Once the choppers touched down in Lhasa, it was obvious to them all. No one was fooled by the general's cocky display;the U.S. arm of the world organization had obviously levied serious pressure to reacquire its own force.

Marines stood at attention. Two heavily decorated men stepped forward, nodded to General Quai Lou, and approached the Guardian squad.

’’I'm General McHenry,’’ the first man said, his hard hazel eyes scouring the group. ’’This is General Swainkoff,’’ he added, gesturing toward the silent man with a steel gray stare. ’’You've been briefed. We have a situation.’’

The team looked at the huge military plane before them and shared glances of concern.

’’You suit up on the plane. We have weaponry you'll need. Military-reinforced Humvees will pick you up at LAX, and our drivers will take you wherever you need to go to quell the disturbance.’’

’’What disturbance?’’ Damali asked, thrusting her chin up as Carlos folded his arms in defiance.

’’The gates of Hell have literally opened up, ma'am,’’ General McHenry said;then he and General Swainkoff turned, received a salute from their line, and walked up the steps of the plane.

Carlos leaned forward, his gaze sweeping the marines that never blinked on the team's flank. ’’Number one, I don't like being in the air at night any more than you do, but if what they say is true, and Highway 405 and the 10 are blocked with multicar pileups and bodies, plus the 110, the 105, and the 101 are all f*ked up, I don't see any other way in, except for side streets, which are treacherous.’’ He looked at Damali for confirmation and support. Receiving her nod, he pressed on. ’’Number two;if downtown L.A. is already burning, it seems a little late. Whatever was there has come and gone, most likely. We've gotta chopper in using Black Hawks, then we'll do this the old-fashioned way, on foot.’’

’’Yeah, but the problem is,’’ Shabazz said, ’’we don't know exactly what we're looking for. We know it's the Chairman, but how do you find that rat bastard? Lilith was our only way to draw him out when she made a grab for Carlos.’’ Shabazz's cool glare held all eyes.

’’We've got one serious demon down, one more to go,’’ Damali said. ’’It's - ’’

’’We've got two more to go, baby,’’ Carlos said, his gaze raking the team geared in black fatigues and strapped to the hilt with weapons.

’’Two?’’ she said, dropping her voice to pull the team in closer, never leaving Carlos's gaze. ’’Talk to me.’’

’’Why do you think I blocked your slice at the Chairman's throat?’’

Bodies eased back discreetly. Looks of concern rippled down the flight bench. Carlos's eyes darkened.

’’You kill him first, and The Book of the Damned will open inside the one from Level Seven, and he'll have access to everything in it. You think what the generals told us about was the actual Armageddon?’’ Carlos shook his head. ’’This ain't shit. This is practice, a warm-up session for them.’’

’’Then, what do you propose?’’ Damali said. She kept her gaze focused on Carlos's eyes.

’’We have to do a simultaneous hit and make a grab for the book. Both of them have to be in the same location at the same time to pull it off.’’

’’That's the point, dude,’’ Rider said, blowing out a hard breath. ’’Damali isn't in phase, so there's no draw. You make the males battle nuts, but we still don't own a target location.’’

’’Wait a minute,’’ Damali said, still holding Carlos's gaze. ’’When the Chairman attacked, he said something about things coming full circle.’’

’’I hear you, and he said he'd meet me in Hell, where I was born,’’ Carlos said, shaking his head. ’’But this ain't the time to take a squad to a subterranean level, baby.’’

’’Word,’’ Big Mike said, pounding several fists. ’’Suicide.’’

Damali's gaze drifted toward the window, manipulating the puzzle pieces in her mind. ’’That's not where you were born,’’ she said, her voice distant. ’’At least not to his empire.’’

Carlos stared at her.

’’Where were you born, Carlos?’’ Damali said, her voice an urgent murmur. ’’Where did you receive the turn bite?’’

Carlos absently rubbed the side of his neck. A shiver of memory made the invisible tattoo over the wound burn. ’’In the woods... when I handed off money to Nuit.’’

Damali nodded. ’’But it wasn't Nuit's bite. It was the Chairman's that created the discrepancy with supernatural law. Right?’’ Her eyes scanned the group. ’’That's a power center for him and for you, because he turned you instantly, didn't observe the dead-three-nights rule.’’

’’Well, it's gotta be a lucky place for hombre,’’ Jose said with a nervous smile. ’’One small technicality and our brother would have been locked down for life.’’

’’That's a very dangerous place,’’ Carlos said quietly. ’’You might stand a better chance underground.’’

Damali stared at him until he lifted his gaze. ’’I know that place brings back white knuckles for you, but I've gotchure back out there.’’

He stared at her. The team passed nervous glances. ’’You don't want to face him out there.’’

’’We did the chamber and have been to every dark Level, except Seven,’’ she said calmly, holding the line. ’’We can do the woods topside.’’

Carlos shook his head. ’’This ain't like before.’’

’’Why not?’’ Damali asked, her voice calm but firm as she covered Carlos's hand with her own. ’’We'll smoke the bastard, trust me. Just tell me what he looks like?’’

Carlos's eyes darkened until tiny slivers of silver could be seen within them. ’’That's just the problem. He looks like me.’’

The military cargo plane had to touch down in LAX because of size, but the team didn't care if it landed on an accident-blocked highway, just as long as it wasn't in the air. Several hours from Lhasa, after a brief refueling stop in Manila, twenty-some hours in flight, and almost forty-eight hours with no sleep, the team was nearly ill from inhaling fumes. Pure adrenaline kept them from passing out as they flew from day into night, thirteen hours behind where they'd been, as though flying back in time.

But the moment the aircraft circled the area and started its descent under a sky lit by a full moon, they all pressed their noses to the windows. Billowing black smoke raged from tall buildings. Unmoving fire trucks flashed red lights, and sat abandoned. Cars were smashed and twisted around poles or crunched upon each other. Bodies lay strewn in piles, littering the streets like tiny specs of paper. Damali covered her mouth, unable to fathom mobs of people moving in masses like frightened herds of sheep, a large glob of humanity running one way and then shifting in another direction as something unseen chased them.

’’The airport, like the city, is under martial law,’’ General McHenry said over the intercom. ’’The moment we touch down, we'll cover your team and you head for the Black Hawks.’’

’’Roger,’’ Rider whispered as they got closer to the ground.

The team stared in shock as large were-demons materialized, and they saw what the crowds were running from. Huge beasts stood atop piles of bodies, feasting, lifting their ugly heads occasionally to snarl at each other as they fed. Black shadows darted in and out of bodies, turning frightened civilians on each other in sudden, random acts of violence.

Carlos closed his eyes and lowered his head as he saw a woman fleeing with her baby suddenly drop the flailing infant and stomp it.

’’Oh, Jesus,’’ Marlene said, cringing and jerking her sight away from the window. She began rocking. ’’Now, if ever before, this is a good time for the Twenty-third.’’

’’The Covenant should be here,’’ Big Mike said quietly, wiping his eyes.

’’They're where they should be,’’ Damali whispered. ’’Holding the line in vigil... just like Monk Lin had to stay in Lhasa.’’

’’You think Mei's family made it out, if people in the town turned, or anything else came up over there?’’ Rider said quietly, his line of vision glued to the window as the plane touched down, bounced over bodies, and sucked several fleeing victims into the engines.

’’Yeah,’’ Damali said, breathing hard. She stood as the plane screeched to a stop. ’’We pray. We get out. We do this. Gotta stop the madness.’’

Carlos stood slowly. He looked at the marines around them. ’’You all are just babies, no more than eighteen. Probably never jaywalked in your lives, let alone dropped a body or disobeyed a direct order.’’ Carlos took the safety off his weapon and his eyes met confused, disoriented stares. ’’When your generals and the pilots come out, if their eyes are black - shoot 'em.’’

The marines were on their feet in seconds, their guns leveled at Carlos. But when the doors to the cockpit blew open and black, glowing eyes stared at them, the Guardian team's sharpshooters did the honors. Rider and Shabazz opened fire in neat, calm, coordinated trigger pulls. Green gook splattered. Two young marines upchucked;all were frozen for two seconds past too late where they stood.

’’Mar had you covered in here,’’ Damali said. ’’She set a prayer barrier for all present. Those guys up front, nonbelievers. You saw for yourselves, the weapons help, but ain't your first line of defense.’’ She nodded at Dan, Shabazz, and Berkfield. ’’Pull 'em out.’’

They extracted their dog tags, showing a Star of David, a crescent, and a cross.

’’J.L., you got a Buddha on you?’’

J.L. nodded and whipped out his dog tags.

Damali's eyes raked each enlisted man. ’’It doesn't matter which faith, as long as the foundation is about the Most High, the divine. If you believe and haven't already been contaminated, you won't be possessed. If you're not possessed, you've got a fighting chance and can use the conventional weapons to fend off whatever might try to eat you. But don't hold up any of these if you've been bullshitting about having faith. Fangs will take your throat.’’ She spun and looked at Marlene. ’’Before those helicopter pilots take us up, make sure those boys are straight, Mar. That's all we need is for a chopper to go down. Blowing Harpies out the air will be bad enough.’’

Damali's lungs felt like they were on fire as she dashed across the runway to the waiting choppers. She took the lead, clearing the way, mowing down anything that lunged or slithered in their path. Carlos had the rear;Mike, Shabazz, and Rider kept flanks clear, while J.L., Jose, Berkfield, and Dan made body shields to protect the team's newbies.

Marlene prayed faster than Damali ever saw her pray, splashing young frightened foreheads with water and oil, and scattering sea salts and herbs on chopper floors, where they were crushed under steel-toed army boots.

The first chopper lifted, tilted, and swayed as something unseen adhered to its side.

’’Mike, underneath!’’ Damali shouted, leaning out the door as the helicopter in front of them dangerously tipped.

Rider hooked his harness to a side rail, leaned out, took dead aim, and splattered a Harpie so the chopper could right itself. Shabazz got two more headed for the blades, splattering vile demon innards on the roof and window. Mike saluted and leaned back. The second chopper went airborne as an approaching jumbo jet took a nosedive, burst into flames, and sent fuselage down the runway they'd just vacated.

The team members glanced at one another;the pilots glimpsed out the window and then never looked back.

Carlos sat immobilized. What they'd witnessed from the plane was brought to them in full sense-around-sound so close to the action in a chopper. L.A. International was lit with military machine-gun fire, sending red-and-blue streaks through the complex. Smoke was pouring out of every building orifice, windows were smashed, glass was everywhere. If this was the airport, East L.A. was gonna bring him to tears.

His mind kept going over the same thought like a broken record: the people - and the babies, children, dear God.

Storefronts had been looted and torched. Houses reduced to rubble. Streets were impassable. They saw it all from the air. Churches and mosques and temples were on fire - hallowed ground kept out demons, but there was more than one way to get to food... smoke it out. Carlos closed his eyes and slowly leaned back against the seat, his ears soaking in the shrill screams and mayhem as the chopper blades kept a steady beat in the smoke-darkened sky.

Every sense in him told him Damali was right. The Chairman came here to pick a fight. Right in his own backyard. Just like he'd brought the pain to the Chairman. Fair exchange was no robbery. He'd desecrated the Chairman's black hole on Level Six, now the Chairman was back to return the favor.

The most horrifying part of it all was he'd actually helped the bastard do it. When he'd been taken over, before the black separation within himself, he'd turned Hell out. Now it needed somewhere to live. L.A. was a perfect place. There was no such thing as homeland security. If there was bullshit going down, anywhere on the planet, you could run, but you couldn't hide... taking out one cell at a. time, one level at a time, was futile.

Carlos opened his eyes as he felt the sting on his neck turn into a throb, then an ache, and then a wet stabbing pain. He looked at his bloodied hand, glanced at the trees below, and signaled to the pilots to touch down in the small clearing that began it all.

’’Your neck is bleeding,’’ Damali shouted over the choppers.

’’Douse it!’’ Rider hollered, his eyes frantically going from Carlos's gaping wound to Marlene.

’’It's an old scar,’’ Carlos said. ’’Just chickens coming home to roost.’’ He waved Marlene off and winced, and then jumped down as the Neteru tattoo heated, sizzled, and sealed the old vampire bite.

Damali jumped down behind him, motioning for the team to disembark. ’’Push those choppers back, but stay near,’’ she yelled over the thudding whirl. ’’If we have to use explosives, you're sitting ducks.’’ She glanced back at the team. ’’Goggles, on, all equipment readied.’’

The pilots nodded and lifted off, seeming too happy to oblige the request. Soon their airborne blades became distant, but the team briefly shut their eyes when a double explosion sounded overhead.

’’One of 'em was just a kid,’’ Damali said, not looking back. She glanced at Marjorie's tear-filled eyes and sent her gaze into the darkness. ’’Rest their souls in peace.’’

’’Ashe,’’ Marlene murmured and began trudging behind Damali saying the Twenty-third Psalm.

’’I wish Mar had her stick,’’ Shabazz said in a quiet tone moving forward. ’’It's been with her since forever. Now it's up in the Tibetan mountains under fifty feet of packed ice.’’

’’Monk Lin will get it,’’ Marlene said absently. ’’It'll rise and come home, as always.’’

Rider fingered his dog tag and then dropped it, remembering that his amulet had been given away. ’’If wishes were fishes, we'd all be free.’’ He said quietly, no sarcasm in his tone. ’’Just like we all wish D had her long blade out here.’’

Carlos abruptly halted, and the group stopped forward motion behind him. All eyes except Carlos's and Damali's strained in the dark behind goggles. Ears listened intently. Jumpy nerves made muscles twitch as the slightest movement from the wind and small woodland creatures cut into their senses.

Carlos cocked his head to the side, sniffed and relaxed. ’’Que pasa, man!’’ He stepped forward toward Yonnie who walked into the clearing. ’’Damn, am I glad to see you.’’

Damali's hand landed gently on Carlos's arm as she stared at the expression on Yonnie's face. ’’You're in apex, baby. Stay downwind from your boy.’’

Carlos backed up. ’’Yo, man. It's me. You cool?’’

The group leveled artillery as Yonnie's eyes narrowed, glowed solid red, and his fangs glistened. Yonnie was already battle bulked, but Carlos had given the order to stand down.

’’Yo, yo, easy. Everybody chill. The brother has been out in this bullshit by himself, my scent is throwing him off, no doubt - ’’

A black arc knocked Carlos off his feet. When he landed beside Big Mike, his fatigues were smoldering in the center of his chest where the bolt struck. Were it not for Damali's brand, his chest cavity would have been split wide open and his heart would have been lying on the grass. Instantly Carlos raised a small shield in front of him, and then got up slowly with some help from Big Mike.

’’Want me to smoke this motherf*ker?’’ Mike asked, his shoulders knitting as he kept steady aim with a cannon.

’’No, that's all me, bro,’’ Rider said, keeping a blue light on Yonnie's chest.

’’This is between me and Carlos,’’ Yonnie said through his teeth. ’’No beef with the rest of the family.’’

Damali shook her head. ’’Can't let you go there, Yonnie. In a month, all this will be over. He's - ’’

’’I know what he is!’’ Yonnie shouted. ’’Go back to your team, Damali, and stay out of it!’’

Tara instantly materialized by Yonnie's side and hissed at Carlos. Members of the squad looked at each other, confused.

Rider kept a beam on Yonnie and walked forward several paces. ’’Tara, he's not himself, you ain't yourself. Stand downwind from him and both of you will be all right.’’

’’Shut up, Rider!’’ Tara snapped, her claws growing as she spoke. ’’After what he did to us, there won't be anything left to stand downwind from.’’

Before anybody could react, Tara and Yonnie had gone airborne. Carlos's shield blocked the first punch lobbed by Yonnie, but Tara got a good rake at his back. With Carlos in the center of the vicious attack, there was no way to shoot at the fast-moving creatures without risking a mortal injury to Carlos. Damali rushed forward to enter the fray, but a black bolt from Yonnie sent her hurling backward.

She was stunned, but just sucker-punched. The pulse was a weak one, a nice shove out of the way. When Damali flipped herself up, she was more angry than injured. But it was obvious that the beef had to do with more than Carlos's apex scent. The female, Tara, should have had the opposite reaction. Damali could also see Carlos blocking shots, but not landing any. When the vampires retreated for a moment to make another lunge, she was able to get by Carlos's side and unsheathe her baby Isis dagger.

’’Hold up! What did he do?’’

’’Tell her!’’ Yonnie said, breathing hard and snarling.

’’I don't know what you're talking about, man! I didn't do anything!’’

’’Liar!’’ Tara shouted, pointing at Carlos. ’’He won't reveal himself in front of you. He'd never want his beloved family to see the beast he's become.’’ Hot tears of rage filled Tara's gleaming red eyes.

’’She's telling the truth,’’ Rider said. ’’This ain't no scent-induced hysteria. I know my woman.’’

Yonnie nodded. ’’Then you won't have a problem with me and Carlos finishing this to ash.’’

Yonnie was airborne again, but to everyone's surprise, Carlos met him there, no shield in hand as they collided, snapped at each other, and landed, separated by twenty yards.

’’Before you try to rip out my heart, you need to at least tell me what I did to you?’’ Carlos glanced at Tara breathing hard. ’’I know I never did anything to you, girl, but have your back - the whole time when I was a master, and on Council, I never - ’’

’’You tried to rape me!’’ Tara shrieked, vanishing and coming to Yonnie's side. ’’He was your friend, you made him watch and left him for dead after you whipped him till there was no flesh left on his back!’’

Damali slowly lowered her blade as she stared at Carlos. Rider took the laser off Yonnie's chest and put it in the center of Carlos's head.

’’Tell them!’’ Tara screeched.

The agonized, shrill pitch of her voice forced Big Mike to cover his ears, and the goggle-wearing team members had to lift the audio sensors away from their heads as the technology failed. Carlos stood quietly, dazed, shaking his head no.

’’I bled out Gabrielle's house to bring him back - that's right, black-blood exchanges with every demon in the house, Mr. Chairman,’’ Tara yelled, sobs breaking up her complaint into raging sputters. ’’The only one I spared was Gabby, because she's like family. You remember family, Carlos? Family! She helped us, gave us a place to hide because of you, you bastard!’’

’’Not because of what you did to me, but because of what you did to her... I vowed,’’ Yonnie said, his hand stroking Tara's hair as he passed her, the force of his rage ripping up tree trunks and crashing down branches, ’’that if I ever regenerated, Chairman or not, I would personally rip out your heart or die trying.’’ His voice dipped to a vicious whisper. ’’Because we were family.’’

’’I'll help you,’’ Damali said quickly, thinking fast on her feet. ’’If you've got the right one.’’

She watched Yonnie pause. Carlos seemed so pained by the charges leveled against him, she could tell by the look on his face that he might not have been able to defend himself to the death. ’’He's not the Chairman,’’ Damali yelled across the distance. ’’There's two of them.’’

’’He has you under an illusion,’’ Yonnie bellowed, swirling up black storm clouds as his energy gathered for a final beat down.

’’He's a liar,’’ Tara shrieked, taking a battle stance.

’’I didn't do you like that, man. Would never...’’ Carlos's words trailed off as Yonnie shot the images into his mind.

Damali caught them, too, and she turned her head for a moment. But a flicker of movement caught her peripheral vision. ’’Yonnie, get down!’’

Yonnie ducked and yanked Tara low with him. A black bolt split a tall redwood, and the team opened fire toward the blackness. The Chairman materialized, his tail slicing bramble out of his way.

’’You fools,’’ he snarled, and sent an arc at Yonnie and Tara.

From some reservoir of memory, Carlos flipped, vanished, and his shield caught the bolt, placing him between Yonnie, Tara, and the Chairman, but his back was dangerously exposed to two predators that wanted his head.

’’Do you think I would allow him to waltz into Hell and simply take my throne by sitting his unworthy carcass in it?’’ The Chairman seethed, his voice so low it echoed like distant thunder and quaked the ground. ’’There is only one name that has ever been etched into my seat of power since the dawn of time - since the Garden, just like there's only one book! Mine. But the hand of a Neteru must release it from the current abductor, because a Neteru stole it. Kill him, and then this Carlos later, after he returns what is mine.’’ The Chairman paced and then turned his gaze on Damali and her team.

Snap instinct kicked in;she knew the Chairman was going for a hostage. If the team opened fire, Carlos was again on the wrong side of the heat. She reached out her hand without thinking about it. The Isis long blade filled it, replacing the baby Isis that hit the ground. She grasped Madame Isis, feeling its power coil up her arm and connect with everything Neteru within her. The gleaming silver edge deflected the Chairman's black magnetic bolt. Her team scrambled and took cover.

Slow clapping in the darkness ceased all action. Human and demon eyes alike turned toward the dark figure walking out of the brush. Damali's jaw went slack as she looked at a very dark version of Carlos with gleaming black eyes. Hearing about it and seeing it were definitely two different things.

The body double seemed amused as he straightened his custom-tailored suit. Yonnie and Tara backed away, their gazes jettisoning between the Carlos with the shield that protected them and the one that they now understood had tortured them without mercy. The Chairman bulked another head taller. The Carlos in a black Armani suit studied his manicure, unfazed.

’’All this drama for nothing. A waste of precious energy, just like all that chaos in L.A. is a waste. I'll have to clean that up later.’’ The dark Carlos smiled at Damali. ’’Sorry about what happened back at your place, baby, but if you would have relaxed, you would have enjoyed it more.’’

The Carlos she knew narrowed his eyes. Damali was sure something crazy was running through his head when he lowered his shield and it disappeared. Her man was two seconds from old-school, hand-to-hand combat at a very inopportune time. The team couldn't move;black paralysis suddenly held them where they stood. Shabazz's weapon melted in his grip;his yell echoed through the glen and connected with the screams of pain from the team. Dropped weapons became molten steel and useless, causing Shabazz and the others to forcibly disarm or lose a limb.

Yonnie and Tara were covered with a red, sizzling light that made them yell out in pain, but kept them caged. Giant iron shackles simultaneously lurched up out of the ground and clasped the Chairman's thickened ankles. It all happened in milliseconds. The Chairman hissed and twisted in outrage, darkening the already pitch-black sky. His fury turned the moon bloodred as he strained his wings against the air, only to lift a few feet and land again hard. The struggle the Chairman put up as he yelled and bellowed shook the trees and opened a wide cavern around his feet, splitting the earth and sending Harpies over the edges of it to claw at his huge legs.

’’He is also my father!’’ the Chairman shouted. ’’I will not be disinherited in the final days! I was first!’’

’’And the first shall be last and the last shall be first,’’ the dark Carlos said with a smug smile. ’’You should read all the books.’’ He shot an appreciative gaze toward Carlos. ’’Knowledge is power, right, hombre? Thanks for keeping a brother in the know. You had a lot in your head worth taking, especially her.’’

The dark Carlos chuckled and pointed at the Chairman as he surveyed the team. ’’Look at him, crying and whining about his father, when he should be ashamed that his mother was a real bitch. What was she, man? Hellhound, Harpie, some stray female demon shit around at the beginning before Pop had serious options? At least I can say Lilith was fine.’’ The entity looked at Carlos. ’’Your mother was pitifully human. That's the difference between me and you - no backbone. It's all genetics;Darwinian Law. The survival of the fittest.’’

Carlos stared at the evil version of himself, controlled fury unlike he'd ever known roiled within him. But this abomination of all that he was had let on to a profound truth. It was about what was locked within genetic code. The Naksong had been right;integrate oneself. Embrace it;use it, transform it into power. Be the weapon. He was darkness and light, vampire and Neteru, a hybrid fusion that had never been before. Just like the dark half even knew about the Good Book he'd read, that also meant the converse. He knew everything this dark side of him knew. But just like he never knew a vamp-Neteru fusion was possible before he sat on the Chairman's throne, this sonofabitch didn't know that fact now.

Therefore, ergo, Carlos reasoned ever so quietly within the black box of his mind, the differential in the match was only about one thing: which of the two had the stomach to go the distance. His palms burned as he felt magnetic force traveling up his arms and connecting to his spinal column. He had no fear of the darkness;he'd already taken a walk through the Valley and had been the baddest mutha in it - and would drain that bastard pretending to be him of power. All he had to do was think about what his body double had done to Damali within her house. The violation spiked stroke-level rage through every cell. The image of his other self, naked and heaving, kon*** dripping, on top of his woman, trying to get her to give him permission to enter..._ aw, shit... It was on!

’’Damali, give me your blade,’’ Carlos said low in his throat. ’’Now.’’ He kept his eyes on his body double, silver from his glare lighting a hot path toward his darker self, burning grass in its wake.

’’D, mamacita, I was hoping you'd finally get yourself together and find your Isis. Lop off this sonofabitch's head, for me, won't you, baby?’’ the dark Carlos murmured in a sensual tone, and then nodded toward the Chairman. He spat fire and cleared his throat. ’’This apex thing that other punk bastard is going through is f*king with my sinuses, though.’’ The entity glared at Carlos and blew a kiss toward Damali. ’’It's making him cocky and stupid, and he's pissing me off. After I do him, maybe me and you can go get a bite to eat? Or, we can stay right here and gorge.’’ He glowered at Carlos, taunting him, baiting him into a no-win physical struggle, using Damali as a lure.

All the locks in her mental tumblers turned within the split second it took her to lunge. She glimpsed the bad Carlos, her memory snapping back as she hurdled forward. The visions returned with it. She'd seen this in her backyard. She also saw how the Carlos she knew had been attacked in Council Chambers. The throne. The porch. The confusion. The clothes that didn't burn. Juanita. In her house! The hotel-room incident. Nightmares. Her man's skull being split open and his memory dredged out.

The good Carlos lunged at the same time she did, as though they were welded to the same nervous system. But it wasn't about ever letting go of the Isis again in the heat of battle. A tiny voice inside her head became a Neteru Council's battle cry. Never release the Isis. Something was wrong with both Carlos images, and she wasn't sure what it was;the blade stayed with her.

This entity before them was fast, agile, like air. They both landed on their feet, side-by-side but frustrated.

’’I am the prince of the airwaves,’’ he said laughing, reading the thought Damali and Carlos shared with a glance, and dodging them again.

Damali stopped moving. Carlos stood away from her breathing hard. For her, blind rage was not an option. Be strategic. She could still move, so could Carlos. There was a reason why - there was something in their makeup that the bad one couldn't jack with. The Neteru-infused elements. Be air.

This time when she came at the dark Carlos, she caught him with a solid kick to the midsection. She flipped away from his snatch, just as her Carlos landed a jaw blow that sent him sprawling. The dark one was back on his feet in seconds, eyeing them both, deciding which one to attack first. Good, they'd pissed him off and made him show fang. But what was happening to her Carlos slowed her roll. He'd bulked slightly, the dark Carlos glimpsed it, then bulked into full battle mode.

They both went at each other like released tigers. Hands around throats, the dark entity's claws drawing blood, a spin roll near the Chairman's feet, landing both of them in danger range of an infuriated, chained beast. The dark Carlos was immediately stabbed in the thigh with a slashing tail in an odd turn of events. Her Carlos backed up, the slightly injured one now furious, leaking black blood and hissing.

One pair of eyes gleamed black, another pair was solid silver. Fire and dark lightning ejected from one hand to match hot silver laser from the other. A parting, another lunge, two bodies airborne and no way to get between them. Black ice keeping Carlos's silver gaze from severing limbs, a gold shield turned breastplate making a heart snatch impossible.

Black blood mixed with red-silver blood;both semiwinded, they separated. Eyes narrowed and they came at each other again, fusing strategic martial arts with primal fury blows. Tree branches were down, the earth was ripped up, Harpies went scrambling for cover, but the huge beast pinned to the ground by shackles was the only thing that didn't give way.

Red cages of heat around Tara and Yonnie sputtered and weakened, releasing two vampires into the fray. The dark Carlos was clearly getting tired, and he was pulling back evil energy that had been used to contain the others in order to both fight Carlos and chain the furious Chairman, while also defending against two strong, airborne vamps with a grudge. Holding the line alone was siphoning him dry. Yonnie and Tara circled for an opening. The dark arc around her team began to dissolve, but she watched her man in horror as the earth opened beneath them and both Carlos bodies rolled over the edge into the chasm.

Before anyone could get to the edge, something massive flew up out of the new ground that moved so fast it swept her Carlos up with it from the sheer updraft. The force of the earth's ejection toppled Tara and knocked Yonnie back. Fire pushed her team out of position as it scorched the grass around them. Rounds on the ground discharged from half-melted weapons, sending the human team for full cover. Smoke from the holy water and hallowed earth mix made Yonnie and Tara back off farther. The Chairman was on his knees, fighting against the gases hazardous to his kind.

Damali was partially blinded by the combination of white smoke and sulfuric plumes, but could hear her Carlos gagging. His body hit the ground, she heard bones snap, and this time he didn't move. She swung wildly, saw Carlos open his eyes where he lay, his eyes intermittently flickering red and silver. Then he sat up. She paused for a beat. He should have been dead. Which one was it? Shit. Carlos leapt up. The other one could have taken on his clothes to cause confusion. Illusion. Both now stood facing each other, dressed exactly the same.

’’Do him,’’ they both said in unison, breathing hard.

One Carlos looked at the other. ’’Your biggest mistake was messing with my woman!’’

She saw a dark current exit both bodies. Both Carloses bulked to master-vampire stature with Council-level powers as the link continued to connect them. Both had fangs. Both had red eyes. Both swiped at each other in a mirror image, ripping away black fatigues. Both turned and reached for her blade. One had a hint of silver in the red of his eyes... One had a tattoo lit on the side of his neck... Only one had her brand over his heart.

Damali swung, still half-seeing, aiming for the dark Carlos, the Isis ringing as it connected to the Chairman's neck. The blow sent vibrations of satisfaction up her forearm, into her biceps, into her shoulder as her throat released a warrior's battle cry. A thud sounded, a head rolled at her feet. The Chairman's body exploded, sending ash and cinders into the air. Tears stung her eyes;she'd missed. The blinding smoke... She watched the wrong Carlos expand, get taller, and begin to crush the Adam's apple within her man's throat. A dark book burned inside the cavern of his barrel chest, creating a red outline, pushing against his scaled skin from the inside out, the crest on it living and moving as his laugh thundered.

The evil, stronger Carlos threw its head back and laughed harder. Life began to slide away from her man. As her blade was about to leave her hand in a desperation toss to the dying Carlos, instinct held it to her. A power grab would take it midair. But the strangling Carlos opened his hand and it was there. Just as the growing entity looked up, for a split second their eyes met, her Carlos smiled a half smile, swung, and the dark one's head rolled.

Her Carlos fell to the ground clutching his throat, coughing from being strangled. A duplicate of his head rolled to Damali's feet and stared at her glassy-eyed. A dead ram's head replaced the Carlos look-alike and turned to ash that blew away.

Cinders made the team hack and cough as Damali rushed to the surviving Carlos's side. A beam of white light opened in the sky, a heavy breeze blew the smoke away, and they watched in awe as the writhing ashes of the dark entity exposed a burning book cradled in the middle of its rib cage.

Heaven lit;the book lifted and vanished. Meteors fell in a natural fireworks display. Carlos flung a golden shield away from his body like a discus and covered Yonnie and Tara beneath it. Holy water rain blessed with angel tears poured down to wash the foul earth. Damali sat on the ground in the mud as her Carlos slowly pushed himself up to sit beside her. The team gathered around within the blue white circle of light that bathed them. Yonnie and Tara's eyes shone from deep within the forest behind a protective globe. A torrent of clean rain became a curtain around them. Harpies squealed, crackled, and burned trying to escape the Light.

The earth sucked in a pair of shackles with charred sections of skeletal remains crumbling and breaking apart as ash while the wounded earth resealed itself. Trees righted, time stopped for a moment, two choppers approached, and everything went back to the way it had been. A pair of friends nodded in the darkness and vanished as Carlos's shield lifted.

Carlos and Damali looked skyward with the team.

’’You weren't supposed to throw me your sword. I was supposed to earn the right to borrow it.’’

’’I know,’’ she whispered. ’’Baby, I know.’’

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Two weeks later Malibu, California - Cliffside Mansion.

’’I still can't believe how they put a totally untrue spin on everything,’’ Damali said, leaning up to peek at the news. ’’That is pure propaganda! How in the world can they say it was civil unrest and rioting over gas prices that blew L.A. up like that? Not to mention, all those eyewitnesses, and - ’’

Carlos leaned up and kissed her, clicking off the plasma screen TV across the room, and stopping her words with his tongue at the same time. He stroked her hair as she returned her head to his chest. He sighed with utter contentment as she curled up near him in their most favorite place in the whole wide world - next to each other in bed.

’’But then how do you discount landslides, avalanches, meteor showers, freakin'sand storms in Arizona? Is it me, or am I crazy?’’ Damali sat up, waving her arms in the middle of the king-size bed as she spoke. ’’People are crazy, Carlos. They don't know how close they came to the big one. There's still stuff out there, some of that mess on the streets got away and sunk beneath the earth. How can people go back to business as usual after a major catastrophe? We still have crime, global warming, ecological damage, economic problems, war... Really, this just makes me wanna scream. They aren't tapped into what's going on, what's important.’’

His gaze slowly raked her. He loved the way the white silk sheets moved when she moved, caressing her skin as they fell away from her body. Seeing that always did something to him. He was just glad that she didn't have a problem with him having a little bad boy still in him. ’’Yeah, baby, I know,’’ he murmured, thoroughly enjoying the sheen that post-lovemaking perspiration and sun left on her buttery soft skin.

’’We have to do something. Be involved. Take a stand. Speak out about how the story wasn't told right and the world governments covered it all up - they are altering history, and the real stuff going on behind the scenes should be documented and chronicled.’’

He just watched her naked breasts sway as she got herself worked up about things beyond their control. She had beautiful nipples.

’’It's probably being written in one of the big books as we speak,’’ he said stroking her hip. ’’Marlene's got it.’’ The news be damned. It was what it was;the struggle between good and evil wouldn't be over until the last days... which were not today. At least not at the moment, while he was in bed with this gorgeous, se*y woman he loved. Priorities. Everything was a matter of perspective.

’’You're not fazed at all, are you?’’ she said shaking her head and reaching for the remote.

He smiled and held it away. She opened her hand and had it.

’’Aw, girl,’’ he said rolling over on his side to capture her. ’’You have to be nice;I'm still going through changes.’’ He smiled and showed her a hint of fang, knowing what that did to her. ’’I can't do stress right through here while I'm still apexing.’’

She chuckled and dropped the remote on the floor, then kissed the bridge of his nose, and watched his dark lashes lower, hiding a hint of silver flickering with a little red in his irises. Well, maybe she wouldn't worry about all that at the moment... not while sunlight bathed him, and just like everyone else, only gave him a rich, golden tan. It seemed like he'd beaten the system again, coming out holding aces... seeming more like a daywalker than a Neteru, but who was she to judge?

This se*y, incorrigible hunk wouldn't live forever, either. So why waste precious time? She kissed him again more slowly, appreciating this vast natural resource she held in her arms, who was her best friend, an excellent lover, an in-the-trenches partner, but was also more mortal than anything else, just like she was. Guaranteed, mortal or not, he'd be around working the system for a very long time, just like she had a very long time to collect the rest of the stones she was supposed to have.

What he was, exactly, she just wasn't sure, but she had given up trying to figure it out... just like the powers that he had finally given up trying to understand. Her man defied definition, didn't fit into a nice, neat category. He had pulled a little of his old self back into him to beat the worst of what he was... but not too much, just enough to give him a little edge... and a nice hint of fang when he was in a particularly amorous mood. But she could deal. He worried both sides, the Dark and the Light, though, on account of the fact that he had a little of both all up in his DNA. He made the governments crazy and didn't show up on their radar - did wonderful work for them when absolutely necessary, but always on his own terms. He had shown her how to hide in plain sight... very cool. Still a master of the game who had his good days and bad days, like anyone else, he was the last brother on the planet you wanted to find in a foul mood.

She laughed and just gave up as his kisses trailed down her neck. Tell him no? How? It was a stalemate, always, and they both won when the shoutin'was over. Damali sighed.

Like hers, his was a strange truce with the universe, and all sides had taken a pause to figure out what to do with him - or her, for that matter. In the meanwhile, if something went bump in the night and messed with an innocent, they handled it nice and smooth. At least the blood hunger didn't rule him, except when he was particularly turned on... not that that was such a bad thing... oh, no, not the way he served a siphon. She had what he needed. It was all good, indeed.

’’The beach can wait,’’ he murmured with his eyes closed, reading her body, not her thoughts.

’’Ya think?’’ she said in a hot whisper near his ear, allowing her hand to slide farther down his belly. She chuckled. ’’Never mind. I have the answer to my own question.’’

’’You just have to know the right ones to ask.’’ He smiled and lazily stroked her back with his eyes still closed. ’’You still gonna treat me this nice when I'm out of apex?’’

’’No,’’ she snapped and laughed, making her voice approximate the Bonpo master's. ’’That is not the right question. The question should be...’’

She ran her fingers through his hair, nuzzled his forehead, and kissed him there, opening his third eye so she could tell him more secrets and pour sensual images into his mind.

’’Oh, yeah, you know me,’’ he said on a shudder as she sent a wickedly delicious request into his senses. ’’Or a daylight-inspired V-point?’’ He laughed as she nipped his shoulder. ’’Maybe later. I like your idea better.’’

’’Good, 'cause you don't need permission to enter.’’ She breathed in deeply, inhaling hard against his neck, and then trailed her nose across his collarbone, loving how his tremors always released the fading hint of apex that she was surely going to miss until his next phase. ’’Standing invitation.’’

He flipped her on her back and pinned her, nudging her head to the side with his jaw so he could study her jugular. ’’Uhmmph, uhmmph, uhmmph... you gonna make me act a fool up in here today, girl.’’

’’Like you already haven't?’’ She laughed deep and se*y.

’’Yeah, but that was last night... do my best work when its dark, but might have to pull out all the stops this morning, if you keep making wicked mental suggestions like you just did.’’ He suckled the tender side of her neck.

’’It's broad daylight,’’ she whispered with a sly grin. ’’And turn on your silver.’’

’’You sure you want me to do that, or you wanna go au naturel?’’ He kissed her forehead. ’’Just once?’’

’’With you, there is no, just once,'and you're packing too much heat - and you know it.’’ She laughed as his smile widened and let her hands find the dip in his spine.

’’Umm-hmmm...’’ he said, opening the window from across the room without moving to let in the ocean breeze. ’’Can't blame a brother for trying. But if the lady wants da silver to help her relax... hey.’’

’’Yes... the lady wants the silver,’’ she murmured, warming under his attention.

’’Just remind me when I get real close. I don't think I wanna turn it on just yet. I like the way you feel without it.’’ He breathed her in and shuddered as his hands slipped under her backside.

’’Turn it on,’’ she whispered without resistance, and then gasped as his lips slowly found her breast. ’’Okay,’’ she finally breathed, ’’but how close?’’

He chuckled and rounded her taut nipple with his tongue. ’’When I'm falling.’’

She laughed and tried to push him away. ’’That's too damned close.’’

’’I know, but it makes things exciting.’’ He found her other breast and paid it tender attention.

’’You like living on the edge, don't you?’’ Her murmur was so conflicted and what he was doing felt so good that she closed her eyes.

’’No,’’ he said in a hot breath, sending ripples of pleasure into her navel. ’’I like living over the edge... with you. Tumbling... falling... out of my mind,’’ he whispered kissing down her abdomen on each word, saving the last one to send as a heat-laden sensation against her mound. ’’Ain't nothing like it,’’ he added, claiming her bud.

She arched, unable to respond with anything coherent beyond a moan.

’’You know,’’ he whispered, his voice low-rolling thunder vibrations against the soft folds of her, ’’since we're synced up... the next time you go into phase, I'll be in apex.’’

She nodded as the crown of her head dug deeper into the pillow. ’’I know... no silver, then, all right?’’

He stopped what he was doing and set his chin on her belly, then smiled as she looked at him with a pained expression. ’’You serious? Is that a deal?’’

She laughed and tried to sit up, but he blanketed her and found her neck.

’’Stop messing with my mind, Carlos.’’

’’I wasn't. I was messing with your body.’’

She closed her eyes. ’’Then why'd you stop,’’ she whispered hard into his ear. ’’I was right there.’’

’’Hmmm... because I thought I heard a tender offer. Maybe a sweet promise. Must be losing my touch,’’ he said, his smile fading slightly as he entered her slowly and closed his eyes.

’’You haven't lost anything,’’ she said between a gasp and a moan. ’’What you've gained drives me crazy. Oh... God... You smell fantastic.’’ She dragged her nose up the side of his throat and teased his tattoo with her tongue until it lit in her mouth, coaxing his hips into a deeper thrust. ’’If you pull out, I'll make the other one light up, too... if you want.’’

’’No, baby... just don't stop...’’ he said between his teeth, throwing his head back with his eyes closed as he moved against her with more force. ’’It's already lit real, real good... you have no idea how damned good.’’ He dropped his burning forehead to hers. ’’Mali, it's always so good.’’

She moved her hips in a lazy circle, dipping away from his slow thrusts. ’’Then you gonna stop messing with my mind?’’

’’You win this round,’’ he murmured against her hair, and increased his grip around her waist. ’’But I ain't never gonna stop messin'with your mind... oh, baby, if it makes you do that... right there, oh, God... like that,’’ he said in a rush, wincing from pleasure as she brought him into her harder.

’’You, Carlos Rivera, are a dangerous combination of things,’’ she whispered on a quiet gasp as he nipped her neck and poised a passion-length fang over her jugular sweet spot.

’’I love the way you say my name when I'm inside you, corazon.’’ He gently knocked her jaw back with his.

’’You still worry me, though... got a lotta bad boy still in you.’’

’’Yeah... you bring it out and that's who I am, baby. Somewhat reformed but not completely recovered. Can you live with that?’’ he whispered hard against her throat, lowering himself to fully enter her before he bit her.

She arched and found his jugular sweet spot. ’’Yeah, oh, yeah... Car... los... I think I can live with that.’’

Turn the page for a sneak peek at the next Vampire Huntress Legend novel.

To beg her husband to relent was futile. His rage knew no bounds. Lilith stared at his large black glistening hooves as she huddled on the searing floor of his pit and waited for the stomping to begin again.

’’You allowed my son to be baited to his death by a Neteru! My son?’’ he bellowed, causing a thunderous wind to sweep across her exposed vertebrae and ignite them in flames. Vermin that had nested in her hair squeaked at the violation of their feast. ’’They took Dante's head, Lilith! His head by an Isis, which means that even I cannot raise him from the Sea of Perpetual Agony!’’

She wailed from the excruciating pain and dissolved into sobs without tears, her will to survive fractured. His litany had been a monthlong refrain with each tail lash. The beast would not be appeased this time. In her mind she begged for him to turn her body over to the Harpies.

’’The Harpies shall not have you, for you have taken my greatest source of torture pleasure from me - Dante!’’

She covered her head with a remaining arm and immediately felt it ripped from her body;the dull thud of flesh striking the wall converged with the convulsions that jerked her limbless torso.

’’Husband, please. I swear to you - ’’

’’That you had been f*king my firstborn son for years was of no consequence to me. I enjoyed watching. That you would try to create another through a stolen half-vampire - half-Neteru embryo, I found delightful, sensually ruthless... I wanted to see what it would become;the experiment was intriguing. But you failed.’’

’’That's why I did it, my love... for you,’’ she whispered, begging on a strangled swallow and choking on her own black blood. ’’Anything for you, everything for you, my all. I knew you would cherish the child since nothing like it had ever been created. It was a gift, a surprise for you, darling. Please let me make it up to you, my dark essence, please... Just please stop the torture. I'll do anything;just command it so.’’

’’You were always my most treacherous and favorite, Lilith. How could you betray me with such a loss? Had you not set the strategy in motion, Dante would still exist.’’ His anger seethed forth, and, baring his hooked teeth, he bent down to snatch her by her throat and then held her above his head with one clawed talon.

’’I'm the only one left who has interacted with the Neteru males to know their weaknesses and vulnerabilities!’’ she shrieked, forestalling his blows.

He paused and stared at her for long tense seconds. ’’Talk to me,’’ he said, his tone deadly.

’’I was Adam's first wife.’’

There was silence, and her mind scrambled to make her case within milliseconds.

’’It was I who tricked the newest and most aggressive, Carlos Rivera, to descend to Dante's throne briefly - only I did that. I even made him ignore the warnings of warrior angels! Dear husband, please consider the possibilities as you rightfully rage against me.’’

A cool wind blew, and her body began to knit itself back together and heal.

’’Husband, my love, I was able to act quickly and rationally at a time of great chaos to snatch the embryo from the carnage of the female Neteru's womb... the millennium slayer. If you let me survive, I know another way to raise Dante.’’

’’Continue,’’ his disembodied voice said as the Unnamed One disappeared into the shadows, considering her offer. His eyes glowed red, then went black within their slits. ’’Bargain with me, Lilith. You know that's my favorite game.’’

Hot tears coursed down her face as she tried to speak quickly to him in Dananu. ’’As long as Dante's firstborn male from his original bloodline exists, all that he was can be summoned forth. It's in the DNA, as always. There is only one other who can sit on Dante's throne to replace all that Carlos Rivera had the potential to be. He is Rivera's exact match, perhaps stronger.’’

’’The one you speak of is in a place that our realms cannot penetrate.’’ Her husband's low, growling voice thundered quietly through the darkness.

’’Your month of exacting torture against me has ripped the fabric between the dimensions,’’ she whispered, shivering and holding her arms around herself, braced against a possible sudden blow. ’’The subterranean disturbance has - ’’

’’The one you speak of still resides within a realm that we cannot breach,’’ he said evenly. ’’Do not toy with me, Lilith, for if you fail, I will blot you from all existence... slowly... with excruciating horror.’’

She shook her head. ’’Neither you nor I can breach that realm, but a living Neteru can. I've been around them and know their weaknesses.’’

Again, her proposal was met by silence.

Panic-stricken and yet filled with hope, she pressed on. ’’The one we seek has the mark of banishment from the One that we never name, but a Neteru can bring him forward through the barrier if the veil between worlds is weakened. You just did that, my beloved. You weakened the veil as you raged beneath the earth. Torturing me was wise, dear husband, and most appreciated, for it created another opportunity that we may have missed.’’

When her husband didn't answer, Lilith's voice became strident. ’’I know Rivera's greatest weakness, his insecurities, because he sat in Dante's throne. It's still there;I can still taste that essence,’’ she said, speaking quickly and bargaining for her life. ’’Therefore, knowing his shortcomings, I also know the female Neteru's greatest weakness as well, because they are linked at the heart chakra, they are soul mates. Fracture the soul mates and you will have your revenge, which will be no less catastrophic to mankind than what happened to Adam and Eve.’’

The lack of response made her tone urgent as she continued to speak in a flurry of Dananu. ’’Husband, your righteous fury thinned the veil between worlds. Time stopped, a rip occurred;therefore I can siphon the past to the forefronts of their minds. I can delve into the darkest crevices of what they have forgotten, what has been forsaken. After that, all we have to do is sit back and watch as their love implodes, taking their team of Neteru Guardians with it. Unprecedented. The Covenant will wobble and fall. There will be no earthly protection for humankind. The past will feel like the present, the present like a faraway thing of the past. Let me work unhindered, beloved. You have seen my best efforts, and I have only failed you this once.’’

A low, threatening chuckle filled the cavern.

She bowed and then fell to her knees, going prostrate in submission as tears of relief ran down her cheeks. ’’Let us turn our combined outrage to the more important matter at hand rather than my continued torture... I know and respect that you have the Armageddon to concern yourself with as a priority to your magnificent master plan. I could assist you in creating chaos among the young Neteru so that distrust, dishonor, fury replace their love for one another... And just like the fragile balance between dimensions, permanent fissures among them will allow one of them to call your grandson from his banishment. The female Neteru's weakness is one of your most irresistible wiles, and it was encoded in your grandson's natural lineage. All is not lost;his torture may even be greater than Dante's. Through this new vessel, your firstborn can live again - if you allow me to correct the error I've made. It will even cause disarray among the Neteru Councils and thus the angels above them - something we've never been able to achieve. Imagine how strategic that could be so close to the big war.’’

Silence made her swallow hard and shudder with anticipation, knowing his decision could go either way.

’’You were always my favorite, my most shrewd bitch.’’

She remained cowering on the pit floor as the slow clatter of hooves began a threatening circle around her body. Lilith closed her eyes, but dared not shield her body with her arm again. The situation had surpassed volatile;he could be thoroughly enraged that she'd devised a logical plan and he hadn't - or he could be temporarily mollified. His power charred her skin as he moved around her, thinking, but she didn't even breathe, much less cry out.

’’I will install him on a dark throne,’’ she whispered to the bloodied floor, her eyes shut tightly. ’’I will lead him by the hand to Dante's power vessel.’’

’’If you fail - ’’

’’I will not fail you, will never fail you,’’ she murmured.

LILITH, THE CONSORT OF THE UNNAMED ONE, HAS RELEASED THE Damned, tortured souls from all levels of Hell, to walk the streets as the living dead. A dark chaos leaks onto Earth, taking the form of a deadly contagion that not even the Neteru team can handle. One touch from these deadly creatures infects a human, driving him to madness, death... and worse.

This time, Damali Richards, the Vampire Huntress (aka the millennium Neteru), Carlos, and the Guardians cannot effectively close ranks. The infection spreads to key team members and threatens to wipe out the entire squad. Even the Covenant is infected. They must track down the Chairman before members of the Neteru-Guardian team are lost and the team implodes. The only antidote is to behead Lilith. But first they must find her.

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