The Hunted

Chapter Fourteen

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Chapter Fourteen

Heat and music and the sweet, potent flavor of her caipirinha drink coated Damali's insides with warmth. She'd craved the lime and sugarcane taste as much as she craved a few moments without worry. Everything that had been said in the room alone with Marlene was so wild that she needed time to regroup. If they were going to fight, they needed to be fresh, ready, with their heads on straight. Her team needed this night out just like she did, Damali thought, as she looked at their happy faces. She shot a knowing glance toward Marlene.

The guys had taken the news of pending doom fairly hard, and as though soldiers about to go off to their last battle, they were in the nightclub going for broke. Knowing what you were hunting, or what was possibly hunting you, was one thing. The not-knowing part was the real monster. It also gave her a certain peace about Carlos. At least there was a reason, perhaps some thin shred of hope to cling to. She was just glad that Marlene had been discreet about the more personal aspects of what she'd shared. The fellas didn't need to know all that.

Damali watched them from the corner of her eye amid the colors of the club strobe lights. Men definitely had a different way of dealing with stress. Her mother-seer had been right about that, too.

It seemed that each one of them was having their last affair with life, and grabbing it with all the gusto they could. She could only silently pray that she and Marlene had been wrong and thus filled with unnecessary anxiety. Maybe it was just strong Amazon vamp female energy fusing with the whack history of the region, and not something worse. But, then, when had their intuitions ever been that wrong?

The four small tables the team had pulled together to make a long row for their group vibrated with the samba. One could actually see tiny ripples inside each glass and mug of beer. Voices, laughter, couples, people searching for a partner; the club was throbbing with other types of energy that made Damali sad. There was so much yet to see in the world, and if she lost anyone on her team, she'd never forgive herself.

"Aw, man. Rider, check it out. Three o'clock over your shoulder, brother." Big Mike's eyes were trained on a tall sister by the bar, and Rider gave him a nod of endorsement.

"She has you written all over her, dude."

"She's serving pure Pam Grier, man, with her tall, fine self." Big Mike stood slowly. "Anybody want a drink?"

Shabazz chuckled and gave Big Mike a warning glance. "Brother, remember what D and Mar said. Be careful. And, just for the record, everybody's glass is already filled, so you need a better excuse than that to go over there."

"But look at her," Big Mike said with a grin, moving away from the table despite the word of caution from Shabazz. "She's gotta be six two, and is built like a brick house."

Shabazz sighed. He glanced at Damali and Marlene. "I ain't feeling a vamp or demon vibe. Let him go."

"Yeah," Rider murmured, distracted by two pretty Brazilian locals who were wearing skin-tight, mini-length halter dresses. The one that smiled at him had long, ebony hair flowing down the center of her back, which stopped just above the round of her behind. Rider's gaze slid down her butt to her slender thighs. He sniffed and then smiled wider. "They check out clean, my man. All red-blooded human female. I'm out. Remember New Orleans," he added, standing, "I had your back then, Mike, got it now, and I'll help you go bring over some more drinks. The one in turquoise there is killing me."

"The one wearing black ain't bad either," Jose murmured in awe, standing slowly and pounding Rider's fist as he inhaled deeply. "Damn, man, this place will definitely get a man killed. But you only live once."

Damali couldn't understand why Jose hesitated and then gave her a glance like he had a bit of an attitude before leaving the table. She watched him straighten his back and walk away tense.

"I hear you," JL said in a distant tone, his line of vision fixed on a bevy of pretty women clustered about a small table at the far end. "Excuse me. Err, I'll catch up with you folks later." Then he was gone.

Marlene and Damali didn't even protest as four of their best men on the squad got up and followed the call of the wild. What was the point? It was impossible to fight nature. They were all practically dog meat anyway, Damali reasoned. But she did catch a vibe going down between Marlene and Shabazz. Damali took a slow sip of her drink and watched Dan out on the floor dancing like a maniac.

Yeah, Shabazz was in hot water with Mar, because even for all of his cool, Mr. Aikido Master was having a visual meltdown. The thought made Damali chuckle. How was a tactile sensor, a guy who could feel everything through his skin, supposed to chill in a place like this? Bad luck that his woman was also a seer, and was probably kicking his rusty butt inside her head right now. Been there, seen it, done it, and it was helping her perspective on Carlos immensely.

"You know, you can't blame the man, Mar," Damali finally said with a sly smirk as she took another swallow from her glass. She'd said the comment low enough that only Marlene heard her and she enjoyed this new aspect of being with Marlene as a peer rather than as a kid to be kept out of harm's way.

"Mind your business, chickie," Marlene snapped peevishly as Shabazz's head swiveled again toward a passing flock of beauties.

"Thought y'all had an open relationship?"

Marlene took a sip of her Brazilian beer and winked at Damali. "We do, but dang."

"I hear you, but you and I both know he ain't going nowhere, Mar. He's just window shopping."

Marlene glanced at Damali and tipped her beer in her direction. But the vibration that Marlene was trying to contain was palpable.

"Why don't you two get out of here?"

Marlene halted bringing the glass up to her lips and stared at Damali for a moment. "And who has your back while we do?" She motioned toward the team with her beer, and used her eyes to signal that each of the guys had been able to pick a lovely lady off from the herd and were now engrossed in a heavy rap.

"I know," Damali said with a weary sigh. Even the loud music wasn't enough of a distraction to ward off her inner thoughts. "But, listen, I've had my ten nights of splendor, believe me. It's unlikely that some mess will go down before the concert - moon won't be full until two or three nights later, and if something jumps off, I'm strapped."

She discreetly glanced at her thigh under the table and pulled her gold-tinted mini up just a tad to give Marlene a glimpse of her Isis dagger. But Jose's vibe was worrying her. He'd gone off with the others, but she could tell he was hanging back a bit. She could understand it, though. The Dee Dee thing was still fresh, just like for her, the Carlos thing was still fresh. Being with somebody else when there was a special person you really needed just wasn't the same. Then an idea came into her mind and she quietly nursed it while talking to Marlene.

"This is a foreign country," Marlene said in a low warning tone, breaking through Damali's thoughts, "and everybody needs to stay alert. Just as important, nobody needs to get locked up for a bar fight. You understand?"

Damali smiled. "Go tend to your man, Mar. I'll be fine, and I'll behave. I'm in a public place right near the hotel. No sulfur is in the air. None of the fellas has sensed vamps in the joint. Look at our noses; they're cool. Plus, neither of us has picked up heavy subterranean presence." The last part of her statement came out on a wistful note, and she sent her gaze into the crowd to double check. No sign of him at all. There wasn't even a third-generation sniffer topside in this club. "Feel it for yourself, Mar," she added with conviction. Then she glanced at Shabazz and smiled. "Your boy is dying over there."

"He is, isn't he?" Marlene chuckled, relaxing back into her chair. Although Shabazz still had his eyes on the dance floor, his arm soon slipped over Marlene's shoulders.

"I'm going to dance. Y'all do whatever." Damali stood and polished off her drink, set it down with precision, and waded through the pulsing throng on the dance floor. Immediately four men approached her, each extending a palm toward her to take. She laughed. A blonde, a Rasta, a geek, and a local. God, Brazil was so much fun! If this was her last night before battle, so be it.

She accepted the outstretched hand of a tall suitor with walnut-brown eyes that were deep and intense. He reminded her of Carlos the way he openly assessed her, and that had been the thing that swayed her decision to choose him above the others. He would work perfectly.

His smile broadened as her hand found his, and she gave a little shrug of apology toward the men she'd declined. With grace, they seemed to take the rebuff well, and simply raised a glass to her as they found another partner. People here were cool, relaxed, open, she noted, but she wasn't prepared for the total invasion of her personal space. Nor was she prepared for her own reaction when the Brazilian brother she'd chosen to dance with swept her into his arms, and ground out the music against her pelvis.

Way too close and personal. This wasn't like LA, or the States. A sister got a minute to get herself together before all of that. But she was feeling the music, the effects of her third drink, and definitely enjoying the local flavor of the club. However, it was still too sensual the way he moved against her, and his natural funk was pungent, drawing her in a strange sorta way as it settled on the back of her palate. She inhaled it, held it in her mind, then smiled. Ignore my call, huh... we'll see.

Her dance partner was sporting an open maroon silk shirt, had a nice chest, and was already sweating from dancing. Also he had on skin-tight black pants, and was packing about ten inches in them. Wow. A great testosterone sample. Laughing as he pushed her away and twirled her around, and grabbed her to him again, she couldn't shake the wicked thoughts. Brother had a real nice butt, too. She just had to be careful not to get the poor man hurt.

Yeah, her guys had a point: if you were gonna get a beat down, and possibly die, why not live life to the max while you could? Tomorrow wasn't promised. The dancing and music were good morphine to chase away fear and doubt. No wonder tribes had war dances and got blitzed the night before a battle. Made sense. Made just too much sense.

Over her dance partner's shoulder, she saw Big Mike leave with the Pam Grier look-alike on his arm. Rider had long been gone, and Dan was still rapping, trying to get some action. JL had two gorgeous women enthralled - dang! Jose was so smooth she hadn't even seen the brother leave. When she glanced back at the table, it was empty. Guess Marlene took her advice? But when she saw a shy, blond college-looking chick giggle and stand up with Dan, all she could do was shake her head and keep moving.

The brother she was dancing with was now in her ear, telling her something in a language she could barely understand. Since the lobby incident, the ability to translate had faded. Go figure. But one didn't need to be fluent to pick up the message, nor did a woman need to be psychic.

"Como se chama, por favor me de?"

Feeling the full effects of the drink now, she began to relax. Damn his voice was smooth as silk. She laughed. Then she opened her mind to be able to communicate, knowing the effect that might have on the man who'd left her hanging. "My name is Damali... but, uh, you need to back up."

"Por que, hoj a noite?" he murmured.

"Why tonight? Because."

He touched her face and made a little clicking sound with his tongue as he dipped his thigh deeper between hers. "You have a man?"

The fact that he just switched up to English so she could better understand what he was saying, tickled her. Oh, so now that you're getting to the fundamental question, homeboy, you want to be sure I'm clear, huh? She laughed again. But the fact that she couldn't readily answer his question quelled her amusement. "Yes. I do."

"Nao lhe entendo, onde e - "

"He's not here, but I do have someone who cares."

"Meu nome e, Javier."

It was evident from the broad smile on his face that he wasn't the least bit fazed by her protest. In fact, it seemed to be driving him to a challenge. She needed to extricate herself from this guy, and the song felt like it would never end. His confidence was working on her, reminding her too much of the man who'd abandoned her in the States. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Javier. But you are going to have to back up off me a little."

"Your man should be here to protect his territory, then," he said grinning. "I would never allow such a flower from my garden to be picked simply because I wasn't tending her garden."

All right, that did it. Damali backed up a pace and shot the man a glare. Her plan was perhaps a bad one. True, Marlene had said pull out all the stops, but, dang, she'd never done this thing before and Marlene was long gone. Where was good guardian advice when a sister needed it?

He smiled with understanding, chuckled, and twirled her around. Were all the men from south of the border like this, she wondered?

Hell, guys she'd met in the Northeast and out West talked as much smack, too. "Muito obrigado," she told him, thanking him for the dance as she bee-bopped away from him to another waiting partner. Damn, where was Carlos's ass when she needed him?

Carlos sat up in the pitch-blackness of the abandoned Beverly Hills lair. It was still daytime, but darkness couldn't get there fast enough! Another man? Oh, hell no...

But he steadied himself and tried to ease back down to rest for five more hours until darkness descended over the city. The old Dominican don's lair was a much better alternative to the safe house cabin, and he'd needed time to pull himself together and think. The spoils of war were his. He'd beaten Nuit and could go anyplace Nuit's generals had fallen. It was the law of the jungle. As above, so below. The rules of the vampire world applied, and as the primary topside master vamp, he gladly sought temporary refuge in its luxuries. He was just relieved that the lower-level males had scooped up his harem and put it on lock since the race. That complexity he didn't need right now—a bunch of females sweatin' him. He'd even gotten a bit of a handle on the strong female vamp sending lure from overseas. Until he made his decision, nobody was rushing him to do shit.

Besides, he'd needed to fill himself with the remainder of the privately stocked bottles of blood that had more of a kick than the monk donations, but the main thing was, nobody was stressing him here—except Damali.

For the past two weeks he had been kicking down lair doors all over his region, sending a message, ripping out hearts... Miami had been no joke. Fucking New York had almost made him drop a body to feed. Sons-of-bitches in Canada had been neglected so long that they thought they ran the joint. Only saving thing was they had good wild game up there! And down in the Caribbean he'd almost gotten sidetracked... the babes in St. Lucia had almost made him weep after tearing out an opponent's throat. It had barely kept his mind off Damali. And it hadn't been easy.

Initially, her intermittent calls had practically worn a hole in his brain. And though she didn't call him directly today, she'd sent her urgent concern as a vibe that he couldn't ignore. It was like having somebody blow up his cell phone with a hundred 911 calls. But why had she stopped calling after she got into a club filled with human males?

Then the ache that she produced, her desire for what they both wanted so badly from each other, had made him need nearly a gallon of blood to chill him out. Guilt temporarily swept through him, but he let it go. The only reason he'd jetted on the monks after talking to Father Pat was because those old dudes were in danger while he was like this. All jacked up, confused, pissed off, way too hungry, and needing that damnable woman in his arms.

He had to get out of there, especially with her gone, before something unnecessary jumped off in the cabin. He'd tried to detox while she was still in the States. Was trying to come down nice and slow before she left, so the days she'd be gone wouldn't make him snap. But with her so close, and the four monks so near, and some strong lure messing with his mind, he'd almost lost it the second night. No doubt, he had to get out of there. They were innocents, and he wasn't. Yeah, he'd needed to focus on his territory and get his head right.

Carlos brought his hands up to his temples and shut his eyes tightly. His brain felt like it was on fire. He had a skull-splitting headache from the interrupted regeneration. Why couldn't Damali just accept that he needed some space? She wasn't in any immediate danger. He knew his limitations. Shit!

His eyes suddenly opened and narrowed. He could smell the bastard, and had felt the tremor run through her. The inside of his thigh had touched the inside of the thigh that had only been supposed to open for him! Sweat. Another man's sweat on her? He could literally taste it in the back of his throat. The awareness lowered his incisors. And hombre was talking shit in her ear, too, now? Oh yeah, he was going to Brazil!

"I said, take me to the Vampire Council, and stop on level four and five on the way down! You deaf, or something?" Carlos paced back and forth in the woods as the messenger peered at him but didn't move.

"Master Rivera, while I would be glad to take you down to the council's esteemed chambers, I am sure you are aware of the imminent danger of a border breach with the demon realms at this time. Chaos is rampant, and - "

"You want to lose your - "

"No need for threats," the entity hissed. "But as you recall, when you were first made, and I collected you, and on your return to the surface, I have already escorted you on a brief tour of the realms."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Carlos muttered, still pacing.

"And you might also recall that we had a mere two minutes on level five before the were-creatures began to move in, and we never even stopped on level four, due to the dangers."

"You gonna take me, or what?"

The entity stared at him for a moment and let out a long hiss of disapproval, but pulled out his scythe from beneath his robe to open the ground. "If you are lost, or abducted, I will report that this was your suicide command, and will tell the council that as a messenger, I had to defer to your rank."

"Do it, then!"

The thing before Carlos sighed. "I will also inform them that this was a command coming from a disoriented master with active Neteru in his nose."

Shrieks and screams that echoed within the hellish terrain had now become so familiar to Carlos that they seemed like the mere background drone of street traffic. He allowed his line of vision to absorb the dim, jungle-like region. Interesting. Level three was a swamp, but level four was dense, humid jungle, the darkness a heavy weight. Things here slithered with serpentine agility. Even the plants moved and writhed to a sultry, seductive snake dance. Dense, yellow sulfur smoke surrounded everything, and the moisture in the air was so oppressive with fumes that Carlos covered his nose with his hand. His eyes watered and stung. Slithering, wet insects were everywhere. Eerie black slugs, slimy beetles and cockroaches, and fat, ambling grubs inched along dense foliage all around him. Too disgusting.

"We are well within the borders of the level-four territories, and should make haste."

Carlos nodded. If he didn't know better, he'd swear that the messenger's scythe was trembling. Definitely interesting. Fetid bodies that were still half alive twisted in agony, groaning and reaching for him as he stepped over them. They were bloody, skinless, half crushed, as though they'd been turned inside out, and their moaning, vile forms made Carlos glance back at the messenger.

"This is the serpentine realm of revenge," it said in a low murmur. "The Amanthra are snake-based creatures of deception, and swallow their victims hole, consume them, and then spit them back up, allowing their venom to do the rest." The messenger pointed on the ground at a nearby torso that was still alive. The arms of the victim reached out and empty eye sockets dripped with a foul, running stream of green jelly clumps. "Where these bodies lie, suggests a feeding nest. We must go."

Again, Carlos nodded, but felt no immediate sense of danger. It was odd, but he actually felt partially safe. "If we're in the middle of a nest, why aren't they attacking?"

His night vision locked on the tangled vines above them, and it became immediately apparent that the branches were huge, muscular reptile bodies. The entire terrain was a mass of teeming, deformed serpents. Some of the entities had the distorted attributes of other animals, giving their snake-based bodies weird limbs, claws, and matted fur in strange places. The more he studied the forms, the more he could begin to differentiate the various species of the Amanthra that could be made out in the darkness.

Many were dragonlike entities with huge talons and large leathery wings giving them the appearance of fierce predator birds. Some were snakelike and bore no limbs, while yet others resembled sphinxes with their marriage of feline, serpent, and dragon. The more advanced levels, Carlos noted. Those had to be the ones Fallon Nuit made an alliance with before he perished.

As soon as the thought entered his mind, multiple glowing green eyes opened and a chorus of hisses followed. He could feel the messenger at his elbow, but was mesmerized by the eerie beauty of the eyes.

"Tarry not, and do not stare into the eyes of the green-eyed monsters."

"Hmmm... wise advice," Carlos noted, feeling their hatred, envy, their pure thirst for revenge filter through him, knowing that a significant portion of his soul had resided with these creatures at one time. Maybe some of him was still there.

Oddly, upon the realization, a large serpent lowered its head from a branch, appearing out of the nothingness, its black body shimmering like a cut jewel as it dipped and swayed hypnotically before Carlos.

The head of the creature was the size of a small, compact car. The monster's low-slung coil formed a U shape that was the width of two men's bodies, and its full length was indecipherable; it just kept uncoiling. Opening its jaw slowly, Carlos stood frozen as the massive jawbones unhinged and deadly fangs were revealed, dripping a sulfuric ooze that burned away the dense foliage at Carlos's feet.

"Master, I urge you!"

But Carlos held up his hand, sensing a meeting of the minds. The serpent closed its eyes, sniffed him, and nodded. "You may paaassssss," it said, then studied the messenger with an evil half grin. "You, however..."

"He's with me, and we're out," Carlos said fast, grabbing the messenger's robe.

Without needing to be told, the funnel cloud of vampire transport descended upon Carlos and the messenger, but not before he saw how quickly the Amanthras could move if they wanted to. The thing that had been a slow, patient, seething mass of muscle suddenly struck, seizing a half-digested body from the ground so quickly that Carlos didn't have time to blink.

From the smoky ring that encircled him, Carlos watched in disgust as the nearly dead man the Amanthra consumed fought against the beast's throat, trying to push his way out, creating moving lumps beneath the creature's scales as the acidic burn of flesh filled the air. Screams of pure agony echoed above them, and in a last glance, Carlos saw the beast heave, vomit the man up, as hundreds of lightning-fast smaller serpents snapped and hissed, ripping at the now quivering soft tissue left on the ground.

He thought of his brother's death, the way Marlene's turned daughter had done Alejandro. The acid from Raven's fangs had burned away his brother's manhood. The way Fallon Nuit's Minion crudely ate with unhinged jaws, instead of two, cleanly delivered vampire puncture marks, all came together in his mind. No wonder his brother and his boys had been ripped to shreds in the feedings. Carlos tried to banish the image. That was the past. The fact that Nuit had a deadly score to settle with the council, revenge his primary motive, really brought it all together. If a vampire was mixed with these things, adding the vampire's intelligence, and predatory shape-shifting capacity, you'd have hell on your hands, indeed.

He just wanted to see this realm of revenge one more time, because if he went with the council's offer, he needed to know what feeding den his soul might be tortured in before it bottomed out on six. The thought, while revolting, was something he had to consider. Choices.

Carlos rubbed his own jaw, realizing that at times it did unhinge to make room for a powerful bite, and even though he didn't feed like the hybrids, he still carried a little of what Nuit had left from that fateful night in the woods. That was the thing about his kind, whatever bit you left a repository within you. He was just glad that the council's bite had more power and overrode Nuit's shit, but still... He wondered if that's what had given him a pass?

Insane that this was what Fallon Nuit had gone into alliance with to create a hybrid race of vampires. No wonder the Vampire Council was buggin'! The messenger just nodded.

"You are still insistent upon visiting level five, Master Rivera... after what we just narrowly escaped?"

Carlos smiled. "Where's your sense of adventure?" Curiosity had a stranglehold on him now. He had to know where he could have gone, had his soul not been rescued. And more important, if there was a topside breach, he needed to understand what he might be facing in Brazil. What had slithered up from a hellhole? He studied the messenger with a sideway glance. "I know you can't be a punk, not couriering for the Vampire Council." He strode away from the thin, skeletal entity that remained stricken, still, and quietly enraged.

"You have been deposited to level five," was all the entity would reply.

"I remember this place," Carlos said in a murmur. He narrowed his eyes to adjust for the even darker region. This was the black forest. Unlike the jungle above, it was dry, but the trees had eyes. Multiple, glowing gold eyes of the were-demons. The remnants of bones and skulls underfoot had once made him think he was standing upon rocky gravel.

The last time he'd stopped here with a messenger, in two minutes the creatures had advanced, stalking, about to rush him. Their howls were bloodcurdling, as were the cries of their victims. Pure hatred lived here. Pure rage was its companion. The place that turned men into beasts capable of any atrocity. The primal place of twisted passions and extreme, unnecessary violence.

"This is an uncharted realm," the messenger warned. "Our council has no formal alliance here, and these creatures move quickly. They can take the human form by day, feast upon human flesh, and are very shrewd. It is more dangerous here than in the realm we just visited. Make your survey swift."

Carlos nodded. This was the realm of hunters, warriors, pure predators - and a part of his soul had lived here, too. He could make out the shapes of human forms transforming into wolves, bears, big cats, and his eyes locked with that of a jaguar. A familiar scent filled his nose. Female. He knew it instantly. She was hungry. Twisted... and sexy as shit. Her musk entered his nose and held him as she loped toward him. He ignored the messenger who drew back when she growled.

She was near enough now to make a lunge before the smoke could evacuate them - not that he was all that ready to go. Damn, she had an effect that would knock a man's head back. If he didn't know better, he'd swear he'd taken a hit of Neteru. But there was something also very vamp about her. But this was a deeper, mustier, earthier, older scent... She reminded him of when he first saw Raven, Nuit's woman, transform into a huge black panther. However, Raven's scent wasn't as strong. This bitch was awesome. A real predator. This one, damn...

She purred, issuing a low rumble from her throat.

"I urge your haste," the messenger said, backing up. "The females play with their food before consumption, I'm told."

Carlos nodded, trying to stave off the erection she'd given him. "Later," he told the alluring thing with golden eyes that flickered green. She turned, looked over her shoulder once, and sauntered away. Damn...

"Yeah, man, uh, take me to the council. Cool?"

"What would possess you to take a risk like that, Rivera?" The chairman was on his feet, walking in a short line between his throne and the counselor's.

"I need an armed messenger transport to Brazil - need a passport, because the Neteru went there, and I hate traveling by day in dirt."

"I beg you to use another courier. Carlos Rivera is a madman. He forced me to take him to level four and five, without heavy guard, Your Eminence, and he was so flagrant, so arrogant in his abuse of the demon borders that they did not attack. He is a loose cannon."

The messenger bowed and the Vampire Council immediately went silent.

"You said yourselves that there's been a breach," Carlos said quickly. "Some very weird shit is going down in the demon realms, and our nation hasn't had the manpower to find out why, or exactly where. All we have is a general location. I wanted to test a theory, because the messenger is right - as a master, they should have immediately attacked me. Now, I'm really concerned, because they didn't. Seems to me like they might have something real big they're laying for, biding their time, you feel me?"

"I smell Neteru on you so strong that that concerns me. Ripening Neteru?" The counselor had rounded his desk and was on Carlos in seconds.

Carlos pulled back. "Don't get it twisted. The only thing that's on me is Neteru, not ripening, and damn straight you should smell that. I'm headed over there to Brazil now to protect our investment - if I can get an underground passport, gentlemen." He brushed past the counselor and approached the table, holding out his wrist for the chairman.

Cautiously lowering his face to Carlos's pulse point, the chairman sniffed, then straightened himself. Trepidation consumed Carlos as he waited for the chairman's assessment. Nobody fucked with the top man, and if any hint of a problem became apparent, the old man would snatch out his heart before he ever saw the claw coming. The chairman's gaze narrowed. Carlos held his breath. Momentary terror caused perspiration to break out on his brow, and he could feel his shirt clinging to the dampness of his body.

"It's only our package in his bloodstream, but his visitation to the demon realms has left a residual trail of sulfur, and the stench of rotting meat. Rectify that before you go topside, Mr. Rivera. As a master, you represent us - and we have a reputation to maintain. This is why I so detest the demon realms. No finesse."

He walked away from Carlos. "That is all I can detect, Mr. Counselor. Obviously we are dealing with a master who has the courage to protect his cargo, and our empire, at all costs, and therefore deserves our gratitude, not suspicion. I have already warned you several times, Mr. Counselor, about my growing impatience with your innuendo. Were it not for our already strained resources... We cannot afford to lose another council throne at this juncture - but do not press your luck."

Carlos nodded and issued a glare toward the counselor, who returned it with a venomous glance of his own. If the old chairman dude couldn't smell what clung to him from level five, then what was up with the attorney? How'd the counselor catch that whiff? Something wasn't right. On the other hand, the counselor was the one who had come from behind the table first, and had gotten up in his face. Maybe by the time he'd approached the table his own sweat had muted the scent? Plus, he was close, but had not made physical contact with the she-jaguar on five. Whatever. But she was definitely something that had a trace of ripening on her... and he was definitely tracking that to his South American provinces.

He eyed the counselor. For now, he'd let it ride. Besides, no one had seriously addressed the question of why he wasn't attacked.

"Like the messenger said, they let me through. What's up?" Carlos asked.

"The Amanthra demon forces are diminished on level four, due to the wars, and we have an alliance with their old Supreme Council that was to aid them in routing out their rogue elements," the counselor said impatiently. "You were foolish, but very lucky. You had probably fallen into one of the nests that are within our alliance zone."

"But," the messenger countered, "I wasn't - "

"Silence!" the chairman bellowed. "You fool. I will kill you myself for allowing one of our few remaining topside masters to go into enemy territory without my sanction."

"His rank superseded mine, Your Eminence," the hooded creature said, cowering, its head bowed.

"And, he has also been guarding a Neteru - are you not truly aware of his potentially compromised state? Adrenaline or terror in her sweat or blood can also disorient a master. As a courier, you are a disgrace!"

The entity only bowed and backed away.

"However," the counselor argued, "there is still the question of level five." He narrowed an evil gaze in Carlos's direction. "Could it be that we have a potential traitor in our midst? A master vampire seeking to form his own dark alliance with a stronger level-five empire?"

All beady eyes at the table focused on Carlos, and he slowly folded his arms before him. "If I was that insane, and had such capability to move through their tunnels at will, I would not be standing here asking for an international passport through to Brazil for starters, and I damned sure wouldn't take one of our messengers with me, or roll in here after being on level five, if I wasn't on the up-and-up. I'd at least let my suit air out."

Silence met Carlos's logical response, but the tension in the group slowly eased as one by one, council members sat back in their thrones, the chairman took his seat, and the counselor made his way back toward his end of the table. Relief uncoiled in Carlos's system, taking its time to thread through him just like the Amanthra had taken its time to lower itself to feed.

The chairman nodded. "We will call in our troops to take you in, but need the balance of this night to collect our forces from the nether regions. Our international couriers are more suited for the job than our domestics. Get the Neteru away from the unknown breach. Next eve, midnight, your passport is ensured."

The sweet drinks had snuck up on her and had packed a wallop. The heat, the dancing, and over-proof alcohol had taken its full toll. She had called him the old-fashioned way, stirring male jealousy, and he still didn't respond. Damn. Whatever had a hold on him, had a hold on him for serious.

Her confidence thoroughly rocked, Damali got up from her bed with effort and squinted at the clock. It was already noon. She glanced around the empty room. No Marlene. Okay, that was cool - she hoped.

Pacing to the bathroom, she splashed water on her face, and her mind immediately went to her team. It was time for a roll call. She hurried through her bathroom routine and made her way back to the bed, walking in a zigzag pattern before she flopped down. And she was supposed to perform tonight? Yeah, right.

"Yo," she said in a hoarse whisper as Shabazz picked up in his suite. "Everything cool... Marlene all right?"

"Yeah," he chuckled. "We woulda called, but something came up."

Damali had to laugh, even though her head hurt. They were never gonna let that mess rest. "Okay, cool. Get some breakfast, huh? Remember, we've got a show tonight." She seriously needed some of that strong Brazilian caffezinho to get it together. Black.

"No problem," Shabazz replied through a yawn. "The rest of the guys cool?"

Now she was the den mother? Oh, deep. She would never get on Marlene's case again.

"I'm doing roll call as we speak, 'Bazz, okay?"

"Good, baby... uh, we'll see y'all later on. Peace."

Damali stared at the telephone as Shabazz abruptly hung up. This was just too wild. Her team had flipped the script on her, and she was sitting there with a phone receiver in hand, all worried and whatnot, with no one in her room. Very deep.

Big Mike was the next person on her list, because that tall sister he strutted out the door with looked like she was definitely Amazon material. But when his sleepy voice filled the receiver, she chuckled. Maybe she and Marlene had just freaked out from the residual vibrations, because the guys were safe and feeling no pain.

"You cool, though, Mike? I don't have to come down there, do I, and check on you myself?"

"Naw, naw, I'm good, li'l sis... and, uh, now wouldn't be a really good time."

She heard the telephone fall, a woman giggle, Mike's low rumble of chuckles, and then his voice came back strong in the receiver.

"You okay, D? You don't need me to come down there for anything - I mean, everything's cool, right?"

She shook her head. "Uhmmph, uhmmph, uhmmph. Yeah, I'm fine - but you eat something and bite the snake that bit ya last night. Those drinks weren't playing, I still feel it."

"Yeah ..." Mike groaned.

Okay. That was it. She was off the telephone! "Bye," she snapped, peevish, but knew in her heart she couldn't be angry with him. Then she burst out laughing.

The tone of Rider's voice when she connected with him was somewhere between severe agony and annoyance. Ooops. "Bye Rider," she said fast.

"Two more hours, D - that's all I ask." Then he was gone.

She got more or less the same response from JL and Jose, but felt compelled to check on everyone nonetheless. She'd never be able to live with missing one call, or the possible after-the-fact knowledge that a missed call could mean a guardian was laid out somewhere hurt, or worse.

Damali stood and opened the drapes and was met with a bright glare of morning light. It hurt her eyes, but the sun felt good. Hey, it was daytime, and her guys were still at it. All was right with the world.

But when she called Dan's room and the phone simply rang, she panicked. She resisted the urge to just open up her mind to find him, because if he was in a delicate situation, he didn't deserve to be telepathically swept. Damali sat down in a chair hard with the desk phone beside her and counted to ten. That was her and Marlene's house rule - no prying into people's deepest thoughts, no mind locks on their personal business. It took willpower, but after having her own very personal business to guard, she knew better than to go there.

Finally when her fingertips began to tingle, she reached for the telephone and tried Dan again. This time the phone picked up on the first ring, startling her.

"Dan? I was worried."

"I know, I know," he said out of breath, "but, uh, D, can I call ya back? Something, uh, came up, 'kay?"

"All right. You be safe."

"I will, hon. God, I love Brazil!"

Damali could only stare at the phone as the call disconnected. Even Dan? Oh, my goodness... a sudden pang of loneliness swept through her that she hadn't anticipated. It got tangled up with her worry for the team as well as for Carlos's safety, and it battled her anger with him for going underground - and she wasn't sure if he'd done so literally or figuratively. Hurt, anger, worry, frustration, and missing him all collided in the center of her chest and remained there like an unmovable stone. Now she knew just how Marlene felt all those nights worrying about her, when she'd sashay in calmly and give Marlene the look that said don't start. Damn. Karma. Heavy Saturn lessons for sure. For real, for real.

But, still. Given all of Carlos's issues, and given the vampire nation's factions, he should have left some type of word, or connected with her mind. All because of a stupid argument and some female draw? What the hell was this thing they were tracking?

She'd tried to sense him, just to see if he was alive, but now being so far away, that was impossible. Father Pat couldn't reach him, Marlene couldn't see him, and there might be something terrible out there ready to take his head off his shoulders. And she'd weakened him to the threat, hadn't listened to Marlene's advice - they hadn't been able to keep their hands off each other. What if he'd been jumped by second-level vamps from another region... or what if he'd snapped and formally fed from an innocent; killed somebody because of that? Because of her? Or because of this other unnamed thing? She shuddered. And, he'd warned her of his addiction.

Slowly, she moved toward the bed and wrapped the jumble of sheets around her, curling up within them, and drawing them into her arms. What if something terrible had happened to him?

Marlene had said the concert would shake the ground. Her mother-seer said fight, and she would. No doubt about it, she needed to put out a call to him that would be heard.

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