Carlos stared down the long wooden table, listening to the conversation, but not. His focus had shifted for a moment to the tension in the ladies' room. To tell Inez's mother it was gonna be all right was a trivial use of words. Itwas not going to be all right-it was going to be whatever it was. But "all right" didn't begin to cover it.

Still, the old woman's wails cut through the noisy crowd in a way that only he could hear in his mind. It was even out of range for Big Mike-either that or he was doing a really good job of letting it ride. Carlos cradled his skull for a second, his elbows on the table. Her cries might as well have been his mother's sobs. He tried to pull away from the memory of her loss, but couldn't.

The eddy of thoughts had him, the emotional current swift. He glimpsed Dan, remembering meeting his parents-a nice older couple living in the safe bubble of unknowing. Should he bring them in, too? There was no way to know. The person he might have asked was dying from a black-charge hit he should have never gotten where he was. The man had been in church! Carlos's hands left his skull and became fists.

A thick-bodied brother heading their way with static rolling through his locks cut a swath in the crowd. The distraction was needed, was a relief. Carlos had to keep himself from slumping once the wave of rage receded.

"Welcome, family-you met Mo, Oscar, Keith, and Ty in the kitchen . . . well, I'm Phat G," he said, reaching across the table to shake everybody's hand. "Y'all also met the Minister already, Rod, plus who we call the Pharaoh, that would be brother Ant, and the Professor, Rene-our security core.Then our badass seers, Miss Chantay, Adrienne, Lisa, Nyya, Carmen, Annette, Ro, andTay . LaShonda is on street lookout. The girl is fierce military with a body to go with it-making sure nothing snags innocents coming to or leaving this joint. We're still building after a few firefights, recently . . . you know, trying to get the number back up to twenty-one. But we ain't gonna go there,may they rest in peace. Whatever you want, food and drinks on the house-that's how we do up here."

"Yo man, the hospitality is over the top. Thank you," Carlos said, giving Phat G a slight bow from where he sat. "But you better let us pay for Mike's plates-plural-and Rider's bar tab, or you might not wanna have us back."

The table exploded with raucous laughter. He needed that right now. The noise was a shield, the laugher was, too. It blotted out thought as the Guardians began talking trash and ordering food. It spiked memories of times in hotels after the band did their thing, times after firefights when they'd won. Later, they could take a building tour. It would hold down the stress. Later they could talk about the technology J.L. was kicking back and forth online with Phat G. Right now, he couldn't wrap his brain around reverse-imaging cameras that took cold-reading bit map points,then converted them into digital dot graphics that could be run through 3-D modeling software to build a portrait of something that was supposedly nonphotographable. Carlos simply stared at J.L. and G.

His mind was jumping all over the place, couldn't hold focus. Oh, shit . . . Carlos wiped his palms down his face. The conversation at the table suddenly sounded muffled. Where was his wife? He'd seen her come in there and go into the bathroom with Mom Delores. He wasn't a drug dealer anymore-where did that come from? Random thoughts stabbed into his brain out of nowhere.

"Whatchu having, hon?"

Carlos snapped out of the haze and just stared at Chantay for a moment. "Uh . . . what's good? There's so much on here that blows my mind, I don't know where to start."

"Everybody says that when they come up in here," she said with a big smile. "That's 'cause Mo and G really stole mySouth Carolina secret sauce when I came to N.Y.C. to show 'em how to do the thing right. But we ain't gonna get into all that." She made the crew at the table laugh and then licked the end of her pencil before pressing it down on her pad. "Ribs here are a must-do, if you're a carnivore. Plus, the greens-say no more, and the mac and cheese will give you a food-gasm. Save room, though, baby-'cause we got this pecan sweet potato pie and this banana-coconut bread pudding that'll make you hurt yourself.Lynchburg lemonade made with Jack Daniel's and served in a mason jar crusted with big-grain sugar to top you off. Or you could just get the Big Ass Pulled Pork and fall out, okaaay? That's what I would get, if I was new here."

"Whoooo-weee," Mike said, shaking his head. "I just done fount myfavorite restaurant-besides my baby's cooking, of course." Mike offered Inez a sheepish grin, making the table erupt with laughter again and then looked down at the menu with longing. "Since Rivera's still deciding, you can gimme all that you just said,plus the Big Ass Pulled Pork."

"Hit me right off with theLynchburg lemonade, darlin'," Rider said with a big grin. "I'd be much obliged. No sense standing on ceremony.How many firefights we been in half-lit?"

Jose laughed hard and pounded Rider's fist with Shabazz. "I believe that's half of what pulled us through,holmes ."

"Yeah," Carlos finally said after the order came back around to him again. "Same thing you did for Mike, minus the pulled pork platter." He stared at the ladies' room door. "You can also do a vegan platter with fried green tomatoes, greens, yams, and corn bread for my wife-with aCorona. ' Nez, order something for your mom, too, sis." He stood. "I just need to go check on them."

He excused himself; the team kept talking, but he could feel Marlene's eyes on his back. Something close to panic was drawing him to Damali's energy pattern. But rather than unnecessarily barging into the ladies' room, when he got to the door he stopped-feeling foolish.

"You all right, D?" he called out, hoping she would just come out.

"We're good," she yelled back. "Meand Mom Delores are just talking, baby. We'll be at the table real soon."

"Oh . . . okay . . . uh . . . we're ordering . . . just wanted to be sure we got something you'd like."

"You know what to get for me, but order light for Mom. Her stomach is still a little queasy. All right, baby?"

Carlos held on to the door frame when he heard the older woman hurl. "Okay, I'mago back to the table and let folks know everything's cool."

"Thanks, baby."

Damali's words rang in his ears, causing him to pivot too quickly to walk back to the table, and he almost took out a server who was dashing back to the kitchen. Two deep breaths, he steadied himself and began walking after the near collision. When he got to the table he made the muscles in his face relax before he met Inez's and Mike's eyes.

For a moment, he didn't know what to do. He had to stop bugging. The vibe here was cool. The energy flow safe. It was a good place to bed down for the night.A good place to water the horses. But why did he feel like he was ready to jump out of his skin? Worse, why did he feel like if he didn't see Damali or sit in her presence, he'd lose it? Carlos sat down at the table. Everyone looked at him for a report.

"How's she doing?" Inez asked, trying to keep Ayana busy. "I should go to her and-"

"No, no, it's cool. Damali's got her and Ayana needs your lap right now."

Mike put a supportive arm over Inez's shoulder. "It's gonna be all right."

Carlos nodded, reassuring Inez. "D said to order her something light, though."

He and Mike shared a look as Inez closed her eyes for a moment.

"Her stomach . . ." Inez kissed her daughter's curls.

"Just first flight jitters. She'll be fine, Damali said."

Carlos watched the Guardians relax and after a moment Inez seemed to accept the inevitable. It was what it was. Her mother was going to be upset for a few, but just like everyone else did, she'd make the team transition.

"It's all good?" Shabazz asked, not seeming sure.

"Yeah.They're just talking . . . but Mom is adjusting," Carlos said, as though he had moreintel than he did. He reached for a piece of corn bread from the breadbasket, not knowing what else to do with his hands while trying to ignore Marlene's unblinking gaze. He wasn't even hungry, truthbe told.

"You look a little tense, C.How you holding up?" Marlene asked quietly, once the normal mealtime banter resumed.

"I'm cool . . . just tired, you know.Rough day." Carlos looked up almost startled and accepted his drink from Chantay. "Thanks, my bad."

"Hey, man, it's all good," she said, mopping up the slight spill from when he'd bumped her.

If he couldn't sense incoming that close, right over his left shoulder, then what the hell . . . there wasn't that much relaxed in the world.

Marlene had that look again that saidopen up a private channel . He shook his head and took a deep swig of his drink, shocked to find himself blinking back tears. The request became more urgent, and he set his drink down with precision and shook his head again, tears burning away.

Pasting on a false smile, he leaned around Krissy's back to speak to Marlene while everyone else was talking.

"I can't," he said in a tense murmur. "Something's worming inside my head, and the only one that I could open a channel like that with is laid out from it already. I don't wanna chance it, Mar. I don't even want D near this."

She nodded, their gazes never leaving each other's. "I've been watching you all day. You two need to make a Neteru Council run, given what you went up against earlier. Let them white light scorch it out before it gets too far in you, Carlos."

He sat back quickly and gave her a curt nod. Senior Guardians picked up on it, but let it ride. That was the way things worked on the team. Go with the flow; deal with the details later. God . . . where was his wife?

He moaned as blueberries mixed with pancakes, butter, and syrup to create a sugary confection in his mouth. As it slid down his throat he braced himself against the table for the expected violent reaction. When he opened his eyes, Valkyrie was staring at him with an unblinking gaze. To his surprise, the sweetness createda warm , comforting slurry inside his belly-not the scorching pain of a dead body rejecting normal human nourishment.

"I've wanted to try these since I was a little kid," Yonnie breathed out.

"Why didn't you?" Her brow creased as she watched him shove another heaping forkful into his mouth. "You were onthis side," she said, her gaze open with wonder. "You were allowed to flee and stay here as a hybrid. I would have triedeverything my heart desired."

He swallowed, slowing his chewing . . . thinking of how to answer her. "When I was on this side, I wasn't free." There was no bitterness in his tone, just a statement of fact. "Back when I first wanted these, I was a little kid, but a slave."

Her hand went to her mouth in horror. "The humansenslaved hybrids?"

He covered her hand. "That was two hundred years ago. Eat your breakfast before it gets cold."

"But you were achild ." Pure indignation flared in her eyes."A little boy!"

He put one finger to his lips as patrons turned to stare at her. But he also smiled. The fact that it bothered her so much meant something. At this juncture, he wasn't sure just what, but it did.

"They don't still do that barbaric practice-and please tell me they do not do so to children?"

"Naw, after the Civil War that ended," he said, swiping a piece of bacon from her plate. "Can I have this, since you're not a meat-eater? Damn this is good."

"But you said two hundred years . . . you were able to live that long outside of Nod?"

Yonnie looked up over the edge of his coffee cup and then set it down very carefully."Yeah. And they fed me, until I learned to feed myself." He looked down at his plate, unable to meet her innocent, trusting gaze. "But I prefer this." To keep from telling her more, he quietly ate, savoring every flavor that covered his tongue and warmed his insides.

However, her unexpectedtouch made him stare at the graceful hand that had covered his and then look up into her serene gaze.

"On our side there was a Civil War, too," she said quietly. "It left manycasualties, many are wounded in their spirits, still, even after the Neterus came to help our bodies. The food there is not this . . . freedom of choices . . . menus. I'm sorry that I prejudged you because of what you looked like. We had been battling demon forces that cannibalize we blood carriers, and yet, some on our side have the same outward appearance as you . . . when your teeth grow. But evil is not in their hearts. Do you understand my meaning?"

"I have come to learn," he said very slowly, enfolding her hand within his, "that this whole deal is about choice, no matter what.Doesn't matter who your people used to be . . . look at Cain.Perfect example. The brother was a king and lost it all for bullshit. His mom was thefirst Queen, and look how he turned out. And my homeboy . . . now that's a brother who made some ridiculous choices and came up in the Light." Yonnie shook his head, his eyes never leaving hers. He couldn't answer her directly, but he could give her a bit of personal philosophy to ponder.

"You mean, Carlos, of whom you speak so fondly?" Her voice was quiet and reverent.

"He'd died, crossed over, took a hell throne, was the baddest mutha in the valley-still is-but his ass was crazy-dark for a minute. Then, he made a choice and it's all about the silver, feel me? So, right now, I'm choosing to eat blueberry pancakes, steak and eggs with a side of bacon, while talking philosophy in the sunlight with thefinest sister I've seen in a very long time."

She smiled and looked away, but didn't pull her left hand away from his as she began picking at her meal.

"When they sent food allotments over there, did they send strawberry pancakes with whipped cream and hot chocolate?" He smiled when she looked up and shook her head.

"Good, ain't it?"

She smiled and licked the excess stickiness from her mouth. "Yonnie," she whispered. "Wenever had anything like this over in Nod. We could dream of it, even manifest it-but to truly taste the full flavor of it . . ." She sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. "To feel it going down into your belly, oh . . ."

"Tell me about where you used to live," he said, sending pleasure sensations into her palm. "What else couldn't you do?"

She hesitated and then pulled her hand away from his to take up her hot chocolate.

He chuckled and went back to his pancakes. "Let me tell you about this side, then." He waited until she looked at him again before continuing. "Yeah, we have wars and crime and atrocities. But we also party and have fun.The good with the bad. We dance, eat, drink, andbe merry. We make love, we fight, it's all sensation-and dead or alive, I wouldn't give up on this crazy plane for all the money in it. Now that's some raw truth."

"I want to experience some of those things," she admitted after a moment. "We all do. There's not many of us still left in Nod . . . most have fled and are in hiding. We can't be seen by the full humans. Those of us who are feather-bearers are bad enough, but those who . . ." She looked down at her plate.

"It's okay, baby. I know prejudice real up close and personal. You mean the leather wings, right?Homeboys rocking fangs and tails and shit."

"Yes," she said in a near whisper. "Those still in Nod are there because they are afraid and know of no other way to exist."

"Dimmed sensation . . . because you're afraid?" Yonnie arched an eyebrow as he took a sip of his coffee. "I'd take a bullet first. But then, if you don't know no better, hey. All I know is life is risk.A damned gamble every day."

"But you are brave, Yonnie. You walk about among the full humans. Most of us have never been so bold. We told ourselves it was because of the Edict, but now that the borders are open, it is hard to imagine such freedom . . . or such risk."

"Hey, be honest. It was real dangerous where you were, so how bad can this be? Plus, you get the perks. Sheeit, me myself, I'd be like-if I'ma die anyway, then I'ma go out loving every minute of being in this joint."

She stared at him and he stared at her. Until he'd said it, he hadn't realized just how much his seductive pep talk to get next to her was really the absolute truth.

"Your courage is admirable," she said without blinking. "I respect that." Then she looked away. "Carlos is blessed to have a friend like you, as is his wife."

Her simple statement did something to him. The purity of her spirit, in the absence of owning one himself, drew him to see beyond her gorgeous face and athletic body, to genuinely appreciate her real beauty. He hadn't felt anything close to that sinceTara , and it made him sit back in the booth to consider the dilemma.

"You didn't seem like a woman who was fearful when I met you on the beach," he said after a while, trying to wrest back his game. "You seemed like the type to go for the gusto-the kind of woman who does everything with passion."

She looked out the window and then up toward the sky. "I've spent my entire life in the service of others . . . fighting for right."

"Don't they give Valkyries shore leave or whatever?" he asked, leaning forward to wipe a bit of strawberry away from the corner of her mouth with the pad of his thumb. "You can be on a mission . . . but in your downtime, I can show you some earth plane sensations that'll knock your head back."

"I want to feel real water," she said suddenly, as though the thought had just occurred to her. "I flew over it, the waves,the blue!" She closed her eyes and laughed. "I want to get drunk on life."

"Shit . . . done."

"Really?"She opened her eyes and leaned forward like they were coconspirators in a crime.

He leaned forward and ran his tongue over his incisors to keep them back."Really. I got this little joint inMexico with a Jacuzzi . . ."

But his words trailed off as a stabbing call pierced his temples. "Hold up for a second, baby."

"Is everything all right?" Her concerned gaze held panic as he winced and sat back in the booth with an angry thud.

"Damn, Val, I'm real sorry-but I've gotta take this call."

"You're connected to the male Neteru by telepathy?"

He let his breath out hard. "Yeah . . . somethinglike that. But I've gotta bounce."

For a moment, she just stared at him with a look of total confusion on her face.

"I have to go," he said, materializing cash in his pockets and withdrawing a wad to leave on the table. "You go back and stay at the Neteru compound. It's definitely safe there-but be sure to leave them some kinda indication that you're there so they don't hot you on site by accident. If I can . . . maybe later tonight, depending on what's jumping off, I'll see if I can hook up with you. Damn, this gig gets on my nerves!"

She gave his hand a supportive squeeze. "I understand duty. I will look forward to experiencing water with you, then."

She stood when he stood. He leaned forward to kissher, she gave him a warrior's full forearm grip, looked him in the eye, and lifted her chin. "Be valiant, be victorious."

Yonnie raked his fingers through his thick Afro and smirked."Yeah, likewise."

"Sebastian, Fallon!" Yonnie hollered as he walked through Vampire Council Chambers. "You bad-timing motherfuckers better have a damned good reason for calling me with extreme measures! I'da came for Lilith, no problem-but she gave you the override code to blow my head up? Why!" He stood in front of the pentagram-shaped bargaining table with his arms folded, fuming. "Where is Madame Councilwoman, anyway?"

"OnSeven , clearing the path for a reanimation ceremony. She will be here shortly, if all goes well."

Be valiant, be victoriousstill singed the edges of his mind, along with Valkyrie's voluptuous body. He was in no mood for guessing games with Sebastian, especially not with Fallon Nuit smugly laid-back in his throne like the ultimate pimp.

Yonnie looked at his Rolex-it was more for show, since he already knew what time it was. "You wanna be more specific, since a brother has places to go and people to see?"

"We're filling two council seats," Nuit said coolly, leaning forward and making a tent with his fingers before his mouth. "Vampire Council Law of the Dark Realms dictates that all existing councilmen must be witness to the installation process, unless dispatched to do otherwise by their current Chairman . . . and I guarantee you,brother, you will not want to miss this."

Now they had his attention. Carlos and D definitely needed to know about a one-third expansion of the Vampire Council. More important for him, it also meant two more bastards he'd have to maneuver around just to stay alive. Yonnie pulled his cuffs down and strolled over to his throne, grabbing a goblet off the table, but hesitated.

"Although we are daywalkers," Nuit said coolly with a disdainful sniff, making Sebastian chuckle, "you may find that black blood doesn't mix well with blueberry pancakes or whatever else you've consumed. Like fine wine, the pure essence of life is best savored on an empty stomach and with a clean blood palate. However, suit yourself,monami . I'm only informing you out of gentlemanly courtesy . . . given that we will have two new members at council, whom I assume you'd rather not see you in a weakened state unbecoming to a senior councilman."

Yonnie stared at Nuit's arrogant smile and then looked down into his goblet as though poison were in it. Ego warred with common sense. If Nuit was warning him, then there was something really foul about to go down. Nuit didn't do courtesy.

"Then as they say in your nativeNew Orleans , let the good times roll." Yonnie lifted his goblet but sat down in his throne without drinking from it.

To raise a glass in a toast and not drink from it was akin to flipping Nuit the bird. But oddly, rather than take the bait, Nuit simply smiled like a man with an ace up his sleeve. Yonnie set his goblet down with precision and sat back. It was now a tense visual standoff until Lilith appeared.

"I hope you boys have been playing nicely together while I was gone?" Lilith smiled as she sashayed over to her throne, subtly nodding to Sebastian and Nuit.

Yonnie stared at her and her smile grew. He was on the outside of their collusion, and that was a dangerous place to be.

Inhaling deeply, Lilith laughed. "Blueberry pancakes, Yonnie?"

"I've wanted some since I was a kid," he said flatly, his gaze on her deadly.

"Don't be so touchy," she said, her good mood making him more wary. She dismissed the subject with a wave of her hand, clearly bored with it in light of her other news. "I know what Sebastian was doing during his first morning . . . now I smell what you've been doing, Yonnie-eating at some pancake emporium. Fallon . . . tell me, have you been a good boy?"

Yonnie watched Fallon sit back, his slender fingers laced beneath his chin. From the corner of his eye, he watched Sebastian lean forward ever-so-slightly. The games had begun.

"Your husband, our Dark Lord, is beyond genius," Fallon began calmly, and then took a graceful bow from where he was seated. "By him attacking the male Neteru's father-seer in a cathedral, this presented yet another opportunity for our side."

Lilith arched an eyebrow. Sebastian offered Nuit a respectful nod. Yonnie remained as still as stone, listening.

"This is my specialty . . . understanding the whims and weaknesses of Carlos Rivera. As I'm sure your husband knew, what he sent the priest would fry a human mind. But, for someone such as Carlos, who had seen the depths of decadence from a Vampire Council throne, these images were mild, by comparison. Therefore, in his heroism, the Neteru would go in, take the images from the old man-as much as possible, and jettison them away."

Lilith released an evil chuckle. "Best coke I've had in a while."

"Precisely," Nuit crooned. "But the part that is of true note is that said attack only infuriated the Neteru. The frustration of not being able to retaliate is causing the old dark vapor within him to rise."

"Yes, yes," Lilith said dismissively. "We know all about it. That was Lu's plan. Piss him off so badly that he breaks another seal . . . blah, blah,blah ."

"But the darkness that is beginning to envelop his silver life-force pulse is visible." Nuit sat back with a triumphant smile, waiting a moment to allow the concept to sink in. "Essentially, he's got a GPS locator on him from our side. Therefore, as long as he's not inside a place that is additionally prayer-barriered to us, we can see him. Soon, as the rage further implodes, we'll be able to pick up the white-hot dark signal as though he were beeping on radar."

Lilith lifted her goblet slowly, raised it in Nuit's direction, and then took a sip from it. "Touch�, Fallon . . . this is precisely why you are a member of council."

He lifted his goblet toward her, bowed slightly, and took a sip. "And since the male and female Neteru are linked under the one-flesh marriage clause-if he's detectable, she's detectable . . . and because I was aware that one of the Guardians, her best friend from her old life, I believe, had a child . . . I knew that after the Dark Lord breached a cathedral and attacked her husband's father-seer, Damali would go to the preventive rescue of that at-risk child. That, dearLilith, is how I spent my first morning in the sun after centuries of darkness-in your service, as always."

Nuit looked at Yonnie with a scowl. "I was not eating blueberry pancakes to destroy my vampire palate. Nor was I out trying to get laid by human blood carriers." He turned away from Yonnie to stare at Lilith, raising his goblet. "I was at work for the empire, advancing our unholy cause, attempting to drive a further wedge in the male Neteru's mind by making him know that his family-every far-flung member of it-willnever be safe. That will enrage a man such as Carlos Rivera, to the point where he might as well have a neon target on his back. It will also ultimately send him over the edge into urban ride-or-die mode, as he used to call it, and that will have cataclysmic results."

Lilith set down her goblet and clapped in a slowly, seductive pulse. "Bravo, Nuit. As always, your treachery completes me." She turned to Sebastian. "You see why I said he is such a good match for your first choice.She thinks like that, as well. Both are of theschoolofMachiavelli ." Lilith clucked her tongue. "I so miss him, too."

Yonnie ignored Nuit but keyed in on the word "she," now staring at Sebastian. Dissecting the information quickly, he had to get word out as soon as it was possible. Nuit hadn't lied. That shit that just went down would take Carlos dark in a heartbeat. Now he understood some of why he hadn't been able to get to his boy. No wonder he'd put up additional barriers at the homestead.Made sense that Carlos and his family had to be behind clerical walls or in a Guardian safe house somewhere.

"Yes, I agree with Nuit's approach to time well spent," Sebastian said, oblivious to Yonnie's inner turmoil. He sat up taller, his tone haughty. "While some people were simply indulging their childhood appetites, I was advancing the cause of the empire as well. My research into viable candidates that had not been slain by a Neteru blade yielded rare gems. Lilith, my hope is that my suggestions have been accepted for induction to council."

"He gets to choose both candidates?" Nuit said, losing his former reserve. While his tone was calm and even, his body was tense. "I had a few candidates in mind, myself . . . hence my earlier comment to Yonnie that he would not want to miss this induction." Nuit stared at Sebastian with a lethal gaze for a moment before taking his petition back to Lilith. "I assure you that my knowledge base of female candidates throughout antiquity isvast . Are you certain he isqualified to make such a critical selection?"

"In this case," Lilith said, baiting Nuit. "But you will like his selections, I'm sure."

Nuit made a tent in front of his mouth. "Is that due process? I deliver you access to our arch-nemeses, while he only does mere research, and Yolando eats pancakes. Lilith, to say that I am concerned and object is an understatement."

"If I deliver you Lucrezia Borgia, do you still object?" Sebastian asked with a wry smile, and then sipped from his goblet.

"Non. . ."

"Oui,"Sebastiansaid, his smile widening as he set down his goblet."All for you,mon ami . When I raise her, that will be the condition of her council seat-she's yours."

"Speechless, Fallon?Cat got your tongue?" Lilith teased. "Normally with such a gift presented, a man says thank you."

"Merci . . ."Nuit whispered inDananu , still stunned."First daylight . . . thenLucrezia? How can this be-she died ahuman. "

Sebastian stood and opened his arms wide. "I am the master of master necromancers. Respect me for my talents, Nuit! This is why you and I have unnecessarily been at odds. I respect your statesmanship and strategy . . . now look upon my special skills with due awe."

Instantly, a hole opened in the air above Sebastian's outstretched palms, and grains of what appeared to be dark sand, gravel, and ash overran them, flowing through his fingers as he laughed madly. He balled his hands into fists around the silt, catching as much of it as possible until his hands could hold no more. Then he threw his head back as gale-force winds blew the council doors open. Black lightning arced in his palms, and he flung the dirt toward an empty throne. Just as suddenly as it smoldered, lava from theSeaofPerpetual Agony belched up a hot tendril of screaming ooze that slithered along the black marble floor like a wailing serpent to meet the dirt-splattered throne.

"Comeback, bring forth your treachery and your wiles. Come back filled with lusts and deceit-I call you Lucrezia . . . from the House of Borgia, I call you to Vampire Council to do its bidding!"

Black lightning hit the throne, igniting an inferno within the seat of it. An awful woman's scream echoed as bits of bone dust and body ash, graveyard gravel, and Sebastian's own blend of sorcery drew it together. Her form rose slowly from the flames, her skin blackened from the pyre. As she screamed and screeched, the cord of ooze from theSeaofPerpetual Agony leapt up her body and drove itself down her throat.

Fallon Nuit was on his feet as the fire died away. Yonnie remained immobile, watching and wary, as Lilith clapped and screeched. Black, crusted skin dropped away from the woman's body as she slumped in the throne, leaving the stench of charred flesh in its wake.

Dewey, pinkish, porcelain skin remained where there had been burned earth. A pair of startled green eyes opened suddenly and she took a gasp, clutching the chair. Thick waves of red hair covered her full breasts, but as she coughed and sputtered to life, her voluptuous form left nothing to the imagination.

"And you say she is for me . . ." Nuit murmured, looking at Sebastian.

"If you elect to do the honors," Sebastian said with a gracious bow. "She is still human, just reanimated without a soul."

Nuit pressed his fist to his mouth for a moment."Virgin to the bite?"

Sebastian nodded. But Nuit looked to Lilith for confirmation.

"You accept his generous gift with no objections?" Lilith said, smiling a dangerous smile.

"What's the catch?" Nuit said. "What is the soul price for such an amazing feat?"

Lilith laughed. "Oh, Fallon, you are so suspicious. Why can't you just accept a gesture of respect among councilmen?"

Nuit gave her a half smile. "Because that is not how it works in Hell, my dear."

"All right," she said with a sigh. "If you turn her and install her-and you know you want to, just look at your pants . . . there will be no factions in council, and you will respect Sebastian's choice of mate with no poaching." She looked to Sebastian. "Did I get those terms right?"

Sebastian nodded.

Nuit chuckled low in his throat. "Mon ami,I knew you had performance anxiety, but had I known it was this bad, I would have exploited it long ago."

"Do you accept or not? She will not last long in this half-state!" Sebastian yelled. "Eithermake her a vampire now before her breathing expires, or you will have missed your opportunity! The spell only lasts so long!" He looked at Lilith for support.

"In a throne, in council, Fallon . . . think of it. Lucrezia Borgia . . . and you will not only have a taste of someone so corrupt, who managed to remain virgin to our bites . . . but you will be able to give her the daylight infusion."

"You would allow that-even though the heir is only supposed to give that?" Nuit's startled gaze held Lilith's.

"Lu said that I could pass it to my councilmen. You can't give it to anyone else, but giving it to a fellow member of council at an installation with me watching isn't going against his intent to contain it to just us. I'm just bending the rules for you, darling, not breaking them." She blew Nuit a kiss from where she sat and it knocked his head back, causing his fangs to instantly lower from arousal. "There.All yours. Now please accept the offer with no more bullshit."

"Offer formally accepted," Nuit breathed, and swept to Lucrezia's throne.

Lifting her slumped body to sit upright, he listened to her expiring breaths as her slender fingers scrabbled at her throat. Tiny gurgling sounds drew him to hold her delicate chin in his palm and turn her head as she strangled on her own saliva.

"I know,ch�rie, death by natural causes is awful," he murmured, sliding a fang up her jugular as he inhaled her raw scent. "I will be your savior from said tragedy again. You were designed for pleasure," he whispered, sliding his other palm against the small of her back. "And you have come to be made at a most auspicious time in the empire. . . . Your radiance will know daylight, but the power I'm about to confer upon you is beyond what your ruthless mind could have ever envisioned. You will owe me dying loyalty to ash, but love every moment of it."

In a serpent-quick strike, his fangs sank into her rose-petal-soft skin. Her body convulsed, but his firm grip at the small of her back and at the nape of her neck kept her welded to him as he heaved in each siphon of blood. He dredged her until she was limp, arms dangling at her sides.But soon, her flaccid arms responded-first clutching the arms of the throne, then his shoulders. As he drained her completely, whitening her skin, she cried out, but not from pain.

"Damn, I love to watch that man work," Lilith murmured appreciatively to Sebastian. "Now do you see why I was concerned that you might get cuckolded after all?" She shook her head when Sebastian angrily glanced away. "Yolando, watch and learn . . . it takes centuries of practice to want something so badly but to negotiate your terms up-front . . . and to do so with a quickly expiring opportunity. Had she died, he would have been unmercifully teased with no resolution in store."

Yonnie nodded, angry with himself that watching the whole process had given him wood.

Nuit drew away from Lucrezia's throat, dropping his head back, fangs crimson and glistening. "Throne, teach her. Infuse her!" He stepped away from the dead woman breathing hard, trembling.

Never having seen a from-death turn-bite installation, both Yonnie and Sebastian sat forward, watching the process with complete focus. Only Lilith lounged in her throne, amused, with excited Harpies gathered at her feet.

Slowly, the throne came alive, welding itself to the female body that inhabited it. Movement fluttered beneath Lucrezia's lids. Nuit had been taking slow inhalations through his nose, but as she arched and cried out, his breaths came in short bursts through his mouth. Tight pink nipples rose and fell beneath Lucrezia's profusion of red hair as she twisted and writhed. Her creamy thighs parted, giving them all full view of her glistening sex as the throne thrust centuries of decadence into her mind.

Black arc current covered her, causing Nuit to allow his head to drop back, almost too aroused to watch. But when she screamed and opened her eyes, he went to her. Green irises had been replaced with glowing red orbs. Her small rosebud mouth opened to reveal a dainty set of perfect porcelain fangs. She reached out to Nuit and he covered her mouth with his, consuming her bite as his hands found her hair.

But he had to wait, had to wait for the throne to finish transmitting all that had been before her, had to wait until it let go of her spine. Her shrieks of frustration tortured his libido as she reached for him, clutched him wherever he would allow, and then began to sob.

"Don't leave me!" she screamed. "You made me! You have to come to me!"

He held himself just inches out of her reach, shuddering. "I will,ch�rie, " he whispered in a gravelly voice, "and I will bring you daylight when I do."

Her laments had become so forlorn and intoxicating that Lilith slowly slid her hand down the front of her gown. "Fallon . . . wherever you take her, do allow me to join you."

Too overwhelmed to initially speak, he simply nodded. Seconds later the object of his desire stood and flew at him. His back hit the table, his suit dissolving immediately.

Lucrezia threw her headback, fangs lowered to a feeding length, and struck him. Nuit's voice rent the air, his nails digging into the marble, spilling blood from his veins as her body sheathed his. The contrast of their skin seemed as though his Creole caf� au lait was drinking in her milky hue, his blood infusing her with color. Wanton pelvic thrusts inched the entwined couple to the precipice of falling. But as soon as she'd had her fill from his throat, he flipped her on her back, dissolving the table.

A carpet of freshly mown grass broke her fall; dogwoods grew up over and consumed unoccupied thrones, Spanish moss eerily swayed, and a full moon rose. Rose petals rained from the vaulted ceiling until the entire floor was a scarlet wash. Council Chambers dissolved into his bedchamber lair, sheets billowing from an energy breeze. Sweat ran down his muscle-corded back as he fisted her hair and bit her again.

"You're marked as mine," he gasped inDananu , staring at her, blood oozing from his fangs as she spasmed with pleasure beneath him. "Thisis life. What you lived before was a child's dream."

"Magnificent . . ." Lilith whispered, reaching across to Sebastian to hold his hand. "Stop scowling, Yonnie, you must give the man his due." Lilith leaned forward, craning her neck. "He's close-can you feel it . . . just absorb the energy coming off his body. Whew . . ."

A sudden blue-black nova sent a thundering pulse through chambers that rattled thrones. Nuit's voice bounced off the walls in shuddering waves. Bats took flight, and small bits of stalactites and stalagmites fell. As quickly as the charge hit, the chambers brightened for a second, as though the flash on a camera had gone off, and then for a moment everything went dark. Slowly but surely the torches on the walls relit.

"And . . . then there was daylight," Nuit murmured, looking down at Lucrezia with a low, sexy chuckle.

"Tres bon!Tres bon!"Lilithsaid, standing and clapping. "Welcome to council, Lucrezia." Lilith blotted the perspiration from her brow. "I may have to go topside to feed before you bring backElizabeth . . . I love how you gentlemen handle your business." She looked at Yonnie and winked, teasing him by stealing some of his slang.

Fallon kissed a breathless Lucrezia, but lifted his head to stare at Lilith. "Elizabeth?"

"As in Bathory."

Fallon withdrew from Lucrezia's body and stood, then helped her stand. "Are you both insane?" he whispered.

"After such a display, you cannot object. It was the agreement!" Sebastian lamented.

"Lilith . . . that isDracula's wife."Nuit raked his disheveled hair and pulled Lucrezia against him to shield her. "He was called Vlad the Impaler for a reason,oui? He will come back one night, find the most appropriate orifice on your body, and shove a wooden pike through it until it comes out of your mouth,monami . This, I promise you. You do not know who you're fucking with."

"Well . . . he's not raising Dracula, so there you have it. This was Sebastian's choice. I felt she would be a wonderful addition to council, so I approve."

"Vlad will raise himself from the dead if he thinks that his wife has been brought back from the grave solely at another man's pleasure. I do not object on the grounds of envy-I object because that is like setting the course for a nuclear missile!" Nuit robed himself and then covered Lucrezia in a new, antebellum crimson gown, then waved away all the visual special effects he'd created.

"Seems like you wasteda barter on Fallon," Lilith said with a grin. "He wouldn't go after your mate, so you didn't have to go to all this trouble. I told you he and Lucrezia were a perfect match."

"You have no troubles from me," Nuit said. "You wasted a transaction, as Lilith said. I would not want to be the one to duel with Vlad, and the possible army he could raise, not even as a councilman. Do recall that he went against the Ottomans with a fair degree of success-while alive andhuman . He did most of his insane impaling while human. Might it not be worth considering what he would do as a born-again vampire?Hmmm? Consult the information resident in your throne, Sebastian. Vlad wasso ruthlessly powerful as a mere Master that even Dante refused to allow him a seat on council for fear of an imminent coup.I filled that open seat, thus perhaps am more sensitive to the vibrations of the era."

"Sounds familiar," Yonnie muttered. "And we see how much good blocking Vlad from council did our old Chairman."

"Be that as it may," Nuit said with a scowl. "The Count's skills at dispatching adversaries are legendary for cause."

"He will not come back," Sebastian said coolly. "Vlad was beheaded by a blessed blade, and even I cannot raise him if I wanted to, which I do not. Therefore, if you are happy with your choice, then be happy with mine."

Fallon pursed his lips and put one finger to them before he spoke, and then tapped on the fanged crest in the center of the table until it responded, coming alive. He looked deeply into its ruby eyes that glistened in its golden gargoyle face.

"I wantit on the record that I had nothing to do with this, nor did my new bride, the Councilwoman Borgia. And, I want it stated in blood." Nuit held out his wrist and winced when the crest struck him, drawing blood. "From here, do as you like. While you undertake this unthinkable act, we will be topside dining inNew Orleans at sunset. Once you are done, by all means, we will come back to council to pay our utmost respect to the legendary lady, scandalous as this liaison may be."

Yonnie stood, walked over to the table, and tapped the crest. "Then I'm out, too." He looked down at the crest as it struck him and drew back. "I ain't party to this one. And you can call me back when you're done and she's all installed and shit. Because if it's bad enough for Nuit's horny ass to pass on an installation witness of Dracula's wife, hey, who am I? I ain't as old as none of you rat bastards-but I ain't crazy. C'mon, man, you trying to raise Liz?"

"She is no longer Dracula's wife!" Sebastian spat back. "She'll be Councilwoman Bathory, under my installation bite."

Nuit nodded. "And this is what the late Count will track through the fires of hell to find the source of."

"He cannot be raised! It was part of my agreement with Lilith!"

"Ah . . ." Nuit said. "But, insofar as we are indeed at the end of days, and should the Dark Lord at some point need to supersede that negotiation for the benefit of the empire . . . and thus figure out a way to raise that particular resource to use at his disposal . . ." Nuit shook his head. "Not good.Tres mal."

"That won't happen; he won't need to raise him if we do our job." Sebastian lifted his chin and folded his arms.

Nuit held up his hands before his chest. "As I said earlier, I just want it on the record-in blood, what my position in all of this was.Nothing."

"Hey . . ." Yonnie said, beginning to walk toward the door. "You ain't gotta tell a brother twice. I'm out, you crazy, and we all know how shit goes down here."

"You boys are no fun at all," Lilith said, laughing.

"Let me ask you one question then, Lilith," Nuit said, extending his elbow to Lucrezia. He waited until his new bride took it and then released a slow, calm breath.

Lilith smiled and waited with her arms folded.

"Are you insane enough to help with the installation?"

"Will I fuck her when she comes out of the throne? Be direct, Fallon." Lilith's smile was sly and seductive.

"Oui.That is my question."

All eyes went to Lilith, who paused and then threw her head back and laughed.

"Hell no!Are you insane?"

Tags: L.A. Banks Vampire Huntress Legend Vampires