The Forbidden CHAPTER ONE

ALL WAS still on level seven. A clawed hand held embryonic life within it. Golden green glowing eyes misted over black as they looked up to the vast expanse of nothingness that mimicked a vaulted ceiling. Trembling with anticipation, a shaky finger extended a hooked talon that prodded at the bloody mass of dormant life... life that could be molded into its own image. A hissing coo filled with gentle adoration warmed the small cluster of cells, making them glow red and begin to pulse.

"Oh, soon, my son," a passionate voice whispered. "Very, very soon."

Sydney, Australia...

Dread tightened Damali's chest as she watched Carlos's eyes. Visceral emptiness filled her, making her clutch her lower belly. His once-serene gaze now darted to her face, then to the faces of her teammates and to his surrounding environment like a man displaced and confused. The sensation was so overwhelming that it threatened to choke her heart to a standstill. Her man, once confident, suave, and smooth as black silk, had come up out of the unknown looking crazed and wild in the eye.

Suddenly she felt a strange sensation that fluttered in her womb. She pressed her hand against her abdomen.What was that ? But she had to shake off the weird feeling. Too many issues competed for her attention right now and the most immediate was Carlos.

The Light had brought him back, had actually reconstituted his form from the burnt vampire ash left by dawn, and now it seemed as though he didn't know where he was, how he'd gotten there, or whom he was with. Beyond all that they'd had to contend with, this was perhaps the most frightening experience of all: Carlos Rivera's mental state was in question-tears, screaming, ranting, fighting against the hold of friendly hands. Damali turned away for a moment and swallowed hard.

A head on a silver platter would be her bride price. Yeah. She and the chairman had unfinished business.

She reached out her hand to touch Carlos's face, and he jerked away from her, unsure if she were a mirage, a vampiric illusion, something evil and vile that would start his torture all over again. His fear rippled through her and rattled her bones. It sent a chill through her like a knife. It drew her mouth into a tight line as she fought not to scream. She saw what they had done. A head.The head of the bastard who'd done this , was the only acceptable answer to levy the debt paid in full.

Down in Hell they had a phrase: Fair exchange is no robbery. Then so be it. A head for a head, a mind for a mind... and an eye for an eye and a tooth for a fucking tooth-the chairman's fangs mounted on her wall mantel. This was war.

Damali could feel her eyes narrow to slits as her man tried to stand, and then tried to get away from her and her team. Oh, hell no. They'd raped his mind and stolen his dignity. And for that unforgivable offense, she'd blow the Vampire Council's doors off the damned hinges. In her mind's eye, she could see the pentagram-shaped table surrounded by dark thrones, and the chairman's smug expression. But Hell had no fury like a woman scorned. Her thoughts frayed and descended to the pit.

Fuck you, Mr. Chairman. This time, it's just me and you.

Carlos could feel his eyeballs roll backward beneath his lids as consciousness ebbed and flowed like a reluctant tide. One moment he had been sitting on the ground, naked, awed, and so profoundly moved that he couldn't speak, and in the next moment, he was being hurried away by many hands and clamoring voices all trying to get him into a vehicle and onto hallowed ground. Were it not for Damali's hand firmly holding his and her voice cutting through the melee, he would have tried to escape them all.

For the first time in his entire existence he truly feared he was losing his mind. Something was very wrong. He'd gone into the Light-more accurately, had been propelled into it, summoned by it, sucked toward a bright, indescribable iridescent wonder that had a pulse, a center, and held the heartbeat of the universe. Beings of unfathomable strength had hurled him forward, their silvery light sabers cutting at filaments of dark tendrils, holding him, burning him to ash. The heat was so intense that his bones had liquefied, his skin had blackened and crumbled away, his eyes had melted and had run down his cheeks like gory, oozing tears... but silver metallic wings with the texture of satin had shielded him from the furnace blast beneath him. What were they and who'd sent them?

Healing warmth had entered him, coating his burning insides with instant peace, quenching the sun's fury against his skin. One being had parted to become many with raised golden shields that seemed as though each held a living, moving orb of sunlight until he was encircled by them, each ball of molten, living, golden light fusing to become a ring around him. The ring had covered him, entered him... All he could remember now was that they came and then in a fluttering cloud they'd dispersed, shooting away so quickly they'd left only a blinding blur of white light in their wake.

But perhaps the powers-that-be had messed up somehow. Maybe they didn't catch his soul in time, and how did a man turned vampire return to the sun?

He couldn't hear. Everything was coming at him in muffled tones. People spoke in indecipherable guttural fragments. Everyone seemed to move in slow motion. It was like moving through mud. His mind was a slurry of confusion. He was nearly blind, each friendly face blurred beyond recognition until it was breath-close to his face. His skin felt thick and dull, the sensation of hands soothing his shoulders, rubbing his back, bundling him into a coat, but all of it took seconds to register. Breathing was an effort that consumed his concentration. The most troubling aspect was the heaviness he felt in his limbs, as though his muscles were too weak to lift his own body.

What had the Light done to him?

Carlos leaned forward and covered his face with his hands. The sensory overload was too much-rather, the lack of sensation and the ability to perceive his surroundings was horrifying.

"I think he's going into shock," Damali said, drawing him against her body closer as the Jeep careened through the streets. "We have to get him inside, out of the sun."

"I'm gonna fry," Carlos croaked, becoming more disoriented as the vehicle barreled through desolate streets in a town he didn't know.

"We'll be at the church in just a few minutes, kiddo."

Carlos slowly removed his hands from his face, training his attention toward what he remembered to be Rider's voice. "To a church?" Instinct made Carlos begin struggling against Damali's hold. He could hear his voice rising with panic. "No! I'll burn!"

Many strong arms held him. In a distant part of his mind he heard Father Patrick call out to him.

"You've stayed with us on hallowed ground before, Carlos. We have to keep you safe. Remember the woods, the cabin? The dark side cannot know you've come back. You won't burn."


More hands held him down as he grabbed at the door handle... but these were human hands, hands that shouldn't have had enough power to hold him, even in his weakened state. He needed to feed and find shelter!

"Stop fighting us, baby," Damali urged. "It'll make it worse.Please , Carlos, trust me."

"We're taking you someplace safe," an old man's voice said. It was a familiar voice.

In unsteady increments memory came back to him. Father Patrick... that's right. The monks. They had a prayer barrier that only he could cross. Yeah. He remembered. The safe house. Damali trusted them. This was her squad. All right.

Carlos stopped struggling and closed his eyes. He could feel Damali's cool hand stroke his brow, wiping away the sweat. He ran his tongue over his incisors to retract his fangs, lest he frighten his benefactors, and then froze. He touched his mouth, running his fingers over his upper canines. Tears sprang to his eyes so quickly he didn't even have time to blink them back. He glanced at Damali, then away, lowering his hands from his face, staring at his palms in disbelief. He'd been neutered. He wanted to vomit.

He curled his hands into fists. He shut his eyes tightly and hung his head. He could feel Damali's hand stroke his back and he jerked away from her touch. "Don't."

"It's Jose, man. Don't you remember?" A young, soothing voice cut into his consciousness. "You burned and came back. You said you saw angels,hombre . You sat there looking at the sun. You spoke to us, looked at us, sat quietly with D and said you were free."

Carlos shook his head with his eyes closed, pressing his fingers to his temples. "No. I don't remember. Shut up, you're confusing me!"

"Ease off, Jose," the voice he knew as Rider's said in almost a whisper. "Father Pat, Marlene, either of you guys got something for dude-something to help him bite the snake that bit him?"

He felt hysteria rising in him. Carlos chuckled, but he kept his eyes closed. The sound was hollow even to his own ears. Rider. That's right.Hombre was human and had brass balls... had been chained to the ground as bait while the harpies pulled out his guts. Crazy white dude yelling at Hell's worst nightmare, talking trash with no weapon in his hand, trying to divert the predators away to give him a chance to beat the rising sun. Very cool of Rider... he wouldn't forget the debt. "You drink Jack Daniel's, right? Add a little color in it for me and I'll buy you a drink, man. After what we just went through on the docks-you buy; I'll fly. Cool?"

Silence in the vehicle surrounded him. No one but him was laughing. He could feel the vehicle slowing down.

"Get him inside, Father Pat," an older woman said from somewhere within the Jeep. "He's delirious."

A pair of strong arms threaded around his back and nearly lifted him off his feet. What seemed like a battalion of clerics wearing long black robes and white collars accosted him with phalanges of holy water, striking at him in the sign of the cross, making him cringe, as he turned his face away to protect it from the assault, to no avail. Relentless, they swung heavy brass pots filled with smoking frankincense at him as the burly brother hoisted him over his shoulder and advanced up the cathedral steps.

He could feel several hands dressing him... someone was anointing his head with oil. Then he was being moved again, up what seemed like an endless spiral of stairs. Footsteps, many, many footfalls, rushing like a military SWAT unit, followed him. The sound of choppers in the air, bright sunlight filled his eyes and touched his face, but like the incense and holy water, it didn't burn.Why ? he dimly wondered.

Confusion tore at his brain. Blurred white birds of metal with a crest on the side... blue, a crown of thorns, a sword, a bleeding heart-just like Father Pat's medallion-opened at the side, filling its belly with humans that eagerly climbed in and dragged him with them.

This was a vampire's true Hell. The chairman had indeed had the last laugh. The choppers were flying toward the sun! Carlos braced himself against the pain once again. How long would the chairman continue to torture him?

Pilots wearing dark aviator sunglasses never turned around as he begged them to release him from the Sea of Perpetual Agony. He suddenly feared Damali's touch; what beast would she turn into? An Amanthra? He squeezed his eyes shut, refusing to watch her gorgeous brown eyes change into slanted, glowing orbs while her beautiful body transformed into a serpentine menace. Or maybe the chairman would be particularly cruel and she would become a were-demon. It would be a painful taunt to remind him of his brush with that entity in the Amazon; Hell always beat your ass down with past mistakes in the place where there was no such thing as forgiveness.

Carlos's thoughts scrambled, trying to figure out an escape, a way to negotiate a shorter sentence. Hell was eternal, so peace and the lack of acute pain had to be measured in milliseconds. For every minute that passed where no direct pain was being inflicted, he had a chance to rest, maybe regenerate, just enough to be able to withstand the next assault that was destined to come. If he wasn't in pain, he could think. If he could think, he could bargain. But what aces did he hold? What could he barter with at this juncture?

When the choppers touched down in a deserted section of airport runway, and the illusion of humans helped him toward a crest-bearing private jet at the end of the landing strip, he had to wonder just what the chairman had in store for him now. And could he bear it?

Carlos opened his eyes, his breathing labored as he tried to form words. He searched the impostor Damali's face as she led him by the hand with Big Mike on his flank helping him walk. "Where?" was all he could manage to get out.

"Ethiopia," she said quietly, tears shining in her eyes. "Baby, we have to get out of Sydney and go to a Christian stronghold there. It's said that is where the Ark of the Covenant is held. The clerics all agreed this is the safest route. By nightfall, the Vampire Council might send a cleanup crew to look for your ashes that don't exist, so we have to leavenow . Then, we'll take a transcontinental flight to Algeria... the mosques there are old, but we have to avoid the site of the pending Armageddon, the Middle East. Understand?"

None of what she was saying made any sense.

The big brother-an international courier?-was pulling him down the tarmac with the impostor of Father Pat jogging beside them to keep pace. Knowing that resistance was not an option within the inquisition chambers, which only seemed to steal his strength faster, Carlos stopped struggling against them. He had to be strategic.

"As soon as we get clearance, we have to get you behind the walls of the Vatican," the cleric said. "Until they're sure of what you are... all the Covenant can do is keep you on the move, from fortress to fortress."

Carlos cocked his head. He didn't believe that the chairman knew how the Covenant operated, not at this level of detail.

Carlos peered at the man who'd spoken, then looked at the one who was supposed to be Rider.

"Dude, the Vatican is like the Pentagon for the guys with the collar-just like Asula can't just waltz you into Mecca until you're checked out, dig?" the supposed Rider said as they walked up the jet's narrow steps. "So, they're gonna have to take you to their hideaways in the hills... sorta like being an alien and getting shuttled to Area 51 till ya spec out. Now why we all have to go along for the ride with your boy, Berkfield, is beyond me. I, for one, know I didn't get bitten, although Damali's case is a little-"

"Everybody get on the plane," a tall brother with locks said, his gaze lethal. His tone made the group stop walking as he slowly pointed to each person. "Damali has already been compromised. Jose and Damali had a twister of harpies on their asses, and came into the church bloodied and beat up. Jose, Dan, J.L., and Rider were also riding in the VIP vamp limos, alone, with what was then a council-level master vamp-Rivera. Me and Mike were on the yacht, like the others eventually were, and in unseen, dark corridors away from the group at times long enough to get nicked. Mar, Father Pat, Father Lopez, Monk Lin, and Imam Asula were all on standby, in speedboats, out in the open, in the dead of night. My point is, any one of us could have gotten nicked. You think the powers-that-be are going to let us roll up on the pope with who knows how many vamps and a potential daywalker in our midst?" He shook his head, then turned his back to the teams and strode up the jet's steps. "Our side ain't taking no chances, and I don't blame them."

"Shabazz is right," the woman named Marlene said in a weary tone. "Life as we knew it has just ceased to exist."

The names began to link with the faces as the memory of what had happened came back to him in fits and spurts. The past came back in snatches of quilted memory. Without resistance he slowly walked up the steps and entered the jet, noting the somber expressions around him as everyone took their seats. Again, he searched Damali's face for confirmation that the truth had been told, and found it.

She clasped his hand and led him to a seat, one hand touching the small Isis dagger at her hip. "I've got your back," she said, her eyes holding his. "They've got mine. It's gonna be all right."

He nodded, slowly beginning to believe that this was all real. But as he fastened his seat belt with a click and slowly turned to stare out the window at the sun, Marlene's words rang in his ears. Her truth permeated every fiber of his being, and with that sudden knowledge, an acute sadness that he dared never share with another living soul entered his being; life as they'd known it was null and void.

Los Angeles... same night

HUNGER TORE at Yonnie's insides as he held on to the edge of the bar in the plush VIP basement section of Club Vengeance. What the hell was going on? Earlier in the evening, the contents of bottles on the shelves had turned to sludge, as though the blood within had suddenly aged.

All third-gen vampires and below had rolled. But to where? Even most second-gens were lying low. No human wannabes would come near the club tonight. If he and his squad wanted to feed, they'd have to go out hunting, old school. Where was Carlos? Concentration was impossible. The master's beacon was nonexistent. Something was very wrong. If Carlos had been exterminated, he should have immediately felt the jolt. But there was simply an eerie void, an absence of power and presence.

He looked up slowly, watching the club's top-shelf reserves begin to rattle, flames consuming the labels, peeling them away, as black bottles began exploding. His second-gen bartenders instantly collapsed into a pile of ash.

His longtime friend, Stack, stood up with effort. His squad got to their feet, their eyes taking in the horror as the building began to deconstruct, deteriorating into an old, dilapidated structure. They were so tired they could barely stand. The atmosphere felt thick, heavy, as though daylight were creeping in.

"Oh, shit," Yonnie murmured.

"Resources are drying up, man," Stack said, breathing hard. "Rivera musta fucked up, big-time. Maybe another master smoked him and the territory is realigning?"

"No," Yonnie said quickly. "A new master would be building assets, not destroying them." He held his hands out before him, feeling the vibrations, trying to search for a power pulse within the empire. He lowered his arms slowly and glanced at his five-man squad. "Feel it," he whispered. "I don't senseany master."

"Git the fuck outta here," Stack said, panic making his voice tight. "Rivera's rank just got knocked down a notch, maybe, but-"

"Feel it!" Yonnie shouted. "Lock in on the females. Where are they?"

Stack slowly opened his arms, palms facing out toward the crumbling walls, and he turned in a shaky circle. He blinked twice and balled his palms into fists. "Ash." Swallowing hard, he tried again. "The seriously old, fine ones are..." Stack's voice trailed off as he watched his hands darken and his arms fall away before his eyes.

Yonnie stepped back from his two-hundred-year-old friend in horror. Stack's expression of terror became frozen in a face that crumbled away as the others in the squad hit the ground beside him, leaving only their recently tailored suits.

For a moment, Yonnie couldn't move. He brought his hands to his face, wondering why he hadn't disintegrated along with the others. Feeding now was imperative. Yet he couldn't muster the energy for flight or transport. Breathing was more than an effort; it was nearly impossible. His hands went to his face, feeling its skeletal remains. Then he spotted a pair of golden yellow orbs low in a shadowy corner.

Yonnie immediately bulked up. His strength was severely compromised and he knew he was in trouble. The predator in the corner suddenly lunged. Huge were-demon jaws narrowly missed his face as he leapt back, but the claws of the beast opened five deep gashes in his chest. He gasped at the pain. In his weakened state, he was no match for a were-demon.

Sections of wall gave way as the were-demon slammed against support beams, pillars, missing Yonnie as he dodged with what was left of his vampire strength and leapt up to a ceiling beam and held on. However, exhaustion was rapidly slowing him down, and the were-demon seemed to sense that. It waited for a moment with a leering smile on its wolflike face-the form it had chosen to take. Its elongated fangs glistening in the full moonlight that now shone through a missing portion of the left wall, it stood on hind legs, flexing in a spectacular display of strength and power, clearly challenging Yonnie.

"Now, what's your strategy-since the Vamp Empire is mere ash?" a snarling, low voice asked.

Yonnie stared at the creature from his perch on the high fragile beam.What the hell had happened out there ? He needed to keep this dumb motherfucker talking. The portals to level five were wide open.

"Who said we ain't running shit?" Yonnie said through a snarl. "Just because you caught us on a slow night don't mean we won't have your ass seen."

The were-demon laughed and dropped to all fours and began circling beneath Yonnie. "Where's your master, bitch?"

The question taunted Yonnie. He gripped the beam tightly, his fingernails digging into the wood.

He glanced around, knowing that were-demons, especially those of the wolf persuasion, usually traveled in packs. But he couldn't detect any others. He could only assume this one was walking point for those soon to follow.

"I thought so," the stinking thing said with a sneer. "I told them your forces were vulnerable, now I know for sure. It's just like all your other vamp hidey-holes. Vulnerable throughout the empire." The beast laughed, vicious and triumphant, as he threw his head back and released a long, bloodcurdling wolf wail.

Knowing that he had only seconds to act before the place filled with were-demons Yonnie concentrated every last ounce of his strength. He felt his fingertips ignite. Every shard of broken, jagged glass behind the bar magnetized, drew together, and became an airborne blade that he sent flying into his tormentor's throat. Yonnie watched with no small measure of satisfaction as the wolf's call was abruptly cut off on a gurgle of blood and the stunned expression still remained on the were-demon's hideous, distended face when his head fell to the floor. Black demon blood spattered the walls.

Acting quickly before the beast began to smolder and combust, Yonnie leapt down to the floor. He needed to feed, and the shame of eating from the belly of a beast was beyond him. But this was about survival. In one deft move he slit the beast's abdomen, knowing that it wouldn't have attacked without feeding first.

Reaching in, he extracted a human arm and a section of torso, siphoning what undigested human blood he could from it, then cast it away in disgust, careful not to allow any remnants of the demon's foul blood to intermingle. Then he got up and ran, hearing the sound of wolf calls in the distance.

A team of hunters would be on his ass with the quickness to seek retribution for their fallen comrade. He needed someplace to lie low. If old lairs were compromised and graveyards were impenetrable due to prayer barriers, where could he go? Who was left? Why did all but him burn? If a master went down, the whole line and all its assets didn't torch.At least that was myth .

Tears stung his eyes as he kept moving. His master was dead; he had to be. Then what was the point of survival? He'd been an underling for years working for other ruthless masters. Rivera had been the only one to treat him with respect and dignity.

Yonnie stopped abruptly when he found himself in front of Carlos's Beverly Hills lair. The night became his cloak as he pulled it around himself and remained invisible. He closed his eyes, opened his arms, and slowly dropped to his knees. His emotions crashed down on him and he wept. Carlos was missing. Stack and the squad were gone. Their assets had disintegrated. He had been reduced to a carrion feeder.

"Where you at, man?" Yonnie asked the night. "If you go down, we all go down!" His voice hitched on a bitter sob. In a short time, he'd come to love Carlos like a true blood brother. No matter what had happened, who had won, he knew he'd follow Carlos into the very sun.

"Whoever did you, I will smoke," he promised the night. "Whoever stole from you, I will rob. We go to war, man. For you."

Silence answered Yonnie, the stars above teasing him with their glittering faces. It wasn't fair. Rivera had had it all. Yonnie stared at the abandoned lair, despair filling him as he yelled his master's name. "Carlos!"

Carlos watched Marlene go to Damali's side as soon as the captain had turned the seat belt sign off. The older woman moved with a slow grace, her steps measured, her expression grave. Damali turned her head away, and Marlene stooped beside her, taking Damali's hand gently within her own.

"Why don't you come to the ladies' room and let me help sponge you off?" Marlene's voice was low, gentle, but also contained a plea, when Damali shook her head no.

"I have fresh clothes for you." Marlene's eyes met Carlos's for a moment and then she turned back to Damali. "You don't want that all over the seats."

Neither woman needed to say it. They both knew speaking of the miscarriage was off-limits right now.

Carlos watched Damali nod and close her eyes. For the first time since the surreal had begun to unfold, he saw it-her condition, her team's condition. The awareness and memory of her pregnancy slammed into his brain. She'd survived the unthinkable. Tears of heartbreak stung his eyes and nose, but he refused to let them fall. The chairman would pay. Carlos tightened his fists and stared out the window for a moment. Thiswas not over. The sight of Damali's blood-caked, tattered dress stole his breath and shredded his soul.

He turned in his seat and moved a lock off her damp brow. "I'll be all right. Go with Marlene," Carlos said quietly, ashamed that he'd been bugging so hard that the obvious had never occurred to him. Each member of the Guardian squad was dirty, bloodied, gashed, and seemed to be hanging on to fatigue like it were a life jacket. But Damali's condition made him want to weep. He kept his eyes on her grime-smudged face and allowed his gaze to travel down her disheveled clothing, stop at her blood-streaked thighs, and he was forced to look away.

He watched tears well in her eyes as she stood with effort. His abdomen clenched, and somewhere within the recesses of his mind he knew that her body was riddled with a pain he could only imagine. It was a pain that no man could know. The dark side had clawed life from her womb, and her uterus was contracting, purging the life it had once held... his baby girl was bleeding, horrible cramps making her steps unsteady while she held her head high and passed her Guardian team. Each male lowered his eyes and let out a slow, quiet breath, almost as though he could feel the sharp contraction stabs as Damali and Marlene made their way down the narrow aisle to the bathroom.

Shabazz, Lopez, and Dan, the tactical sensors in the group, were nearly ashen in complexion as Damali approached them. Rider and Jose had practically stopped breathing, the scent of blood now too much for the team's noses to absorb within the tight confines of the plane. J.L. broke down and silently wept; Big Mike allowed quiet tears to stream down his huge face and simply leaned back against the seat with his eyes closed. Monk Lin and Imam Asula were hunched forward in a silent, but urgent, prayer.

A new level of respect and awe entered Carlos as he watched how Damali bore the burden like a true warrior, only a grimace giving any indication of how badly she hurt. And he also knew that the pain went beyond the physical. It was a deep gash within her psyche that might never heal. It wasn't supposed to go down like this.

He could barely stare behind her as Marlene escorted her down the narrow aisle past her team. They had murdered his baby and cut out his woman's heart in the process. Yeah, it was all coming back to him-very clearly. There wasn't a place on the planet the chairman would be able to hide, and council chambers weren't far enough under the earth to protect that old SOB.

Steadier now, Carlos breathed in slowly and let his breath out with concerted effort. Father Pat was now at his side, and Carlos almost retched when he looked at the pool of blood Damali had left in the leather seat. He could feel the team watching the elderly cleric as Father Patrick murmured a prayer and used paper towels, holy water, and an airsickness bag to clean off the place where Damali had been sitting. With reverence, the old man folded away the debris and dried the seat, constantly murmuring prayers, then sealed the top of the plastic bag with holy water.

Defeat claimed Carlos as Father Patrick walked to the trash chute, stopping at each bloody footprint Damali had left in the carpet to strike holy water in the sign of the crucifix upon them, and then made the sign of the cross over the small plastic bag he disposed of before he returned to slide into a seat beside Carlos. But Carlos didn't look at him. He couldn't. The remains of the dark side's damage had been reduced to gore and had been deposited in the jet's trash bin.

"I don't have the blood hunger," Carlos said quietly. "I thought I was supposed to go into the Light, to some kinda place of peace-at least that's the hype you gave me when I made my deal with you guys. You reneged."

From the corner of his eye, he watched Father Patrick lean forward and stare at him. Their eyes met.

"No, I didn't renege, Carlos," the old man said. "I don't know what's going on, either. This is beyond all our comprehension. We all saw you go to ash in broad daylight and then regenerate under that same sun. And, yet, now you don't bear fangs. We don't know what that means."

Carlos nodded, no longer angry at the cleric, just weary. "I can't smell, I can't taste, I can barely see. I can hardly walk. Surelythat's going to change when the sun drops."

Father Patrick nodded. "Have you ever considered that youcan see, can smell, can taste and hear-just not with a vampire's acuteness? Maybe you're just... human."

Carlos stared at Father Patrick in horror. He kept his tone low and controlled, fury nearly stealing the words forming in his mind. "Haveyou considered how fucking insane it is for me to be a Joe regular now with everything that's about to jump off? There's gonna be hell to pay for the bullshit that was done to Damali alone!" He held the cleric's gaze, a fragile part of him dangerously near the breaking point. "No, Father Patrick. If that's why I'm like this, then there was nopoint in bringing me back-'cause I'm only gonna live a very short time. Youknow I'm going after that bastard, right? Human, daywalker in rehab, whatever it is they brought back, I have one mission. To take the chairman's fucking head."

The elderly cleric's eyes burned with a quiet rage that matched Carlos's. But he kept his voice low, his expression tight, as he spoke. "No, Carlos.You need to get very clear, son. Ifthey brought you back," he said pointing upward, "then there is a higher purpose for you. Even what had been your kind can't bring back the already extinguished. The Light has interceded through the hand of Christ, who only did that once, to my knowledge, and his name was Lazarus. You think aboutthat and focus onthat while Marlene is helping Damali. You work forHim , now-just like I do. Our teams have been through enough. Damali has been through enough. You need to think about what that young woman, our Neteru, just experienced and is going through, instead of your own rage and need for revenge just so you can satisfy your own ego."

Father Patrick glanced over his shoulder at the dozing team. "I'm sick to death with all of this, too, Carlos. You have no idea how traumatized we all are."

When Carlos didn't respond, Father Patrick looked back at Carlos. "My advice is that you give a quiet prayer of thanks for being returned to her, in whatever condition. Say a resoundingthank you for being delivered from a torture chamber in Hell, and count your blessings instead of your losses." He nodded toward Jose and Father Lopez. "Be thankful that the ones left in your line were moved by instinct. That through their faith and choice to follow the Light, they gathered your ashes and prayed on your behalf-as we all did. That the Neteru cried out to Heaven for your redemption and return. That the angels heard her cries and that she gave upmuch for your salvation. And that now we are being transported to safety under the protection of the Vatican! Therefore, we follow the orders that come down from On High to the letter, from this point forward. We wait until we get a sign from On High before we act. Deviate, and I'll kill you myself."

With that, Father Patrick stood up, his tattered blue robes swishing about him as he walked back to his seat, sat down, and closed his eyes.

THE SIMULTANEOUS loss of five masters had devastated his empire. Three councilmen had been exterminated, leaving only him and two weakened councilmen at his side. Topside, second-level vampires had returned to feudal law, and were-demons were making violent inroads into all territories, which would radically reduce food supplies and block transports to chambers.

For a while, awaiting the inevitable inquiry, the remaining members of the Vampire Council had spoken in nervous whispers and intermittent hisses as they continued to discuss the empire's vulnerabilities, but soon, even their essence would begin to expire.

It had already started. Just like that. Instant evaporation of what had been. The Light was dredging them; he could feel it as day set the planet above on fire. The chairman drew from the reserves of night, wrapping it around his embattled chambers like a dark, woolen cloak to protect his dying loyalists. Somewhere on earth, it was always night, making it perpetual. But silence had replaced his remaining councilmen's hoarse, starving murmurs. Blood was slowing in their veins, making it a thick and putrid slurry that robbed their vitality. He could painfully feel the stringy clots congeal within his cold body as though gelatin set to mold.

Yes, it was inevitable. Soon, without food, they would have to ration, reduce themselves to ashen stasis and suffer, where they'd all be forced to lie prone, crumbled to near dust, waiting on the table to quicken again with resources-fresh blood. In just one night, their outer vaults had been pillaged and burned by the weres. Council chambers now were filled with dark, charcoal-hued smoke as each elderly vampire slowly wasted away.

The chairman sat quietly, plotting. To risk surfacing topside to make more masters was too risky right now. He summoned patience. Second-generations from all the regions were unstable, and three attempts to telepathically elevate second-generation lieutenants had been disastrous. They'd torched on impact. The Light had intervened. Even those he'd sent a transport cloud for had perished in the care of weak couriers that were vulnerable to upper-level demon incursion. His summons in order to elevate the weaker generations to master status in chambers had failed. And yet Yonnie remained. Why?

It made his black heart burn that even destroyed, Carlos Rivera had left behind a master who was not beholden to the empire. Carlos had made Yonnie with good intent. A council-level vampire's turn bite had been used forthe Light ? To help a man, to save him from sure extinction, to give himhis due ? Compassion and empathy were in the bite, not greed or power-lust? Horrified, the chairman sat numbly looking off into the vast caverns. Never in all his thousands of years of rule... never was there a provision in the black tome that sat beneath his crest for such sacrilege against the empire! Empathy in a bite? Never.

His councilmen glanced at him and then shut their eyes. They also had come to the same conclusion. No wonder their resources had slowed to a mere trickle. Even dead, Carlos had bested them. The Neteru was a poisonous variable and no less formidable. Maybe even more so, because it was the Light in her that had ruined a good vampire. Yes, he'd submitted Carlos Rivera to the sun, had clawed out his woman's insides and broken her spirit. He wondered if she'd died. That was a hopeful thought.

He kicked at a withered, expired bat that had dropped at his feet. The once screeching, swirling, gorgeous mass of red-eyed creatures had barely enough energy to cling to the rafters. The chairman glanced at his fellow councilmen in despair. Their onyx robes were beginning to show signs of age, the hems becoming tattered, and their crests had begun to collect particles of dust. It was wise to sleep and save their energy as much as possible during this fallow time in the empire. Yet he hated that their breaths were now foul, their skins decaying, cracking, and peering, festering with gangrene.

Substantially weakened by the civil war, the Neteru's successful attacks with Carlos Rivera against their empire, and the subsequent investigation into their failures by the level seven, forced them each to remain very still upon their marble thrones. The inquisition into their failures had been so vicious that it had barely left them enough energy to merely think, let alone move. Speaking was a waste of energy, unless absolutely necessary. Breathing had to be done in slow, measured sips of air, inhaled with great effort.

The chairman kept his expression unreadable as he and the others sat with their eyes closed. A thin veneer of calm masked his smoldering rage. There had been blood famines before. He and his kind would rise again.

The chairman made a tent in front of his mouth with his fingers and drew a ragged breath to steady himself. He peered down at the table, exhausted. His fellow councilmen were so frightened and weary that telepathy was impossible. Their minds were guarded, each sure that he would siphon them for their last reserves of strength. He briefly closed his eyes. It had come to this. Cannibalism in chambers. He never thought he'd witness that during his reign. To put their fears to rest, one last debate before stasis was in order. Council had to remain united; no assassinations at the table to further dredge the empire of power. "We must act, now."

"Rivera had been groomed for greatness," the councilman to his left said. "That loss is not replaceable in such a short time."

The chairman nodded very slowly. "But it also gives me great pleasure to know that infidel, Rivera, burned layer by layer in the sun." He let his breath out slowly, the memory of Carlos Rivera's duplicity still haunting him.

"The Neteru vessel has become beyond problematic," the councilman to the chairman's right said. "Do not underestimate this millennium Neteru's effectiveness, despite her youth. That has, to date, been our weakness."

"We may have to detain her in Hell for the next six years until she ripens again, then fill the territories after her abduction." The chairman drew a shaky breath. "The were-demons, Amanthras, and all the upper levels are slowly coming to realize that the hour of dawn is upon our empire. They do not respect nor fear us as they should."

"To take her hostage would be risky," the councilman to his right said cautiously. "With our forces weakened, warrior angels may come for her. I wouldn't put it past them to breach our borders and with the Armageddon so near..."

"Yes," the councilman to his left said quickly. "I say that we cannot afford another harpies inquisition. The response after losing three council thrones, plus our most formidable topside sources, have drawn horrendous questions about our level-six leadership capacity, to the point where-"

"I donot need to be reminded of our position," the chairman spat, rubbing his hands down his face with frustration. "We can torture Damali Richards's spirit to keep her from exacting a heavy toll on our remaining empire. Seal her body in disease, keep her womb inviolate, and make her a-"

Both councilmen shook their heads, stopping the chairman midsentence. The bolder of the two took up the argument, however his voice was frail with fear and the need to feed.

"We all know that to ensure that the Neteru conceives, she must willingly accept our seed. But if her spirit is damaged and her body is-"

"Enough!" the chairman shouted, his facade of calm shattering as he expended precious energy. "If we cannot find a seducer, she is of no use to us and I want her heart in the middle of my council table! I want her to writhe in agony as the harpies did to us in these very chambers! The fucking harpies were wrong!"

The two councilmen drew back from the table, setting their thickening goblets of blood down carefully. The chairman stood, eased away from the table, and held on to the back of his throne, knowing he'd spoken too loudly and without enough reverence when he mentioned the harpies.

Immediately, the floor just inside council chambers quaked, the marble cracking and yawning a huge fissure that shook the walls, made the few torches that were lit extinguish, rumbled furniture out of place, and made the weakened transport bats clinging to crags in the high ceiling above the pentagram table try to fly and seek cover.

The chairman held his breath as yellow sulfur smoke billowed up in a furious volcanic hiss. He waited with dread, knowing the foul little gargoylelike creatures would soon slither over the edge of the gaping cavern. He knew in seconds their vile black tongues would lacerate him and the two remaining councilmen, siphoning information from their skulls, through their ears, noses, and every orifice on their battered bodies, just as they'd done for nearly four relentless hours well into dawn and beyond it, refusing to allow them to regenerate.

The councilman to the left of him clutched the edge of the table, bracing for the small gray-green bodies to fill chambers, rushing in like a putrid wave, leathery wings flapping, spiked tails slashing everything in their wake, their razor-sharp black horns a torment to the frayed hems of their once-majestic vampire robes. His eyes filled with tears. The more junior councilman who always sat to the chairman's right put his head down on the table and wept as his bowels voided. The chairman set his jaw hard, preparing for the onslaught. Never, except once, in his entire existence had he ever experienced such personal and professional humiliation-and right after the Paradise fiasco, it had not been before subordinates like this.

However, he knew he had to be hallucinating as he trained his unblinking gaze on the pit that had opened in his chamber floors. Instead of harpies rising in a swarm from it, a familiar face did.

She was gorgeous, just as she'd always been. Her smooth, olive-toned complexion looked like refined glass. Her dark, smoky eyes were mysterious and seductive, set above perfectly chiseled cheekbones. Her presence was mesmerizing, her mouth lush, begging one to taste it. Her shoulder-length wavy black hair seemed to be spun from velvet. Her body was that of a goddess. She was sheathed in an iridescent black gown, the neckline a deep plunge to reveal her ample breasts, the slit up the side showing her shapely legs as she sauntered forward. She smiled, giving them a discreet quarter inch of fang.

"Mr. Chairman," she crooned, "it has been a long time. But you should measure your words if you are going to speak so loudly."

"Lilith," he murmured, "I am so glad it was you who came."

"Actually, I haven't yet this morning, but if you can bring yourself to clear chambers..." she said in a sultry voice, her eyes now glowing red as she motioned to the other councilmen.

Without waiting for the chairman to tell them to leave, the two high-ranking officials stood, nodded at her with appreciation, and then vanished to the private inner chamber vaults. Their need to regenerate, and eagerness to get away from any potentially bad outcome at the table, left a residue of fear in the room.

"Mr. Chairman," she said, coming to the table as he slowly rounded it to meet her.

"Dante," he said, his voice dropping seductively to match hers. "There have never been any formalities between us."

He turned and filled his goblet for her, then transformed into a more youthful version of himself, and handed her the offering of blood. She was worth the energy drain, even if his two councilmen starved later for it.

She accepted the goblet he'd offered with grace, yet sniffed it with disdain, and set it down on the edge of the table. Her hand went to his long, dark brown, curly hair, and she traced his bronzed cheek, then allowed her soft caress to slide down his strong, bare shoulders and down his hard chest. She glimpsed the swath of white linen that hung low on his narrow hips.

"Dante, you know I always liked your rendition of the Sistine Chapel lovers... it's so sacrilegious. But, what has happened to your resources, darling? This isn't you at all. Frankly, I'm shocked."

Embarrassed, he clasped her hand and kissed the center of her palm, offering an apology. "Had I known you were coming, I would have sent for a body, topside," he said with false bravado, and held her gaze, searching it for an alliance. "Our resources have been extremely strained lately, but that will soon be rectified."

"That's why I'm here to help."

She walked away from him and looked at his three thrones left vacant by extinguished councilmen. "May I?" she asked, gracefully waving at them.

He nodded, his gaze raking her. "You can sit in mine, if you'd like."

She smiled. "No, darling. Business first, pleasure later, especially given the mounting tensions in level seven."

He nodded and found his seat opposite hers across the table. "How bad is it down there?"

"My dear, it's never good if they send me up after the harpies. You know I'm normally the final step before permanent detainment."

The chairman rubbed his hand across his jaw and then took an unsteady sip from another councilman's goblet. He forced a laugh after he'd swallowed hard. "Well, at least it's good to see that my father still observes the old protocols-giving a man one last indulgent sin before his reign is over." He set the goblet down, trying to keep his hand from trembling.

"My, my, my..." she said, making a little tsking sound with her tongue as she leaned back in the throne and released a long sigh. "It must be horrible, because you're not even picking up on what I said." She smiled broadly and opened her eyes, mischief glittering in them. "I saidnormally , lover."

"Speak to me, Lilith," the chairman whispered hoarsely. "In all candor, I am taxed beyond my endurance for mind games."

She sat forward and folded her hands on the table, leaning on her forearms. "Youcan't play mind games? How... impotent of you." She sat back quickly. "Do you want to get usboth exterminated?"

He held up his palm. "I'm sorry, but you can see how-"

"Listen to me," she said fast, cutting him off. "They've sent me to exterminate the Neteru, and I cannot fail, if she is still alive. The problem is, I cannot find her. Your father is truly displeased. Were it not for the coming Armageddon and his preoccupation with the creation of his new son, he would have come up himself. This is really bad, darling."

The chairman stood and put his hands behind his back, and walked a path behind his throne. "He would destroy our daywalker vessel, if she lives? Would eliminate our opportunity, which is only a mere six years away, cut off his nose to spite his face and banish my empire to complete darkness for another thousand years-simply because a few thrones were lost? Is he mad?"

She chuckled when he stopped and looked at her hard. "Absolutely out of his mind. But insanity has no bearing on genius; we both know that. You and I also both know that he has cut off his nose to spite his face when he's gotten into a real rage. But, alas, it does regenerate once he's calmed himself." She shook her head. "You've considered killing the Neteru yourself." She wagged her finger at him. "Did you already destroy her? Is our conversation moot?"

"I've only considered it. I have not acted upon the impulse."

"Good." Lilith reached for the goblet that she'd refused earlier, leaned back, and took a small sip. She wrinkled her nose with disgust, and ran her index finger around the rim of the goblet of clotted blood, then looked up. She gave him a sexy grin. "Even he won't go that far. I was just testing you. He needs daywalkers to assist in the final war. But he does want me to kill the male Neteru that they may have made. 'May' being the operative word." She sighed. "You also may not have six years to deliver, since we never know when my husband might want to begin the Armageddon."

The chairman paused and then slowly found the edge of the table to lean against. "There is no male Neteru. Only that infernal female one."

"Have you been so consumed by your own problems that you have not been watching the stars? Didn't Mars, the planet of war and male energy, recently pass the earth the closest it's come in sixty thousand years?" She took a healthy swallow from the goblet, then set it back down on the table hard and leaned back deeply into the throne.

"Yes, but with the female Neteru topside, our forces in tatters... I assumed that the forecasted war was the one waged against us already."

"There's a little ditty; toassume makes an ass out of you and me." She inhaled sharply, closed her eyes, and shuddered. "He's not at his apex yet, and I will most assuredly have to kill him before he does. The absolutely brilliant cunning this one possesses will compromise my judgment, if I don't get to him before he hits his prime. He's magnificent."

She opened her eyes slowly, her breaths coming in irregular spurts of raw desire. "Oh, Dante, how did you let him get away? I can see why the female Neteru completely lost it and got herself compromised for a bit. He would have beenso perfect for the job of impregnating her. I'm definitely going to have to fuck this one before I take his head off... I'll do it with tears of regret in my eyes, however, trust me."

"Who theHell are you talking about?" The chairman's voice thundered and bats began dropping from the rafters. "There's no topside element like that in my realms! There's not even any topside master vampires left-"

"He had a throne in your chambers, you foolish bastard!" She stood quickly, her black gown swishing as she approached the table and slapped the chairman's face so hard his nose bled. She pointed her finger at the throne she'd just abandoned, her fangs growing two inches as she railed. "Carlos Rivera was one of your masters! He was even a councilman, damn you! He was a dark Guardian, and you had him in your grasp, and you idiot, you allowed his soul to get snatched and dragged into Purgatory! Your own fucking councilmen tried to warn you, but you were blinded by ego, and if I dare blaspheme this chamber, by some misguided, twisted compassion-"

He grabbed her by both arms, halting her words, and pushed her away so hard her backside slammed against the table. "Bullshit! I did a thorough harpies inquisition on him, dredged his mind right over there on my walls," he shouted, pointing where Carlos had been tortured. "He was chained to the rocks, and demons impervious to light ate his innards until the sun came up!" The chairman came close to her in a flash, almost nose to nose as he yelled. "He burned with the sun for his betrayal. He was a dark Guardian, yes, but not a Neteru!"

Trying to wrest his dignity back from the outburst, the chairman took a deep breath. "Lilith, you tell my father that on this one, he's wrong."

She shook her head and laughed. "Oooohhhh, noooo. Inever tell your father he's wrong." Her gaze narrowed and her voice lost its amused tone. "Especially when he'sright ."

"Then how?" Unnerved, the chairman folded his arms over his chest.

"He went into the Light and came back," she said, studying her long, manicured red nails. "It's a hunch, but the Guardian team and the Covenant are rebuilding, adding more players to the game. Their behavior is peculiar. I haven't located him yet, but I can feel him somewhere very near. He's still-"

"No! Impossible!" The chairman raked his fingers through his hair and ripped his scalp.

"Love will do it every time." She smiled, but it was an evil one, as she looked up and held his stunned gaze. "The female wept for him. The angels heard that pitiful shit and responded. All they needed was a catalyst. He burned, Dante, reaching for her and calling her name-not begging for the pain to stop... not even calling The One who will remain nameless down here. He had diluted vampire lieutenants in his ranks. Some eighth- or ninth-generation near-imposter vampires that went down the side of a fucking mountain and collected a handful of his death ashes and gave them to her! He had two of them helping to collect his remains; in fact, and one was a cleric. They brought Rivera's ashes up to her and she wept into them, creating a trinity. She cast Rivera's ashes on fertile soil, took off a diamond ring that had a ten-carat stone in the shape of a heart... an engagement ring of betrothal for thehoped-for blessed union of holy matrimony one day-but prior to that, she was acouncilman's wife . Any of this frightening you, yet?"

Lilith sucked in a deep breath to keep from spontaneously combusting with rage. "And this ring-which you did not take back when you stripped his powers, because you were thinking like a man, not like a woman, because you lost focus... you wanted her to twist... didn't realize the strength of a woman's tears, so you let her keep the ring. It was a fucking crystal amulet, an ice-blue crystalline section of his actual heart that had all his hope and love for her in it when he gave it to her, you stupid sonofabitch! Normal quartz crystal is powerful enough, but a ten-carat diamond rock made from our DNA, are you insane?"

She folded her arms over her chest. "But you wanted her to keep it, because you thought you were getting even by letting her have something hurtful to remember him by. So, you left her a treasure that she could wrap warm memories around from her soul, something supercharged when he took her to the vanishing point." Lilith shook her head with disgust.

"He tooka Neteru to thevanishing point with a diamond on her hand, and didn't permanently turn her... a master vampire?" The chairman covered his face and breathed slowly.

"Well, she remembered him all right," Lilith said, ignoring his question. "Yes... she remembered down to her pure soul, crying all the way to his ash pile. Then she plunged the Isis blade into the earth to bury her dreams, and made it bleed. Our harpies saw it all and reported the whole sordid incident to me, not you. She got him right in the heart in spirit, and he was escorted back into matter form by abattalion of angels . This is what is rumored and suspected, because none of us can see that deeply into such bright light. But my job now is to substantiate the facts and tie up any potential loose ends."

She paused and looked at the chairman hard, her gaze narrowed to a withering slit. "That's why you, in your level-six stupidity couldn't see him when he came back. Only the most advanced realm got word of it, level seven, and even we just got that late-breaking information... since the male Neteru's vibrations are lowered. He's stopped behaving like a monk. He likes the things of our realm, grieves the loss of power. But when he first came back," she shook her head and whistled, "he was squeaky clean. Was off dark radar and we had no trace. If she's been trying to corrupt him and make him remember their union, to no avail, what chance do you think we have? Normal forces of darkness won't work, because this Neteru male has been to Hell and back, and knows we are real-not illusion. If he hadn't begun craving the things of the world again, we might have been blindsided, and the seventh-realm empire may have taken severe casualties. The only reason we suspect Rivera is because of the vibrations this male Neteru is casting... Power-lust, a deep desire for revenge, and a general's strategy. If I find him, his head is mine. Both of them."

When the chairman didn't respond, she leaned into him. "Are you hearing me?" She screeched. "This was all done before a clerical team from the Covenant, plus an entire Neteru Guardian team with a mother-seer present-all of whom were praying for amaster vampire to get a second chance!Never , in my whole existence have I seen such a convoluted case of familial and Eros love mixed together in such a horrifying display of pure human compassion. Oh, so help me, Dante, I'll kill you myself for allowing such an indignity to come from your level!"

When he opened his mouth to speak, she held up her hand, then pressed her wrist to her forehead and waltzed away seeming near faint. Males were so easy to manipulate. Her strategy was foolproof. Have father and son go to war against each other, while the embryo that slipped so beautifully into Hell was lodged safely within her womb, ticking away like a time bomb.

All she needed was one hit ofOblivion , the raw essence of Neteru passion and love to ignite dark life within her. Rivera's brilliant drug had practically felled an empire. Too bad he'd used the last of the substance for folly. But the drug was what could make her dead womb spill forth life again. Damn the angels that had slaughtered her children and rendered her barren. They would pay. This grudge was between her and them, and even the Devil couldn't stop her. He never cared about his children anyway. Just another deadbeat dad. Now, the key was to bait Dante into helping her locate Rivera, if he was still alive. If she could find Rivera, then she would findOblivion .

She glimpsed the chairman and fanned her face as if she was still too overwhelmed to talk. Yes, Dante was still strong enough to locate his own turn, if Rivera existed. Knowing that was critical. Her impromptu visit confirmed it when he'd transformed and was still able to cast illusion. Very good. The fact that he was rattled and his mental barriers were down was even better. It made him sloppy. A coup was so titillating.

The essence of one male and one female Neteru's union was all she needed. The Light's greatest strength would be its greatest weakness. This hadn't been done since Eve had carried Cain and Able, one demon embryo and one pure human one. Dante's fixation on revenge had eclipsed the opportunity from his mind. Stupid bastard. Her husband was also just as insane to believe that she would allow him to choose a human vessel to carry the heir apparent, the Anti-Christ, just to make a point that he could still pollute what those above had created, even at the final hour.

No. Not on her watch. Not after all she'd given her husband, the years of suffering in his lair and devotion to his cause, only to have it all snatched away from her. Never. By the time father and son figured it out,her heir would be born. In Lucifer's fury, Dante's realm would be decimated, and her biggest competitor along with it-the chairman himself. By the time her husband came to his senses, she would possess the critical link to his war... correction,her war -and when she won it,she would rule level seven-not the beast embroiled in useless politics.

Lilith finally sighed and peered at the chairman as though near tears. She almost laughed at his stricken expression and the way he'd held his breath, waiting on her to continue as she allowed her voice to tremble then slowly escalate for dramatic effect. "Oh, yes, your father is spitting crucifixion nails over this one. There hasn't been a young, fertile, male and female Neteru combination levied against us in the same era since Adam and Eve!"

"What can I do to fix this?" he whispered. "I swear, Lilith, I never meant to-"

"Silence, so I can think!" she yelled, pacing up to stand close in his face. "Do you know what your father has done?" she asked in a quieter, more lethal tone.

He shook his head no and foolishly reached to touch her cheek.

She slapped his hand away, enraged. "Do that again without my permission and you'll draw back a nub that won't regenerate." She placed her hand over her heart. "Your father," she said, her voice calm, quiet, the words seething from her lips slowly, "has called for an open-level bounty hunt. Whichever level wins becomes his favorite. That is why your blood resources dried up so quickly. Haven't you wondered why your inventory evaporated, was pillaged so easily, why vampires have been turning to ash in record numbers overnight? You should have been able to live foryears down in chambers without replenishment."

"We couldn't understand-"

"He's really pissed off and willing to let the other levels try to correct what you've botched, and they all know it. Vampires are under siege across the board. The were-demons have sent their ruling Senate up to go after your weaker generations, casually wiping them out while they hunt for the male Neteru.Your father sanctioned it all ."

"He didn't." The chairman leaned against the table to keep his knees from buckling.

"He did."

They both stared at each other.

"I'm the chosen assassin to represent the vampire nations, sent to find this new male nemesis to our way of life. He doesn't trust you to handle it, especially since you couldn't handle the female one."

The chairman pushed away from the table and began to pace, thoroughly humiliated. "I could have handled it."
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