Blood from the faucet couldn't run fast enough, and when the tank had drained, he'd ripped the plumbing out and sent it crashing against the wall. The rack of bottled elixir of life was soon also gone, and he stood before the marble butcher-block island in the middle of the lair, holding himself up on outstretched arms, heaving in air from the exertion of the sudden gorge. The worst of it all was that he was still hungry. There wasn't enough adrenaline in the tap or in the bottles, wasn't enough fight or flight hormone left in the concentration. It had aged, wasn't fresh, wasn't potent. The substitute was okay for an old don who didn't still have the hunt in him, but not for a twenty-three-year-old master! His nails dug into the marble. Tonight, after what he'd just been through, he had to eat. Now.

The noise behind him didn't make Carlos start, just growl. Bring it on. He needed a good fight... a bloodletting. He wasn't afraid of anything at the moment, especially not Nuit.

Carlos turned slowly; if Nuit touched him he'd die.

"Whew..." Nuit said quietly, his expression awed as he rounded the butcher block, and Carlos squared off on him.

But Nuit's tone wasn't threatening; it was oddly reverent... if the word could even apply. Carlos watched him, his snarl becoming a deeper growl coming from inside his chest.

"If I didn't know better," Nuit said, thoroughly appraising Carlos, "I would swear you were a master. There is not even a flicker of deference or fear in your eyes. The Neteru drug has that effect?"

"If you touch me, reach out to wipe a drop of sweat off my brow, you'll draw back a nub. I promise you."

Fully transformed, a low rumble came up from Carlos's insides to back up the threat. Nuit smiled, and simply inhaled.

"My friend, I don't need to. The air is so filled with her scent, I'm getting a contact high just standing in your kitchen." Nuit shook his head as the sensation riddled him. "We sent a tracker - to watch your back - and they followed you to her sanctuary."

Carlos pushed away from the center island. His gaze narrowed. He was prepared to attack, but needed to know Damali's condition. That was the thin thread of reason that held him like a frail choker chain.

"Talk to me!" A section of the island fell away, made instant rubble under Carlos's fist.

"Relax. We followed you because we thought you were in imminent danger, and you're valuable - you're family."

Carlos kept his gaze steady while Nuit circled, watching him become intoxicated and aroused by the air around him. The hair stood up on Carlos's arms, and he could not retract his incisors now if his life depended on it. Even sharing her scent with another male was intolerable at this point.

"We have had men stationed beyond the light border at her compound to protect her from incursion by the Vampire Council since last night," Nuit explained. "We are on the same side, you and I. Remember that. And our trackers saw you arrive, call her right through the barriers - just breach the compound and slice through significant prayer lines."

Nuit opened his arms in total disbelief. "It was the most awesome piece of undercover work, and demonstration of pure lust - power - I have ever experienced. We all stood out there, watching you - awed."

Carlos relaxed his stance a bit, the imminent danger to Damali making him garner reason. Logic thrust past the battling emotions he could barely contain.

"You seduced her to tell a team of guardians to literally turn off the lights? We were all out there just dumbfounded, looking at each other. We watched you through the gates once you'd breached their prayer lines. You stood before guardians, Rivera! Walked past holy water. Goddamned brilliant execution! Then gave them some ruse that flamed up in their hands, and took her - right in front of them, scored their wall, slammed their generators, and walked out." Nuit shook his head. "I'm still trembling from just watching you work."

Nuit put shaking hands behind his back. "There's not enough territory to mark for something like this. My remaining dons stood with me; I called them. They had to see it for themselves. I brought them away from a feeding fest just to witness the incomprehensible. A brand-new second? Then you rent the air with her scent and howled till it ran through us all. She had you under the moon, on your knees with your arms outstretched begging her for mercy, setting off coyotes in the hills. It was unbelievable. And she came to you, snapped a cord to them, and said yes. We heard her broadcast it. We all just looked at each other - stunned. The connection was so hot, Rivera, she sent you back an evolutionary step into practically a level-five werewolf transformation!"

Nuit paced like a caged animal as he spoke. Total, gripping fury mixed with vampiric humiliation tore at Carlos till he had to send his line of vision to a point on the wall. But then he had to pull his glance to anything but a wall. This violation might as well have been a wooden stake, and that, with the frustration of his request being heard and blocked was almost more than he could bear. If she only knew. Only a very thin thread of his objective remained... play the game. This time for her. So, he said nothing, and took the abuse, thinking of how many different ways one could kill the same entity.

"Carlos, we were in a state of pure awe," Nuit ranted on, too excited to be anything but oblivious to Carlos's reaction. "You looked back at her compound and through UV - called her again - even after they knew what you were, and she came to you? Her guardians had to hold her to keep her from your call... Neteru - a vampire huntress? Unheard of! Absolutely unheard of... I told them, we were watching a new generation of vampire being evolved, and I had made it - invented it, and it was born within my line. Maybe the demon alliance is creating a new mutation within us, a stronger hybrid when there's a serious vengeance issue at hand? Who knows?"

Nuit threw his head back and laughed, totally high, and then looked at Carlos. "I am so proud. What do you want? Name it... except her."

"I want the Jamaican's territory. Tonight. I want access to the third-level demon tunnels so I can travel at high speeds. I like New Orleans."

"I don't know..." Nuit hesitated.

Carlos wiped his brow and walked over to Nuit, and slapped his face with a lightning strike of force. "Think about it." Then he stalked back to a neutral position. "I want access, and power, and the package I'm delivering is worth it. I told you. Don't fuck with me, I'm in - and she's got no natural defense against me."

The blow made Nuit hold onto the edge of the sink for balance as the drug of Damali's scent washed his system and convulsed him. It took him a moment to recover, and he pulled himself up slowly. He gazed at Carlos with open admiration. "It's pure Neteru. She's never been with anyone... at her human age? Undiluted. There's undiluted first-love passion in it... not illusion. Even transformed, she had no fear of you - and the woman wanted you back as much as you wanted her? Do you know how powerful that is? How rare?"

Stunned, Nuit touched his cheek where Carlos's hand had landed. "The Jamaican and I have had a long-standing relationship as far back as the sugar plantation export days in the islands, but business is business. That was then, this is now. His territory comes under new leadership tonight."

Carlos nodded, trying to collect himself. "What's the plan at the concert? How do I bring her in? My cover is blown with her people. My personal defenses are down - I'm compromised. I don't know if my system can handle another invasion... I'm too near the border... real close to the edge of taking a stake to try to get to her. Almost got torched tonight." There was so much truth in what he said that Carlos could feel his hands shake.

Nuit noticed it, too. The credibility of the emotion couldn't be denied, and it sent a shudder through Nuit as it passed through Carlos's system and connected them for a moment. Nuit exhaled sharply and hissed.

"Damn, the drug is so pure - we'll have to help you detox before you try to go in tomorrow night. You've got one-hundred-percent, totally open Neteru in your nose. Carlos, listen to me. You have to clean your palate; you must eat and get something to bring you down - you're too high right now. You're not in full control, and that's never good. You'll OD, and I'll have to kill you. You're shaking like a junkie."

Carlos closed his eyes. "I know," he admitted, not able to deny it. "It was the kiss, and the telepathy spar. Don't ask me to go back in without a plan. One more hit like that, and you will definitely have to kill me. The Vampire Council already sent a sniffer for me - put one of their marked human helpers on the force... had to do him tonight."

"We saw it in the newspapers. Heard about it in the alleys - but couldn't get to the innocent cop, because he'd said a prayer out there in the darkness. The light got in our way, so we had to let him go. But we do know they're setting you up to have your assets taken. No matter. We'll give you everything in the Jamaican and Dominican's zones. Your human territory was small anyway, by comparison. We have plenty of people in the media to reverse the story to give it a better spin to your advantage."

"What's the plan?" Carlos steadied himself, trying to keep his focus, his bearings. He had to know.

"I have compromised human stars. The Stars D'Nuit - the stars of the night. They get a few drops from my veins each night... the human digestive system is so fragile and their food is so easy to taint. It keeps them connected, but not fully turned... they have to cast an image, but they also have to do my work."

Carlos nodded, listening intently as he watched Nuit lower his guard.

"Each one will keep the crowds mesmerized at the five concert stadiums in Russia, China, Australia, South America, and terminating in North America - L.A. If you noticed," Nuit added with a smile, "it forms a giant pentagram, with Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and much of the Caribbean in the middle. The lines mark our borders. Everything in the center of it is the sixth jewel - the territory."

"I thought you wanted her to perform in my club, not the stadium." The change of venue without him knowing about it first made Carlos wary, and it was going to be a stretch to convince Damali of anything now. Surely by this point, like him, she was coming down, and coming to her senses - which meant she'd be on full alert against him.

"No," Nuit replied after a moment. "Your club is too small, and I want her surrounded in a venue where hundreds of my forces can contain her. I want to be sure that we have no problems. You'll have to get her to agree to broadcast live from the larger venue."

Carlos nodded; she had just talked about wanting to do that. Interesting.

"I think I can do that. I'll tell her to think of the possibilities - how many more people she can reach... and I'll tell her I'm taking her to meet the man who can give her access to the world - on stage and on film. From there, you gotta work it."

Nuit chuckled. "If you can get her to me, and manipulate the dark side of her desires to the surface, maybe using the lure of fame, or her ego... then trust me, Carlos, I will as you say, 'work it to the bone.' "

It took everything in Carlos not to react. He just offered a nod.

"Souls of the audiences will be open, receiving, willing, and hypnotized with our vibration from the under realm, and per your promise, and excellent seduction, we'll bring Damali out last. The crown jewel that will crown all of our territory. When she comes onto the stage, she will have the audience on their feet, and at the end of her act, we are going to open up a cavern right there onstage and pull her in. The audience will think it's the best theater they have ever witnessed. Magic. Poof, she's gone. Our time, she'll be gone an hour; topside, it will seem like only a few minutes. Be right by her side when the silence comes. All I need is an hour, Carlos. You understand?"

Carlos became very, very still. He studied Nuit. "In the tunnels," he murmured. "What am I supposed to do, then? I don't have demon passage yet."

"Be her escort, we'll handle getting you amnesty. I made you, so once the Amanthras pick up your hybrid scent, it will be done. The tunnels are getting dangerous, though, even for the demons on our side to guard. They, too, have factions you should be aware of. Their old councils don't want to embrace the change - but, like us, they have rogues we've been able to develop alliances with. However, the Vampire Council has sent up a hit squad, too. Their messengers are half demon, half vampire, loyal hybrids made to allow the council members to feed from the topside without risk of a nightly surfacing... and these messengers know the tunnels well. We lost a few good seconds tonight in foreign territories - that's why I ordered your full protection from all my topside forces."

"But, once I'm in the tunnels..."

"Nonsanctioned vampires move slower because of their full vampire density - unlike hybrids that have the lighter demon portion of their structure, an attribute of the higher realms above the sixth. But remember, if any master or several seconds get into a demon zone, we are formidable. Don't worry. We have every one of the demon traits of evolution from levels one down: invisibility of the ghosts, kinetic energy of poltergeists, possession capacity, shape-shifting, we have the wolf hunt in us like our once-removed brethren, werewolves - but by the time one has evolved to level six, we have more power - which is why we grace the top of the food chain. Jealousy is rampant amongst the levels; all aspire to be where we are."

"If I'm hearing you right, we're denser and move slower in the tunnels, and can be surrounded easily by faster-moving entities underground." Carlos studied Nuit hard. "Why didn't you show me around down there before, so I wouldn't have a problem?"

Nuit smiled. "We had a trust issue then." His smile broadened to offer a hint of fang. "I gave you a glimpse of my topside assets, but would never show any new turn the route to my lair... however, I think we've resolved those issues between us."

Carlos nodded. "I don't like moving slower than anything else down there, especially carrying precious cargo."

"Alas. That, I have no power over. It's supernatural law. What I can give you is the slight speed advantage through my amnesty pact with the demons on level three."

Again, Carlos nodded. "A human female might slow me down, because of her density, which will put her at further risk. Her body heat alone will draw demons and vampires from both sides like sharks. The blood scent will create a feeding frenzy."

Nuit walked in a circle. "That has been a concern for me, too. You'll have to carry her in your arms for delivery speed and safety. If she goes willingly, she won't struggle and further slow you down. Bring her quickly to New Orleans. I'll have a bridal chamber waiting."

The two stared at each other for a long time. It came down to this; once Damali left the stage, it was on. He and Nuit would battle in his own lair.

Nuit studied him through narrowed eyes. "You're so distracted right now that I cannot get a telepathy lock on you, although I don't need that power to know the thought of carrying her gives you pause. Your energy and attention will be scattered as you travel at high velocity... carrying cargo that you can't feed on for nearly forty-five seconds, and carrying a woman that you want so badly you'll be ready to risk your own neck. It gives me pause, too. But while you're traveling I can't meet you, even halfway. The tunnels don't work like that. We'd pass each other or collide in the vampire band we've been allowed to travel within. If I snatch her onstage, she will fight me, slow me down, and the demons we have no alliance with will only register a slow-moving object - and attack us both. Even some of our allies might mistake the heat tracer the Neteru gives off in their zones. She must travel without a struggle. I'm going to have to bank on your knowledge of what I'll do to you if anything goes wrong. We do understand each other, n'cest pas?"

"Once I deposit her, then what?" Carlos held Nuit's line of vision in a deadlock. "If I'm jonesin' that bad, I'll need something to bring me down fast."

"I'll have a brand-new second generation laid at your feet, three if you want. New Orleans's best cuts, I promise. Or, just three innocents that are still warm? You'll be weakened, disoriented, and shaking - and will need to immediately feed. Don't forget yourself and try to fight me for her. That won't be a good idea, because I assure you, I will have just fed to be ready for her... and will not be suffering from any such weaknesses."

The threat was an honest one. Carlos smiled. Cool. He'd been warned. Information was power. But he also knew Nuit would be alone. Even he wouldn't risk having a couple of seconds or thirds in his lair with a Neteru dropped off at his door - her scent was potent enough to make his own guards try to take him down.

Obviously accepting Carlos's smile as agreement, Nuit relaxed again. "Good. We understand each other. After you come down at bit, you can go topside, and enjoy New Orleans nightlife, pick out a lair. Listen to some jazz and relax. Or, go to London, Romania; take a transatlantic transport to see some of our most glorious historic sights. Amuse yourself."

Carlos shrugged. "Tell me more about this Raise the Dead ceremony at midnight."

Nuit smiled. "Brilliant, isn't it? With that many humans focusing on a dark prayer at the same time, all around the world, it will open every lair portal that has been sealed since my line has been in existence... When the Vampire Council incarcerated me, I was unable to protect my provinces then, and every time the humans have killed one of us in-coffin, it has sealed an important lair. But, with those old gates opened again, we will come up through safe passages - with our demon allies, feed at will, and turn two hundred and fifty thousand innocents at once. While the concert feeding takes place to resurrect and strengthen those once lost on my line, I will take my bride - and bring her back out onstage when I'm done with her - to face the new world."

"Two hundred and fifty thousand of us will wipe out the food resources within months, maybe a year."

"But our daywalker gestation doesn't take a year. One bite, vampire-to-vampire, even from an infant, and the virus spreads. It's exponential. My inner circle will receive it first, and we'll spread it quickly to the deserving members of the Minion colonies. Like I told you before, I have six hundred and sixty-six in mine... the other masters in other regions... alas. Like everything else, he who has the gold makes all the rules. Power is supreme."

"The existing council?" Carlos began pacing again.

"They become second-class citizens. Total wipeout. They will not be given access to topside, the new virus, or other food sources. Those we don't kill will eventually starve - then the demons can have total access to their sixth realm. We won't need levels one through six, we'll all be topside. That was the truce, and the demons loved the concept."

"Sounds like a plan," Carlos said in an even tone. Made sense for Nuit not to have clued him in until he'd proven inner-circle-level loyalty. This was a crazy-major expansion. A total coup. He hated to admit that it was brilliant. But there was a flaw to Nuit's plan and his mind raced to seize the advantage.

In their lust for power, the rogue demons hadn't considered the environmental effect. With no more humans topside, and day-walkers too strong to possess... where would demons multiply, populate, and eat? They had been very short-sighted. Stupid, for short-term gain. Their old councils were correct. What good were the levels, if there was no one to haunt, to make scream, to devour?

Carlos remained quiet, watching Nuit watch him. He wondered what ruse Nuit had used? Wondered if Nuit never told the Amanthra rogues how deadly a daywalker infant bite would be, or how short a vampire gestation of this kind would be?

That made sense, since there was no archive of history about this in the demon realms - only a council throne member would have such knowledge. They'd probably assumed they had more time or had been promised to be made ultimately into vampires - something Nuit would surely renege on. Carlos almost laughed. He'd have to figure out a way to make contact for a discussion - so he could move slowly without attack. A messenger might be the answer, and a messenger had brought him the maps.

"Nuit, I'm tired," Carlos finally said to break the deadlock. "I'm not thinking clearly and I need to feed, so, if you'll excuse me..."

"I brought dinner." Nuit laughed. "After what you just went through, the loyalty you just demonstrated - you think I wouldn't honor you? I do have manners, and a hell of a lot of respect for you now. I am a Southern gentleman of high breeding, after all. There are just some things that are done a certain way, with protocol. Period."

To Carlos's horror, upon Nuit's signal he watched a young girl come down the steps of the lair escorted by his best friend, Juan, his brother, Alejandro, his cousin, Julio, and his homeboy, Miguel. Sadness impaled him as he watched his family. They were in too deep, just like him. He'd never wanted it this way, and he knew there was only one way to release them from the bondage... the Vampire Council had sanctioned the hit. They'd just never know the real reason why.

"Yo, hombre!" Julio shouted across the expanse.

"Yo!" His other two friends yelled in unison.

"Stranger, que pasa! Man, why didn't you tell us? This is da bomb! You livin' large. We been eating and partying all night!" Alejandro said laughing, going to Carlos for the first embrace, the young girl in tow.

When Alejandro hugged Carlos, he caught a whiff of Damali and his eyes slid closed in ecstasy. Nuit laughed. His brother held him back at arm's length and gazed at him with amazement.

"Oh, shit!" Alejandro whispered in awe. He held out his fist and gave Carlos a pound. "Daaaayum! See, I told you Carlos was always the one. He got da product of life! You descended, bro, moving serious weight, now. Doing good for yourself, as always. Damn."

Carlos kept his gaze steady on the young girl. She was high. Couldn't have been more than fourteen. She was in a den - a freakin' lair with a hungry pack, and had no idea and no way out.

"Look. She's too young. My brother can tell you, I never did them that young. Send her back to her mother. Now."

Nuit simply chuckled. "That's because you've never tried a young one before. Tastes like veal - still tender, succulent, no gristle or tough skin. Smell her, Rivera. The fattened calf, for everything you've brought to the family. I know it will never compare to the offering you just had to walk away from, but, on me. Please. Por favor," Nuit crooned seductively, "unless you want an infant?" He smiled. "Perhaps next time?"

"Send her back to her mother, man," Carlos said as his brother smiled, fully fanged.

"Who do you think gave her to Nuit for us?" Alejandro chuckled.

"Her mother pushed her into my limousine, said make her a star... didn't care as long as she got paid." Nuit shrugged. "You know how many parents come to me of their own free will and just hand over fresh kill for a few dollars?"

"I'll do her," Alejandro said anxiously, retracting his fangs before the girl saw them. "Carlos was always a picky eater," he added, joking and glimpsing the girl from a side-glance.

The young girl giggled and swayed, totally blitzed. "All a'y'all is fine. Damn. The money don't hurt neither. You can take turns. I can hang. My momma don't care, as long as I break her off a li'l something something when I get made into a star - so, shit, why should I care? Don't nobody care about me, but me."

Carlos looked into the child's eyes and saw Damali. Heard the same words - Don't nobody care about me, but me. And he remembered shaking his head then, and telling her that wasn't true. He did. He swore he'd protect her... wouldn't let harm come her way... remembered how she'd turned her chin up to him, trying to be brave and not cry, when she'd realized she was homeless, on the run, with nowhere to go - street wolves and danger had been all around her, and his baby had thought she could hang... he didn't violate her, she was just an innocent scared kid, and he'd put her under his gun, and protection, till Marlene and the guardians stole her away.

"Do you pray?" Carlos asked the child, hoping she did, so maybe when she died tonight her soul could rest in peace.

"You playin', right?" The child laughed. "Pulleeease. I ain't no church girl."

Carlos closed his eyes.

"She ain't tainted, hombre. Won't leave no aftertaste." Alejandro glanced at Nuit. "My brother is used to da butter. Don't consume anything but the best. Never did, dats why he's da man."

"I know." Nuit sighed. "Once you acquire a taste for the best - "

"Send her home - or somewhere else, but - "

"See, he's a punk," the child said boldly, motioning to Carlos and sauntering over to Nuit, who just smiled.

"No, cheri. You just aren't woman enough for him. Pity." Nuit shook his head. "Delightful, isn't she? Has attitude. May even put up a small struggle. She will be afraid, I promise you... That helps, owl? The adrenaline kick off of this one might help you come down, Rivera. Consider it."

"My name ain't no Sherri, and your boy is too a punk," she taunted, rolling her eyes at Carlos, outraged that he didn't want her.

"He's got Neteru in his nose, bitch," Alejandro corrected. "He don't want you after that."

The girl laughed and leaned on Nuit, stroking his chest. "I'll try Neteru. How you do it - what's it like? Ecstasy?"

"Oh, to be sure, but better," Nuit murmured low in his throat. "You've never experienced anything like it. Trust me."

"Send her home, y'all," Carlos said, his tone low. "Not this one. Not here."

"Yeah, he didn't even want Juanita when we was all living da life," Juan said in a wistful tone. "Told my crazy sister to do my boy right - but you know, Nita was raised in the church... prob'ly couldn't hang wit what my boy was throwing down. But, like, I was trying to keep it all in the family and shit, so our money would all be linked in the squad."

"You've got a wise group of associates," Nuit murmured, stroking the girl's nylon wig, his gaze roving over her scantily clad body. "We used to do that in the old days - arrange the marriages, keep the power lines uninterrupted. Your daughter marries my son, we all stay wealthy, you know how it was done."

Juan chuckled. "Yeah, but my sister was always in Carlos's face about leaving all that behind, so she got dumped. Prob'ly why he's squeamish about this one, too. I was gonna go home and turn Nita myself for him, and my mom, maybe hook my little brother up in the business, but they had this bullshit prayer line around them."

"Yeah, mine, too," Alejandro sighed. "Forget them. That was then, this is now."

Relief for the living dueled with the remorse that ate away at Carlos as he heard his life being reviewed, but not understood. They just didn't know. Nita had been pushed away for her own protection, so she could maybe have a normal life; even while he was alive he'd made that decision.

"This one ain't worth it," Carlos said, keeping his tone even, casual. He neared the girl, sniffed her, and turned up his nose and shook his head while his insides churned from the tension.

"I'm worth it. I can show you." The girl laughed. The vampires around her did, too.

Carlos just stared at the young girl for a moment then walked away. Juanita had said the same thing, always jealous of Damali. She'd also taunted him to take her just to prove a point, a misguided offering of her body to make her appear more grown, more woman, and more willing than Damali... until he'd succumbed to the temptation after Damali left - but it hadn't changed a thing. That was before he knew better; you couldn't replace what you really wanted. Carlos glanced at the girl. Baby, sometimes you ought to let sleeping dogs lie... sometimes when the big, bad wolf says he'll pass, you oughta let him. You might wanna be in the mix, but

some company you don't wanna keep. This child simply didn't understand. Neither had Juanita. Carlos sighed.

In those days, it wasn't a fatal bite; it was a fatal life he was trying to save an innocent from. At his side, Nita could have gone down one day in a war, and like Damali's, her heart was too soft to come to an end like that. He'd stepped away from both for the same reasons... albeit Damali was the one that he had never been able to forget. The other women after her had all been living vampires, like Raven, only with a heartbeat. This young girl was about to fall in the latter category, if she didn't die.

But he didn't have time to think about all that right now. The child had to get out of there. Carlos couldn't take his eyes off the girl who was getting ready to be dinner for a devil. Maybe if he could get them to hand her over, he could tell them he wanted her for all himself, and could take her to safe -

"We gonna eat, or what?" Alejandro smiled. "I'm hungry as a motherfucker, and Carlos is just playing with his food... walking around, sniffing it, trying to decide, and just looking at it hard."

"Can't wait for the concert, though, man," Miguel said, laughing and pounding his fists all around. "Will be off the hook - we're doing the tunnels wit'chu to watch your back - like old times, while you make that important delivery - might have to drop a few bodies... then, we gonna eat, drink, and be merry. Cool? You got our high-speed passes, right, Nuit?"

"Yes," Nuit said with a level gaze on Carlos. "Your inner circle will escort you to my door, then immediately take you back with them. We'll reconvene onstage shortly thereafter. I'll have food for all of you left at my front door. Like I told your brethren, eat it in New Orleans, or wherever, just help Carlos feed and get the drug out of his system so we can all stay brethren without incident."

"I feel you. Cool," Alejandro replied in a cheerful tone. "We got his back - won't let him do nothing stupid while high, then everything stays smooth."

His posse nodded. His homeboys gave Alejandro a fist pound and nodded in Carlos's direction.

"Exactly," Nuit murmured. "No unfortunate incidents."

Carlos's gaze shot between his homeboys, his brother, Nuit, and the girl. He was definitely in Hell. Everything dark that he'd ever done was now topside, twisted, but similar in so many ways to the predator life he'd lived. Nuit was skillful, his brother and his friends were thirds and an easy takedown, but hard for a weakened second to combat alone... and Nuit was banking on that moment of hesitation that he knew would be there - dead or alive, it was always hard to do family, so he'd sent them to escort him to New Orleans. Just to be on the safe side. Wise move. A variable he hadn't considered while under the influence. His bad.

In the split second of contemplation while he thought about his family, Carlos watched without being able to get in between the child and Nuit's body fast enough.

Nuit's hands had gone to the sides of her babylike face, and she'd closed her eyes and leaned up to offer her mouth with a smile. It happened so quickly that time seemed to stop and restart in slow motion. Carlos simultaneously reached for the girl, opened his mouth, and yelled, "No!" unable to get her before Nuit's massive jaw had unhinged while the child's lids were down. In a flash, Nuit's mouth had covered her nose, her lips, and had blown out a powerful breath. Her lungs expanded, Carlos came to a skidding halt as her ribs cracked, blood ran out her ears, then emptied the sockets that had once contained her pretty, doe eyes. Her back had exploded, sending quivering meat and organs flying, and then Nuit calmly dropped her at his feet.

"What's the problem?" Nuit asked with annoyance. "I gave you first shot, you declined."

"Yo, Carlos," Juan said with concern, "you can't expect a man to pull up from a kill like that, right in the middle, past the point of no return." His gaze nervously shot between Carlos and Nuit.

"Was your timing, hombre," Miguel said, shaking his head then shrugging. "We can bring you something else after we eat. Let it go. Nuit gave you first shot - you slow you blow."

"Well, shit, don't just stand there," Alejandro argued while laughing. "Have a rib." His brother closed his eyes and moaned when he put bits of flesh into his mouth. "The meat is just falling off the bones, Carlos. Try it - damn, this is tender."

The fact that saliva was building in his mouth as he watched them eat upset Carlos so badly he had to get away from the scent.

"I'm going to take a walk," Carlos muttered. A child was dead in his house. She would never go home. In the blink of an eye, she'd been murdered. There was no home for her to go to, anyway, but the concept just fucked with him. He had to get air.

"Rivera, I am sorry," Nuit said, putting a hand on Carlos's shoulder as he passed him. He then looked at the confused group. "A hunt interrupted twice in one night, give him some space - he's ready to kill."

"Can we crash here, Carlos?" his brother called behind him. "This place is all that."

"Only if you stay here and let me go to the Jamaican's - alone!"

"I'll go take out the Jamaican right now while you hunt," Nuit offered. "Let them remain here, and feed. You go hunt, and gather yourself. By the time you get back, the Jamaican will be ash. Fair exchange is no robbery. Some ethics must be adhered to, or there'd be no honor left in the land." Nuit sighed and nonchalantly wiped the gore off his suit.

"Peace. It's all good." Alejandro shrugged and glanced at his feeding friends who also just shrugged.

"Whatever," Carlos snarled and bound up the steps.

Nuit licked his fingers. "He's coming down - Neteru's wearing off, and he's going to be nasty and hard to live with for a while, until he eats and regains his composure."

Alejandro nodded. "Whatchu gonna do? You know my brother has always been stubborn. You offered him a Valium," he said, glancing at the remains of the girl on the floor. "But he didn't want one."

Nuit shook his head and sighed. "My stubborn son... what will I do with Carlos?"

The group murmured agreement, snarled, and continued to eat.

"Sanctuary! In the name of God, we claim sanctuary, Neteru! The Covenant needs your protection! Open the doors!"

"We got hot body readings - two," J.L. yelled across the room. "On camera and incoming!"

The guardians all stared at the screen as a sword-bearing knight of Templar in a blue catholic priest's robe huddled against the compound door with a Moslem cleric. Both were yelling, brandishing weapons, and looking behind them as though something invisible, but horrible, was chasing them.

Marlene gasped. "Open up fast, and let them in!"

Rider swore hard as he paced between the monitors and weapons table. Shabazz, Big Mike, and Dan got to their feet as well.

"It's like a revolving door tonight," Shabazz muttered. "But they're human, let 'em in out of the dark."

Big Mike picked up a cannon. "Get Damali, Mar. This is deep."

Within moments, the huge metal doors unlocked as J.L. worked the control panel, and the terrified men rushed through it. UV lights flooded the hall and their boots splashed through the receding puddles that had been caused by the sprinkler system.

The team waited for them at the end of the hall, both sides still waving weapons.

"Hold up!" Shabazz yelled as they neared the entrance to the equipment room. "Damali's been through enough tonight. She doesn't need any additional drama, and ain't throwing down in no battles that aren't hers. You need to know that up front, so state your business."

"We need to get word to the Neteru. An important message from On High."

"Stand down," Marlene ordered, "and let them in."

No words were exchanged as the motley team quickly advanced into the weapons room. They were dirty, ragged, looked like they'd been in a serious battle. Both of them were breathing hard. The guardian team glanced at each other in confusion. Damali ran down the hall, hearing the commotion, and came to a halt, her eyes widening in surprise. She stepped forward and looked at the one dressed in royal blue who wore a cross.

Immediately the man before her dropped to one knee and turned his sword to point down, the hilt facing the ceiling. The other man followed suit, their heads bowed in deference. She stood there, shocked, not knowing what to make of it.

"I am a knight of Templar, and Asula is of the Moorish order. There are twelve of us total, and we all form the Covenant. We pledge our allegiance from all sectors. Neteru, it is an honor that we never thought we'd achieve. Bless you."

"A Templar knight?" Marlene whispered, then blew out a long breath. "Oh, y'all, this is big. Trust me. These guys usually don't do house calls - only visions."

Dumbstruck, Damali glanced around at her team. Shabazz shrugged, Marlene stood wide-eyed, even Rider looked perplexed. Everyone in her group simply stared.

"Uh, gentlemen," Damali began slowly. "Ummm... well, first, stand up."

Damali stood back as the men before her slowly stood, looking at each other for approval to do so.

"I don't quite understand," she said slowly.

"The fallen have begun amassing forces tonight," the man in blue said. "Your compound was surrounded, just outside of the line of light." He used his sword to point toward the windows as he continued to explain.

"We kept hidden in the foliage around the dwelling inside the ring of light. Then, mysteriously, the lights went out for a few seconds."

The guardian team cast a glance at Damali, who cleared her throat.

"Yeah, well, we had an issue... uh, go ahead. I'll explain later."

"Yes, we knew of this issue, and that is why we were here. But many creatures immediately drew to the darkness. Thankfully, they were wary of the perimeter, and it kept them at bay. We waited," the man in blue said, still trying to catch his breath. "Then we realized there had been a breach of the fortress when the lights went out again, and the dark entity that had been inside your compound sanctuary fled. But we couldn't tell which entity it was." He looked at Damali hard. "Neteru, were you harmed?"

"No," Rider said casually, "just had her mind blown for a minute there, but our girl regrouped."

"Shut up, Rider," Marlene snapped.

"Praise Allah," the Moor said, relaxing his hold on his machete.

"Good. Praise the Almighty," the blue knight added, letting his breath out hard. Relief visibly washed through the two warriors. "Then it went deep into the woods across the road - we didn't give chase because there were too many of them. But we could hear his howl for miles. We weren't sure if it was wounded, or if it was gathering more forces. So we prepared to battle within the perimeter of your lights." The knight looked at Damali squarely. "If we are to die, so be it. We do so with honor. It is a privilege!"

"The bastard wasn't wounded, per se," Rider quipped. "But she did get him in the heart. Homeboy was in agony when he left here, that's - "

"Rider! Watch your mouth in front of clergy, for starters. And we can do without the comic relief," Damali snapped. "Let the man continue." She folded her arms and tried to steady her breathing. She could only pray that these guys didn't have a seer in their group. She was still struggling to bring her thoughts under control.

"He attacked you... You got him in the heart?" the knight asked, looking at his brethren, confused. "But it didn't die?" He cast another glance around at the other armed cleric. "If you drove a stake, or the Isis, and it was able to still move, then we're dealing with something now, that... I understand now why the warrior angels told us to stay by your side. To answer your call. They said you wailed in abject defeat, and that we had a Neteru down... slowly losing hope, faith... maybe even love. They left us, didn't even disperse the demon line - just said, 'Have faith.' The dark line retreated as soon as the one maimed stopped howling. We waited until we thought it was safe to approach your door. Oh, Neteru, but we were obviously too late."

The Covenant members hung their heads, their weapons held in relaxed grips as they stared at the floor.

"The angels heard me cry?" Damali then covered her mouth and closed her eyes. This could not be happening.

"Always, Neteru. Your tears are diamonds. Your heart holds light. Your words are a beacon. Your thoughts have power. They heard it all. They sent us, but we're too late."

"Can we just stop beating around the bush with these guys?" Rider asked as he walked around in an agitated circle. "Everybody always says, 'Rider, shut up.' But I think this is one time that a straight without a chaser approach is called for. Geeze Louise."

Marlene nodded. "For once, I agree with Rider."

Rider opened his mouth and then shut it, and raked his fingers through his hair. "Gee, Mar... now I don't know what to say."

"Damali let it in here, because she trusted it - it wasn't her fault," Big Mike said in his deep, soft voice.

"He had us all going for a moment, and even duped us with phony maps of Hell. Can you believe it?" Shabazz said, the anger clear in his tone. "We all dropped our guard, so Damali isn't at fault... silver-tongued bast - I mean, devil."

"That she trusted him, like that, had our poor sister in tears," Jose said, shaking his head. "She deserved better."

"Wait!" the knight said. Both Covenant soldiers seemed to revive as they passed excited glances between each other. "You say he brought you maps?"

"Yeah, but they burned," Damali said quietly, her gaze going to the window as she turned toward it. Having the light shine upon her most private weakness made her feel too open, too vulnerable, and it was still so tender a wound. "It was only an illusion."

"You said that the Neteru had injured it, had struck it in the heart?"

"Yeah," Rider said on a long breath. "The guy had a thing for her - before he was turned - and crossed the threshold on her invitation." He gave Damali a sideways glance. "Then he gave us the maps, explained all this bizarre stuff about Hell... am I allowed to say that word in front of you guys?"

The knight nodded with impatience. "Just speak, man! All of our sensory capacities are overloaded after our encounters with the beasts."

Rider looked at the group with a sheepish expression while Damali walked farther away, her arms wrapped around herself.

"Okay. So, we were all reading the phony maps, and he kept looking at her like he'd eat her alive - and we now know that he will - so we were on guard because something was fishy. Then Damali went to him, hugged him, and, I don't know how to describe it." Rider raked his fingers though his hair again while walking and shaking his head. "She kissed the sonofa... she kissed him," Rider sighed, checking himself, "and he snapped."

Damali's team nodded as Rider opened his arms, using his hands to talk.

"It was like, wild. He grabbed her, laid one on her like I have never seen a man kiss a woman in my life, the maps burst into flames, our alarm system went into a frenzy, she was crushed against the wall - trying to scratch him to get him off of her - then he took a chunk out of the wall with his claws!" Rider pointed to the wall where five grooves remained as evidence. Satisfied when all heads turned and then looked at him again, he pressed on.

"The girl was in shock, I tell you. She couldn't breathe and the SOB hit the lights so he could get out, passed our sprinklers, which initially wouldn't respond. J.L. was going nuts at the panel, trying to get our shields back up. It happened so fast, not one of us could get a shot off. Then Marlene took her - because he howled and poor Damali had this dazed look on her face like she might go to him. With me and Shabazz and Mike holding her, I thought we were going to have to put her down. But thank God, she came to her senses." Rider was breathing hard and his voice became quieter as he took a breath to deliver the last part of what he'd witnessed. "Then, we heard her sobbing... I never want to hear her cry like that again. I'll kill whatever tries to take our baby sister there."

All of the members of Damali's team nodded their silent agreement with Rider.

"That's our baby," Big Mike said in a low, but forceful tone. "The only reason we know she got him was that his shirt had a big hole in it over his chest - when she got that in, who knows? There was so much chaos."

To everyone's surprise however, the knight and the Moor were smiling. They each blew out sighs of relief and began slapping each other on the back. Damali looked around at them, turning slowly, just as confused as her team by their sudden jubilation.

"Forgive me, fellas," Rider carefully asked, taking his time, "but we just got our butts kicked, got breached, and had a Neteru almost go down. This does not seem to be Miller time, if you ask me."

"She got him." The knight laughed joyously. "Right in the heart."

"Did you hear what Rider said?" Shabazz boomed. "He walked through a holy water barrier - held our sprinklers back. He had a hole in his shirt, but not in his chest! Maps of the demon realms burned under our lights, and our systems went down, twice!"

The foreign squad kept chuckling, and Damali's team stood tense, waiting for them to explain.

"That was our marked man. Had to be Rivera." The knight glanced at his comrade for confirmation. "There were two master vampires out there, hence our alarm. But the one we're protecting got into the compound, and exited safely."

"Carlos Rivera?" Damali walked closer to them.

"Get outta here," Marlene whispered. "The Covenant is protecting vamps these days?" Marlene weaved a bit and leaned against the weapons table for support. "Now I've heard everything."

"Yes. He's a possible double agent. Delivered the maps as we requested - and didn't deliver a death bite... when... uh... how can I say this delicately, Neteru... uh... it was very difficult for him not to." The knight swallowed away a smile and looked down at the ashes on the floor. "Those were the maps?"

"Yeah," Damali said quietly, watching the knight and his partner hard.

"Then we reconstruct from memory."

"Not before you tell me about Carlos," she said in a distant, quiet tone.

Again the entire group went still.

"We are not at liberty to fully disclose - "

"What happened to him?" she yelled, rushing forward. "You do not get maps, we do not continue to talk, unless I get some answers. I have walked out on blind faith, time and time again... and yes, I have hit a personal wall where I need just a little hope, just a small sign, something to help me deal. Now talk."

Marlene let her breath out hard when the knight glanced at her for support. "I've already called on the warrior angels with constant prayers. They aren't getting in the middle of it because of the choice factor."

"That's what they told us as well," the Moor said with a sigh.

"Okay. But about Rivera... ?" Damali said, not letting the knight off the hook.

"He was marked by the darkness," the knight replied in a slow, steady voice. "They manipulated him to full rage and pain, in the way they'd killed his family - but his lifestyle was setting him up to be turned anyway."

Damali nodded. "I always told him that, but he wouldn't listen to me." Her voice was sad, no longer charged with impatience. She studied her hands.

"A master vampire, Fallon Nuit, bit him - but he immediately turned. That doesn't happen. It usually takes three days. But not only did he immediately turn, but turned master, which also violates supernatural laws."

"You mean a master vampire just waltzed in here and kissed our girl?" Rider slapped his head and walked away. "Marlene said he was, but me and the fellas were like, nah. If he was a master, this conversation now would be moot."

"But he didn't bite her?" Marlene glanced at the nervous team. "Or us?"

The knight shook his head. "At first, when he fell and came back so strong, we thought it was because the darkness in Rivera's heart was so powerful. But then we came to know that the Vampire Council had breached supernatural law, and made him. They have a division in philosophy, are at war amongst themselves - which means they aren't unified, and that presents an opportunity for light to seep in where it is dark."

"So, okay - the council made him? And - "

"Damali," Rider interrupted, "I'm still stuck on the fact that they have a council... like senators, and shit?"

"Rider, shut up," Shabazz urged. "Your language. Let the man speak."

"Because the law was violated, that gave us three days to match against their three stolen nights. The warrior angels aggressively went in at the moment of Carlos's death and retrieved his soul - which is in Purgatory as we speak. The Vampire Council cannot find it in the realms of Hell, and they are quite distressed. Carlos Rivera's soul is extremely valuable to both sides. He is a hardened sinner, worth the soul weight of one hundred good souls. For them, he is the only access to you... and he will fill a territory for the Vampire Council with one of their own to replace Nuit."

"What happens if he makes the wrong choice?" Damali asked in a strained whisper, almost afraid to know.

"The man is walking a very thin line," the knight replied, drawing a line with his sword on the floor. "He can go deeper into the dark cavern of the nether realm, and take the offer made to him by the Vampire Council. He can take up with the rogue vampires, whom Nuit calls the Minion, and assist Nuit's plan to turn two hundred and fifty thousand at once at the concert. They will soon be daywalkers. Or, Carlos Rivera can side with us... but we cannot guarantee him life or ascension without a period of atonement." He looked up at Damali. "But you have been heavily tipping the scales in our favor. The kiss, without a bite, was like a drug."

"What ..." Damali came closer to the knight and put her hand on his shoulder. "I don't understand... and daywalkers?"

"There is much at stake for Carlos Rivera right now. The dark realm's offers are much more seductive. We have little to bargain with. But you got him in the heart with all three weapons at our disposal. Your guardian seer-mother will explain all that there is to know about this... and will reveal the dark realm's plan as her visions increase." The knight stepped back from Damali and lowered his gaze.

"Tell me some of it, at least." Damali's gaze went from face to face in the room. Impatience seized her. "All this waiting, and stuff about being ready. I can't stand it another moment!"

"Faith, that the man could change," he said in a tense, emphatic tone. "You believed that he was better - could do better, and it pierced his conscience." The knight leaned in, his hand motioning to Daman as he counted off the points one by one using his fingers.

"Hope, that the man could see his own potential one day, and that he would embrace the right path. And, like you, he hoped that one day there would be a way for him to claim you, and you him. Very powerful shield against darkness." The knight let his breath out slowly, his gaze level and unwavering. "Then you drew the sword of truth on the man, coated it with love, and sent it right through his heart."

He stepped back and used his sword as a pointer. "You are girded in spiritual armor, young Neteru. The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, the shield of faith, your feet are shod in the gospel of peace - which you preach from the stage - and in your hand you have the sword of the spirit, the truth, which is the word of God. You were not unarmed when he approached you, and you vanquished the darkness within him - if only for a moment, or you would not still be standing. So, take heart, and do not ever lose the faith!"

Damali slowly looked down at her own body where the knight had pointed. Her team remained stunned, gaping. The knight and the Moor had gone to one knee again. Her eyes met the knight's. So much responsibility and she was still so young.

"Our young are the future," the knight murmured. "The task is daunting, but the young always lead the way, once the old become too blind to see. Joan of Arc was but a girl - "

"That is not a good example, dude," Rider said quickly. "Not if you're trying to get a pep rally going for our trip to Hell. The beginning of Joan's saga was great, but the ending sucked. Feel me?"

"What do you want me to do?" Damali glanced at the weapons table. A level of energy, power, confidence... something she couldn't define had reignited within her.

"It's your choice, and we cannot guarantee the outcome, or Rivera's choice - but lead us, and we pledge to follow you... yes, even to Hell and back, Neteru. All twelve of us will accompany you and your team on the mission. Every major faith will be there, united. The cause is great, the mission perilous; we have been instructed to go where you lead. One very entrenched sinner turning back is worth his weight in holy men."

Damali nodded. "Carlos could hand me over to any side, if he decided he wanted the power... and that has always been his weakness. It blinded him, and I am well aware of that."

Everyone nodded, and Marlene went to stand at Shabazz's side.

"I'm not afraid of him - or myself - anymore. And nobody is ever going to get me to go where I just went, again. I refuse to give up and be slain by some emotional drama." Damali looked at the group. "My choice has always been the same and it has been the light. I love Carlos, but I will dust him in a heartbeat for my family, or for the cause. It's bigger than him."

She pushed the existing weapons back from the table. "I am standing. So, we will go inside the belly of the beast, or die trying."

"I think she's cured," Marlene said quietly.

"You'd better hope so," Shabazz said, rubbing his jaw.

Damali glanced at them and then looked at the knight and his partner. "You gentlemen ever do a concert?"

"Oh, boy," Rider said with a whistle, his glance darting between his team and the Covenant representatives. When the knight and the Moor shook their heads, Rider found a metal stool and flopped down on it.

"We're taking in the whole squad," she announced. "I want knights in the corridors on flank, but they need to be on stage, too, to get in." She stopped, waited for them to nod, before pressing on.

"I want some new artillery, J.L. - new light systems; Dan, Big Mike, Shabazz, work on a new stage intro - I'm going to give them diva to make them think my ego just went over the top so they'll go along. Then I'm going to flip the script and do unauthorized songs - Rider, tune up your axe, and make that baby hum; the rest of you all work it out - heavy percussion, strong bass lines, take 'em up with chimes, cowbells, I want that joint rocking off the planet. I want some def' defying music out there when I do my thing for the crowds. We've got a little bit of time and a whole lotta work - and new people to add into the mix."

She walked around the table, her index finger tapping her lips. "Dan, get Nuit's people on the horn in the morning. Tell him I want to do the stadium, not Carlos's dinky little club - that'll suck them in. Tell them I want to talk contracts with Nuit, alone. But I insist on my own crew to set my stage... as a diva, I have that right. Then we lay for 'em, and breach their tunnels to seal them up. Nuit is mine. Can't wait to meet him. Dan let him know that I am practically trembling for the opportunity... and be sure you say it just like that, baby."

Again, the group remained mute, and gave their silent agreement. Their expressions seemed to contain a mixture of astonishment, revived commitment, and a little bit of practical apprehension - which was wise. But as she spoke and rallied the team, and they developed their plan, her spirit quietly revived from the blow it had sustained. No guarantees were needed. She had hope.

"Gentlemen," she finally said with a smile. "We are going to rock da house and bring down the light!"

Tags: L.A. Banks Vampire Huntress Legend Vampires