"Rider, just chill! You've been complaining nonstop for the last six hours. We've been over this crap a hundred times." Damali flopped down heavily on a stool in the compound's weapons room and let out a hard breath. "I'm just glad Marlene, Jose, and Shabazz got back to the compound all right, and that Dan and J.L. didn't have to deal with any problems while they were here alone."

"You sure Jose is okay back there, Mar?" Big Mike looked over Marlene's shoulder and peered down the hall.

"Yeah, poor guy. His fluids keep dropping and he gets all disoriented. They pump him intravenously to rehydrate, and then he perks back up only to do it all over again. I'm not sure how much of this his system can take before something major goes wrong."

"It's hard on his liver and kidneys, not to mention his heart, the doctors said," Shabazz warned. "Gotta figure out how to put this bastard, Nuit, down fast - and hope he's the one, at that."

"I know." Damali glared at Rider and dared him to speak. "We'll find out soon."

The fact that their team didn't know much more than when they had started out only made her feel worse, especially given Jose's weakening condition. She roughly towel-dried her locks in frustration, walked across the room, and flopped down on the sofa. Her nerves were still fried from the harrowing ride in a prop to Dallas, and then the ensuing drama to get their flight moved up. It felt good to have on clean clothes and to have clean skin and hair again. The whole misdirected adventure had made her feel grimy, tainted, and she'd spent a half hour soaping Nuit's environment off of her.

Rider paced, still piqued about the whole New Orleans fiasco and walking around fussing despite Damali's command for him to drop it.

"Look, man," Big Mike sighed. "We've explained everything to Marlene and the fellas - right, Mar? So why beat a dead horse?"

"Me and Dan were able to come up with some pretty cool stuff for tomorrow night, so you won't have to go in there like you did today." J.L. stood and stretched. Dark circles were forming under his eyes, the strain of the last twenty-four hours taking its toll on him as well.

"Yeah, and I took care of all the PR stuff so people would just think you were booked elsewhere - the interviews went great. Everything is copacetic." Dan rolled his shoulders and leaned his head back, massaging his neck.

"Need I remind you all that this happened in the day - so I can only wonder what could happen at night!"

"Rider," Marlene said on a long breath, "you are workin' my last nerve. Shabazz and I are tired, Jose is sleeping, J.L. and Dan have been wracking their brains on wild new designs - and Damali has got to get some rest... or she won't be any good for the concert tomorrow. Not only does she have to be in top fighting form, but the girl also has to perform in front of a worldwide audience. Not to mention, it will be her birthday - and it would be nice to do something fun... but we have this other very un-fun thing to do. We're all maxed, in one way or another. We all need sleep. So cut it out."

Damali yawned at the mention of rest. It was pure reflex, and the hot shower hadn't helped. "I haven't even worked out my routine, figured out which pieces I want to do - and I'm a little nervous to do the old stuff... seriously, that was good for local crowds, but going overseas with the message..."

"My point exactly. And the music team, plus lights and sound, need to be tight. Dan gave the Blood crews basic info - because their people are handling all the setup. So, if there's a switch in any aspect of the performance, it will have to be done right on stage."

Everybody yawned their agreement as they nodded in response.

"What's the layout, though, Mar?" Damali asked through another yawn.

"Concert starts at nine P.M. our time and runs till midnight. You get introduced as the last act, and will be the only female performer. At eleven thirty you have to jam your butt off for less than a full half hour, because of the group-change lag time. They're doing this nonstop, six artists - commercial bumpers in between each group change - but at midnight, they're going to do this Blood Music, Raise the Dead, ceremony... which means our people have from an hour before showtime until eleven thirty when you go on, to do our thing."

"Well at least we know that the five artists aren't vamps, maybe just traitors, because they've been on every talk show and interview circuit hyping this event for about a month. Plus, anybody on stage and getting broadcast live isn't a vamp." J.L. sat back down and dropped forward, working the kinks out of his back.

"I'm so exhausted I can barely think about it, guys. Seriously." Damali brought one fist into her chest and pulled her elbow with the other hand, trying to stretch the stress-tension out of her blade arm. "My concern is that it will be night and we'll have two and a half hours to do this thing - they'll be strong, right now we aren't, and we'll also be distracted... plus, there will be a lot of innocent people in the equation. I just wish I knew what the bigger picture looked like."

Rider finally sat down. Damali found herself pulling her legs up beneath her on the sofa. It felt so good just to put her head down for a few moments. Everybody had eaten, replenished their bodies, all members of the team were present and accounted for, and they had done all they could do. They knew what Nuit's mansion and vault looked like, but what good did that do? It was wasted time and energy. The rest of the plan they'd just have to make up as they went along. Dan hadn't gotten inside long enough before he had to run for his life, so he brought no real info. She just wished that Carlos wasn't out there solo, running around and in harm's way.

"Look at her," Shabazz said in a quiet voice. "The girl is wasted - we all are. I wish that for one night we could all just turn in, shut off the lights, and go to bed without worrying that something might come crashing through the doors. Now we've got demon legions to add to the mix."

Yawns made the rounds again throughout the room as each person found a corner that had a comfortable chair, a love seat, a bench, anything that would allow the human form to lie prone and be still. Even Rider begrudgingly found a place to recline without discontent.

Detective Berkfield glanced out of the unmarked sedan nervously as his partner took a drag of his cigarette. He studied the opening of the small alley that led to a row of expensive, North Hollywood shops. Pedestrians casually milled up and down the streets, stopping to chat, or to go into yuppie cafes or ethnic gourmet bistros. The area was populated enough by educated bystanders that, if this thing with Rivera went down wrong, there'd be witnesses. He had to give it to Rivera. This wasn't some deserted dock at the wharf handoff where anything could go wrong.

"You think Rivera is bullshitting?"

"You got the call," Malloy said, allowing the smoke to slowly filter out through his nose. "How did he sound?"

"On edge." Berkfield yawned. "Wasn't like his old arrogant self. Think that botched hit on him might have screwed our boy's confidence."

Malloy nodded. "He's moving."

Both detectives watched Carlos Rivera exit a small opening from between two buildings. It was like the guy had come from out of nowhere. The detectives glanced at each other as Rivera leisurely strolled by their vehicle while he took his time and advanced on the other side of the street, crossed another, and kept walking without acknowledging them.

"The bastard is smooth."

"I'll say. But give him some maneuvering space. Rivera said to drive around the corner and pass him as he dropped the Dominican drug files in the Dumpster, then let him keep walking. After a minute, we can go collect the info - it'll be in a folder."

"He's a bold sonofabitch," Malloy muttered, engaging the gears to pull slowly away from the curb. "Think he'll do the witness protection thing?"

"Said he was already a dead man walking." Berkfield let out his breath hard as the car crept around the corner but kept an easy distance from Carlos.

"Then what does he want? He said they already tried to set him up, so he had the Dominican don whacked - they won't sit still for that bullshit in their territory. They'll hunt him down until they wipe out everybody in his family."

"That's the thing. Except his mother and his grandmother, Rivera says they already did his whole family, so now he's a man with nothing to lose."

Berkfield and Malloy glanced at each other again.

"A man with nothing to lose is a dangerous thing to have running around inside an organization."

Berkfield nodded, but kept his eyes trained on Carlos's progress past an alley opening. "Yup. The fool is going after the Jamaican's records tonight, and said he'd dump them for us tomorrow."

"Shit. Why doesn't he give us the Russian, Italians, and Asians, too, while he's at it?" Malloy chuckled and shook his head, wiping the fatigue away from his eyes before flinging his cigarette butt out the window.

"Know what that crazy bastard said when I asked him? You know I had to ask."


"He said he'd deal with them in due time, but he liked the Caribbean and Brazil - so those two had to go first. Now, I ask you, Paul, why would a man give up info that could have him blown away, and then go to those places where all the friends, family, and organization members of those people you dropped a dime on could come for you? Either he has a death wish, or a real slick agenda."

"Think he's using his own product?"

Berkfield rubbed his face as Carlos returned from the alley and kept walking.

"Hard to say. He doesn't look as rosy and on top of the world as he used to." He laughed as his partner rolled the car forward at a slow, creeping pace. "You know, Paul, now that you mention it, in the last twenty-four hours, his product has been drying up - like somebody turned off the tap... maybe that's what's got him ready to commit hari-kari. Either that or he snorted up his wholesale stash and wigged."

"He leads a stressful life. Will sometimes break a man. Especially a young, ambitious one on the move too fast."

"Yeah, but he said all he wants is his house, his car, the money, and the club - all the rest of the assets can be seized. Crazy bastard even put his warehouses on the disks he's dropping - giving us his drug locations, and his other illegal operations, as long as we attribute the find to the Dominican so his legit personal property won't be seized."

"That has to run through channels."

"Think about it, Paul. Fifty bodies from the wrong side of this war are going to go down because one Carlos Rivera is tired and wants out. You know how much we pay SOBs to do all sortsa shit, Paul. This guy has lost his marbles, because he told me - his mouth to my ear on the phone, and God as my witness - he just wants his mom and grandmom, and some chick named Juanita Dejesus, to be able to split up everything - and to bury him right. I'm startin' to feel sorry for this guy - can you believe that? Fifty top kingpins all across the country!"

"From what you're telling me, those disks and the names in that black book he's gonna leave us hold enough information to solve about twenty-seven homicides, and bust the inner core of the Dominican L.A. ring... months of police work."

Again both detectives glanced at each other with a smile, checked their weapons, and hopped out of the car to walk down the alley.

"Me, myself," Malloy said coolly, "I don't care if the bastard is having a nervous breakdown, has become a junkie, has a die-with-honor death wish, or if Jesus came down off the cross and baptized him for salvation. May he see the light. Whatever. Point is, we just hit the mother lode. So, keep the bird on the wire talking, and dropping regular presents. Did you mention this to anybody yet?"

Berkfield laughed. "What, and tell people that Santa Claus is a twenty-three-year-old millionaire? Are you crazy? Not yet. I wanted to savor the power of information for a bit before going in to haggle a deal to keep him on our side, and alive, if possible. He's no good to us dead."

Berkfield reached up with a grunt and fished around in the Dumpster, his hand connecting with garbage and greasy things he didn't want to consider as he made a face. "You get the next holiday package under the tree, Malloy."

"Gladly," Malloy chuckled, lighting another cigarette.

Carlos watched from a dark corner within the alley. Something wasn't right. Berkfield's partner had a different tint to his skin that created a thin, dark aura around him, but it wasn't vampire. If he was vampire, Carlos would have immediately been able to sense it, but he'd never seen this trace around a human before. Marked? The answer to his mental question was answered immediately. That was how his kind invisibly identified their helpers. Interesting. He'd learned something new. For a moment, he wondered what the seal around his mother and grandmother looked like. No matter, as long as they were off-limits.

This delivery had to go down smoothly, so he'd purposely drifted back to manifest unnoticed in order to watch it transpire without a hitch. Carlos inhaled, still appraising the detective with the strange aura. It wasn't a demon trace, either. Marked - and not Nuit's. Hmmm. So the Vampire Council had set him up in the news. Very interesting.

"Got it." Berkfield huffed from the mild exertion. "Paul, we just got ourselves a promotion right here, buddy, if this stuff checks out. Maybe we can work a deal with Rivera, you know... keep him on the street, feeding our team info, undercover-like as a source. We do it all the - "

Richard Berkfield stopped talking and looked at his partner, confused. For some odd reason, Malloy had the safety off his gun, it was in his hand, his trigger-finger was readied, and the weapon was pointing in his direction. What the...

"Hey, buddy, you wanna put away the nine? What's the matter with you?"

"You are about to fuck up a very nice lifestyle, Richard. Let's not be hasty. Hand me the package and let's go take a walk."

Materializing quickly in the shadows, Carlos moved silently toward the two officers, using Berkfield's stunned focus on the barrel of his partner's gun to roll up behind Malloy and catch him off guard.

Carlos tapped Malloy on the shoulder and Berkfield's eyes widened.

"Not a good idea."

"Where the hell did you come from?" Berkfield stepped back, glancing at Carlos and Malloy, as Malloy whirled around.

As expected, Malloy immediately fired, and Carlos felt the blow like a close-range punch, but not the burn of the bullet penetration. There was a hole in his shirt over his heart, but he watched his skin seal beneath it. He chuckled. This was so cool.

"I made a courier drop, and I intend for the delivery to be honored." Carlos held Malloy's gun. "Pull the trigger and you're a dead man."

He sighed when Malloy pulled the trigger again, and he watched the bullet discharge in the wrong direction, whir past Berkfield's shoulder, splattering the already stricken detective with his partner's guts. Carlos took a whiff of the remains as Malloy fell, a look of horror on his face. Carlos grimaced with disgust. Marked kill were tainted with a repulsive scent layer and not very appetizing. Now he further understood why they got passed over as dinner.

"You can see you've been infiltrated," Carlos said coolly. "Watch your back - you've been splattered, and an alley isn't a safe place for a man dripping blood."

"But, but, but he shot you point-blank range."

"Kevlar," Carlos said as he turned to walk away.

"Bullshit!" Berkfield yelled, but Carlos strolled ahead of him. "Since when do they make Kevlar T-shirts? The bullet went right through you and over my damned shoulder!"

"I gave you a gift, saved your life, now you owe me. My assets - you keep the drugs, and you might want to keep some of this to yourself... good career move, in my opinion. Tell them your boy had a fucking nervous breakdown from working too hard. Only his prints will be on the weapon. I assure you."

"You came out of nowhere... and... oh shit, what the fuck?"

"I'm going back into nowhere, until I drop my science on you another time. Say your prayers at night. Be thankful for small gifts. And, believe in things unseen."

Carlos turned the corner that led into the street; he could hear Berkfield running to catch up to him, and then watched from an overhanging fire escape as the poor man spun around three times searching for him, wiped at his clothes, crossed himself, and called for backup.

Time was of the essence. He stood outside Damali's compound on the dark side of the road and willed the phone inside to ring. A male voice answered, and sounded weary.

"It's Carlos. I need to speak to Damali."

In the background beyond the mute channel that had been engaged, he could hear mild pandemonium break out as she came to the phone.

"Carlos, where are you?"

He looked down at his T-shirt and sealed the gunshot hole in it, and glanced at his hand, dissolving the image of Nuit's ring. "Close by. Want to take you up on that invitation to come in. There's a lot going on, and I have some info."

"We can come get you... uh..."

"Tell the team I am not being followed - but I do need you to kill the exterior lights for a minute so I can come in."

She'd put her hand over the receiver, and then had hit the mute button again. An argument was underway. He let out his breath hard. Time was ticking, and tonight would be the last night he could really help her. He called her in his head. Get back on the phone.

"We don't turn off the lights," she said quietly.

His mind wrestled with the obstacle, trying to work around her team's resistance. "Tell them to lower their guard - a knight of Templar visited me, and left the newspaper. I need to get info to the group for tomorrow. He gave me some maps that I didn't understand."

She paused, and then began a flurry of words back to her group. Good.

"Just ten minutes, then I'm out - I have other pressing business going on in the streets. Tell them, okay?"

Again, her hand covered the phone and he could hear her battle for him. She didn't even hit the mute this time. Real good. The knight hadn't lied.

He closed his eyes, already invited, just blocked by the damned contraptions they had everywhere. He was not going through the door double-lock process - he'd fry. He hoped that nobody would panic and hit the hall sprinklers. This was bullshit. But on the other hand, he was glad she was so well fortified... it just bothered him that, at the moment, he was on the other side of her world.

"Tell them," he added, slowly, "not to blast me when I come through the door. I've got maps that will burn in the ultraviolet light, the knight said - now I don't know what the hell he was talking about, but - "

"Bring them in. We won't flash you."

He could hear the team murmur agreement, and he relaxed as the lights around the compound went out. But he hesitated for a moment, scanning the terrain to be sure he'd be the only guest, while another part of him became mildly concerned. Baby, do not panic and toast a brother - cool? Everybody just chill, no lights, crossbows down, everybody just take it easy.

Carlos kept the mantra in his mind as he crossed the road, hoping that the lights wouldn't suddenly come up. But when he reached the door, Damali and two of her male crew were there.

She was unarmed, they weren't. But he crossed the threshold nonetheless, received a quick hug from her in the dark, and immediately she pulled away from him and led him to the inner rooms with the two henchmen at his back.

The hug had destabilized him a bit, but he shook it off. Had to stay focused. This was business. It was about her safety. But in the dark... man. Okay. Think.

Slightly taken aback, he surveyed the extensive weapons room as an Asian guy at the computer panels flipped a master switch and he could feel the entire compound heat up like it was a tin can in a microwave. This, he hadn't anticipated.

"Shabazz - "

"Save the intro, Damali. Me and Carlos know each other, or should I say, we remember each other. Lotta guys in the neighborhood did time for workin' with him, or got shot."

Carlos nodded to Shabazz. What could he say? There was no defense. It was what it was.

Damali let her breath out hard and extended her arm, moving it slowly as it swept the room. "Rider, J.L., Dan, Big Mike, Marlene, Jose is sick - but will recover. There. You've met everybody; everybody, meet Carlos - or re-meet him, whateva. The man came to help. So chill."

"Speak," the one pointed out as Big Mike said. "Now."

"Wait," the tall guy with spiked hair interjected. "A formality. My name's Rider," he added, picking up a crossbow. "They call me the Nose. And, while I can't put my finger on it, the scent ain't right. So... How the hell did you know where we were? I don't like it."

"He saved me, guys, remember?" Dan said fast. "This guy put everything on the line, fellas. Seriously." Standing, Dan's expression held an apology.

"Rider, stop. Put the weapon down, okay?" Damali shook her head and stood in front of Carlos. Although fatigue had dimmed her sensory awareness, common sense still prevailed. If Carlos were a vampire, or vamp helper, no religious guy would have let him know their location. The Templars weren't that sloppy.

"If a Templar sent you," Marlene said suspiciously. "Then?" But Marlene pulled back a bit and folded her arms. "How about if you stay on that side of the room, and Damali comes this way and stands with us... just till we get comfortable. We don't get many visitors at night around here - none that don't bear fangs."

"You know, Mar, now that you mention it, the hair is standing up on my arms." Shabazz bristled and picked up a weapon, glancing at Big Mike and J.L. who gave him a nod and flanked him. "Damali, come on over to this side of the room."

"No! Would you guys stop? Carlos, show them whatever it is you came to show us."

"Thanks, D," Carlos murmured. The fact that she had remained on his side of the room was not lost on him at all. The Templar had made good on both parts of his agreement; he'd get him into the compound and would try to surround him with enough mercy that the guardians wouldn't sense his vampire status. But he only had a few minutes. Damali and her team, although weary, had keen sensory ability. He had to talk fast and get out.

"I got a newspaper shoved through my front mail slot, and inside of it were some drawings I couldn't understand at first... until this guy came and told me to choose wisely - then rolled. It was the weirdest thing. Said something about New Orleans, and bullshit going down at the big international concert. I figured one or two things - either the guy was whack and could pose a threat, so you should know, or, it had something to do with all this bizarre shit we've seen lately."

One by one the stances before him relaxed, and Carlos kept his attention roving over their expressions. It was a definite standoff, and the monitor behind the guy J.L. disturbed him. It was flashing like wild, but he'd been able to mute the sound. His attention was divided between too many things at once. It was sapping him to project, cover the hole in his shirt, conceal the ring, keep the alarms from sounding, stand away from any unusual lights on the table; the smell of holy water and incense was wearing him out, as was Damali's fragrance. The joint was a freakin' oven, he had to materialize maps, and hope the guardians would heed the tunnel layouts before daylight came and the illusion of the maps torched... and the big guy named Mike kept tilting his head like a bloodhound, like he could hear something, and the hunger was beginning to come back - the energy drain was kickin' his ass. He'd need to feed again after all this.

"Look," Carlos said, tossing the maps out for the guy named Mike to catch. "I don't know why I bothered. Turn off the lights, and I'm out. No need in jeopardizing you all - I have a lot of people looking for me. Dig? I want to slide out of here cool like, and not get sprayed when I roll."

The attention of Damali's palace guards went to the maps, and the blinking monitor no longer made the huge brother keep tilting his head. They descended upon the information like vultures, but he was curious - Damali hung back, near him. Deep.

"Where did you really get that, Carlos?" She'd whispered the question so quietly that she'd almost mouthed it instead of speaking.

The complexity of her question, and the way her voice had murmured, made him step closer to her than was advisable. The nearness was working on the wrong side of his brain, gnawing it away from cool logic.

"Now is not the time, but you have to trust me."

She nodded, and put her hand on his arm. He stood there glancing at her team as they absorbed the information, trying his best not to breathe too much of her in. The heat of her hand was melting his common sense. He needed to get out of there. Now.

"Do you know what this is, dude?" Rider walked around the table and saluted.

Shabazz and Big Mike gave a grudging nod.

"Looks like these things can open up a portal at will - big change," Shabazz muttered. "Not good."

"Apparently, there was an alliance formed," Carlos began with caution. "We're in the last days, the knight said, and key sectors of the demon realms have joined with a major sector of the vampire empire. Evil is concentrating, gaining force."

"A vampire-Amanthra hybrid..." Marlene whispered, making the group stare at her. "I didn't think it was possible, because the two species are enemies. But now it all makes sense."

"That's what the superstitious guy said." Carlos allowed his statement to sink into the wary team around him, and just pointed toward the maps without crossing the invisible boundary that had been drawn between the sides.

"He went on and on about how it used to be that the vampires could only come up through lair sites - burial sites, where they kept their coffins, and had to have human helpers move their coffins from place to place. But, under Fallon Nuit, he made a pact with the demons, and can use demon transport levels to move underground without human support - like high-speed train zones through the third and fourth layers of Hell. Like I said, do what you want with the info. He was talking some crazy shit. I need to go."

"Man, you mean these things can just take a Concorde up from Hell and exit at any demon portal? Or they can jet underground and come up through any of Nuit's or his vampire line's lairs without aboveground movement?"

"Gone are the days of having Igor move a vamp's coffin in a horse and buggy and stow it in a basement, I guess," J.L. said with sarcasm. "This is the era of the global economy, brothers."

Carlos nodded to confirm the answer to Rider's question and to add weight to J.L.'s statement. Things had changed, and it was better that Damali's squad knew that, and didn't underestimate what they were dealing with.

"That's what happened in Philly - it was like sound got sucked right out of the air in a vacuum, then vamps came up. We'd seen 'em manifest before, but not with the total absence of sound." Mike let his breath out and just shook his head. "This is problematic."

"Understatement," Rider muttered.

"The absence of sound is a result of the speed and the matter displacement. Demons move in silence - as do ghosts, but the vampires have more density, which is why they hold their form... unless they will a transformation into something else." Marlene shook her head. "It's all so clear. But I don't know how to block a moving target."

The team passed nervous glances between them. Carlos struggled as much with his desire to tell them more in order to give them a fighting chance, as he did with the oppressive environment they had him now trapped within. But he needed to get them to understand before he got out of there.

"Other master vampires cannot use the tunnels - Nuit was the only one who formed an alliance... the religious guy said." Carlos shrugged, trying to seem blase about the whole thing, but they were staring at him hard. "He said those zones are heavily guarded by very militant elementals that were marginalized by the vampire empire. The shit is getting ready to be on, from what I understand. You have the old vampire guard who can't maintain unilateral power for business as usual, you have the new guard who don't know how to utilize their power without running amuck - and neither side can keep a lid on the chaos. There are side deals and pacts being made everywhere."

"You seem very well-versed - if not intimate, with the whole issue at hand," Shabazz said in an even tone as he slowly looked up from a map.

"I ought to be," Carlos admitted, shaking his head. He had to think fast on his feet. He'd fucked up, had told them way too much in his urgency to protect Damali. He and Shabazz were from the same badlands in the past, and the bottom line was that a brother from the hood could smell bullshit a mile away - sensory gift or not. Shabazz wasn't even one of the noses, but he could feel shit.

Carlos passed his line of vision over the group in a slow, serious rove. "They did my brother, my cousin, my two best friends... you read how they found them - their mothers couldn't even bury them right. So, maybe that's why the Templar dude, being of the cloth and all, had some mercy and filled me in. That 'was cool of him, given that I was on a rampage to find out who did it. Maybe they just didn't want me to snuff somebody innocent and start a damned war."

"You're starting to believe this stuff, aren't you?"

Damali's question hacked at him. If she only knew. Believe? He'd seen both sides: a slice of Heaven and a whole lotta Hell. If he could just draw her into his arms and explain how this crazy bullshit had gone down... and why it was now so important for her to trust him - if it was the last thing she did... even if he was mixing truth with the evasions and lies now - it was coming from a correct place in his heart. He tried to send it by thought, but gave up, afraid to chance it. Not now. He was already spread too thin.

"I'm starting to see things that I never understood before," he told her truthfully. "I don't know what to think, or what to do, so I came here. That's all I can tell you."

"I know exactly where you are," she whispered, and briefly looked away.

When her line of vision broke its hold on his, the absence of those deep, brown orbs of understanding made his chest cavity constrict from the loss. I never want to hurt you, baby... that's why I can't stay much longer. He had to get it together. Pull out of his own thoughts. He'd lapsed, trying to talk to her from his mind.

But that was pushing the envelope - he had to focus to keep all illusions intact.

"What's in this level three tunnel, man? Or on level four? A demon grabbed at Damali today, and I'd like to know what we're up against if we have to go after it." Rider had set down his weapon to hold an edge of the map, but kept sniffing, and then appeared to shake off a disturbing scent.

Carlos glanced at her. "You all right, baby?" He could feel possessiveness riddle him. Who'd attacked her?!

She nodded, and he looked up at the team.

"I'm okay," she murmured, and came closer to him, burning his shoulder where her hand landed. "Don't worry."

Carlos remained very, very still. He had to. He simply looked at her as she'd touched him. It had seemed like she'd extended her arm in slow motion, and he could see her pulse beat in the delicate inside of her elbow, right where the forearm connected to the upper arm, and beneath her bronze skin a faint blue-green vein hid... moving life through her. The motion was mesmerizing, as was the scent that the shifted air carried when she'd reached for him. And she wanted him to stay tonight for his own safety... to sleep in her room, love her hard and fast then tender so she didn't have to think about tomorrow. Had she any idea?

"I know you got a torch for my baby sis and all, brother, but you need to check them heat-seeking looks toward her while she's got six glocked-up brothers and a momma who can fight, staring you in the face."

Whoa, bad slip. Way out of order. The big brother had bristled, rightfully so. All Carlos could do was nod and wait for the ruffled feathers to settle. Shit, he had to get out of there. Damali was a telepath - even if he wasn't sending, she was receiving, and it was messing with his cool. Baby, please stop.

"Mike, please," Damali whispered. "Can we stick to the matter at hand?"

This situation was getting confusing, and way too tense. Carlos let out his breath hard and raked his fingers through his hair.

"Listen, man, here's the deal - all bullshit aside. On level one, you have your average run-of-the-mill ghosts, haints, souls that died with a grudge in their hearts, issues, and whateva. Level two, they get a little more trippy - like the poltergeists and the kind of mess that can possess somebody to do some whack shit in one second, then make them all of a sudden wake up from the daze, and not know anything about the three bodies in the room with them."

"Keep talking," Rider said. "The man is making sense here."

"All right," Carlos pressed. "I'ma say this one time like the guy told me, then I'm out. I've got things to do. He said, the further down you go, the less ghost-like the demon becomes, and the more solid it becomes as the density gets thicker - it compresses the soul weight and creates these hideous deformities, and the souls that were once within those things are jacked and stored to be fed on within the levels, twisted like the demon's bodies are. The third level is where vengeance creatures come from and their territory is so wide it overlaps a part of the fourth level... So you've got your recipe for the garden-variety demon. By the time you get all the way down, though, now you are in a very sophisticated space. These are the things that take on the original form of man. The longer the being can hold its human form, the more sophisticated - like the difference between werewolves, a level five, and vamps - level six."

J.L. nodded, appraising the maps. "It's like a deconstruction/ reconstruction pattern. First the body dies, the soul leaves - if it goes down to level one, it remains this floating, unformed negative energy. The further it gets pushed down, based on the weight of the sins on its back, depends on what level it clocks in at. Then there's the crossover zone," he added, pointing on the map that three people held.

"Yeah," Carlos said, pleased. "Level four. From there the physical matter starts trying to come back into its original form for reentry into the world. As above, so below. From above it is a very cool process - that's where babies come from."

Carlos chuckled, and Shabazz and Big Mike gave him a lopsided smile along with Rider.

"But," Marlene said in a quiet voice. "Coming from the other direction, the birth process is backward. It spews up fully formed, already corrupted, and at the end of its life horrible entities - instead of innocent, not fully formed, growing, at the start of its life beauty."

The group fell quiet for a moment, and Carlos studied them, remembering Marlene's loss, and his own. He could have sworn that Damali visibly cringed as Marlene had spoken. It was as though her hand had mentally reached out to touch his face, but then retreated. Maybe it was just the bitter agony of hearing himself described as a creature of the night that had made him believe such a foolish thing. Maybe it was simply knowing that a mother stood in the room, remembering what her baby was like before it had been turned. Although they were blind to him, he could pull from them, and both seers barraged him with truths that hurt too much to think about. Now all of those emotions crushed in on him. But he could still swear that Damali had reached out in her mind to stop the pain.

"What's on level seven?" Dan murmured.

"The exact opposite of what's in seventh Heaven," Damali said softly, "and we don't even name it in this compound."

"Okay," Rider said on a long breath. "So. If Nuit's gang can use the demon high-speed-line, and won't have traditional above-ground coffins, how do we find them?"

Carlos put his hands behind his back and began to pace to keep from touching Damali. "His spot in New Orleans has a door."

"Been there, seen it, done it, not going back," Rider said emphatically, shaking his head.

"It's light sensitive," Mike added. "Breaks up illusion."

"Thought projection," Carlos replied, and then caught himself as the group stared at him. "The church guy said to bring down the light or let the light shine, some shit like that to dispel the illusion. Truth works the same way - all that religious rhetoric - the truth shall set you free. Makes as much sense as the rest of the stuff he said."

Again, he could feel the group relax one by one. Another close call. Damn.

"Nuit has a mansion in Beverly Hills under an assumed name - that's a possibility, and he owns a significant share of the high-rise that the Blood Music offices occupy, and we could place a safe bet that he'll open a channel in each of these five concert locations. If I was a betting man, and believed all the hype some sword-carrying priest told me, then I'd put my money on that as a sure thing."

"So," Damali said, going over to Carlos to touch his arm again, "if time wasn't so tight till the international thing, we could have tried to get invited to perform at one of his major concert locations. That way we could have gripped up and blasted it with light, hit 'em with some serious spoken word of truth, and we would have been able to open up one of his holes - then find the coffin, and stake this bastard. We're already locked in to do your club as a venue, so I don't think we can get to do the big stadium portions at this late juncture. But we know all the locations of where major sections of their concert will be held, so at least we can go back later."

"We only need to take out the head to get to all the second-generation vamps that need to be eliminated, which takes out the thirds, and the fourths, and so on. We can cover all under Nuit with a salvation prayer, and when we take the head of the hydra, the rest of them will perish," Marlene said with a strong voice. "I've gotta do it for Raven."

Carlos didn't say a word. They didn't understand. One had to individually name each soul one wanted to claim back. Not to mention, the only reason it seemed that the seconds and below got dusted, had much to do with territorial realignments. If there was a master to step in, those lower levels weren't going anywhere - unless that master wanted to build from the ground up. But that was way too much detail to drop on an already wary group. So, rather than further indict himself, he just nodded. Later, maybe, he'd explain to Damali.

"It's like an implosion bomb, the empire starts collapsing from the inside out until a whole line dies with one stake to the master's heart." Big Mike folded his arms over his chest. "Judged you wrong, Carlos. My bad. Was serious science you dropped."

"It's cool," Carlos said quietly.

Just listening to the way they described the wipeout, he wasn't sure why it tugged at him, but it did. Plus, what that big brother was talking about were fairy tales... unless a territorial harvest was turned down - which just didn't happen. And Damali's second touch was still seriously messing with his cool. His equilibrium was off by a long shot. His ten minutes was closing in on him. Marlene was looking at him real strange now, and Damali had come up to him, he could feel a hug pending and that was not the thing for her to do right now. It was time to jet.

"Look, I told you as much as I know, and I know you guys think I'm crazy. I just figured I'd pass on the message. But right now, I need to handle some business in the streets. Hit the lights, and I'm out." He was babbling, and realized that he wasn't making sense. The temperature had kicked up, and that UV border... with Damali calling him from deep inside her head. Oh come on, baby, cut it out.

She filled his arms and hugged him, closing her eyes as her head found the center of his chest where it had been the night before. He could feel tears inside her heart as it thudded in anxiety against the cavity that held his dead one. She breathed life into him by sheer force of will, her grip tightening as her mind tried to get him to understand.

Magnificent, glorious, warmth entered him and radiated out. Didn't she know that she was trying to use her body as a human shield to protect him from outside harm, and yet he was the very harm that she was grasping so tightly against her breasts? But she held him, her eyes siphoning a decision as she looked up, slaying him where he stood, in front of others who would never comprehend. Beautiful vision, they had named her correctly... Still believing in him so much - and he couldn't promise not to manifest everything she abhorred.

"I wish you would just stay and be on our side."

"I can't. Baby... listen - "

"It's so crazy out there and I keep seeing you hurt bad in my head. Don't leave; please... don't go back out into that madness. If a Templar of the Covenant came to you, then it's not too late."

She closed her eyes and tilted her chin up and breathed deeply while shaking her head no, don't go. He raised his chin higher than hers and tried to fight the urge to close his eyes, too, and lost. Her protective squad had every right to just waste him on the spot; he knew it, didn't care. Because at the moment, he couldn't resist breathing in her hair, and there was no force on the planet that could have stopped the tremor that she'd sent down his spine with her hand. He'd take a silver bullet for her - or whatever else they had for him, as long as it put him out of his misery.

"I gotta go," he whispered to her, ignoring the very concerned team in his peripheral vision. They were moving farther and farther away in his mind as her face tilted up toward his again and her lips parted.

"Why, Carlos, has it always been like this? You know you have been dancing on the edge of disaster all your life, and this time, I think you're in too deep. Didn't you see the maps of Hell? Or if you don't believe, then look at what's in the newspapers. Isn't that enough? Where does all this lead?"

He couldn't answer her as a power within Damali - greater than fear, greater than self-preservation, greater than caring what others might say - exuded from her and began seeping into his pores, and it was this thing called righteous conviction. She'd held her ground against him for five years on the point, and yet here he couldn't last five minutes in her arms... not even with her team looking anxious and holding weapons. She had him trapped by her spoken words - truth. And he was bound by every other gift she'd been blessed with, and it began unraveling his instinct for survival, right at the foundation level... and replaced it with the next one up on the primal rung.

He'd opened his mouth to urge her to let him go, and she'd filled it with her own. Just like that. Right there. No argument. Her brethren were left dumbfounded. The lady that was like her mom stood paralyzed, wringing her hands. It happened so fast, a split-second reflex. Had been a long time coming - but still blew him away.

That's when his inner foundation snapped, discipline uprooted, logic vanished, and his fingers became tangled in her hair, despite the throats that cleared in the background, while his hand slid down the center of her back, and they'd hit a wall by the door with force, the seal between them unbroken. He had thought he'd crushed her spine, somehow, until she gasped, and that had only made him kiss her harder, swallowing the sound, her desire in his throat, his lungs, sending back his own deep reply, fueling a double-edged hunger which she answered with a hard rake down his back. Right then and there, as her nails scored his flesh, he felt himself lose it. He pulled back when his gums began to rip too fast. He took out the frustration on the cinder block wall next to her. His cover was blown.

"One of you hit the lights and let me get out of here!" He pushed away from her and stalked down the hall, waved his hand, using his power to hold back the sprinkler system, and then a moment later cut their lights. They were taking too long! The building immediately cooled.

Fuck it - it was too late to burst into flames anyway.

Tags: L.A. Banks Vampire Huntress Legend Vampires