The Hunted

Chapter Five

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Chapter Five

She'd slept as long as she could, but then had to get up. The visit with Inez had made restful sleep impossible, but she wasn't sleeping that much these days anyway.

Damali glanced around her bedroom. What was the point in trying to keep the illusion going that there was a way to make oneself safe? As long as the world was at war, there was no place to hide.

They'd done the best they could to gild her cage: wonderful private bathroom within the suite of her private sanctuary, her bedroom, that had been practically turned into a lush replica of the Garden of Eden with plants everywhere, Moroccan tiles on the shower wall, and a gorgeous slate-framed Jacuzzi. In fact, each room within the guardian compound, except the weapons room, was like a veritable museum, filled with comfortable appointments and beauty all around, designed to take the sting out of spending so much time behind its walls. But just like comfy chairs and art couldn't totally take the sterility out of a hospital, art and a game room and whatnot sure didn't make the compound feel like any less of a fortress.

Sitting up slowly, Damali pulled herself out of bed and hurried through a shower. She snatched on her jeans and a top with purpose, not even taking the time to really labor over whether the combination matched. She had things to do.

"Yo," she said on a yawn as she entered the kitchen and saw Rider, Jose, and Big Mike. She didn't wait for a response as she bent and began rummaging in the refrigerator.

A series of disgruntled "Good mornings" followed her greeting. That always bothered her. Hunting vamps and demons had put them on the predators' schedule. They got up out of bed late, like shift workers, and went to bed at dawn, just like vampires. Crazy. In the process of her mental battle, she spotted just what she wanted. A beer.

Damali stood and shut the door, and saluted Rider with the brew when he gave her a concerned glance. "Just trying to bite the snake that bit me."

"Which one would that be?" Rider asked, his gravelly voice holding tension as he watched her screw off the cap and take a healthy swig.

"Cheap wine after a Red Stripe."

Rider shivered, made a face, and smiled. "Will do it every time."

"They serving cheap wine in the vamp clubs these days, D?" Jose's detective-like question had come out quietly as he took a slow sip of coffee.

"No. Can call the vamps a lotta things," she said, amused as she took another sip, "but tacky isn't one of them." She knew Jose was trying to get all up in her business about where she'd been. He was right, too, about the wine. She wouldn't have bought cheap wine at a club. His intense eyes followed her around the room as she sat down across from Big Mike.

"Don't you think you need to have breakfast, first?"

She glanced at Big Mike, then leaned across the table and pecked his cheek. "Got cereal in a bottle, just like Rider showed me." She chuckled and turned the beer around and read the label. "It has hops and barley... hmmm... probably sugar - "

"Rider, I told you about your ways," Big Mike thundered, not amused. "After y'all eat, we need a weapons room meeting. Got a bunch of shit to get off my chest."

The threesome sat quietly peering at Big Mike's back as he stormed out of the kitchen. Damali glanced down at her beer and then up at Rider.

"Damn," she whispered to Rider. "A beer could do all that? What's his problem?"

Jose stood fast, glared at Damali, abandoned his coffee cup, and followed Mike out of the room.

Rider shrugged and clinked his spiked coffee mug against her beer bottle. "Guess it's just us two heathens for breakfast this morning, kiddo."

"I've had enough," Big Mike argued, his gaze holding each member in the weapons room for a moment before he spoke again. "For three days after the concert, we were on the run like we've never been - and I never said a word. Held my peace while we went underground to regroup, hiding in churches, mosques, temples, synagogues - any hallowed ground we could find." He stared at Damali. "Then, I haven't said a word for the last month, but I'm not going to sit here and watch my little sister self-destruct."

Damali let her breath out hard in frustration. "I'm not self-destructing, I'm polishing my skills." She looked at Big Mike who was leaned against the door frame, then over at JL and Dan by the monitors for support. Finding none in their eyes, she bypassed Shabazz and Marlene who were sitting on stools on opposite sides of the room studying the floor, then over to Jose. His arms were folded as he sat on the sofa. Her gaze sought Rider for an ally as she plopped down hard on a stool and took another swig of her beer.

"Listen, people," Damali said carefully, setting down her brew on the edge of the table next to her Isis long blade. "We all got battle-freaked after doing Hell, right?" No one answered, so she pressed on. "If I'm supposed to be your so-called Neteru, then it's important for me to get back in the hunt. I had to know that I could hang, could still bring it, still had some juice after that bullsh - "

"Your language," Marlene said in a fast snap, cutting her off. "Everybody's language," she said, standing and walking toward the table that held an array of ammo. Marlene took the half-empty bottle off the table and walked back to a nearby waste can and dumped it. "Your attitude. Everybody's attitude," Marlene warned. "True, it is important for you to get back into the hunt. But it's how you get back into the game that's important."

"Mike's point, exactly," Shabazz said, his voice even, authoritative, and no-nonsense. "Marlene's point. We may have physically regrouped, but we're a long way from being straight - as a team. The vibe ain't right." He looked at each team member, then again held Damali's eyes with his own. "You feel me?"

"Yeah, I feel you, 'Bazz," Damali said, her voice tight. "That's why it's time to get back on the road."

"What?!" Rider was off the sofa and now walking back and forth between the equipment table and the monitors. "Why in the hell would we - "

"Because we have to pay some bills, Rider," Damali said fast. When he stopped pacing and the others didn't jump in to debate her, she continued. "You all know how much the electric bill is in here, not to mention the maintenance on a fleet of Jeeps and a Hum-V, the artillery, and what it costs to constantly develop new weapons systems. That doesn't count what we normally spend on food, travel, your gig gear, or what have you. We need a few international venues now that we've done the Raise the Dead concert to keep the momentum going. I can feel it in my bones. Gotta make sure our CD goes platinum so we'll have royalties long after we've stopped gigging... we also need the soft-drink commercials, anything that will repeatedly play our music and send in checks. Maybe even land a film deal, something that keeps us mad-paid. I'm not overreacting."

Vindicated by their silence, Damali folded her arms over her chest. "Yeah, I've had a lot on my mind. Look around this joint and tell me our other sources of income? It ain't just the battle that's got a sistah stressed - it's the reality that, if for some reason the money gets funny, I have to know we can stay alive with or without all the electronics and the barricades." Her gazed raked Shabazz hard. "Now, do you feel me?"

"I may be the only non-musician in the group," Dan said after a moment, ending the standoff, "but Damali is right." He glanced around nervously toward the elder guardians in the group. "I do promotions. We can't afford to let this thing cool down, no matter what we've been through. While we were getting our heads together, I've been keeping the media wolves at bay." He sighed. "I told them that we were on a temporary hiatus so we could work on breaking out some new sounds, told them that the mysterious phenomenon called Damali was working on new cuts... it was bait for Entertainment Tonight, Rolling Stone, People magazine. The phones have been jumping, and I've tried my best to - "

"See," Damali said, opening her arms. "Stress!" She looked at Dan. "Thank you, Dan, for making my point. Of all people in here, the newest guardian understands what time it is." She watched him glance away, nattered but a little embarrassed by the compliment. "Book us wherever you can, tell the lesser venues we're gearing up for a world tour. I don't know where I want to go, but put some feelers out, Dan. I just can't sit around this compound much longer. I'll go nuts."

"Done," Dan said quickly, but his glance shot around the room.

Marlene nodded. "The utility companies don't wanna hear a long story about how we saved the world and that's why their checks are late."

"I know this was the last thing you expected after your bar mitzvah, Dan," Rider said, his glare sweeping to Dan, then back to Damali. "Just for the record, none of us signed up to be a guardian. We got the short straw in the grand cosmic equation. Dig? But, I'm ready to roll, if that's what we've gotta do to keep the lights on."

"I want - "

"Damn what you want, Damali!" Shabazz shot up from his seat and swung his arm toward Marlene and pointed at her. "I've got a bad vibe. We can feel it." He snatched his arm back and folded both of them over his chest. "I'm traveling with precious cargo. You're grown now, and need to dig it." Then just as suddenly as he'd spoken, he fell silent and walked back to his stool, sat heavily, stared at the floor and rubbed his jaw as though he'd said too much.

She felt the entire team bristle, and Marlene hadn't said a word. Big Mike and Rider had looked away. What the hell was going on?

"Eventually, I want a concert in every continent," she said again, taking her time to speak firmly. "I want us to hit every place that we know there's a topside master vampire still running shit. We're supposed to clean out master lairs, one by one, vamp territory by territory, taking down second levels and thirds after we hit the mast - "

"Are you nuts?" Jose shook his head and stood up to leave. "I'm not taking you anywhere to get yourself killed. Let's stay in the States for a while, since we know Nuit is history."

For a moment, the whole group stared at him. It was something about the way he'd said what he did, had personalized it a little too much. Damali shook off the uncomfortable feeling. Yeah, after losing Dee Dee, it made sense that Jose wouldn't want to take his little sister anywhere that might be crazy. That had been the main reason she wouldn't let him hang out with her. If he saw where she had been going, what she was doing every night, he would flip.

"Jose," she said more gently, "sooner or later, we have to go after the rest of them. The longer we wait, the more time the vamps have to regroup and get stronger. Just like with the music, we have to keep the momentum going."

"Yeah, D, but, we don't have to rush headlong into danger all the time. We're all only human, and need a break... need some time to just live life a little." Jose's eyes held a request in them that she couldn't comprehend, even though his words made total sense. "Damali, sometimes - "

" - A man needs to pick the right time to drop something on a sistah," Shabazz said quickly. The tension in the room was so thick now that you could cut it with a knife. Shabazz's comment sliced right through it. "Now ain't the time, little brother," he said, his tone even but gentle. "I ain't trying to risk nobody in here, either."

Damali looked at Shabazz, and noted that Marlene remained conspicuously silent. All right. She could appreciate Jose trying to stick up for the older couple, who, of all the members of the team, had the most to lose - namely each other. She could definitely appreciate that now. Damali nodded, ran her fingers through her locks, and sat back down.

"It's instinct," she said, her tone no longer holding the edge of rage. "You all said fighting evil was in my blood, and, yeah, it's personal." She let her gaze go to each team member and linger there. "Should be for everybody in here, truth be told." She didn't mention the name that no one had uttered for the last month, Carlos. Then she glanced away and studied her blade.

Damali picked up her Isis. "I'm tired of running, tired of wasting time fighting lower-level vamps... I won't be right till I go big game hunting." She stared at Madame Isis, getting lost in the beauty of its jeweled handle.

Seven stones, each a different color of the metaphysical chakra system: ruby at the base of the handle, followed by golden topaz, emerald at the heart level, sapphire, blue topaz, amethyst, and crowned by a large diamond, spaced perfectly to fit her hand. The beauty of the weapon, an instrument of sure vampire death, mesmerized her. It always did, and she kept it close to her like a security blanket. The warrior, Isis, fought a demon serpent intricately inlaid with gold and silver at the head beneath the jewels. She wondered if the ancient warrior had won. The blade was magnificent. Damali ran her finger down one of the blood grooves imbedded in the three blades that came to a sharp point on the end, capable of opening a wound in a vampire's heart shaped like a crucifix.

Deep contemplation overtook her as the team remained silent, watching her. She wondered how something like this had come into her possession along with the fate to bear something so majestic. But the weight of the responsibility that came from owning it was no joke. This was no way to live. She also didn't want to be psychoanalyzed anymore. Her first ripening had passed. She wasn't afraid, just tired. She was sick of all the team histrionics about what could happen. The worst already had, as far as she was concerned. She'd already been hurt to the bone by the underworld - Carlos was dead.

Damali finally looked up. Her gaze went to the group's mother-seer. "Put some new feelers out for where we can gig, Dan," she said, no room for negotiation in her tone. "Can you handle it?" She waited for his slow nod then stood. "Anybody who doesn't want to go doesn't have to. But I'm out."

No one moved, except Jose.

"Wherever you wanna go, D... I'm down," he said quietly. "Wanna go get some real dinner 'round the way?"

"Yeah, Jose," she murmured, coming up to him and slinging her arm over his shoulder. "Let's get outta here."

Humans were always so very careless, she mused, savoring the bitter taste of black blood on her mouth. How ironic that a simple chalice filled with a seemingly dead substance could render unfathomable power.

The night felt like a missed lover, the freedom of being topside beyond comprehension, especially under this particular moon. The taste of succulent human flesh, the thrill of the hunt, while exhilarating, bore no comparison to the rush that power offered.

She stretched her long legs, loping toward a tall tree, and in two feline strides ascended to a high branch. She narrowed her gaze on the blue-black terrain, laughing to herself as she thought of the expressions on the faces of the humans she'd gored in the mountains. This was her land, her territory, all poachers beware. She opened her mind to sense for danger, her instincts as sharp as her fangs. Then she felt him.

As promised, his power was unprecedented... sultry, seductive, a force of animal nature that ran all through her. Primal to his very core. Oh, yes, this was so perfect. She closed her eyes, a low purr rumbling inside her chest. Baby, come to me... just tell me where you are.

That he resisted her call, left it unanswered, amused her. Another dominant female had his attention at present... ah, logistics. But he had indeed paused, had swept his mind through his region, intrigued, sensing for the mystery of what could have stabbed into his libido so viciously. It was a curious thing, however. Prayer lines barricaded him? How so? Mild panic arrested her amusement. She didn't sense that he was endangered, only that there was a barrier. His location was indefinable. No matter. The point was, he existed, had not perished, and had been promised to her.

If his presence held that much charge while cloaked to the night, that far away, then an encounter would surely be worth unraveling the shadows around him.

"Carlos," she whispered. "It's only a matter of time until I find you." She laughed low, and deep, and sexy. "Come out, come out, wherever you are."

No answer.

Frustration would not lay claim to her; she willed it away, but sent a very graphic representation of her skills into the night air with a desirous growl. She smiled as she again sensed him pause. Yes, think about that tonight... and do not ignore me again.

With a sigh of exasperation, she dismounted in one fluid flex of her spine and landed on the ground on all fours. Her attention went to the nearby village. Her shape shifted into human female form. Flimsy doors, half-hearted prayers, open windows, adulterous men in the streets. Humans were so very careless.

Carlos closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. She was walking, her long, confident strides fluid beneath her faded jeans. He loved the way every toned muscle beneath her gorgeous, bronzed skin worked as she moved. His mind seized upon the small tattoo at the base of her spine and caressed it. He could almost feel the soft texture of the fabric of her lemon-yellow tank top. He remembered her mouth, her kiss, her smile... One of her guardians was with her, making her laugh. He could literally taste the taco as she bit into it.

"You've been monitoring her telepathically for a month, Carlos." Father Patrick's comment made the vision evaporate. Angered by the sudden loss, Carlos set his jaw hard and kept staring out the window.

"We're also no closer to finding out what is going on in South America," he pressed on. "My visions reveal the deaths themselves, but not what caused them. Is it vampire? Maybe some of the hybrid things left over from before?"

Carlos kept his back to the priest he'd come to call Father Pat. As his gaze remained fixed on the full September moon, harvest season ran through his mind. He sent a glare over his shoulder, and watched them bristle. Only Father Pat seemed cool.

"I've told you a hundred times, if once, since I got here. This ain't my kind - we don't eat flesh." He returned his gaze to the moon. "We're purists. Only do blood."

"The hybrids from Nuit's colony left sloppy signatures - real brutal bites that tore out organs," Father Patrick countered.

Carlos thought about it hard. The twisted bastards Nuit made had kept human body parts and meat hanging in their lair refrigerators... he was just glad he wasn't one of them and had been made by council. His mind went to the young girl Nuit had gutted for his brothers to feed on. His kind was capable, but that was the new regime, not the old one. Something about this wasn't right; he could feel that it wasn't from the empire. "Those victims in Brazil didn't get back up and turn," he said after a moment, trying to convince himself that it wasn't possible for vampires to be involved - like whether the victims turned or not really made a difference. He knew better than that. These were feed kills.

But this was so damned boring. Carlos folded his arms over his chest. Just one night out... "Demons possess - so they're careful about what they do to the bodies they plan on inhabiting. I told you that! They go in before the body is declared dead, or known to be dead by the living. That way, they can walk around undetected, and they can cast illusion to keep the living from seeing the decay - that's why they smell the way they do. They're fucking parasites." He turned and looked at them hard. "I don't think it was vamps, but I need to get out of here to really investigate. I need to employ all my senses to - "

"No," Padre Lopez said, fast. "That's not part of the deal. You must avoid proximate occasions of sin until your willpower is stronger."

"Fuck it, then," Carlos said, his tone a low grumble as he turned back to look at the moon. "Have it your way." He closed his eyes. Good food and a good woman - that was what was in order.

But he could feel the team at his back grow tense with his silence. Each one of them possessed a sensory gift, and if they were picking up half of what was on his mind, then they had every right to be concerned. Just the thought of a hunt was making his gums thicken, and thinking about Damali was having the same effect on his groin.

Fully healed and well fed, he was out. But he had to play this cool and not get staked because he hadn't been strategic. At night, Asula, Lin, and Father Lopez were always a little standoffish when he was awake and moving about in their section of the cabin quarters. He could dig it. He made them nervous, rightfully so. He could feel it as they continued to stare at his back, waiting for him to say something.

"She's still partially blind," Carlos said softly. "I wanted to give it time to wear off... thought maybe it was temporary shock. That way, I wouldn't have to go to her in person. She didn't even move her compound like we thought she would. I don't understand."

"This is what we feared," Father Patrick said sadly, allowing Carlos to change the subject without resistance. "She doesn't care about her own safety anymore."

"No... knowing Damali, she's taken a stand. She's even trying to book concerts all over the place. She's thinking about working on a new CD. She's just stronger, and not afraid anymore." Carlos rubbed his jaw and let out a hard breath. "My baby is all grown up. I was the one who taught her to stand her ground, to claim her territory, and not be moved. Guess I was good for something."

He walked away from the window and then back toward it. The night was calling him, like a siren. He couldn't stand being cooped up like this, or having to always roll with a cleric, lest he lose himself to temptation and have dinner in the streets. Watching Damali from afar had been Hell on earth.

"Have you eaten yet tonight?" the monk named Lin asked in an apologetic, but nervous tone.

"I'm not hungry, yet," Carlos said with a lopsided smile, tilting his head and appraising the cleric in a way that he knew would engender fear.

"Compadre, you should, uh, go to the refrigerator... there's been new shipments."

Padre Lopez's comment made his smile broaden. It was twisted, but he enjoyed fucking with these guys. He wasn't sure why, but maybe it was lingering resentment over being so powerful a creature, held hostage by the legal technicalities of supernatural law. Seven years living with monks was definitely incarceration. Seven years of Damali living only a few miles away, but never being able to touch her, was working on the wrong side of his brain. He decided not to bear fangs, though. That always caused them to sweat and go into defense mode. Tonight a whiff of their adrenaline-soaked blood might push him over the edge.

"I need to go out for a few hours," he said, studying them all hard for their reactions.

"You know that isn't advisable, or allowed in your current frame of mind."

"Yeah. I know. Can't blame a man for trying, though," Carlos muttered in disgust, returning his gaze to the window. To vaporize and turn into mist... to feel the night enter his pores and to become one with it once again, was such a seductive pull that it made him close his eyes. He could feel his incisors thickening and threatening to rip through his gums again. In the distance, wolves howled, and it was all he could do not to answer their baleful call with one of his own.

Oh, shit, they had no idea what this was like. It wasn't that bad while he was rehabilitating, getting his head together, and coming to terms with his existence. But now... How did a man ignore his basic instincts, divorce himself from his nature? To hunt was in his very DNA. It had always been there, even before he became a vampire. The clerics even told him he was designated by fate to be a tracker guardian, once an olfactory sensor. Her scent was so close...

Before he had been turned, he'd had a heightened sense of smell—it had helped in his former business. But they didn't understand that that ability had been further heightened through his new vampire status. The scent of their blood, sweat, everything in his environment was beating against his brain with its call, especially Damali's scent. And she was out hunting again, tonight, the song of her blood filling the air. Shit.

"In the zoo," Carlos murmured, "sometimes the lions don't eat because the kill is brought to them like canned dog food. They'd rather bring down a kill themselves... get a good run on. I watched them, as a kid, and never understood it until now. After a while, even the kings of the jungle just lie there, defeated. You can see it in their eyes." He turned and looked at the men around him who he knew had no concept of what he was talking about. They had never been on a blood hunt, or probably never had a woman. "Have you ever looked in a lion's eyes, or a panther's, for that matter?"

Each of them immediately averted their eyes, and he let his breath out hard. He would have showed them what it felt like - all of it, even what being with a woman was like - if they hadn't turned away. He was getting stronger by the moment, by each night that his true master vampire status took root within him. Things that he never knew before had finally lodged into his awareness. Power like he'd never felt was threading through his system. Even his vocabulary was changing, making him multilingual.

He could speak Dananu - power, or as humans called it, Vampyre, now, as well as serve Old World, if necessary. Plus he would always have the language of the streets, and the one his parents gave him. His vision was more precise. He could now actually see blue-white bands of light within each cleric's aura, especially when they stood next to each other. It was like a filament that bound them in a prayer chain. A similar barrier barred the doors and the windows. When he'd first been turned, he had only felt it as a dangerous heat, now he could actually see it like a lit electric fence. Yet, for all this new power he was dying. He just wanted to try some of this new stuff out, but was trapped. Seven years, then what?

Father Lopez glanced up. Carlos smiled. There was something about Lopez that drew him. Within his young aura, the glowing blue-white band linking him to the others held a hint of red... just a thin thread, but enough to break the line. He followed that thread into a dark space within the man's heart. A lie was a sin, so was deception, Padre... Interesting.

Carlos's attention went back to the red within Lopez's aura. The line was so fragile, that it was almost inconsequential. But from everything he'd learned from taking a brief seat in a power throne, nothing in the vampire world was insignificant.

A theory developed in his mind, as willful defiance escalated within him. If Lopez's will could be breached, he owned him.

Carlos glanced at the others, but their auras were too bright and their wills too strong. He went back to the youngest cleric, studied him hard. Then he reached out and forced him to give up his secrets.

The priests had lied to him. They had known where Damali was the whole time, ever since the concert. Fury coiled within Carlos. Some strange killings were going on down in Brazil and from the MO they suspected it was of the paranormal influence. So they'd planned to use Damali as bait to get him to figure out what was going on down there. Just wanted him to go as insurance protection - because they knew she'd most likely go there. These bastards had actually raised him from near extinction to use him, redemption notwithstanding? All right... then let the games begin.

"Curiosity killed the cat, Padre," Carlos said seductively, holding the younger man's stare. Then he violated the man's mind and sent the rest of his message telepathically. I haven't been out hunting in a long time. Wanna go with me? You know you do. It's in your blood. You can taste it. I can have a female at your side in seconds. Boyz' night out -

"Stop it, Carlos!" the elder priest warned. "Lopez - look away! Recite a psalm to mentally block his words!"

But it was too late. From his peripheral vision Carlos watched the three clerics arm themselves around the dazed Father Lopez. His smile broadened as the mental hold he had on the junior priest tightened. "She's beautiful," Carlos whispered, "and feels so damned good against you. You're a sensory tracker, too... thought you might appreciate my predicament. Her skin is like butter, and her - "

"Enough!" Asula shouted.

Carlos ignored the burly Moor. He watched, amused, as two clerics rushed to the young priest's side and began shaking him. Father Pat had stepped between Carlos and Father Lopez, trying to stop the vision to no avail. Carlos trapped the young, curious mind within his own, sending image after image to it, bludgeoning it with sensations of power, exquisite lust, and the pure carnal knowledge of lying with a woman.

He gave Lopez a nude taste of one of his old flames, Juanita. Damali was off-limits, even as a ploy. Juanita was fine, arched hard under his hands, her breasts smooth and full... yeah he remembered her. Nice ass. Gave good head. Sweet personality - just like Lopez would want. Carlos chuckled and cocked his head to the side, watching Lopez mentally drown as he focused on Juanita, deep and wet. "It's good, hombre. We should go out... she lives right near my mom's. Just drop the line by the door so I can cross, and me and you can - "

"Taking an innocent by psychic possession will increase your sentence, Rivera! I demand that you stop this invasion now!"

"He wanted to know. He mentally opened the door by asking the question in his mind," Carlos murmured in a sensuous voice. A slow smirk crossed his face as he sighed with a shrug. "It's not my fault that he wanted to know what was pulling me into the night. All men want to know. Need to know. It's instinct." That was no lie, and no matter what Father Patrick said, tonight, he was out.

Carlos inhaled sharply and sent the last of his thoughts full force to Lopez. He watched with great satisfaction as the young cleric writhed and fought against a desire he'd never known until now. Beads of perspiration had formed on the young cleric's forehead and Lopez was taking in shallow breaths. Uh-huh, it's just like that. Carlos smiled when the junior cleric shuddered, allowing his thoughts to descend even further. From memory and the simple reflex of thinking about making love, he accidentally conjured Damali's scent and released it into the air. Sweet, isn't it? he thought, chuckling to himself. Bittersweet when denied. Yeah, maybe it was time to stop; his own game was messing him up.

Lopez closed his eyes, leaned his head back, and groaned, as Father Patrick tried to break Carlos's hold. "Compasion, por favor."

"All I'm asking for is a little mercy, too."

The sound of Carlos's voice made Father Lopez look at him, despite the futile attempts of his brethren.

Tears were glittering in Lopez's eyes. "Take these vile things from my mind!"

"You ain't never really had none, have you? Fucking pity... and you got yourself locked in here with me jonesing? A virgin? Shit, I will rock your world." Carlos laughed, his voice bitter. "Mercy is in order, all the way around." The other clerics looked at him hard. "I'll let him go if you let me go. Damn, man, why you let them put a collar on the poor bastard before he got his run out?" Carlos shook his head. These old bastards knew no mercy. "Me and Lopez both need a night - "

"No," Father Patrick said, his tone lethal. "Under no circumstances - "

"None?" Carlos leaned against the window, looking out. He then closed his eyes and sent Lopez a full-blast sensation of what it was like to be midstroke, hard-thrusting, going for broke, sweat running down your back, can't get enough air, deep plunging, all the way to the hilt, and a woman's voice fracturing the night.

Lopez dropped to his knees.

"Same reaction I had outside her compound that night, bro, when I was calling her and the guardians blocked me, then when we were together outside of Nuit's lair - "

"I said stop!"

"Will bring a grown man to his knees." Yeah, it was definitely time to stop. Carlos scowled at Father Patrick and relaxed his mental grip on Father Lopez. The line between the older clerics burned brighter and the band thickened, now shielding Lopez with it. Just seeing it made Carlos angrier.

"You stop fucking with me, and I'll stop fucking with him!" Carlos punched the wall, but was careful not to put his fist through it. Who knew where those crazy old bastards had prayed? It wasn't about drawing back a nub that couldn't regenerate.

He could hear Lopez breathing hard, trying to recover his dignity as he stood. This was beyond bullshit. If he didn't know better, he'd swear Lopez had vamp traces somewhere in his lineage. The way he had been able to get a lock on him, his gut-deep reaction to the images, didn't make sense.

Carlos watched the young priest closely from across the room. The man had lost it at the end when the vision of Juanita fused with Damali's scent, almost as though he could detect Neteru. The fragrance had felled him like it would have blown away a male vampire... Now he knew he was tripping! The invasion was fucking with him just as badly. That had to be it - he had to see it, feel it, and envision it to send it. That's the only reason he'd relented. He had to get out of there.

"Before he judges me again, I thought it might help him, as a young man, to walk a mile in my shoes. None of you know what this is like." Carlos turned back toward the window to ignore them all. The old men might be beyond remembering a woman, but the young blood sure wasn't. Lopez was the weak link in their chain, and one night, he'd break him. It was only a matter of time. And it served Lopez right for acting like he was so above him.

Carlos snarled when they hastened to sit Father Lopez down and bring him a glass of water. "Sonofabitch needs a cold shower, not a glass of water, gentlemen. Unless I'm losing my touch."

Watching them try to restore order and help the disoriented Lopez, while issuing nasty glances over their shoulders in his direction, truly got on his nerves. Carlos paced, hating how they flinched at his every move. "All right, all right. My bad. I'll chill."

"This is going to be a long seven years for all of us, Carlos, if you keep this nonsense up," Father Patrick snapped.

As soon as the priest reminded him of the length of his sentence, he reached out toward the door, ripping it from its hinges from where he stood across the room. Wood and metal splintered and bent as it came to a hard crash against the floor. Seven years, fuck that. Seven more minutes was a stretch. The fact that everybody was on their feet was of little consequence. Yeah, he was getting stronger - they needed to know that, too. So were the urges that came with the increased power he owned.

A thick, blue-white band surrounded the house from the threshold out a hundred yards and heat rushed through the door as though he'd opened a furnace. He'd never make it across without torching himself. Carlos waved his arm in frustration and immediately repaired the door and then paced from the door to the window.

"You fucking lied to me. That's a sin! Fucking clerics and you lied? You brought my coffin over that shit out there... and... and - that shit ain't right! Don't tell me about being a master of deception! All you want is for me to go to Brazil with Damali - track her, protect her, go hunt down and kill whatever is over there - just fucking work for your asses like a mule! Deliver the package, untouched, right? But I'm not allowing her to get in harm's way. You think I'm crazy? Stupid?"

"No," Father Patrick said calmly. "You're not crazy. We did conceal the full purpose of our mission."

"What!" The sofa hit the wall and three lamps blew out. "You admit that shit to my face?"

"Yes," Father Patrick said with a sly smile. "We had an agenda. No sense lying about it now." He glanced at the others who had weapons firmly in their grip in the darkened room. "Carlos knows this is how business is done. Fair exchange. We work on saving his soul, all the stuff he wants... well, almost all, and he works on what we want."

All sarcasm and amusement went out of Father Patrick's tone as his glare narrowed on Carlos in the dark. "We want the Neteru safe at all times, just like you do. We want whatever is causing chaos to be eliminated - just like your vampire world probably doesn't want anything harvesting humans from their territories, we don't either. We have the same end goal in mind, but for different reasons."

Begrudgingly, Carlos righted the furniture and repaired the lamps.

"You're getting stronger," Father Patrick said.

"Yeah. Goes with the new territory - literally," Carlos muttered as he sulked and paced away.

"Power concentrating from Nuit's old areas?"

"Yeah. What's it to you?"

"If you're strong, that's a good thing," Father Patrick said carefully. "A heck of a thing for us to cope with in here, but something you'll need where you're probably going."

"If you had any sense, you'd let me talk her out of getting herself in harm's way... and just let me go over there and dust whatever's lurking... if that would shorten my sentence." Carlos stared at the old man, trying to keep a plea out of his tone.

"You know that tonight wouldn't be a good time for you to talk to her. Let us focus on the Brazilian problem instead."

Carlos sighed and found a stationary post by the window. "Yeah, I know the deal. We can do this the hard way, or the smooth way."

"Correct," Asula said in a harsh tone.

"No more attacks on our junior member, understood?" Lin said evenly. "He's young, and it's not a fair match!"

"Tell me, what about any of this is fair?" Carlos didn't look at them as he asked the rhetorical question. This shit was royally pissing him off. "What if I made Lopez feel it every time I did? Made him lose his goddamned mind like you're trying to make me lose mine... for seven years?" Carlos glanced at the young priest, considered just taking him there on general principle, then decided not to for the sake of his own sanity. "Shit," he said, going back to the window. "Don't mess with me, tonight, about what's fair. I am not in the mood."

"You have not answered my question about the mountain killings."

Father Patrick said with a glare of disapproval blazing in his eyes as he tried to wrest back Carlos's focus.

"Yeah, well... whatever. Probably not vampires." Carlos sighed. This was really getting on his nerves. He ran his fingers through his hair and stared into the darkness, wishing he were an invisible part of it. "Those bodies were mauled, found, and pronounced dead - with no signs of a ritual near them. The hybrids from Nuit's camp have probably been hunted down and killed by the Vampire Council's squad by now."

Carlos placed both hands on the windowpane, as if trying to touch the moon through the glass. "These guys fell in some pretty remote locations - by the time the search parties found them, whatever was out there in the wild had gotten a piece of them as well. Wasn't like they dropped in a city park. Dumb bastards were out in the freakin' Amazon and dickin' around on some nature jaunt. One thing I've learned is, if you ain't where you're supposed to be, you'll get fucked up - and do not mess with Mother Nature. Heads probably rolled when a predator went for their throats. Motherfuckers should stay out of the jungle. Period, end of story."

Carlos smiled as he studied the clerics' drained expressions. "You know how delicate the human throat is... how very few bones keep it attached to the shoulders? Something eating or attacking could easily decapitate a victim without even trying that hard." When Father Lopez looked away, it was all he could do not to chuckle.

"Are you sure?" Father Patrick said, his tone firm, sending a quiet warning to stop scaring the young priest.

"Yeah, I'm sure," Carlos muttered, defiance claiming him.

They nodded, and he enjoyed the worry on their faces.

"I cover North America, South America, and the Caribbean because Nuit took South America topside and ceded it to me for bringing him Damali. That's history. But the attacker wasn't one of mine. If there was vamp tracer on a body, from either one of my diluted line or a poacher, I would have known. If those humans that fell were inhabited by a demon, I would have picked up the sulfur trail right away. Nothing goes down in my territory by another vamp without it transmitting to me. But I do need to get out, all bullshit aside, to properly track it."

"You wouldn't feed from any people... or human remains while you were out there, would you?" Padre Lopez brought his hand up to his cross and began nervously toying with it. "You'd only take a deer, like you promised us before, right?"

He was pleased that the young cleric's resolve was wavering. After a mental blast like that, he'd be shocked if the man hadn't responded.

"I don't eat carrion," Carlos said, indignant. "The victims were already dead for a coupla days when they were found and were too far for me to even think about getting to - if I was so inclined, and I'm not." He hated that a collective sigh of relief from the clerics greeted his statement. What did they think he was? A bottom feeder? Only lowlife demons ate dead meat. He was a master vampire!

"Gentlemen. I'm the only male master in this region, on two continents. I've got all the lower-level males who had not allied with Nuit, and therefore, haven't been dusted by council, pushing up on my business enterprises, jockeying for position. They can only assume I'm out there, somewhere, but must be too badly injured to respond or that the council has me detained in the Sea of Perpetual Agony for some offense. That leaves major sectors of my territory wide open. I need to get with that and address the flagrant violation of my authority!"

"Okay," Father Patrick said, growing weary. "We understand that you have ego-based concerns that have to be addressed in the vampire world to keep up your ruse - "

"You do not understand what I'm telling you," Carlos yelled. "It's not ego, it's primal. It's the fiber of what a master vampire is!" Four sets of widened eyes stared back at him as the color drained from the clerics' faces when his fangs inadvertently slid down from beneath his gums. Carlos ran his tongue over his teeth to send them back - but the shit felt good. Had been a while.

"I want you to imagine where I am right now," he said quietly. "And I'm not going to screw with your minds - this is just the facts." He waited until the group's seer, Father Patrick, nodded before he continued. "Gentlemen, I have vamp females out there who are sending out probes to sense for the strongest male in the territory, and even though I'm blocked behind your prayer wall, I can hear them—since you left a breach for me to detect what you needed me to. And the shit they send to lure a male master... you have no idea. I'm just glad Damali's isn't transmitting, too... but she doesn't know I'm alive."

He drummed his fingers on the edge of the window frame. "The females of our kind are designed for two purposes. Primary - take the stake, the daylight, the arrow, whatever, in the event that a master's lair is breached. When we make one, or acquire one, it's in her cellular code: be a body shield. We always travel with five points of the pentagram, therefore at least five females; the sixth element is the crest, the centerpiece is the strongest male. Same formation with peripheral, male bodyguards. So, the five strongest females in the regions will compete using telepathy until they lock with a male master, then they'll leave the weaker males and come to me. They know the registers haven't run blood with the death of a second master... they are calling me by name... no, you have no idea."

Just confessing was making his hands begin to shake. He put them behind his back and walked toward the kitchen to go find blood. "As above, so below. They have the same instincts as female lions, that's the way we're set up. They'll even hunt for you, if you ask, and feed you from their veins if you're injured or too lazy to break a sweat."

"Carlos... we didn't know - "

"No, Father. You don't understand my world at all!" He glared at the elderly man, and then allowed his gaze to sweep the others in a hard rake. "When one of us gets injured, it's in their code to track us, find us, and take us to shelter and bring blood. Preservation of the line at all times." Carlos wiped his face with both hands, truly feeling the call of the night in multiple female timbres.

"They can sense me near, but haven't been able to locate me for a month because of the damned prayer lines blocking them. It's driving them crazy, and me with them, because they know I was injured and in danger of the sun. The more frenzied and panicked their calls become, the harder it is for me to stay in here." He chuckled and looked out the window.

"Carlos, you're going to get through this difficult transition," Monk Lin said, his voice an attempt to soothe. "You died with a prayer in your heart, which is why you can hear the name of the Almighty, even say it, and because you still have a piece of a soul."

"Ultimately, you are moving toward the light each night that you purge yourself of your old ways," Asula said, his voice dropped to a calm timbre. "Our goal is not to torture you. This is not a period of punishment in the atonement process, but rather a reversal of your perspective."

Carlos chuckled, the tone in it brittle. "Torture? This is the fucking Inquisition, fellas." All he understood right now was what they were dangling over his head, but what he couldn't have. Freedom. He knew from his old life how to give a man a taste of something he craved, just a taste of it, then how to dangle it over his head to keep him in line. He used to do it all the time.

"We didn't want to deceive you," Father Lopez said in a quiet voice. "We wanted to illustrate your options in a safe environment... so you could make informed decisions."

"Informed decisions? I wasn't informed that you wanted me to hunt down a predator on my turf. The last thing you said was help the Neteru get her sight back so she could hunt and stay safe - and investigate what was out there. I was down with that. No problem. I wanted baby girl safe, too."

"We also need you to restore her hope, by giving her some of yours. We wanted to rejuvenate your spirit, as much as we wanted your body repaired."

Carlos stared at Father Patrick hard. "Hope? You all definitely came to the wrong place for that... and I know you don't want me to work on her body." He shook his head and laughed. "If I remember from my old catechism classes, evil is everywhere and will ride the airwaves until the big war, Armageddon, or until the good guys go up in the Rapture. Right? I cannot mind lock with her on a two-way. No. Thought I could hang, but I can't."

"Why not?" Father Lopez glanced from one cleric to the other and then looked at Carlos nervously. "You just did it to me, sent me the wrong thing, but... you could send her - "

"Hombre, just squash it." The young man was so foolish it was making Carlos pace.

"The Lord works in mysterious ways," Father Patrick said with confidence. "If a person goes through their whole life without a break, hope can die and our Neteru is losing the battle with - "

"Spare me!" Carlos whirled around and held up his hand.

"We did," Father Patrick said, his eyes not holding anger, but something close to amusement.

"I'm not hearing this bullshit. Okay, ironically, the prayer lines have been taking some of the cut out of that blade in my skull... but shit..." Carlos leaned against the wall, his gaze toward the clerics unwavering. "Don't ask me to do a two-way lock with Damali, ever. Especially not with the female vamps sending and open for my telepathy signal... their secondary purpose is beyond your comprehension, fellas. A couple of nights ago, I almost went there and blew my cover. The only reason I didn't is that I wanted to be sure I was back to full power, all my wounds were thoroughly healed, and that I could battle another male, which is always inevitable if you go out. Self preservation is always first, but after that..."

"Your will is strong enough to - "

"Father Patrick, get real. The whole job of a female vamp is to keep you sated, in lair, and out of danger, only coming out to feed and hunt when absolutely necessary... patrolling your borders with caution. They'll gorge on fresh, adrenaline-pumped kill, bring it to you hot... for a double-plunge siphon... aw, man, you just do not know..."

He walked by the coffee table and kicked it to stave off the shiver just knowing had sent through him. It was of little comfort that his misguided jailers had compassion in their eyes, because their wills were still tightly bound on keeping him in tonight.

"Neteru scent works the same way - it locks around all your senses, and fucking drags you into the street, five lair kittens notwithstanding, it beats their call... which ain't no joke." He pointed to the window, his arm extending in a hard snap. "You have me trapped in here with Neteru pumping adrenaline in nightly blood hunts, singing her heart out... some sad shit about losing her soul in Hell, five strong females calling my name with bait like you wouldn't believe, goddamned competitors eating up my territory, and you want me to do this sentence cold turkey, and don't even have a blunt on you?" He was incredulous when they didn't flinch. "You can't hear it, but I can."

His gaze was drawn to the window like a magnet. He faced the night and listened to her siren call to him. She was wearing pitch black, and she was serving stars like diamonds. Nothin' but da rocks—night was all iced up. He focused on the stars. The moon cast a bluish tint on the tall redwoods and pines surrounding the cabin. The colors moving against the tree leaves had the allure of a silk scarf floating gently on the breeze against a woman's throat. The night was one sexy bitch...

"Carlos, son, evil creates plagues and disasters, violence. You're right. These things have been unleashed to inhabit the planet. But each time an individual goes against evil, whether in a small personal battle with themselves, or within their family, or whether it is a group that conquers evil with peace, harmony, beauty, love... or the sword of truth, we win. Just like when we see people rush to help people they don't even know... you've seen average individuals do heroic things, risk everything in their lives and rush to aid someone in a fire, or something equally as tragic. That action also affects those less courageous, gives them hope. Perhaps it helps a mother hug her child tighter, or makes a man give up a vice - nothing is ever wasted in the battle, not even you. Our side uses disasters, that we did not create and that evil did, to bring out the best in mankind."

"It is akin to spiritual judo," Monk Lin said softly. "We use the enemy's aggression against itself, and use its weight to flip it. Such a cry goes up to Heaven when people see things that are so terribly unjust that it gives them pause. Even the worst of men, generally, have a limit."

"You must battle - "

"I am losing the battle tonight and I have reached my limit," Carlos said, pure honesty in his tone. "Now at full strength, I can't take these calls - while injured, yeah, but not tonight." Carlos slapped the center of his chest and then went to the refrigerator and slung the door opened so hard that it came off the hinges. "And all you got in here is cold blood?" With total disgust, he repaired the refrigerator. "I need something to bring me down... a damned Valium or something." Carlos raked his fingers through his hair.

"The only thing that's keeping me sane is the fact that Damali's third eye is half blind, she hasn't sent a mental lock my way... 'Cause if girlfriend ever wakes up and calls me...I'll fucking torch myself trying to breach that line out there." His voice dropped to a low threat. "But not before gorging well like I need to." He eyed each one of his captors, his resolve to keep his soul in Purgatory wavering. "Some shit, gentlemen, is just nature." He allowed his words to come out slowly, one at a time, to make his point. "Let. Me. Out. Very soon. I can't hang indefinitely."

Father Patrick's grip tightened on his weapon, as did the others around him. "Before we can do that, we need to be sure that - "

"You need to respect our cultural differences," Carlos muttered, finally opting for a cold plastic bag, and taking a swig from it before he totally lost it. His gaze went to the window again as another urgent call split his senses and ate into his brain. "Every man has his limits. Tonight, I just found mine."
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