It felt as though her heart was pounding out of her chest as she sprinted beside Carlos through the streets and up the steep incline of steps to the building that housed their team. They banged on doors like the house was on fire as they passed each room, instantly calling a meeting by express method - hollering.
"Yo, yo, yo, heads up!" Carlos yelled, slamming doors with his fist.
Damali put her shoulder to the door of their small room and barreled through it, her gaze sweeping for anything that shouldn't be there. Within moments, the entire team had piled into the room behind her and slammed the door.
"Talk to me, people," Shabazz said.
"Lilith took her body for a second," Carlos said, waving his hands as he spoke.
"He was trailing the beginnings of apex scent," Damali said, walking in a circle, bumping into Carlos, "and he slapped the shit out of me."
"It was Lilith," Carlos said, his voice rising defensively. "I would never slap Damali. Something was wrong with the kiss, the vibe wasn't right. That's why I told her to back off while I was apexing. My gut told me to ignore the body - I had to get my head together. I slapped her and her eyes changed!"
"Well, that'll happen if you slap a Neteru, dude," Rider said, but his tone wasn't amused. "Her eyes will change, and then the daggers come out. So you'd better hope like hell you slapped Lilith, and not Damali."
"I know what I saw," Carlos argued, jumping up on a bed and staring out the window.
"Let's everybody try to stay calm," Marlene said. "With the contagions, tempers are apt to flare - "
"I know what I saw, Mar," Carlos repeated, his voice rising. "This wasn't the damned infection. Even as a vampire, I never slapped Damali - under any conditions, hitting a woman ain't my style. But Lilith, yeah. I'll blow her head off."
"Down in the square," Damali said, her breaths labored as adrenaline rippled through her. "The Chairman came to me, I think."
Everybody stopped moving, and Carlos spun around. "What?"
"He kissed me, and it definitely wasn't you. Metallic taste in my mouth when I bit him."
"What!" Carlos was off the bed and in her face. "You knew it wasn't me and bit that mother - "
"It looked exactly like you, was talking the exact same shit you talk when you want some, and - "
"Okay, okay," Marlene said, coming between the combatants. "They shape-shifted on both of you. We got that part." She looked at Carlos. "You're bait." She motioned toward Damali. "You're the steel trap."
Shabazz nodded. "If he's near true apex, he's a solid lure for Lilith. Damali ain't in phase, so she's gotta take the Chairman's head once he surfaces to go after Lilith or come for Carlos. Male Neteru apex in his zones is gonna draw his old ass out of hiding."
Damali and Carlos parted and went to opposite sides of the room, elbowing past the others. He leaned on one wall and wiped his hands down his face; she leaned on a rickety dresser and did the same.
"All right, I'm bait," Carlos muttered.
"I've got the Chairman's head, no problem. We move out first light," Damali said, regaining her composure. "Just tell me how I'm supposed to lop off Lilith's head when she's inside my body? How am I supposed to do that - and trust me, I want her ass as bad as I want the Chairman's."
"Mar, not trying to add a wrinkle to this loosely constructed plan, but how in the hell did an entity enter a fully matured Neteru like Damali? That's why it was taking me a minute to get with Rivera's defense." Rider raked his fingers through his hair and quickly glanced at both Neterus in the room before his gaze held Marlene's. "I can get with a shape-shift. That's pure vamp illusion shit. But if what Carlos said is true, then Lilith temporarily slid into Damali's body. From all I've heard, that ain't ever supposed to happen."
Damali's hands went to the top of her head as she searched Marlene's eyes for answers. "That's way strong mojo, Mar. Rider's right. Damn, I ain't playing that shit!"
"Lilith is from Level Seven, and she's got strengths beyond the vamp capacity," Marlene said, her eyes scouring the group. "But she needed a host, a carrier, that's already, uh, literally, been inside of Damali's body before. We're all infected by the demon contagion, and Damali's defenses could have been temporarily down, especially with the distraction of her partner going into a full apex." Marlene stared at Carlos. "Talk to me, brother. How you been feeling lately?"
"I'm fine," Carlos said, crossing his arms. "Normal, regular, nothing out of the ordinary."
"Oh, bullshit!" Damali said, pushing off the dresser. "You have not been fine. You cannot remember things! Your personality runs hot and cold. One minute you don't have enough energy to lift your head off a pillow, the next you're battling insomnia and have all the energy in the world." She shook her head. "Nah. You ain't all right."
"I went out once drinking with Yonnie, and felt bad, but - "
"Noooo..." Damali said in a low voice. "That night I doused your clothes - "
"Nothing happened!" Carlos gestured wildly with his hands. "What happened out of the ordinary, D? The clothes didn't even smolder, I was - "
"Like the Devil himself." Damali jerked her attention toward Marlene. "I remember now. He came at me with some shit I ain't never seen before, and the Carlos I know would have never come at me like that - had me scared in my own fucking house, crying and shit, then everything got fuzzy."
" What are you talking about, Damali?" Carlos stood in the center of the room as the team's gaze bounced from him to Damali and back again.
Damali covered her face, breathed into her hands, and summoned calm. When she lowered her arms, she kept her voice even and controlled. "Outside, just now, you started running and said the angels told you to get the book. When did the angels come? Think back. What book?"
The team parted as Carlos began to pace slowly, his hands balling to fists at his sides. "Yeah. Right. I did. I remember. I was pissed off. Left the house. But..."
Juanita walked over to him and placed a hand on his arm. Eyes widened on every face. Damali bristled.
"We talked in the front yard. Remember? You were on your way to L.A."
Damali folded her arms over her chest. "Yeah. What did you and Juanita talk about, Carlos?" Damali's eyes narrowed. "For all we know, her ass could be a carrier - she was out of team sight for a long time before - "
"C'mon, D," Jose said, cutting her off. "I wanna hear what she's gotta say, too. So, let 'Nita tell us what went down in the front yard that ain't nobody know about. I also have a few questions about the vibe I caught when I took Krissy to your house. Cool?"
Damali pounded Jose's fist.
"Aw, shit," Big Mike said, smoothing a palm over his bald head. "C'mon, y'all. We family."
Juanita scowled at Damali and averted her eyes from Jose. "Carlos, you were on your way to L.A. Said..."
Her voice trailed off and he nodded. A silent understanding passed between them. Part of the conversation need not be said. "Then I was driving and - "
"Hoi' up!" Damali said, both hands raised. "Skip to, and then I was driving? Rivera, I ain't - "
"I told one member of the house where I was going!" Carlos shouted, pointing at Juanita, "because you were giving me the blues. Yeah, I explained that I was out so the whole house didn't mount up a search party, or try to go after my boy to stake him. Yonnie wasn't in this bullshit. Then a deer, which I thought was Tara, came out of nowhere. Smashed my window. I spun out. Started walking. Blue light came down and covered me! Tara's hunt was on the hood of my car. She couldn't see me because of the light!"
Carlos was breathing hard as he walked around in a hot circle. "Next thing I know, voices, thundering voices told me to get the book and take the Chairman's head. So I went down to Hell like they told me to do and walked into Chambers! All right? You clear? And it was all fucked up down there. Everything was trashed. Thrones decimated. The pentagram table leaning. Torches pulled out of the walls. Fucking bats scared to move. But no book!"
"You went to Hell?" Damali yelled.
"To get The Book of the Damned," Carlos shouted back. "Heaven needs it before the big war kicks off to free lost souls! We all know that. What about this ain't clear?"
Marlene nearly collapsed against Shabazz's side. Marjorie sat down slowly on the bed. Rider's back hit the wall with a thud. One by one, Guardians attempted to open their mouths to comment, but no sound came out.
"You went back down there, alone, and opened a seal on sacred Indian ground to retrieve something like that?" Damali closed her eyes. "Oh, my God."
"They told me to!" Carlos argued. "You don't negotiate with angels, you do what the fuck they say when they say and don't ask questions. It wasn't there, anyway. The Chairman has it! You know that; you had the self-same book in your hand yourself when you went down there half-cocked on a solo mission, right? And he was the last one that had it. Snatched it back from you on a trade."
"How do you know it was them, real angels, the real McCoy?"
Rider said in a quiet voice. "I'm serious, dude? Not like them to send you down there like that without a squad."
For a moment, Carlos didn't answer. Terror seized his words and made him swallow them. "No, man, no. It had to be them. The blue lights. The sky thing they did. Burned out Tara's corneas�that's what you said she told you."
"All right," Damali hedged. "Assuming that it was them that sent you, how do you know whether or not something tagged along when you came back up? Like Marlene said, you could have become an accidental carrier of something worse than the contagion, which makes your bouts of sickness make all the sense in the world to me right now." She put her hands behind her and began pacing where Carlos once had. "You'd just relapsed with Yonnie. Your spirit might have had a fissure."
Marlene nodded and stood away from Shabazz. "Sensitive question in mixed company," she said, looking at Damali and ignoring the others. "You know one way inhabitation can occur, right?"
"Not since we got to Arizona," Damali said.
Carlos sent his hot gaze out the window. The other team members found the floor and places on the wall to inspect. Marlene cocked her head to the side.
"You know what," Marlene said quietly, "you felt this coming, D. That's why y'all haven't been able to... Uh, just scratch my other theories."
Damali nodded. "I thought it was me."
"Can we have this conversation with a senior squad only?" Carlos said, his back to the group.
"These are delicate matters," Monk Lin said, his gaze nervously darting around the room. "The Naksong will know what to do."
"Nothing else to discuss," Marlene said gently. "It may have come up through you, but if it's male, like the Chairman, your Neteru toxin will kill it - so it fled. If it's female, like Lilith, it had to go to a vessel that wouldn't struggle with you, wouldn't make you immediately attack it... but it can't stay away from you while you're in this near-apex condition. So, people, we have a window." She looked at Damali. "You sleep with me tonight, and I'll salt you down real good, sis. If she tries to come back while you're with me, I've got something for her." Marlene gave Juanita a sidelong glance. "You'd better come with me, too, just in case she comes at him that way."
"That ain't necessary," Jose said when both Juanita and Damali bristled. "Me and Rider got Carlos." He folded his arms and looked at Carlos hard. "Don't take me there on this one, hombre."
Rider closed his eyes. "Yeah. Just like old times."
Dawn hadn't even crested the sky in full color yet, but the team was on the move. The silence in the minivan was unbearable as it lumbered along the isolated roads, steadily moving higher into the hills on a steep, laborious incline. The frigid early-morning air was so thin that puffs of steam exited everyone's mouth and frosted the windows. They sat hunched down in their seats, burrowed deep in their thick yak-hair-lined coats, thick woolen pants, and layers of handmade sheep wool sweaters, gloves, and hats as Monk Lin drove.
Every bump they hit, every rut in the road, made them cringe and say a silent prayer that the weapons and explosives loaded into the trunk and roped to the top of the vehicle didn't take a tumble. Theirs was a very fragile line between calm and calamity, and everyone had sense enough to honor that subtle truth.
Rider was the first person to attempt to break the permafrost in the van as he looked out at slowly grazing animals and horseback riders doing stunts in the early-morning sun. "Kinda looks like those guys are trying out for the rodeo circuit, huh, Jose?"
Jose grunted. Monk Lin peered into the rearview window.
"In the summer, when the nomads push their droves of livestock up in the hills to escape rain and to graze, there are all sorts of games," Monk Lin said in a peaceful tone. "Mongolian horsemen, Tibetans, they come from all over to compete. But these people are generally isolated," he added. "I don't think the contagion has reached them yet, so please be careful not to infect them, if possible."
There was no response in the van from a soul. Rider leaned forward to talk to the monk and to try to restore team unity.
"Uhmmm... looks real similar to the tribes in Arizona," Rider said, blatantly trying to bring harmony within the team. He nodded toward a small circle forming and tapped Big Mike on the arm. "Can you make out the drum chords, dude? Music might be bumpin', might be something for us to blend into our sounds, if we live to see another day. Check out the dudes with the long horns."
"Yeah," Mike said and fell silent again.
"Rain dancers," Monk Lin said, trying to help salvage Rider's desperate attempt for peace. "The Bonpo shaman still arranges ceremonies to the elements - much like the old ways on your lands."
"Now, see," Rider said, snapping his fingers. "Common ground. Half a world away and people are the same." He glanced around the van but no one responded. "All right, folks," he said, becoming peevish, "we cannot go see some old master or fight those two very bad elementals we're looking for if everyone has a bad attitude."
Marlene sighed. "I know, Rider, but save it. Maybe the Naksong got something for this?"
After six straight hours of travel, Monk Lin pulled into a small enclave of yak-hair tents. He stretched and yawned and opened the vehicle door.
"I have to add fuel to the van, but it is of no use. To continue up into the mountains, we must go with herder guides and take small wagons... you may have to ride horses or yak if I can come to agreement with the nomads."
Damali closed her eyes and leaned back against her seat. She wasn't sure if it was the Juanita issue, the way Jose had reacted, getting slapped - no matter what the reason, or knowing that Lilith may have possibly entered her body; or the bigger problem that Carlos, once again, presented, that was eating away at her nerves. But she wasn't feeling any of this at the moment. She was sick of the entire mission, and they hadn't even begun it.
Carlos allowed his head to hang forward as he stretched his back. Humiliation still tore at him. Why would angels set him up like that? It didn't make sense, and those guys were supposed to play fair. Not to mention, his business was all out in the street, once again, because Damali just had to put it out there like that. He wasn't sure what bothered him more - knowing that Lilith could have possessed her, or that he'd potentially dragged something up like a virus within him. Or was it that the whole team suspected something was going on again with him and 'Nita? Or the fact that Jose had a right this time to want to smoke him? This was too crazy. Everybody was pissy. They couldn't go into battle with distrust and bull between them.
"All right, everybody," Carlos said in a weary tone. He waited until all eyes were on him... well, practically all eyes. Damali's gaze was fixed out the window.
"I'm sorry if I messed up. I thought I got a direct order and followed it. I told the Light that I couldn't find the book. Been thinking about this thing all night. Obviously, I don't have fangs and do daylight. I don't have the blood hunger, I'm not sick during the day like I had been, and I'm not going that way anymore. If I flushed both Lilith and the Chairman out of hiding, that's what I'm supposed to do. Last I heard, I'm a hunter. A Neteru. So we all need to squash this bullshit and be a team." He glanced at Damali and then at Jose. "We all know what time it is. I haven't cast no stones, so neither of y'all should. That's all I've got to say on the matter."
Juanita glared at Jose when he leaned forward to speak. She held up her hand in his face, and he fell silent. "Do not even go there," she warned. "We've all got skeletons - but I was cool with yours. So turnabout ain't fair play?"
Carlos slapped her five. "I used to say fair exchange ain't no robbery, but I'm reformed."
"Yeah, whatever," Damali muttered.
"You do not want me to out your shit on this bus, girl," Carlos said, jumping out of the van. "I let it go, you let it go. Hear?" He walked away to find Monk Lin.
"Oops," Marlene said, chuckling. "Well. Now that the air is clear, I suggest we all stretch our legs and take a pee break." She got out of the van with Shabazz, who was now smiling.
Soon everyone had exited the van and Damali was forced to as well. Carlos had gotten on her nerves so badly she wanted to scream loud enough to create an avalanche. Instead of that ill-fated option, she trudged behind the team in a foul mood. She tried her best to remain surly, but the curious children that ran close and skittered away behind parents made her smile.
They pointed at her with stubby little fingers and shy smiles, and their big luminous eyes were wide with wonder. Monk Lin had a small gathering of herders around him, offering food and tea, and bowing repeatedly. But they didn't touch him because of his monk status, and kept a respectful distance from the people he'd brought with him, unsure.
"They don't see many foreigners here," Monk Lin told the group as a pretty woman who seemed to be in her forties smiled and giggled behind her hand. "The people here are generous, and believe a monk passing by is a good omen. But it will take much to get her to disclose where the oracle is." He bowed politely and the woman followed suit, peering around him to curiously gaze at the team.
Her smile widened as Monk Lin made the rounds and gave each team member's name, and her expression seemed puzzled as she stared at Rider. She spoke in a soft melodic tone in a language only Monk Lin understood. He chuckled softly and went to each team member one by one, holding their arms, stating their name, and trying to make the woman understand the familial relationships.
Again, she shook her head no, and asked her questions in an excited, amused flurry.
"She doesn't understand," Monk Lin said. "She thinks you are the father and have many wives," he said to Rider.
Rider laughed. "I look that old? Gee, thanks."
"No, no, no, it is a great honor she is trying to express. She doesn't understand why you have no wife, so she says you must be the father of all." Monk Lin stepped closer to the group and turned to introduce the small clan that had gathered near the smiling woman. "Mei has seventeen children."
Marlene and Marjorie opened their mouths, and glanced at Damali and the others.
"My, how wonderful," Marjorie said, her eyes wide.
"Girl, you look good," Marlene said, meaning it. She glanced at Damali, Juanita, Inez, and Kristen. "Now, she's a warrior�seventeen kids? Puhlease."
Monk Lin relayed the sentiment, and Mei laughed. She pointed at the younger women in the group, a question on her face. Damali opened her hands and shrugged to tell the woman that she didn't have any babies, as did everyone but Inez, who held up one finger. Again, the woman seemed puzzled and she consulted Monk Lin.
The monk smiled. "This may help clarify why Mei is having difficulty with your family structure. Let me introduce her husbands."
The men in the group gave each other very curious glances. Now it was their turn to scratch their heads and smile silently like Mei once had.
"Each of these men are brothers," Monk Lin announced casually. "There were five in the family, no women in the hills, and they all shared very prosperous herds of sheep, goats, and yak."
"Wait," Big Mike said, "that little lady there, uh."
"Yes," the monk said without batting an eye. "She is very loved and very revered in the family, because they came to a good compromise." His smile broadened as Jose shot Carlos a look.
"Now, dude, for real, how do they work that out?" Rider rubbed his chin and looked at the brothers, who all seemed pleasant and smiled proudly at their prize, Mei.
Monk Lin blushed, but relayed the question. The Tibetan brothers laughed and slapped each other, as Mei retreated to uproarious giggles behind her hand.
"They think you all are foolish, this is why there aren't enough babies in your family. The eldest brother says you have an embarrassment of riches in your family," he added, waving before the women in the group. "He believes there should be fifty children or more."
Inez covered her face and laughed hard, making the others on the team do the same. "Chile, no!"
"The second brother is open for a wife who is strong, as he says he must always wait for his youngest brother - who leaves his shoes outside the tent too long. This is how they compromise. Each man leaves his boots outside, and his time alone with their wife is respected. The others tend to the children so no young ones are hurt... uh, while... one of the husbands is unavailable."
Damali laughed so hard that she had to turn away as the brothers nodded and gave her shy smiles. "Monk Lin, I've heard enough," she said through the giggles. "We are all up in these people's business and shouldn't press our hospitality."
He bowed and turned to the group of men and spoke to them in gentle, easy tones. But whatever he said made them burst out laughing. Then they offered the men on the team cigarettes and pieces of smoked yak by passing the items first to Monk Lin, a revered holy man, without touching him. Their trust was implicit, so was their generosity.
Carlos shook his head and pounded Jose's fist. "That is deep, man, but would never work in our house."
Jose glanced at Juanita and smiled. Damali nodded and let the tension drop from her shoulders. Juanita let out her breath and moved beside Jose. Peace on the team had been restored just that quickly.
The rest of the team joined in the camaraderie as bits of foodstuff were exchanged, all being careful not to actually touch the gracious herders. Everyone used Monk Lin as a go-between, a cleansing conduit, as not to harm a family that deserved never to have its innocence stolen.
Damali offered an earring from her ear to Mei via Monk Lin, and people gave whatever they had handy to show friendship and appreciation. Children danced by and looked up at the Guardians that seemed to be giants compared to their much shorter fathers. Big Mike's sheer bulk captivated them, as did the younger Guardians that seemed as anxious as the children to run in the field for a quick a game of chase.
"I'm still getting over the shoes thing," Rider said as the team was invited into the huge, yak-hair tent.
A central hole sent a column of smoke up and out, but the rank smell of yak butter used to help waterproof it, and the yak chips added to the fire to help keep the embers going with nominal wood tinder available, made their eyes water. However, it was warm and cozy as they all sat on the floor, and hospitality was hospitality. They shared what food provisions they had, but Mei wouldn't hear of it. She'd prepared butter tea and what seemed like roasted barley, and made her humble offering to the group.
As Monk Lin passed out small bowls of tea, he offered a discreet warning to the team. "The people of the mountains don't have much, and roasted barley flour, tsampa, is somewhat bitter. But to decline an offering is to make the offerer lose face." He hesitated until all Guardians nodded, and kept his focus on Kristen and Bobby. "Their sweetener is salt. Sugar is not well known in these parts, so a bit of salt flavors the tea. But the yogurt is freshly made and is very, very tasty."
All heads nodded, knowing exactly what that meant. The tea and the barley was gonna be pretty rugged going down, but chase it with yogurt, smile, and only accept a little bit to show consideration for this woman's large household.
Damali watched with a smile as the noses in the group battled for composure. The moment Jose and Rider brought the cups to their mouths, they paused, tossed it back like it were a shot of whiskey, and winced. Mei nodded and clapped her hands, elated. Marlene sipped her tea slowly to hide a broad smile. Carlos held a bowl with two hands, calmly took a sip, shuddered, and grinned.
"This is good," he wheezed, trying to offer the woman a compliment, even though she couldn't understand him.
Mei apparently did understand a smile, and having a generous spirit, she got up quickly to refill Rider, Jose, and Carlos's cups, much to their chagrin - always offering it through the presiding monk who blessed it first. Bobby looked green, and Kristen was taking teeny sips with shaking hands. Marjorie sipped hers with one pinky out, and swallowed the nasty brew with such elegance that Emily Post would have been proud. Marjorie cast a lethal glare at her children, and they ate without missing a beat. Her husband, however, was having issues, but one glance helped him resolve his resistance.
The tactical sensors were cool, though. Damali watched Shabazz go to some far-off place in his mind and chew in a steady motion like a cow absently munching cud. J.L. fell in line with Shabazz's approach, and shortly thereafter Dan got the hint and was able to hang.
Laughter and banter filled the tent, as did multiple languages and soon after came songs. Monk Lin was the bridge between worlds, filling in the blanks, but after a while much of what was being said required no translation.
From a distance, the young girls and Mei studied the varied types of hair each woman had, marveling at the differences between Damali's locks; Juanita's straight tresses, which matched their own in color and weight; Inez's soft braids; and Marlene's thick silver hair, as well as the color variations of Kristen's and Marjorie's hair, which was like theirs in texture, but the hue fascinated them.
They showed off jewelry, different pieces of turquoise and beads. The men showed off bows and small rifles, and Monk Lin offered the Guardian males a warning via a raised eyebrow not to make the tent lose face by pulling out a bazooka. They drew on the dirt floor with sticks, telling of how they had been blessed with large herds, and how they would go up into the mountains in the summer to further expand the herds. It was rutting season now, the eldest husband explained, and soon the flock would double. All was well in their world.
Damali noticed Rider had fallen quiet, and Mei had, too. Their hostess had sidled up to Monk Lin with a puzzled expression, seeming afraid that she had caused some offense.
"Rider," Damali said quietly. "You okay, brother? The lady of the house thinks something's wrong. Is it?"
Rider smiled sadly and looped the long leather thong over his head that held an old worn eagle feather, a piece of jade, a small turquoise stone, and a bag of magic dust that he'd never understood. He held it out to Monk Lin to give to Mei and bowed his head.
"Tell her this used to belong to my first wife... Her name was Tara, and your people remind me so of her people, this should be yours."
Monk Lin bowed and accepted the gift, spoke in soft tones that stilled the mirth in the tent, and passed the jewelry to Mei. To everyone's surprise, tears instantly filled her large brown eyes. She clutched it to her breast as though Rider had given her a bag of diamonds. She made a gesture over her chest and then in the air toward his and looked down at the bag as her husbands drew near. Her voice was so soft and so sweet that tears filled Monk Lin's eyes.
"She said, man with a good heart, you have come to the oracle. I cannot hide from you and your family. Old turquoise from the ancients has spiritual value that is without measure. Ask your questions. You are part of her family now. You have passed the test."
Stunned silent, the group looked at Rider.
"What did she call me?" Rider whispered, his voice raw.
"Man with a good heart," Monk Lin repeated.
Rider nodded and drew in a shaky breath. "That's what she used to call me."
Mei nodded, not requiring interpretation. She reached for Rider's hands and then clasped them hard.
"Oh, my God - no!" Rider drew back quickly and was on his feet within seconds. "I've just poisoned her house. All of 'em, her husbands, the kids. Jesus Christ, this lady and her family didn't deserve it!"
The team was paralyzed. Monk Lin was also on his feet in an instant and held his hands out for everyone to stay in place and remain as calm as possible. He spoke so quickly and frantically that no one in the tent moved. Mei clutched the bag Rider had given to her chest and smiled oddly. Slowly Monk Lin's expression became one of stunned awe and he sat slowly with a thud.
"How do we fix this?" Damali said fast, her gaze ricocheting to Marlene then over to the monk.
"We can't leave 'em like this," Carlos said, his voice straining to stay even as his gaze bore into Monk Lin's.
Mei held up her hand, her gaze gentle, and she patted the ground for Rider to return to the place before her.
"The damage is done, Rider," Monk Lin said quietly. "Let her finish the divination, and then... I don't know."
Mei spoke softly to Rider, while Monk Lin interpreted. Strained gazes holding empathy settled on the woman as Rider simply hung his head.
"Your first wife is in a better place," Monk Lin said quietly, waiting for Mei to speak in slow, calm tones. "You have a large family to care for, much yet to do, and she cannot go where you must... but her love lingers forever."
Rider stood and walked out of the tent wiping his face. Carlos stood to go to him, but Mei held up her hand and spoke quickly, making Monk Lin nearly talk over her to keep up with her flurry of words.
"The spirits will heal him, but you, too, are a man with a good heart. It is different. The spirits are guiding you. What was sickness in you has passed. There were two of you; one side dark, one side light. The Naksong had to be sure of this before teaching you," Monk Lin said, stopping as Mei stared at Damali. "You have lost a child, but it was sick. You will have many in days to come, but not today. Be patient. Be as one. Fight as one. Help fill the tent with goodness and love. The Naksong is ready for you now, because you are ready for the Naksong. My third husband will show you the way."
"But the contagion," Damali whispered, her eyes brimming with tears of compassion. "You have to tell her, Monk Lin. We never meant for this to happen."
Mei sighed and stood, making all eyes follow her as she spoke in a very calm voice and walked deeper into the tent.
"She says you have the tears of an angel," Monk Lin said, his voice hitching with emotion. "May they fall upon you at the Roof of Heaven and never hit the ground."
"Tell her," Damali said, choked up, "that I wish I could find them so I could spread them to save her family and mine... everybody's, really. Just tell her how sorry we are." She looked at Monk Lin. "She's an oracle and knows her family is infected, doesn't she?"
"Yes," Monk Lin said, tears shining in his eyes. "She knows and is unafraid. The people here are very philosophical about the whims of fate."
"It's not right, though," Carlos said, swallowing hard and standing. The walls of the tent were closing in on him, and he knew Rider was about ready to pitch himself off the edge of any given cliff. "Tell her we'll all pray for her family, and go do what we've gotta do to keep them whole... Tell her, man, that I'd open a vein if I could, if I had silver in it, anything to reverse what just went down."
Mei turned and looked at Carlos and pointed to his eyes.
Berkfield nodded and stood. "I'd open one, too, for this family. I got kids..." he shook his head as the Guardians slowly stood. "Any of us would do that."
Mei murmured softly and closed her eyes.
"She says you have the eyes of compassion and good now. There is no more evil within you," Monk Lin said to Carlos. "Your eyes hold silver, their sacred metal." He waited until Mei had spoken again. "She said your brother has the sacred in his veins, and your mother-seer has the salt of sages. Your mate has cried many tears of heartbreak and worry... now she will give her tears to replace that."
"Aw, man," Carlos said, rubbing his jaw, unable to look at the family they'd polluted.
Rider stood at the door of the tent. "I'm so sorry, lady."
But Damali slowly broke away from the group and went to Mei. "What did you say?"
Mei held out a small silver container no larger than a pillbox covered in coral and turquoise. Monk Lin rushed over and nearly swooned.
"The tears from Heaven."
The members of the team shared confused glances.
Hot tears streamed down Damali's face. "She said in the greatest temple of all..." Damali pointed to the tent door. "Not a man-made structure, but these majestic mountains created by God. That's the most spectacular temple."
Mei nodded and folded the box into Damali's palm, and began speaking quickly.
"Make the antidote," Monk Lin breathed out in a rush. "The tears, the Red Sea salt from Marlene's bag - held by the salt of the earth, wise team mother. Berkfield, get a blade and nick yourself. Do it now, in this tent, heal the team, then this family."
Mei nodded as everyone crushed together to gather around Damali and Mei.
"She had to be sure first that whatever was in Carlos was no longer there. His call for prayer did it. Damali's tears of compassion confirmed it, and they were lead there with a man with a good heart and nothing left to give but his heart... and he did - Rider. That was the test, and she'd been waiting for a sign."
The group dropped down on the dirt floor and formed a circle while Damali carefully uncapped the delicate container. A thin layer of white substance like confectioners' sugar, barely covered the bottom of the quarter-size silver box. She looked up confused.
"There's so little, just enough to maybe do the people in this tent once we add the other elements - but the whole world out there needs the antidote. How will the Covenant get it out to cure everyone else who has been infected?"
"The antidote was for you so that you could complete the mission that will cure the others, once the dark energies are sealed away and the names released from the book," Monk Lin said, his tone awed and reverent. "They overturned temples and pillaged sacred places looking for this rare element, never seeking the humblest of herders, and a female who resided within the greatest temple of all."
He closed his eyes. "Profound and ironic, but so obvious that a shepherd family should be the keepers of this sacrament... people with grace, humility, ordinary weapons, compassion, hospitality, and love enough to even share one another without struggles, so that no man in their group should suffer. This is why the Naksong would not touch you or teach you to find the Chairman's lair until this was learned and the antidote discovered and administered�not even the Covenant could have foretold this. It all depended upon the choices and statements each of you made as one. You all revealed your inner hearts, your willingness to selflessly give what you each had to protect people you didn't know, Mei's family, and did so within her inner sanctuary, the oracle's home. The man with a good heart, Rider, led the way when he parted with magic that covered his heart and had helped him for decades." He bowed where he sat. "I have learned much this day myself."
"Very, deep," Marlene whispered. She looked at Damali. "Do you know the formula, baby?"
Damali nodded and swallowed hard. "Yes, my angel-mother told me."
The group filed out of the tent anointed and considerably sobered. They accepted bits of prayer cloth and tied them to their wrists and hair, anyplace that they would remain fastened. And they waited behind a sinewy young man, whose eyes blazed with an important mission within them. A small caravan of yak lumbered behind the group gently swaying with trunks of highly explosive ammo tied to their sides. Glances of concern were shielded beneath lowered hat brims as each Guardian mounted a horse and nudged the creature to follow husband number three.
Within an hour, one of Mei's husbands held up his hand, calmly stopped, dismounted, and motioned for the others to do likewise. He spoke in an unfazed tone, and began to unhitch the harnesses on the burdened beasts.
"He says, from here, the yaks cannot pass. The horses have difficulty. It is not the normal grazing lands. But the Naksong is wise."
To their horror, Mei's husband dropped a trunk and wiped his hands on his coat.
Big Mike and Shabazz were off their mounts in seconds, going to help the man before he dropped another trunk. Carlos rounded a huge beast's side with the other men, as Inez and Juanita covered their heads. Marjorie practically fell off her horse, and it whinnied and shied at the affront. Everybody quickly jumped down off the pony they were riding, and glanced around confused.
"He's gonna just leave us here?" Damali couldn't believe it as Mei's third husband smiled, waved, and called to his animals to follow him in the direction they'd just come from.
"He says to take our possessions to the clearing, and it would be best to pitch a tent. Sometimes Naksongs can be fickle, and may decide to change their minds if the signs aren't right."
"Oh, my God," Inez wailed, boxing the chilly temperatures away from her arms. "Monk Lin, tell him to stop playing out here!"
"Be cool, 'Nez," Big Mike said, hoisting down a trunk with care.
Damali went to the top of the ridge. "There's a fairly flat valley here, a pocket we can set up shop on," she said, looking at the small expanse of green around them.
"Lord have mercy," Marlene said with a deep sigh. "All right, folks, we know the drill. Mount up the equipment, we get it over the ridge and - "
"Leave it," a crotchety voice ordered. "It is unnecessary at this juncture."
The team whirred around and a small, wrinkled face popped out from behind a rock. For an elderly man, he moved down the rocks with unusual grace to stand before the team with his arms folded. "You are persistent. I suppose that has merit. At least you have been anointed and cleaned. Humph. Now I can work."
No one moved a muscle as his beady little eyes surveyed the group.
"The first time I saw you, you were blind," Carlos said, half-ready to draw a weapon, his nerves were so shot.
"Yesterday, so were you," the old man said, and smiled. "Things change."
"How do we know you're Zang Ho?" Damali pulled a blade from her hip. "You looked different in the cave, your eyes - "
"You were using only one sense, your eyes. You will learn to use them all. You have been through many shocks, and you are each still purging the infection. In an hour, you will be yourselves. This is why I must work quickly with no arguments to test time or tempt fate." He brushed past Damali and swiped her blade, then stood before Marlene and gave it to her.
Damali stared at her hand and then up at him. "How did you do that? I didn't even feel you take it?"
The Naksong bowed and addressed the team. "Pitch a tent just over the ridge. I will collect you shortly. There is so much work to do, so little time; so many questions, so many answers." He smoothed his long, white beard and closed his eyes, as though staving off complete annoyance. When he opened his eyes again, they had become cloudy, white cataracts once more, and he pointed a bony finger at Carlos and Damali. "You two. Follow me."
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