The Hunted

Chapter Fifteen

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Chapter Fifteen

"A couple of issues," Carlos said slowly, putting his hands behind his back. Spending a whole twenty-four hours underground waiting on resources was nearly more than his nerves could stand. Each time he had to come before the table put his survival on the line. But he needed the resources badly enough to withstand the drama. Still, he hated having to rely on others to bestow anything on him.

Following protocol, Carlos waited until receiving the chairman's nod, and he ignored the scowl coming from the counselor at the table. "There are four clerics, that no doubt, you have seen me interact with?"

The chairman smiled and made a tent with his fingers in front of his mouth, only nodding.

"Infidel!"

The chairman held his hand up to the counselor. "Speak."

"These men are how I have an exact location of the huntress. Between my comprise of them," Carlos said quickly, "and of her guardians, I can get to her at will." A half smile appeared on Carlos's face. "One of them, I believe, is a lower gen. An eighth or ninth in my line. How can I use him?"

The chairman sighed. "Insignificant. By that generational level, his effectiveness is so diluted and his status within our ranks is so negligible... they're not even what I'd consider true vampires. They're a subclass of a subclass, an actual embarrassment to all we hold dear. After the fourth generation, they can't even produce fangs - totally useless vermin."

"But he's a tracker, and a cleric, and can cross prayer lines. Our Neteru trusts him because he wears a collar. So do the others." Carlos waited, his gaze locking with the chairman's.

The chairman lowered his hands, his smile broadening. His countenance relaxed. "Yes. As always, done with flair, Rivera. But your point?"

"I need them to be off limits... if they get rushed, or bitten - "

"No one will flush your hunt and terminate your compromised informants while you are abroad, Mr. Rivera... will they, Mr. Counselor?" The chairman shot a warning glance toward the counselor and then looked at Carlos. "I do understand your concern about things going awry in your absence... another reason I insisted on this meeting before you left - so that we are all clear." He cast his narrowed gaze around the five points of the pentagram-shaped table, and waited for nods of agreement before speaking. "If you find your travels expand, simply call an exterminator, look into its eyes, and a safe location will be shown to you."

Imperceptibly, Carlos let out his breath. That's all he'd need was to come back to the cabin and find four corpses. Not to mention, the last thing he'd need would be to have Damali's crew wiped out over there. That would freak her out and send her into a spiral of pain that she'd never recover from.

"This is your mission, Mr. Rivera. We are all clear... albeit your methods are unorthodox, they have been effective thus far."

"Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I just want to be sure they don't take a body while we're in Brazil. Can't have it. Over there, I call the shots, or send me alone. This part is nonnegotiable."

"Are you mad, Rivera!" The counselor was on his feet, and two of the exterminator bodyguards snarled their discontent at Carlos's statement. "These are highly skilled, trained assassins that eat well. We've removed them from our borders, at your request, for this ill-fated mission to collect a girl that will probably get on a flight after shopping! This is valuable vampire power gone to waste, and now you don't want to feed them in one of the adrenaline capitals on the planet? Mr. Chairman," he urged, opening his arms so wide that his black robes swept the table, "we cannot continue to suffer these offenses, these indignities. These methods are of a rank amateur who hasn't - "

"You draw a hotel or stadium police sweep, and get foreigners detained at the airports, you make my job harder," Carlos argued coolly. "Obviously, it's been a while since you've been topside. This is my era, the twenty-first century - it ain't the horse and buggy days."

"I am from the Roman era, when evil was at its apex on the planet - as was shrewd, duplicitous politics and aggression. The days of chariots; not horse and buggies. So don't you dare presume - "

"You make her afraid, or worse, flush her to go hunting, you'll take my cargo deeper into the badlands of the Amazon jungle looking for the source of what ate a few concertgoers. Hurt her team, and she'll never leave Brazil until she finds out what killed some of her guys. That's Neteru nature... if you ever had one, you'd know, motherfucker."

Carlos studied his nails as he spoke, and then glanced at his watch. The counselor didn't have an immediate comeback and was silent. The chairman seemed amused. The others at the table appeared anxious for a heart-ripping to take place - and from the looks of their expressions, it was a fifty-fifty split who they were betting on. Whatever. He was wasting time. The concert was probably almost over, and he needed to get to Damali while he was still sure of exactly where she'd be. All he needed was to have to search through the clubs and hangouts all over Rio to find her; some poor innocent might become his dinner.

"There's plenty of drug dealers in the jungle hiding cocaine and heroin plantations that the authorities won't miss, or don't care about, and that the Neteru won't be upset about if you guys get hungryójust make it look clean, like a dispute went down, not a feeding. The boys," he added, motioning toward the exterminators, "will get one helluva adrenaline rush along with a nice hit of coke or reefer. That's a fair compromise. But tourists and locals, if you're going with me, are off limits. Besides, I hear water buffaloes pack a wallop - if you stampede them first."

The robed entities nodded, as did the chairman. The counselor sat slowly, seething, but with no option. The logic of Carlos's argument was rock solid. Yeah, he was definitely getting stronger.

"You are of great value to us, Carlos. Might I suggest that you take a couple of my favorite resources as added insurance... something made for special occasions by our Dark Lord on level seven?"

Before Carlos could answer, the chairman dispatched a ceiling transport bat, and Carlos waited for his unspecified resources, trying to stay cool.

A loud commotion beyond the council walls made everyone train their attention towards the sound. Bats screeched in terror, and incessant growls and barks careened through the cavernous space. The front doors flew open, and four super-strength international couriers paired off to restrain the two beasts they held by chains.

Beasts, each with six yellow glowing eyes that ringed the circumference of their huge skulls, stood three feet high at the shoulder, their muscular black chests rippling as they scrabbled against the slippery marble floor to get to Carlos, leaving deep gashes in it as they clawed their way forward. Their jaws were so packed with fangs that they couldn't fully close their mouths, and foamed, slick saliva dripped from them, leaving acid burns in the floor. They flapped their leathery wings, half flying, as they pulled the couriers along the floor, slashing at them with their spaded, double-blade tails.

Almost speechless, Carlos knew he had to rescind the request, "Naw, gentleman. The pit bulls are over the top."

"You don't approve?" The chairman asked with a smile, then sighed. "Next time."

Carlos wasn't sure how to respond. While the offer was generous, this wasn't about a few easily willed creatures that could give him a heads-up with a bark... like a coupla security dogs... dayum. "Yeah, next time. Thanks, though."

"As I said, Mr. Rivera, it's your mission."

"We all clear?" Carlos waited for heads to nod again.

"Make it happen, and bring our cargo back safely," the chairman said with a sly smile.

But before Carlos could reply, a thunderous rumble made all beings in the room look up at the swirling black messenger cloud that was ever-present in the high, open ceilings of the chamber. Intermittent sound waves sent the swirling mass into a noisy, chaotic screech as domestic couriers in bat form were thrown from the smoky whirlpool, and then reentered it, trying to keep their flight patterns. Red glowing eyes blinked in a frenzy of confusion, as wave after wave of sound shocks disturbed their habitat.

"Oh, shit..." Carlos laughed.

"We've been breached at the chamber level!" The chairman stood instantly with the council members. The messengers took battle stances. The hounds raced back into the chamber, flanking the chairman and barking up toward the sound.

Carlos shook his head. "Listen to it. Damn... Can't you hear it?"

The other beings shot their gazes to Carlos, but were still on red alert. Carlos closed his eyes. She's all that... Girlfriend is breaching the breach.

"Explain!" The chairman was in no mood for Carlos's amusement, and snatched the front of Carlos's suit. But confusion loosened his grip as the hounds began to howl.

"All of you, open up on my channel," he murmured. "Your cargo just kicked things up a level."

The Vampire Council came from behind their table, and the armed exterminators formed a ring around them. Carlos extended his hand, placing one on the chairman's shoulder, another on the lead messenger's. He could barely hold his head up as Shabazz's bass line rocked him. He could hear Rider's guitar screaming. A crowd of a hundred thousand was nearly prostrate. He could dig it. The stage was black. Birdcalls and special effects of jaguars roaring had been layered in. Heavy percussion with the bass was breaking the barrier, scattering bats in Hell, a hundred thousand people all jamming, all grooving to the same erotic beat. Drums sounded like thunder. The Vampire Council closed their eyes; the old boys, finally relaxing the hysteria, were catching on.

A sliver of red light hit the stage. Carlos felt the chairman's knees almost give way as the old dude steadied himself against another council member. Then Damali stepped into that crimson splinter, dusted in gold and red glitter. A sheer sheath of blood red netting was all the dress was made of... a serpent covering her breasts and her Venus in a barely concealed wrap of embroidery. She wore a high priestess headdress that had coils in it, seeming almost serpentine as the gold and red in it interleaved into an endless spiral.

When she hit the first chord of the song, her voice almost as low as the bass, bats screamed and he shuddered, sending a collective shudder through the assembled group. Moisture came to his eyes. He inhaled deeply. The others did, too, and glanced at each other, stricken by the power of the sensation. Yeah, he remembered. It had only been a few nights.

"Goddamn . . ."

The chairman nodded. The hounds walked in an agitated circle.

Even the counselor shook his head, but the look he issued Carlos cut like a blade inside Carlos's mind.

Unable to dislodge himself from the vision, Carlos listened to the sultry sounds she made. Damali's echoes of lovemaking, a preamble to her lyrics, decimated him. He opened his eyes and his gaze caught the counselor's expression of pure hatred. It was an eerie concoction, Damali's voice juxtaposed with Vlak's venom. Interesting that his hatred competed so virulently with the pull of the Neteru's voice. He didn't know such a thing was possible.

Carlos glanced around at the other men. Each of them, even the chairman, had been thoroughly seduced by her sultry tone. Their eyes were closed, heads slightly leaned back, as though offering their throats for a sure siphon... their fangs had lowered, and they seemed to be breathing through their barely parted lips. His line of vision went back to the counselor, who fought against the erotic rush Damali produced, his jaw set hard, and his fangs dropped to battle length, not passion length. Something was wrong.

"Don't you hear me calling..." she crooned like he'd never heard her voice before. "Don't you feel me wanting... don't you know... don't you know... ooohhhh, yeaaaah, baby... 'cause you know when you do what you do... In the dark... where you do what you do what you do to me, baby... Yeeesss... I'm calling you, Carlos..." she murmured, talking to the cheering crowd, and then resumed her saxophone wail, sliding up and down the octaves with her voice as though it were her hand tracing his spine.

"In the dark... blood running through my deep river baby... Sisssss... Ohhhhh. In the dark, you feel what you feel when you feel it, baby... Night's not the same without you in me, baby..." Then she stepped forward, causing Brazilian police to redouble their efforts, dropped her voice, stretched out her arm, beckoned with one finger, while sliding her other hand in an aching motion down her side. She whispered, the crowd roared, Carlos swallowed hard.

Now she was talking co-modena, cash shit. Was challenging him. Whispering into the mic all sexy, walking to the front of the stage. Carlos shook his head, noting that his council's eyes were slits.

"You know you want this... so stop playing with it... before it burns you, baby. I can't take it... I'm burning up. Need the night to cool it off." She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, leaned her head back and belted out another line full throat. "In the dark - "

"I'm out!" Carlos broke from the group. "I told you this package was da bomb. Worth any bullshit I gotta go through to protect it. Any questions?" He walked, no longer concerned about the dogs, as the old vampires just looked stunned. An international exterminator stepped forward.

It nodded at its squad, which nodded in return. "We follow your orders... Damn... You did that?" The exterminator fell back into formation, simply shaking its head.

Carlos gave a brief nod of recognition to the international team. He liked them already. Could hang like his old squad, and were so different from the domestic couriers that got on his nerves. Yeah. Recognize.

The chairman, slightly out of breath, held himself up using the table, glancing at the screeching, disoriented mass of domestic couriers and then the full council. "Give this man whatever it takes to contain this cargo! Whatever is required!" He was breathing hard as he tried to make his way back to his throne. "She was doing 'the righteous light acts' before Rivera infected her, now look at her in just ten nights."

Quiet fell over the group as another disruption sent the bats screeching again. The chairman had tears of appreciation in his eyes. His voice was a mere whisper as he stared at Carlos in awe.

"In just ten nights, Rivera..."

The six-vampire squad simply appeared in the center of the concert throng that was mesmerized by the performance. There was no need to even be smooth. The few people standing nearby started, but obviously assumed that Carlos and his bodyguards had advanced from behind them in the crush of the crowd.

He glanced at his messengers who were immediately hit with the adrenaline rush. "You're showing fangs, and it ain't cool. Chill, blend in, and remember what I said. Not here. We all need to fan out. Give me some space. Vamanos!"

Damali's voice was ripping him apart, but he scanned the terrain as his messengers dissolved into nothingness. The adrenaline level of the audience, the sweat, the blood, was making him shaky. It was clear that if Damali performed like this during a ripening, he'd have to kill five guards and take out council. Shit. Get-high was everywhere, too. Nearly buzzed, Carlos tried to keep his focus on his only target. Damali.

He'd purposely surfaced deep enough in the crowd that she wouldn't be able to see him because of the angle of the lights. He was pretty sure that she wouldn't be able to sense him, either, if he could just be cool. Chill. Father Patrick was right. He was getting stronger. The old man was also right about another thing, too. The pull to power like this was hard to ignore. Almost as hard to ignore as Damali up there.

The only thing he could hope was that she'd be so engrossed in the performance that she'd be too distracted to pick him up. The scents and vibrations were so intense all around him that, even as a master vampire, with superior tracking capability, he was having a hard time. She would, too. Then, she lifted her head and looked in his direction, again moving to the front of the stage. He let his breath out when she then walked to the other side of it. Yeah, for a moment she'd detected something, but had done a smooth, theatrical recovery.

But girlfriend was wearing that red dress and her voice was like a magnet. However, he was not about to get any closer. Wasn't advisable. Over here, the Covenant's prayer line wasn't a ground wire to keep him anchored. Over here, Damali's compound fortress wasn't a prayer beacon reminder. Over here, there was no distance between him and the call that was kicking his ass. He was going to have to eat soon. Ever since he'd embarrassed himself and had flipped out on her in the woods, he was not going near her. Not like that. Definitely not in front of his squad. He had to conquer that shit, first.

The smell of perspiration-soaked concertgoers perfumed the air and was almost asking too much of his restraint. With that strong vibe coming from the crowd, plus watching Damali holler up onstage, anything could jump off. He just hoped his exterminators could be cool. He sensed for them. They were. Odd. It was as though their transmissions were blocked. Council? Something wasn't right. He then looked back at the stage. Damn, one woman creating all this havoc.

That's right, he had to remember that he was angry with her, too. She'd had some other man all up in her face. Not that he could necessarily blame the brother. However, it was a matter of principle.

Carlos glanced around the audience which was in a state of near hysteria. On the other hand, what was he going to do, off fifty thousand, who all had the same thing running through their minds even while their women and other females swayed to the music beside them? Crazy. He just would not look at the stage, is all. He could hang. But the whiff of Neteru she was sending his way was murder. Yet, it didn't make sense. Damali wasn't ripening, wasn't due for seven more years.

He fought it at first, but then gave in to a deep inhale. The sensation of her scent filled his nostrils, coating his tongue, his throat, and slid down his insides like some sweet, forbidden fruit. He ran his hand over his jaw and ran his tongue over his teeth, holding himself in check. Damali never smelled that thick, that dark, that positively...

A female hand traced up his back and touched his shoulder. Startled, he turned abruptly and looked into a pair of dark brown eyes that nickered green. The beauty standing before him was almost his height, and her well-toned arm had the muscular structure of a female bodybuilder. Her skin was flawless, like highly polished mahogany, and her hair was in a hundred jet-black braids that hung down her back. La vampira, if he'd ever seen one.

She smiled a half smile of recognition, showing a little fang. Carlos's eyes traveled down her stacked body. All she had on was a crocheted black bra, her coffee-bean-brown, hard nipples peeking at him through sections of it. A sheer black sarong, and what appeared to be a thong under that, covered her from the waist down. He could feel her entering his thoughts, dredging current vocabulary from it. Okay, cool, she was a foreign vamp chick. If she needed vocab to communicate with him, with a body like hers, no problem - even though he didn't generally deal with other females, being hooked up with Damali and all.

Then again, there was something a little primal about her, if not were-demon. It was in the green flicker in her eyes and in the shape of her jaw, which was slightly wider at the chin where lower incisors would be. Always a dead giveaway. But her top incisors were awesome. Vamp all the way.

He studied her ears, which came to a very subtle point and laid back against her skull. If he didn't know better... But he wasn't registering anything demon, and his squad hadn't bristled. Nah, she wasn't a were. What she was, was fine as shit. If she had a thing for the were-shapes, that was cool. The old vamps had to stop being so prejudiced. Needed to embrace a few personal choice differences. Not all were-demon forms were disgusting, especially packaged in a vamp body like that.

Conflicted, he hesitated. What was he saying? Was he on crack, or some shit? Vampires didn't deal with demons, were-demons, or any other variety. Yet she smelled so fucking good - no demon tracer at all. She smiled and he struggled to remember that... he already had a woman... the one onstage that had called him up from Hell. So who was this one who was all up in his grille?

Despite his resolve to distance himself from possible trouble, he took his time to enjoy the stranger's ample, firm, melon shaped breasts, and the way her tight waist sported a gold hoop in her sunken navel. Right under it was a silky trail of fiat, wispy black hair that dipped under her low-slung sarong. His mouth went dry. The knot in the side of the skirt's fabric exposed a well-curved, well-toned hip. She opened her thigh a bit, and he noted that her equally toned perfect legs were longer than his. Dayumm, she was fine. He studied her face, admiring how her feline, almond-shaped eyes blazed over high, chiseled cheekbones, and her jaw was squared to a strong chin. She arched an eyebrow, and an electric current passed through him, just imagining the bite she could probably deliver.

"Is it later, yet?" she asked in a seductive tone that he could hear despite the ear-splitting decibels of the music.

He'd watched her lush mouth work with the words, and saw the glistening gold ball that pierced her tongue. Damn, it was her - the voice that had been in his head, cracking his skull for over a month. Her hand went to his chest. He now had his back completely to the stage. Her palm burned him, sending a scorching heat down his abdomen toward his groin. Face to face, this was definitely some strong vibe. Wasn't shit here to block it. Calling upon his last reserves of discipline, he grabbed her wrist.

"Do I know you?" He'd meant the question to come out with more threat in it, but damn, just look at her.

"Do you have to know me?"

Okay. A player. He could dig it, but now was not the time, if ever.

"Need to know a little somethin', somethin'. I don't just roll like that."

"Oh..." she clucked her tongue, coming in closer, and making the ball on it bounce. "I thought your kind was notorious for being down for whatever. Certainly not monogamous."

The statement backed him up. His mind had to adjust. He could hear Damali behind him, crooning her song... but he was single, after all. And she had had some guy up in her face. He had never been monogamous in his life, or accused of such slander. This fine woman had just challenged him and called him a punk - knowing he was a master vamp. Was she mad?

She laughed. "My bad," she whispered, her other hand dipping low, stroking the part of him that was rock hard.

"What are you?" he asked, allowing her to touch him for a moment. Then he collected himself enough to halt her stroking. He used his energy to push a small opening in the heaving crowd so he could claim some space and get his head together.

She stepped in closer, and the scent of her was disorienting. Carlos shook his head to clear it. He glanced briefly over his shoulder at the stage. He was smelling Neteru everywhere, and it was making him high. In fact, he was tripping so badly at the moment that he swore he'd caught a whiff of fully ripened Neteru again.

"I'm something you've needed for a long time," she murmured. "And much better than what's up there begging for you with no pride... us older women don't go there." She backed up, cocked her head and smiled wider. "Have fun with the little girl for now, but let me know in a couple of nights - or I'll find you again. Don't make me have to look for you. That won't be pleasant."

"Hold up," Carlos said, starting to get pissed off. Nobody told him some shit like that and then walked, fine or not. Plus, he didn't like the disrespect toward Damali. She needed to check herself. "If I'm interested, I'll let you know."

"Whatever," she said coolly. "But when you're done with the young girl, come find a real woman." She sauntered back over to him. "The double plunge I've got will knock your head back." Her voice dropped an octave and her scent thickened around him. "Remember, baby, she can't even bear fangs." She licked his throat before he could stop her, and was gone.

Stunned, he stood there for a moment just looking at where she'd been. This was no ordinary vamp, or average lower-level vapor move. This was some smooth, almost master vampire level shit... But she smelled like Neteru? Ripe Neteru - that had drugged him out of his mind for a few seconds... Enough to make him turn his attention away from Damali? Oh, hell no. This was real crazy. Female master vamp? At council-level strength... was there such a thing? No.

Wasn't a female vamp at that rank, yet - no record of anything like that in the territories, especially not in his.

Nuit would have never made one, and he damned sure wouldn't have with Damali near. Council wouldn't make one either, knowing a female Neteru was on the planet. Why, so a master female vamp could off their daywalker vessel? Would never happen. Carlos glanced at the stage. It had to be a second-level vamp. But how in the hell did she get that strong?

Now the shit was really bothering him, because the truth was, she could have telepathically given him a run for his money. Might have taken him, simply because he'd underestimated her as a basic territory female.

He stood there for a moment, becoming outraged. Then he was through - totally outdone. He could not believe that arrogant, fine-assed vamp! Part of him was enraged because the lick had indeed knocked his head back, and left him wobbling, in public, in the middle of a concert stadium. The other half of him was angry with himself for not just brushing her off from the get-go... but there was something so slayer about her that it messed him up. But that was impossible. And it pissed him off to no end that she'd made him crave what could never happen... a double plunge with Damali.

Carlos tried to shake the image that had replayed itself in his brain too many times. He closed his eyes to try to ward off the sensation, but that only made matters worse. He could almost feel it rock him where he stood. A hot body beneath him, torched with near-climax fever, Neteru in his nose, a beautiful pair of glistening fangs plunging his throat at the same time his scored hers... right at the moment of truth... a high-velocity rush of blood exchange sending recycled pleasure through both of them at once; two parallel, excruciating pleasure lines burning up atmosphere, dissolving matter till those sensations crossed and atomically fused in one central explosion - the vanishing point.

He opened his eyes, mad at himself, mad at the world, angry that he even thought about it, much less fantasized about it. Impossible. He could only take Damali there after she turned... What? Uh, uh. Now he was really mad, because he was definitely tripping. She could never turn, and not just because she was council's vessel. It wasn't even about that - not with her.

And, fuck it, he had more willpower than that. So what if a vamp female could go there; he was committed. That's right. He was committed, he reminded himself repeatedly as he regulated his breathing. So what that he'd seen that shit when he sat in a throne seat. Yeah, the thrones had good video, all the knowledge of the line. But he could hang. Just keep that as an intellectual experience. He didn't have to go there and step out on D. He could wait seventy or eighty years till his baby passed away to try it. A shudder rippled through him as the image faded away.

Shit, what was he going to do? Live almost a century as a master being a virgin to that experience? Yeah, he could hang, he told himself again firmly. Besides, he'd die in seven if he went with the priests' deal. Carlos tried to make himself laugh it off. Death in seven would be a release from this temptation bullshit, not just his soul's salvation. Maybe in seven, just before Damali ripened, he'd go get a good run out, and give the clerics his head on a silver platter. That way, she wouldn't know, he could get his soul back, and could take his little transgression to the grave. They said if a man repented, all would be forgiven, right?

He looked toward the direction where the female vamp had vanished. He didn't even catch her name. If he found the fine female, and was really sorry after... He laughed. Oh, shit. He didn't want to think about any of it. But it was really getting on his nerves to have to deal with it. Damn choices! He didn't need variables like that in his life.

His annoyance turned itself to Damali. This was all her fault. If she had chilled, let him stay in LA, had kept her ass in the States, hadn't started a buncha shit with some guy over here. If she hadn't done this freaking concert! What's more, if she hadn't called him like that. By what right did she have to put their personal business in the streets, huh? He could feel himself getting whipped into a total tirade as she went down on her knees on the stage and the audience hit a new level of frenzy. Carlos closed his eyes.

She was too passionate. She was working on the wrong side of his brain. She was messing with his control factor. The crowd was too hyped. He had ripe Neteru in his system, musta been a contact high from the stage. He could feel his gums ripping he wanted her so much.

Unable to stop himself, he turned and looked at her. He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep from seeing them tremble. Man... when he got backstage, he was gonna tell her ass off!

Champagne bottles spilled their foam essence across the floor as Rider sloshed it, taking a laughing swig from one in each hand. The sound of all the corks going off was like the pop-pop of gunfire. Big Mike and Shabazz leveraged their weight against the door, closing off a hundred flashbulbs. The media had been shut out. Damali and Marlene slapped high fives, and Dan poured overflowing paper cups of semi-warm champagne for the group. Jose was rubbing JL's head and laughing, while JL play-boxed him within the stadium locker room.

"Did we take Brazil, people, or what?" Rider opened his arms wide and jumped up on a locker bench.

"We rocked da house, man!" Big Mike yelled, snatching a bottle from Rider.

"Y'all worked it," Damali said laughing.

"No, li'l sis, you wurked it. Daaaaayum," Shabazz said, getting a swig of Big Mike's bottle.

"No lie, D," Jose said, pounding Shabazz's fist. "Baby girl owned the stadium!"

"Right," Dan was yelling from his position by the lockers. "I can't wait to see the ink on this tomorrow. The media hype is gonna be crazy."

"Mad-crazy," Marlene agreed.

Damali watched them all, and laughed, but felt like a spectator as well. From a remote part of her mind, pure defeat claimed her. Marlene picked up on the vibe, but kept her smile bright, easing toward Damali.

"We were ridiculous, gang," Damali repeated, trying to convince herself.

But as the words came out of her mouth, the group went still. Swirling energy made papers fly, cups turn over, instruments fall, and a couple of bulbs in the makeup mirror blow. It was like a giant storm had been unleashed in the locker-dressing room, and it took a few seconds for her team to mentally switch gears and try to scramble to assemble weapons. Black smoke rose from the floor, and in the center of it Carlos appeared.

He didn't even take a breath as he began to pace. "I'll tell you what's fucking ridiculous, Damali, is to ever see my woman perform some, some - I don't know what you call it, but it reached Hell and back!"

The entire team stared at him, mouths agape.

"Yo, Carlos, uh - "

"Shut up, Rider! This is between me and her!"

Damali's hand found her hip. She looked him up and down. Had the nerve to be coming in here all fly, wearing a damned black linen Versace suit, serving a damned cranberry collarless raw silk shirt like he was out where he shouldn't have been... oh, she'd kick his ass...

"Where have you been? Let's start there."

Carlos slapped the center of his chest, bearing full fangs, and walking in a wider circle. "Where have I been? Where have I been!"

"Is there an echo in the room? I said - "

"Where have you been? Huh? A couple of weeks, and I'm in my lair tasting the sweat of some other man after you've been off doing the Lambada! Are you insane? While I'm on parole, and shit - trying to stay away from a body count over here!"

A locker took the brunt of the blow, caving in as Carlos punched it while stalking past it. Black smoke still hung in the air, and Damali's eyes widened. Oh, shit. Not good. But she wasn't hearing no yang. "Where were you, then, so that I didn't have to call you like that?"

He walked away from her. The team started backing up, mumbling and looking for a quick exit. This was between her and Carlos. Marlene crossed her arms and folded them over her chest with a smirk. Yeah, yeah, yeah, he could be angry if he wanted to, but she wanted a response. Mar had told her to send a shock wave subterranean, and it got his attention. Good.

"I was worried sick about you, and you just vanished into the night. What was I supposed to do? Just sit back and - "

"You were supposed to respect what I told you, woman."

"What?" Both hands found her hips. "I don't know who you think you're talking to but - "

"I missed you so much that it didn't make sense. I had to go find my old lair in Beverly Hills to chill out, or the old guys in the cabin would have been toast! Shit, Damali, your ass is so stubborn!"

He paced away from her and the team's heads pivoted from Damali back to Carlos as though watching a tennis match. Marlene didn't help matters by grunting and nodding in agreement with her. Oh, so her mom was on her side, too. Women!

Damali let her breath out hard. "All right, Carlos. My bad."

"Damn straight, your bad. Do you know I had to bring international messengers with me - five, burly, WWF-looking, second-generation, exterminator vamps from outlying neutral territories to make it through the tunnels?"

Damali covered her mouth.

"That's right," he said pointing toward the door. "Five sonsabitches I have to keep on a short leash while I'm over here, lest we have a topside international incident! And I'm not all that stable myself... all 'cause I missed you so bad."

He stood there in front of her, taking in deep gulps of air, too ashamed by the admission, especially in front of the other men. He gave Rider a glare that warned him about the peril of his throat if a sarcastic comment came up from it. Big Mike was cool enough to look away, and Shabazz could dig it. The man started packing gear like nothing had happened. Jose started picking up cups from the floor with Dan, and JL just sat there in shock. Whatever.

"I'm going to go eat, and then I'm gonna crash, and then I'm going back to LA. I just came to be sure you were all right. Apparently you are, so I'm out." He turned to leave, but could feel Damali walk up behind him. Her hand touched his shoulder, and the tremor it sent through him was just as she'd said, ridiculous. But he felt her stiffen, and it made him look at her.

"Where have you been?" she asked, backing away from him.

The team went still. Shabazz discreetly found his gun and nodded at Big Mike. Carlos began backing up. All rage wilted.

"Baby, I was, right here, at the concert. You felt me, right?" His hands were out in front of him, but he glanced at the guys who were shaking their heads. All the brothers knew this stance. Marlene had folded her arms over her chest.

"You were at this concert, saw me on my knees in front of a crowd of a hundred thousand, and you ignored me?" Damali's comment had begun at a low, threatening timbre, issued from behind her teeth and rose to a full holler as she finished the sentence.

"No, no, I wasn't ignoring you," Carlos said fast. "I was trying to chill. I was trying to - "

"Push up on a demon! You're trailing sulfur! And it's female!" Damali's eyes narrowed as she turned on her heel and started grabbing up costumes, flinging her headpiece and then kicking a chair out of her way.

"She wasn't a demon, D. You know I don't roll like that. She was a second-generation vamp... just part of the territory females. Baby, for real - "

"Aw, man..." Big Mike murmured. "Brother..."

"Least you could have taken a shower first," Rider mumbled. "Young, dumb, and fulla - "

"It wasn't all that," Carlos argued, his glance going between the guardians and Damali. This was bullshit. He had to talk to her and her big brothers? He tried to get near her now that they'd lowered weapons, but she shrugged his hand off of her shoulder and spun on him.

"Don't you touch me! Don't even think about it. How could you?" She turned away and held her arms around herself. "All I did was go out dancing, but you - "

"I didn't. I swear, girl," he said in a gentle voice.

You thought about it real hard though, Damali thought, her anger building.

"Wait!" Marlene walked forward, between Damali and Carlos, and the team gathered around.

"Carlos," Marlene said in a steady voice. "What did this she-demon look like, and where was she when you saw her?"

He shrugged, and didn't feel like talking about this in front of the team. "I keep telling y'all, she was a vamp - and it wasn't what you think." He didn't have to answer to anybody there, not even Damali. Besides, they had it all twisted. She wasn't a demon. He started walking away. He and the exterminators could just go eat, and then jet back to the States before daybreak.

"Carlos," Marlene repeated in a firm voice. "Neteru is the only thing that would have gotten you so buzzed and Damali isn't in cycle. We need a description, so we can deal with it."

He looked at Marlene as Damali went to stand by her side.

"Men are so stupid," Damali whispered and shook her head. She turned away. "What did she look like?"

Carlos kept his eyes on Marlene, intermittently glancing over to Damali's back. How did one describe this other woman in front of his own woman and her family, to the degree that he needed to? What, he was supposed to just tell all in front of guardian brothers and a seer who wasn't having it? The point was moot, anyway. This was just a very fine vamp that had gotten him in a very sticky situation.

But the situation called for diplomacy, because he certainly didn't want Damali to bug any more than she was already. She was hurt, and all he wanted to do was privately apologize. Hurting her had never been his intention. But, they had a point. Girlfriend had showed up at the concert. And he wondered how she'd gotten past the lights and prayers. If this devious, jealous female vamp was stalking Damali and the team, they had a right to know.

"She's tall," Carlos said slowly. "Near my height." Damali didn't turn around and he was glad she didn't, or she would have seen the guys issue appreciative glances toward each other.

He could feel Damali attempting to pry his mind open, but on this one, it was black box, need-to-know basis only. He wasn't budging.

"Dark brown, green eyes - flicker yellow... yeah, they glow," he said, answering the unspoken group question. "Built," he added casually. "You know... uh, athletic. Long, black hair in braids down her back, high cheekbones. Aw'ight-looking woman," he added to minimize the sting.

Big Mike silently made brick-house proportions discreetly for Carlos who just nodded. Big Mike nodded. A silent understanding passed between them. Carlos closed his eyes. He and Mike shared the same taste in women. But this was humiliating.

"What else?" Mar said with a tone of disgust.

"Uh, she was wearing black. One of those bra things, and a sheer skirt - thong under it. Pierced navel, gold hoop."

Damali turned around. "You got close enough to see her navel, did you?"

Carlos swallowed as she slowly walked up to him.

"So where did you meet her, huh? I think it's really interesting how you couldn't even give me the courtesy of a call back but then show up in a big puff of smoke, outraged that I've been dancing with another man. Well, you need to check that and tell us what we need to know about this female."

He stared at her, seeing that heat in her eyes, and felt joy bloom inside him. The fact that she was so outraged, cared so much that he might have potentially been with somebody else, had actually claimed him as her one and only, did something to him. It was like he was watching her mouth move, but that's all he could focus on. The shape of it, the blaze in her eyes. The way her head went from side to side as her finger wagged with her complaint, one hand on her hip in the to-die-for dress. He smiled.

Damali's eyes narrowed.

"This shit ain't funny, Carlos! Answer the question!"

"Which one?" He was not being smart. For the life of him he couldn't remember what they were arguing about. He had a villa in the hills, fully stocked bar, Jacuzzi, all baby had to do was chill...

"Which one?"

He was just coming out of the trance when lightning struck his face and dazed him. She was standing there, breathing hard, about to cry. The team held their breaths. She'd slapped the taste out of his mouth. He didn't know what possessed him, but his hands went to the sides of her face, and he pulled her in close. His head tilted, and he kissed her as hard as he needed to. Right there, no pretense. No shame. Just like she'd crooned for him in front of an audience. Whatever. They were wasting time.

He let her go and she covered her heart with her hand for a moment.

"I wasn't with her like that. Can't you tell? She was tracking down sloppy seconds from the jones I had for you. She rolled up on me, not the other way around. She made an offer; I refused. Period. Drop it. Now you wanna get out of here, or what?"

"Carlos, listen," Marlene said fast. "Both of you listen - just for once. There's another entity out there that's possibly stronger than either one of you right now, and she's twisted. From what I can gather, she was at this concert site."

"Marlene, you're bugging. That female is fronting like she's a master vamp wannabe - and ain't hardly stronger than me. Damali can take her, too - "

"Not if she's been able to co-opt and reproduce the one thing that you have practically no immunity to. The scent."

Carlos glanced away from Marlene's probing eyes. "They only make one real Neteru every millennium, remember? Damali's it," Carlos said in a low timbre, staring at Damali who looked at him like he was dinner. "I can handle that situation. That's why I came up here with a squad. If Damali wants to go with me, I'll have her at the hotel before sunrise. Y'all just watch your backs. Second-level females are generally spiteful and have a bad temper when they don't get their way - girlfriend didn't get nothing, so she might have a case of the ass... real attitude."

The look Damali issued him was so intense, so desire-filled, yet so torn, that it made him go still. He could feel it through his skin the way she wanted to be with him. Something had definitely kicked up a notch. He wasn't sure if it was the song, seeing Damali openly, without shame, give him her all, or what, but Marlene's worries about some lower-level female that was supposed to have cornered some Neteru scent was bouncing off his eardrums and falling on the floor right about through here.

"Am I hearing you right, Rivera?" Rider asked slowly, quietly, no play in his tone. "You've got a team of five vampires on steroids, just up from Hell, supposedly going to watch our backs?" Rider walked toward him, suddenly grabbed his arm, and looked him in the eyes. "Are you fucking nuts?"

Carlos just looked at Rider's hand until he removed it. "They're my squad. They follow my orders. I told 'em no eating in town, and not to touch a hair on your heads. Even the priests are under the safety mark. My order."

"You hear yourself, man?" Shabazz stepped in near Rider. "You're high. You ain't making sense. Never in history has a guardian or a Covenant team gotten a mark of safety from the vampire nations."

"Never in history has a Neteru placed a call down to Hell, made the courier bats lose orbit in the Vampire Council's supreme chamber, or sent bass-line at a concert down to disturb our transport systems." His gaze was on Damali as he spoke to Shabazz, and he loved the fact that she'd smiled. "You walk a bad bass, brother. They heard it... just like they heard my baby wailing up here... messed the old boys up - slayed 'em. Just like she's killing me, right now. I'll bring her home before tomorrow morning. My word."

"Isn't there a soul in here concerned about the fact that we're dealing with an entity that is mirroring the most potent aspect of the Neteru defense system?" Marlene threw up her hands and began walking around the room. "Is it me, people?"

"She can't front Neteru," Carlos argued, still focused on Damali. "If female vamps could do that, they'd all conjure it. Besides, even if I wasn't hooked up with D, I wouldn't roll with girlfriend. She's got a freaky side, likes to live on the edge of danger - saw her hanging down in the badlands on level five in Hell... probably transformed into something and cast the illusion that she was in heat to keep 'em from killing her... mighta even done the unthinkable and got with a couple were-wolves or were-jags, who knows? The chick is nuts. That's where the sulfur probably came from. But if council catches her ass doing black-blood exchanges, shit. That ain't my problem. Her choice. If she did, though, and she's in my zones, I'll have to dust her myself."

He glanced at the men on the team. "Some shit is just unnatural, and at council level, a black-blood exchange with were-demons is a capital offense. Feel me?"

"You met her down there?" Damali was twirling the end of a lock around her finger, and looking at the floor when she spoke.

"Yeah. Wasn't no thing," Carlos said, moving closer to her. Damali's quiet tone and the sad look in her eyes had stopped the other guardians from asking more, and he was glad it did. He didn't want to talk to them; he wanted to talk to her. Privately. They needed to nip this argument in the bud, and squash it. But he knew he had to tell her something that would make her willing to go with him, and definitely needed to tell her people something so they wouldn't talk her out of it. Complex.

"Baby, I was checking out the levels," he said calmly, trying to sound rational as he explained. "I was doing some undercover work, trying to see if there was any link between the deaths in the news, and anything down sub, but she pushed up on me on level five. I declined. Came here to be sure my baby was safe. She must have tracked me here and tried me in the crowd; I blew her off. End of story. That's it. My boys can handle a vamp female, if she's that stupid to go after a guardian team... and after I brushed her off, I don't think she is. Only Neteru I got in my nose is you, baby."

"Oh, Lord have mercy," Marlene sighed, plopping down on a bench in defeat. "Gentlemen, get your weapons. Hopefully that's all it is... Carlos would know. He's the only one that can truly detect actual Neteru presence - and if the man swears that this is just a general female vamp, we have to go with it. For now." Marlene looked at him hard. "But if you are wrong, and you put Damali in harm's way, a possible were-jaguar demon is the last thing you'll have to worry about. In fact, the Vampire Council will have to send up a rescue-and-recovery team to find the body parts I will separate from you, understood, Carlos?"

"Yes, ma'am. And if she's not still angry at me," Carlos said with a sheepish grin, "I'll have Damali back at the hotel before it gets light." He looked at Damali who had a wide grin on her face. "You mad at me?"

She shook her head no.

"You miss me?"

She nodded. "You heard me all the way down there?"

He nodded.

"You miss me?"

He smiled.

Before she could say another word, he sent a burst of energy from within him. The air in the room swept lightweight objects into a tornado swirl, Damali was in his arms, and they were gone.

She landed on her feet still pressed against Carlos's chest. She stared at him, backed away a bit, and gaped at the environment. "You're stronger. I can feel a different kind of energy running through you. It's darker, Carlos... and I'm worried."

He nodded. "There's a lot of stuff I can do now, baby, that's gonna rock your world. You have no idea. I'm just coming into my own."

She glanced around the outrageously decadent villa he'd brought her to. The tone of his voice made her wary. Things were fine before. She wasn't sure she liked this new aspect of him.

"How far away from the stadium are we?"

This move, while romantic, was seriously disconcerting. He was definitely stronger, she kept repeating in her mind like a mantra. There was no safe house with prayer lines nearby. Her Isis blade was at the stadium. Things were going down in a foreign land, and she was separated from her team, her family. This man seemed a little close to the edge. He looked at her differently than he had before, way carnal. Way more passion in the vibration. Dark passion.

"About eight miles away," he murmured, "in the hillside of Jardim Botanico. Driving, it's farther, because of the roads... but we're not that far from the hotel the way I can get you there."

He stalked toward her, watched her back up, looking hunted. He loved it. She was playing with his mind. She had no idea. If she had been ripening on him, she would have gotten pregnant tonight. Period. There was no decision.

"Uh, wow. Eight miles, huh? You couldn't project four between the safe house cabin and the compound not so long ago. Then, you were able to manifest objects like a car, and transform rooms. Seems like each night, you get more and more power, especially after you go subterranean." She was talking fast and walking around the room, glancing at furnishings, but not losing sight of his proximity to her. "This is so cool, beautiful breeze, the bed, the moon, candles, tile floors. This stuff looks permanent, not like the illusions you cast in the cleric's place. Grates must come down at dawn, huh, to cover the deck and windows? Like the fireplace," she said dodging to a fireplace poker. "Maybe we could start it?"

He snapped. The fireplace lit. He didn't say a word. She didn't put down the poker.

"Tell me about this chick."

He shook his head no. "I don't want to even think about that right now."

His eyes flickered then went solid red, and she walked further out of his reach, holding the poker as she passed gorgeous marble furnishing with slate tables, wrought-iron chairs with sumptuous velvet seats, and hopped over the inland stream that ended in the far corner of the room into a waterfall and sunken Jacuzzi. She was not so much interested in this potential female vamp threat, as she was monitoring the change going on with him. Carlos seemed darker, less himself, and definitely more dangerous.

There were even more black spots in his mind that were sealed, old places she'd never been locked out of before. What was that about? And while she could actually feel his hands on her, sending excruciating pleasure through her, a part of her was on guard, yet she didn't know why. Plus he'd lied to her by omission and had tried to block her second sight to what was going on here. Maybe it was the way his eyes hunted her? He'd looked at her like that before in the woods that night. Yet, this was different. It made her uncomfortable. There was something about it that made her know he might just go all the way on her and flip this time.

"Are you hungry?" he murmured, his eyes half closed, his nostrils flaring ever so slightly as she walked around the edges of the room. "You need dinner... something to drink?"

She was gonna need all her strength tonight. No doubt. And if she lived till morning from what he was going to lay on her, then she'd definitely needed to eat... especially when he woke up - hungry.

She stalled. "Yeah. I'm starved."

He didn't immediately answer her. "Yeah. So am I." His voice was even. His tone lethal. His shaft was so hard it was sending spasms through his groin that she could feel across the room.

"Then maybe you should make a run, you know. I mean, before, we had the monks, the refrigerators, everything was - "

"Cool."

"Yeah. Everything was real cool."

He nodded. He tried to collect himself. This was Damali. He had to remember that. He loved her.

"Before I go make a run, what do you feel like eating?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. They use a lot of red meat here - " She stopped midsentence. "It's hard to get vegetarian stuff here, is what I'm saying."

"I know." He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. "Tell me the dish, and I'll make it so." Why was she baiting him?

"Better yet," she said fast, monitoring his intensity, "you go eat, and after you're cool, I might have made up my mind."

"Good idea." His statement was issued from his throat, and in a blink he was air and gone.

Damali's shoulders dropped two inches. Her hands were shaking. What was that shit? He'd looked at her like he'd turn her into a vamp - just outright flat-line her. She walked back and forth within the cliff lair. No way down, no way out, no roads for miles, only option was to try to climb a cliff at night in a red concert dress and heels? It was like an eagle's nest! This was insane. She should have never called him to Brazil. She shouldn't have called him here like that. There was too much stimulation. He was high... Oh Lord.

She neared the edge of the bed. How long could they keep this mess going on, anyway? Vampires were renowned for their constant need for sex - seduction was their middle name. Plus, if he was getting stronger, pretty soon, docile deer in the States, or picking off a cow from a rancher from time to time was not going to work. The monks' blood wasn't working, obviously. Boss hadn't even come with a supply, and was freelancing, in Rio?

Seven years of this? What was she talking about, seven years? There was no guarantee that she'd make it, he'd make it, or what would happen after that. Homeboy might turn to dust, for all she knew. Not even the old Templar knew. This crap had never been done before.

The entire inside of her skull was splitting. She finally sat down on the edge of the huge futon bed that had an indoor, pristine stream running around it. She gazed at it with both awe and profound grief. It was decadently set so that one could easily roll right off of the mattress into the turquoise pool that was as wide as the bed. If they wanted to, they could make love all the way toward the waterfall in the room, slip over that and land in a hot tub. She had to hand it to the vamps; when it came to pleasure, they went all out.

Marlene had tried to warn her before she and Carlos ever took that first plunge. Their eyes glowed red because it was the primal center of the chakra system covering the reproductive organs... just like the gold tone ruled the stomach and gall center. Red for passion and anger, deep gold for hunger and indignation. Lighter gold as you moved up the torso. Green ruled the heart - either love or the green-eyed monsters, which were jealous-hearted creatures. The demon realms didn't produce eye colors that went above the middle chakra, the heart chakra, where the spiritual side of the soul took over.

Mar said it, said it, said it. She wished she had Madame Isis, and could see the jewels in the handle of her blade. Oh, man, Carlos hadn't nickered gold tonight. Brother went pure red. She peered down at her dress - and she'd called him from the Vampire Council table, to Rio, of all freaking places in the world, in a red dress? Damali just shook her head. Got him to the point were he went there to get an escort? Didn't trust himself around the Covenant that saved him. Had studied Shabazz and Big Mike for a minute in the locker room, already having tasted their blood? Was she crazy?

These creatures were truly organized, too. International transport?

Borrowed lairs like freakin' timeshares? Armed couriers? Probably stocked fridge - but Carlos didn't want what was in it. Needed a hit of adrenaline. What was he going to do, stampede a herd of buffalo out there or something? Crazy. Suddenly she wanted to cry.
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