The Hunted



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Three nights later...

"Marlene said the Vlak hit and the Amazon soul recovery wrote itself into the Neteru Temt Tchaas - that book actually authors itself when stuff goes down," Damali murmured, looking over her glass of wine. She smiled and raised her eyebrow, gauging Carlos's suddenly poker-faced expression. "Her guardians are no longer scorched out of the book."

"Yeah," he said in a forced casual tone, sending his line of vision beyond the deck toward the ocean. He wondered what the text might write about him one day, or Damali? If Damali was here to sway the balance of the Armageddon, then what role would he play? He was a part of the drama somehow, too... or else he wouldn't be in her space. He was beginning to understand the clerics' interest in him more and more. He wondered if she thought about things like that?

But the problem was, he'd not only had a seat in Nuit's old throne, but had also taken a sip from a black throne. The power of that combination left little room for deniability; he was a dark guardian growing darker. Shit... he needed to be real; he was a master vampire, council-level now. And what Damali could never understand was the fact that now a little of Nuit and Vlak was in him, he was stronger than she could imagine, and his thirst for power had just been heightened by a jolt from the old Roman Empire. "That's cool," he said after a moment. "I never got the twisted one's name."

Damali chuckled. "Uhmmm-hmmm, I know," she said standing, not answering his unspoken question. She set down her glass, sashayed out toward the moonlight, and held onto the rail, giving him a mischievous glance over her shoulder. "I'll never tell you that, brother."

Coming up behind her, he laughed low next to her ear. "See, why you keep going there, woman?"

"Father Patrick said, 'Hi,'" she replied, chuckling deeper, avoiding the question and another caress. "The fellas are doing well, too. Kamal's crew is most excellent and said thanks again for what you did for them and Dominique. But poor Padre Lopez..." She winked at him and her smile widened.

"Is he all right?" Carlos asked, truly concerned. Guilt accosted him as he thought back on the images he'd sent the young priest.

"What did you do to him, Carlos?" She was smiling brightly with her head cocked to the side, pure mischief glittering in her eyes.

"That, I'll never tell you," he said, grinning despite his concern. "But is the man okay?"

"They wouldn't explain his issues, but said he's going into the Episcopal seminary - since he really wants to get married, but still wants to be a man of the cloth." She made a little tsking sound with her tongue and giggled. "Carlos Rivera, you should be ashamed of yourself. Ten demerits and twenty-five Hail Mary's."

He laughed. "Well, at least I didn't bite him. And he's still on his own religious path... even if celibacy is gonna be a problem for him, now." Carlos sent his gaze out into the night and shook his head. This had been some mad-crazy drama.

She cast a sheepish glance in his direction, which he tried his best to ignore. "Oh, yeah," she said in a merry tone. "Kamal hooked up my passport - his peeps are good. Everybody is cool. And a little birdie told Berkfield that you had fled the country, so that poor man could rest. He was worried about you, too, Carlos, strange as that might sound. He was seriously relieved when he found out you weren't dead."

"He's cool people," Carlos replied in a distant voice, still thinking about all the human beings he'd affected one way or another. He wouldn't verbally address the fact that they all seemed to forget; he was dead. But the way she kept glancing at him with a teasing, playful expression made him reach for her.

She squealed and dodged his touch, hopping down the deck steps out onto a grassy clearing. She spun around under the moonlight, her arms wide, laughing, and intermittently running from his grasp, making him laugh, too.

"You need to stop messing with me, girl," he warned playfully, but loving every minute of the way she made him feel. There were moments with her that he actually felt free and alive. She was the only one that seemed to be able to make him laugh, really laugh, hard from way down in his soul.

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing," he said by rote, then forced himself to smile. He sat down on the grass and looked out at the stars, just listening to the ocean pound the cliffs and the shore.

The thought of his soul was sobering, and he eclipsed her view of what was truly on his mind. The reality of the future and his new appointment to a dark throne weighed heavily on his conscience. He was more than a master, he was a council level vampire with province over an army, had continents at his behest, and after Nuit's demise, there were only four other masters topside running Asia and Europe, Africa, and Australia. North and South America, plus the Caribbean, were his. It was a serious responsibility.

They now wanted him to rule from a cavern below, and to possibly make another master and to carve up some of his old turf for the Aussie, to cover what would then be his open territories in South America and North America. That would bring the world pentagram back into alignment. Council would have the six available continent and fertile holdings from each area, and level seven would go after the biblical city where it all began. They wanted him in the war room planning the Armageddon with them. Too crazy.

And how did one choose to take a life, drop a body, and turn it into something abominable, after all he'd seen and all he now knew? He'd have to find someone with hatred and power-lust in their soul, a willing person like that, and bring them into his fold, according to the council. Then he'd have to surround himself with a team of five made lieutenants, one from each territory that reported to a topside master, and that had once been like him - on a mission, jaded, and with no remorse. It would be a power trust of nearly invincible vampires wreaking havoc topside... and making second- and third-generation vamps to restore the broken ranks on every continent of the globe. Damali was supposed to combat that nexus of evil, and he was to protect her, as well as keep his soul ever elevating toward the light. Bullshit. How?

He glimpsed Damali's concerned expression as she came to him and sat down before him. He cast away her worries from his mental space as he continued to study the midnight-blue Heaven. She couldn't fix this. Nobody could. There was no sense in bringing her down. Time was not on his side, and soon there'd be no getting around the issue. If he didn't comply, the Vampire Council would figure out his duplicity, yet again. It wouldn't be long until they found out that he loved her so much that all their power didn't matter - that he'd been playing them, kicking game hard. He respected that they weren't stupid, only power drunk; there was a difference. But what if the shit got good to him? He wasn't above being seduced; he'd learned that much in Brazil. Even an old priest felt that coming... so did his woman.

Plus, the council already knew his weak spot - her. Already knew he had a soul caught between the upper and lower realms. They also had operatives everywhere. He couldn't play both ends against the middle forever. The only sliver of hope was what he'd told them about her; if she continued to sense he had a soul in Purgatory, she'd willingly stay at his side. But that would only buy seven years of temporary amnesty - maybe. After that...

Carlos sighed, his gaze set harder on the dark horizon. These three nights were only a military-type furlough for what the Vampire Council considered a job well done. He had twenty-seven more nights, and then his reality would permanently change. One month's leave to overindulge in the hedonistic pleasures of the earth - then they wanted him down on six, handling business from a power throne. A month. That was only a whisper in time when one considered eternity. A deep sadness filled him.

A part of him also grieved the loss of the Amazon - he could relate to her pain, her anger, and her righteous indignation... and even understand what had sent her down the wrong path. That much they shared in common; not knowing the full consequences of their actions before it was too late, then having no way to retreat from a very bad choice. Not to mention, all the people Damali had spoken of would be at extreme risk if he didn't somehow figure out a way to play this hand right. More important, she'd be at risk to his ever-darkening self.

"Seriously, baby. What's the matter?" Her voice was so tender it hurt to hear it.

"Nothing," he finally said in a far-off tone. "I just have a lot on my mind." That truth was as mirth-killing as the thought of what it would be like to, for once, hold her near and have her be able to listen to the sound of his heartbeat.

He watched the sudden joy in her vanish, stealing her playfulness away as the blue-white light of the moon glowed against her skin, making her appear to be an angel. Her bare feet against the damp grass, a sheath of white silk covering her... she was, in his mind, an angel. A wild, off-the-hook, sexy variable that had blessed him with her temporary company. But what was an angel doing with a dark entity like him?

"I'ma need to take you home, soon," he said quietly, as she leaned forward and touched his cheek with a worried look in her eyes.

"Why? Pourquoi? The night is young, and you've just spoiled me rotten with all that food in there... mangoes, and - "

"Because it's late," he said gently, touching her hair, lifting her locks over her shoulders and studying their soft beauty in his hands. "The Vampire Council knows my situation and probably how I feel about you, which they'll leverage against me soon. The Covenant will be looking for me. Right now, I'm only allowed this little bit of freedom because the Vampire Council knows you're safer with me than anyone or anything else topside at the moment. And, sooner or later, you've got work to do, too."

"And why is that a problem?" She tilted her head to the side, her eyes searching his. "If the Vampire Council thinks you're protecting their cargo, and the Covenant is happy with the eleven-hundred souls weight you just helped deliver, and all the recent demon conquests worked out fine, then - "

"Because I'm getting too used to this. One night I might not wanna let you go. That could be dangerous for us both."

She shrugged and kissed him gently. "I might not want to go one night when you should let me go, and I oughta leave. But that's a problem years away. Seven years away. I'm a big girl, and can handle myself. Learn to enjoy the moment, mon, every delicious beat in de music."

She smiled, even though it was tinged with sadness. She'd tried to make him laugh by badly mimicking Kamal's accent - but it wasn't working. Defeated, her shoulders sagged and she stroked his arm.

"Carlos, tomorrow, something else could happen, so... so flow with the beat while we have one."

He kissed her softly and took her hand, intent on ending what was becoming another serious addiction. "I can't feel certain beats, especially not the heart ones. Okay?"

She nodded, motioning toward the edge of the cliff with her chin. "Try something with me, and then I promise I'll go home." She stood and held out her hand to him.

He sighed, accepted her palm within his, and got up to follow her. She was so wonderfully exasperating at times, but she had no concept of what was going on behind the scenes, or how badly he wanted to make her live forever.

"Come over here, near the edge of this cliff so we can see the water. Then, sit down, and loop your legs over mine like this," she ordered, smoothing out the sheath of white silk nightgown over both their legs. "There's an old Ethiopian proverb: he who conceals his disease cannot be cured. Let me work on you with a little balm, okay?"

"All right, then what?" He smiled, despite his determination to remain somber. Even the contrast of what they had on said it all. Her white silk gown; his black silk pajama pants. Same fabric, but way different energies.

"Listen to the waves... and match your hand up with mine, but don't touch it. Just hold it close." She inhaled the salt air that rode on the breeze.

He complied, now intrigued. He knew Kamal and Marlene had taught her some new stuff, but to experience it was a curiosity that he couldn't resist. He could taste the salt in the air with her. That wasn't new, but in this context, it was working on his resolve to send her away. Yeah, he was definitely fascinated. Perhaps something more than that, as he watched her take slow breaths, and those wide brown irises of hers began to fade behind her pupils. In the moonlight, she was stunning.

"D, you know I can't do this, not with your eyes, and - "

"Shush," she whispered. "Listen to the waves. Relax. Concentrate. Breathe slowly and easy. Become one with the sound."

A slow heat formed in the center of his palm after a while, the sound of the surf pulsing in it. Her hand came nearer, only millimeters from his, and he could almost swear a mild current ran between both their splayed palms. But her eyes, just listing to the waves and searching the depths of them... hearing her heart, too, echo that same rhythm. He'd seen so much, but not this with her. Across the miles it was different, just a vibe, a thought transference. This was something so profound that he wasn't sure how to react to it. He knew of the balm technique, how to do it, how to send the feeling of platonic healing like he did with the were, or the sudden heat of seduction without direct touch, but had never experienced this calm bonding with her. Then she shut her eyes and moved her hand to the center of his bare chest and pressed against it slowly. Warmth radiated within him, sending peace, and love, and simple joy so sacred that he was forced to close his eyes to experience it. Reverence followed.

It felt like her hand was throbbing where it landed, but the sensation came from within the hollow cavity he owned. The internal muscles around where her hand lay constricted to the same steady cadence of a throb, like a pulse, like the ocean slamming against the cliffs, then receding. Startled, he opened his eyes, and laid his hand over her heart in response.

He could feel everything he'd ever dreamed that was good and right leave him and enter her, pick up her thudding heart rhythm, and reenter him. They sat that way for a long time, emotion welling in him to the point where moisture crept to his eyes. She'd shared her pulse. Her essence of life. His dreams and caring ran through her, passed through her aorta, and entered his, like a shared value, giving, receiving in a closed-loop exchange.

"See," she finally murmured. "It's all good. You have a heartbeat... you can feel things."

"It's in the palm of your hand," he whispered, awed.

"And in your skin," she said quietly.

"And in your thoughts."

She nodded. "In your touch."

He traced her jaw. "You still want to go home?"

She smiled. "That was what you wanted."

"Did I?"

She chuckled. "Uhmmm-hmmm."

"My bad." He looked at her, allowing his finger to trace her collarbone under the moonlight. She was right. His thoughts were hers and hers had become his in the sensual transfer, the sharing of her pulse. Now the throb burned somewhere else.

"See how synched up we are?"

He smiled, tracing her arm with the flat of his palm. "Want me to show you another way to synch up?"

"My wish came true," she murmured with a smile, breaking the three-knotted bracelet around her wrist that a child in Salvador had given her, then tossed it over the cliff into the sea.

He nodded. "Just local superstition, baby."

She looked at this man who'd been willing to give his soul for her, and twice she'd almost lost him to forces so dark that it made her shudder. She let her eyes leave his to trail down his chest and settle on the brand. No, he was hers, marked, and she wasn't about to let go of him without a fight. She would claim him for herself, as well as for her side... just like Marlene had said to, with authority.

"Yeah... might be a silly superstition, but it may be good luck, anyway. Who knows?" She looked up at him, captured by his intense, sensual stare. "You want me to leave you?"

He shook his head. "Naahhh, we've still got time."
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