"Let's move, dude. Unless you want to wait for them to regroup and come back?"
Rider grabbed her outstretched hand and pulled to right himself, noting how easily she'd helped him up. But he reserved comment until they had jogged back down the beach and locked the Jeep with them in it. He leaned his head on the steering wheel and let the tremors abate when his hands shook as he tried to put the key in the ignition.
"Sonofabitch! Don't do that again, okay? Enough to make a grown man piss himself. Shit!"
"Everybody: status!" Shabazz's voice bellowed through the radio.
"We're coming in," Damali said, her tone blase. "We'll pick up Big Mike, unless he's okay till morning."
"Rider, the slayer's condition; your condition?"
Rider sat up slowly, wet sand and sea clinging to his body and clothes as he stared at Damali. Her expression was more peaceful, like the sudden onslaught of whatever had taken her over had passed. "One of 'em got me from behind," he said. Strain made his voice sound tight, as he thought about the horrible possibility of being nicked. "Check my back, D - I mighta got a scratch from a vamp. I think I'm hit." He peered over his shoulder, grabbing at his shirt, panic making him scrabble at the wet cloth. "Check me out, for real - I'm hit!"
There was silence on the radio - all anyone could hear was static.
"They never nicked him," Damali said in an amused tone. "That was me who grabbed him from behind and moved his head out of the way so I could throw my dagger without taking off his ear. Couldn't talk to him with a baby Isis between my teeth. Needed one hand to grab his slow ass and pull him out of harm's way." She slapped Rider on his shoulder and rubbed his spine as he pulled away with a sullen expression.
"They never broke the leather on his boots. I had his back. Madame Isis had mine. We're clean. Got two more - but two got away. One of them, the female, is headed for the beachfront properties... but police are up there. I wonder, maybe staking out one of Carlos's boys' residences?"
"Come back to the compound, now!" Marlene ordered. "Mike will travel by day if they release Jose sometime tomorrow."
"I'm cool," Mike said. "Go back to base."
"She's not even breathing hard," Rider snapped, exasperated. "And is now all smiles. This is bullshit."
"She got her run out," Shabazz said. "The blood lust has passed. Bring baby-girl home."
"Youare grounded, Miss Thang!" Marlene walked in a circle as the rest of the team sat silently in the weapons room. "And, don't you ever curse at me, ever! What was that, 'Fuck you, Marlene,' mess? Huh? I will kick your natural - "
"Grounded? I'm grown. What the hell - "
"Don't you speak to me like that! And, everybody stop cursing!" Marlene pointed at Rider who now occupied a stool. Outright fury burned in her eyes and her voice dropped to a lethal octave as she spoke through her teeth. "You almost got a valuable member of the team killed!"
"Correct," Rider said. "Shark bait, right under the pier - "
"I handled it, and also got a bunch of them tonight." Damali leaned on her sword and glared at Marlene.
"No more solo acts. Period. We're not looking for numbers - we're looking for the source - the quality of the kill, not the quantity. That's the part you don't get yet. We can do topside vamps for a lifetime, and still wouldn't make a dent. Strategy is what you're lacking, and common damned sense!"
Damali studied her blade and looked up from it with a sideways glance. She respected Marlene, but she was sick of her telling her what to do. Who put her in charge, anyway?
"Mar," Shabazz warned, "drop it. She was doing what's natural, and there comes a point where you can't fight nature. You know that. A vampire huntress's job is to hunt."
Shabazz's comment made Damali relax a bit as a brief feeling of vindication swept through her, but the way Marlene glared kept her on guard.
"A Neteru's job is to hunt, but her job is to also work within a team. It is not to imperil the lives of team members in the process - just like our job is to protect. And just because she's smelling herself does not mean she can disrespect - "
"What!" Damali could not believe Marlene had gone there. She was practically hang-jawed, but that state lasted about two seconds until indignant rage kicked in.
"That's right! Smelling yourself." Marlene's tone was sharp enough to cut. "Getting Rider to steal a sword that's over seven thousand years old, given to me to give to you when I say you're ready. I let him take it - just to see what you'd do!" Marlene's eyes narrowed. "You're not ready for this power, because you have no respect to go with it - and just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. Lesson number one, as a huntress."
Damali threw the blade on the equipment table, and the team pulled back, each standing slowly as Marlene circled her.
"Mar, you are fifty years old, and she's - "
Marlene's glare cut off Rider's words.
"This has been brewing for a long time," Shabazz said under his breath, moving to a neutral position out of the way.
"You can't let them go at it in here," J.L. said fast, incredulous. "C'mon, Mar, D, we're family, and this is very uncool. Chill!" His eyes darted between the would-be combatants, worry tensing his expression.
Marlene pointed her finger at Damali as she turned and ad-
dressed J.L. "You think I will not deal with her in here? Huh! I will not have a mutiny in this team, and whether she knows it or not, she's still got a few things to learn. She almost cost Rider his life tonight." Marlene's attention snapped back to Damali and held her with a hard stare. "You just try me."
The challenge ignited a level of defiance in Damali that was nearly intoxicating. But as she looked at Marlene's stricken expression, seeing fear, hurt, and concern, she forced herself to relax. Yeah, she could take Marlene in an all-out one-on-one, but there was indeed this thing called respect. And she did love this woman... .
"Look, I'm sorry. And I shouldn't have cursed at you. I didn't mean it like that," Damali said, forcing herself to take a deep breath. "I picked up the trail, then all this weird stuff started happening to me, and I couldn't turn it loose. I didn't mean to put Rider at risk. It won't happen again." She watched Marlene lower her arm and steady her breath.
"I'm tired. I'm going to bed." Damali cast a disparaging look at the team. "Yeah. At night. And no, I'm not afraid," she added sarcastically before they could speak - then snatched her sword as she left the room.
"Okay, that was fun," Rider said after they heard Damali's bedroom door slam.
"It's gonna get worse before it gets better." Shabazz sighed, finding a stool again. "We've got two queen bees in this hive."
"Oh, brother," J.L. mumbled on a long breath, going back to his computers.
Marlene wrapped her arms around herself, closed her eyes, and leaned her head back. When two tears slipped down her cheeks, Shabazz stood, went to her, and hugged her.
"Baby, you know our job is almost over, right? She's ready to fly now."
Marlene allowed her forehead to rest against his shoulder. "But she's not ready, Shabazz. Her body is changing - she's going through Neteru physiology spikes, but it's not a stable transition ... hasn't locked in. The girl is a woman by society's standards - but by guardian and vampire huntress standards, she's just a child."
"I know, baby. It's tough on everybody. Like living with a teenager, times ten."
"Mar, exactly what's up with Damali?" J.L. asked, watching them from his station. It was obvious that he had been just sitting there, staring at the screens.
"Her bone structure, while light as a feather, gains flexibility, density - as do her muscles and skin as she matures." Marlene let her breath out in a long, weary sigh. "Can't really tell the difference between a Neteru and a normal kid until one of two things happen - either they are in a life or death situation, or they reach maturity."
J.L. stared at Marlene. "She could've killed another kid, just in a schoolyard brawl..."
Marlene shook her head. "No. It's adrenaline-activated. A normal schoolyard fight wouldn't have kicked this off. But something serious... yeah. She could have hurt somebody. It never got that bad for her, except once."
Shabazz looked at Marlene, then down at the floor as he spoke, remembering how they found Damali after she'd fought and run away from her foster father. "The physical structure is to make her an even match to do battle with a master vampire. If the vamps throw her, she won't sustain a fracture as easily as we would. If they try to bite or scratch her, her skin will give, long enough for her to defend against it. She'll be able to withstand a bite, and once she's fully matured, won't turn. She'll be faster, stronger than all of us - will have everything to match up against a vamp ... telepathy, night vision, silent stealth, the nose to track them, the ears to hear the slightest register of sound ... and lightning quickness. It's all sending her through these ... these bursts. Even her voice is a weapon, it's a frequency that the males draw to, given their heightened hearing capacity. That's why she gravitated to the music industry."
Marlene shook her head. "By instinct she was seeking out experiences to ready her - to strengthen her skills... even if we had never shown up, she would have still been what she is now."
Marlene backed away from Shabazz and walked, glancing at J.L. "She's becoming a walking fighting machine ... but, there's a flaw, or, I should say, a vulnerability."
"What else, Mar? What's the vulnerability?" Rider studied Marlene, and glanced at his teammates. "That female vamp made her crazy."
"Yeah. I know." Marlene went to the window. "She'll make the females attack. The inner core forces around a master vampire are generally females, for some reason. But, for the males, Damali's scent is like a drug; an aphrodisiac ... makes them go nuts."
"Get the fuck outta here." Rider rubbed his hand along his jaw.
Marlene remained calm as she spoke. The time had come; the team needed to know. "The female Neteru can then draw the males out, and this drug she emits will make them hesitate to kill her - making them have to choose to kill her or take her, but it gives a vampire huntress the split-second blade advantage."
Shabazz nodded. "The same scenario holds true for male Neterus - they emit a pheromone that weakens the female vamps that guard a master, and will make them hesitate to attack him, leaving the master vamp they guard vulnerable. The master male vampires go postal at the scent of a male vampire hunter, and "won't hide, will fight with pure emotion without strategy."
Marlene sighed. "Master males are highly sensory creatures -
within the hierarchy of vamps. But, they can ..."
"Mar, tell 'em," Shabazz murmured, as J.L. now stood with Rider.
"Her telepathy is going to lock in on a master very soon to pull him out of the safety of his lair, and ..." Marlene walked in a circle now, wringing her hands. "I've tried to do the best I could ... You all have no idea the worry. She might have already locked in on a master - which could be why she's blocking me as her guardian seer so I won't detect it, because she's so anxious to go after him that she doesn't want to risk having any of us block her hunt. Or, it could be just plain old defiance - her wanting to do this solo."
"You know that's a natural thing, too," Shabazz said quietly. "The most difficult thing for all the Neterus, male or female, is to learn to work within a team. Half of their mind wants to keep the team safe by rushing into battle alone, the other half of their mind isn't totally rational when the blood lust hits them. That's our job as guardians, to teach the slayer how to temper those impulses and refine her strategy."
"Whatever it is, her power is fluctuating from the strain of sensing and blocking before she's ready. There are days when the kid is wide open, and I can read her like a book. Then, other days, I get a blank page. It's so frustrating - you all have no idea what I worry about!" Marlene whipped around and held Rider in her stare. "Rider... what if you had been out there with her, and her power dipped - even for a split second? Do you understand the magnitude of this? Don't you all see why I'm so upset? I'm not the bad guy. The closer she gets to her twenty-first birthday, the more vulnerable she is until she crosses over that line of transition. I only allowed you to give her the sword because I didn't expect that she'd have to use it."
"Marlene, these are significant changes - but what does a couple of days have to do with - "
"Marlene, spit it out." Shabazz held her gaze, but his eyes were gentle.
"She'll go into ... there's no delicate way to put this." Marlene sighed and stared at the wall. "She'll go into heat. She'll want a master to come to her, and she'll be giving off a scent that will bug him out. It's in her DNA. She'll also broadcast erotic telepathic images." Marlene gave a dry laugh. "Funny how she'll use one of a vamp's greatest strengths - seduction - against him. But unless that huntress is seasoned, she'll be dancing on the edge of her own very powerful desires. That's why we, as guardians, are supposed to keep the Neteru in our care away from a central lair until she's ready. That's our code, our rules of the game."
Marlene looked at each guardian, her gaze connecting with each pair of stunned eyes before she spoke again. "Now do you gentlemen hear me? Damali found a nest perimeter too soon, and days can make the difference. It wasn't supposed to happen like this."
"Oh ... shit... ," Rider murmured. "A fuckin' catch-22, if ever I heard one."
"It's deep," Shabazz said, rubbing his jaw and studying nothing on the floor. "When Marlene told me, I didn't want to accept it. But after what I saw tonight, Mar ain't overreacting."
J.L. muttered, walked in a slow, dazed circle. "Damn, Mar."
"In the meantime, you're telling us that until she's one hundred percent through this Neteru adolescence, we have to be sure she doesn't roll some master vamp?" Rider wiped his palms over his face. "Geez, Louise!"
"She'll be testy, evil, and wearing us out." Shabazz sighed.
"That's why ever since the heavens aligned, Mar has had this place under total lockdown. Tomorrow, we've gotta fill in Mike and Jose, assuming Jose is strong enough to come home."
"Would you all explain this planets thing you've been tripping about since May? What the hell? Might as well put it all out on the table now, don'tcha think?"
Marlene nodded, found a stool, and sat down. "We started going on the offensive because she needed to totally conquer fear and get ready for a battle with a master vamp. Think of these other minor skirmishes as going up against sparring partners. I just didn't want her to take unnecessary risks on her own until she was fully prepared." Her eyes were sad, as though she'd been defeated before the real fight had even begun.
"That much I'm stringing together," Rider said in a weary tone. "It's the astrology I'm drawing a blank on."
Marlene used her finger to mark invisible points on the table, and the crew gathered around her. "There was a five-planet array that happened in the heavens in May ... Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Mercury, and Venus - they made a straight line for the first time in several hundred years, and in the next hundred years, this will only occur three more times." She glanced at the blank expressions each guardian offered her as a response. "Don't you get it?"
"Duh-uh, noooo ..."
"Rider, people, the planet Jupiter is known as the planet of expansion. When it shows up and transits, big things that are either very good or very bad on a major scale occur. A vampire huntress being born, and then going through a Neteru heat in a new millennium is a big thing that is good, but it's also occurring at a time when some major bad stuff is happening on the planet."
"Right, J.L." Marlene paused for dramatic effect, satisfied that she now had the group's full attention. "Saturn is the planet of karmic lessons - its lining up in direct alignment with Jupiter means that some very big lessons will be taught by the unforgiving taskmaster of the universe, Saturn. Then conies Venus - the planet of love, combined in alignment with the planet of war, Mars, lining up with Mercury - the universe's messenger."
She let her breath out hard and crossed her arms over her chest. "This constellation won't happen again until 2040, then again in 2060, and 2100. If we count this alignment, with the others, it means it will occur three times within a Neteru's lifespan ... she's dealing with huge issues - good or bad, karmic lessons, war, love, hinged on communication. And, it just so happens that our huntress has a window in which to conceive during this first alignment." She stopped speaking for a moment when they all gaped. "Something else happened, too, after the initial alignment."
"There's more?" J.L. whispered.
"Three of the planets most influential in this particular alignment subsequently formed a giant pyramid in the sky. Mars - war, Venus - love, and Saturn - lessons, broke straight-line formation to create a spectacular celestial gathering. That's when I knew. This first transit is forming a triangle in the sky, a trinity. The pyramid shape told me this thing we're dealing with was raised from old Egypt, Kemet. There will be three sides to the battle, a trinity of forces our slayer will have to cope with - love, war, and her old lessons."
Shabazz just nodded. J.L. stared at her without blinking. Rider didn't say a word.
"We're in for the ride of our lives, gentlemen. That's why we cannot afford any slip-ups, people getting drunk, off somewhere unaccounted for. This is very, very serious."
For a moment, no one spoke, but allowed the silence to help them absorb the bomb that had just been dropped on them. Their expressions were a combination of awe and fear.
"I have a confession to make. ..." Rider cast a sheepish glance around the table, even as he avoided Marlene's gaze. "When we were on two-by-two detail, I sorta told her to go ahead and get her run out - get the Carlos thing out of her system."
Marlene closed her eyes and shook her head. "Some human boyfriend is the least of my worries. The only reason I object to that knucklehead is because he's a distraction, and his lifestyle is so negative."
"But I thought - "
"I'm not worried about her virginity, Rider!" Marlene fought to steady her breathing. "I know you all think I'm just some uptight old bat, but let me inform you that, I, too, once was young and had a life."
Marlene held them all in a glare for a moment before speaking again. "Damali can still die from a gunshot wound, or a car accident, or a stab in a bar brawl - if she's not paying enough attention to avoid it. Our huntress could wind up in jail, where she'd be isolated from the team without a weapon, and anything could slip through the bars at night."
"I hear you," Shabazz murmured. "Lotta stuff comes in the lockdown wards." He smiled. "Ask me how I know."
J.L. and Rider let their breaths out in unison, causing a combined whistle.
"That's right," Marlene said flatly, her hands now on her hips. "Somebody like Carlos lives in the streets, primarily at night, where they both could get jacked by a vampire posse while out clubbing and having fun, as you call it, and all his militia won't be able to protect our slayer. Or they could roll up on her while she's in Carlos's bed, with all her defenses down and no blade on her; something could slip through a window or a vent, and trust me, that girl wouldn't see it coming - she'd be distracted! Been there. Trust me."
"Damn, Marlene, I'm sorry ... I didn't - "
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