"An in-your-face breach! I don't believe it - we're history!"

Rider was standing on the weapons table raising a crossbow at the vacant doorway. J.L. was freaking out as cold-body alarms suddenly went off, like the hallway sprinklers did - after the fact - after Carlos had released his hold on them and cleared the building. Their lights had gone out and come back up. Shabazz and Big Mike were stomping on naming maps of Hell like madmen, Marlene was walking in a circle brandishing her stick. Dan had a Glock nine frozen between both hands as he stood near the computers with his mouth open... and the only thing Damali could do was gently wipe her lips with the back of her hand, savoring the taste of Carlos as she studied the wall. Time started slowing down.

She closed her eyes and put her fingers in the deep grooves Carlos's nails had left. The tremors that ran through her were like waves of aftershocks she couldn't control. She didn't care. Unable to move, she glanced toward the holy water sprinkler systems spraying the hall, alarms sounding very distant, the team's voices muffled, and breathed the last trace of Carlos into her - almost following it, she could feel him pull her, and his dilemma was hers, too... she could literally smell him. Yes, like her, he was torn to shreds between that rock and a hard place decision. Not just torn, it was much worse than that, this ache. It ripped. Filleted all judgment till she had to catch her balance.

What was everyone babbling about? If they would only shut up, she could hear him! She couldn't regulate her breaths. Her skin was on fire. Her hand covered her neck, and his moan that she'd swallowed sent a new coating of heat inside her belly. He was calling her, still, if they'd only shut up! He was standing across the road on the other side of the border of light, summoning the strength not to break down the door. She could feel him getting stronger. The shudder of need that ran through him quaked her even from that distance away. She closed her eyes and told him the truth - that she wanted to be with him right now more than he could ever know.

His response was immediate. The fantasy carved images of him and her into her brain... she could feel each delicious detail as she stood very still. Something in her snapped, and rather than retreat from the forbidden pull, she transmitted full-blast everything she had always wanted with him. Didn't you know, since way back when, how many nights I nearly lost my mind? She couldn't help it, unvarnished truth spilled out silently, privately, and the echo in her mind was his burning reply. If I had known... trust me, I would have never let you go. Had I known tonight, I would have carried you past the lights to my lair. Just come to me!

Oblivious to the chaos around her, she connected beyond the compound perimeter to mentally meet him.

Instinct told her not to, cautioned her not to go there or open up a return response, but she found herself tilting her head, opening herself fully to him. She bit him, and nuzzled him in reply, kissed him hard, and scored him again with her nails. She felt his intense shudder through every cell of her body. He made her crave his entry with such force that her hand reached out to hold onto the wall once more. She felt the rough-texture cinder block, and in her mind she slammed him against it, kissing him harder, wanting to take more of him deeper. It's all yours, baby... just get me out of here, I'm guarded.

Just as quickly as she'd hurled the thought, something powerful, razor-sharp, scored her throat - it didn't hurt, but shards of light exploded behind her lids and a tremor ripped through her body, morphing into a convulsion. Frustration imploded, sent her next response to him as a dare, a challenge with the image of her room, her in it, and what she'd like him to do, then she bit him harder within the vision. All night, her thoughts whispered, till you fear me more than the sun.

A howl in the distance fused with his moan, welding his desire to her spinal cord, tearing through her vertebrae, and leaving her breathless. In her mind she could hear her voice cry out like it had its own will, the effect of it making him take her harder - she wasn't forming words, just deep, honest, uninhibited chants of ecstasy... harmonic expression, hitting notes way outside of her range - and now he couldn't catch his breath, was begging her not to stop. She smiled, telling him the cold-blooded truth. Yeah, I hear you, baby, been needing you like this for a very long time. She'd been trying to explain, but he never would listen.

He put up his hand to the prison glass of invisible distance that separated them, and she met it, raising her palm, spreading her fingers - it left a pang that traveled. The sensation was so raw that she continued to brace herself so she wouldn't fall. With her eyes closed she could literally see him exactly where he was standing in the thicket, washed with moonlight, total energy, shoulders bare, her mark on him, sharing adrenaline, needing to hunt, needing her more, his chest expanding and contracting, breaths were now coming faster, he sensed her locking in to feel him again, to hunt him. His deep, intense eyes said it all, his expression pained like hers. There was only one answer she could give him - yes. She could dig it. They needed to stop playing with this!

He'd caught her reply like a hard blow to his jaw, and it made his head snap back. Yeah, he'd heard her response loud and clear.

What? Don't play with him?. Who was playing right now? Then his summons became a command and transformed into an urgent request as he dropped to his knees in the tall grass outside. Please come to me, come outside, I can't take it, baby. Her mind wrapped around the fervent message and stroked it as she sent it back. Watching his chest expand, taut with muscle as he battled for oxygen, sweat running down his temples, arms outstretched, the blue light of the moon making every surface of him glisten, his Adam's apple bobbing with each ragged breath that he drew, the answer became so clear. His voice was an insistent refrain for mercy, telling her what she already knew: Damali, come to me. Now! I need you.

"I do, too," she said out loud. She started for the door. Whatever her guardians said, she was leaving. She had to. "Turn off the lights," she heard herself say.

Suddenly she was shaken hard. Dazed, Damali looked around. Marlene's grip tightened. A pair of wise eyes held hers; an aging hand touched her damp face, and broke the spell. Damali leaned against the wall and breathed. The need to go after Carlos made tears well up in her eyes as she resisted his call. Her team stood momentarily frozen - she couldn't address that right now. Her goal was too singular; her focus unwavering. The voice in her head was escalating, panicking as her attention divided, telling her: Baby, don't listen to them - this is about me and you!

The guardians would just have to back off, and deal with her decision, and let her out of there. Never in her life had her body ached for a man like this. This wasn't a democratic decision, something the group had to vote on - she was out.

And even with Marlene standing squarely before her, she could still feel Carlos losing his mind from the same fire that burned her. Every second of lost momentum to fill his arms - she suffered.

"I've gotta go," she whispered, hoping Marlene would understand.

"Right now, he'll hurt you." Marlene blocked her and her lips began to move quietly.

Slowly, but surely, she could hear the rest of the group speaking in panicked chaos. Only when Damali could push herself away from the wall and stand unassisted, did Marlene move away. Time immediately snapped back and picked up the pace.

There was no way to tell if she'd been locked to him for a few seconds or a half hour. Disoriented, she tried to focus her attention enough to gather conversation. But every now and then a wave of desire would ripple through her, and she would brace herself till it dulled and passed.

"I couldn't even get a shot off," Rider hollered, his crossbow still leveled at nothing. "If I did, I would have got both of them... Shit."

"We had a flat-out weapons room breach," J.L. was yelling, "right in our own backyard! I can't believe it!"

"A breach? Motherfucker, this was a full-scale invasion!" Big Mike stomped the ashes, which had long been out, and then started beating them with a stake on the floor. "I'm gonna stab that slick bastard, Carlos - watch and see, I'ma blow his ass up - bringing maps of Hell in here to our girl like he was bringing flowers - ain't that some shit, Shabazz?"

"Maaaannn... I know some people that know some people that know some people - feel me - I'ma have the motherfucker seen. I'ma kill him up good!"

Dan's gun barrel jumped as he continued to point it at the wall. "Look at the freakin' wall!"

The group stared at the five evenly spaced, inch-deep drags down the wall and fell silent.

"Big Mike, no offense, but that's a strong SOB - even you might hafta just blow his ass up. Long distance. Period. Fuck this crossbow." Rider jumped down off the table and shook his head. "We're history. Been fun, gang. I'm going to go get a drink."

"Wait, Rider," Shabazz said, making him stop. "This is some valuable info, dude. If we have to go up against one made before Rivera, and at the top of the food chain - we just learned a lot about how this predator functions, man. Rivera rolled in on us like he was a goddamned master, brother! Rivera just got made - which means he's either a second or third generation vamp. You dig? We just learned how strong they get when a female Neteru..." His voice trailed off and he looked away. "We learned a lot. Need much-improved weapons. For real, for real."

Silent horror mixed with a violating sense of humiliation fixed Damali's gaze to a piece of crumbled cinder block on the floor. Oh, my God... this was the new chant in her skull. Heaven help her, she almost went out there. Two seconds, and it would have been over. The guys ranted on, while she tried to become invisible. If she didn't die of the bite, then she would definitely die of shame. She closed her eyes. Please God; don't let them have seen anything that had gone through her mind. Oh my God. It was beyond personal; in fact, strike the request to the folks upstairs - even they didn't need to see that. She wrapped her arms around her waist, and pulled in small sips of air.

"You got a point," Rider muttered, oblivious that she had zoned out of whatever they were talking about. "An inch-deep slice into cinder block, times five fingers, done with his bare hands - and waltzed right in our front door, chatted, kissed Damali, and rolled? Blocked our alarm systems, too? Oh, no. This is over the top for me, fellas. We are talking about something that could cross every barrier that we've rigged. Thought I'd seen it all."

"Deep part was," Shabazz said very slowly, "he wanted her so bad you could feel the electricity in the air - it's still cracklin' in here. But he didn't bite her. That's real strange. You could see it on his face; he was trying to show respect, but lost it when she went to him. But he didn't nick her, that's the thing, or pull her out of here, when he could have. Something's up with that - we need to figure out why, especially before tomorrow night."

"Why didn't you hit the lights, J.L.?" Big Mike stood and drove a stake through the table and snapped it in half, and then cast the remainder across the room.

"I did!" J.L. was at the console, his fingers a blur as he checked and double-checked his failed systems. "What the hell!"

Jose walked into the room and everybody started.

"Shine some light on dude," Rider said, jumping back.

"Yo, y'all, sprinklers is going off and shit, what the - "

"You missed Mardi Gras in here, Jose. It was deep." Rider was walking in a circle as Big Mike blasted their teammate with light and Jose covered his eyes.

Marlene pointed at Mike's stake in the table and on the floor. "Get that light out of Jose's face - it was the adrenaline in Rivera's bloodstream! He blew out all systems, just shut 'em down and walked! Why? Because he's no second generation - he's a master. He did it because he'd crossed the threshold, got close to the power sources in here, and close to her. It's like having a top-of-the-line vampire in here on PCP. They flip. You fellas ain't getting' this, are you?"

"I know," Damali murmured. It was the first thing she'd been able to say since the mayhem broke out.

The room went immediately quiet.

"You all right, girlfriend?" Rider asked quietly. "Like, these lights in here ain't bothering you, or nothin', right?"

Damali didn't have the energy to respond to Rider's sarcasm. Instead, she wrapped her arms around herself tighter and faced the wall. The sadness in her was lodged so deep within her chest that she couldn't even cry.

"I felt it when he kissed me. His jaw unhinged and his incisors dropped... and I could hear him in my head... but I wasn't afraid." The rest of what he'd made her feel, she buried deep within herself and just let her breaths continue in small sips of air.

"Oh, baby..."

She could feel Marlene's arms wrap around her, and she allowed the hug, but needed to pull away. The maternal touch just didn't mix right with the one she'd just experienced, and oddly, she didn't want the first one to vanish just yet.

"Gentlemen, lock up the compound, repair the equipment, do make yourselves useful - but don't say a word to her right now. Please."

"He's turned, Mar," Damali whispered. "They got him."

When Rider opened his mouth to give Marlene a smart reply, her glare closed it.

"Not a word," Marlene said in a near hiss. "Not a mumblin' word. Her heart's been injured, and it's a mortal wound. C'mon, let's go talk."

Thankful for the extraction and female company that would allow her to grieve, Damali numbly followed Marlene down the hall. Truthfully, she really didn't care what was up anymore. He'd turned. The full monte. And she knew when it had happened. The pictures in the newspaper - it had happened in the woods.

Marlene sat quietly beside her for a long time on the edge of her bed. She didn't touch her, or ask her questions. The two of them just sat.

"I don't even know what to say to you, Mar," Damali murmured after a while.

"You don't have to say a word. I've been there. My lover... Raven's father. It cut to the bone when I found out, and I thought I would die. It's a soul wound that never heals."

"Why did he help us? Regardless, what he'd told us was the truth, I could sense it, and so can you... that's why I didn't think he was a..." She whispered, her voice trailed off as she looked at the window that was now covered by steel. More and more it felt like a prison, not a sanctuary any longer.

"Because... he loved you, once, I think. And if he'd wanted to hurt you, he would have, in the hospital - if he turned when we both guess that he did. One day he will, though. We both know that."

It was the last part of what Marlene said that made her cover her face with her palms and lean over so far that the backs of her hands touched her thighs. The wail of despair that came up from inside her was from somewhere so core that even rocking as she released it didn't stop it from ripping at the cloth of who she was. This man that she had prayed for, hoped for, saw the good in and knew could change... had the will and the intellect, and had fallen. And not just fallen to the things of the world, like a gun, a lock-down, no, but he'd fallen so deep into the abyss that there was no bringing him back. Yet much of it was his choice.

She'd tried to tell him, a long, long time ago... when they'd sat on the beach, when they'd argue street politics... when he'd smile and say, "Baby, I got it all under control." But he never would listen, thought life was a game, and it could be played to the bone, but some shit you just didn't fuck with, the dark realm was one of those things, to name a few. Machismo, male drama, he'd rolled out every day dangling by a thread between life and death or worse - half-life. Oblivious, until something deep moved on him, and then it was all over. And she'd seen so many fine brothers, just like him - leaving people to wail and pray after their souls... now even that within Carlos was gone.

Although she knew life wasn't fair, was a grown woman, a vampire huntress that they proclaimed had some invincible, powerful, unstoppable vibe within her - and could bring it, in this very private moment of personal defeat - she wished so desperately that it could be fair - just once. What if? Basic reality and life was kicking her ass. Watching a person come so close to making the right choice, and then watching them become too entrenched and afraid to step off from the old and into the new, and then watching them drift back to their old ways like it was a comfortable sweater, and watching, helpless, unable to do a thing about it all when time just decided to run out on them, felt like unparalleled defeat.

And an old sister of her soul, the warrior queen, proud with head high, sat beside her, just rubbing her back and rocking with her, probably crying inside her own heart for those same losses like that to the world. Marlene knew. Now so did she.

Even being a baaad-sister didn't stop this type of shit from hurting. Mar had tried to warn her. Said it wasn't a flesh wound, wasn't nuthin' to play with, couldn't be sewn up with stitches... couldn't be set in a splint - but eventually she would have to set it straight to survive, not being able to breathe from the pain. It was a rite of passage - stepping off, leaving the dead in body, mind, and spirit, and moving on. But Heaven hear her cry, this one really hurt.

Bitter sobs wracked Damali, and Marlene petted them up through her bent spine to help her system flush itself of pain. All women knew this magic, the ancient art of healing through touch - the shamans didn't own province over it, this was female power at its best... compassion, letting hurt just run its course, till disappointment magnified to screaming wails, but it was the thing that brought back sanity after the storm.

Every loss she'd sustained purged with the tears, and now she knew why Jose was dying from the inside out. There were things worse than death, watching a loved one fall and slip away was one of them, and she cried for every mother, every father, every child, every brother, every sister, every lover, every grandmom, every spouse, every anybody who had to sit and weep and watch and witness their prayers go to hell in a handbasket.

Crazy part was, her spirit hurt so bad that, after a while, she just stepped it out of her body, and watched her whole drama of rocking and crying from a remote place in her mind. That type of decision had to be the brain's safety valve, a thing that happened to people when their sobs got too intense, she imagined. She sat beside herself, helping Marlene, wondering when her well of tears would run dry. Because she didn't go there - had never truly allowed herself to just lose it. So what the fellas had gathered around the door, and for whatever reason, that only made the tears fall harder. Perhaps the worst part of it all was that she didn't even trust herself anymore.

She had quietly loved this man who'd been her knight in shining armor, had loved this street warrior gone rogue who'd rescued her from foster care - she had loved him ... so much for so long... didn't he know that even turned, they still had a bond? She'd known he'd crossed over, way before the kiss - but had lied to herself, hoping. Didn't want to believe her instincts. Wasn't sure which line got crossed in his dark path, general life or something harder. There was just no denying it; she still wanted him, turned and all - regardless of what she might do. Didn't matter if she walked away, like she knew she would. There'd still be the marker for him where the brand landed a long time ago. Some truth was so deep that she couldn't even say it to herself. Seeing him in the shower now made so much sense, his eyes, then eyes she didn't know - both were his, the light and the dark side of the same man - it had been a premonition.

So she cried until she just had to lie down and sleep it off, which was better that way - at least she didn't have to keep telling herself the awful, hard truth.

Marlene shut Damali's bedroom door, walked down the long hall, entered the weapons room where the team gathered, and glanced at Big Mike.

Mike tilted his head to the side and nodded. "She's not stirring, Mar. If you're not picking anything up either, we can talk."

"When are you going to tell her, Mar?" Shabazz asked in a tense voice. "She'll be shark bait on her birthday, and we might not be able to stop it. You just saw what happened."

Jose nodded. "I've been trying to design something for her... something that can keep her from even being scratched. When I was knocked out at the hospital, I saw it in my head. Got the idea from the light wands."

Without Jose having to tell him, Big Mike brought over Jose's sketch pad, and he flipped it to the page that held a new pencil drawing.

"Looks like a shark-resistant wetsuit," Rider chuckled.

"It is. Reinforced silver-threaded fabric sealed to a thin layer of Kevlar with fiberoptic threads running through it. Covers her from head to toe, but looks like it's concert worthy... shows the curves, fits like a glove, but won't let her sustain a bite or a scratch - except in the face... but she won't let them nick her face. Madame Isis covers her front, and will back the vamps up. Doesn't keep her from broken bones or internally hemorrhaging, though, should one of them really land a hard blow. If she gets bitten in the shark suit, the jaws of a vamp deliver the force of a great white. So she can still get hurt, but at least their virus won't get into her bloodstream."

"By the time her birthday rolls around," Marlene said quietly, "the likelihood that she'll be killed from a bite will diminish. That's not their objective, to kill her."

"Precisely," Shabazz murmured. "But, the suit is extra insurance, and is da bomb, Jose."

Jose smiled and dropped his open book on the table, even that small effort appearing to have drained him.

"How long does the suit battery last?" J.L. murmured, glancing at the fatigue in Jose and getting up to look at the design closer. "This is awesome, brother."

"Thanks," Jose breathed in a rasp. "Wanted to still do my part. The battery lasts about four to five minutes, but if she gets surrounded, or they take her into a dark lair, she'll leave 'em smoking."

"That makes me feel a little better, after what we just saw." Rider sighed.

Big Mike smiled. His fingers drummed the edge of the table serving a funky beat, trying to lift spirits, and working hard to calm his own frayed nerves. "Jose, man, we're connected. You did your thing. This is the first time in weeks I started feeling my rhythm again. Words are pouring into my head."

"Let spirit speak," Jose said with a weak chuckle. "We all need a positive word after what y'all told me."

Big Mike grinned. "We gonna have Damali's back, and blow that concert wide open."

Mike waited for the others to nod in agreement. The group needed a confidence boost. They couldn't just go down like that, and Damali needed something to give her new energy, too. Her sobs had broken him up. He'd never heard her sound so sad. As an audio sensor, he knew her crying would stay with him for weeks, maybe longer. The only thing he could do was to replace it with something else. Perhaps that's why he loved his music so much. It cleared his head, blocked things he didn't want to hear. He glanced at his team. They smiled. They understood. They were his family. He started a beat on the table again. Words came to his mind, chased away Damali's tears, and rushed past his lips.

"She leaves 'em smokin' - on fire... baby got da high beams for any desire. She's hot, burning with emotion - passion so deep, she ain't jokin'... she ain't playin' - will beatcha down. Betta step off, or hit da ground... She's running wit da big dogs, stay on the porch - this ain't no game, baby's got da torch, 'cause - "

"She leaves 'em smoking - so watch your back! Nighttime's coming when creatures attack. She'll drop a body, dead or alive. She works da rhythms like a nine to five." Rider laughed, making J.L. join in.

"Go, Jose, get your energy on, my brother," Big Mike teased.

"Ain't scared of nothin'," Jose said with a smile, picking up from J.L., "ain't worried 'bout a thing. Baby's locked and loaded when she steps in the ring. The wise will tell you, ya betta step off, 'cause - "

"She leaves 'em smokin'," Rider repeated. "All day and all night. Li'l sis ain't bluffin', check her stance. Fights fire wit fire, the only chance. Baby owns the high road, ain't kickin' it low - "

"Will hunt cha down, so act like you know." Big Mike picked up the tempo and winked at Shabazz. "I ain't lying, just ask her friends. Hunts like a panther to the very end..."

Satisfied that his medicine was working, Mike laughed hard. Even Dan was tapping out an offbeat rhythm, though his spastic ass couldn't rap. Everyone on the team laughed except Marlene and Shabazz as the others kept the beat, and each freestyled a verse, adding to it, releasing tension.

"Smoking." Rider jumped in again. "Watch your back. Baby got da high beams, don't lose track."

"Smokin' - hear what I'm sayin'? Smokin', I ain't lying, smoking, leaves 'em cryin' and dyin', smokin' like a house on fire, smoking, and your only chance, betta - "

"Enough!" Marlene yelled, bringing an end to beat-box revelry. "You guys think this is a joke?"

"Naw, Mar, it's a great concert entrance song to go with her new weapon outfit. Screw it," Rider said with a nonchalant chuckle. "If we gotta do this, then let's do this. You wanted new music, we're all fucked up, everybody's head is twisted, and we have to get a show right before tomorrow. But, no, we don't think this is a joke. Trust me."

Jose shrugged. "Look, we're in the business, we're all artists - need new material to come out smokin'."

J.L., Big Mike, and Rider looked at him and laughed, and started beating on the edge of the weapons table in percussion harmony again.

"You're awful quiet, brother Shabazz," Rider said with a sheepish grin as Marlene stormed from the room.

"Do you know what the significance is of the seventh trait that you guard? The last thing that will happen to our girl on her birthday?"

The team fell silent and gave Shabazz their attention, casting nervous glances between them. Finally Big Mike shrugged. "She'll get stronger, the hunts more dangerous, she'll have to ward off a master who might be sniffing around her, like Carlos, getting hopeful - we're just having a little fun while there's still something to laugh about. You and Mar need to chill."

"On her birthday she becomes a vessel for both sides. Every seven years a female Neteru can either produce another vampire huntress, if made with a guardian - or her womb can sustain a vamp. Her antibodies against vampirism don't kick in until her birthday, didn't you all hear Marlene before?"

Shabazz finally nodded when satisfied that their expressions were suitably terror-stricken enough to produce reverence for the issue.

"Shit," Rider whispered. "Like, man, I thought we were guarding her coming into some Zen-master-slayer state or some shit like that, I mean for real for real, so I wasn't really all that concerned, given our girl was getting stronger and shit, you understand the shit I'm saying, right? Holy shit!"

"You're babbling, Rider. And watch your mouth, like Marlene has been telling us for years."

"Fucking A, I'm babbling, Shabazz. Damn."

"You think Marlene would be all freaked out just because Damali is getting stronger, and might get a rush from killing a vamp? Stronger, able to draw them out of a lair - that would be a good thing, right? Think about it. It's the vulnerability that Marlene is rightfully trippin' about."

"This is too deep." Jose slumped over the table, leaning on his elbows, and shook his head.

"Profound is a better word," J.L. murmured. "Like the bullshit of legends."

"I'm still not following," Big Mike said, ignoring the group's dismissive glances of impatience.

"What the hell is not to understand, Mike?" Rider was walking around swinging his arms wildly. "One of them does her, and it's all over."

"No," Mike said, shaking his head. "Why now? At twenty-one? Talk to me, Shabazz. She's like my baby sister."

"It has to be a guardian that sires, or - "

"Aw, shit, we do not need that level of complexity in the group, dude." Rider began circling again. "Aw, man, aw, man, aw, man..."

"Relax. She has one hundred and forty-four thousand guardians on the planet to choose from. Remember? Nobody in here needs to worry or get their hopes up - the chemistry would have already been identified by now, and he would have been led to her... and he hasn't been. Correction, he was, but that's history. His choice. Shit happens."

"That's cool," Rider said woefully. "Okay. I can live with that. But, just for the record, anybody know who Prince Charming was?"

J.L. slapped the back of Rider's head. "Listen and learn so we can do our job, man. It was supposed to be Rivera, but he chose the dark path."

"Ow, fine. But don't try to act like nobody else never thought about it."

Big Mike grabbed Rider by the shoulders and sat him down hard on a stool. "Shut. Up. Rider. And listen."

"Vampires can't breed... their seed is dead, and in the females, the wombs are dead, right? Nothing ages on or in them beyond the age of the host's death." J.L. rubbed his faced with both palms and then began walking. "They make more of them through the bite. Period. I don't understand how a Neteru - "

"You're right, except if a Neteru willingly gives vampire seed a host - that's the choice. Not whether or not we sent a hunting party to New Orleans, or to do the concert. Please!"

Now Shabazz was pacing. "On her birthday, our Neteru's sensory patterns will lock in and her body is going to change again to add the seventh sense - which uses all senses, and she's going to have to fight a craving that's as bad as the vampire thirst. She'll be in here like a damned junkie. On the positive side, if a guardian gets to her, or the initial fertility season passes, then we have no issue, and we're cool for another seven years. But, if the vamps get to her, then we've got a serious problem. There's a one-month window when her system, for lack of a better term, reboots - old antibodies flush, she's susceptible to the vampire viral infection, and it takes a month for her to be restored."

"They'll try to turn her, right? So we just have to be on red alert during this first one-month vulnerability window?"

"No, Jose. Were it just that simple. If she gets bitten and impregnated before her full tolerance is set, which is synergistic to the vampires' romantic proclivities - biting is an integral part of their passion process, all lusts are involved when they... You get my drift. She'll only have enough antibodies in her system to keep her from turning, but not anything else in her body. It takes a month from her birthday, till her next cycle - her first full cycle after her birthday, for her to be in the clear. Are you hearing me?"

"Talk to us, Shabazz," Rider murmured. "If there aren't enough antibodies flooding her system when it's virally infected and she conceives, the cells will first ensure the host, the Neteru, is not endangered? The antibodies won't help the fetus if there aren't enough in Damali's body to assist both, is what you're saying? Everything about the way she was created is meant to keep her fighting?"

Shabazz let his breath out hard. "Yeah, Rider. Plus, if she gets into a telepathy lock with a master, she'll want him to bite her, like a dare almost, to draw him to her. It's her hunting instinct. But the possible backfire is, within the lock, she'll also be feeling his urges as strongly as if they were her own. She can transmit, and she can receive and feel him - has to in order to locate him. The right guardian will be lead to her the same way one day. That's the double-edged sword of the telepathy gift, though. A master vamp will be trembling to bite her. She'll feel that primal desire, too. But she won't have a natural fear of it, because instinctively she knows it can't hurt her - and that's her vulnerability - the fearlessness. It'll kick in all of her hunting instincts, which are a real turn-on for the male vamps. Gentlemen, consider the reality of a huntress that was genuinely afraid of a vampire bite; do you think that human entity could repeatedly go into harm's way where she could be bitten?"

"No," Big Mike murmured, his expression one of stricken awe.

"Right," Shabazz said evenly. "And trust me, fellas, if she has that master vamp in a mind lock to be able to track him, her instinctive goal to always get to his lair to terminate him, but she will transmit her first flash of competing desires back to him - and he'll oblige. It's a dance. She lures him, he steps to her, she pulls him harder until he can't stand it and stops hiding from her. Then, it's on. Whoever is stronger, wins. Think back on those roiling emotions of your first time, huh?"

Big Mike walked in an agitated circle and began wringing his hands. "Oh, brother, brother, brother. That's some powerful feelin's. You ain't scared of your momma, your daddy... will walk through fire to - "

"Mike, why do you think me and Mar have been a nervous wreck? She's grown in human terms, but in Neteru physiology... Damn. Look, problem is, poor baby girl does not understand that she could host a daywalker. Her protective instincts would never allow us to drive a stake into an infant vamp when it comes into the world bearing fangs... then they'll have her. She would flee to be with them, if for no other reason than to protect it. She'd hide in their lairs, they would provide her hybrid child food, amnesty, teach it their ways, and it would be daywalker royalty. And our Neteru would willingly agree, once humans attempted to eliminate it, because what mother doesn't want her child to belong to a society that accepts and protects it and gives it opportunity to thrive?"

"Basic instinct," Jose whispered, his tense gaze fixed on Shabazz.

"We thought Mar just didn't want her to go to New Orleans because she'd try to rush a master's lair when she was too young, before she was strong enough to hang. Didn't know they could do something like that to her." Mike scratched his bald head and looked away.

"Damn..." Dan whispered. "This whole experience is so freakin' deep..."

"You ain't seen nothin' yet," Rider said, giving Dan a disgusted glance. "She's just vulnerable for this first time out, though, right, Shabazz?" He searched Shabazz's face for confirmation, growing more alarmed as he talked. "I mean, after this one, then she's cool, right? Can handle herself... like Marlene said?"

"My brother, Lord have mercy," Shabazz sighed. "While that may be true, if they get to her on any of these ripening cycles, they'd take very good care of the huntress queen in the den. She'd be the only productive female in the line that could keep siring more daywalkers - because the master male vamp would risk his very existence to protect his empire builder... which means she'd definitely become his woman. We'd lose her from our topside family for good."

"Damn, Shabazz," J.L. whispered. "Imagine, a Neteru, with mother instincts and warrior capacity, thinking she was protecting the ultimate innocent - one that she'll be telepathically connected to from the moment life sparks. Brothers, a normal human female gets superhuman strength when her young are imperiled. Women have lifted cars up to get their babies out from under a wheel. Wanna do that times ten, and go for a Neteru's child? And we just witnessed what the potential daddy can do."

"Now we are on the same page," Shabazz breathed out slowly. "Worst part is, if one of us does get to that vamp progeny, assuming that we even could... her spirit would wither. She'd never forgive the forces of light. She'd lose hope, faith, love, and she'd die."

"So, this seventh sense thing all boils down to... basic, natural... Wait. You mean to tell me that - "

"Don't even say it, Rider. Yeah. We're guarding her honor on her first time out, so to speak."

Silence held the group hostage. For a moment the team just passed stricken glances between them.

Shabazz walked away from the table. "You saw her morph in the street, yourself, Rider. You couldn't stop her. The second-generation female vamp set it off and marked a territory - that vamp wasn't telling Damali she couldn't have Dejesus, the body in the morgue. She was talking about the head vamp, Nuit. Raven was made by that master vamp. She was a second generation, and probably Nuit's present, but sterile, queen... Raven was strong - was made by two guardians, and gave off heavy DNA-generated scent when she was abducted and then bitten. But she wasn't the real McCoy." Shabazz rolled his shoulders and closed his eyes.

"Wait," Big Mike boomed. "I thought you said it had to be a choice? Raven got abducted, and that wasn't a choice. Plus, she got bitten. Probably not her choice either."

"They'll look for a Neteru before it comes of age and will try to inculcate that huntress into the vamp lifestyle, topside, by placing the poor kid within human vamp-helper reach. When it's time, by then, a Neteru will comply of his or her own free will - after years of brainwashing by darkness. But when they grabbed Raven, and sniffed her out - once they were sure she was a decoy, she was history. Marlene never really came to terms with that."

"We need to go easy on our boss lady," Big Mike murmured, and received a nod from Shabazz. "She's on our side, too. Don't get it twisted. All this is deep, y'all. I don't know how Marlene dealt with it."

Shabazz nodded. "Right about now, since the ranks seem to be closing in, Nuit can probably pick up Damali's scent, or has a conduit to pick up her trail - that's why Mar was guarding so hard lately. She had reason. And now we know which new second-level vamp he'll use as a conduit."

Rider and Jose looked at each other. J.L. whistled and then sighed. Mike just shook his head. Dan's shoulders slumped. They all spoke as one. "Carlos."

"No wonder baby girl was crying so bad..." Again, Mike just shook his head. "Damn. She loved that fool, anybody could tell. Even I prayed he'd get his shit together, straighten up his act and fly right. Now, can't nobody cure them blues. Her hope just died. She's gotta ride this one out by herself."

Rider blew out a long breath of frustration. "Been there. Wished she didn't have to ever visit living Hell. Ain't love grand."

"That's where Mar was coming from," Shabazz murmured.

"Let's stay on the point," Rider said with a weary tone. "We'll know when the exact ripening hits, right? Twenty-four hours of a birthday window is a lot of hours where anything could happen." Rider's gaze tore between the members of the group and finally settled on Shabazz. "I mean, after all, the team trackers... We should be able to - "

"No, unless you're her 'destined pair' guardian, even you guys with the noses won't be able to pick it up when the exact ripening starts."

"All right," Rider finally said. "Then, what happens if we just hook li'l sis up on a blind date, with a regular guy - one that we all approve of, one that she likes... and then go from there? Huh? That sounds like a plan."

"He wouldn't make it through the night."

"What? She'd rip his throat out or something?"

Rider looked at Shabazz, his eyes wide, but the others had the same expressions on their faces as well.

"No. The male master vamp would. He'll hunt for her till he finds her, and will fight to the death to claim her. Even if her first season passes, he will look for her until she's no longer reproductive. He's got a one-month window every seven years. She's twenty-one, that means we keep vigil for at least another twenty-five years."

"Twenty-five years?" Rider was walking again, shaking his head and mumbling to himself.

"Jesus," Big Mike whispered on a long breath. "What about her having other normal kids and - "

"She can have them, if she picks a regular guy... But the vamp that desires her'll perpetually hunt her - and the worst part is, he won't stop till he finds her. That's why we have to put this sucker down, permanently, so the girl can have a life."

Shabazz walked around his teammates, becoming frustrated at their lack of comprehension. "Don't you guys get it? Don't you read? Don't you know that the female being was always sacred? A strong woman, Neteru or not, can birth leaders of nations! She can be poor, of the humblest means, but her energy, her beliefs, her prayers, her values - what she teaches those that come from her can change history. The dark side is breaking our backs up here, compromising the strength of so many possible vessels of change!"

Shabazz held out his hands to the group, his words becoming more impassioned as he spoke. He walked in a circle, his arms sweeping now, as he tried to impart what he'd learned, what he'd witnessed.

"Gentlemen... from the great queens of the Nubian Empire - from Eve herself... she was made as the second prototype, after man, when the Heavens perfected the model. The human female was smarter, had more of the gifts from On High of mercy, compassion, understanding, love, trust, healing... wasn't warlike, and could produce life."

He opened up his arms and let his head fall back. "That's why she graced temples and was called a goddess - and then when evil had compromised enough men and gained a foothold, they erased her from the scriptures, from temple walls, and made her a second-class citizen - a breeder. That was not the divine design. But unprotected, no longer cherished, stripped of resources, the earth gift called woman becomes vulnerable - as do her children. More women and children reside in this poverty as the darkness hunts generation-by-generation, nation-by-nation, to find a weak vessel. They've been looking for a female Neteru for thousands of years."

Big Mike stood wide-legged, taking a battle stance. "The dark side knows this, the light weeps because of the abuse, and a woman's womb holds the possibility of nations, like our brother said - this is a serious matter. Shabazz, you are telling this group that for the first time in three millennia, since you and I did Kemet together, like Marlene's past life visions told us, we have a female Neteru to protect, and she could go down by a male vamp? Never. Not on my watch!"

"So, now, we're battling some horny Drac - "

"No, Rider!" Shabazz cut in, disgusted. "It's not just that. Damali is the first Neteru born that crosses two millennia since they made them. She's the strongest one the light has ever crafted! In the past, only a few females were made, because they posed such a risk - but after eons of the male vampire hunters being unable to protect a normal human female carrying a Neteru heir, and with this era being so in need of one, they cast Damali as the millennium bridge. The Covenant came to Marlene and gave her the word, that's how we located the girl after she was lost in the system for a while. We are to form a ring of protection: Damali in the middle, our core, then us, then the Covenant guards our back, the warrior angels guard theirs. This is serious, man!"

"Shabazz," Big Mike murmured, "she's young enough to have an heir every seven years, if I'm hearing you right, and that means four to five possible Neterus in her lifetime, flooding the new millennium."

Shabazz nodded and looked away, breathing hard. "For the Armageddon, brother. Damali, plus five, and the ultimate One who will come again from On High as a lion not a lamb - is six warriors of light, plus the Son, the Seventh, and ultimate warrior to lead during the twenty-first century."

"And, if she's compromised," J.L. whispered, "it can be six on the wrong side of the war, plus their top gun, who will remain nameless in this compound."

"I understand now why Marlene wants her to be able to discern who to be with, man. She's got five windows of vulnerability. Plus, she can't lose her confidence her first time out in this huntress transition, 'cause we might not always be here, or there may be a time when our guard post is breached like it was tonight, and she has to know how to pick up a false reading on her own." Jose blew out a long, weary whistle. "Marlene must be spazzing out."

"Daywalkers, Shabazz... what exactly can those things do, man? All joking aside," Rider whispered. "What are we up against if our girl makes the wrong choice?"

"Neteru crossed with vampire makes a daywalker. Topside chaos. All the dark powers of vampires, and all the evil, able to live on anything we eat, their preference for blood notwithstanding - with no daylight shield to protect us. Plus, we just learned that Nuit's line, the ones seeking Damali, are hybrid - mixed with revenge demons. I can't even fathom what that combo unleashed up here will do, brother."

"Shit..." Rider spit on the cement floor again, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and sat with a thud.

"Damn, man, we told you - give that nasty habit a rest." Jose pushed himself up and began looking at the table, rubbing his chin. "Daywalkers. If a brother and a sister were made, and connected... ?"

"A brother and sister? You have got to be kidding me! That's, that's eeeiiilll - yuck! God, we've gotta drive a few stakes very soon, fellas, 'cause the mating habits of vamps know no bounds!" Rider was on his feet again, and this time Big Mike didn't shove him to sit down.

"That's the deal," Shabazz sighed.

"Why do you think there were rumors about this being done in some of the lines within the old human dynasties? Hell, it happened in some of the Indian empires, and amongst the Incas, Mayans... the Romans and Egyptians, Europeans, Chinese - name an empire," J.L. said in a weary tone. "They all wanted to keep the bloodlines intact, in the family. Cousins, siblings - it was all about maintaining absolute power... topsiders trying to break this Rubik's Cube of DNA code, and a lot of the rulers from the vampire-human traitor ranks, empire leaders, have been trying to break this code since the dawn of time for the vamps. They were close to it, but didn't have both Neteru or guardian halves."

"Fucking genetic engineering the old-fashioned way." Rider sat again on his own accord and just simply shook his head.

"If it goes down, it'll be the beginning of the end of life as we know it," Shabazz whispered. "The daywalkers have eternal life, can reproduce indefinitely, as well as bite and transform a normal vamp to give it a viral immunity to sunlight... they can essentially bring all their nations topside, and the reigning sibling king and queen would be at the very top of the food chain, but still beholden to their father - the master vamp in their bloodline. Power unlimited. That's what Nuit is after, and he's about to open the gates of Hell on Damali's birthday, on five continents. Do you understand?"

"They've already found our Neteru, dude," J.L. said, his words stilling the group. "Probably figured out who she was when Raven saw Damali, in state, and - "

"Another reason why Marlene didn't want Damali out in the street battling so close to the time. What I can't figure out is why this compound isn't under siege as we speak? Rivera already got close and confirmed any hunch the vamps might have had."

"While we've got good security, J.L. - thanks to you, now we're sitting ducks. Before we were safe, because not even the phone company had an address, everything routed to the bogus location, and then switched here. We had the P.O. box; we drove in a different way each time. We've never sustained a breach. But they came right through our door. My question is, what, aside from UV light and our lockdown at the moment, is keeping them from trying to get in again?"

"Don't lose faith," Big Mike warned, his focus on Shabazz. "Beyond all technology stuff, that's our secret weapon. Faith. That's the first and last ring of defense - prayers."

"It's the alpha and the omega, buddy," Rider agreed, picking at the edge of the table as he spoke.

"You know, now that I think about it, it wouldn't have been to Raven's advantage to unseat her own reign," Shabazz said, trying to calm himself and restore confidence to the team. "The planetary alignment told the vamps, just like us, that a Neteru is on the earth, and that her time is near - but the planets never say where. Not to mention, we have every holy order in vigilant watch prepared for battle, knowing the time is near. Something went down. If Damali is so valuable, Raven wouldn't have tried to off her. Nuit wouldn't tolerate that. And, Rivera showed up in here and didn't attempt an abduction. Hmmm..."

"Problem is that at present, a lot of energy from the side of light is getting squandered while we duke it out topside with general-purpose chaos, instead of doing what the vamps just did - coming together and doing this thing united." J.L. raked his fingers through his hair and looked out the window.

"I know, J.L. We're losing good warriors daily who have been manipulated and compromised by the politics." The reality made Big Mike search out a stool and sit down heavily. "Doesn't make sense."

"True dat," Shabazz said in a far-off tone. "The head vamp has been searching for her in the chaos which covers his tracks, and the trail to find our hidden Neteru had to have led him to the one guardian, gone bad, that could have gotten close enough to her... that guardian would be in her head, she in his head... the chemicals connect at the soul level. I don't think that thing between them has ever been broken, plus, he's a born tracker, courageous fighter, master strategist."

"Don't tell me," Rider sighed. "Carlos was definitely her destined-pair guardian? For real?" Rider shook his head. "Now I'm done. Just stick a fork in me."

Shabazz's voice became very, very quiet and he put his head down on the table as he finished his thought. "Until we all just sat here and talked it out, I just didn't want to deal with it. That's the link. Raven just got in the way for the second time. But there's a sure-fire vulnerability that our Neteru has, beyond all these other transitional issues, and they found it."

The team glanced around and only Jose was brave enough to say what they all had known for a long time.


Shabazz nodded. "He took the fallout, and the poor bastard didn't even know it. Just like in our camp, they turned vamps all around him to keep an eye on him - so close to Damali's time. The vamps wouldn't even trust human helpers to stay with him and on the Neteru's trail. It was too important. That's why they've come for our folks, too. They knew he was the one - because Carlos spotted her years ago, and had the instinct to protect her... even he didn't comprehend why she was so important to him. If she'd gone with Rivera and entered the drug life, she would have been so susceptible to the forces of darkness, and they thought they had her - then we got her away from him, and therefore away from them... but the link, oh, fellow guardian brothers... damn it all... the link between them was never severed." Shabazz swallowed hard with his eyes closed, and he breathed through his nose with his head still down.

"Carlos still has the Neteru scent from when Damali first mildly cycled seven years ago - he didn't even know it. He never touched her, because she said no." Shabazz sat up, glanced at the door, and flexed his fists. "I would have felt it if he did. But he had the scent - tracker, par excellent. Makes sense. He came from good people, was surrounded by prayers, women of faith, made a good warrior from the streets, but he walked from the light into the dark for power, money, material gain, and got marked. The dark simply picked up on her scent from him - 'cause she's in Rivera's head, man, like a life raft - and she instinctively knows she is, and won't let him drown - they're linked in spirit, even though she wouldn't go along with his program then, and I pray she won't now. But they've been in a spiritual tug-of-war to pull each other to their respective sides, paths, for years. What else can I say?"

"Deep," Rider murmured. "You can feel shit like that, brother?"

Shabazz dismissed him with a hard glance and spoke to the rest of the team, straightening himself up and giving Rider his back.

"Free choice, their paths were being separated by choice, then. She went light, he went dark... and with every negative transaction, Rivera came closer to the lower-realm provinces. She was still a kid, and didn't have the trinity number on her - twenty-one - so her trail wasn't as strong. That original scent held by someone sliding deeper into the negative side of the choice gray zone brought them to him," Shabazz whispered, "and Rivera is the only one that can deliver her to them. She trusts him. We saw that tonight. He could get her to relent... they need his head to get inside of her head. You dig? Now drop it. This upsets me too much, and I can't talk about it anymore, like Mar can't."

"We gotta talk about this, Shabazz," Big Mike said patiently. "The fellas need to know the deal." He looked at the team. "Why do you think Marlene is always on us to guard our words? Words are formed by thoughts; when spoken, they vibrate and cause tone, tone sends vibrations to the realms. I'm an audio guy, I know. Words are a manifestation of thoughts - you must think it, before you can do it or speak it, hence Damali's gift. The spoken word. Thought is energy. Energy, like electricity, travels, astral travels, is airborne - and J.L., you ain't got enough security to lock that down."

"That's why Rivera being in her head is so dangerous. He's a thought." Shabazz pushed himself up from the table and yet spoke quietly toward it, looking at no one. "The Prince of Darkness is prince of the airwaves, and all his legions down below can mess with thought. That's why one's mind is the beginning or end of all things, must be guarded - can't let any and everything assail the psyche. Everything is corrupted at the thought level first. That's what the dark side enters first to break a spirit - it's the mind, then that directs the body, and the spirit is history. Get it. Dig it. Never forget it. They are coming for our Neteru's head to get to her body and spirit. Okay."

"Oh, shit... if they've picked up some of my thoughts over the past few months - might as well hook up a black box to my skull and call it adult cable." Rider wiped his palms over his face. "I liked it when I was drunk, and foolish, and an irresponsibly free man. This is for the birds. This is living on the edge - not what I was doing before."

Jose chuckled. "You can always go back and do it alone, fighting lower-realm demons solo, dude. Remember Arizona?"

"Jose - "

Mike stood, walked to the door, and listened hard, which stilled the argument brewing between Jose and Rider. "Wrap it up, fellas."

"But wait, Mike," Dan protested, his eyes still wide since the time he'd been stalked by Raven. "Carlos guarded me! You guys said he was supposed to be guardian material, but made a choice. If he was bad, then - "

"Damali's link, before he turned vampire, was to what good was still left inside him. All of us have a light side and a dark side, that's the yin and yang principle, the ancient ones knew. So, even though she stepped away from Rivera and his drug life, a part of her always wondered, what if the light can prevail. That's not just the way of a Neteru - that's the way of a woman. Period. That's what gives women strength to raise children, the divine aspect of forgiveness."

When no one spoke, Shabazz gave Dan a piercing look. It was not one of contempt, but one that was sent to convey the seriousness of what he was telling Dan.

" 'Cause I did time," Shabazz murmured. "I watched a lot of sisters keep coming to the glass for brothers who were put away for a long sentence, or for terrible things... and I could feel them all hoping for the same outcome - 'what if he changed.' It was the saddest thing in the world to witness... even sadder was, if those men dug deep, they actually could have changed. Dark claimed them first, though. That's the margin of error - you just never know what free human will is gonna do. Even the angels don't know. Made me philosophical."

"Can't we just keep her here until this situation passes?"

"No! Then it's not a choice, it's just circumstance, logistics - her soul has to decide. She has to let the choice wash over her, feel the intensity of a dark pull and know that she is in full control of her impulses, or she'll forever second-guess herself. That moment of hesitation in battle, or when faced with a vampire seduction or second-guessing when in a demon zone, could cost Damali her life. I'm done with this subject!"

"Wrap it up, gentlemen. Mar is on the move and about to come into the hall."

Shabazz held up his hand to Rider, Jose, J.L., and Dan who still had more questions as Big Mike motioned for them to quickly drop the subject, backing up Shabazz's earlier request.

Tags: L.A. Banks Vampire Huntress Legend Vampires