He heard his wife's voice like a distant whisper in his mind. He felt her tears-warm, a soft pelt against his face. He repeated the words that were muffled, trying to decipher what she was trying to tell him. A dark void suddenly splintered with light. Pain shot through his breastbone and he literally felt and heard it crack.

Carlos sat up gasping, clutching his chest. Metal objects were in his hands. Something fell from his forehead and clattered to the ground. He dropped what he was holding. His chest hurt so badly that he couldn't open his eyes. The room was spinning. He almost fell. Strong arms caught him. He couldn't breathe. Agony roared inside his head like a lion. The sound of his own blood rushing within his skull was deafening. He heard the blade of Ausar chime, felt the backdraft of a purposeful swing-then smelled sulfur. The putrid scent made him clutch the edge of the table, lean over, and hurl.

Then the pain eased to a dull ache. Hot flashes and chills fought for dominance in his body, making him shiver. A cool palm wiped perspiration from his brow. Panting, he rolled over on his back and shielded his eyes from the bright, bright lights.

"Tua Neter,"Ausar said in a thundering voice. He knew that voice anywhere, and he heard Adam's refrain.

"Yes . . . Praise Divine," Damali whispered as she kissed his forehead.That made him slowly open his eyes.

"Tua-k, Tua-Tu,"Aset said, and then Eve repeated her words for him in English.

"Thank you," Eve breathed out and closed her eyes. "Thank you Divine All for bringing our young Pharaoh back alive."

Damali rounded him so that he didn't have to see her upside-down. Ausar still had his blade in his grip, bicep pulsing.

"They got it," Damali said. Tears were streaming down her face, but he couldn't even lift his arms to wipe them away. "That was the last of it . . . it came out of your chest and Ausar took its head." She gathered him in her arms, holding him like he was a fragile treasure. "You keep dying on me, Carlos, and one day I might have to kill you."

She made him smile, weakly, but he really wanted to laugh. But his smile broke her tension and he felt her cheek move against his with a slow smile of her own.

"You oughta know, dead or alive, you can't get rid of me, boo," he croaked.

He'd meant to make her laugh, to further ease her trauma, but instead it broke loose torrential sobs. His foxhole humor had opened her dam.

Little by little as sensation flowed into his arms, he was able to slowly lift them to hold her. All he wanted to do was pet her back, rock her in comfort. It wasn't until she lost it and he glimpsed where he truly was, saw the tear-stained faces of Neteru royalty, that he realized just how close he'd come to lights-out. He'd been two seconds from Ma'at's final judgment scale.

Shell-shocked by that reality, he held his wife a little tighter. Up until now, he'd felt pretty close to invincible. But the harder Damali cried and the more he took in his environment, the more he knew . . . damn . . . after all, he was mortal. If she couldn't heal him down there in the family room, and had brought him to a Neteru OR . . . shit . . .

"I tried," Damali said hard against his neck. "It was so bad, Carlos-you were busted up on the inside sobad, and even the Caduceus couldn't fix it all fast enough."

Her words came against his skin in hot, wet bursts of quiet hysteria,escalating, building like a wave that he knew would soon consume her.

"I called Heaven, wings out, asked them in my soul to take me instead," she said in gasps. "There was a whole building, two teams-my husband was dying and there was nothing I could do!"

"Baby . . . it's all right . . . it's-"

"The black mortars kept coming, civilians were everywhere-men, women, and children, families . . . but my husband was dying and no angels came to give us backup! The Guardians . . . they, they . . . everybody was doing everything they could-and-"

"Baby, it's-"

"I shouldn't have left you that long without closing the hemorrhages! You could have died!"

Her voice had become shrill, so unlike Damali that it set his teeth on edge. He could almost feel how much the pain inside her was like a knife, lacerating her insides as her hands became fists at his back.

He pressed her to him tightly and held the base of her skull as she lost it. He looked around at the attending ancient Neterus. "Sedate her. Take this from my wife. It's not her fault." He stroked her hair as she began to hyperventilate. "I love you." Three simple words made her begin to scream.

Eve and Aset surrounded her. Aset kissed her temple, Eve touched her back. Damali went limp in his arms.

"Battle fatigue," Ausar said flatly, and then turned away and swallowed hard.

Adam rubbed his palms down his face. "Your wife loves you dearly, young brother. Never again do you allow the Darkness habitation within you like that. Not for anyone. You are too valuable to your family unit."

"He didn't realize he'd done that-given it habitation," Eve countered gently. "He drew it in him out of a powerful love. That was not wrong-to give one's life for another."

Adam grudgingly nodded and took a deep breath,then spoke in a faltering rumble. "But he is a young man with a family . . . like another of my sons. His father-seer is elderly . . . Carlos's purpose is yet to be fulfilled . . . and I admit that I am biased in my Neteru brother's favor. I want the young Pharaoh to live well and prosper . . . and I never,ever want to see his wife in ruin over his demise like this again." Overcome with emotion, Adam turned away and left the chamber.

"We did not forsake you-tell her that," Ausar said thickly. "Our resources were deployed hunting down the true nemesis halfway around your world, and when we arrived, the battle was done. Yet we sent reinforcements to cover the elderly priest, your father-seer, to be sure he was not harmed as he heals." Ausar stared at Carlos with silver burning in his eyes. "You are our most favored. Your wife is like my daughter. We would never leave you." He lifted his regal chin higher and strode out of the room.

For a moment, silence enveloped Carlos and the two queens. He held Damali's limp body even closer to him and nuzzled her hair.

"I didn't mean to offend them," Carlos said quietly, searching the faces of the older women that stood near.

Aset allowed a single tear to spill from her exotic Egyptian eyes. The moist bead sparkled like a diamond as it trailed along the long black kohl liner to finally roll down her cheek.

"They are not offended, young king. They are so vastly overwhelmed that you survived your ordeal that, they do not quite know how to express the warring emotions within them under the masculine principle. These are old Kings, son. They have been very male energies for a very long time. Even they could not heal you, because they were so outraged that their thoughts splintered from the task at hand to the singular thought of destroying. They needed to kill something to redress the unspeakable wrong that had been committed against you and your family. But we needed to heal something-you-to keep you from dying. This remains the struggle of our polarities. It is the genius of the Divine. We do not question such differences in our designs, as each is needed under different circumstances."

"That's where I was," Carlos said quietly, hugging Damali against his chest. "I needed to stomp the snot. . . ." He closed his eyes for a moment to steadyhimself . "Like even now, when I see what's happened to my wife. . . ." He looked down at Damali. "How can I change what I am?"

Eve and Aset helped take Damali's limp form from Carlos. Aset materialized a golden robe of the finest filament and gave it to him, and bothQueens turned away, holding Damali as he pulled it on and tied it.

"Come with us," Aset said. "You do not have to change who you are. Your rage will be needed in the future. Your righteous indignation was a catalyst. You were tricked to allow something dark inside you that fed on it. Had that not been inside you, the rage of the righteous would have burned as pure silver. The Darkness knew this, knew that you hunting his heir is the greatest threat to it. This is why the beast had to figure out a way for you to invite it inside you, in order to attempt to destroy you from the inside out. Now that you know, and are wiser about shielding yourself, it will never be able to penetrate you again. This was another good lesson that you survived, young king. This, too, you will share with your wife."

"It is no less than becoming immune," Eve said, her gorgeous eyes serene and hypnotically tranquil. "As we draw any residual poison away from your queen, she will also build her immunity."

Eve sighed, gazing first down at Damali and then toward Carlos, with tears beginning to fill her liquid brown eyes. "Children . . . as much as you love us, as much as your parents mean to you-you are the future. We are never meant to become an impediment to your progress . . . to do so would be selfish and would undo all of the hard work and every sacrifice we'd ever made on your behalf. You are our future, our hope, our lighthouse. Your father-seer knows this deep in his soul, and if you could ask him whether or not he would have rather died in that cathedral than to have you harmed in any way by Satan-as a parent, I know his answer. He would have even taunted the Devil to draw whatever horrors he could hurl his way, to give you and your wife time to escape. It was never his own survival that concerned your father-seer, it wasyours . But you do not have such wisdom yet, Carlos, because you do not have a child. However, coming from a mother, trust me . . . believe what I say is true."

"But he was suffering . . ." Carlos whispered.

"As a parent, you would give a vital organ for your child that they not suffer." Eve stared at Carlos. "If that old man awakened to find you dead so that he could live . . . if Satan's blast didn't killhim, that surely would."

Carlos locked his jaw hard to hold back the tears. It was bad enough that he'd come into Neteru chambers all busted up, had upset his wife so badly that after all these years she finally had to be sedated . . . he would not add insult to injury by allowing tears to fall. After a moment, he'd composed himself enough to speak to the elder Queen without his voice betraying him. "I just wanted to give that old man a fighting chance . . . after all he'd given me." That was as much as he trusted to get out before emotion reclaimed his throat.

Eve's eyes searched Carlos's face and her voice was calm and tender. "We that precede you will eventually pass away to become ancestors on the other side. This is the grand design. Therefore, we assist, even from On High . . . and when you honor us with a life well lived, we are proud beyond measure. This makes the sacrifice worth it-to see you flourish. This is how you best honor thy mother and father, with respect. If we are lucky, we shall predecease you-the natural order is currently out of phase, with children dying before parents in the greatest heartbreak of the cosmos."

Eve's voice faltered and the building tears finally fell in quiet streams down her regal ebony face, but she did not turn away. She lifted her chin and bore the glistening moisture like they were jewels. "This was howI knew it was the end of days. It was a deeply personal heralding for me. I buried my son, Carlos, and there's not a day that goes by that I don't wish I could have chosen wiser choices for him, given him my Light, and taken the darkest influences that beset him into myself for his sake, so that he would flourish . . . so that he would have lived on . . . so that his children's children's children would come to inherit the promise. But that was not to be. I could not, even with all my power, do that for him-because it was his choice. This is what I know Father Patrick would tell you . . . that he would have taken any horrors delivered so that you could keep going and your future could flourish. Do not renounce his gift. He loves you. All is in Divine order."

Aset reached out to Eve with her free hand and touched her cheek with trembling fingers. She then looked at Carlos. "Don't you see, son? You and Damali belong to all of us up here. Just as you belonged to your parents down there . . . you have been claimed in love by us, too. This is why Adam and Ausar were beside themselves with near-grief, and are over-wrought with relief. You are our dreams deferred, our sacrifices paid forward. Eve lost Cain, but she gained you, just as Adam lost Abel, but gained you . . . and Damali.A daughterand a son which means legacy. Thus, when it is your father-seer's time to transition, as long as you are flourishing, you will allow him to smile in his heart and spit in Satan's eye as the angels come to collect him. That is the ultimate last laugh."

"It is a blessing to close one's eyes on the earth plane before one's children, dear young King," Eve said quietly. "Our love never dims; it only increases in the Light. But no parent dead or alive who truly loves their progeny would want their child tosuffer, to give their life for theirs, to experience any indignity that they'd lived. Not if they are a real, evolved parent, they wouldn't. They would want to spare you all they'd been through and more in unconditional love sublime. Carlos, haven't you come to understand that by now?"

"Let us allow the young King's mind to rest," Aset said in a gentle voice, staring at Eve. "They need to rest, recuperate, and be still for a while outside of the pressures of their responsibilities. It will all be there waiting for them upon their return."

"We have to get back, though-no disrespect, but we've already been gone too long," Carlos said, feeling panic suddenly surge within him. "The team, the safe house where Father Pat is . . . the darkside LoJacked me, had a tracer on my where-abouts . . . my boy told me. I have to make sure the house is safe or they could smoke the entire team while I am up here-"

Eve held up her hand as Carlos tied his robe sash tighter and began glancing around for his clothes. "Shush . . . quiet your conscience. Time is not linear, have you forgotten? A few hours away there can be a few days here, and vice versa. We have your home protected. The Kings drove off any predators from the safe house, which remains under guard. We saw what tried to breach your citadel-the black serpent of household destruction and inner turmoil. We also saw the vampire that tried to snatch one of your Guardian sisters. Do not fear. Upon the next attempt, we will white-lightning-strike him. We will not allow some abominations, even in the end of days."

"You must heal. That is all that is important. We will set lions on the beach, in your gardens," Aset warned. "Nothing shall be allowed to take your palace, young Pharaoh . . . not while you are healing. Your sanctuary is safe because there is no evil intent indwelling there. It was built on love."

"My boy!"Carlos jumped down from the table and almost fell, tightening his sash again quickly and then rushing to theQueens to pick up Damali. He held her around her upper back with his other arm under the bend in her knees, trying hard not to allow her head to awkwardly loll. "Listen, this is nonstandard . . . by now, you know I don't necessarily follow the rules to the letter, but usually it all works out."

"You are having a son? You know this for certain?" Eve's eyes widened. "We didn't know that-"

"No, no," Carlos corrected, stammering. There was so much to explain, but his mouth was working slower than his mind.

"You said your boy," Aset replied, shocked. "If there is a Neteru child in gestation or in hiding . . ."

"No, my buddy, friend, tight, ace,hombre -he's beyond the wall. He's my inside man, always comes through. He's in a bad spot, and his transmissions are blocked. I haven't heard from him and I blocked his access to the house . . . because he was having some issues. But if I'm up here, I can't leave him blocked, but right now, I don't know his status . . . like, if I can actually let him in-but I don't want him smoked on sight just because of what he is. Oh, man, this is complicated. I didn't even get a chance to explain all this at the archon's table."

"Put Damali down on the table," Aset said coolly, "and talk to us, Carlos."

"Should I call Adam?" Eve stared at him, but the previous serenity she'd owned had fled her gaze.

"No, no, listen, it's sorta crazy, but I need to get my boy's incoming calls," Carlos said, walking quickly to the table he'd been on and gently laying Damali down on it. He kissed her forehead and then turned to look at theQueens ."All right. Let me come clean. My boy is . . . a vampire."

BothQueens drew an audible gasp and Carlos held up his hands.

"Let me explain. There's definite war strategy going on here."

"Speak quickly and clearly," Aset said, beginning to pace. "You tell me such insanity and then I will have to translate it to Ausar forhis understanding?"

Carlos raked his fingers through his hair. "Meand Yolando go way back. I got out of the life, but he was trapped behind the wall. My man, though, always has my back. Whenever he goes dark-like I can't hear from him for a coupla nights-he always brings me back accurate information when he surfaces. In fact, he was the one who tipped me off about daywalkers. I have to be able to let him go into my mind."

"Are youinsane? " Eve breathed. Instantly she called Damali's pearl into one hand and into the other she called Damali's platinum necklace that held the six other divination stones she'd collected in her Neteru initiation.

"It has takenmonths to restore this dragon's pearl to her full health after just seeing Cain descend to a dark throne. Zehiradangra has even grown strong enough, through rest and healing, that she no longer requires water to communicate. And you are just off the burial table, after inviting the Ultimate Darkness into your system, and now you want us to allow a council-level vampire to communicate with you?"

"Yeah," Carlos said, not sure what else to say.

"Pearlwas so overwrought that this Yolando had tried to breach your home and she felt the tremors of the Darkness taking root in you, that while we were away she sent a message to a Valkyrie. This so-called friend tried to seducea Valkyrie from the forbidden zone ofNod on the beach in front of your house!"

"Eve . . . I know it looks bad-"

"Looks bad?"

"It must be the residual from the charge, Eve," Aset said, dismissing Carlo's request. "The young Pharaoh is confused. We should have sedated him as well."

"No, I'm real clear about all this.Crystal ," Carlos argued.

BothQueens folded their arms over their chests and stared at him.

"Then clarify," Aset said evenly.

"Make it beyond crystal," Eve murmured dangerously. "Make it diamond."

Carlos rubbed his hands down his face.

"Hi, Carlos," the pearl said with a giggle. "We were all so worried. Whew!"

Eve swept over to him and plunked the pearl down in his hand. "She's supposed to beyour wife's oracle, but she's taken with you. Not much I can do about that. I do not even want to fathom how you could have compromised Damali's pearl-don't even tell me. My nerves are already shattered glass. Speak Zehiradangra."

"If Carlos holds me to his temple, I can show him what I know . . . but Val really, really likes your friend."

"Oh, man . . ."

"This isexactly why we do not consort with the darkside!" Aset shouted, losing her composure.

"If I can get my man's side of the story . . . maybe that would clear things up?" Carlos shrugged."Then again, knowing Yonnie, maybe not. Depending on what he's tried to send by mental voice mail, the Kings might hot him on sight. These are some really tense times."

"I saw the images fromPearl of what he tried to do to the Valkyrie," Aset said between her teeth. "Spare me any further indignity."

Carlos hung his head. "Queen . . . it's not always the way it looks. But my apologies on behalf of my friend for anything you saw that didn't . . . that wasn't. I'm sorry."

Eve stared at Carlos, pressing one finger to her lips for a moment as Aset took in deep, cleansing breaths. "You could not receive any transmissions from any source from the darkside, Carlos, once you got tainted by the Ultimate Darkness. Your Neteru defense systems went into overdrive, surrounding the primary threat to your existence. The silver galvanized around all your major points of entry . . . your mind, your spirit, your body, like white blood cells trying to surround an insidious cancer. Add that to the protected hostels you were traveling to, and this is what kept you from getting his signals."

She let her breath out hard and looked at Aset. "I've had three sons, two who made it to the Light . . . but even they, at times, had friends I disapproved of, Aset. You also had a son, Heru." She waited until her Queensister looked away. "Might we claim that we are testing Carlos's immune system . . . to, uhmmm, open a slight channel to his mind. If it is an attack, we can certainly light-scorch it away quickly . . . and then he'll know. With male children, you cannot tell them; always, they must know for themselves."

"Up here?" Aset said, incredulous. "Allow a vampire transmission to reach here during the end of days? Have you lost yourmind! "

"It must pass through our filters; think of it, Aset," Eve lobbied with a smile, giving Carlos a sly wink when Aset paced away. "If the information is dark and meant to maim him or his family in any way, it will incinerate on contact. But if it is indeed sent in friendship . . . in love of their bond as true best friends, then that part will come through . . . even if the message is garbled, he will be able to get enough to ease his mind so that he may heal."

Eve walked over to Aset and hugged her. "Isn't that what we want, to fullyheal this young King's mind?" She glanced at Damali's calm, prone form. "Isn't that what we've dreamt . . . peace in their lives . . . just long enough?" Her eyes sparkled and then she backed away as Aset's gaze softened.

Aset nodded. "That is indeed what we want . . . in the larger view." She let out a hard breath."All right. Contact thisYolando and tell us what he says."

Carlos kissed the pearl, making it giggle, as he handed it off to Eve. Then he watched the two olderQueens , who seemed to be sharing a secret. They had somber eyes but it was as though they were quietly swallowing smiles. Excitement radiated off their skins . . . but he shook it off as he looked around, realizing that he was in a King's burial preparation chamber and not an OR. That fact, in and of itself, was sobering. This time, Yonnie really owed him.

"Are you ready to open your thoughts?" Aset scowled and shook her head, and issued a hard snap of her fingers before Carlos could even answer.

Bleating calls filled his mind, causing him to wince. There was so much information coming at him so fast that theQueens stepped forward, worried. But he held up his hand to stop their intervention.

"He was blowing up mental voice mail, third-eye video phone, brain two-way, and gut-instinct cell . . ."

Carlos closed his eyes, allowing the garbled message to come in fits and starts. Major sections were burned out, but in a few minutes he'd gathered enough to make him want to tweak the prayer shield on the property surrounding the house. Yonnie definitely needed a fallback position now, a place to go during a firefight-but, still, out of respect for Rider, and neverever being quite sure of what Yonnie might do . . . the house itself still needed to be off-limits.

"I need to ask Ausar and Adam to come in here. What I've seen isn't fit forQueens , and I'd never transmit this kind of information to another man's wife. But they've installed new councilwomen-Lucrezia Borgia and Elizabeth Bathory, Dracula's wife."

"Ausar!"Aset yelled, dropping all Queenly dignity and rushing to the chamber door.

Both Kings came in dressed for battle, brandishing blades. Adam stood by Ausar's side holding white stallion reins, clearly ready to ride.

"Mind-lock, open a channel," Carlos said."Male Neteru sensitive data given to me, through a light filter, straight from Hell."

Ausar and Adam looked at each other.

"Is his purge complete?" Ausar asked, unsure. "This could be residual synaptic contamination from the Beast."

Aset shook her head. "He's clean. This came from his friend, whom he wants given special wartime courtesies."

"I need to show you everything my homeboy shared with me-from there, you can decide how to edit the images to share with your wives and the rest of the Neteru Council. But Yonnie's intent is in there, too . . . as well as his image, his position . . . the tight spot he's in . . . and why he did what he did on the beach with the Valkyrie-"

"Speak it out in the open no more, young brother. Not in front of our wives," Adam said, taking off his helmet. "Damn. A Valkyrie and a vampire . . ."

"Where does this man select his alliances?" Ausar said, shaking his head. He lowered his blade and stepped forward.

"I know, I know," Carlos said. "But check it out for yourselves. This isserious information.Solid sterling."

Both Kings closed their eyes as the broken images transferred from Carlos's mind to theirs in jags. Ausar rubbed his jaw and shook his head. Adam took in a deep breath and walked away. When Carlos opened his eyes to end the transmission, the three male Neterus simply stared at one another for a moment.

"Kinda leaves you speechless, don't it?"

Adam and Ausar nodded, but said nothing. Adam rubbed the back of his neck beneath his long dreadlocks. Ausar sheathed his blade.

"Well?" Asetsaid, her gaze expectant.

"Give Yolando courtesy and safe passage, and send a representative vision down to make sure none of the Guardians accidentally fire on him in Carlos's absence, should he need sanctuary at the compound," Ausar said flatly, his eyes on Carlos. "As well as give that young man my utmost respect."

Tarasat quietly in the dark staring at the moon, sipping Jack Daniel's neat. There were still some nights where she couldn't sleep. Her biorhythms had never self-corrected. There'd always be a part of her that would remain nocturnal. The argument she'd just endured in the bedroom required space. Some issues simply needed the combatants to find mutual corners, lest something get said that couldn't be taken back.

But the vision was clear. It came directly from the Neteru Council that Yolando could seek refuge on the compound outer grounds in the event of a firefight. Barriers were to be dropped, the drawbridge effectively lowered. Rider was going to have to make his peace with Yolando, one way or another . . . sooner or later, and it just seemed that now was an auspicious time.

So she waited, knowing the vampire life by second nature. Yolando would call for Valkyrie as sure as the moon would continue to light the night sky.

Tarakept her gaze on the fluttering sheets that Jasmine had drawn intricate dragon patterns on to shield the house. Sacred blood spirals from Berkfield's veins made elaborately fierce creatures that seemed already alive and added the faint scent of human blood to the breeze.

Each dragon-emblazoned sheet was suspended in a spiderweb-like maze of blue tactical energy, holding dragon images waiting to come alive like compound watchdogs.Tara sat so still that her lungs barely moved, and it wasn't even necessary to blink.

Night vision was a gift that had never fled her when the Light spared her. What her husband didn't understand was, her heart broke-no, bled-for Yonnie . . . bled that he hadn't been pulled over to a full life, given back his soul, and offered the chance to live out his mortality with the love of his life. Jack Rider had to ease up. She and Jack had been blessed. Now this newcomer spoke of Yolando with a purity of passion that he'd never even gotten from her. Not even as his vampire mate for a time. It had been a marriage of convenience . . . and of deep friendship, but it wasn't what Valkyrie could give him now.

Tarabrought the rim of her glass up to her lips and took a delicate sip, thinking. She'd already violated house rule number one-team seers weren't supposed to go into the thoughts of fellow housemates uninvited. But there was still so much of her that had old habits from her past existence. This was an emergency. She needed to know if thisthing between Yonnie and Val was all a part of his normal vamp seduction bullshit, thus potentially endangering a fellow team woman's life-or if this was the real McCoy.

She lowered her glass to study the moonlight dancing in the crystal, glad that the windows were busted out so that the breeze could lift her hair. Oh, how she loved the night . . . no matter how bad that life had been there was something so electrifying about it. She briefly closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, allowing a collision of scents to tantalize her old palate.Ocean on one side, redwood forest not far off. Plus blood. Dry, brittle land struck barren from the worst drought in centuries. All of it made her quietlysigh .

As expected, the soft pad of near silent footfalls marked by the hesitation of a woman unsure drifted into her stellar hearing range.Tara opened her eyes and waited. The moment Valkyrie crossed her path, she stood.

"Good evening,"Tara said with a sly smile.

Valkyrie whirled on her, drew a blade, and squared off.Tara didn't have to see it to know what it was. She'd heard it and smelled the steel alloy.

It took a few seconds, but within moments Valkyrie recognized her.

"Forgive me," Val said and lowered her weapon, placing her hand over her heart. "You startled me. Of course there would be sentinels taking shifts."

Tarasmiled and lifted her glass. "I'm off duty tonight, but I should have warned you that I was here. Old habits die hard." She parted from a shadow as though she were part of the night itself.In complete silence.

Val gaped. "How . . ."

"I learned from the vampires."

Impressed, Val walked closer. "You must teach me."

Taraarched an eyebrow. "I can't. To show you how I do it, I'd have to kill you."

Val stepped back and subtly gripped her blade tighter.

"I'm just teasing you because I'm in a semi-foul mood.My apologies."Tara dragged her fingers through her midnight-hued hair and stepped into a wider shaft of moonlight. "You didn't deserve that. But I did want to be sure you understand what you're in for with Yolando." She took another careful sip from her glass and then stared at Val for a moment. "That is where you're headed, right?"

It wasn't a question. It was more of a statement of fact. Val looked away.

"I know we are not supposed to leave the house without alerting the others, so that no one is lost to the enemy. It was not my intent to violate the hospitality of the Neterus or this team on the very first night of my sanctuary . . ."

"But, he called,"Tara said flatly. "I know. What can you do?"

Val shook her head. "That's just it. He never called. I feel as though I must search for this brave soul who may be injured . . . he's behind enemy lines. He could be trapped. Where he'd been was . . . I cannot describe."

Taralowered her glass and her expression softened. She swallowed hard. "Where he is, hon, you can't go retrieve him. You have to wait until he surfaces, or you'll compromise his cover. Or, worse, you could be taken as a hostage and used as a lure to bait him to his certain death. If he hasn't called, wait."

Val sheathed her blade. "I feel so helpless-and as a warrior, that feeling is completely unacceptable."

"I know,"Tara murmured. "I have wished from the very marrow in my bones that Yonnie didn't have to be in this unrelenting quagmire. His predicament haunts me, too. I have prayed on it; I know Carlos and Damali have. Maybe with you having some angel in your bloodlines, they'll hear you? Who knows?" She tossed back the rest of her drink and swallowed it with a wince. "Try to get some rest.Day and night have become eventful around here."

"It is comforting to know that you also care for him and think well of him. This tells me so much more of his character." Val's eyes searchedTara 's face, staying her leave. "He is beloved to you, just like he is beloved to Carlos and Damali?"

Tarahesitated, but as she stared into Valkyrie's eyes, sudden hot moisture filled hers. "Yes. He is beloved. A dear, crazy, ridiculous soul-who is wanton and passionate and funny and decent . . . who will give his life for you, if you're his family, and that isall that man has ever wanted. They'd made him a slave and then took everything from him, even his personal dignity. But he is still a class act, because he chooses to be. I will always be his friend.Always."

"I care for him, Tara," Val said, lifting her chin. "I've never known this kind of caring, and it happened so quickly that it frightens me."

"Continue to care for him, Val,"Tara said, banishing anything else she was about to say prior to this. "He needs someone like you to believe in him, to fight for him, to wail for him, to hope for him when no one else can.To love him from the depths of their soul.To love him when he doesn't even love himself. And if his luck runs out, he will need someone who will never forget what he meant to this world to bury him."

"I will not rest until I know that he is back safely with our side." Val's voice shook with quiet emotion but the warrior within her would not allow tears to fall.

"Then go to the window in your room and bathe in the moonlight . . . and pray for that man without ceasing."Tara swallowed hard and drew a shaky breath, thinking of the many nights that she'd wanted to do that very thing, but could not.

"I will keep vigil," Val said quietly. "Those prayers will come from my depths. Thank you,Tara , for being such an honorable friend to him. He must love you terribly much, and I can see why."

Now she knew. Yonnie had the right to disclose his life status, or the lack thereof, himself. The honorable belief Val had shining in her eyes, the purity of her trust . . . it was rare and clean and good . . . and she would never rob Yolando of that.

Tags: L.A. Banks Vampire Huntress Legend Vampires