Dread was a constant companion as Damali got up from the bed and walked over the little indoor footbridge at the base of the futon. She peered at the stream that separated the room into two sides, knowing that she, too, was stuck in the middle. What more was she than a small bridge between desire and the solid material worlds on the other side of a stream that beckoned? What more had she been to Carlos?
From her raised vantage point above the blue water, she could see out to the stars and the full moon past the deck. Sheer white curtains floated toward her like ghosts. Maybe they were no more than her memories, caught on the night air, hopelessly flailing against the wind. She was caught between the supernatural and natural, fighting against the wind, too. How did you fight nature, basic instinct?
Under any other circumstances this place would have been paradise. The calls of night birds and insects, sounds of the cycle of life, filled the sweet night air, blowing into the cliff lair on the breeze. She breathed in deeply, willing away the grief. Her best friend was no longer her best friend, he had dark secrets. Her lover was no longer her lover; she feared him. Hope was dying like the embers in the fireplace. You cannot bring something back from the dead. It is beyond mortal control.
Yet ten glorious nights of forgetting that harsh fact wrapped around her, just as she wrapped her arms about herself. The way he'd made her feel... Damali briefly shut her eyes as a familiar ache for him claimed her. How was she ever going to forget what they shared? How was she going to let go of this place he'd owned in her heart? She opened her eyes. She had to do what she had to do. If he wound up on the wrong side of the bridge, she'd put his soul to rest with tears in her eyes. She'd do it with love, she'd do it with honor, but she'd do it.
Her free hand reached out, while her other hand clutched at the poker that she'd never put down, trying to sense him. She swept the room again in futile hope that there would be anything of use as a weapon in a vampire's lair. Foolish. Every piece of wrought-iron furniture was woven into ornate curlicues. Nothing had a sharp point. The slate tabletops were too heavy for even her to lift. From a round, iron ring in the high ceiling, sheer drapes formed a tent over the futon. The bed was a sumptuous soft mattress of goose down covered in white silk with twenty lush pillows spilling over it. Oh, yeah, right, smother him to death. She sighed.
The torches that lit the room were immovable iron holders soldered to the stone walls. Six-foot tall, white candles stood on the floor without any base. The one wrought-iron holder that had smaller candles in it was built into the slate-and-tile floor. The greatest weapon she had was a brass fireplace poker - which had no effect on a vampire. Hand-to-hand combat, with practically nothing in her hand? This was definitely being assed out.
With two hours till dawn, she had few options. Sunlight would be her only defense. But it was hard enough to perform onstage for more than two hours, let alone try to walk the perimeter of tight confines, stalling with what? Witty conversation. Yeah, for a fully fed, master vampire, that was coming back all messed up in his mind, horny as hell, and not very patient... if he hadn't lied about abstaining for two weeks.
He'd been gone an awful long time, too. He was close, but she couldn't sense him at all. Either his new strength blocked her, or he'd placed a steel cage over his emotions. Either possibility was not good. What it was that she was afraid of in him now, she couldn't put her finger on. In truth, he hadn't done anything that should have made her distrust him like this. She was acting like he was going to kill her, or something. That was crazy. But, then, why was the hair standing up on the back of her neck and arms?
If all Carlos wanted was a serious rock-the-house, that shouldn't have made her feel like this. If anything, she could go back to the hotel all smiles. But every fiber in her was on red alert. Her instincts were coiled just as tight as the muscles in her body. Damali's gaze swept the room slowly, detecting. She tilted her head. The cicadas had gone still. No night sounds were outside. She glanced around the room looking for cover. Under a table would be a trap. Not an option.
The air moved. A whooshing sound registered and her hand reached up before her eyes could see what was coming, and she snatched at the air. An arrow burned her palm as she caught it. She glanced at it quickly. The metal tip looked like the point of her Isis blade and had come in the open sliding doors to the deck. She ducked as a second arrow whizzed by her shoulder and stuck into the stone wall.
"Shit..." she whispered. If it went through solid stone, then the archer had one helluva arm. Instantly crouching low, she knew she had to get off the bridge, and take cover. But as soon as she bent, a large, green-eyed crocodile materialized in the water beneath her. Somersaulting off the footbridge, she landed on the other side by the fireplace as the beast took a chunk out of the flimsy wooden structure, casting aside boards as it shook its massive head and leaped out of the stream.
With an Isis-tipped arrow and a brass fireplace poker, Damali backed up. The beast let out a low rumble of warning. She kept her eyes locked with the glowing green orbs that narrowed on her, then suddenly back-flipped from in front of the open hearth, put both weapons in one hand, and grabbed a heavy chair, toppling it before her as a shield. The animal was on her in seconds, and she sought the tabletop, which it immediately nipped with its nose, hurling her across the room in the direction of the futon.
Damali reached out, breaking her fall with the tent of sheers that surrounded the bed, using them as they crumpled under her weight to scramble up toward the iron ring in the ceiling. Her two weapons were on the floor, and sharp, saliva-dripping jaws opened beneath her. Occasionally the beast would jump and snap at her dangling legs. A shoe dropped and the thing ate it whole. Her damp palms were betraying her as she held on for dear life. It was hard to get body leverage in a damnable gown. From the corner of her eye she saw the surface of the hot tub slither, and fixed her gaze on the new threat that could probably reach her.
A huge black-and-green anaconda lifted its head from the Jacuzzi. Its eyes glowed green and the crocodile calmed down, simply staring up as the serpent slowly inched its muscular body up the side of the wall. It worked against the stones in a lazy, threatening zigzag pattern. A seductive, sultry dance of motion, it slithered toward the wide deck drape rods, and Damali watched the creature thread itself through so that it would have reach from that point to the ring in the middle of the ceiling.
She tightened her grip as the thing's jaws unhinged and its neck dipped into a U, swaying its head in a hypnotic pre-strike dance. Ten-inch fangs dripped yellowish ooze that made the floor below sizzle and burn away. The crocodile backed up and opened its jaws, waiting, its ragged, gleaming teeth readied for the snap.
As the serpent reared its head back to deliver a forceful stroke, Damali swung forward, then back, returning with a powerful kick when the creature missed on the first attempt. The heel of her other shoe snapped off and fell. Her blow stunned it, made it back up for a second, dazed, but its eyes quickly narrowed. Instinctively she knew she'd really pissed this snake off now. The thing hissed, drew way back, and was coming in for a sure strike, but a loud growl from below stopped the snake.
Damali tightened her sliding grip as a third predator entered the room. The crocodile was backing up, snapping, but on the defensive and keeping its distance. The. snake was retreating, uncoiling, and soon it dropped onto the floor and slid over the edge of the deck, disappearing in the cliffs. But what circled below her was just as bad. This thing could reach her. This thing had jaws worse than what she'd just faced.
Glowing red orbs narrowed, the beast snarled, and circled beneath her. Her heart was beating a hole out of her chest. The huge panther stood four feet at the shoulders, and looked like nothing she'd ever seen in a zoo. Its fangs hung out of its mouth at saber-tooth proportions, and the muscles in its back met in the center, kneading as it circled and snarled. Its chest was a deep barrel of pure strength, and its forearms and haunches were a thicket of sinew beneath a velvety, blue-black coat.
This thing was fucking with her big time, just circling, now purring. Jesus! Her two paltry weapons were on the floor, and even if she could drop fast enough to grab them, which was doubtful given the lightning agility of a creature like this, to what end? Its claws were humongous. As it walked it left deep grooves in the freaking slate floor! Its reach had to be double hers, so even if she had the Isis, the length would still put her at a disadvantage. This thing would snap brass or an arrow with one swipe, taking her arm with it. She wasn't supposed to die like this, Lord. Not in a vampire lair at twenty-one!
But if she was going down, then she was going out swinging. She gave the thing beneath her an evil grin. "Come on, you bastard!" she yelled in frustration. If she was gonna die, she wanted it to be swift. That's all she asked.
The thing sat back on its haunches, looked up, retracted its claws, and licked a paw casually. Then it stood, snorted, and transformed into Carlos.
Damali didn't even blink; she just hung from her crouched position, stunned, her bare feet against the ceiling, gazing down over her shoulder. Her body was such a tight ball of knots pressed against the ceiling that her muscles had locked.
"Come down. I won't bite," Carlos said quietly.
Was he out of his fucking mind? Come down? She just looked at him, unable to move.
"The coast is clear, you can let go."
Her mind was hearing the words, but they made no sense. He could turn into something like that, and she was supposed to let go of the only safe place in the room?
"Damali, baby... let go, I'll catch you."
This motherfucker had claws two seconds ago... Catch her?
"Honey, I know this has been deep, and I know you're pretty freaked out right now, but, you have to come down." His voice was smooth, controlled, even.
Been deep? Been deep?
"Damali, I don't want to have to come up there and pry your fingers off the ring. As tight as you're holding on, I could break a finger, and - "
"Don't come near me!" she yelled. "Just don't come near me!"
"It's me, Carlos. Remember?" He opened his arms under her. "Baby - "
"Baby?" She scrunched herself up tighter, practically flattening herself to nothingness against the stucco.
"It's going to be light soon, and I need to get you back to the hotel while I still have enough energy. I'm not going to hurt you. My word."
His word didn't mean squat! She couldn't read him, couldn't tell if it was him, or one of the things that attacked her.
"I know what you're thinking, but - "
"No, you don't," she said in short pants. "You have no idea what I'm thinking."
"That's fair," he said on a long, patient exhale and sat down on the bed, glancing around at the battle-ravaged room. "Some night, huh?" He shook his head and collected the arrow and the fireplace poker, extending it up toward her as a peace offering. "Here," he said with disdain. "Arm yourself, but do come down. I'll go to the other side of the room. Drop on the bed, and we'll talk."
She studied him hard, and released her hold just enough to snatch the outstretched weapons he held with one hand. She put the thin shafts of spears between her teeth and returned her grasp. Her arms and back and buttocks hurt from the exertion. Every muscle was trembling with the need to release its tense hold, and she eyed him as he moved across the room. Saliva ran down her cheeks as she bit down hard on the brass and wood. She dropped, landed on her feet, and immediately took a fighter's stance. She broke the arrow over her knee. Wood. That's right, fucking wood. The arrow tip was now a dagger. The fireplace poker was a spear. The back half of the arrow was a stake. She now possessed three weapons, and felt much improved.
But her hands would not stop shaking as she looked across the room at the vampire who casually righted a chair and sat down heavily in it, raking his fingers through his hair. He didn't even watch her as she put more distance between them.
"Watch your back," he murmured. "You've got it toward the open deck, and I have no idea what they'll try to pull."
"They! Who's they?"
"A strong second-level and her girls."
"She's whack, D, with a serious hit of old Neteru in her from a nasty potion. I don't know all the details about what's in it or how they actually made it, but you can't go fucking with this chick. You hear me?" He looked at her squarely, his gaze unwavering. "For once in your life, I want you to listen to what I've gotta say."
Damali waited, and put her back against one of the stone walls.
"She's in a lot of pain, baby. Twisted." His voice trailed off and he stood and glanced away.
His sudden motion made Damali's muscles tense and move counterclockwise as Carlos walked. He kept his back to her, but she was fully aware of how fast he could spin and strike, if he were of a mind to do so. Pure survival instinct bubbled within her. She sensed something within him that was borderline. She picked up a threat from him, not sure why, but didn't really care. As long as he was talking, not getting close, keeping a relaxed posture, his back toward her, she could deal - a little. However, the fact that his mind was sealed was possibly the worst part of it all.
"You don't want to see what I have in my head," he said quietly, not facing her.
"Why not? You always shared with me before - we didn't have secrets. Then you kept critical info from me about all this shit going down in Brazil. I don't like it."
"I know. Neither do I." He stopped moving and leaned on the mantel of the hearth. "Some things about me you don't need to see... like that transformation. It scared the shit out of you. I never wanted you to see me out of human form. Mist is one thing, but as animal - that's something else." He glanced over his shoulder. "Yeah, I can see it in your eyes. And if you thought that was a mindblower, you should see me in a full hunt when I bring down my prey." His gaze slipped away from her again. "Tried to tell you what I am."
Her stance relaxed. The truth in his words eased her fist out of a clench, but the tightness of her hands went to the muscles around her heart. His form began to blur as she fought back tears. She wiped her face.
"Damali, go home. Get on the next thing smoking. Get your team out of harm's way. Some things you can't fight."
"So, I'm supposed to just leave here with a crazy second-level female vamp on the loose, killing innocent people?"
He turned and stared at her. "In a word, yes. I'll handle it."
She returned the glare. "How long do you think it will be before she comes to find me, and - "
"Months." He looked away.
"That will give you time to get out of Dodge, move the compound, and she won't be concerned with - "
"Move the compound? Are you crazy? I didn't even run from the vamp empire in Hell!"
"You need to run from this, D. Call it defensive measures, if it will help your ego." He walked away, kicked the overturned table, and' leaned on the wall with both hands.
"Yeah, your ego!" he shouted. "Let this go, D, before you have to deal with something that's gonna kick your ass and crush your heart!" He spun and stared at her hard.
The brimming tears had long burned away from her eyes, and what glittered in them was pure defiance. He shook his head.
"This isn't ego. I am the Neteru. I don't run." She sniffed the air. "Sulfur." Her gaze narrowed. "You were with it, weren't you? What kind of demon is it?"
He didn't answer her immediately. "I keep telling you that she's not a demon. She's a female - "
"I don't care what it was. Why didn't you smoke it, if you knew it might double back and come for me?"
He looked away. "Baby... It got confusing out there. It was in a lot of pain. I was trying to - "
"You hesitated." She looked at him hard, her glare boring into his back until he faced her. "You told me that I was the one who was blind. You came into my compound and demonstrated for me what a lapse in judgment could cost me. Right?"
He couldn't respond.
"You came into my house and showed me the deal. Now I'm standing here in yours telling you the same thing. That was no female vampire. It's a demon!" She swallowed hard and looked beyond the deck. "What hurts me so bad, Carlos, is that I don't trust you anymore." She returned her gaze to him, trying to keep the emotion out of her voice as he looked at one of the torches on the wall. "If what came in here is part of her squad, and they came in animal form, then she's a were-demon - and you'd better not get it twisted."
Carlos shook his head. "No," he said quietly. "She's just an older female that took some shit that - "
"Listen to yourself!" she shouted, her voice catching in her throat. "I don't care what she is, she came up from Hell!" Damali took in two deep breaths trying to stabilize her voice. She pointed at him with the fireplace poker. "My job as a Neteru is to exterminate anything that comes up from underground." Their eyes met. "Anything," she said evenly, her gaze locking with his. "And I, as you recently told me, have not been handling my business."
"We both haven't," he said quietly. There was no anger in his tone, not even defensiveness. "And here we are again, like old times, at philosophical odds." He sighed and looked beyond the deck. "You're supposed to be planting that wood in your hand in my chest, right about through here - and I'm supposed to be fully compromising you and anything human around you... for the cause. Your people against my people. But that is not what we've been doing during those ten nights." He chuckled sadly. "You've gone against everything your people told you about me, and I've been lying and ducking and dodging trying to keep mine at bay just to be with you. I got weary of the struggle tonight."
He pushed himself off the mantel and went to stand in the opening of the deck, just looking out at the moon, and allowing the breeze to capture him. He could feel a spike of anxiety shoot through her system. It wasn't normal fight-or-flight hormone; it was fear, but not terror. It was so dense and heavy that it practically colored the air gray.
"She's more to you than just some... You were gone a long time - and you didn't dust her."
He heard her swallow, and heard the response to his possible betrayal in her tense whisper. She'd been right. He didn't dust a threat to her. At the moment, he wasn't sure why. And that potential threat had sent in a posse to hunt his baby, against his direct command. Crazy thing was, he didn't attack them, just made them go away. He'd found himself rationalizing the whole episode, giving the offenders pardon in his mind, telling himself that the only reason the mysterious female had disobeyed him was because she was blitzed - like that should have mattered.
And it deeply disturbed him that he was trying to protect two females at once, for some unfathomable reason... his main woman, Damali, and this new, exciting, captivating thing that had temporarily blown his mind. Nothing he could say at this juncture would make this sound right, because it wasn't. There was nothing to draw from to mask this, to convert it into a pretty picture. Even as a master of illusion, he didn't have a quick line that could make this be all right.
"She's one of your lair whores, now... is that it?"
"She's something more deadly than that," he stated evenly and turned to face her. If he couldn't give Damali anything else, at least she deserved the truth. She needed to know, by what was said and unsaid, the depth of the thing that he'd been in denial about for the ten nights he'd spent with her. It was only a matter of time before his will gave out. It had frayed so badly out in the wilderness that there was no sense in playing with himself or her about it. He could still taste this mystery woman in the back of his throat, she was in his nose, on his skin, and he knew as sure as sunset that he'd set her up in his main villa in Brazil... and would visit her often. Might even bring her fresh kill.
"I'm a master vampire. From this, baby, you run." What else was there to say when she just stared at him battling tears and swallowing hard?
The look on her face couldn't have been worse if he'd driven a knife through her heart. Shock fused with hurt, becoming rage, turning into pain in a slow dawning. He'd never ever seen the fight knocked out of her, and it pained him to no end that he'd been the one to deliver the blow. It was all in her eyes, those beautiful, brown, pain-stricken eyes. But he also had to be real. If they had no future, not one he could live with for her sake, then now was the time to end things. Ending on the truth was the most honorable solution. He owed her at least that much.
Damali slowly lowered her weapons. There was no fear, no anger, just total defeat in her expression. She understood what he was saying. He let his breath out hard and looked away. All resistance had gone out of her body, and she was sipping air slowly. She shook her head in a painful rhythm of disbelief. He glanced back at her, unable to break the spell she always had on him. He absorbed her hurt as he watched the brass poker fall, then the arrow tip, and then the wooden stake made from it. The clatter against the hard surface pierced his ears. He saw her hand slowly sweep down her chest as though trying to restart her own heart, and he turned and continued to stand before the open deck doors, staring up at the moon.
In that moment, that inner part of him that still remembered what it was like to have a soul wept, though not a single tear fell. His insides were bleeding, but there was nothing he could do. She was so stubborn, yet deserved the truth. How could he promise her what he couldn't even promise himself? He had felt the primal pull of the beast within him, and the reaction he'd had toward the new female had been visceral. Lust and ambition drowned him, and was encoded within the deep lake of his loins, the need to procreate - turn humans to replace his territorial losses, create solid lieutenants, to build an empire, to mate with his own kind - the undead - but it wasn't love. She had to understand that. He wanted Damali safe, out of harm's way, but he also needed to do what he had to do. He heard her swallow again, hard, and knew no tears were flowing. She was sucking it up, and the river of pain in her was the tributary.
"I should get you back to the hotel," he said softly, not taking a step toward her.
She only nodded. He waited.
"You want her that much?" Damali was barely breathing when she finally spoke.
He didn't answer. She took the silence as his answer. Damali turned and looked him in the eye. She didn't use her gift, or any special powers. And that look, more than a wooden stake, more than a silver blade, stripped the air from his lungs and sent a hurt so deep into his core that he almost couldn't stand. But he also couldn't look away from that source of profound agony. The priests had told him to block the shot. He'd ripped out her heart, instead.
"I just have one question," she said in a quiet, defeated voice. Her gaze never wavered. Her chin lifted with dignity. Her bottom lip quivered as she breathed. Yet her stance was firm. "All that time, when you were with me... how much of it was me... and how much of it was your desire to conquer the Neteru?"
It must have stripped her bare to bring that question to her lips. The brutal honesty in it filleted him. Shame washed through him that she would even have to ask. He'd been wrong; there was no ego in this struggle. He couldn't breathe; much less answer her question. Didn't she know? He had loved her when he was a living man. Had loved her when they were kids. Had wanted her so badly some nights that he thought he'd lose his mind. She was the only woman in his life that had ever turned down all that he had, wasn't the least bit interested in material gain or what he could do for her, and had worried about him - the man, the vampire - had tried to protect something so ephemeral as his soul.
And for the same reasons then, that were repeating themselves now, he'd pushed her away to protect her. Conquer her? Never. He'd been the one who had surrendered. She was the embodiment of everything that had ever been good, and right, and real in his world. Nothing could replace that, but everything could take it away.
This attack sadly proved his theory. He had hoped he'd been wrong. But he also knew better than to hope for something so tenuous. He knew his kind, and how they operated. As above in the drug life, so below in the underworld. It was a warning for him to make a decision, and make it fast. By the time he'd reentered the lair, he had made his decision. He would take the offer he couldn't refuse and block the shot - and it had less to do about him than it did Damali's personal safety. He'd use his forces to protect her as long as he could, then those at higher levels in the upper realms would have to do their thing. He couldn't guard her forever, nor could he block the shot indefinitely. One day her heart would get broken, one way or another. He'd had time to ponder that truth. So, now, or seven years from now - which was such a short time anyway when one considered eternity - what difference did it make?
There would come a time when he was away, distracted, or couldn't get to her. Then what? He'd rather let her go than see her torn apart by the myriad of predators Hell could unleash. He'd rather give the Devil her due, and appease the beast, cut a deal, a compromise, than to ever draw Damali into the complex cesspool that surrounded him.
She nodded, but didn't understand his silence. "If I'm lucky, I'll get old one day." She chuckled quietly. It was the hard, hollow sound that came from bitter resignation. "You won't. My body will get flabby. My hair will gray. My eyes will dim. My blade hand will tremble with arthritis. My womb will remain empty. But I will look back and remember ten nights when I loved a man with my entire soul till I saw lights. If I have nothing else, even if it wasn't real to you, I will have known what it was like to be ready to die for someone."
Her admission in the wake of all she thought about him, all that she assumed, tore him apart. He sucked in a huge breath, trying to think of how to explain. "I loved you, too, baby," was all he could whisper.
She stared at him. "Loved. Past tense," she said. "I still love you, and I don't even know why." She collected the arrow tip, and stood facing him. "Please, take me back to my family." When he moved toward her, she held up her hand. "If you choose to walk this path, and you have, I will hunt you. Not out of revenge. Not out of spite. But if you go completely dark, take bodies, turn victims, or aid another vampire - male or female - in doing said same, I will hunt you down and kill you. We can end this tonight."
He saw the resignation not the defeat in her, and knew the next time they encountered each other it would be a fight to the death. How was he supposed to stand against that?
"If you win, all I ask is that you don't turn me. Let me go out with honor." She lifted her chin higher, her back straight. "Don't feed on me, or allow my body to be desecrated like that - you owe me that much." Her voice was calm, even, and controlled, but her eyes said it all. "And keep the same seal on my people, my family, the clerics. You owe us all that much. And, just for the record, don't you ever again not trust me to do my job, which is hunting vampires."
He backed away from her, appalled, shaking his head. "I could never do that," he whispered, sickened by what she proposed. "And they'll always have my seal." He shook his head. "How could I desecrate you?"
She nodded and rubbed a sudden chill from her arms. "In many ways, I suppose you already have."