CHAPTER EIGHTEEN


CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

A crush of humanity made up of pilgrims and tourists created a cacophony of voices in different dialects as the team waited to enter the Jokhang Temple. This was the only place where they'd been denied preferential status, as the monks who kept the lines orderly seemed to feel that waiting was part of the enlightenment process. But as they waited, the team shared the same concern; in a place like this, and how many others in the world, how did one not touch another living soul? The spread of contagion by touch was imminent. Fighting it on an individual basis was futile. They had to get to the root source, not go about some insane, government-inspired extermination and quarantine strategy. They needed the antidote. The portals had to be sealed.

During the wait to access the most illustrious temple in the region, the open air allowed the team to recover partially and digest their leisurely consumed meal. Perhaps there was some wisdom in the monks' approach. Damali looked down at the polished stones beneath her boots, awed that millions of feet and prostrated bodies performing the sacred act of chak devotion - flattening one's entire body on the earth one-hundred and eight times as a rosary bead was pushed and a mantra spoken - had made the stones gleam. There was something to be said for the crush of humanity and the fierceness of spiritual devotion. That, too, was not to be discounted here.

Spirit of the divine most assuredly presided in this sacred place. How anyone could be bold enough to shell this temple and to fill it with desecration would be akin to razing the Vatican. Real bad karma. Enough, also, to make the angels weep. Just thinking about such unholy abuse made her shudder as they neared the courtyard entrance flanked by two willow trees and also hosting a third one that was planted and still living from the time the temple had been built. Another trinity. Trees, perhaps representing what had been in the original Garden. As they passed, she assessed all this like a detective.

Damali looked at the stump planted by Queen Wengcheng that had taken a mortar shell but survived. It told her much about the spirit of the people that still lived here. Tough, but also very beautiful. She clung to that for hope.

Awed as they entered the six-columned portico, it suddenly dawned on her that a woman built this. Yes, a woman knew where to construct this palace. A woman had hooked it up spiritually, architecturally, and the first wife had paid for all this - back in a time when women were treated like less than dirt. Oh, yeah, girlfriend had to be onto Lilith's shenanigans, and men had respected that. Hmmm... Okay, dual energy was in full effect, male and female cooperation. Damali took note.

As more awareness came to her, Damali put both hands on her hips and smiled. "Bet a lot of Egypt has some untold designers and architects, too," she whispered, receiving a knowing smile from Marlene. Now she could move forward. A huge part of the worry about where she and Marlene had ultimately decided to locate the team vanished. It was in their DNA, the ability to home to a safe spot to put down roots, no matter how temporary.

"It is in the Aya," Monk Lin murmured, coming near her. "In the bones, we say."

The construction also gave Damali ideas as they walked through the main gate, the Zhung-go, a structure outfitted with a finely carved door and murals of the future Buddha on the left and the past Buddha on the right; soon she became very aware that this part of the stop was primarily for her benefit. Wrathful deities painted in bright hues to protect the hallowed Entrance Hall looked at them with unmoving, fierce eyes. She could tell that the male members of the team were interested, but looking around somewhat detached, while the females in her group were rapt. Jokhang's series of walled spaces were set up like a giant maze.

Guides pointed out that the Inner Jokhang had three stories forming a great square around a huge hall known as Kyilkhor Thil. The inner roundabout was called the Nangkhor, which was to be walked clockwise for enlightenment as prayer wheels were spun. But the Outer Jokhang, referred to as the western extension, housed lesser chapels, kitchens, storerooms, and residences. Detailed murals covered every wall, and on the northern side was once one of the residences of the Dalai Lamas.

Okay, she got it. The new compound design was locked into her brain and Monk Lin smiled briefly, bowed, and ushered them through the balance of the tour with haste. She'd never seen him brimming with such excitement, and it was as though he'd also shared her discovery.

"Monk Lin, we've come a very long way to get a floor plan," Damali said, teasing him in a discreet whisper.

"It is also a battle tactic, what you keep within layers of flanking - circles within circles. It is a map."

The two nodded as they scanned the team. Carlos remained unusually quiet.

"This didn't do it for him," Damali whispered.

Monk Lin only nodded. "Perhaps the Potala will."

"What we need isn't here," she said, quietly disappointed. "But this is the greatest temple of them all."

"I am aware that what we seek on the surface is not here, but this may not be the greatest temple," Monk Lin said slyly. "Ask the Naksong."

He was exhausted and tired of sightseeing. He wanted to get the show on the road. This was not why he came here, not part of the mission. He hated all this vibration drama - why couldn't Monk Lin just point him in the right direction, tell him straight no-chaser where the battle was to kick off, and then they could develop a strategy. Carlos shoved his hands into his pockets and followed Damali and Monk Lin. This was ridiculous.

Another long, slow ride across town set his teeth on edge. Every male on the team had the same reaction. They were all beyond words and kept their gazes out the minivan window, surveying rooftops, alleys, looking at where a predator could exit after dark, and plotting escape routes.

What the females on the team obviously saw as rich history, great places to hunt for bargains and culture, they saw as ambush territory and danger. When was Damali just going to accept that men and women saw the world from two very distinct points of view?

But as they pulled up to the impressive thirteen-story, massive structure bearing what seemed to be a thousand steps built into the side of a mountain, even he was forced to nod with sudden appreciation.

Rising out of the mountainside was a monolithic building of red brick that towered over a lower section of white expansion as though the red encircled the white. Oh, yeah, now a structure like this made sense. Steeply sloping stone stairs gave access to or escape to the layer upon layer of building levels. This was a cliff-side fortress, what he'd been trying to tell D.

"One thousand rooms," Monk Lin said. "The White Palace was the seat of the government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lama. The Red Palace was the spiritual center, which houses many smaller chapels... often only a human skull or thighbone remains present. Thousands of butter lamps were lit here. This is where we will also find the golden chorten, eight in all, containing the ashes of past Dalai Lamas V, and then VII-XIII."

"Wait," Carlos said as the exited the van into Zhol Square. "You have the ashes for the fifth Dalai Lama, plus Lamas seven through thirteen - but what happened to the guy who was number six?"

Monk Lin simply smiled and waved the group forward, his red robes billowing in the wind as they crossed the massive, white stone square that led to a jewel green field of grass that again broke to accommodate what seemed to be a thousand hand-laid stones a city block long in radius. "Between the Red and White Palaces, valuable thangkas, huge murals on fabric, were kept in the yellow Thangkas Room - a building off on its own, but containing majesty."

Okay, so the monk was back to riddles and didn't answer him.

"Yes I have," Monk Lin said with a twinkle in his eyes. "You just didn't hear me."

Groans of discontent filtered through their slow-moving team as they climbed the steps. Berkfield was complaining of chest pain. Rider was fussing about not being able to breathe. Mike seemed like he was about to pass out from the exertion. Shabazz was sweating so hard that everything he wore was wet. Bobby had bent over to puke, but simply dry-heaved. Dan and J.L. had stopped with Jose to assist Marjorie, Juanita, and Inez, but wound up getting helped up the steps instead. Marlene stopped every few feet and leaned on her stick. Damali kept her eyes forward like an eagle with something in her sight line.

Yeah, he felt it, too. Something was here. Carlos glanced at Monk Lin and Damali every so often as they passed exquisite red lacquered doors and entered a world that seemed like it went back in time.

Lush gardens manicured to perfection to appear naturally occurring but beyond naturally neat separated buildings within buildings. Red was everywhere, and the color tugged at his distant memory... the color offered power, was erotic... blood. Gold dust, gold leaf, thrones... thrones... What was the deal with thrones? Dragons and thrones; doors, three times the height of a man; golden knockers with dragonheads.

When they reached the top floor, Monk Lin placed his hand over Carlos's chest. "Breathe deeply and slowly," he said quietly. "We are about to enter the Room of Eternal Life, where the Dalai Lamas studied spiritual scriptures."

Carlos nodded, yet wasn't sure why. But as he entered the room, crests and seals covered a wall of books. He closed his eyes. Books... there was a book. A throne and a book, a book and a throne. He opened his eyes quickly. "What's in the cellars?"

The team drew near.

"The Cave of Scorpions... justice, in those times, was meted out harshly," Monk Lin explained calmly.

"They had a cave where they shackled prisoners to a wall and let scorpions sting them to death? Shit," Rider whispered and looked around. "I suppose the old cultures didn't mess around if you didn't pay your taxes."

Again, Carlos closed his eyes. He could see it. Had been there´┐Żshackled to a wall, thousands of pests coming out of a cavern, covering the floor, scrambling over his body in the Chairman's Chamber. "I need air," he said, and began walking.

The red was too much, the gold was too much, the dragons were too much, the huge palace felt like a giant box around him - he had to get outside and into the sun. He could hear the others behind him, half walking, half running, bumping past other tourists and pilgrims trying to keep up with him. Damali's footfalls rang out from the group's. He had to get out of this place. Something horrible had happened. He'd been somewhere - thrones - where?

Sunlight poured over him, but he kept going. His brisk pace went to a jog, and then a flat-out run. His footfalls landed on a small footbridge toward an island in the center of one of the gardens. A wide, white building with a golden roof was before him, but sudden peace stopped his dash and he stood before the scalloped terrace and again closed his eyes.

"You have found the oasis of peace just outside the Potala," Monk Lin said in a mercifully quiet tone. "It was built by the sixth Dalai Lama as his personal retreat. The Lukhang is a temple dedicated to the king of the Naga, water spirits."

"The sixth Dalai Lama?" Carlos said, still panting from the run. He didn't express it to the monk, but the place had sexual energy flowing off it like crazy. Water was definitely his thing, and if it was dedicated to water spirits, hey...

Monk Lin offered him a droll smile and turned his back to Carlos, holding up his hand for the others in their team not to approach yet. He waited until the group stopped jogging toward them, but stood back, seeming a bit confused.

"Dalai Lama VI was the only Lama to refuse to take the vows of celibacy, but he was an effective ruler, nonetheless." Monk Lin kept his back to Carlos. "One can understand why his ashes were, shall we say, not venerated with the others... This was his pleasure palace, built behind the Potala, much to the chagrin of the monastic orders of the day."

Monk Lin allowed a smile as he turned and saw Carlos's stunned expression. He dropped his voice to an even quieter murmur. "He and his mistress ruled here. He was an artist. I believe a musician. She was a battle strategist and very good with governmental concepts. Together, they accomplished much." Monk Lin covered his mouth for a moment with two fingers, recovered from a suppressed chuckle, and let his breath out slowly. "Your condition is not unique, nor is your pairing with the female Neteru. Your pairing is the reverse of the couple that built this place, gain insight from that. Do not remain at odds with each other." He looked away as another quiet smile accosted him. "This was a sacred place... but, uh, our Dalai Lama couldn't keep his hands off her. The orders turned a blind eye."

Carlos folded his arms over his chest, looked away, and laughed. "Yeah, I gathered that. The joint has a serious charge to it."

The Monk glanced at him briefly and turned away again, badly concealing a smile. "My suggestion is that you take a few cleansing breaths, assess what this experience has taught you before we return to the group." The monk offered him a discreet smirk as he glanced down and then sent his gaze toward the blooming trees. "You might need to take a walk to the other side as we tour... to save face."

Much improved by the time the group returned to the minivan, Carlos sat in one of the opened sides staring at the ground. He could hear the team talking and laughing, Damali's voice always distinct in his mind above the others. Yet the experience within the Potala had been profound. Something had literally chased him out of the structure. But it wasn't something external, it was something internal. He dug his fingernails into his scalp as he sat, waited, listened to the group get closer and closer. Something was inside his head and couldn't get out. The Potala had images he remembered, but couldn't place, just like sensations rising off the Lukhang had practically knocked his head back.

It had been so strong, just the vibration energy of that location. He'd wanted Damali like he hadn't since... Carlos looked up. Since when? He stood up quickly and almost banged his head on the frame of the minivan. He watched Damali laughing and talking as the team approached. Since when, dammit? When was the last time he'd felt a sizzle, much less a jolt? Oh, shit, oh shit, oh shit, what was wrong with him? An ancient building could give him wood and his woman couldn't?

Carlos walked around the van and jumped in next to the driver, panic stricken.

"Okay," Damali said. "I don't know about y'all, but I'm beat and hungry again, and just wanna lie down."

"I second the motion!" Rider shouted over the seat. "And a beer wouldn't hurt."

"For real," Big Mike hollered from the back.

Chaos was in full effect.

Damali laughed as Monk Lin smiled. "Seriously, though. It's late, gonna be dark in a few, we've been traveling nonstop for a day and a half, have a lot of catching up to do on sleep and our - "

"We have to go to the caves," Carlos said, quietly.

"No, dude! I'm maxed out. No more side trips, detours what-the-hell-ever!" Rider was practically out of his seat, with Jose and J.L. holding his arms.

"Absolutely," Shabazz argued. "We don't do caves with no ammo at sunset, not on zero-freaking-sleep, when there's no clear and present danger. Brother, that's when you catch up, recharge your batteries, and - "

"That's what I need to do. Recharge my battery. Something's draining energy from me, but I don't know what it is." Carlos's tone was flat, calm, and contained no judgment.

Damali leaned forward and touched his shoulder. "You all right?"

"Why didn't you say so," Rider grumbled. "Fine." he said on a hard exhale, pulling his fingers through his hair hard. "To the caves."

The minivan lumbered down Mirik Lam south from Lhasa Fandian and then struggled against a dirt road along the base of a hill that Monk Lin said was called, the Chakpo-Ri, which also faced the Potala in the distance.

"We are at Chogyel Zimuki, also known as Dragla Lugug," Monk Lin said, curiously appraising Carlos as he exited the vehicle. "Go up the steps two stories beyond the gate to the monastic temple. On the second floor is the inner sanctum and the entrance to the prayer cave." He bowed toward Carlos and Damali, signaling that the others might consider staying with the van.

"But, dude, did you say something about Dracula or did I miss something?" Rider said, stroking his chest where his gun holster normally crossed.

"No," Monk Lin said with a patient smile. "I said, Dragla Lugug."

"It's almost dark, man," Shabazz said, his tone annoyed and worried. He glanced at Big Mike and Marlene for confirmation as the team closed ranks around the monk.

"It's something I've gotta do," Carlos said, looking at Damali. "Second sight is down - I could use a good seer and somebody good with a blade."

Shabazz pulled the new sword out of the van and offered it to Damali, but she declined it. He didn't put it back in the vehicle, but held it in readiness, just in case she changed her mind.

"I'm cool," she told Shabazz. Something innate made her know that Carlos needed to again feel like he was the weapon. If she took anything with her more lethal than a dagger, it might undermine that. She turned her focus toward him as she patted her bootleg. "I gotchure back. Let's do this."

They entered the spherical cavern and glanced around. Just beyond the grotto-style, two-story monastery, it was as though they'd again stepped into another dimension. A huge center column was inscribed with unreadable etchings, but Damali allowed her fingers to rove over the seventh-century art that told a story she couldn't comprehend in seventy-one intricately carved sculptures.

"This is very cool and very eerie," she whispered as she unsheathed her blade, just to be on the safe side. She kept alert as she quietly searched for anything that could hold angel tears.

But as in the temples they'd visited earlier, nothing was registering. There was also the not-so-small problem of what to do if she found them with Carlos or anyone else there to witness the discovery. She hated keeping secrets from him; it made her sad to have to do that. This was her man, her partner, and they were supposed to be one.

Damali turned her attention toward the only source of illumination, hoping the tiny lights might provide answers. Small butter lamps lit the interior, their smoky essence filtering up to cover the ceiling in soot.

She glanced at Carlos, watching him walk around the miniature prayer altar, and she studied his gaze as he took in the hundreds of religious markings that covered the walls.

"What are you sensing?" she murmured, coming close to him.

"Nothing I should be feeling or picking up from a monastic temple," he said with a, half smile. "But I have to remember not to defile the Neteru."

For a moment, she didn't move or speak. A deep, pungent, sensual aroma began to fill the unventilated space around her, making her slightly heady. "Who told you something like that?" she whispered, her breath coming out huskier than was warranted.

"That's just the thing, D," he said quietly, his gaze still raking the walls as she stepped in closer to him. "I can't remember. I just know that I'm not supposed to."

"Who got that crazy mess up in your head," she said, smiling, closing off the space between them. She inhaled deeply and allowed her nose to drag along his shoulder. "Whew, man... is that what's been bothering you lately?"

He shook his head and stepped away from her, his eyes on the cave walls. "There's an energy here," he whispered. "Male."

Damali straightened and went on guard. "Friend or foe?" Her eyes darted around the dimly lit enclosure.

"That would depend on your perspective," an elderly voice said from behind the column.

Carlos and Damali whirred around and stood in battle readiness as a small, gnomelike man in a brown robe stepped from behind the column. His face was drawn with wrinkles, his hair white and long, fusing with his mustache and beard to flow down the front of his dark brown habit. His eyes were all white, covered in thick, bluish cataracts. His hands were concealed within the deep folds of his sleeves and he extracted them slowly to press them together and bow.

"I am Zang Ho. You seek the wisdom of the Naksong?"

Damali and Carlos didn't immediately speak, temporarily rendered mute by the surprise.

"Well, well, speak. Be quick. Time is of the essence," the tiny man said with impatience. He swept up to them, seeming oblivious of their size and strength, or the fact that Damali was packing a blade. "I've waited a very long time for you two - and you both are incorrigible." He swept away again and walked around the column with his hands behind his back, and then suddenly rushed up to Carlos, pointed a crooked finger at him and smiled a toothless grin. "Ahhh..." he said, inhaling sharply. "The apexing one is here." He spun to face Damali with blind eyes. "The female, too. Humph. Put away the blade," he ordered. "I detest the smell of metal."

Carlos and Damali simply stared at each other for a moment.

"Uh, sir," Damali said, vastly amused by this droll little man who stood all of four feet ten inches tall, if a hair. "Uhmmm... you are the Naksong, we take it?"

He waved at her to dismiss the query. "You are almost ready, but him... my, my, my so much work to do and so little time."

"Sir, what do I have to do?" Carlos said as humbly as possible. "I came to learn from a master, because we have a serious mission at hand."

"You were a master!" the old man shouted, becoming indignant. "This is the point," he said, placing a bony finger against his temple. "A general. A master strategist. What is wrong with your mind?" He walked away, swishing his robes against the dirt floor and stirring plumes of dust as he strode around in agitation. "I don't have time for silly questions, young man. Link to her energy!" He folded his arms over his chest and pouted, and then began twirling the end of his long beard between two fingers, waiting.

"We're out of sync," Damali hedged, confused but swallowing a smile. "We're supposed to be looking for some serious demon energy, the Chairman's lair, but, uh, Monk Lin has been taking us sightseeing."

"Integrate yourself," the Naksong said, snapping his fingers. "You must conquer that which is within by using what is within. Then to conquer the external is moot, unless you have achieved that." He walked away. "I am done for the evening."

"Wait, wait, wait, hold up," Damali said, moving to block the elderly man's exit. "We did not fly umpteen hours and get snagged by government forces, get loaded down with artillery, to hear 'integrate yourself and go home. Be serious, sir - or at least have a heart."

The old man frowned and turned to address Carlos, tilting his head as he listened for his position in the room. "Feisty. I can see your hesitation."

"Listen," Carlos said, losing patience. "I don't know what you're talking about, and - "

"Then the problem is worse than I thought," the old man fussed, cutting off Carlos's comment. He again began to pace in a circle, muttering to himself, his voice rising and dipping in fits and starts. "In the land of the Arc of the Covenant, did you not receive the tools of the Neteru?" He held up his hand to prevent an answer. "Yes." He began walking again. "In the land of the Thunderbird, did you not receive the mission?" Again he held up his hand as Carlos and Damali glanced at each other. "Yes." He looked up with dead eyes and folded his arms over his bony chest. "But you forgot. Humph! Young people." He began his dizzying circle again. "We are in trouble," he said to the vaulted ceiling. "We are in very, very big trouble if we depend on them." He jerked his head to stare blindly at Carlos and Damali. "Sync up and meet me in the mountains tomorrow. I suppose I will have to teach."

Before Damali or Carlos could open their mouths, he vanished in a puff of white smoke.

"Okay, now that was deep," she said, going to the spot where the little man had been. She stomped on the ground. "Now what do we tell the team?"

"Your visit was fruitful?" Monk Lin asked, rushing up the cave temple stairs before Carlos and Damali descended them.

The group was held in thrall as Carlos and Damali related the bizarre events inside the cave, but Monk Lin whirred around and clapped his hands.

"You have met the Naksong. He has agreed to teach. This is a divine omen. Tomorrow, we set out at dawn to find the nomads, who will point us to the oracle. She will be able to coax him to us and our lessons begin."

Glances passed around the group as they all got back into the vehicle.

"I just have one question," Rider said flatly, staring out the window. "Why do we always have to do things the hard way, people? Just answer me that, gang, and I won't say another word for the rest of this trip!"

Still mystified, Damali stood before the window in the tight confines of the barren room, watching the setting sun paint the mountains in the distance pink and gold. Where were the tears!

Carlos's arms enfolded her as he looked at the scene over her shoulder, resting his chin on it.

"I'm sorry that I'm such a slow learner," he murmured. "D, I swear, it's like something is in my head that can't get out. Things I should remember by instinct just ain't there anymore."

She covered his hands with hers as he held her, keeping her back toward him as the shared the spectacular view of the Tibetan sky.

"It's not your fault," she said quietly. "Something traumatic happened, and I can feel it just under the surface of your skin. But what troubles me is that I can't pick it up, either. There's a black wall there. Maybe it's just because you went full vamp before, so your Neteru transition is a little slower than..."

"I know," he said with a weary sigh. "When we went to the first temple, I felt detached, nothing, as though something was trying to reach me, but couldn't get in."

She turned and stared at him. "A lot of blood was shed there. That temple was desecrated. Maybe you were shielding your mind from that?"

He nodded and moved a stray lock behind her ear. "I don't want to focus on images like that anymore."

"But you can't turn a blind eye to it," she argued gently. "Close your eyes, try to see what was there at Jokhang. Maybe it will offer a clue?"

He nodded, and slowly obliged her, tuning his mind to the images of the first temple. Soon his breathing deepened and his head dropped against her shoulder. The smell of blood filled his nose, and he tensed.

"Stay with it," she murmured. "I'll be with you in the vision."

Slowly, he forced himself to relax and attempted to retrace his mental steps through the intricate maze of the sanctuary. He could feel perspiration beginning to seep out of his pores as the pungent scents became nearly intoxicating, covered his face, slid up his nose, and made him weave against her.

Damali dragged her nose across his shoulder. The sensation sent a shudder of desire through him. The images in his head melted into the rooms of the Potala - thrones, books, swirled in his mind. Before long, his breaths were coming out in short pants. He was chained to a wall, scorpions exited the floor and covered his feet, scurried up his legs, and turned into tiny gargoyle-like creatures that grew and became harpies. He tried to jerk his head up, but Damali had a firm grip at the base of his skull.

"Stay with it," she murmured. "I got you. I'm here."

Pain riddled his body, and then suddenly gave way to weightlessness. A dark throne sat alone, smoke pouring over the floor, and then strong desire filled him. His groin felt like it was on fire. Golden fangs opened. A dark book was just beyond his reach. He nuzzled her neck hard, and battled not to score her throat. He could feel his gums about to rip, but as his tongue ran over his teeth, they'd remained smooth, even, flat. A sudden nip against his jugular made him open his eyes and gasp.

"You smell so damned good," she whispered, her eyes at half-mast. "I'm sorry, I couldn't resist." Her hand slid down his chest. "It's been a long time."

He held her upper arms, shook his head hard, chasing the vision, trying to catch it. "There's a book, D."

"Forget the book," she said in a husky tone. "Forget about what happened in the hotel room, okay?"

"What happened in the hotel room, baby?" he said, his voice tight and frantic as he tried to wipe the desire haze from mind. He shook her gently. "Damali. Focus. What happened in the room?"

She rose on her tiptoes and suddenly crushed her mouth against his. "I don't care," she said as she pulled away, and then crushed his mouth again, sending her tongue into it. She swayed in his arms and gripped the back of his hair tightly. "Stop playing."

He stared into her now glassy eyes that glittered with something dangerous. "There's a book - "

She covered his mouth again, her body writhing against his as she yanked back his head, her gaze dedicated to his jugular. The sensation of watching her eyes produced near vertigo, but something inside him cried out for understanding.

"Not while I'm apexing," he said, suddenly pushing her away.

"Are you nuts?" she said, wrapping her arms around herself.

"No. Something's wrong."

"You're damned straight, something's wrong," she said, her tone icy. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"

He blinked twice and stared at her. "What is wrong with you?" he said in a shocked whisper. "D... talk to me."

Her arm pulled away from her body as she pointed at him in a hard snap. "Who is she? What is she? You talk to me, dammit." Damali walked away and stood between the two monk cots in the room. "How long have you been dealing with this bitch? Huh!"

Carlos held up his hands. "Keep your voice down. We don't need the family in this. Baby - "

"I remember what happened on my porch," she said, her voice low and seething with rage. Her breaths came out in short bursts; tears rose to her eyes but didn't fall. "You washed me into my living room, opened my fucking nose so wide a tractor trailer could drive through it, and then backed off - left me hanging." She closed her eyes and hugged herself and shuddered hard. "All right. I was wrong about pushing you away... about having a temporary lapse and thinking about somebody else for a second. I'm sorry. Okay? Is that what you want to hear? Done. I'm sorry." She wiped her hands down her face and breathed into them, her line of vision again capturing his. "But, baby, don't do me like this." She shook her head as she approached him slowly. "Not tonight."

Information attacked his mind. Her words were connecting to a distant memory, colliding with the present. It was like she was possessed, wanted him more than ever, but he couldn't respond the way she needed him to. The memory contained a red flag of danger. Her body moved too sensually across the floor. Her voice had dropped to an octave that wasn't hers. The competing images of what he knew and what he loved stripped passion away, dulled the ache her sexy advance caused. There was no silvery-gold flicker in her wide brown irises. The inner glow was too dark.

"Back off," he ordered and jumped over a bed to avoid her. "What happened in the hotel room?"

She met him on the other side of the cot in a lightning move. "What did you say?"

He avoided an open hand slap, and grabbed her jaw. Instead of a punch he'd expected her to hurl, she closed her eyes. Her scent filled the room. Ripening Neteru began to enter his nose, but it was off and contained sulfur. That's when he pushed her back and slapped her.

"Damali! Where are you?"

She held the side of her face, looked dazed for a second and then normalized. Her hand rubbed her cheek as she stared at him. "Have you lost your mind?' she whispered in her normal voice. "You hit me?" She spun around and walked to the door. "You hit me in my face because I was trying to kiss you?"

"D, it wasn't like that," he said, coming toward her, but she held up her hand. "That's not what happened!"

"Now I'm crazy?" she said in disbelief. "I'm out. I need air. Follow me and I'll cut your damned throat in the streets."

"D, wait!"

But it was too late; she was out the door.

She walked a hot path - to where, she wasn't sure. The streets were still loaded with pedestrians and tourists. Cyber cafes and restaurants bustled with nightlife. All she wanted to find was a bench to sit down on and weep. The man had hit her, an unpardonable offense. He'd actually slapped the fucking taste out of her mouth. A hundred possibilities ran through her mind. Was he living on the down-low now? Plenty of sisters had to cope with that. Another woman? Relapsing? Detoxing? Whatever. It didn't matter. The man she was with was domestically violent. Unacceptable. She was out. His ass was possessed. Screw the contagion as an excuse. End game.

She stopped on a corner. Where the hell was she gonna go? She was in freaking Tibet and had a mission to accomplish. She turned back toward the building that housed her team. She had to go back, had to get the angel tears, slay the Chairman, and get them all back to the airport in one piece. Had to find... her thoughts trailed off as she saw Carlos running down the street.

Her first impulse was to unsheathe her blade and gore him. Too dramatic in a foreign country. She'd get her own room; this bullshit was over. She didn't care what he had to say.

"Listen," she said, one finger in his face as he came near.

"I was out of my mind," he said, then jerked her to him and covered her argument with a deep, sensual kiss. "I've been stressed, you've been stressed. I hate this shit. Let's get out of here. Tibet is giving me the hives." He covered her mouth again before she could respond and set cool fire to her skin.

She tried to pull out of the kiss but felt something close to delirium capture her mind.

"I want this worse than you do," he said into her hairline. "C'mon. Let's find somewhere to be alone." He raked his nose down the side of her throat, sending shivers along her spine.

She closed her eyes, swayed, and dragged her nose across his collarbone. He released a low, quiet moan. The adrenaline spike, along with whatever he was trailing, made her nearly forget she was standing outside on a busy street. It was reflex when she ran her fingers through his hair. She could feel his jaw become packed with sudden steel, just like what was pressing against her thigh.

"Oh, shit, I've missed you," she whispered.

"I know," he crooned, a fang now threatening to break the skin of her throat.

She couldn't take it; he'd pushed her past the point of shame in the streets. She bit him, no hesitation in the strike, and felt his knees buckle. But when she did so, the taste in her mouth was metallic. He lifted his head and smiled, but his eyes were just a shade too dark. No silver flicker behind his irises. His signature scent evaporated. He caught her breath.

"Damn," he murmured. "Perfect vessel."

Before she could respond, he glanced over his shoulder, snapped, and was gone.

She looked up and Carlos caught her. She could have sworn he had on a black designer suit just moment ago, how the hell did he get into a T-shirt and jeans so fast? Then she remembered. Oh, yeah, the bastard had slapped her. She pushed him away, still enraged.

"Do not touch me!" she shouted, not caring that heads turned on the street. "Back off or die."

"D, I was worried," he said in a gentle tone. "I had to. Something sealed the door to our room shut when I tried to follow you, and it took - "

"The angels probably sealed the damned door to keep me from cutting your heart out," she argued, one hand on her hip the other in his face. "Don't you eva put your hands on me like that. I don't care who you think you are. I'll have your ass in front of a judge so fucking fast they'll throw the book at you! If you eva hit me again, it's - "

"Angels!" he shouted, walking in a circle. "The book! Oh, shit, Damali. I have to get the book!"

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