’’She's not dead,’’ Damali told him coolly.

’’That was your father's wife,’’ Carlos said carefully. He looked to Yonnie, who confirmed it with a nod.

Yonnie rubbed his jaw. ’’Mr. Chairman, looks like none of us can go sub anymore. Whatchu gonna tell the man-you was f*king his wife and got mad because she betrayed you by giving away an heir apparent spot that wasn't gonna be yours anyway? That was for him to deal with, the way I see it.’’

’’Run,’’ Damali whispered. ’’Our side deal is done. Temporarily, we're all even.’’

For the first time in their lives, Carlos and Damali watched the chairman's expression contain true terror as he backed away from where Lilith had been. In the next moment, he, too, was gone.

Carlos stood very still, his back to the team, his eyes fixed to the spot on the ground that had once been Lilith's womb. The smoke brought tears to his eyes. Perhaps remorse did, too. Then, suddenly, a stream of black smoke wafted toward him, knocked his head back, and entered his nose. The burn stunned him. He turned slowly to stare at the team, but no one seemed to notice what had just happened.

Damali collected her splattered blade and remained squatted, looking at the ground where Lilith's womb had been. She didn't care at the moment where the long Isis might be. She knew it would come when she needed it most. Carlos squatted down beside her, staring at the same spot.

’’Let's go home,’’ he said quietly. ’’Wherever that is anymore.’’

THE MEDIA called it a wild gangland revenge spree, where many innocent people were hurt, some even killed, with unknown suspects still on the lam. The blackout in New York was a rare ’’cascading effect’’... something to do with power companies and fluctuating currents breaking networks and grids. The things in the sky, unexplained black triangles the National Institute for Discovery Science said could be UFO crafts or military tests. Rampaging bats were cited as an anomaly of old building infestation, something bound to happen sooner or later, and of no real consequence to public health. The fact that one of the most popular music icons had her house burn down and she and her band are still missing, kept unconfirmed rumors selling supermarket tabloids.

That this all went down on a rare eclipse of the moon, which lasted three hours and thirty-three minutes to be exact... under the sign of Scorpio, keeps the metaphysical communities buzzing and debating. Murmurs ripple through the night. Hell temporarily closed its portals. Too much chaos was bad for everyone's business. The dark realms called a temporary truce by not showing up on anyone's radar. They obviously decided that until their forces regrouped, human beings could create enough mayhem on their own.

’’My boy must have repaired their bodies,’’ Carlos said quietly, looking out at the ocean from Venice Beach.

’’Yonnie swears he didn't fix their burns. You ever consider that your mom and grandmom were saints?’’ Damali leaned in to him and picked up his hand. They sat quietly for a while.

’’Yeah, maybe,’’ he said after a long while. ’’Maybe like Padre Lopez.’’

’’Yeah,’’ she whispered, squeezing his hand. ’’Like Father Lopez.’’

Damali watched the tide roll in and out, wondering how long the basic rhythm of the universe had kept time by the sea. She had three more stones to collect. Her long Isis blade was still beyond her reach. Her man still had a little less than seventy days to figure out the range of his power. She had even less to figure out hers. Their team was grieving many losses-both in body count and their old ways of life. They had been beat down and were nursing multiple injuries.

Her mother-seer had a serious dilemma that had ironically blindsided a woman with second sight. She couldn't even fathom what was running through Shabazz's or Rider's minds. Damali closed her eyes. Two vampires were also an extended part of her family, along with a Manhattan-based witch and a couple of rogue were-humans from Brazil.

She now had a black box stashed away in her head. The compound had to be rebuilt on new ground, but differently this time. Newbies were at risk and had to be schooled, but the old guard was tapped out. Had problems of their own. Carlos needed his own spot, and she needed hers. Militaristic mad scientists and demons had them all locked in their sights. They only had seven months to hone whatever they had and pull it together. The mess between her and Carlos about her quick trip to Hell without him had yet to be squashed. He still seemed a little distant since the battle in the park. But they'd address that later. The Forbidden was still out there, and carrying a grudge.

She squeezed Carlos's hand tighter and rubbed his back as they stared at nothing and everything under the sun.

’’Yeah, I know, baby. We've both got a lot on our minds.’’

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Carlos's descent was immediate, but not disorienting like it had been in the past. Nothing reached for him or scrabbled at him as the black siphon pulled him deeper. All it took was his thought,level six, chambers , and he landed on his feet just outside the Vampire Council's chamber doors. Not even the bats crowded among the stalactites and stalagmites moved. Hooded messengers bowed and closed their red, gleaming eyes, their skeletal bodies trembling beneath tattered black robes as they lowered their massive scythes. The gaseous fumes that swirled up from the Sea of Perpetual Agony didn't make his eyes water. His nose seemed impervious to the harsh sulfuric blasts. The heat emanating from the bubbling red-orange surface felt like a cool breeze. All moans, shrieks, and wails ceased.

Somewhat bewildered by the reception and his instant adjustment to the environment, Carlos proceeded down the narrow crag and stood before the doors of the council's chambers. He reached for the golden, fanged knocker, expecting the customary entry-check bite, but the demon-headed knocker closed its eyes, retracted fangs, and the door creaked open eerily.

Carlos stood outside the huge black marble double doors, frozen in wonder for a moment. The knockers always did a vamp black blood ID check to be sure no imposter could enter. Not even the chairman had access like this.

After struggling with the conundrum for a bit, he gathered his courage and walked forward, not waiting for the underworld to change its mind. He knew only one thing for sure: power was respected, but only while it lasted. Therefore, whatever the angels had jolted him with, he couldn't waste time thinking about it for too long. The mission was clear: get the book and get out.

As he crossed the familiar marble floor, however, the level of disrepair did give him slight pause. Thrones were overturned and broken;a huge gaping fissure was in the floor. Residue of black blood splatter marred all surfaces, staining everything like it was crude oil goop. Wall torches appeared to have been ripped from their mounts. Rubble and crushed granite were everywhere. It seemed like a veritable war had been fought within the once revered hall. It was obvious that whoever or whatever had been searching for the chairman had exacted serious pain from any entity that had been foolish enough to remain here to try to take a stand.

Carlos glanced around, the eerie desolation unnerving him as he approached the barren, dust-covered, pentagram-shaped table that sat silent and abandoned. No longer could one hear the constant trickle of blood that used to run through it. All motion had ceased;blood was dried and clotted in the veins and arteries of the marble and had come to a dead halt. Inner lair, granite coffins of the councilmen had been reduced to piles of ash and small stones. Mere pebbles represented the once ornately carved caskets now. No respect for the dead resided here. True, Damali had dusted the remaining Council members, except the chairman, but it was also clear that someone or something else had come in there behind her, and it had been very pissed off. Girlfriend didn't do all this damage while she'd been here.

The kingdom of the vampires had obviously heard the death knell. Level seven was in full effect.

Carlos peered down at the crest at the center of the table, wondering. The eyes of the demon head opened slowly and stared back at him. Fear flickered in its red glowing eyes as it submissively retracted one battle-length fang and one broken fang, then shuddered. Carlos glanced back at the chairman's throne. With all the devastation, what if the book had already been stolen? They hadn't consideredthat ? Why would it be left here? Clearly, unless the chairman had some serious special power over that artifact, the one who would remain nameless would have already seized the prize and have it in his possession-and there was no way he was going downthere to retrieve shit.

Carlos wiped at the thin sheen of perspiration forming on his brow. The decision was clear. Report back that the book was gone, and where its probable location was now. Let 'em know the condition of things below, and they could concoct a new plan. That was the ticket.He was out .

He began to draw away from the table, wondering if just a mere thought would jettison him to the surface without incident, or if he had to risk calling for one of the trembling messengers? In the few seconds that it took him to draw a rational conclusion, the crest shuddered and yawned open on its own, revealing the vacancy beneath itself. Confirmation. Cool. Even the f*king crest was scared shitless. Obviously it didn't want to be ripped open again and violated. He could dig it. Been there.

As Carlos edged away, stepping over toppled, abandoned thrones with care, and avoiding the chairman's at all cost, memories coalesced within him. Ultimate knowledge lay as rubble at his feet. Carlos hesitated, remembering his old throne. Everything from his line from the beginning of time resided within it, and had offered infinite knowledge. No. He kept edging away. His orders had been explicit.

Before he could clear the circumference of the table, something very odd began to happen right before his eyes. The rubble of the chairman's throne slowly gathered. Carlos was transfixed as stone sealed in upon itself, black marble smoothed, deep crimson velvet rethreaded as though new, dust filtered away, and the chairman's throne righted itself from the floor and regenerated. His first impulse was to run, but a slow trickle of crimson ran down the arms of the throne, pooled at the edges of the demon handgrips, and then dripped to the floor in a long, string of inviting ooze. Then, in a slow, sulfuric burn, Carlos watched his name become etched in the hieroglyphic-like markings at the top of it, replacing the former chairman's.

Blood scent filled his nose, and made him lick his lips. ’’No,’’ Carlos whispered.

The throne whispered back, its call like a siren's. ’’Come, and know all.’’ Multiple voices wafted out to him, offering the blood scent as a lure. The slow ooze that had pooled on the floor instantly rippled across the marble to Carlos's feet, covering his Timber-lands, circling his ankles. Blood soaked into the hem of his jeans, climbed up his legs, lapped at his thighs, stroked his groin, and then wet his T-shirt to travel up his neck and stroked the place along his jugular until it burned like a lover had caressed him there.

Carlos swayed and caught himself against the edge of the table. The scent was intoxicating, but didn't make him nearly as heady as the hint of power the throne begged to share. He'd always secretly wondered what gave the chairman such absolute reign over the other councilmen. If each of their thrones held the wisdom and collective knowledge of their lines on a given continent, what the hell did the chairman's throne hold?

The blood that teased his throat spread under his nose and across his face in delicate tendrils, licking at his nostrils. Carlos held his breath for a moment, fighting the urge to inhale deeply as he staggered away from the table and kept his lips sealed firmly shut against bloody invasion. He shook his head no as he turned to stare at the throne. No... he was out. The book wasn't there.

Carlos was soaked with blood and tears formed in his eyes as his body began to shudder with feed desire. He hadn't sipped in any air, and was suffocating. He angrily wiped the blood away from his mouth, took in a huge gulp of air, and closed his mouth quickly. But the taste in the scent lingered on his tongue... made him close his eyes, slowly parted his lips, and a tiny tendril entered his parched mouth where air was allowed to seep in.

Flavors and colors from all the blood consumed from generations of vampires coated his tongue, opened his mouth wider, until the blood ran over his face like a river, pooling in his opened jaw, lowering fangs, and he swallowed.

The throne pulled him blindly as a deep, sensual moan came up from Carlos's abdomen. Blood washed his face;it was impossible to see. The rush of it was so profound that it deafened him, filling his ears, invading every orifice, until he sank against the crimson velvet panting, swallowing, shuddering, crying, laughing, his palms welded to the hand rests.

His body arched as a black electric volt ran through him. It snatched open his third eye, bludgeoning his senses, burning out his cerebral cortex with so much information transmitting so quickly that he sat there like a vegetable, twitching and jerking in the seat. His spine groaned, writhed to the surface beneath his skin, and then snapped, tearing away from tissue anchors and cartilage, making him scream as it became one with the high back marble throne for a moment, and then reentered his body, regenerating with new circuitry and bits of black matter.

Carlos slumped forward, panting, sweat pouring down his frame, his clothes burning away while blue-black flames scorched his skin, but he was unable to move. Then the surface of his skin became suddenly cool. A new torrent of blood filled his mouth, and he greedily gulped it, regenerating more as he did so.

Pain abated. The room again went still. Strength slowly crept into his naked limbs. Fear fled his heart. Knowledge from every throne in the room had a new lord. A sly smile graced his face. Information poured into his mind in streaming, endless still frames... then came the pleasure.

Every carnal act that had ever been committed on the planet sent shock waves of ecstasy through him. Depraved or otherwise, it didn't matter. He could feel the impact of it all, every touch, every shudder, every moan, every gasp, every whimper-it all collided and fused as one sensation. He came so hard his heart stopped. His pulse was measured in elongated wails each time his body jerked and emitted thick, black emulsion from his member that wriggled in a slimy wash of tiny black tadpoles over his stomach, lap, and thighs.

Carlos's fingers gripped the armrests;his nails grew, carving into the marble with hooked talons. His eyes were sealed shut, but when he opened them, a ray of darkness shot out, burning and gouging the floor with dark fire where his line of vision went, scorching new sections of marble wherever his eyes looked.

Battle bulked to proportions he'd never dreamed, Carlos stood abruptly. Dark ejaculate slid from his body, splatting to the floor in thick, wriggling plops from his thighs. He stared at it dispassionately as his thighs hardened, a scaled spaded tail swished a razor-bladed tip at what was moving at his feet, making the knots on his spine feel tender as he flexed his spine. Then his toes welded together into gleaming, black, cloven hoofs.Interesting . He chuckled, his voice booming like thunder and sending small rocks to the floor from the abraded walls. New, leathery wings unfolded from his shoulder blades and cast a dark shadow from their broad span. He spun to face the throne that had consumed him, fury at the treacherous invasion closing his talons into a fist.

He hurled a punch that exploded against the marble and decimated the throne to bits of stone once more. Breathing hard, he could feel sudden heat flare from his nostrils. He breathed harder and blue flames shot out. ’’Well, I'll be just damned.’’

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