The Hunted

Chapter Eleven

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Chapter Eleven

Damali just glared at Carlos and walked ahead of him toward the parking lot. She was so angry it felt like smoke was coming out of her ears. Yeah, yeah, yeah, she understood now that he had to show that he was back and in full effect. Yeah, okay, she got it why he had to give them something that probably no other male in the territory could do. And, fine, his point was made about how he had to be sure he was respected when he went anywhere with her. But he had unnecessarily dragged her into pure craziness! What if he couldn't do it? She'd be road pizza, or maybe some poor, unsuspecting bystander would. And those hoes!

Couldn't leave you behind with them, he said in a quiet transmission as they neared the cars. Not until total control was established. They'd try you just to try me, and you don't have Madame Isis on you. My concentration would be jacked during the race, worrying about you back there. That's the only reason I did it. This is for us.

Yeah, whateva.

You see how bad it is out here, right? They took my Beverly Hills lair, my club, have to get my authority reestablished, without council assistance.

What-the-fuck-eva, Carlos.

A punk second-level just pushed up on me. I couldn't allow -

Five vamp bitches just pushed up on you, and I couldn't allow -

Had to play the game, baby... come on. You know me better than that. How would I look as a male master turning down free tail like I couldn't hang? Some things are just not done in public.

What's the double-plunge? And what the hell is V-point?

Later. I gotta concentrate. He looked at her hard as he opened the passenger-side door for her to get in. For real, D. While we're riding�don't make me lose focus.

Anger immediately ebbed away from her as she sensed nervous energy thread through Carlos. He'd jumped over the door and slid into his seat. The other driver was looking straight ahead, his black Hummer rumbling, the engine a dull roar. The kit on the Hummer made the other driver's vehicle look like it had silver fangs on the front of it. What was she doing? And he didn't want her to pray? Carlos glanced at her once with a warning glare and gunned his engine.

A sexy female vampire with long brown hair, wearing a hot orange tank top and an orange patent leather skirt, tipped on stiletto heels between the two racers. She pulled a hundred dollar bill out from her ample cleavage, leaned over, and brushed Carlos's mouth, and tucked the bill under his belt, then stroked his groin. Damali set her jaw hard but refused to do anything that would jeopardize her own life. Later. Yeah. Like Carlos said. Me and you, bitch.

"Just for good luck, and 'cause I'm betting on you, suga," the female vamp said, her New Orleans accent thick and husky. "I'm left over from Nuit's reign, plantation days before he got Amanthra in his system, and I heard all about you. I'll be dropping the bandanna tonight... later, when you win, you can drop fang on me." She looked at Damali. "Let her hit a wall, but do come back to us in one piece tonight. You'll still be the best. You never had anything to prove to me."

Then she sashayed away, blew Carlos an air kiss, took off her top, and stood half nude before both drivers. Were it not for the significant matter of life and limb, Damali would have jumped over the door and kicked her ass. She smiled at Damali, issuing a provocative dare, then put one hand up to her ear, extending her thumb and pinky with her other fingers folded in to resemble a telephone receiver, closed her eyes and mouthed the words, "Call me," toward Carlos.

The only thing saving her was the fact that Carlos wasn't even watching her huge breasts jiggle as she raised her arm. His focus was on her top, and when she released it, the orange flag fell in slow motion. That's when the world became a blur.

Centrifugal force sucked the air right out of Damali's lungs. Her back slammed against the seat. Oh, shit, they were gonna die!

Sparks flew as the doors of both cars scored each other. They were madmen, trying to run each other off the road at a speed that didn't even register on the speedometer. Red lights from highway traffic made her nails dig into her palms, waiting for the impact. A tractor trailer's bumper came right through the windshield, shattering it, making her cover her face and shriek at a decibel she never knew was possible. She was instantly wind; the Chevy reconstructed, bounced hard, spiraled over the highway guardrail side-by-side with the Hummer, eating up expressway, upside down. She shut her eyes, tears flying from the corners of them as she tried to gulp air, her heart rising to her throat, then they were right-side up again, streets blurring by so fast that she couldn't tell where they were. The front bumper collided with a warehouse wall, crumbled in toward her, briefly trapping her knees, then releasing them, papers flying everywhere as they exited the building whole.

She almost wet herself as they took out a chain-link fence - it reconstructed behind them - the cars zigzagged, making a space widen between them before the Hummer slammed Carlos's door again hard. Their car spun, hit a pole that went right through it between their seats, carving the Chevy in half, each part flipping over three times in opposite directions, and then reconnected in a hard snap.

Sweat poured down her temple, her tears blinding her. Her feet were pressed hard to the floor, applying phantom passenger breaks, her hands covering her face as they whooshed through parked cars, and were heading for a church. They were playing chicken, dragging black smoke down the street toward a sanctuary. Cliffs and beach were behind the building. They'd run out of road. Vampires were on the sidelines, their excited faces blurred by the speed. Final destination, she felt it. That's when she screamed in earnest. If they hit the church, all magic and illusion was gone. Both males would be smoked, and she'd be a bloodstain.

It came out on reflex. A shrill, garbled call, "Oh my God!"

Carlos pulled the Chevy onto two wheels just before the church gate, rolling the Chevy over in a crashing flip that kept skidding on its side beyond the church property gates, sending sparks down the street, momentum carrying them into dirt, onto rocks. An explosion sounded behind them. Shards of stained glass, wood, and brick followed them over the edge of the cliffs, hurling their car down an embankment. Then two arms caught her and set her on her feet.

"What a fucking rush!"

She dropped to her knees, could hear people cheering. Carlos was laughing. She could smell a fire. Hear sirens in the distance. She dry-heaved but was so shaken that nothing came up. A pair of strong hands lifted her under her arms. She stared at the jubilant face and slapped it.

"You're nuts! Get away from me!" She pulled out of Carlos's hold, and staggered to a tree and held onto it.

"Oh, man, Rivera! History again! Daaaayum," a male voice behind her shouted.

"You's one baaad motherfucker, dude. You know humans always freak at the last minute - but you held your concentration through her prayer?" A male vamp pounded Carlos's fist. "I saw that shit with my own eyes, boss. She screamed the word we don't say, the other brother cringed, didn't pull up in time, smoked his ass - went right through the church front door. It was lovely, man. Why don't you and your lady come back to the club, we'll treat you righteous, feel me?"

"Naw, man," Carlos said, breathing hard, and raking his fingers through his hair. "I need to walk this off." He bent over and sucked in a huge gulp of air.

"I can dig it," another male said. "Give yourself a minute, man. That was some near-extinction type shit, if I ever saw it." He nodded to the gathering of female vampires on the curb. "We told 'em not to rush you. After a display like that, a brother needed some space. Needed to be able to pick and choose." Then he winked at Carlos as he stood. "You got 'em in a lather, man. But, uh, this Neteru is off da hook... kicking - no disrespect. Contact is in the air like a mug. When she slapped you, man, I thought I was gonna pass out."

"Yeah, me too," Carlos said, chuckling, rubbing his jaw with appreciation. He looked at Damali. "You just don't know."

The other vamp sniffed hard and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "See why you roll like that. So, since we know what you can do, and all the fellas ain't trying to piss you off, and whatnot... uh... if you got any lair queens you can spare..." He held up his hands in front of his chest. "We asking, you know. Respectful, like. Hoping you might hook a brother up. Ain't trying to jack your shit without permission, though."

Carlos nodded, wiping his nose and still breathing hard. "It's cool, man. Consider it a gift for me coming back from the ashes. Take 'em all. Do 'em right. Seal my lairs, though, and watch my back. No more bullshit while I'm out in the streets with my woman. And don't be sweatin' her, neither, if she's by herself. That's all I ask until I figure out how I'ma realign my shit. I'll let ya'll know who gets what, later."

"That's most cool, man," the male closest to him said. "My name is Yonnie. My posse, we never worked for Nuit - we was made earlier, had to lay low for a few. We're from the old empire, never went rebel. But, shit, man, we got your back."

Carlos just nodded and glanced at Damali, hoping she was taking all of this in. She was leaning against a tree as though it were holding her up. Her eyes were closed, her entire body was damp with sweat. She was breathing so fast that she was going to make herself faint. The sight of her like that was intoxicating. He glanced at the grouping of males and smiled.

"Knock yourselves out," he said, getting his breath regulated and motioning to the female vamps. "That's me right there," he added, pointing toward Damali.

"We can dig it," Yonnie said, shaking his head. "We be out."

Carlos waited until the coast was clear and all the vampires had left before he approached Damali. She was going to go off, he could feel the hysteria brimming under her skin the closer he got to her.

"Baby," he said quietly. But she held up one finger with her eyes still closed and stopped him from saying a word.

So he stood there in the dark on the edge of the cliffs, looking at her, listening to her pulse, so loud it made his ears ring. Terror, adrenaline, rage, you name it, it was fused with Neteru and it saturated the air. His own adrenaline high was still pumping through him. His dick was so hard there were tears in his eyes.

He was about to approach her again when she put her hand up and then pointed toward the church. "Fix it, and take me home!"

Her eyes were filled with gorgeous, glittering fury like he'd never seen before. The sight of her wrath stole his breath.

"Baby," he said again, trying to approach her, needing to be near her. "Okay. I'll fix the church, but then I need to feed. All right?"

She just nodded and closed her eyes as he walked away from her and repaired the damage as best he could. He couldn't do a full reconstruction of the building running this low on fuel. Besides, it was hallowed ground and took way too much energy to try to hold it in his mind safely. His concentration was splintered now, anyway. The angrier she got, the hornier he got. Oh, man, he needed to feed. But at least she had been able to see what he'd been trying to tell her about traveling without some controls in place.

He glanced up toward the hills. "My car is totaled; can't fix it right now. And, uhmm... even though things are pretty cool in the territory, I don't think it would be wise to leave you here standing by a tree. Some male might just happen by, get a whiff of what you're trailing, and lose it. Then I'd have to fight without a full tank."

She opened her eyes. The color was still drained from her lovely face, and her hand was over her heart. He hadn't thought about the fact that she could have died of natural causes from something like an aneurysm or a heart attack. Then, again, if she did, he did have a solution, albeit not a perfect one. He smiled.

When she balled up her fist, he laughed and backed away from her. "My bad," he said, laughing harder. "Oh, damn, Damali, that was some crazy shit, girl!"

He leaned his head back and wiped his face with both palms. "I can't believe I did that. Whoooo, shit!" But as he stood there and looked at her, the more rage glittered in her eyes, the more he knew he had to go eat. "Let me take you up there with me," he said, motioning toward the hills as the mirth slipped out of his tone. "I'ma eat, then I'll take you home."

"Fine," she snapped.

He nodded, but was thoroughly disappointed. Baby, please don't leave me hanging. Not tonight.

"And I will never forgive you if you go back there and pick up one of those hoochies."

"No, no, no, you got me all wrong. That was just theater... a little drama, baby. I'm cool."

She walked up to him and when she slipped her fingers in his pants he shuddered at her touch. She snatched the C-note out of his belt, and flung it in his face. He'd forgotten about it, but her scent almost made him reach out and pull her to him. Hope would do that sorta thing to a brother after a hunt. Even now he had to steel himself against the insistent incoming female vampire calls. They were on fire and lighting up his senses like a Friday night police station switchboard. Red pulses were everywhere in his brain, but there was one... one that was so primal, so fantastically alluring that he was almost afraid to even admit it was there. Definitely female, whatever it was. And it definitely was not Damali. It was coming strong from a distance... All right. Focus.

He led Damali to a densely wooded area where he knew deer were plentiful and placed her by a tree. "I'll be right back. This won't take long, I promise."

She folded her arms and looked up at the moon. He was getting on her nerves so badly, she wanted to scream. It didn't have to be all this. Truly, it didn't. This was the most reckless, dangerous, unnecessary... Then she froze.

She watched him walk into the underbrush and disappear, but a long, black velvet tail parted the foliage before it vanished. She took a deep breath. She knew masters and second-generations could shape-shift, but seeing Carlos do it was a whole other story... she'd only been teasing when she'd asked him to show her that before. And they were still connected. She could feel the power rushing through him, rushing through her. Oh, no, it had never been like this. Yeah, they'd been hanging pretty tight, but there were areas of his mind that he kept telling her not to wander into. He had a black box around them. This was one of those areas. She knew it the moment his focus wavered. Sometimes it even gave him pause. His blood lust side.

Suddenly she heard branches snapping, a low growl that cut through the night and made the crickets stop singing. She heard a hard thud. He'd brought something big down fast. The desire that ran through him made the hair stand up on her arms. Then she felt it. All the adrenaline, energy, everything that had been coursing through him before, during, and after the race. Yeah, he'd taken her to a safe private glen a few times to make love, and had left her side to go discreetly feed himself from deer. But she'd never experienced the quiet terror of the woods like this, never connected to the lurking predatory power within it. Never understood the true danger hidden in the underbrush.

She glanced around, and felt for her blade. Tonight she needed it. He was on a mission. She'd definitely been playing when she'd asked him to shape-shift. Pure curiosity. Hadn't understood what that meant. And the moment she thought it, two golden eyes appeared in the thicket, and she could feel something huge, were-like, stalking her.

Damali took slow steps, drawing away from the presence until her back hit the tree. But she was forced to hold onto it for support as a rough, catlike tongue licked up her leg, a strong velvet jaw forced them open, and she could feel the rough wetness slide between the crack of her butt, come up her front, opening everything in its wake, then taste her navel, dragging a rough moist trail up her torso.

Her sphincter muscle twitched and contracted at the delicious invasion, but she tensed. Uh, uh, not the back door, when he was like this. No way. She could feel him probe every orifice on her. But the eyes in the bushes hadn't moved, so she knew he hadn't physically touched her. She heard a low constant rumble that sounded oddly like a threatening purr.

Then just as suddenly, the sensation passed, and Carlos stepped out of the bushes. Carlos, the man, that is. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, looked at her with longing, then glanced up at the moon. "I have got to get you home."

She wasn't about to argue with him as he walked toward her, his motions still fluid like the thing he'd temporarily been. His breaths were ragged, his gaze intense. Something was definitely wrong with his vibe. Vampires were smooth; tonight he was...

"Sorry about that," he murmured. "You smell so fucking good, and..." He closed his eyes and breathed deeply for a moment. "Like I said," he whispered, opening his eyes slowly and holding her stunned gaze in the moonlight. "There are some things you do not want me to do." Then he smiled, fangs coming down without censure. "Unless you want me to?"

She lifted her skirt and unsheathed baby Isis in response.

"Please, don't do that," he said, his voice a tense plea. He wiped his brow and took a deep breath. "Not while serving a red thong underneath that skirt. Put it away."

The shudder that ran through him made her hands shake as she fumbled with the weapon and tried to sheath it. He closed his eyes and walked away from her while she did, but she could feel the blatant desire wafting around her. In all the times they'd been together, she'd never seen him like this. He was so aroused it was turning her on, and yet, she didn't know why. This was crazy. Curiosity was drugging her, and the lingering urge to mark her own territory was lighting a dangerous fuse within her. She had to know what the female vamps had been talking about. And if there was something they could do for him that she couldn't...

"What's the double plunge at V-point?"

He turned around so fast that she backed up two steps.

"Don't ask me that shit right now! Are you crazy?"

"All right," she said softly. "Okay." But the image that slammed into her brain nearly set her on fire. Apparently the double plunge required her to bear fang... They were right, she couldn't accommodate him. And it disturbed her, deeply, that they could do something apparently mindblowing for him. But there was also no way she was going to sit at home and watch TV with Marlene, while he prowled the streets in this state. He wasn't going to make it through the night without answering a vamp call.

"Damali, you have to understand that there are some things about my world... It won't mean anything." Carlos tilted his head as though listening to something in the distance and breathed out slowly. His voice dropped an octave. "It won't mean what it means when I'm with you. Let me take you home. You don't want me to take you like this."

Furious, she stood tall, pulled out her blade, hiked up her skirt on one side, and cut her thong with it, then let the flimsy red fabric drop to the grass.

The minute the scrap of material hit the ground, she froze. The Isis blade was not supposed to be used like that, and she knew it. This thing had passed through the twelve major religions and then had come from the Vatican. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. But she was on a mission. No vamp female was calling her man out into the streets over her. She touched the blade with shaky fingers then cast it to the ground.

She turned away, walked off a few paces, and got down on her hands and knees, then glanced over her shoulder. She could see him trembling where he stood. Knew he'd be on her in seconds. But also knew that tonight, whatever he did, it would be over quick. Ten hard strokes and brother would be done.

"Go for it," she told him, her voice low and sure. "Just don't turn into something that's gonna scare me."

He walked over to her slowly, knelt behind her. His palm caressed her exposed cheek, and he groaned before he melted naked against her tense body. He covered her like a hot seal, drawing a hard gasp from her. She braced for impact when he paused at her still-virgin opening, hovered just outside of it, then wrested himself away from it. She released her breath when he sought refuge where he normally entered her. Oh, this man was close to the edge.

He filled her so hard and so fast that she nearly choked. There was no gentle nuzzle at her neck. He held her by her waist with one arm, and braced himself against the dirt and grass with the other. No fore-play, nothing. No tender words, no whispered endearments. Just deep pants keeping time with his hard strokes, his body hot and sweating, lunging.

She couldn't see him. She peeped at his extended arm through squinted eyes to make sure his form hadn't changed. If he had, she didn't want to see it - not while he was in her... But the size of his forearm was nearly twice what it normally was. Veins were standing up beneath the skin on the back of his hand. It was almost as though he was drawing strength right out of the ground. A steel biceps bulged and released his weight near her shoulder, and what was moving inside of her felt like granite.

Her arms and legs were trembling as she tried to hold herself up and take his thrusts. Pleasure and pain became one as the width of his shaft stretched her to near-tearing, but the length hit every glorious place that she needed it to, and then some. She dropped her head forward, breathing with his rhythm, and felt the night air thicken around her when her cries blended with the other noises of the forest.

A long, soulful growl came up from his abdomen with a shudder that made her clutch the earth. The timbre of it was so primal that it shot hunger through every opening she had. It made her throw her head back and dip her spine into a deep sway and release a primal call of her own.

He threw his head back, and shuddered.

"Oh, shit, girl..."

His voice was deep and hoarse, and he was almost lifting her off the ground as his body convulsed with repeated spasms. The siphon strike at her neck was so powerful that it flattened her instantly, slamming her breastbone to the ground, his knees shoving her legs open wider, his hand at her belly keeping her in rhythm with him without missing a beat. Then his hot face dropped to her back, and she could feel him battling for air as the last of his shudders abated. She was only glad that he'd gone in the right door. Heaven help her if...

"I knew better than that," he said between huge breaths, trying to push himself up on trembling arms. "I wouldn't take you like that in this condition."

He rolled her over onto her back so she was beneath him as he crouched above her on all fours. She kept her eyes closed tightly and knew he was studying the wound. Then a rough tongue gently licked the side of her neck, and she could hear a low rumbling purr of satisfaction come up from his chest. A gentle kiss touched her eyelids.

"You can look now," he said, smiling. "I'm good... oh, yeah, I'm good, now." He let his breath out on a heavy sigh. "You okay?"

She peeped at him, only opening one eye, and let her breath out slowly, thankful that he'd normalized. "Uh, huh." It took her a moment to process what had just happened. "Where did that come from?"

He kissed her softly and chuckled, nipping her earlobe. "What can I say? A good hunt takes me there every time, and I was mad as hell at that bastard." He drew away from her and gave her a sly glance as he dressed, and helped her to stand so she could pull down her skirt.

Her hands were shaking as she went to fetch her blade. She was careful to stoop to retrieve the dagger off the ground. His vibe was still thick and she just hoped that what she'd given him would be enough to send him home cool. Soon her team had to go on the road, and brotherman could not be acting like this around family.

"I'm good," he said, casually, smiling slowly, watching her straighten her clothes. His eyes caught the moonlight, glistened gold, and followed her with feline concentration. "I'm going home. I promise. I'll act right while you're on tour, baby."

She didn't like the sound of his voice or the fact that she could still sense a repressed shape-shift just beneath his surface cool. It grated her. She knew how Carlos operated. Sure, he'd tell her the truth, but the double-meaning context was what was the lie. That old, I'll-act-right-while-you're-on-tour-baby, probably meant he'd promise to act right - real good, with every female in the hemisphere. She wanted to slap him.

She shook her head as she dusted off her top. The whole thing was ridiculous; she didn't even have a purse, had used her blade for some seriously untoward mess, and had sex running down her leg. She could not go back to the compound like this.

Carlos smiled and let his gaze trail down her wet thigh. His eyes glittered gold but were slowly going red. "Come here," he said in a husky tone and began to walk toward her. "I'll get it off of you."

She held up her hand. "Keep your panther tongue in your mouth! I am fine! Just stay on your side of the forest."

"Aw, girl," he murmured, his eyes amused as he watched her walk a wide berth around him. "Don't be like that. Take it as a compliment."

"What?" She was incredulous, but still staying away from him, no matter how good it felt. The experience was deep. Too deep at the moment.

"If you can pull that kind of reaction out of me... You definitely are the one." He leaned against a tree and closed his eyes with a satisfied smile.

She would not laugh. This was not funny. Nor would he seduce her again tonight. It was time to go home. She was making a squishing sound as she walked. All she could think of was the noses in her house... and if Big Mike heard this. Damali kept her eyes forward staring at nothing. They'd probably blot her name out of the huntress book for this one. None of the tacticals could ever touch the dagger until she died. Oh, the vibe off of that! The clerics couldn't have it, either. This was so over the top. "I'm glad you're cool, and I'm not exactly sure what just went down, but - "

"Wasn't nothing," he said, laughing as he followed behind her, then stretched like a big, lazy cat. "Relax. Every man's got a little animal in him. Don't you know that by now?"

Carlos stood outside the safe house, watching it while leaning against a tree. Choices. Being with her, after he came down, always made him think. He loved that about her as much as he hated it. But now that his body was somewhat satisfied, his mind could go to work.

There was no way to get the old men inside to understand what seductive choices he faced. On the one hand, if he stayed out in the world as a vampire, he'd continue to experience what he'd just felt tonight. Absolute, incredible fucking power. A woman in his arms who drove him to the brink of his own sanity. He closed his eyes and allowed remnants of those sensations to wash through him. Damn, he could still smell her on him.

This is what they didn't understand. They kept telling him about the trinity of gifts from their world: hope, faith, love. Carlos shook his head. From his world the trinity was equally simplistic: feed to gain power - blood for the physical body, knowledge for the mind, human terror for dark spiritual strength; fight - to protect and to gain, absolute power being the relentless goal; and to fuck everything walking - the pleasure principle. Fuck a competitor out of a business deal, fuck a woman, fuck with somebody's head... it didn't matter. It was all about power. His kind were accomplished in knowledge about all the arts, history, science, all areas of information, because it allowed them to feed that never-sated power hunger, and fight better, and ohhh... yeah... fuck anything walking way better than the average man.

Problem was, Damali was fucking with his trinity, fusing it with hers. There were nights when he just wanted to simply fuck her, but wound up making love to her instead, or wanted to feed from her, but wound up hoping for the redemption of his soul and feeding her his dreams. And there were nights she got on his nerves so bad that he wanted to fight with her about her naive philosophies... then she'd tell him to have faith, would saunter up to him, and fuck him hard enough till he lost his mind. Then she'd demand something nowhere in a vampire's nature - monogamy. Yeah, she was confusing, and was messing him up big time.

She'd done that tonight, and had trapped him by her three golden handcuffs... shackled him by his hope that she would never leave him, his faith in what they had together, and the fact that he loved her so much he never wanted to hurt her. That was absolute power. A novice had done that, had absolutely ruined him! He hadn't allowed a woman to do that to him while alive, and now he was a vampire and had practically ceded all that he was?

It pissed him off. He paced hard just thinking about it. But the fact remained, his ass had come home, just because she'd asked him to, and he had honored her request - as if he were already married. No, uh-uh. There was too much out there in the world yet to see and do. He was young and strong and... shit, what was that call?

Carlos tilted his head and listened hard, and then shook it off. He needed to get back to the basics of what he was, because being all confused was a good way for a master to get staked. And that vibe running through his territory needed thorough investigation. For ten damned nights, Damali had kept him from that call - blocking it with her body, her mind, and her all-consuming spirit... but whatever was calling him now was definitely coming from the southern hemisphere - the same region where the killings were taking place.

For ten damned nights, ever since he'd completely healed, something out there had been pulling on his level-five capacities, making him almost want to give up human form altogether. Madness. Maybe he needed to go ahead and take that council seat, after all? He was out of control and could feel it, and there was nothing that frightened him more than that.

Then, on the other hand, if he went with the clerics - what? Either way, he was doomed. If he went with their plan, he'd get his soul back and die, probably after his seven years were completed. He'd have to give up every pleasure... be a spirit. What they were offering just didn't work for him. Their offer was weak. Because what he wanted more than anything else was a for real second chance. That option wasn't even on the table. And if he went with Hell's option, Damali would never come to him again.

Carlos pushed away from a tree and swallowed hard and began walking deeper into the woods. Yeah, they told him to block the shot and watch out for her. He had been crazy to take that bait. For one night, with her, hell yeah... But he also knew when he agreed that once with her would never be enough, and it was getting complicated now. Real complicated.

He had messed around and fallen in love with this woman - had years ago. Just being with her sealed it, blew him away. And tonight she took him primal? He shook his head. Now he was really trapped by her spell. He had to do the right thing, or he'd never be able to look her in the eyes. Then again... maybe she'd never know? Carlos chuckled and let his breath out hard. That was bullshit, and he knew it. Women always knew - second sight was in their DNA, Neteru or not - especially when it came to another woman, or women, plural. Damn that call tonight was strong...

Still, it was easier not to have that complication and not be totally driven by the Neteru drug. Loving her was a whole lot more addictive and problematic. Was dangerous. That shit would make a man crash and burn.

He had longed for her to be able drop fang tonight... His heart sped at the thought. But, no, he couldn't make her what he was, just for the pleasure of experiencing everything with her. The passion bites he had been giving her wouldn't turn her. But what about the moment the first gray hair appeared on her head? He'd be tempted to turn her then. What if she got sick? Truth be told, he had no idea what it felt like to give someone eternal life. He couldn't fathom the exchange that would go down if he gave it to Damali... He closed his eyes. He had to banish it from his mind; it was too tempting.

If he couldn't bear the thought of her old or sick, was it any wonder that he had been mentally blocking her from finding out about what had gone down in Brazil? He had almost lost her in the vampire civil war and she was currently in no shape to deal with whatever was down there. So, until her powers were at full strength, he was keeping his ear to the ground. If activity flared up again, he'd either approach the guardians or go down there and handle it himself. But Damali was too precious to risk right now.

If he was going to have to handle some serious business in Brazil, then he could no longer avoid the other responsibilities pressing him. He had a council seat to consider, he needed to check the female vamps in his territory, he had borders to secure, and motherfuckers that needed to be organized into productive industry sectors. Sure he could cast temporary illusions to transform a room at will or could put some supernatural topspin on an engine, but he needed money to keep things running. Even vamps weren't above needing good cash flow.

He also had a reputation to establish. He couldn't hold anything if others thought he was dead, or worse... a punk. His territories would be in constant chaos and then the Vampire Council would have to step in. And that was unacceptable. So much hinged on him doing what needed to be done. And he couldn't do it, sleeping on a monk's cot.

Carlos put his head in his hands. It seemed that being dead hadn't taken away the necessity of being a good businessman. It remained in the fabric of his soul. So far, every deal he had cut with the darkness had come up golden. But every deal he made pushed him further away from the light as well. A helpless anger filled him and he looked up at the sky and yelled, "What do you want from me?"

He waited. No answer. As expected. They didn't have the answers to the tough questions - just wanted a brother to walk out on faith, no guarantees. Yeah, right. Some deal. Which made him wonder if the Light really made deals with people like him. A monster with only a few scraps of honor left to his name.

And he was a monster. Tonight had proven that. After the power rush he'd just experienced, how was he supposed to do Brazil and fight without a true feeding? If he took down one innocent, just one, then all bets were off. Even now he fought not to go into the safe house and do exactly that. Carlos scrambled farther away, found a place to sit on high rocks, and stared up at the stars.

What the Covenant wanted from him was obscene. He was what he was. His belly was full, but the need for human blood was making his hands tremble. And mercy, he'd almost lost it on his baby. If she only knew. His kind craved blood and fear, and when he'd smelled that on Damali, mixed with her heady scent... would only be a matter of time before he flat-lined her while fucking her to death. And she'd come to trust that he wouldn't hurt her.

Suddenly he felt the need to move. He jumped rock formations, enjoying the power. That was the problem. The power was getting good to him, had always been good to him. He had loved the power of having her under him, panting. Loved the power of the race, of his control, even up until the moment he had crashed his car. And that scared him. Neteru or not, Damali was flesh and bone and living and irreplaceable. That's what made humans complex - they were one of a kind and fragile.

And in Brazil the power possibilities would be extreme. Clubs with hot bodies, filled with adrenaline, drug-saturated blood, sexual arousal, all the good stuff, times thousands screaming his baby's name if she did a concert there.

Real predators, like you don't see in North America, would be luring him to the jungle to hunt in the dense heat. The night calls alone would seduce him to turn into something very scary that she might not like, but that he'd love, until he dropped her limp and sweaty body and got up off her.

Carlos closed his eyes. If he had to battle whatever was over there, he'd have to feed an army - and they weren't going to do deer. Neither was he. Right there, his number would be up. Besting some local second-level was one thing, but if there was a serious international threat out there, he'd have to feed the way a vampire was supposed to feed.

And the worst part was, Damali would see that part of him that he'd managed to keep from her. His heart squeezed in terror when he thought of the horror that would fill her eyes. She would be disgusted that she had allowed one of the monsters to touch her, lie with her, love her. He had been caught up in her arms and no matter what happened, he would cherish that time with her.

Carlos turned into vapor and began drifting back to the safe house. He and Father Patrick needed to talk. He might have to say good-bye to that old man tonight.

"Well, what a surprise to have you home so early, Carlos," Father Patrick said in a cheery tone. "Want to join us in some poker?"

Carlos shook his head. "No. I need a supply, and then I'm going back out."

The monks looked at him.

"I'm going to Brazil and I need to go subterranean to raise an army, so don't even start."

Father Patrick abandoned his cards and stood, coming to Carlos's side. "Son, it's too dangerous for you to go underground again. You made your deal. Why do you have to go back? And... an army?"

"Need to investigate a few things. Need a squad."

"Can't it wait? If you go with other vampires and not our teams..."

Carlos shook his head no.

"At least let me contact Damali's team for some stronger donations? We don't have to tell her why."

"No, forget it. It really doesn't matter anyway. Besides, I don't need to get used to the taste of her team's blood. One shot of that was bad enough - got me looking sideways at Big Mike and Shabazz, as it is."

"Hold it. A word. Me and you. In your lair, before you go?"

"Aw'ight." Carlos brushed past the cleric and headed downstairs.

He was sitting on the edge of his cot, staring at the floor, when the cleric entered the room.

"I lived like this when I was a kid," Carlos said in a quiet voice. "Raggedy, old, narrow bed, in a fucked-up, tiny room. I swore to God that as soon as I got old enough, I'd never go out like that again." He looked up at Father Patrick and held his gaze. "I don't expect you to understand because you took a vow of poverty, but I didn't."

The priest nodded. "I think I understand better than you know."

Carlos was on his feet in seconds. "No! You don't!" He snapped his fingers and instantly converted the room. " This is what a master vampire's lair looks like."

Father Patrick put his hands behind his back and slowly walked around the converted room. "Impressive. I like the four-poster bed... candles add a nice touch... Did she like it?"

"Yeah," Carlos said with a scowl, waving away the illusion. He sat on the cot, in frustration.

The cleric shrugged. "So?"

"So... so... I need to be able to do more. I need more juice in the human world."

The priest just looked at him for a moment. "We get our juice, as you call it, from On High. I have the gift of second sight, but I don't have any magical powers to confer, if that's - "

"I know that. I wasn't talking about that. Forget it. Stupid for even bringing it up. I wasn't talking about fucking decor!"

Finding a wooden chair in the corner, Father Patrick brought it to the foot of the bed and sat down in front of Carlos.

"Son, talk to me. What's on your mind?"

Carlos took in a deep inhale and shook his head. "I'm dead."

The priest nodded.

Tears welled in Carlos's eyes and he blinked them back in anger.

"I ain't got no future."

The priest said nothing.

"Ruined everything... can't marry her, buy her a house, give her a kid, you know? Can't protect her in Brazil like I'll probably need to if she gets a wild vision to go - not without putting innocent people at risk... People who got what I want. Life. No matter how rich, no matter how poor, they ain't dead. They got kids, and people to care about them if they die, you feel me?" Carlos looked at the wall, rather than at the priest. "I needed to explain some hard shit to her tonight, man. But I couldn't. I haven't told her, yet, what would happen to me if I don't eat right after a battle. And if she saw it, it would break her heart."

He rubbed his jaw. "That's some gruesome shit to tell your woman. I can't look in her face and explain that if I don't take a body, mine will decompose back to the date of my real death."

Carlos sucked in a hard breath, actually absorbing the information himself for the first time. "I can't tell her how every wound I ever sustained in every battle I've fought will manifest, because I'm undead." The wall became blurry. "Man, how do you explain shit like that to your woman, when you've had her in your arms, and she's allowed you the privilege to be in her body?"

His gaze sought the floor, then went to the ceiling as he struggled against the damnable, building tears. "I don't want her to ever look up at me one night, and flip, because she finally gets the fact that she's been sleeping with something that's truthfully supposed to be in Hell. Every time I drop fangs in her presence, I keep waiting for her to scream. I beat the odds, hombre. But I am what I am. I hate lying to her, keeping her in the dark, but if I go to Brazil... I'ma hafto eat to protect her - which will end your and my deal."

Carlos looked at the priest, then away to the wall and swallowed hard, knowing Father Pat didn't have an answer for this. "I know it's fucked up what I'm saying, but you and I are rational men. So, understand that you and I are cool, and it ain't personal... You've been good to me, man. But if it's her or you, you know what I've gotta do. Protect her at all costs, even if it makes her never look at me the same way again... even if I have to take a throne. But I will survive to come for her in seven years - whether she wants me to, or not. That's instinct."

Carlos felt a warm hand touch his arm, but didn't shrug it away like he usually did. His chest got tight and his vision blurred again. But he wasn't no punk, wasn't gonna start cryin' like a pussy. Not about some real shit that he had to suck up and take like a man. Fuck it.

He heard Father Patrick swallow and it made him take another shaky breath. Hell no, he refused to have some bullshit take him there.

"It's all right, Carlos. It's just me and you."

"Oh, yeah, right. I forgot. Even carrying a blade, you're still a priest." Carlos forced himself to laugh and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "But what are you doing sitting in here with me, alone, so close?"

"Talk to me," Father Patrick said, his hand now on Carlos's shoulder. "Get it all out before you go underground and try to cut another deal."

"You know what? I've just decided I'm not going to Brazil," Carlos countered all of a sudden, feeling defiant. He refused to look at Father Patrick. "When she finds out that bodies have been dropping over there I'll try to convince her not to go - but you and I both know Damali. So, I'm just gonna go get some info from the streets, give it to her when she finds out, and then I'm out. I'm done. She's almost got all her sight back; she should be fine. If I go with her, I might have to do some things she won't be able to deal with. And, I don't need this bullshit. I don't need a relationship. Don't need to be arguing with no woman - it's bad enough I have to constantly argue with y'all." He folded his arms over his chest. "That's the whole point. I haven't decided what I'ma do, and everybody is trying to rush me to play my hand. I need you all to back off!"

Father Patrick's hand remained on Carlos's shoulder. "Before you do anything permanent, and we both now know how important choices are, I want you to think about how she really makes you feel, way down deep in your soul. We agreed to let you be the one to break the news about Brazil to her - or to clean it up before she had to think about going... but remember that it is her job to keep innocents from harm. You can't protect her from her destiny, no more than she could protect you from yours. So, study your heart long and hard, young man, before - "

"I don't have one, remember? Least not one that beats. It ain't nothing real between us," Carlos argued, now shrugging off the priest's hold, and then standing. "I know you wanted me to block the shot, but, hey... It's just a physical thing. It'll pass. Wasn't supposed to get all involved, so I need to let it rest. Ain't worth trippin' about, and definitely ain't worth - "

"You can lie to me, you have already lied to her, but don't trip, as you say, on yourself." The old man stared at him hard. "You'd give your life for that woman, already have a couple of times." Father Patrick stood slowly and moved toward the door. "This period of atonement is very hard - we never said it would be easy. But there's nothing wrong with wanting better in life or death, Carlos. It's all in how you go about it. You need to tell her about the bodies in Brazil, before she finds out some other way, and wheels get set in motion."

For a long time, Father Patrick just stood there by the lair exit, as though waiting for something while Carlos stared at the blank wall. How did one explain, especially to a priest, how the tender touch of a woman could transform life itself? How could he describe the sight of sunset in her hair, her scent, or how her laughter ran through his system like a clean, hard rain? When she looked at him in the darkness and traced his face with one finger, she made him feel like he still had a soul.

So how did a man who once had everything, come to a woman, busted, destroyed, and dare love her in return? He had everything she didn't care about... money, cars, villas, you name it, but he was destitute when it came to providing everything that ever mattered to her. So how did one tell an old priest that, and make him understand? How did you come to terms with the bitter reality that by chasing everything she never cared about, you'd fucked around and lost everything she'd willingly give her life for? There was no way to explain how helpless and powerless that felt. Especially when your woman deserved so much, had lost so much, had done for so many and all you wanted to do was give her the world in return... And her way, time would rob him, and he would most likely die on the spot at the end of seven years of hard time.

Carlos chanced looking at Father Patrick, and was met by a gaze of compassion that held him hostage. This priest was a decent man. But he couldn't understand pain like this, or the rational decisions that needed to be made.

"Every time I hold her, and she rests her head against my chest..." The confession got trapped in his throat. Carlos breathed hard and slow. "I pray each time that just once she'll hear my heart beat for her. But I don't even have that to give her. Like I said, hombre, I'm just trippin."

"Stay in tonight," Father Patrick said quietly. "And, in a few nights go with Asula, Lin, and Manuel to Brazil. Don't raise an army from Hell that will sway your path. Take ours. We'll be your backup. I'll prepare your transport and supplies. I'll man the safe house until the four of you get back. We'll ship blood over there for you, Carlos. Like you told me, you and I are rational men... You want her more than anything else in the world. Take a few nights to think about that, and don't allow the dark side to rush your decision. Make them wait, just like you're making us wait for your decision. That's a fair compromise. In the meantime, I'll keep the faith for both of us."

"I can't promise - "

"I may be an old man, but I'm also a seer." Father Patrick's eyes held compassion, but not pity, as he stared at Carlos. "The beat of your heart is in your caring for her. She can feel that because it's real."

"It ain't the same."

"No, it's not."

"Then why try? If I mess up over there - "

"Have faith. I think you're ready."

Carlos paused, clearly struggling. Father Pat waited.

"If she calls, I don't... I won't speak to her until I'm ready."

"Then don't. Go to Brazil when you can handle it."

After a while Carlos sat down slowly and just nodded.

Hot water from the shower mixed with soap and made her shudder. What had she been thinking? She'd come in, hit the hallway, and hadn't even said hello to anyone in the compound - just went right for the shower. Her short dagger went in the shower with her; it needed to be hosed down, too. Madness, craziness, she had to get this man out of her system and get back on the job.

Annoyed at herself, Damali snatched a towel, paced across the room, and tossed the dagger on the bed. If she ever allowed herself to do anything so foolish again, she'd slit her own wrists with it.

Tugging on a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt, she searched for her Tims and laced them up hard, then looked at the cell phone on her dresser. For ten days she'd been in a trance. For ten hot nights she'd been out of her mind. She'd been caught up so hard in a love jones that she'd been disconnected from the world... hadn't even watched the news - and her team had let her. Shit.

She went to the dresser and found a leather thong to tie her wet hair back, and searched for her favorite silver earrings, then sighed. Oh, yeah, she'd flung them across a priest's floor in a moment of passion that first night.

Total shame filled her. She'd been lax, to say the least, and it was more than obvious what she'd been doing every night. Group housing sucked. She reached for her cell phone and turned it on and let out an annoyed breath. Well, the fellas had their nights like this, too... so...

But the digital display on her telephone stopped her rambling thoughts. Inez had blown up her phone over several days, and her repeated calls had gone unanswered. Damali cringed. Inez never called her like that, unless it was a 911.

Immediately she hit speed dial and waited, her heart racing. The moment Inez's voice came over the receiver, she didn't even say hello before launching into her discussion.

"Girl, I was all tied up," Damali said. "What's wrong? You okay?"

"Damali," Inez said, her voice sounding tense, "have you seen the news?"

"No. What's happened?"

"Put on CNN. I'm scared."

Damali paced to the large unit across the room, too jangled to even bother looking for the remote to turn it on. "A war, girl?"

Inez didn't say anything for a moment. "No, maybe I'm crazy... superstitious, but... I shouldn't have called for something like this. You're busy, and this is stupid."

Damali watched the crawl on the bottom of the screen. Nothing odd was coming up, just general world chaos. "Talk to me, girl." She closed her eyes and focused on Inez. It had been almost two months since she could bring a person into her focus and actually see them inside her head. She hadn't even dreamt about anyone else but Carlos. When her sight came back, she couldn't even lock with Marlene in the same house, let alone someone miles away... all she'd been able to see was Carlos. Under any other circumstance, she'd always been able to pick up a vibe. Guilt stabbed her. She'd been off the job and insanely love-blinded.

The hair stood up on her arms as she quieted her inner being, then she saw Inez clear as day and locked with her. She watched in her head, like a slow-motion reel, as Inez suddenly shot out of her chair and turned the volume up on the television.

"You hear this?" she shrieked, watching the TV. "That happened right outside the town where my mom worked! Oh, my God, D... what could have eaten those people like that? We still have family over there!"

Damali opened her eyes, keeping Inez in her mental sight and the television in her normal sight, watching in horror as the media descended upon a sleepy little town, far, far away, circling the bewildered inhabitants like sharks, sucking the lifeblood out of their pain, and presenting it to faceless spectators who could watch from the comfort of their safe homes. This... she had been blind to this.

She stared in horror, barely hearing the reporter on the television or Inez on the phone. Reality slammed into her like a sledgehammer. She couldn't do this anymore. She couldn't put her head in the sand, couldn't lose herself in a lover's arms, couldn't pretend she wasn't who she was. She was the Neteru.

She thought of Inez's precious little girl, asleep down the hall from her frantic mother. No more.

She closed her eyes and opened them again. It was clear to her now. Carlos had lied, had blocked this from her. Her guardian squad knew - but hadn't trusted her to be ready to fight. The truth stabbed her. They had been right.

"Inez," she said slowly, "I'm going to send you a large check. I want you to put whatever family you have over there on a plane and bring them stateside for a few weeks - on me. Don't argue. I've got their food and hotel; just bring them here. When I get back from tour, I'll come see you. It's gonna be all right."

Fuck all this. It was time to go to Brazil.

In the dark, where you do what you do what you do to me, baby . . .

in the dark... blood running through my deep rivers, baby

- "In the Dark," Damali Richards

*** Copyright: Novel12.Com

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