Chapter Eighteen

"Am I dredging you guys?" Horrified at the concept, Damali stood and began to pace. "What if I'm siphoning the group of its energy?"

"No," Marlene said quickly. "This is the natural order of things. You are getting stronger, our perceptions are dimming -  not because you are a drain, but because you are coming to a point where you have to be able to make decisions, come to conclusions on your own. Our job has always been to protect and guide you until you come of age. We'll maintain our gifts in the long run, but while you are in this delicate transition, we cannot overpower your perceptions, your realities ... your spirit. You must be your own guide." Marlene stood and went to the window.

"All of us are wondering, did she get lesson one-o-one? Did we transfer enough knowledge, did her mind absorb the concepts, what did we forget to teach her ... what took root, what was left behind? Panicked, we started retracing our steps, going over the basics - things you already knew - not because you weren't sure, but because we aren't sure. I know it pisses you off. But we're bugging because we see a storm brewing and just want to know, will our baby be safe, will she be able to hunt on her own - and if she faces deadly challenges, will she make the right choice?" Marlene turned and looked at Damali with firm love in her eyes.

"Baby, every parent on the planet asks themselves this, and they quietly freak when it's time to let go and let God. Not just slayer guardians. It comes with the serve and protect cross to bear that all parents have invisibly on their shoulders. But in the end, we have to let go. We all hold our collective breaths when the time comes. Then we all beat ourselves up if our beloved child stumbles and falls... and we cringe at our own legacy of human error wondering if we had been more perfect, more righteous, could we have helped our child avoid a fall."

"Deep ..." Damali's murmur trailed off as the impact of the burden became so clear. She thought it was all Neteru-related drama, but suddenly she could understand how most of this was pure love - and would not have been any different if she was just a normal young woman. She raked her fingers through her locks and let her breath out hard.

Marlene immediately let her breath out with a soft sigh, following Damali's exhale of epiphany.

"Truth is, we never know." Marlene held Damali in her gaze again and searched her face. "Baby, I don't know if my own mistakes will be a part of your legacy. I don't know if, or what, I could have done better. That's it -  I'm human,imperfect, I have issues... and God help me, I never "wanted to visit those things on you - so I tried to hide them. Just remember that, okay? No matter how all this goes down."

Marlene turned away as a sob caught in her throat. She covered her mouth with her hand and closed her eyes. "What could I have done? What have I left undone? That's the nagging question that drives a mother crazy - what if?"

Damali crossed the room, wrapping her arms around Marlene as she rested her chin on Marlene's shoulder and rocked her.

"Mom - Marlene," Damali said. "You gave me everything that you could. Now I have to figure this out for myself."

Marlene's hand touched Damali's and she squeezed it. "You called me Mom," she whispered.

Turning Marlene to face her, Damali traced Marlene's tears with her finger. "Because, by any definition, that's who you are to me. You have given me everything you had to give, all from a good place in your heart. Don't you think I know what you're afraid of most? That I'll get bitten."

Marlene smiled. "I guess you would. You have the eyes, too. I just don't want you to ever hate me for the choices I've made, or had to make."

"I know you are not the enemy," Damali said tenderly. "I'm afraid of what's out there, too. I'm no fool."

Both women chuckled and held hands in quiet contemplation.

"Let's start again," Damali said in a soft tone, as she gazed at Marlene's accepting expression. "Me and you on the same team. I won't promise to do everything you say carte blanche - but how about if I listen while you teach me tonight?"

Again, Marlene chuckled. But this time the sound that came from her was richer, deeper, more at ease. "You want to know how to know when," Marlene said with a smile. "If I knew that answer, I'd book myself on Oprah and be done with the music scene. You know she's retiring in 2006."

They both giggled and shook their heads and sat on the edge of Damali's bed.

"You think I'm bad - wait till you have kids," Marlene teased. "A momma that can hear everything, smell everything, can see in the dark and carries a blade - man, I pity your kids already! You wait."

Damali laughed hard with Marlene; the thought of finding herself in the same position years later, however, trailed off her laughter. Damn, this was some deep shit.

"You know, Mar, I hadn't even gone there. You might have to visit me in prison for staking some poor heavy-breathing teen-

ager who was trying to push up on my daughter."

"See, it ain't so funny, is it?" Marlene smiled.

"No," Damali admitted. "Not in the least. The predicament is a trip."

"Uhmmm, hmmm ..."

Damali's gaze drifted toward the bathroom, and Marlene rubbed her thigh with a supportive, maternal touch.

"Carlos is in your system," Marlene murmured. "I know. I don't need second sight to tell - it's a woman thing. Knowledge, regardless. But I would never, ever violate that space in your head. Know that. Because it's private, and I don't want it done to me ... or any of the guys."

Damali's gaze immediately found Marlene's. "How did you know I was concerned about that?"

"I'm a mom ... and a woman. Remember? Plus, I can see some things written all over your face whenever the man's name is mentioned."

She could feel herself smile as her face began to burn with embarrassment.

"I want you to take a white bath every night. Let me put a ring of salt and sage around your bed, and hang garlic ... even over the showerhead." Marlene winked at her. "Just a lucky guess. I wasn't prying."

Damali conceded with a nod, looking away, too ashamed to speak on the subject.

"Once you make your decision to be with someone, it will be difficult but not impossible to fight the pull. You will get to a place where your mind and your spirit will arrest your body," Marlene said in a quiet tone. "You get to a point where your eyes will see what is necessary to see before you act, and you will have the strength of will to garner patience - and you will acquire a level of truth in your choice that will take away the burn ... but you will always simmer. That's life." Marlene smiled. "Ask me how I know."

Damali studied the pattern in the gold bedspread as she spoke, unable to meet Marlene's knowing gaze. "Some days... it's ... well ..."

"I know," Marlene said. "You're burning too hot to even think - your mind is frying. Look, even if it ain't a vamp pull, there's stuff and people out there, these days, that can kill you. Be prudent, despite the burn. Everybody needs to chill, and get back to basics. The old way."

"But, Mar... for real, for real... I mean with everything around you - and ... How do you just chill, make it go away, and move forward without thinking about it sometimes? Wondering, you know ... even when you know it could be bad for you?"

She cast her gaze to her finger as it made a new pattern within the comforter pattern. How could she just come out and say it -  to a mom-person? How did you just tell a mother that this guy was in your head, in your dreams, made you wet your panties just thinking about him, and that every time you closed your eyes you wanted to be with him? How did you explain that this very basic instinct was the basics at the moment, that it rode shotgun with the other things you had on your mind, and traveled with you while you did everything else necessary in your life ... that it was on you like a habit? Rather than speak, she let her breath out hard again instead. Carlos wasn't a vamp, but he had a pull like one.

Marlene sat quietly for a while, watching Damali draw invisible swirls on the bed. "I know it's hard, and I'm not going to lie to you - I don't have a secret potion for that."

Marlene chuckled. "You have to do that. You know the life he leads, and you know the outcome of said life. If you think a pull to Carlos is bad, wait till a master vampire gets into your brain during a lair hunt. That's what I'm concerned about, baby. If you can't get a mere human attraction out of your head -  when you know it's not good for you - then, I have my very realistic worries. It means you aren't ready. Carlos is ... just a guy," she added with a sigh. "Coulda made something real positive of himself, had all the attributes to make him really an asset, a community treasure ... in fact, he was guardian material, once. But for whatever his reasons, and we all have a long story, he chose to go down the wrong road - one you are very far removed from. Got it?"

When Damali looked up and gave Marlene a mournful glance, Marlene laughed.

"If it's that bad, maybe I can cook something up."

Damali chuckled and shook her head, blinking back sudden tears, not sure where they came from. "I'm cool."

"Yeah, right," Marlene scoffed. "Whooo boy. Okay. Listen. I want you to get to a very still place in your head. I want you to go past the primal, the physical level, and think about the future. What do you want - long-term? What is important -  long-term? What can you build that is positive?"

Marlene sighed and forced Damali's chin up with a gentle prod of her finger. "If it is damaging to your spirit, to your mind, or your soul, I want you to fight it and step away from it with everything that we have all taught you thus far. I don't care if the pull is to something human, or otherwise. These are the basics, young lady. And I will trust that you'll do that, even though the mere thought of just stepping back and watching you decide all by yourself gives me white knuckles." Marlene chuckled softly. "Girl, I'm getting the hives from this mess."

Marlene continued to chuckle quietly as she stood and walked in a circle. "Shoot, if we only had to worry about a mere human on your trail, and just a hood, we'd react the same way! The fact that Carlos is a community predator - even if he ain't a vamp - we'd still trip. Shabazz has been itching to roll up on homeboy to call him out anyway."

Marlene took a battle stance, making Damali laugh hard now as she imitated Shabazz's deep voice. "Could you see your big brother rolling up on Rivera - 'Yo, player, player, if you lookin' for a woman, Sleepin' Beauty will tighten you up. Don't get it twisted - my li'l sis is off-limits. Chill."

The way Marlene swaggered around the room with an invisible Clock in her hand made Damali burst out in a new round of laughter as she fell back on the bed. When Marlene put both hands on her hips, Damali waved her away so she could recover. "Shabazz would freak."

"Yeah, and picture him and Big Mike meeting hombre in an alley. Okaaay."

"No, stop," Damali wheezed. "Okay, okay, okay, I get your point. Dude has issues. I know," she said, chuckling, "But... but he's so fine ... God. Why couldn't he have just gone down the right road?"

"He wanted money and power, and wasn't patient to figure out another way - so pick a different guy. I don't care if he's not bearing fangs, and is all that looks-wise - sexy Latino voice, smooth vibe, what-eva. His lifestyle is just as dangerous as a vamp's. Carlos Rivera is not a good choice - not a smart one. Not for you."

"I know ... been knowin' that. But, dang ..." Damali shook her head; the mirth began distilling into despair again. "But I also thought it was my choice."

"It is - but you can't blame us for wanting to stack the deck in your favor ... which is to steer you away from guys like him."

Damali sighed and nodded. "You can stack the deck, but just remember I hold the cards. Okay?"

"All right," Marlene conceded. "But men are crazy."

"Mar, tell me something I don't know."

They both looked at each other and laughed.

"You think I'm lying, girl?" Marlene sucked her teeth. "These young men out here have no respect, no decorum, don't know how to run a household - wouldn't give a hoot about just stop, drop, and rollin' you. Pullease. I have issues, daughter. I have serious issues with the world today, and have no problem posse-ing up, as a mom, to protect my investment - you - from anything, or anyone, that might steal your joy, that might take the sparkle from your eyes, that might break your spirit and your heart. Brotherman doesn't have to be a vampire to do that - just an emotional predator. Oh, it's on, now, daughter of mine. I will kick his natural ass if he hurts you. That's why I'm doing heavy anointing tonight."

"Okay, okay." Damali laughed as Marlene began to chuckle in a peevish tone. "Go get the stuff for the white bath."

"Humph! The guys in the weapons room have no idea about the worries of a mother. Shabazz and Big Mike and them ain't got nothin' on a mother's mad," Marlene fussed as she walked toward the door. "Yeah, I got something for Rivera. I'm make you shave, too. And I'm bringing henna."

"Shave?" Damali was laughing so hard now that she had to wipe her eyes as she peered under her arms - which were whistle clean. "That's out, Marlene! No way! You are not putting a whoo-doo henna chastity belt on my stuff. You've gone too far!"

"Don't play with me, girl. You know what I'm talking about.

mBy the time I finish anointing and putting on symbols of protection, any man, dead or alive, is gonna need a battering ram to get through Marlene's work." She gave Damali a wink. "All right, if you feel that strongly about it, no henna. But all of us could use a renewed seal of prayer protection from a white bath. Just go with me on this one. Run a hot tub, and stop looking at me like that - and stop laughing."

* * *

He lifted his head from Raven's throat and pushed away from her with sudden disdain, spitting out the last swallow of the blood.

"What's wrong, lover?" she murmured, sounding anxious. "There's more. I'll just feed again, and you can have more - or we can go hunting together to bring down fresh kill, baby."

"Shut up!" Carlos stalked away from her, closing the front of his ripped pants, his hands roving over the tears in them and sealing their ragged condition with sheer thought. As he did so, a heavy six-pointed gold ring materialized on his finger. Amazing. After he'd fed, it appeared.

He walked a distance, leaving Raven behind, and tried to remove the ring that was stuck on the fourth digit of his left hand. Unable to get it off, he brought his hands to his head and then he covered his ears with the heel of his palms. African chants, bells, and drums pierced his inner ears. Thick smoke choked him - frankincense, myrrh, roses, garlic, sage - polluted his nose. His breathing became erratic, and he slapped Raven's hand away when it touched his shoulder, and then he moved deeper into the forest, angered that she'd followed him.

Carlos shut his eyes, and tilted his head to the side, trying to focus and hear beyond the drums and flutes. "Leave me," he ordered and turned on her abruptly. "They said they would house and feed you. That was the deal. Now leave me alone!"

"When you want me to come back," she whispered, snarling with disappointment, "all you have to do is call in the night." Her feet became thick, black smoke, and then she disappeared, leaving a sulfur haze where she had stood.

Carlos walked deeper into the woods. In the back of his mind, he could still hear his Lexus's engine running. The smells, the sounds, the sulfur, made him want to retch. He closed his eyes, a new fear coming over him as the awareness took root. He was damned. Heaven help him.

As the last thought echoed in his mind, the nausea suddenly abated. He kept his eyes closed and leaned against the trunk of a nearby tree, his balance unsteady. What was he going to do? What had he committed himself to? They'd tricked him -  partly - and there was no turning back.

Damali... How would he protect her from himself? He could see her behind his lids. Naked, peaceful, but well guarded by the white light. Carlos dug his claws into the thick redwood bark as an old hunger overtook him with the vision. He breathed in deeply, and the scent now made him nearly insane. Her skin was damp, warm, golden bronzed by the light of the candles. Her face was serene, music and words were in her head and heart. Saliva built in his mouth, and he swallowed it away, the taste of her now on his lips. He could hear her breathing, watched her breasts rise and fall. The sound of her human heartbeat echoed in his skull, and the tiny brown pebbles at the ends of her small, perfect mounds were hardened by wafts of air ... were that he was the air, brushing them. A shudder consumed him at the thought.

The sensation forced him to tilt his head, and he again inhaled deeply of the scent that was driving his torture. His breaths now frigid pants, he leaned his head back against the tree again, letting go of it to hold her in a phantom embrace - but immediately dropped his arms as the mental touch of her burned him. Fury ripped through him, and he took out a chunk of the tree with one swipe. They'd surrounded her, and not even his thoughts could get through!

"Hey, playa. Frustrating, isn't it?" a voice said from the distance.

Carlos spun and glared at the tall, black-hooded entity. Only gleaming red slits could be seen from a cavern inside the robe -  even with his new powers, he couldn't make out a face. This thing had no face, just glowing orbs that hovered beneath its hood. Its crooked, skeletal finger pointed at him in a beckoning motion. It waited patiently for Carlos to respond, like a tall, thin harbinger of death. Were it not so tragic, Carlos would have laughed. This thing was too late. He was already dead.

On guard, Carlos circled the threat and snarled, bearing fangs. "What are you? If you came to collect the living, you're too late. I'm a dead man walking."

The entity laughed. "You have much to learn... . Soon you'll even be able to speak the old language."

"Where are you from? Who are you?!"

"From the same place you've been, recently. Hell."

The urge to kill whatever it was before him made Carlos's muscles twitch. "If you stay here, I'll gladly send you back - in pieces."

"Why don't we go together, my new brother?" it hissed. "The Vampire Council of old would like to have a word with you. I'm just a messenger. Let's take your complaint to them."

Wfwhat feltlike an unbreakable magnetic force held Carlos •i in place as the thing with no face came closer.

"When the council calls, you have no choice ... for obviously your choice has already been made. Come. Stay near me as I guide you through the darkness - we must go past the demon realms of levels one through five, down to level six - and we cannot afford to lose you along the way." The thing let out a vicious serpentine hiss, and brought a sickle out from under its robe, wedging it in the earth and pulling a tear in the grass and mud before hiding the huge blade again.

The earth began to vibrate and quake, and a deep fissure opened, uprooting trees, releasing dense plumes of yellow and black smoke until where Carlos stood became a cavern. Instantly he fell as the ground beneath his feet gave way, the dim moonlight above moving farther and farther away - then the overhead fissure sealed itself with he and the entity within it.

Carlos couldn't even yell; the force of the drop was so swift, so brutal. Slimy things grabbed at him, but the bony hand of the entity dug into his arm. He could see the scythe hack at limbs as body parts fell in a blur and screeches and screams echoed behind them.

Then his motion slowed and he came to a crash landing on his feet. The thing beside him glanced up into the darkness above them and shook its head.

"They're getting stronger," it hissed. "Follow me."

Not knowing what else to do, Carlos followed the hooded entity before him, taking note of the soot-blackened rocks that studded the narrow passage. The dank floor and walls were littered with stalagmites and stalactites bearing symbols he could not fathom, along with bones, the smell of acidic bat urine, and the winged vermin that murmured as if they could talk - then screeched in a cacophony of voices that sounded suspiciously like laughter.

The being came to a halt and held up its hand as the heat around them intensified. "After the lava moat, place your hand on the door. My journey ends here."

Carlos looked over a wide embankment that was a red-orange-yellow swirling sea of volcanic heat. Only a thin path of rock extended from where he stood to the other side. The entity pointed to two large doors beyond a thin crag that were of a black shiny rock like marble. Each side of the double doors hosted a huge gold crest with brass fang-bearing, demonic knockers. The ornaments were so realistic that Carlos could swear the heads would bite.

"How do I cross?" he asked the entity warily, looking down at pure liquid Hell. He motioned to the bodies writhing and moaning in the swirling furnace. "I'm not trying to end up like them."

"Nor I," the entity spat. "Those who were not summoned, but were foolish enough to attempt a breech of the Vampire Council Chamber, go there - or, those that did not answer the summons. Step out and cross, or be sucked into the abyss ... the corridor of perpetual agony is within the sixth realm."

With few options, Carlos stepped out onto the thin path, and only looked back once as it began disintegrating behind him, making him bolt to the other side. He reached the thin ledge full-throttle, his cheek slamming against the thick marble, and in reflex he grabbed at the brass rings. Immediate pain shot through his hands as the knockers sank their fangs into his flesh. A yell of agony came from him as the doors began to open, and he was forced to let one of the knockers go when it retracted from his right hand.

The left door had only opened itself a crack, and he swung his body through the thin margin between a black marble floor and an ocean of heat beyond it. Falling to his knees, he placed both hands on the cool stone, and drew ragged breaths. Adrenaline and fear gripped him. What had he done? Then a low series of hisses made him look up. Almost afraid of what his mind would encounter, Carlos raised his head slowly and stared.

Four pale, black-robed entities faced him, their heads cleanshaven, with no eyebrows or eyelashes, and skin so thin that he could see their blue-green veins. Only one of them wore a peaked, black hat that resembled a Pope's crimson pontiff cap. Carlos's gaze tore around the room where he'd landed. Highly polished black marble was beneath him, a five-point star-shaped table was before him, and its center and each point appeared to be threaded with shining red marble and gold. In the middle of it was a raised, ugly seal circled by cryptic letters that almost seemed to move and swirl around the golden-horned, fanged deity of the crest. Golden goblets sat on the table before each entity and were filled with a ruby-colored liquid. Carlos inhaled. Blood.

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