CHAPTER SIXTEEN


CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Sleep was fitful, and the hours leading up to, and during, the long flight to China were uneventful.

From her perspective, she and Carlos seemed to be cloaked in a surreal, platonic dishonesty that shrouded their relationship. Carlos either knew what she had been alluding to every time she vaguely attempted to find out what was going on with him, or he didn't. She didn't bother to clarify. There seemed to be no point in that. His responses to her were civil, absurdly warm and brotherly in affection, but there wasn't the spark that had once ignited them as a couple. She didn't bother to attempt to stoke those dead embers. He didn't ask any questions; she didn't ask any questions. He'd stayed on his side of the bed; she'd stayed on her side of the bed. She and Jose kept careful distance, just like Krissy and Dan seemed to. Marlene had prepared her for a lot of things, but not this.

Damali kept her gaze dispassionately fixed on the clouds. They'd literally be flying into the future, or the next day, as the case may be, since Tibet was, oddly, thirteen hours ahead of U.S. time. That number stuck in her mind, whittling at it, as she made her peace with another one of Marlene's wild travel routes.

They'd had choices and all of them seemed unacceptable, now, as she sat on the interminable flight. They could have flown into Indore, India, a thirty-four-hour travesty of time, with stops in Frankfurt, Germany, changing planes in Bombay. Then they would have had to endure a ninety-four-mile bumpy drive to Nepal, where it would take days to cross by minivan into what was now called the Tibetan Autonomous Region by the Chinese government - a place that was hardly autonomous, under martial law, and where the culture of the native inhabitants had been suppressed with sheer butchery and terror.

Or, they could do it the so-called easier way, by taking the sixteen-and-a-half-hour-flight to Beijing, and from there take another five and a half hours to get to Tibet's capital city, Lhasa. She just wondered why she and her team always had to do things the hard way. Obviously, there was no such phenomenon called easy. But easy was relative, as was hard. Flying into Beijing was nothing compared to what they had to do once they got to the Himalayas.

To her mind, it all seemed crazy, no matter what Monk Lin had said about the spiritual prowess of the region. If demon madness had come to the surface, there, they were screwed. At least she knew her way around an urban firefight. But in some mountain´┐Żnah. Not her environment, and a sister wasn't down with snow.

The only saving grace was that in the one-day wait to get a flight and health checks, the team's elders had found, of all things, an old Beverly Hills mansion to convert. Marlene had slapped a ridiculous deposit down on faith, and walked. It had to be divine intervention, because that helped to keep everyone talking about safe subjects, like retrofitting the new location into what they'd need to survive in the future... which oddly kept everyone half believing there might be one.

All she hoped was that when they returned from this odyssey, things would be as close to normal as their lives would ever be. Damali stifled a sigh. She could deal with rickety, diesel-leaking buses that smoked, flatbed lorries to carry her team as far as there were passable roads into the mountains, and even going by yak mounts or horseback up into the Himalayas to find Nirvana, if need be, to stop this insanity from spreading.

She counted every blessing presented that could make the mission easier. First, she knew she should be thankful that it wasn't winter over there, when temperatures plummeted to minus ten degrees, or the rainy monsoon season of summer when the permafrost ground couldn't absorb the torrents, and whole villages were known to be swept away in floods and mudslides.

But they would still have to deal with exploration at severe altitudes of eleven thousand feet or more above sea level, which would offer nasty results on the human body, everything from shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and chest pains, to nausea. She didn't even want to think about feeling ill while trying to divine the mysteries of the universe to find the antidote and kicking ass. But she couldn't worry about it, because failure was not an acceptable outcome. Puhlease!

Carlos just kept his gaze fixed on the sky. He hadn't bothered to question the intimate details of Marlene's route decisions for this journey. Everything that he could remember from his experiences with Damali's family told him that the reason would be revealed in due time. So, he'd made his peace with this crazy adventure. Actually, he'd embraced it, because something way down in his gut rang out as truth as he sleepily stared out the window. The bottom line was, they had to close the portals.

He'd never been to China in his life; had never imagined that he'd go there under these conditions. One thing was for sure, a change of venue, even if it was to go to war, couldn't hurt. The hotel room felt like a prison cell, especially with Damali barely speaking to him, and when she did it was always a curt snap. Carlos glimpsed her from the corner of his eye as she slept beside him. It was as though everything he said, everything he did, got on her nerves, but he wasn't sure why.

Were it not for the guys on the team, he would have lost it and said something to her that couldn't be taken back, and where would that leave them? Maybe once the team returned Stateside and settled into a new compound, things would be right again. Probably once he had his own spot and she had hers, they'd chill, the vibe would even out, and everything would be cool again. But he felt strangely unsettled, beyond prebattle jitters... like there were things that had gone down that he just couldn't remember.

Bored with the long flight and ready to just get the mission started and over with, Carlos stood and went to sit near Rider, who was always good for a card game. He had to keep moving, do something to pass the time, other than sleep - which, oddly, offered no peace. Fleeting nightmares made peace in slumber next to impossible. Weird images always accosted his mind and dragged it down to places he didn't want to remember. But they'd all told him that would pass with time. Whatever.

Carlos plopped down next to Rider and smiled, brandishing a well-worn deck of cards. He was glad the flight wasn't packed so people could stretch out. It was funny how he'd come to appreciate the smallest of good fortune.

"Hey," Carlos said, beginning to fan the deck as he sat. "You up for a little mental diversion?"

Rider stretched and yawned. "Yeah, dude. After the last series of flights, I'm not particularly sleeping too good in the air."

They both smiled.

"I feel you," Carlos said, keeping his voice low enough so he wouldn't wake the others. "Guess old habits die hard."

"Yeah," Rider said, accepting cards from Carlos as he dealt them onto the seat tray, "this whole extravaganza gives a new meaning to cold turkey." Rider arranged his cards. "It's gonna be cold as shit when we go up into the mountains, and if you ask me, we're turkeys for seeking some lair when we don't even know exactly what we're looking for."

"Word," Carlos muttered, turning over the first card to start their game. "I got a few issues with this plan, brother. Like, before, we knew what we're dealing with, or at least what we were looking for. I ain't got a clue of what our target's lair looks like topside. I know it's gotta be rigged with every possible booby trap known - and our team will be way out of our element on the mountainside. Feel me?"

Rider nodded and threw out a card on the tray. "Something about all this just isn't sitting right with me, either." He looked up at Carlos. "Like... I'm worried about Tara."

Carlos didn't throw out another card, but held off his move, studying Rider's expression. It wasn't like Rider even to mention Tara's name, much less admit that he was concerned about her. In fact, to his recollection, it was the first time he'd really said anything at all about her since Philly.

"She's probably all right," Carlos said after a moment, and then selected a different card and put it down on the tray easy.

Rider folded his fan of cards and sent his gaze out the window. "It's not like her to not send a sign that she's around," Rider said quietly. "Yeah, we broke up. All right. I've come to terms with that. But even still, while in Arizona, she'd send me little messages to let me know she was okay. A hint of lavender on an evening breeze, or she might pop into my head in a dream and be gone. I'd just feel better if I knew that she knew we'll be over here."

Carlos folded his fan of cards and then perused them one by one. "From what I remember of the rules from my old life, she can't do international travel without an underground pass... and she can't get one of those. Plus, like Mar and Shabazz said, you tell her too much, and if we start seriously kicking ass, she could be captured and tortured for info. It's better this way, man. When we get back then just, you know, let her know you're cool."

"I know," Rider said quietly, returning to his cards. "I wasn't expecting that kind of visit from her. She's got a new life, a new situation, and I don't expect your boy would let her come to me, if she wanted to. All I wanted to know is, if she's all right."

Carlos nodded, but didn't look up at Rider. The request was implicit. "I'll see if I can make contact with her when we get back. Aw'right?"

"Appreciated," Rider said quietly. "Not trying to kick up any dust or start no shit... or put you in a position with your boy. Just wanna know that she's still alive, not being abused, or something crazy." Rider suddenly looked up at Carlos. "The last time I saw her, it wasn't on good terms." His voice became distant as pain entered his eyes. "It shouldn't be that way after all we've been through together. No matter what, we're still friends. She's a good woman, and I was sorta..."

Rider let his breath out hard as Carlos lowered his eyes to his cards. "My reaction was kinda fucked up when I saw her last. Life ain't promised; shouldn't let the last time you see somebody you care about go like that. You never know if you're gonna get an opportunity to rectify things. Does that make sense?"

"Yeah," Carlos said, resuming the game that they had both clearly lost interest in playing. He knew exactly what Rider meant, and he glanced at Damali and then back at his hand.

As the cards fell onto the tray, each man selecting what he'd hold on to and release, chaotic feelings ate at Carlos's insides. He'd tried to contact Yonnie, but had received no response. That was not like his boy. All he'd wanted to do was to tell Yonnie the same thing Rider apparently wanted to tell Tara, namely that they'd be away for a while and for them not to worry.

He hadn't called Yonnie to go hang out. Hadn't been trying to reach him to break out of the family prison situation, like before´┐Żespecially not the night leading up to a significant mission. If Yonnie had responded, he wasn't gonna divulge where they were headed. But he could only figure that his boy didn't trust him after the near relapse. However, the lack of faith annoyed him no end. It was just a friendly courtesy call. A Yo, man, here's the deal. The family will be out for a few, type of transmission.

All right, so the last time he and his boy had been out had almost been disastrous. Yeah, yeah, yeah, he'd gotten wasted. Yonnie had been pissed off about it all, and had finally brought him home - so Damali could be pissed off. That was a real friend, somebody who cared enough about you to just say no and not be a party to your downfall.

He'd paid his debt by suffering like a dawg the next day and having Rider get in his face. He'd even had a damned deer total his Jeep and land in his windshield after a stupid argument. Why was everybody was so hype around him, and Damali still so jawed-up? It was crazy. Like Rider said, if they were possibly going into the biggest battle of their lives, why was everybody, especially Damali, focused on dumb shit?

Moreover, why was she walking around looking like she didn't trust him? He didn't get it.

Carlos took comfort in the logic he'd woven around the dangling loose ends in his mind. Tara was probably lying low, too, not wanting to be a weak link in the chain, not wanting to run into Rider and have old feelings surface - especially when those feelings could kill Rider, one way or another. A bite from her would turn or kill him, and if she slept with Rider without biting him, Yonnie might rip out his heart. Tara was more of a friend to Rider than he may ever know.

Carlos held on to that card in his mind and selected one in his hand to throw onto the growing pile on the tray.

The team exited the plane and entered the frenetic, ultramodern mayhem of Beijing Airport. A current of alertness bound them as one unit as they made their way through the arduous customs process and produced identification papers to allow them to change flights and board their destination carrier to Lhasa. But the whole team shared stricken glances as they stared at the crush of humanity in just the airport alone. If infection broke out here in China, the problem would be measured in billions.

"Ms. Richards," a customs agent said in a quiet, civil tone. "Would you please have your group follow me?"

Nervous glances passed around the team, but they complied without argument. This was China, not the United States, and it wasn't about slowing down the mission by offending any authorities that may have routine security queries about Americans traveling abroad. They were well used to that by now.

Damali and Carlos shared a glance that quietly communicated the same thing the whole team was thinking: It just would have been nice if they could have flown in under Covenant resources, then again, nobody on the team was ready to go through that again. A low-key commercial flight was fine.

They filed down a long winding corridor and used their music celeb status to help them ignore curious glances from airport travelers and security staff. Looking straight ahead; the team proceeded behind the efficient little man and found themselves being escorted into a small, well-lit room with a row of uncomfortable-looking metal folding chairs. Their bags had all been put in the room, and the team's gaze inspected the luggage as though their eyes were lasers. The same question was on everyone's mind: Okay, who packed a weapon? Who got nervous and stashed some mess that could cause the Chinese police to rip through bags, delay departure, and create a problem?

"Someone in authority will be with you shortly. Please have a seat, and we do apologize for the temporary inconvenience," the man in uniform said, and then bowed slightly, walked out of the inspection room, and closed the door behind him.

Discreet shrugs rippled through the group as they each silently answered the pervasive question. No one was owning up to having stashed something lethal, and Damali could only hope that it wasn't an accidental oversight - like a fifteen-inch Bowie knife, a grenade, or leftover rounds of hallowed earth - packed hollow points.

No one sat, even though seating had been offered. The customs agent seemed mild mannered enough, calm, courteous, but that was also the way of the Chinese, and didn't mean they were out of possible trouble.

Soon a delegation of military uniformed officers entered the room, along with Monk Lin and two men in civilian clothes. The team bristled and their gazes locked on the officers. Were it not for Monk Lin, they would have immediately asked to be taken to the U.S. Embassy.

"I am General Quai Lou," a man who looked to be in his mid-sixties said, formally addressing the group. "Welcome to China."

Damali returned his slight bow, but kept her gaze on him for a moment before lowering her eyes. Her internal beacon snapped on as she stood up straight, her gaze holding the man with slight gray at his temples and whose form was becoming thick in the middle from age. She turned to Monk Lin and offered him a bow. Instantly she heard his message in her mind. Do not make these men lose face.

"General," Damali said in her most courteous voice, "we appreciate the opportunity to travel in your beautiful country."

He nodded, appearing satisfied, but also still seemed somewhat wary. Damali's team didn't breathe. Carlos had not moved a muscle, except to bow slightly. The military guards had not bothered to crease their army green, red-trimmed uniforms by risking motion. They remained erect, eyes forward.

"Your papers are in order," the general said, but kept glancing nervously at Monk Lin. "We hope that your journey will be fruitful."

There was something in his eyes that reminded Damali of fear, but that didn't make sense, unless they had begun to experience the contagion at alarming levels here, too. A simple trip to Tibet by an eclectic group of artists shouldn't have kicked off any particular worry. The Chinese government had hands-down control on the populace, and over the years, Tibetan monks had been slaughtered to the point of near extinction.

Damali glimpsed Marlene. The muscle in Shabazz's jaw was pulsing. Yeah, what was the deal? Over a million people mowed down in the streets of Tibet, hundreds of thousands jailed and sent to labor camps for merely being Buddhist monks. Now a Chinese general was standing in front of her and her team with a Tibetan monk by his side, and he had worry in his eyes? Oh, yeah, these boys had seen something over here and her team immediately sensed it as well. All right. Show time. Right from the door.

Monk Lin glanced at the general, and finally received a nod to step forward. "General Quai Lou is from a special division," he said in a quiet, controlled tone, his gaze raking the group. "It seems that his division of the military has growing concerns over past decisions, and would like to solicit your assistance."

The monk's gaze was placid as it continued to focus on the Guardians, but then in an unexpected, mercurial turn, became filled with unspoken rage. The general's eyes blazed with concealed hatred, but his voice remained calm. The juxtaposition was somewhat disorienting. But all members of the U.S. team stood silent and patient, waiting for a sign and not wanting to add more tension to the quiet power struggle that was obviously taking place.

"You are going to Tibet?" the general asked.

"Yes," Damali said slowly, but the question was crazy, because that's what their papers said! They knew, so what was up with that?

You didn't just roll into a lockdown country unescorted and without having your itinerary mapped out.

Although her attention was on the general, she kept her peripheral vision on Monk Lin, allowing his eyes to inform her of how to do this dance. Common sense and experience in heavy life and/or death negotiations also informed her moves - nothing was direct. Every move to stall and to draw out the goal, or to take one's time to properly position words, was also cultural and had a reason.

"We are on a pilgrimage," she finally said, not willing to expose her motives until she knew what his were, if then. "We just want to get some cultural flavor, and take in the sights and sounds from different regions to help progress our music, to make it more world inclusive."

General Quai Lou bowed again and offered the team a pleasant, unreadable smile. "Then you should find some of the old mythology of Tibet quiet flavorful," he said with a smug undertone to his voice as he glanced at Monk Lin. "Although we do not ascribe to such rhetoric, and we have adopted science as our truth in China, I'm sure that as Monk Lin guides your journey, he'll relate this legend to you: The ogress, Sinmo, and the monkey, Avalokiteshvara, were the only creatures living in the high mountains of Tibet at the dawn of time. In her loneliness," he added with an amused smirk, "she sired heirs from this union."

"The general is very aware of this fact," Monk Lin said in a brittle tone that was normally not his style. "However, one point of clarification - the monkey was a high deity, not some base creature of the earth, and the deity was seduced by the du, a demoness of the rocks, whereupon it fell from its state of grace. Let us be vigilant to tell the traditions with care and accuracy. The monkey, then trapped in its earthly form, made a gift to his offspring - the regional grains, in hopes, we are sure, that they would take to these food choices, and not succumb to the blood thirst of their mother."

Damali stared at the monk for a moment, and then returned a too-pleasant smile to the general. Okay, they had Lilith over here, knew it, and at least a branch of the Chinese army was on to why she and the team were here. But the information he relayed was useful; they needed to know what kind of mess they could confront up in the mountains.

The general smiled, but it was strained as he continued. He spoke in a patronizing tone and glanced at Monk Lin. "This she-devil is said to have sired six offspring from this liaison, and was implacable, causing havoc, until the first king of Tibet's wise second wife, Queen Wengcheng, of China," he added with emphasis, "found the geomantic center of the region and built a palace on top of this purported female beast. Thus, Jokhang was constructed. Twelve outlying temples built to hold down the supposedly supine ogress's thighs, knees, etcetera, in three successive rings of four temples. You will find the architecture of the region quite interesting during your stay, we are sure."

Damali held the general's gaze without blinking. Her mind was rapid-fire processing what her mother had said. The tears were in a temple. Find the most impressive one, the greatest one of all. To her thinking, Jokhang was as good a place to start as any - it had been mentioned, was built to hold back any drama coming up from a vortex, demon containment. Yeah... all right. She heard the man.

Monk Lin nodded discreetly. "This was done in cooperation with the king's first wife, who financed this effort," he added with care. "She was from Nepal," he said with a tight smile, verbally sparring with the general, "where our esteemed Dalai Lama of modern times fled, when things became tense during the Cultural Revolution in the region. We have many Sanskrit scrolls that were later translated into the native language of Tibet about such matters before those trying times."

Monk Lin's serene stare cut Quai Lou and then mellowed as he glanced from the general back to Damali. "In Princess Bhrikuti's honor, the main gate is facing west, toward Nepal, but west is west," he said with quiet urgency in his tone. He looked at the team hard as he paused, transmitting the silent message that the western hemisphere was a key. "The four cardinal points are guarded by Four Guardian Kings, and the Wheel of Rebirth is also there." He held Carlos's gaze for a moment longer than the others. "You must experience rebirth while here."

"As legend has it," the general said in a tight voice, breaking the monk's hold on Carlos's gaze and losing some of his calm demeanor as he snapped the response.

"What is legend to some is true faith of others," Monk Lin said in a casual tone. "To offend the holy scrolls by calling their contents legend would be like challenging your biblical texts," he added, but kept his gaze on Damali, as though addressing her, and not the general.

The teams' eyes went from Monk Lin to the general.

"We will be sure to be appropriately reverent while in the Tibetan Autonomous Region," Marlene said to break the tension.

"Yes, that would be most wise and most appreciated by those that still respect local traditions," Monk Lin said in a flat tone, keeping his eyes on Marlene. "For some believe that when the sacred palace of Jokhang was shelled in recent years and it was literally turned into a pigsty, housing livestock; and when its inner sanctum was filled with blood and animal innards, it could no longer hold the ogress as she'd been imprisoned since the seventh century."

An epiphany stabbed into Damali's temple so quickly that she almost visibly winced. That was also why the Chairman was here; he was hunting Lilith down as much as they were. Lilith had to be the ogress Monk Lin mentioned, possibly given a different name in this different culture. She wouldn't be so foolish as to go back to the caves near the Red Sea, her original haunt. No, girlfriend would most likely go to a very out-of-the-way location, where she had family - had sired before and wasn't slaughtered. Now, with the new atheist government in full effect, she wouldn't have to worry about humans figuring out how to contain her like they did before.

Damali nodded as she continued to silently watch Monk Lin's tense body language. Up in the mountains, it would be treacherous going and hard for a human hunter team to track her down... And knowing Lilith, no doubt girlfriend was also seeking the missing antidote element. Plus, she undoubtedly had more to fear from her husband than the Devil's son, since the attempted coup began with her machinations, and keeping demons topside was her thing - they were her kids; Dante had nothing to gain, really, by keeping her Lilith alive. He was a pure vamp and hated any other breed of dark entity. This was her old turf, so she had to know or sense that the antidote resided here.

"Interesting history," Damali finally said in a noncommittal tone.

With that, Monk Lin bowed again but remained quiet. Damali glanced at the general, who'd retreated behind an iron wall of non-emotion. Okay, the exchange was too deep. They'd all been briefed about the tense political situation over here, and Monk Lin had even been bold enough to allude to the way the Dalai Lama had been forced into exile in India by the Chinese government and how an army had desecrated the holiest of temples, when merely talking politics could land a local Tibetan in prison for twenty years. Now what? How clued in was the general, or was this just Monk Lin's attempt to say what he had to say in concealed terms? If the general didn't know, this was risky; if he did know, it was still risky. Monk Lin gave her a look that didn't invite a scan, and there was no way she'd violate a holy man if he said no. His eyes also seemed to warn for her not to go into the general's head like that, either. Why?

To cloak the discussion in sightseeing and architecture, with a military general present, plus two guys in suits who had not been introduced gave her the chills - and Lin was quietly telling her to stand down from a scan? Maybe they were infected and it wasn't safe for her mind. As soon as the thought crossed her mind, the monk's eyes told her all: Don't go into any human brain without knowing if it holds the contagion. The chance of contamination is great, child. Your own mind would then be temporarily compromised, even though you're immune and would purge, but you would lose precious days on the mission. Damali almost sighed aloud. One of her best tools would have to be shelved over here. Not good. The monk imperceptibly nodded. Damn.

Yet the message about she-devils and sacred numbers and geomantic positions had not been lost on a soul in the room; neither had the general's obvious concerns. He'd allowed the monk's flagrant response, had not stopped the monk from speaking, and didn't so much as bristle when the shelling of the palace had been mentioned. The fact that the Chinese authorities were even allowing a monk in full crimson Tibetan robes to be their guide was out of the ordinary. Very, very weird. The general had to know something; she could feel his test brewing through her skin.

The mission began to take shape within Damali's mind between all the seemingly calm surface pleasantries. Monk Lin's quiet statements had filtered through her heightened audio-sensing capacity, registering the tension in his voice through the layers of her extrasensory awareness, confirming her epiphany: Lilith had spawned here once, just like she had over in the caves near the Red Sea. Modern-day empire builders had released her into the world again. Temples had been desecrated in a land closed off from outside intervention. The ranks of monks, those who would keep prayer vigil, had been thinned, and innocent human blood, along with animal sacrifices, had soaked the land, as well as the holiest of temples, to offer an open portal to whatever had once been beneath it. If Lilith would come here to breed once, she might return here to heal... and the Chairman would surely hunt for her essence here in his quest for revenge against the one who'd betrayed him most. Oh, yeah, now it all made sense.

Carlos watched the transaction go down from a remote place in his mind. Power demanded to be used, and instinct told him that the only reason Monk Lin hadn't been carted away to a Chinese jail was because he held some type of power; he had something the general and the two suits with him wanted or needed. It was time for him to step up and get into the stalemated negotiations taking place. This was a male-dominated region, and the general was not about to give up authority or any information until he had a male in charge to address. Carlos glanced at Damali. Yeah, baby, you know this is what I do best.

Go for it. I've seen you work, brother.

Her compliment, and the fact that she was cool about the copartnership necessary to achieve the aim of getting more knowledge, made him smile. "We are all looking forward to the opportunity to learn about the rich and varied history of this region," Carlos finally said with caution, but kept his voice eloquent and his countenance humble as he inserted himself into the conversation. "We have often been called the ugly Americans, by right, as we are often too focused on our own culture, and have not learned about others they way we should. Knowledge of others can only broaden our perspective."

The general's more relaxed smile returned. "We appreciate that you have come to China with an opened mind. Our history is long, with many dichotomies. Let us not focus upon our differences, but rather that which unifies us."

Carlos bowed, the team followed suit. The general and his men bowed, as did Monk Lin and the two unidentified men near him. No one spoke. They all seemed to be waiting for some unknown sign to proceed.

Damali glanced at Carlos and suppressed a smile. This was the old master of the game she knew, and he wore it well. Her man was kicking more bullshit than the day was long, and she loved watching every minute of the transaction. She was also pretty sure that being a female didn't help in such a male-dominated culture, so she kicked a smooth move of her own, and made it appear that this was actually Carlos's group rather than hers - maybe to some degree it was becoming that. In an odd way, she was all right with the change at the moment. Her own reaction gave her brief pause; she was sharing her command without struggle, something she hadn't done before. Not willingly, anyway.

She shrugged off the new personal epiphany; there wasn't time to explore it now. Later she would consider it. For now she'd focus on whatever worked, just as long as they could get out of this holding cell that was being passed off as an inquiry room.

"General Quai Lou," Damali said as demurely as possible. "Mr. Rivera has wisely chosen this fine country for us to explore, and we are honored that you have allowed his group to tour and learn about the infinite wonders within it. Thank you."

She could not glimpse Marlene, whose eyes had widened, or look at any other member of the team. Their stunned expressions might make her crack a smile, ruin her facade, and ultimately make the general possibly lose face - which would mean they could lose more than just some time and luggage. Losing their freedom and being detained, or possibly worse, kept anything beyond serene, humble submission at bay. It was about playing the politics like poker.

Seeming much improved in temperament, the general motioned for the military men to take the team's luggage. "You will be escorted to Lhasa, and Monk Lin will be your guide from there," he said addressing Carlos. "Do stay with him during your travels, as it is best for foreigners to be properly escorted in areas that have experienced moments of unease."

Carlos bowed again. "We accept your wise advice with full cooperation."

The general bowed, but lingered, dismissing his retinue with quick movements of his hand and did not speak again until the door was completely closed behind them.

New concerns rippled through the group as they waited for the general to make his next move. It was obvious to everyone that potential VIP status of a touring band notwithstanding, most musicians probably never received a military welcome or escort. The question was, what made the Warriors of Light so special?

"Please also allow me to introduce you to professors Dim Huang and Nam Lee," the general said, his smile strained. "In the newness of our exchange, it was a vast oversight. Forgive me."

The team watched as the two seemingly startled men bowed politely but didn't immediately speak. Damali wasn't buying the general's smooth act. It wasn't an oversight. Clearly he didn't want lower-ranking officers to be in on whatever he'd cooked up or was about to present. She watched Monk Lin nod at them, his gaze warm and supportive, as the first, younger professor moved forward nervously to address the group.

"Your work with energies is renowned," Professor Huang said to Carlos, but shared his gaze with Damali to include her. "Our scientists once worked with Dr. Zeitloff," he said with halting words, "and there are others that escaped the unfortunate accidents that befell the advanced team."

"You worked with Zeitloff?" Carlos said, surveying both scientists, and then the general.

Damali shot Carlos a look. Okay, now they were getting somewhere.

"Yes," Monk Lin confirmed. "These two are part of a larger organization that the world governments are now aware of."

The older of the two professors stepped forward, bowed gracefully, and spoke in a low, eloquent tone. "Let me be direct," Professor Nam Lee said. "The energies that Dr. Zeitloff's group discovered have been disturbed, just as Monk Lin alluded to earlier." His gaze temporarily captured the monk's before returning to the Guardian team. "We have always known world struggle. We have always endured despotic leaders filled with negative energies and imperialistic desires," he added with a gentle smile as his eyes slid away from the general's hot glare. "All countries have known them during lengthy histories," he then corrected, and waited until the general relaxed. "I am not, of course, speaking of China."

Damali nodded. "Yes, the world had seen its share of this. We understand."

"Good," the general said tensely. "We are not concerned about China, as our leaders are above such corruption, but there are other nations with leaders that possess weak minds."

Carlos nodded. "Yes, and China cannot be impacted by negative energies that may have escaped."

"Mr. Rivera, you understand our position very well," the general said, releasing a long, slow breath. He gave the professors a sidelong glance. "Every nation has nuclear capability. Every nation also has a black market, where weapons of mass destruction can be easily obtained... Human error or human treachery are only averted by people of conscience, no matter how rigorous any nation's checks and balances are."

The general removed his hard-brim cap and dabbed at the building perspiration on his forehead. Damali and Carlos glanced at each other. The team remained motionless behind them as Monk Lin's voice dropped to a near whisper.

"Possession is rampant," Monk Lin said. "Madness abounds. The contagion is happening to humans at every level of society in every country, even here. The professors noticed the dark energies, and continued the work of Dr. Zeitloff after his demise. They tracked down this team through Rabbi Zeitloff in Israel, when the Covenant members met for a very quiet world summit on the issue." Monk Lin paused to allow Damali and Carlos time to absorb the fact that the Covenant had not spilled all the beans to various governments, therefore he was restating the obvious and the team needed to act surprised, accordingly.

Monk Lin continued only after his intense eye contact generated a nod of understanding from the team's leaders. "This is why they had to leave you in Arizona. They'd been called away for the Last Days Summit in Jerusalem. There was a truce, a pact, formed among the world leaders, and the major governments agreed that, in order to keep things from going to the next level, it was in each military's best interest to have these energies sealed away."

"Are you saying you're hiring us to do a world hit on negative energy?" Rider said in a feigned incredulous voice, playing along to further draw necessary information out. "Oh, shit..."

The general nodded and didn't bristle from the affront as murmurs rippled through the team. "We have all formed a very quiet coalition and coinvested in the most state-of-the-art weaponry to assist you in your mission. Your accomplishments as demon hunters are now legendary, and the Covenant gave expert testimony that held the presidents and the religious world leaders of many nations rapt as they spoke. You will have worldwide, top-secret clearances while you hunt the darkness, and no local police or media interference in any country. Shortly, our professors will take you into a room and show you the items at your disposal. If you need something that is not present, you have but to tell our top engineers and they will design what you require."

Damali and Carlos stared at each other for a moment, and then at their hang-jawed team. Oh, yeah. This was very bad, if it had come to this.

"You mean to tell us, like some Double-O Seven gadgetry and - "

"Yes, Rider," Monk Lin said with an admonishing glare. "England's best, Germany's best, France's best; the very best from the United States, China, Japan - "

"Every part of the world with nuclear capacity is involved; and many that are troubled by splinter cells and terrorism, such as Eastern Europe, Russia, much of Africa, South America, the Middle East; all are concerned that no one nation should have a lapse in presidential judgment and begin the end of time. Your team was identified as the most effective to these ends." The general removed his cap from beneath his arm and placed it back on his head with crisp precision. "This is not subject to debate. Were you on U.S. soil when the summit concluded, you would have been approached by agents from your own government's Area Fifty-one."

"You all know about Area Fifty-one?" Damali said in disbelief. "The whole alien thing is not - "

"Of course we all know about Area Fifty-one," the general snapped, losing patience. "It is no secret that we all monitor each other's activities. Until recently, until Dr. Zeitloff's work, we thought our only concern was the potential of extraterrestrial species and that fueled space exploration." He began to pace with his hands behind his back. "That is another matter. We are not so concerned about that now."

"Until now," Monk Lin said, his voice as smooth as a silk noose, "many in positions of authority discounted the spiritual dimensions and felt there was only science. Then Jewish scientists like Dr. Zeitloff worked with others and broke the Bible code. They found that the code was mathematic, based on complex algorithms and hard science. Before that, they did not believe other realms and dimensions existed, and did not believe that these unseen realms could have any influence upon life as we know it. It is all numeric, math as the basis of truth, and creates unending fractals that spire in equations that unlock hidden doors - or close them. Many scientists, from Leonardo da Vinci and throughout the ages, have been trying to quantify the mystical, that which mere religious men have always known to be true." He smiled and bowed toward the general. "But they are becoming wiser, now that they have witnessed the unspeakable."

"Sir?" Damali said quietly, needing to know exactly what had manifested over here, and wondering if it had morphed in any way from what they'd seen in the States. "The unspeakable?"

"In a lab," Professor Huang said, his nervous gaze darting between Damali and the general. "One of our top cabinet ministers fell ill. The military thought he'd been poisoned. His family called for the support of monks. Because of his rank - "

"Spirits walked out of the man's chest right before my eyes," the general said in a tense whisper. "Initially we thought it was human foul play that had turned his eyes black and his behavior schizophrenic. Drugs. Poison. Some new biological weapon. That is why he was quarantined to hospitalization in the lab compound, rather than a regular facility with civilians, until we knew what this was."

The general wiped a new sheen of sweat off his brow, his voice and gaze distant as he spoke. "But we witnessed a dark force exit his body, split his chest open like a can of mackerel! His body died... but whatever was in him destroyed his room, shattered windows, and fled. A rain of machine-gun fire didn't stop it. Many men were killed. Only a few of us survived the lab attack. We caught it on surveillance monitors in his highly guarded room. Then we watched his body decay and turn to ash right in front of us. We kept this sensitive information veiled from the media, and have buried the man according to the dignity of his office. But it gave us impetus to agree to join the summit, and our Russian counterparts said they have also seen this type of inexplicable phenomenon. Murmurs are everywhere. We all have presidents and important cabinet ministers being kept under religious vigil. These professors have developed weapons, but..."

"Why Tibet?" Carlos said, holding the room for ransom with his simple question. "I know why us, but why this region?" He looked at Monk Lin to offer the most coherent and honest answer in the room.

"Tibet is called the Roof of the World, where Heaven meets earth, and has an interesting history," Monk Lin said in a calm tone. "When Genghis Khan's Mongolian hordes terrorized and conquered all of central Asia, he came to Tibet, note, in the thirteenth century to a place founded in the seventh century, and stopped at our gates."

Monk Lin looked at everyone in the room with a long, sweeping gaze. "He stopped. He could not rape, pillage, burn, or raze Tibet - which had a strong cooperative relationship between the Bonpo shamans and Buddhist monks. Rather than continue his rampage, Khan came to an epiphany and formed an agreement between himself, who was known as the Great Khan, the emperor of China, and the monks of Sakya monastery in southwest Tibet." He closed his eyes and bowed in the four cardinal directions to some unseen force, and then continued. "A trinity of alliances."

"The Lamas of Sakya were appointed as spiritual guides even to a man such as Genghis Khan, who clearly understood the use of force, and energies, but who also apparently had the wisdom to not go beyond certain realms without spiritual mediation. The title, Dalai Lama, actually comes from Mongol origins, meaning ocean." Monk Lin smiled at Damali and Carlos. "Oceans bear salt, much like tears," he added with weighted subtlety. "We have already had our experiences with the power of water and the sea. It is time for you to elevate your learning with an old Bonpo master, his title is the Naksong - which means had been in darkness, what is in shadow, or forest. The Naksong masters are in touch with the energies of nature; they purify the impure, are herbal healers, but most important, they cure the true roots of evil."

"Carlos said we know why us," Damali said, quietly. "I don't think we do." She looked around the room, her gaze briefly touching each person as she spoke. Something else was going on; it was the way Monk Lin stared at Carlos. "The general clearly has more manpower than we'll ever have." She looked over toward the professors. "These gentlemen have more technology than anything J.L. and Krissy can rig up on their own - no offense guys." Damali ran her hands through her hair. "And a very old Naksong with serious monks flanking him are probably more psychically and spiritually grounded than anybody on our team." She glanced around.

"I'm not trying to put down anybody's abilities in our ranks. But hey, let's be real, there's not a monk among us."

"That ain't no lie," Shabazz finally muttered.

Rider pounded his fist. "But we will take you fellas up on the new weaponry. Momma ain't raised no fool."

"It's the bloodlines, isn't it?" Marlene asked in a calm tone. "It's something in the DNA."

Monk Lin nodded and glanced at the two nervous professors and the general.

"We are told that your team has a predominance of people on it that have walked from Asiatic tribes over the Iberian Peninsula and down to North America," Professor Huang said, his eyes filled with hope. "All scientists currently agree that the Native American has roots in Asiatic DNA. Native American DNA is linked to the peoples of Mexico, Central America, and South America. Any U.S.-born African-Americans that share biological lineage links with Native Americans are also able to tap into the energies traditionally taught in the Bonpo belief system."

Jose glanced at his more seasoned teammates. "Me, Juanita, J.L., Carlos, Damali, Mar, Shabazz, all have Native American in us. Maybe Inez, too." He looked at Big Mike. "Yo, man, what about you?"

"Got some Blackfoot and Cherokee in there, my grandma said, not sure how it runs in the family, but it's in there from around plantation days." Big Mike nodded. "That makes at least eight of us from the squad, if Inez don't have it, with two members of the team in the shadow lands, Tara and Yonnie."

"Ten," Damali said flatly, "which mathematically condenses down into one - one team." She nodded. "We got it."

"With three, members, uh..." the younger professor said, seeming unsure of how to word his assessment, "that have actually died, at one point. Were in the shadow lands."

"Make it four," Damali said calmly. "I went there for a moment myself. Four is the number of balance, harmony, and represents the four elements of the universe." She smiled when the professors and the general backed up. "But we're all cool now. Those you see here do daylight and don't have the hunger, but we know how hard it can be and how to fight it." She slapped Carlos five. "Guess we just signed on for this mission, huh, bro?" she added, keeping up with the ruse of her and the team being surprised. "Now does Arizona, and being under the protection of the Thunderbird totem for a few, make sense to you?"

Carlos smiled. Yeah, he got it loud and clear, and could have kicked himself for not going with the flow before. He should have known there was always an underlying reason for anything Damali and Marlene concocted.

"Y'all math is off," Carlos said, feeling pride expand his chest as he suddenly, for the first time since Philadelphia, felt truly useful to the team. "Four of us have taken a walk on the dark side or in shadow country, which makes the cardinal points. But don't discount Inez; her people are from South America, and from the south in the States - gotta have some Asiatic strain in her, which is the Native American Indian strain. That brings the total to nine, add the four shadow selves, and we come back to lucky thirteen. Do the math, baby. Add in the Berkfields, Dan, and Rider, we've got them anchoring the four topside, natural elements - earth, air, fire, water; plus two metals - gold and silver, yin and yang energy through Krissy and Bobby, male and female children inseparably linked by blood."

"Sho' you right," Damali said, folding her arms and looking at Carlos with satisfaction and pride. "My bad. Knew you'd figure out why we were here, once we got here. It always works like that." She was so proud of him at the moment that she could have hugged him on the spot, but held back because it just wasn't appropriate. Later.

Carlos's pleased gaze slid away with a sly smile just in time for her to glimpse a slight flicker of silver in his irises, and it did something to her to watch him slowly return to his old self.

Monk Lin bowed toward Damali and then Carlos. "Carlos is correct. The prayer flags you will see on the monasteries will have yellow to represent the earth; green, the water; red for fire; white, for the clouds; and blue for the sky." He smiled at Rider. "And there will be always be a thangka of the sacred white yak. No matter that your definition of the elements may slightly vary, your numerology is insightful. All serve a divine purpose."

Carlos bowed toward Damali, and she responded in kind.

"Neteru," Carlos said with a smile. "Lead on, my sister."

"Neteru," Damali said with a smile. "Lead on, my brother."

"Agreement has been reached. Respect dawns. Let the accord be unbroken." Monk Lin's smile drew to a placid, determined line on his face. "The Naksong works cooperatively with the Lama of the Nyingmapa sect, where I am also from. It is the oldest form of Tibetan Buddhism. I will take you there to this master, where you will learn what you must."

"We will convene in the next room," the general said, motioning for the professors to lead the way. "There, you will be taught how each weapon works, and this will be sent along with your military escort."

Monk Lin looked at the professors and the general, offering them a curious gaze. "Once we debark in Lhasa, your escorts will not be needed, although your support of ammunition will be deeply appreciated. While, the Naksong is old and blind, he will not countenance a military presence while he teaches. He has even forbidden me to give the team their more conventional items until he announces they are ready."

He glanced at Carlos and Damali, clearly referring to Carlos's claw of Heru and Damali's baby Isis without actually mentioning the weapons. When they nodded quietly, Monk Lin bowed, straightened himself, and folded his arms. His stance told all in the room, he would not be moved.

"Monk Lin," the general warned, but there was no longer acid surety in his tone. "Do not be difficult."

"General," Monk Lin said with a cool smile of sudden victory as they all watched the general stand down, "whatever these gentlemen have developed, I am sure will be helpful. But without the teachings of the Naksong, you might as well turn them on yourselves."

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