment, Carlos wasn't a vampire. If he were, she'd be frying right now.

"He didn't get nicked," she murmured again, more to reassure herself than to convince Rider.

"What makes you so sure?" Rider finally asked in a sarcastic tone as he studied her.

Both Big Mike and Rider stared at her as Rider's question stabbed at her. She found her gaze slipping away to watch the planes through the glass.

"Because I hugged him - and I'm still sitting here in the sunlight."

"Oh, that's just fucking great!" Rider shook his head and pushed himself back in his chair. "We fight six vamps and their ringleader, have the compound invaded, a man on a stretcher - and a guy with a possible nick in his system gets up close and personal with our vampire huntress - like in jugular range? Why am I following this woman to New Orleans - to a lair, in the middle of known vampire country, huh? Just answer me that!"

"You should have seen the look on his face," Damali said. "He was like Dan. Freaked out. Confused. Maybe he did see something in the woods, and got the hell out of there - which is why the money was left behind. Or maybe it was a drug deal gone bad and he made it out before he ran into Dan. He might have shot one of them and took their car. Or maybe he was delivering a bounty for his family - knowing Carlos, that's what he was doing, because he still can't wrap his mind around this madness. Can you blame him? Did you, when you saw your first set of fangs?"

Rider continued to sit back in his chair with his arms folded, appearing grudgingly mollified.

Big Mike sighed. "We aren't going to get anywhere arguing amongst ourselves. That's always evil's strategy - divide and conquer. They did it with the religions, cultures, nations, and it's happening now with us. Unify. Respect each others' points of view... and have compassion for each others' weaknesses... and squash this bullshit - now!"

Both Rider and Damali nodded, but looked off in different directions with their arms still folded over their chests.


Tags: L.A. Banks Vampire Huntress Legend Vampires
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