CHAPTER TWELVE

Tara's eyes popped open and for a second she didn't breathe; then she gently removed Rider's arm from around her waist as she listened to him sleep. She sat up in a smooth, fluid motion to allow him to rest, and went to the window.

She hugged herself as she listened to the familiar voice inside her head. It wasn't a sexual request, or even one delivered with rage, it was just a fervent bleating of her name in a tone so melancholy that tears came to her eyes. Her initial instinct was to just open the door and run toward the voice in her nightgown. But not wanting disaster, she became very still inside herself and remembered how to answer a master vampire's call. Her message was basic as she moved toward her suitcases to find a top and jeans: I will come to you so we can talk, but promise me that you won't hurt him. A shudder ran through her as she quickly stepped into her clothes. Once she'd responded,

the energy that reverberated inside her head was stronger than she'd ever recalled. Deeper, more sensual, more robust... denser. She had to find her shoes. Flip-flops. Then she stopped and stared at the bed. She had to let Rider know so he wouldn't wake up, panic, come out to the beach, and get hurt.

Hurrying to his side, she kissed him and gently roused him with several soft shoves.

"Rider, honey, wake up," she said quietly, trying to monitor the urgency in her voice.

"Oh, hey ..." Rider murmured, sleepily trying to pull her back into bed. "I woulda run down the hall to get some more - "

"No, no, listen to me," Tara said, holding his face with both hands. "I love you, okay?" His hands covered hers as he leaned up to kiss her. "Same here, just come back to bed and I'll show - "

"No," she said, holding his face tighter. "I have to go. This is something I have to do, and you can't follow me. I wanted you to know so you wouldn't wake up and - "

"Oh, shit and oh hell no!" Rider was out of the bed like he'd been shot at. He pointed across the room at the bedroom door that led to the larger part of the suite. "If a master vampire is outside this door, I'm gonna cause an international incident and unload a goddamned bazooka in here, Tara. So what the fuck is going on!"

"He did not violate our room, but he is outside on the beach. And yes I'm going to go down there and bring closure to this situation once and for all," she said in an eerily calm voice. "No, I do not intend to get bitten again. And no, because I'm a grown woman, capable of making my own decisions - free will - you are not barring my exit from this room like I'm a child."

"You have got to be kidding me," he whispered through his teeth. "After all we've been through?"

"Especially because of all we've been through." She looked at him calmly, but her gaze was resolute. "He deserves that - no less than if Gabrielle was out there." Rider walked across the room and yanked back the drape so hard it ripped partway off of the rod and anchors. "Last time we saw Gabby, as you recall, it took two Neterus to subdue her." He spun on Tara. "So, I'm supposed to just let my wife - a woman who I almost lost to this life forever -

just waltz out of this suite without a fight to go back into the arms of the very thing that killed her?"

Hot tears had risen in Rider's eyes and the anguish in his v oice was as heartrending as the call that was splitting her s kull She covered her face with her hands and took a deep breath and then drew them away to look at him.

"Gabrielle was bitten by Lilith, and too far gone. We have been over that a thousand times, if once, you and I. But if she hadn't been, if she was still here and trapped like I had been, or like Yonnie is now, could I look you in the eyes and tell you, no, you can't go finish it?"

"Yes," Rider said quickly, nodding and walking to stand in front of the door. "You could tell me, 'Jack Rider, I forbid it - because I'm your wife.'" He slapped his bare chest and walked over to find his pants and his gun. "You could tell me, 1 have loved you since the beginning, and if I lose you to a nick, I'll die, Jack Rider.' Then I would have to fucking respect your word as my wife." He hoisted up his pants and stared at her, then checked his clip.

"Did you respect my word when I said that just the other night? When you wanted to go

barreling into Lilith's lair with half the team? A place where, given all the nicks you've sustained over your lifetime of war with vampires ... could have made you wake up on any given night and flatline me, or worse, make me have to drive a stake into your chest," she said quietly, "man with a good heart. Did you ever stop to think how afraid I was then, until now?"

He just stared at her.

"Move away from the door, Jack."

"Don't ask me to do it," he whispered, shaking his head. "Please." She went to him and filled his arms and laid her head on his shoulder as his hand became filled with her hair while hugging a gun against her back. "Please don't ask me not to. It's the only way we can all rest from this."

He pulled back and looked at her. "Honestly, I know I can't stop you; if I did tonight, there'd always be the next night and the next until you went to him...but how do you know he won't take you away in a whirl, stun your mind, and nick you?" Rider's eyes searched her face. "I'm asking because if that was the only way I could be with you again, and I had eternity in front of me alone without you - I would." She closed her eyes and touched his lips to stop him from telling the truth. "I know ... because I felt Carlos's embrace signature in his call. They met and Carlos wouldn't allow me to go to him, if he knew. But as a bystander, a man caught in the middle, he left it as my choice. He didn't barrier Yonnie away or wrap an extra layer of silver energy around the room. He left it up to me." She sighed and looked up at Rider. "And he loves you and me both enough that he wouldn't allow me to be in harm's way."

"Then ask him to go to the beach as your escort, since I pose a battle risk. Do me that favor."

She withdrew from Rider's arms with care and slipped around him to open the door.

"Leave the man his dignity, Rider. You won. That's all Yolando has left."

* * *

"I followed yolando's trail to the beach," Lorelei said, looking into her crystal ball as she consulted with Lilith, Se bastian, and Nuit. "He is truly on your side. He attacked the male Neteru, sent a black charge into his chest. And when the Neteru stood to go to him, stumbling forward, dazed, Yolando sealed him close to him in a black-box." Lilith threw her head back and laughed as she paced behind her throne. "Perfect! Yonnie has already injured one of them and he's just been installed." She glanced at the image of Lorelei's seance that swayed within the sulfuric miasma wafting out of the opening in the table beneath the fanged crest. "Show me his injury and his containment ... I must ask Yonnie about this skill to produce a black-box."

Lorelei quickly brought the image of Yonnie's attack into her crystal ball for the vampires to see and then showed them Carlos inside the translucent box with Yonnie.

"He must have seduced him into a false sense of confidence, because the male Neteru never drew his blade of Ausar or used any of his other weapons. Look here, as Yonnie gives him a clear shot to take his heart, but when he stands, he is able to get close enough to embrace the Neteru."

Sebastian nodded and clapped. "Well done, Yolando." He lanced at Lilith. "And look at his retreat. Rivera is broken, his shoulders slumped, energy depleted ... he's been

psychically attacked."

"Oui," Nuit said, skeptically, "because as we know, Neterus cannot turn from a bite."

"But all he needed was to get the big male Neteru to stand down, to remove barriers for him, then Yonnie can get to the others through this one," she said gleefully. "His former mate."

* * *

Tara had gently closed the door behind her and then prayed down the length of the corridor that Jack Rider would give her ten minutes and stay put. It had become a mantra as she picked up her pace, willed herself not to run, and then hit the fire exit, practically jumping flights, all the while her mind was screaming -  Stay in the room, Jack. Please, baby, I'm begging you.

Breathless as she crossed the lobby, every conceivable thought pelted her mind. Top of the list was, was she insane? The message came back to her instantly. Yes. But she couldn't stop herself. The night was like a grappling hook, pulling her out into it, deeper and deeper, the surf of its endless midnight drowning her as she began to run, hoping with all her heart that Rider wasn't at the window ... wishing there'd been time to shower their lovemaking off her. She'd made her choice, but Yonnie deserved her respect, if nothing else, and she didn't want to literally rub his nose in her decision. She slowed to a stop, tears streaming and not sure why until she felt the presence behind her, his touch now cool on her bare arms.

"Thank you," he murmured into her hair.

She turned and hugged him but didn't speak. She couldn't.

"You're so warm now that you're alive," he whispered against her hair and then drew in a deep inhale.

She tensed and he shook his head.

"I know ... I've already separated out that scent of him being with you and discarded it. That's not what I'm remembering ... it's you ... your lavender, your ... personal signature." His voice broke as he fully enfolded her in his arms. "A scent that I never thought I'd ever have this close to me again."

He lifted his face up and away from her as his fangs started to lower.

"Yonnie," she whispered, her hand at his chest. "I did care." You made the right choice. I have a bounty on my head, he said into her mind, knowing the beach had eyes. I have to play this like I'm infiltrating your team, one-by-one, ask Carlos under a seal. . . but know that I always wanted this for you. The best. The Light. I couldn't give it to you. I just wanted to see you, feel you alive and warm and in my arms one more time. "I gotta go."

She stepped back and held her hand to her neck in keeping with his ruse, but also to stem the old ache that being in his arms had put there. But that made him turn, study the spot that she covered too long for comfort and brought a flicker of red to his normally brown irises. She began to walk backward as he slowly stalked her.

"Tara, answer me this, baby. Did you ever love rue, really?" She stopped retreating and held her ground. "Yes. And I fought with my husband for the right to come out here and tell you that," she said quietly. "What I never got to say was thank you."

He tilted his head and then looked at the sea. Tell me in my mind, they cannot read my thoughts... it's more intimate that way, anyway. Might be the last time we get to do this too.

She let out a deep breath of relief as she saw his eyes normalize. Thank you, Yonnie, for protecting me and honoring request not to be violated in Jack Rider's home. Thank "you for elevating me so I could protect myself, for being a gentle, caring, awesome lover... for feeding me, hunting for me and loving me so hard that... She looked out at the sea with him, now standing beside him. This isn't gratitude. This is deep, abiding respect and friendship, and I love you for that, loved you during that time. Yonnie lifted his chin and swallowed hard but when he spoke, his voice was composed. But you were always in love with him.

Yes, she said gently. But I never lied about that - and you knew that going in. He chuckled sadly and turned to her to draw her into an other embrace. I taught you too well. That's supposed to be my line.

I miss you, too, Yonnie. And I'm so glad you're alive... made it and aren't hurt. He closed his eyes and brushed her hair with a kiss, then allowed her blue-black silky tresses to fall through his fin gers in waves. Don't you believe it. I'm hurt to the bone, girl... to the marrow I'm fucked up. He bent and brushed her mouth with his despite her initial tense resistance, and deepened the kiss, not caring that use of a slight seduction trance helped. I have to let you go before I forget I have to let you go, and violate one of the oldest codes between me and my homeboy - never turn each other's marks. Tara came out of the kiss dazed, her body on fire, her brain nearly liquefied. He was stronger and his build was more solid... the fangs he withheld packed his gum line with energy that still resonated on her tongue. It was impos sible not to stare at him, as her eyes frantically searched every facet of his face, his hair, his body, trying to understand.

"You look good, too, baby," he murmured, his eyes beginning to flicker at her visual invasion.

She covered her heart with her hand. "You took a throne." Her voice came out as a strangled whisper.

He nodded and stared at her, feeling the urge to let his gaze become hypnotic, but then looked away. "'Bout an hour ago ... would love to have celebrated with you - but your husband would object."

She felt sand beginning to whirl and sting her skin as she sheltered her eyes. She watched him, squinting, as he pulled his cuffs down from under his black Armani suit, and brushed off his lapels, then was gone.

It took a while for her to will her legs to move, but even tually she stumbled forward. She knew what was going to happen when she got back inside, the brawl for it all, the ver bal WWE smackdown session would be in full swing -  either that or her husband's suitcases would be gone.

* * *

his mind was so wrung out from the shit Yonnie had dropped on him, but also so relieved that his boy was okay, Carlos just leaned against the inside of the elevator and closed his eyes. The walk had done him good. He needed to clear his head, let Tara know ... get Rider right, run it by Damali... there was just too much shit going on. His line-brother was

on a suicide mission and he couldn't do shit about it - and that fucked him up no end. Tonight, if D would just not launch into a thousand ques tions trying to develop solutions or a strategy... if she would just use her healing hands to wrap her arms around him and let him think, just quietly breathe right next to him, he'd be good to go. Because there was no way to put into words without just breaking down, how deep the knife Fate had stabbed into him was turning in his chest. His brother was straight fucked. There was nothing he could do. His brother was bleeding, fucking hemorrhaging, heart ripped out... and there was nothing he could do. And all he could think about was if Damali had ever died, and he couldn't even see her body to make it real, get one last look to say goo d-bye right and proper, he, like Yonnie, would be losing his mind. Then to find out she was alive and had married some other bastard?

Carlos shook his head as he walked down the hall to his suite in a daze. Please, God, let

'Mali be cool when I go in here 1 can't deal, if she ain't. Carlos fumbled with the room key and kicked the door when the credit-card key didn't make the little light turn from red to green. Trying to pull it together, he closed his eyes for a second, took a deep breath, and was about to try again when a hard grab spun him and a cinder-block punch dropped him.

Up in a flash, Carlos blindly dove into the midsection of the male who had dropped him, crashing them both through the adjacent suite's door. Mike's voice and the distinctive sound of a pump shotgun engaging made Carlos pull back the two-finger throat jab he had poised to remove an Adam's apple, and then jump up, thoroughly confused.

"Rider... what the fuck..."

Rider got to his feet, fury dulling the probable rib frac tures he had. "What the fuck?" he shouted as Guardians filled the hall. "I'll tell you what the fuck! What the fuck gives you the right to tell some vampire motherfucker -  friend of yours or not - he can call my wife outta my fuck ing bed and into his arms on the fucking beach -  that's what the fuck, Rivera!"

"Baby, hold my gun," Big Mike said, handing off the pump shotgun to Inez. He looked at Shabazz, who braced and got ready to grab Carlos. "Rider, man, let's take this convo under wraps - not in the hall, old-school security."

"Old-school security?" Rider shouted. "She got nicked! I fucking saw it," he yelled, making a lunge for Carlos as Mike lifted him off his feet. Hysterical, he twisted in the huge Guardian's arms. "I'll fucking kill you - you brought ™s bullshit to my door and she wouldn't take an escort be cause your hug signature in his call was safe! You lowered her resistance , her barriers, her natural instincts. And that sonofabitch put his hands in her hair and she came away holding her throat!"

Hot tears and spittle flew as Rider raged and younger Guardians helped Mike get him into Damali and Carlos's suite. Damali stood with her hand over her heart as they subdued Rider on the sofa, half-sitting on him as he yelled. "Black-box the room, baby," Damali whispered. "I'll get a purge ready," Marlene said quietly and then nodded to Berkfield. "The man might have a herniated disc, ribs fractured from going through the door with Carlos."

Berkfield nodded. "I'm on it."

Bereft Guardians stood around the main sofa, and then watched as Rider was able to almost throw Mike and Shabazz off him.

"Oh, goddamn, my wife can't take another nick - never again in life! You let her go to that sonofabitch, violated fam ily, all that we stand for, because of what? Tell me!"

"Let him up," Carlos said quietly.

Damali shook her head, as did Mike and Shabazz.

"Let him up," Carlos repeated calmly. "Because I didn't do what he thinks I did, and what he thinks he saw didn't happen."

The rage yell that Rider released and the surge of strength that went with it made the two senior Guardians have to re double their efforts to hold Rider down. Only Tara's image on the other side of the black-box made Rider cease struggling. That's when Shabazz and Mike heeded Carlos's command. Weary, Carlos opened the translucent enclosure for her, and then he sealed it.

Rider was on his feet but didn't go near her. Fury and fighting had made his face beet red and his eyes bloodshot. She stood calmly staring at him with her chin lifted and shoulders back and then spun slowly with her arms out.

"Not nicked," she said quietly. "Ten minutes to say good bye to an old friend who deserved my respect, then I came back, as promised, unharmed." Rider spat on the floor. "I didn't deserve your respect?

Ten minutes could have meant another whole lifetime for me and you darlin'. Mar, scan her. Old-school. She stepped out of the embrace holding her neck."

"I'll do it," Damali said, quietly. "Sorry, Tara, team policy, unless you're a Neteru." Rider's gaze narrowed on Carlos, but Carlos folded his arms over his chest.

"I'm going into your head, man," Carlos said, "because some of this shit I gotta say can't be said in front of the team...shouldn't be."

Without even waiting for Rider's okay, he bludgeoned his mind with the truth. He let him see the entire conversation between him and Yonnie, and then feel it - every nuance of the pain. Then without warning, he flipped him to the scene on the beach, and showed him everything he was quietly monitoring, except the last kiss.

You think I'd let Tara go out alone with a newly made councilman, even if he was my boy? Carlos walked up to Rider and pushed him hard in the chest, backing him up a few paces. I got a wife, too, man, and I've been a councilman - and I know how my boy feels about Tara! That's why I stayed outside, kept walking so if it got crazy, I could get her!

Just like I wouldn't let you disrespect him, I wouldn't let him disrespect you - aw'ight? So don't you ever come at me like that again without hearing my side. Tara's my sister; you act like you were the only one getting your heart cut out when she was laying under a black sheet, decomposing on that beach! Me and 'Bazz didn't want you to see her go to maggots - but you think it wasn't fucking us around? So after seeing you go down the aisle with her, I'd allow her to get a nick? I'm done. Fucking offended!

Too upset to wait for Rider's response, Carlos stormed out of the living room and headed for the bedroom, then slammed the door behind him. His breaths were entering and leaving his body hi hot bursts of rage, hurt, and disbe lief. He knew where Rider was, knew where Yonnie was, and seeing Tara torn only reminded him of where Damali had recently been. Right now, all of that was too much coming down on his head at once, and he stood away from the wall, palms flat, arms outstretched, trying to breathe. He heard the door open, and Heaven help him if it was anybody coming at him with some more bullshit tonight

A pair of soft hands caressed his back. A pair of warm arms slid around his body. A feminine cheek leaned against his biceps ... and he didn't calm down until a downy blanket of feathers swathed him.

She mercifully stood there like that for a very long time not saying a word, just shockabsorbing all the blunt-force trauma to his psyche. He would have stood there in that position of bliss if Big Mike hadn't knocked on the door and blown the groove.

"Yo, man, sorry to interrupt but the hotel is gonna have a problem with the door," he said, cracking the bedroom door open to speak through it without looking or coming in. "Any suggestions?"

* * *

"you see?" lorelei said with a wicked smile. "It worked. Yonnie got to her, and she went inside - Guardians began battling each other in the hall, and then we lost sight and sound."

"That's all right. I've seen enough. Their rooms are prayer barriered, you won't see more -

and you cannot see into the marital unions." Lilith walked back to her throne and sat.

"First mission - accomplished. Create dissension, mistrust, infighting."

"The dissension spell worked, then, Your Grace?" Lorelei asked anxiously. "I affixed it to Yonnie days ago, and made it adhere to anyone human who was seeking him. Then it would pass slowly and subtly to anyone in the carrier's inner circle, going to places where there were the darkest crevices in the mind first."

"Done very, very well as a plan B, since as we know," Lilith said, her gaze narrowing as it landed on Sebastian, "plan A failed. Miserably so."

"What is your bidding now? I am at your disposal," L orelei whispered with expectation.

"I don't suppose we'll need her to continue visually skulking around the beaches," Nuit said in a jealous, bored tone. " You might service the new councilman, should he stop by your coven brothel, and while he's there you might adhere him with more of your potions and deceitful spells, since he obviously came away denied a full reunion with his mate." Nuit looked at Lilith. "Something is wrong."

"He is employing patience, subtlety, biding his time," Lilith said. "I love a man who has serf-control."

"I've been down this path a time or two, and Rivera's spawn, Yonnie, is cut from the same black fabric as his first maker." Nuit refilled his goblet. "But what do I know?"

"All right. Point taken," Lilith said calmly. "We'll watch more closely, but it's too dangerous now to risk a topside thorough investigation by one of us. The Neteru King and Queen Councils of old have grown bold and prone to earth-plane hunts with impunity. They have even breached the Dark Realms." She sent her evil gaze toward Sebastian.

"Therefore, we work through the witches until we can strengthen our vampire ranks - the only truly worthy preda tor for a Neteru Guardian team." Sebastian smiled and glimpsed Nuit with smug triumph. "As you wish, milady."

* * *

"he told you, didn't he?" Tara said, standing just inside her and Rider's hotel suite door. Rider looked across the room at the suitcases, the muscle in his jaw pulsing. She walked forward and he held up his hand without a word to stop her.

"Yeah, he told me," Rider muttered. "He was with you the whole time, at the ready, just in case."

She froze and then covered her shock. "Good."

Rider's gaze suddenly snapped toward her. "He had his hands in your hair..." Rider closed his eyes and lifted his chin toward the ceiling. "He had his hands in my wife's hair - a fucking vampire," he whispered.

"Yes," she said quietly. "And like a true gentleman, let me go ... so that I could come home to you, where my heart lies." She moved toward Rider and placed her hand on his shoulder, caressing it. "I won't lie. Yes. He wept into my hair and said good-bye ... because my choice was to be here with you. And I told him he always knew that going in." Rider opened his eyes and traced her jaw line with the pad of his thumb. "I thought it was starting all over again and I just couldn't take it," he whispered.

"I wouldn't do that to you," she said, going into his em brace. "Ever, ever again." Rider stroked her hair. "Your hair... that's the part of you that led to the first time we made love." He swallowed hard. "I never wanted him to touch that part of you, does that make sense? Of all things, your hair..."

Tara took his mouth in a slow, deep kiss. "Come help me wash my hair, man with a good heart. He never ever washed it for me. That I swear on my old grave."

* * *

damali lay across the covers, her arm slung over Car los's side, just listening to him breathe. Tomorrow couldn't come fast enough. The Covenant clerics would arrive, they could have keys to the mansion, maybe bring in the furniture, get some tracks laid in the studio while Dan and Mar lene haggled with show promoters to quickly get their world tour under way. Her man had been through the mill, Rider was on the verge of a mental breakdown if Tara couldn't tell that man something reasonable, the team's nerves had been shattered, and just a few hours ago, it had all been good. What the Hell had happened?

She was way beyond chalking anything up to coincidence. Uh-uh. If the dark covens had risen, in the morning, when it was safe, she and the girls, sans Heather, needed to do a divination. But it wouldn't be some buck-wild crap. They'd

have a war room meeting in the suite, figure out who was going, who was staying, what kinds of possible barriers they'd need and go in before the Covenant could get there to delay the process with witch-policy issues.

They needed answers, pure and simple. There wasn't a hole buncha time to cull through the Church's dirty laundry of killing thousands of innocent women who were healers, naturopaths, midwives, plus Native American and African American herbal geniuses in the name of Salem's lot. Most of those left burned at the stake would have been like Krissy, Man, or Inez, any woman on the team, really, including her. Any female showing knowledge and strength at a time of persecution was toast. Marlene wouldn't have stood a chance. Nah, they had to do this thing fast and dirty, in and out, the Covenant could be backup at the concert and on the battlefield like chaplains, but right now, this was guerrilla warfare. Ugly.

Her mind drifted in a lazy pattern of admonishing herself that she really needed sleep, especially after healing broken ribs and fractured egos. But adrenaline was still coursing through her. Carlos's steady, even breaths of slumber helped created a comforting

metronome that was beginning to lull her, but still, her senses kept scanning the beach. Then she saw it and shot bolt upright, grabbing Carlos by the back of his shirt.

"Oh my God," she said, trying not to yell. "We have to go get it, put it out of its misery."

"What, what?" He was sitting up, rubbing his face, shaking Remy and sleep out of his mind.

Damali closed her eyes and put her hand over her heart as she got out of bed. "The little fawn. Yeah, he was a traitor hybrid, but the little guy was just scared, didn't wanna fight... and after what happened out there to Sedgwick, Hubert, and Sara, I can't blame him. Those hybrids were gentle creatures - the ones on the good side, anyway. And to be thrust into the kind of action we saw in Morales, no wonder they headed for the hills." They shoved on their jeans, quickly found T-shirts and sneakers, and headed out the door.

"Baby, he looks like Harpies half-ate him... I don't think he's gonna make it. And you can't bring him inside to compromise the team."

"I know," Damali said sadly as they made it down the hall. "I've gotta heal him on the beach, or..."

"Yeah. Put him out of his misery."

* * *

what she saw when she got to the small body being bat tered by the edge of the surf made her briefly turn away and cover her mouth. The poor little creature's eyes had been gouged out, and his small, childlike chest ripped, flesh shredded, as though huge claws had simply raked him for the fun of it. As his pink skin became a thicket of fawn hair she saw his genitals were mutilated, and the poor creature's right leg was half-eaten away, the left leg only hanging on by a compound fracture and gristle.

Carlos shook his head and quietly drew his blade of Ausar into his hand as the small creature moaned and began to blindly slap the sand, reaching for the presence he felt near him.

"Help me," he gasped. "They're slaughtering our kind, here and in Nod. The angel hybrids and those of us who are good. Please, nice angel lady, help me," he wailed and began to sob. "Don't make me go back to her."

Damali laid her hand on his head, siphoning away the pain until tears streamed down her face. "Oh, you poor little thing. Who did this to you?"

"Lilith. She's mean... evil, and told them to slaughter any hybrid that didn't stand with Cain, here or in Nod. She got the message back in with retreating troops. They've started the massacres." The fawn gasped and then blindly grasped around to hold Damali's hand. She held his hand, tears brimming and falling on his chest He sighed and his body relaxed as her healing began.

"Can you send me to the place that's always sunshine and fields?" the fawn whispered.

"I can try, and I will pray over you - so will Carlos." Carlos stooped down and covered Damali's hand. "No matter what you did, or how afraid you were, you didn't deserve this."

Carlos slowly stood, removing his hand as the fawn followed his voice and Damali petted his head, kissed his forehead, and backed away.

"You should be in fields of clover with your own kind, romping and head-butting and enjoying perpetual spring," Carlos said in a smooth, calm voice. "You should see your

parents again, and feel light, and whole, and warm, and safe, and-_" Carlos swung hard when the fawn smiled, removing his head from his shoulders. "You should dance in clover forever. Amen."

* * *

She wasn't sure who was more shaken, she or Carlos, as they wrapped the small body in a sheet brought from the hotel and folded away to the nearest church. They both helped dig the grave for the little creature they didn't know, but didn't have to know. All that was important was it was at peace.

So much had happened under one full moon that there was no need for them to speak on it - not that they'd really know what to say, if they could. The fawn's information before it died would just be one more thing to add to the morning war meeting. Dawn would be here soon, and both team generals were still human and needed to rest. However, there was one thing they didn't speak on, maybe because they already knew that to open that particular can of worms would take a lot longer than the five minutes of energy they had to endure. But how could they sleep at night knowing that the balance of power, oddly, in Nod - Cain - had left, and now innocent angel hybrids and multiphyla hybrids were being slaughtered wholesale? Wasn't that part of their mission, to protect the innocent, if they had souls? Where did one draw the line? What made one life or one soul more valuable than another, just because of geography or DNA? When did one turn a blind eye and say it's not happening here, so hey? Or when did one jump in and say if it could happen to them, it could happen anywhere, and wherever there's genocide, it must be stopped?

Now, that required a call by the Covenant, because neither she nor Carlos really wanted to wind up in a battle in a biblical banishment zone ... not again. Mitigating circumstances had been on their sides before, but hoping that would keep them out of trouble again was like hoping lightning would strike in the same place twice.

Her mind was so weary she practically fell through the door with Carlos. What had started out as a really cool day just devolved into the utterly ridiculous. She took great comfort in how he headed for the sink to wash his hands, shaking his head.

"I know, baby," Carlos said quietly. "You ain't gotta say it I know."

* * *

Lilith stroked two of her battered Harpies' heads as they squeaked and squealed for her attention, climbing up onto her lap in her private chambers. She kissed them and cooed to them and clucked her tongue.

"My poor little babies," she said with a sigh. "Your wings are torn and you've been so abused, but you still did my bidding and the Neterus bought it hook, line, and sinker." She scratched behind their ears and shooed them away. They looked at her with longing and then fled her bed to scramble up the marble posts to stand watch. "I'll bring you a tasty morsel soon, my pets. Just as soon as Momma regenerates and can go topside, a small child will be yours."


Tags: L.A. Banks Vampire Huntress Legend Vampires
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