"Queen mother, Carlos and I... what happened was-"

"I know what happened," Aset said and closed her eyes. Every woman at the table stopped breathing. "If you had only waited until he was brought forth from Darkness into the Light. Only a few months until his resurrection. How many of the forty-two laws of Ma'at have been violated as a result of your actions? Did your mother-seer not warn you?"

"Yes," Damali said quietly. "Please don't blame Marlene. It wasn't her fault."

"We cast no blame on a mother-seer who advises an adult Neteru who chooses not to listen. Our hearts encircle the mother, for she has sleepless nights, and gnashes her teeth and wrings her hands over the headstrong nature of the daughter she's charged to instruct!"

Aset stood, making the lions on both sides also stand, circle, grumble, and then lie back down at a simple look from her. She pointed at Nzinga. "My warrior sister has not rested since you willingly offered your throat." Aset clasped Nzinga's head as she bowed it. "Do you know how many times she flew to your aid, intervened, sat with Marlene to instruct your battle strategies, and finally was the one who had to sully herself to go into the earth to bring you through the violet door-at Marlene's request?" Aset swept away from her throne and stood behind Nzinga's. "You should be prostrate on this floor before my dear queen sister with thanks that she came to retrieve you! I may not have done the same."

Damali hit the floor and covered her head, not sure what the women before her might do. Deep remorse filled her as she withstood the tongue-lashing. Still, something quietly defiant lingered within her.

"Please, Aset," Nzinga said, her voice becoming tender. "Let our daughter face you and speak. I, too, was beyond rage at this travesty. But there are many elements that we must consider."

"Call Ma'at," Aset said, her tone threatening. "If her story is lighter than the feather of our sister keeper of justice, which will weight the scales with the truth, then, and only then, will I return her sword."

"You know, Ma'at is blind, dear queen, and can be very harsh in her pronouncements. Maybe-"

"She loved him with her whole heart and soul, great queen," the Amazon said, cutting off Nzinga in her haste to help Damali's cause. "He also, even as a vampire, loved her that way."

"This is truth?" Aset asked, staring at the Amazon. "Your warriors were with them in the nether realms."

"My mother-seer and my Guardians were, and she communicated all to me."

Aset slowly walked back to her throne. She cast an even glare at Damali. "Stand. Speak. Explain yourself to this council."

Damali got up slowly, not sure where she would begin her explanation. "Queen council mother," Damali said softly, her tone reverent and paced. "I open my third eye to you to see all that has transpired. I share it freely with the entire council, as I have nothing to hide. I cannot force myself to be ashamed for loving him, even while he was steeped in Darkness. Yes, I went to Hell and back with him until he was brought back by the Light." Damali swallowed hard. "But through that experience, we also wiped out all topside-dwelling master vampires, bumped off two council-level vamps-Carlos's empty throne means they only have three seats filled now-and we were able to pull a man's soul from multiple levels of Darkness into the Light to fight for our side. Believe me, they have got to be feeling that loss." She glanced around when the faces before her remained impassive. "Did I mention we kept the biblical key that opens the sixth biblical seal from them, too?"

"I will admit that your record, for your age, is impressive-which is the only reason you are able to lean so heavily on my tolerance," Aset said, and then pushed back in her throne, her powerful gaze raking Damali.

Damali watched as the queens before her closed their eyes and the centers of their foreheads soon glowed violet in the shape of an Egyptian eye. Her forehead felt like a hot poker was being rammed into it, the intensity of their probe so comprehensive that she could barely stand.

After several minutes the heat receded, as the queens one by one opened their eyes and looked at her squarely, and then glanced at Aset.

To Damali's surprise, Aset had tears of compassion in her eyes. Aset shook her head and let her breath out slowly.

"What can I say to what I have just witnessed? It so reminds me of my husband, the first king of Kemet, Ausar. That is why I am so angry, so frustrated with you, daughter."

Multiple emotions clawed at Damali's mind, her gaze steady on Aset before it raked the group of seated queens.

"Aset's history is the foundation of your teachings, child. Tell me you have not forgotten it?" Nzinga's eyes searched Damali's with quiet panic. "Tell her,now . Recite it for her, lest she waver in her mercy."

"How could I forget?" Damali said quickly. "Ausar was the first great king, knowledgeable and righteous. He took Aset as a wife, but before they could consummate their marriage, his brother, Set, killed him." Damali held the ancient queens' line of vision. "I am so sorry, queen mother. It was horrible."

"Yes," Aset said, her gaze sliding toward the horizon. "They hacked him up into fourteen pieces, and I scavenged the land for seventy days to find each part, and bound him in fine linen to bury him as only a king should be buried. There was only one piece I could not find."

Damali nodded as the queen's eyes filled and dignity burned the sudden tears away. "But the obelisk you had carved to include with his mummy replaced-"

"You can never replacethat once severed and lost," Aset said with a sad smile. "I was a virgin when I conceived our son, Heru, to avenge Ausar's death... but my husband could only come to me that once in spirit before he was entombed, no matter how many tekhen, which the Greeks called obelisks, have been erected." She sighed a weary sigh and closed her eyes. "That is why I was so outraged," Aset said quietly. "Around this table you have women who have lost much, loved hard, but none of us forgot our primary cause. To fight evil. If you had only waited..."

"Dear Queen Aset, after seeing what we have seen, and knowing what we know, our queen daughter could no more have waited without being sure that there would be an endpoint to their need to quench their love, than any of us could-if we are honest with ourselves." Nzinga lowered her eyes. "I am sorry to have to have spoken so bluntly, my queen, but it is the truth."

"Nuk uab-k uab ka-k uab ba-k uab sekem;my mind has pure thoughts, so my soul and life forces are pure. Is that not from our teachings, Queen Sister Nzinga?"

"Her love for him was pure," Nzinga said with a cautious smile. "Although the rest of it, I cannot vouch for." The Amazon chuckled and quickly swallowed it upon Aset's hot glare.

"They were to represent the number three, the divine energies of Netcher-when a male and female Light energy blends and sires a child of Light. Together they would produce a light bender, not a daywalker, if he had not been in Darkness when she conceived. Now that Darkness has clawed possible life from her womb." Aset's eyes filled with angry tears that fell without censure. "She was to do as I did, collect her beloved's scattered parts-his ashes in this case-and bring him back in spirit through her connection to the Light. She would show him his gift to draw upon the Netcher power within to fell the empire that murdered him and warred against his beloved. Their child was to fulfill a prophecy before the Great One comes."

Aset stood as each woman followed her with their gaze, Damali coming so close to the table that she could almost touch the edges of it, but its awesome power wafted from it and kept her back. The loss was now more than pain, or even heartbreak. It was something so profound that she could barely sip in air.

"Oh, daughter," Aset said, her voice breaking as it hitched in her throat. "We did not begrudge you loving him, it was the timing. You no longer carry, and we will heal your womb. But they have drawn a part of what you carried down into the chambers of Darkness because his blood was still black when he made a son!"

Tears streamed down Damali's cheeks. It would have been a boy...

The ancient queen rounded the council table and yanked Damali toward her by both arms. The snatch happened so quickly that all Damali could do was gasp and sway as her knees buckled and Aset held her, eyes blazing violet with a fusion of emotions that Damali didn't dare consider. The current running through Aset's hands into Damali's arms felt like lightning had struck her.

All queens stood quickly, but released their collective breaths as one of Aset's hands slid from Damali's upper arms, and covered her lower belly. Near faint, Damali's head dropped forward as Aset's hand glowed hot for a moment and a golden orb of light covered where Aset's palm laid against her. Damali could feel pinpricks of energy contract her womb and sear into her lower back.

"We burned everything," Damali shrieked, unable to keep up the facade of warrior calm before the council of queens. "Everything, not a drop was-"

"Listen to me carefully," Aset said, her tone soothing as she held Damali firmly. "When the cramping started, it was because a dark force began the siphon. Ask Carlos what was spilled onto the floor in the place we do not name. He was bound to a wall, impaled by stakes, and he cried out to Heaven for mercy, which is the only way we know."

The ancient queen dropped Damali's arm and focused both hands over her lower belly, allowing Nzinga to go to her side to keep Damali from falling. "A daywalker is the least of our concerns if that bitch, Lilith, comes up. She used to be able to breed a hundred demons a day before she married Set and ultimately betrayed him." Aset removed her hands slowly from Damali's abdomen, leaving a gentle, healing warmth in their wake. "It is done."

Shocked by Aset's language, and the miracle the elder queen had just performed, Damali touched the now-calm surface of her belly, marveling at the soothing sensation that filled her. She somehow knew the ancient queen had not harmed her, but had healed the part of her that had sustained injury. But her soul was still wounded.

She stared behind Aset as she made her way back to her throne. Oh, yeah, something really bad was about to go down if the queen mother had cursed. "Lilith?" Damali murmured. "I've never heard of her." It was the truth. One of the other queens had mentioned the name in the club, but she couldn't figure out what this new threat meant.

"We do not speak of her, for she defames our gender," Aset said without turning. "Tell her, Eve."

"Yes," Eve said, looking at Damali with gentleness. "My husband's first wife. After she disgraced Adam, she ran off to a cave near the Red Sea and began birthing demon seed a hundred a day."

Damali couldn't contain herself. "Adam's first wife? But you were the first-"

Eve waved her hand, stopping Damali's words. "She shames us because it was the way she did it." Eve let out a hard sigh. "We all agreed, by rights, Lilith was made simultaneously with Adam. She was a copartner, a coruler, and should have never had to submit to him. When he tried to force the issue, she should have taken her complaint On High, and had it resolved legally in the divine courts. But then she took matters into her own hands; rage made her crazy. She turned against the Light. Unacceptable. Then in jealousy, she even turned against all women by stealing children, killing the innocent as they grew in our wombs. That bitchhas to be stopped."

Nzinga nodded. "Fact. This female knows no bounds, and has no compassion for her sisters. A woman like that who goes against all of us cannot be considered one of us. She's your kill, baby. Do her and finish it. We've been searching for her for years, but she's crafty. You may be the only one who can get to her, because now you share something in common."

Joan leaned forward. "Damali, she's coming for you, honey. Eve's transgression was nothing in comparison to what she did, and our sister Eve took the weight of most of it. Many distortions have been made in the biblical texts about Eve." She glanced at Eve with a firm but tender gaze. "That was wrong, and Lilith gave them the wherewithal to cast all blame at her feet for biting the apple. Now, from some convoluted, distorted logic, all women are blamed for the transgression of one-and they have even blamed the wrong sister! The whole world became paternalistic, and they stripped our contributions from the holy books, stopped giving women their due, and stopped seeing the importance of our energy, after that."

"I went to the tree for knowledge.That's it ," Eve said with pride. "True, I wasn't supposed to, but I had to know about Lilith and what had made my husband go into this 'the man must be in charge all the time' thing. He was never the same, after her. That much I've gathered," she added in a sad voice. "No one wanted me to know his shortcomings, and the fact that I stumbled upon an additional situation while gaining insight... well that, as they say, is old history."

For a moment, all queens remained quiet as Damali and Eve stared at each other. A deep abiding compassion bound them. Damali could feel the elder queen's pain from where she stood. "They need to let that snake thing rest," Damali said with care. "If there was something going on with my husband, I'd want to know, too."

Eve nodded and the Amazon reached across the table and held her hand.

"She knows what you've been through," the Amazon said quietly. "In Brazil she had to learn it and even feel it, just like you did."

Eve looked away. "That's why this one is so special to me, Aset," she said, addressing the queen mother without looking at her. "I don't want Damali to suffer like I did. It's a new era, a new millennium, and she's from a new generation of queens."

"I agree... reluctantly," Aset said. "Explain to her, then, what's she's up against."

"They sent three warrior angels after Lilith to find her and return her to Paradise for a serious discussion, but couldn't locate her," Eve said, her voice worn with emotion. "That's when the first big war began... Archangel Michael came down and began slaying her progeny, but he couldn't get them all. Her ability to spawn at will was revoked, and many of her offspring slaughtered, but not all of them. A fragile truce was enacted and she was forced underground. That is the only reason she submitted to marry the Dark One, for an alliance against the angels. We have been told that evenhe has difficulties with her."

Damali looked from one queen to the next. "Where did she go? How do we stop her?"

"Babylon, first, then subterranean," Eve said. "She rules over miscarriages, stillbirths, crib deaths-among other things-but you won't find her up here. She's gone into deep hiding since those times, and sleeps with the one we do not name, making demons and creating havoc when she has a chance." Unspent fury hardened Eve's gaze. "But she's sneaky, can slide into men's dreams, can come as a succubus. She breaks the treaty to remain below all the time, but no one can catch her in the act to bring her to justice."

Damali covered her mouth.

"Yes, daughter. That's why we have been so appalled," Aset said in a weary tone. She looked at Eve. "You know the Vampire Council's chairman. Well, am I wrong?"

Eve glanced away. "That was a long time ago, Aset. Donot go there."

Damali's gaze darted between the queens who were now locked in a silent standoff.The serpent in the garden was the chairman? Oh, shit ...

"For this daughter's own good. Tell me. Do you think he was enraged enough to have destroyed whatever he drew from her womb?"

"I cannot be certain," Eve said, her tone cautious and thoughtful. "He was always extremely passionate... and always jealous of his father. His ambitions might have allowed him to be shrewd, with the Armageddon so near."

"A potential coup within the dark realms may be our only hope. His father would not stand for a challenger created by the Vampire Council, but Lilith could be a variable. She has always played all sides of men at war, and even started many on her own," Nzinga said, releasing Damali as she slowly returned to her throne with the others.

"Each one of us has had a turn at this same theme," Aset said. "Ausar and I created Heru who conquered Set the first time. Eve before me was with Adam, and knows the pain of two warring sons."

"Cain was implanted during my transgression and came forward as a twin when Abel was conceived. The deepest heartbreak of my existence." Eve swallowed hard and sat down. "We chastise you not from anger, but from love. We have been down that long and dusty path, and we weep for you. That is why, even above the Isis blades, your womb is sacrosanct." Eve's gaze became steady as it bored into Damali. "They have the embryo. Its light did not flicker out, but remains dormant. Lilith has to be beheaded before she can implant it and figure out how to spark it to life. Her womb is the only one down there capable of bearing what will become an atrocity against nature."

"Say it plain, Eve!" Aset shouted, holding a stunned Damali in her gaze as she addressed Eve. "The embryo is a time bomb. It's ticking as we speak. Your transgression with the chairman so many years ago was only a problem because you and Adam had joined." She spun on Damali. "You and Carlos are the only Neteru pair to grace the planet since our dear sister and her husband. That combination produces a level of energy carried in the blood that the dark realms cannot synthesize. When she had a run-in with the serpent and got bitten, it allowed her to be impregnated with something dark while she carried something from the Light. Thiscannot happen to you, and you cannot sleep with Carlos again until you destroy Lilith. If Lilith gives birth, your child will be born the Anti-Christ. She and the embryo must be destroyed. Shecannot surrogate for you and turn what came from you to the Darkness." Aset flattened her hands against the table. She stared at Damali, her gaze narrowing. "I have given you back your Sankofa. Use it wisely to keep yourself from implantation, henceforth. That can only occur with your intent. In the future, if you He with a male, make it burn bright. Control your births; this is your right as a woman."

Feeling as though her legs would give out, Damali stumbled forward. But a slow, smoldering rage held her up and sent a snap of straight fury through her spine to keep her erect. "She hasmy child? The fruit ofmy womb?Our baby?" Damali's voice was a hard whisper. "I need to know."

"A fertilized egg," Aset said as gently as she could.

"It's not yours any longer," Eve said, her voice distant. "You'd never recognize it now that they've snatched it and-"

"My baby!"

"The potential Anti-Christ," Nzinga said cautiously as two queens rounded the table to keep Damali from leaping over it, "now that we're sure of who the intended surrogate will be. You must find her and destroy her quickly. If it embeds in her womb-you have to cut that out and torch it. The chairman may or may not be involved, given Lilith's treachery. But rest assured, he's the only one that can lead you to her, unless you can bait her out of hiding in search of the catalyst."

"My egg?" Damali shrieked, struggling against the hold of the Amazon and Joan. "Oh, I will find that whore, don't worry. I will never allow her to carry what's mine and Carlos's! Ever! I will go into council chambers myself and turn thrones over, looking for that bitch. Know that!" Damali yelled, pointing at Aset as the other queens let her go. She raked her fingers through her locks and began to pace, feeling trapped, caged, and in need of weapons. Tears of rage stung her nostrils, and she sucked in hard, refusing to allow them to fall. "Get me out of here. I've got work to do. Transport me back. Give me my blade. This conversation is over."

"It is the never knowing when or if this past transgression, one that is out of our hands, will rear its ugly head to confront you both. Your beloved is now a child of the Light, as are you, so you must learn to use your Light power a different way than merely by the sword."

"But I'm not still pregnant, am I? Tell me I wasn't carrying twins." Damali's voice had escalated beyond her ability to control it. She looked at Eve dead-on for an answer. She didn't want to hear this yang about patience and strategy. It was time to kick some ass.

"No," Aset said, sitting down heavily. "You will be bound up and healed. It is what fragments of life we were not able to collect back to the Sun that concerns us."

"Where do I go, what do I do?" Damali asked, willing herself not to shriek. "How do I get down there to smoke this bitch?"

"The Isis blades remain ours until you learn to find the power of Netcher within living things and to draw the essence of Light out of them... to bend the Light."

"How?" Damali cried, tears now streaming down her face as Queen Aset stood. "You can't take the Isis blades at a time like this, please. Give me another chance!"

"Do you understand how important it is for you to remain concealed? They cannot know where either of you are. The blades are a beacon. They can taste the sacred metals in the air when they hit the earth's surface. They're not even sure that Carlos is the male Neteru, and they haven't pinpointed him yet. He's vulnerable now, and until he reaches his Neteru apex, the kings of old must shield him. No. You must learn to fight with other skills and other tools," Aset said. Without waiting for Damali to answer, she held up her hand to stop Damali from speaking. "Ask Eve. We understand your pain, but you cannot go into this battle with your heart, only your intellect can prevail over this matter.Tell her, Eve . Explain how you held Cain to your breasts, even while knowing what he was. Tell her, so she can understand and accept the ruling."

Eve hung her head and spoke in a low, calm voice. "Dear queen daughter, by rights, I am the first Neteru, the eldest of the council, the mother of all... but, due to the problem in Paradise, which I would not like to revisit, Aset rules. Her judgment and discipline were more profound, therefore, my title was stripped, albeit not my place in history or among the governing queens." She looked at Damali, her gaze unwavering as she spoke and her voice dropped to a near whisper. "This is very serious. We are so close to the Armageddon, and you two were supposed to be the new Neterus-one male, one female-to sway the balance."

"Tell her!" Aset shouted, making the lights within the table swirl across the top in small tornado-like eddies. "Did we not strip Cleopatra for taking her own life with an asp, when she could have sealed a deal and stemmed the invasion of Egypt by Rome? Suicide sent her to the Darkness, and we lost an important warrior. She allowed her intellect to be eclipsed by her heart. For what? A man? Damali cannot face Lilith like that!"

Damali opened and closed her mouth. Words failed her.

"You will travel to all the lands that your destiny requires; there is a shaman at each place that will find you," Aset said, her tone annoyed and brittle. "Thirteen places to bind yourself up, to collect the fragments of Carlos's scattered Light force. If we didn't have this problem, the process of readying the male Neteru would progress over seventy days, as it has always been. But you have perhaps seven days, at best, to do what must be done."

"Handle your business, baby," Nzinga said, wiping her hands down her face with fatigue. "Stay strong, and stay in the Light."

"Exactly," Aset said with a nod. "Once the male Neteru is gathered and his power has returned on the side of Light, your healing will also be complete. Until he heals, you cannot fully heal. Until he wields the power, you cannot wield the Isis blades. Youmarried him while he was a vampire, and now your power is one." Aset leaned across the table. "You allowed him to take you as awife , child. That is how they were able to claw away what they should havenever even seen or known existed. Some things are beyond our control. What about this do you not understand?"

"There was no ceremony," Damali sputtered, her gaze going from Aset to the others for support. "We never did a dark ritual, we never-"

"In the desert of Australia, on hallowed ground-'flesh of my flesh,' he said, as you willingly allowed him to take your throat, shared his blood, and deconstructed into nothingness with his cells fusing with yours at the vampire vanishing point!"

Aset slammed the table so hard that light sparks flew from it. "After you gave him a heartbeat from your own heart within my Amazon sister's territory! After you loved him without censure in a priest's compound. The keepers of the seal-the Aboriginal shaman-said you loved him with the intent of drawing his life force and seed into you on twenty-thousand-year-old prayer lines!" Aset picked up the small Isis dagger and rammed it into the table. "You had his ring, a blue-ice section of his heart, a white gown, shaman priests all around in spirit as witnesses, and the stars aghast. Oh, yes, there were priests there. It is done. You are his wife in spirit! The rest is an earthly formality, at this point."

Damali covered her mouth, her eyes so wide that she felt the sides burn as though they'd split. "Oh, my God..."

"Correct," Aset said, snatching the blade from the table and flinging it toward Nzinga. "And she wonders why I am beyond words."

"Therefore," Aset said, her voice returning to its previous even calm, "for your own safety, you will not bear the marker, Neteru, until you have restored your own power by your own hand. You will be hidden in plain sight. This way you will also learn from experience to never give it away to anyone, will know its true value, and will guard it the way it should always be guarded. Because he is crippled, you are also crippled, by your untimely decision. It is out of my hands." She looked at Damali with a mixture of pity and annoyance. "You bore fangs for him, my daughter. Even that I cannot make excuses for."

"I bore them, too, for a while," Eve murmured, looking at Damali with pity. "When I came back from the tree..." Eve's voice trailed off with a sad smile. "At least you have the Neteru council as your buffer. I had to stand before a husband and the Most High. That was in the Old Testament days, before the time of mercy. The conversation went very differently, I assure you-so take heart. This is not as bad as it could have been."

Nzinga nodded. "They have not taken this well in the Upper Realms... it will be the second time before a pivotal war, and the only thing that may redeem you is that unlike Eve, when she temporarily lost her mind," Nzinga said, casting a compassionate glance toward the elder queen, "you have a number of good demon kills to your honor. Significant ones, so cling to that as your hope and shield. He also has this as his shield, as well as his protection of many good men and women-like you also have. We will lobby hard, my queen daughter... but in the interim, you must help your own case."

"It is not my goal to punish her," Aset said, now seeming so tired that she could barely speak. "It is my goal to teach her and it is my fervent prayer that we can at some point return her title and blades. But she must do this on her own."

Shame burned Damali's cheeks, and she could not answer the charges as Aset stood and moved away from the table. Instead she focused on acceptance and whatever she had to do to regain favor. "I will make this right. But what lands, where am I to battle what? And there were fourteen missing parts of Ausar, not thirteen. Oh, Queen Mother Aset, please do not walk away with riddles that could take a lifetime to figure out!"

"Only you can find and heal the missing life force within the fourteenth section of him, which can only be healed once his mind is healed and his spirit is healed, and your body is healed and your focus is as pure as a beam of light. If you ever want to conceive with him again while he's flesh and blood, you must incorporate patience and gentleness... wisdom and strength, or you can suffer my fate and simply have an obelisk carved in his memory."

With that Aset turned and began walking and vanished into the violet pyramid that opened, her lions crossing behind her in a lazy, but guarded retreat.

"I will be near," Nzinga said, "as will the others. Call upon us, and we will send markers and signs to guide you."

"Beware the screech owl of the desert. That is one of the shapes Lilith assumes," Eve warned. "Remember in the last days, only the churches of one land had no sins in the eyes of the Most High. Seek that land as your final destination. But you must first collect the scattered Netcher before you do so." She sighed. "I will lobby your cause about the fang issue. I remember those days, but your case is slightly different. Carlos came back, and it was his destiny to be a Guardian... so, perhaps once emotions settle... Take heart. Look toward Philadelphia." Eve left her with a sad smile, shaking her head as she walked into the Light.

"But there are probably twenty cities in the world by that name." Damali tried to rush forward but an energy barrier held her and kept her from rounding the table.

The others had disappeared through the triangle of violet light, only the Amazon hung back, collecting the Isis blades with sadness in her eyes. "Then find the most powerful one. Start there, queen daughter. I will watch your flank."

Suddenly the room transformed into a restaurant. Dazed, Damali glanced at the white linen tablecloths and marble floor, then at the winding river beyond the tall windows. She was up high in a building in some country or city she couldn't place. She could hear movement in the hall beyond, and she glanced at a wall clock, and then ducked behind a table as a security guard passed by.

Unarmed, in a white Ethiopian gown and sandals, if she were discovered in an establishment this early in the morning, she knew she'd go to jail as a nut case for sure. She listened to the footfalls get farther away and made a run for the main hall, hugging the walls, tiptoeing like a thief, and saying a quiet prayer that she wouldn't be discovered. How was she going to get back to the plane in Manila or let the group know she was alive?

Spotting the main staircase she slipped down it, ducked low as she saw another guard cross the expansive marble entrance. She also had to keep an eye out for any surveillance cameras.

Staying out of sight, she peeped around the huge column that ended at the bottom of the first landing of the staircase and saw the shadows on the floor made from what looked like large temple pillars. From the angle where she crouched she could also see what seemed like a city-block-wide cascade of hundreds of white steps that ended with a wide circular boulevard and a mammoth fountain across the street. If she could just get outside.

A stick on her shoulder almost made her jump out of her skin. She looked up quickly expecting to see a guard shoving her with a billy club. Instead it was the old shaman, one of the keepers of the seal. He smiled a toothless grin and placed a finger to his lips, signaling her to remain quiet. He stooped down low and offered her his walking stick, prodding her to hold one end of it. The moment Damali's hand touched it a warm balm of purple light covered her hand and traveled up her arm, slowly coating and eventually rimming her body in violet light. He let go of the stick and clapped and laughed and bent over with mirth, the spectacle seemed to please him so.

Damali had to smile. It was his pure glee as he danced about and waved his arms, creating a ruckus that she was sure would draw the guards. No sooner than that reality accosted her, a guard ran down the steps, brandishing a club.

"Hey, old man! You can't come in here! No homeless on the premises! Now beat it, before we call the cops!"

Another guard hurried onto the scene. "How'd that old bum get in here? You'd better get him out before we get in trouble because the night shift guys overlooked him. I'm not losing my job over this bull."

Damali had made herself very small on the steps, practically hugging the oversized railing, but it became suddenly apparent that the two guards couldn't see her. She was being shielded.

The half-naked shaman laughed harder, his mirth becoming a wild hysteria as he danced away from the security guards and rushed down the steps. Damali stood, stared at the stick, and then the guard. They really couldn't see her... deep.

"Open the front doors for him and get him out of here," one guard shouted, huffing as he chased behind the nimble old man and almost slipping on the highly polished floors as he pursued him.

Clenching the stick, Damali stood and raced in the direction of the door. The first guard that had reached the huge, bolted entrances flipped a series of switches behind a control panel, swearing the entire time about the alarm systems, locks, writing the catastrophe up on the logs, his pension, and why couldn't the homeless just stay out of the place. The shaman danced, wagged a finger at the men, and evaded their pursuit until one of the doors had been opened. Then he gnashed his teeth and pulled at his wiry white hair as though insane.

"Man, he might have AIDS! Don't touch him, just shoo his dirty ass out the door!"

The shaman walked in a wide circle, motioning for Damali to go through the exit, drooling and spitting, making the men back away with disgust. Then he clapped his hands and dashed out the door and down the steps. Damali didn't have to be told twice, she was out.

Brilliant sun hit her face, and the crisp fall air brought tears to her eyes. She didn't know exactly where she was, but it was a cold climate. She glanced around for the old shaman. "Thank you," she yelled into the nothingness, and brought the stick to her chest.

They had taken her Isis blades, stripped her womb, brought her man back fractured and broken, separated her from her team, and only left her with a purple magic stick. Silent tears slipped down her cheeks as she stood on the grounds of the most spectacular temple she'd seen within a city. She stared down the broad white steps toward the grand parkway, trying to place the monuments, trying to get her bearings as her embattled brain struggled to absorb all that had just happened. She glanced back at the eight Roman columns and brass fountains that had tarnished green with age, noting how the entire relief was near a river and waterfall as though a replica of the great temples by the Nile. No wonder the queens had brought her here. But they'd also temporarily stripped her of her title, had taken her blades.

What had she done? Lord, what had she done?

RESIGNED TO her fate, there was nothing to do but move forward. Damali glanced around, already knowing that the old shaman wasn't coming back. She walked down the white steps, watching the few cars that passed as she reached the curb, straining to read the license plates but was too far away to recognize the state they were from. At just after dawn, most cities were quiet-except New York. She checked that one off as she gazed at the skyline. Definitely not New York. But it had to be on the East Coast. An art museum, but where?

Before her stretched a large boulevard lined with very old trees robed in hues of orange, gold, red, fading green, and withered brown. As she crossed the four-lane circular street, she came to the huge, dry fountain, staring at the larger-than-life bronze figurines and trying to see an inscription. She looked over her shoulder to the building she'd just left, and gaped up at the huge templelike structure that bore no inscription, but on her right a warrior on a horse fought a lion with his javelin drawn in battle. The monument offered no immediate clue. But it made her pause. Armed only with a wooden stick a warrior went against a lion. Damali gripped the stick she held more tightly and walked forward. Answers were all around her; she could feel them just beyond her immediate reach.

For a moment she just stood in front of the fountain, her eyes roving past the life-sized bronze woman entwined with a serpent. She sighed and thought of Eve, and then her own circumstances. "We messed up big time, didn't we, girlfriend?" Damali muttered as she trudged up the massive stone steps, past two huge bronze deer. At the four cardinal points, there were figures seemingly guarded by things of nature. That fleeting awareness also gave her pause. Two deer guarded the woman and serpent... Damali walked to the next cardinal point and saw an elaborately sculpted moose adjacent to a fierce bear guarding a woman with a net. As she rounded the structure there was a pair of moose, and before she could look farther she saw a Native American chief in repose, also guarded by two bison-things of nature.

Damali glanced up to the mounted general on a horse, her eyes scouring the dim inscription... she was in Pennsylvania! Excitement swept through her. A piece of the puzzle was found. At least she knew where she was now. But as suddenly as elation had hit her, so did a sense of impending doom.

If she was in Pennsylvania, then her team was God knew how many miles and a whole day away from her, enroute to Manila. How in the heck was she going to get from here to there, with no money on her, no means of transportation to an airport, no freaking identification, and no coat? She wrapped her arms around herself, instantly feeling the cold.

Soul weary, she leaned against the reclining Indian chief and willed herself not to cry. "This is beyond jacked up," she murmured. The icy metal set her teeth on edge, and she pushed off it with both hands. But the slight movements of the bronze structure before her made her freeze.

A light crackling purple haze crept along the structure, making the reclining figure slowly turn its head, stare at her with vacant eyes, and with the slightest tilt of his chin, a direction was offered.

Damali backed up until her spine collided with the adjacent figure, making her jump away from it, lest it come alive, too. The section of statue that had moved returned to its original pose and became still again. Not waiting to see what would happen next, Damali dashed down the wide steps in a flat-out run, across a small patch of grass, and down the center lane of an empty parking lot. Breathless, she quickly crossed the street and turned back to the giant fountain to see if it was pursuing her. But all was still except the erratic thuds of her heart.

She sucked in huge breaths and looked in the direction the statue had indicated. Benjamin Franklin Parkway? Something vaguely familiar stretched within her mind, but with all that had happened, the context left her wanting. Her eyes darted around, trying to figure out the message. Frustrated, she looked up and shouted, "What?"

No answer came as she slumped against a post and lowered the stick to the ground and leaned on it. She briefly closed her eyes and tried to regain her composure. "I'm sorry, okay? But I can't walk from here to Manila!"

Turning her face to the sky, she raised the stick and shook it. "I need answers! I'll do what you want, will travel and go to whatever lands, but I've gotta know where!"

Then she noticed the flags. The parkway she stood on had every flag of every nation represented down a long, tree-lined boulevard. She glanced down at the stick, and then up at the flags, then toward the trees. Nature. Art had inspired the direction, perhaps nature held the power? It was worth a try.

She touched her hand against a very old oak and pointed the stick toward the flags. "Talk to me," she whispered, her voice calmer.

Again the purple light crept from the end of the stick, but instead of crawling up her arm, it arced and then disappeared. To her total amazement, fourteen flags that blew in the fall breeze lit one by one. Her mind seized upon the order: Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Italy, Algeria, Spain, France, Hungary, Austria, Poland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Then oddly, the U.S. flag went neon violet, and as suddenly as they had lit, the purple light around each flag faded to a purplish tinge and then normalized.

Damali didn't take her eyes off the flags for a long time. She said the countries over and over, memorizing them like an elementary school rhyme in her head to make the information stick. It was too bizarre that it was nearly the same as their flight pattern with only a modest variation. But how could that be? The people funding their flight and travel had double-crossed them, yet it seemed as though by doing the double-cross and not allowing them direct entry to the main places of worship, they might have been unwittingly aiding the destined path. The circuitous route was possibly the path that she and the teams were supposed to be on without even realizing it.

The strange confluence of events made her banish the possibility of coincidence. Marlene had told her about there being no such thing as coincidence, and even with all that she'd seen to date, it was still a hard thing to fathom. But sure as rain, the Asian nations' flags hadn't lit, nor had world hot spots like India and Pakistan, or the roiling Middle East. Central America, South America, and Canada hadn't fired violet, just like none of the Caribbean or island nations had.

But fourteen countries did show up glowing, with the fifteenth, her own, glowing hottest. Why? What did it all mean? She knew one thing for sure, if she had to gather fourteen scattered pieces of her and Carlos's power, then so be it, she'd go to the ends of the earth to get that back.

She began walking with purpose now, not sure where she was going, but her footfalls landed with more confidence. Then she stopped. The pain was gone, the cramping was gone, and she didn't feel a thick wad of padding between her legs or the horrible warm wetness of blood oozing from her body.

This time when she glanced up at the sky, it wasn't with frustration or rage. "Thank you," she murmured, her eyes scanning the horizon for a sign, which instantly reflected back to her in a flash of gold. Damali squinted, and stared toward the flash that glistened and peeked through the treetops upon a breeze, and then disappeared in the dense autumn foliage. A dome briefly appeared over the multicolored treetops as a breeze again gently moved the leaves, and standing in the full rays of the rose-orange new sunlight was a cross.

She was so close to hallowed ground that she almost ran to it. Judging from the size of the dome that she'd glimpsed, she couldn't have been more than a few blocks away. Crossing the wide street and grassy divides, she walked quickly toward the place that offered sure sanctuary.

Halfway down the double-long block, a whippoorwill's lonely call made her stop. No longer ready to ignore the subtleties around her, she looked about hoping the old shaman might be there to explain how to use the stick to rejoin her team. Instead, her gaze encountered another statue in blackened bronze. His expression was deeply contemplative as he seemingly worked a problem in his mind that was just beyond his reach, one hand under his chin.

She looked at the historical marker on the street and on the facade of the building. "Philly! The Rodin Museum'sThinker -Carlos, oh my God!" It was all now so clear. She remembered Philly, but had been at the other end of town in the Olde City section, battling on the cobblestoned streets and alleys within the darkness. Everything had come full circle. This was a place of dichotomies, just like her and Carlos's life was. Philadelphia was where freedom was founded, the Liberty Bell once rang, yet where slave ships unloaded terrible cargo to be sold in a public square. The Native American guiding her now made perfect sense. His. people had warred to protect their land, hers had been incarcerated within it, and it took bloodshed and marches to restore them with the right to be considered whole, versus three-fifths of a human being.

Damali nodded. She'd found a place where the highest of ideals tried to coexist with the most base of human nature.

She smiled at the discovery, becoming relieved that the pieces of the giant cosmic puzzle were beginning to fall into place, and she rushed up to the huge, sulking figure and tried to reach up to run her hand over his metallic jaw. However, he was too high up on a pedestal to touch. Tears filled her eyes as she remembered what Carlos's steel-packed jaw felt like against her throat. Damali laughed sadly at herself. "That's just how you look, baby, when you're scheming, trying to work your way out of a jam. I miss you so," she whispered, allowing her hand to fall away as she admired the bulging biceps and graceful, thick, sinew-sculpted thigh from afar. "I know you miss the power of who you were. Now I understand."

But as her gaze took in the structure and facade of the building behind the statue, she again became extremely still. Beyond the exterior walls she could see a courtyard with a low fountain pool. The water drew her as she entered the path, her eyes affixed to its glassy surface. But deeply disturbing presences also made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.

Two sets of stairs led from the pool up toward the columned entrance of the building, and her feet moved up the stone on their own volition, a need to understand propelling her forward. That's when she saw it and began to back away. In relief before the entrance to the museum was an eerie bronze cast scene entitled,The Gates of Hell . For a moment, she couldn't move. Fiendish, twisted figures almost seemed like they were fighting their way out of the metallic encasement from within the building toward her. The irony stabbed into her awareness as her gaze swept to and took in both the statue and what he sat in front of. Yes... it made so much sense. Carlos thinking his way beyond the gates of Hell.

She hurried away from the disturbing art and touched the base of the statue with her newly acquired stick and stood back a bit, waiting, just testing, wondering what all her shaman's wooden gift could do. But nothing had happened.

She sighed and turned. As she began to walk away, water hit her shoulder, making her whirl back around. A single tear rolled down the iron face and splattered on the ground. Fear didn't enter her spirit this time, only a deep sadness. She cupped the place on her shoulder where the tear had landed. The cold, hard face didn't move. She stroked her shoulder once then turned and walked away, determined to find the nearby church. Water. That was the key. The fountains, the tear, the river beside the temple where the Neteru council had just convened. So she would not ignore it.

Her stride was much slower, more measured, as she passed the few blocks of Greek and Roman architecture-inspired buildings and fountains and thought of all the things that had to be going through the minds of those she loved. She was missing, AWOL, and she knew every member of her family on the Manila-bound plane was in a panic. She also knew how deeply conflicted Carlos had to be, not unlike herself.

To be stripped naked of one's power, thrust into an untenable position of weakness, journeying to lands unknown with no way to fight the unthinkable, with Hell on one's heels, was not insignificant. An image of a slave ship flitted through her mind. To learn from the seat of original power followed the thought. Of course her journey had to go through Africa, through what had been the Nubian empire, and then to Europe. Damali nodded as she walked, nearly thinking out loud. She and Carlos had many nations within their DNA... Indian, African, European, many she might never know for sure... Just as her team represented them all.

As above, so below, especially in the end of days. But to love someone more than life itself, and not be able to provide for them, protect them... Carlos had told her once that it was a different thing for a man, their wiring was so different-their perspective, albeit somewhat irrational in her mind, required being able to do those things in order to feel like a man. In that moment as she slowly crossed another street, she realized that the fourteenth scattered piece of him would never be right until his power was right. How could it be?

He'd only loved her as a master of the universe. Now he was busted, penniless, no special abilities that had come to the fore, and was being protected by her squad when he was once the protector... the defender... the alpha and the omega with territory as vast as a king's. He didn't even have his nightclub from before he'd turned, let alone anything else, not that it mattered to her-the point wasit mattered to him .

"Oh, baby... you tried to tell me that before," she whispered and shut her eyes tightly.

The visceral truth drummed in her ears and echoed through her soul. Possibly the worst of it for him-and she knew he'd never take her word for it that it was okay with her-he'd been able to make love to her in a way she knew no man could. There would be no words that could mollify him about that. There wouldn't be enough gentle, "It's okay baby," to smooth over the fact that brotherman couldn't drop fang, whisk her away to the vanishing point in a blaze of sensual glory, to make him ever be able to deal. Carlos's pride wouldn't allow for it, and his anger would block him to even trying to suffer that level of humiliation. Anger would also block his learning to fight like a Guardian, find his gifts or any new center of power that he owned. How in the world would they make it as one?

Damali swallowed hard as she stopped before the cathedral, read the sign, and then pushed herself up the steps of St. Peter's Basilica. "Please be open," she murmured, trying the door and finding it locked. She leaned against the large, blue-and-ivory blocks that stood between her and sanctuary and closed her eyes. Why was everything so hard?

He'd been crippled, hobbled, just thoroughly torn apart, and was now on a plane with very nervous Guardians and half a band of warriors from the Covenant. One false move and the plane could erupt into total mayhem.

She slid down the huge double doors until she was a small huddle of humanity on the top step, cradling the stick, and hoping she was still invisible. But as soon as she hit the concrete, she tumbled backward through the entrance, slid, and hid another set of heavy oak doors as though the seemingly impenetrable structures were a fabric drape.

Jumping up quickly, Damali patted her body and then touched the solid wooden doors she'd just passed through. Her heart was racing so hard it made her ears ring. She backed away from the doors and glanced around the darkened, majestic cathedral. She'd fallen past the foyer and was in the middle of the sanctuary itself, the polished floors beneath her sandal-clad feet. Mercy had let her in.

Her gaze went to the high, arched, frescoed ceiling, and then toward the gilded altar surrounded by angelic figures, but her search was for the font of holy water. She crossed herself and found it near the back of the church, and watched with awe as the dry stone bowl bubbled and gurgled, creating an eerie echo as it filled. She waited until only silence reverberated off the walls and the pool became still. Damali touched her fingers to the glassy surface and brought them to her forehead.

"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned... not because I loved, not because I cared, but because I forgot about the pain of those around me as I learned and lacked patience to wait for Your sign. Help me to do better, and not to hurt the people who love me most. I want to go home to be with them, wherever they are." She stood quietly for a long while, simply gazing into the font and trying to calm her spirit. The slight lingering smell of incense was soothing and soon she was able to move away, having made her peace with her circumstances.

Now the issue was how to get out of the church and be reunited with her family. She stared at the rows of votive candles and didn't move as one lit for her on its own.

"You heard me," she whispered, tears of relief washing her cheeks. Her attention went to the heavy doors that creaked open ever so slightly, and within moments she was through them and back out on the top step facing the wide street in bright sunlight.

Surveying the landscape for a direction, she walked down the steps with care and stood by the curb, wondering what sign would light the way next. Oddly, all resistance and defiance had seeped out of her, along with the fear. She was simply bone-weary. It felt as though the defensive, angry energy had collected in her feet and was now dripping from the soles of her sandals with every heavy step she took. It made her footfalls labored, and she walked like she had ten-pound weights on each foot. She could barely move.

With disinterest, she watched a cab drive by. But it stopped, backed up, and a young African man who looked to be in his early twenties, wearing a red, black, and green crocheted skullcap, dressed in a beat-up Army jacket, ragged yellow T-shirt, and dingy brown corduroy pants with black flip-flops on smiled and rolled down his window, hailing her.

"You need a ride, queen?"

Damali shook her head and closed her eyes. She was no longer invisible. What next? "Thanks, brother," she said in a tired voice. "My ends are short, got no cash. Thanks anyway."

"You've got money," he said, his fluorescent-white smile lighting up his dark, handsome face. "I take silver for a sister as fine as you. Come let me give you a ride and talk to me. It's lonely in the morning, yes?"

"Silver?" Damali chuckled. Men were such a trip, and she couldn't deal with some brother from around the way hitting on her right now. "Naw, I'm cool."

"Wit all dat silver in your ears, and gold in your hair, you can't part wit one little earring for a ride to Broad Street? It's only a few blocks."

She became very, very still, and then her hand gently touched her earlobes. When she'd been on the plane, she hadn't had earrings on. She looked at her wrists and almost gasped. Thick kundalini snakes with gleaming precious stones were wrapped around her wrists. She unfastened an earring, and she stared at the sterling Ankh in her palm. She glanced down at her feet and heavy silver ankle bracelets with hieroglyphics etched upon them were weighing down her legs. A large silver toe ring covered her right middle toe. Her gaze went back to the cabbie as she gently patted her head wrap feeling it bulge with hard objects within her hair. Plus, she'd never mentioned where she was headed. Even she didn't know the answer to that. "Broad Street?"

"Yes. That is where you are going, true?"

Damali warily eyed him and shrugged. "How do you know I'm going to Broad Street?"

"What is eleven and five?" he asked, raising an eyebrow with a sly grin.

"Sixteen," she said, coming closer to the cab, curious.

"And one and six?" he asked, chuckling.

"Seven," she whispered.

"And your man's birthday is November fifth, correct?"

She simply stared at the man.

"He is twenty-four, which would make it six. Six plus seven is what? Thirteen," he said with a smile. "And the year of his birth would be nineteen eighty, which is one, plus nine, equals ten, reduces to one, add the eight, makes it nine. And nine is three threes, a triple trinity, a very powerful number. If you want to go home, you have to go to Egypt in Philadelphia, and stand on an axis of the pyramid the Masons built-masswithson , mason, meaning child of Light. His birthday is not far away... you ready for the full lunar eclipse that will last his number-three hours and thirty-three minutes? Nine."

This man's strange babble made her brain feel like oatmeal. The numbers and dates were coming too fast, and he knew things he shouldn't have. She remembered what she'd been promised by the queens, though. Guides and shamans would come.

"What's today's date?" Tension had made her body so rigid that she could barely talk.

"October thirtieth. A three day," he said with flourish. "The month ten reduces to the number one, which represents the Creator as symbolized by the sun. Three is the trinity, forms a triangle, and is the offspring of the union of two. Add it to get four," he said with a wink, "and you have the number four, balance."

Damali thrust her hand into the cab window and offered the earring without a word. The cabbie nodded and chuckled and popped the automatic lock so she could climb into the back of his vehicle. His jabber made her head spin, but his references totally freaked her out. Regardless of all his mystical talk, all she knew was one basic fact: If today was October thirtieth, her team was flying into the night a day ahead of her on Halloween. She closed the door to the cab without protest.

"We go to One Broad Street. That is one axis, north, a point of power. City Hall is the other, south. Invasions from the north have conquered the south, but the greatest power is in the east where Khepre is reborn each morning. What used to be called the John Wanamaker Building is the other side of the triangle. If you look at it from above and draw the invisible lines, you can see the connection." He spoke without turning and then took a small stick out of his jacket pocket and began chewing on it like it were a cigar. "This city, like Washington, D.C., was founded by Masons. All the founding fathers were Masons, and have replicated everything found in the original seat of power. Now that is hidden in plain sight within the seat of authority in the most powerful nation. Open your eyes and go through the door, just like you did at the church, and find Egypt."

"Where are you from?" Damali whispered, her voice hoarse from shock.

"Ethiopia, where else?" he said, chuckling as he drove the short distance. He turned in his seat and handed her a card. "My grandfather is waiting for you. Find him and he will give you back your earring."

The cab had stopped in front of a massive structure that looked as much like a cathedral as it did a strange museum. "Thank you," Damali said quietly, taking the card and carefully studying it before she shoved it into her robe pocket.

The man smiled, lowered his eyes, and bowed slightly in his seat. "It was my honor to courier the Neteru back to her destiny."

"You think they're gonna be cool?" Shabazz asked Father Patrick, as the teams filed down the plane's spiral staircase to the cabin's main level. He used his chin to motion toward the closed conference room that held the stunned crew.

"Who can tell?" Father Patrick said, rubbing his face with his hands while each person found an empty seat and flopped into it. "They were told, they now know, and it's up to them to believe us."

"I think the doctors are still going to be a problem," Rider said with an exhausted sigh. "Those boys were on a mission, and they saw Marlene do her thing, which in their minds is probably black magic. They could be thinking that some supernatural dark forces snatched her to save the daywalker."

"As long as they're up there, and we're down here in the cabin, and I don't have to look at those bastards for the moment, I don't care," Carlos said, his eyes on the horizon. "She's been gone a long time. We need to find out where she is."

"Yeah, man," Jose countered, "but it's not like we can just hijack this jawn. We just need to chill and hope that they believed the brothers from the Covenant."

"And if they don't?" Carlos said, looking at Jose for answers. "If they drag us into some kind of military lockup, or worse, then what? How will she find us or we find her?"

"I say we be cool, stay the course, and ride this out. All we can do is hope that the fresh pilots and crew don't trip when we refuel on the ground. If the first crew is happy to be off here with us, and feel like they got potentially set up, human nature being what it is, they are not trying to find themselves in a contamination containment situation. They are going to let the new crew get on, sign on for the leg of the journey they'd agreed to do, and their consciences won't allow them to have us dragged off by nonclerical civilians to possibly infect them." Shabazz's tone was firm, but there was a quality of trying to bring logic within it that made Carlos temporarily relax.

"I think Shabazz is right," Berkfield said. "The looks on their faces when Father Pat told 'em what was up said it all. They want off this plane, they want us on here until they know what any of us are." He settled back in his seat and closed his eyes. "Try to get some rest. We've got a long way to go, still."

The younger Guardians and Covenant team slowly nodded their agreement, seeming too weary to further debate the possible variables. One by one, each person began to slowly find a comfortable position in their seats and grudgingly dozed off. They fought sleep as though it were a sign they didn't care, which was far from the case, but the constant adrenaline rushes coupled with a long battle, cuts, bruises, and emotion had begun to wear down even the most battle-seasoned warrior.

Marlene sat with her head in her hands, resisting sleep as she continued her vigil.

"Baby, you have got to relax and rest for a little while. We all prayed as a unit, Father Patrick and his squad anointed where she left, sent up intercession, even had Carlos in the mix... it's time to turn it over." Shabazz stroked her damp brow. "You always tell me, sometimes you have to let go and let God, right?"

Marlene nodded, but didn't look up. She kept her eyes closed and her low murmur blended in with the drone of the plane's engine.

"I'll pick up where you leave off, Mar," Carlos said, making her look up for the first time. "You get a few hours shut-eye like Shabazz said. I promise you, I can't sleep, and if you tell me what to say..."

"Just say what's in your heart," Marlene said, reaching past Shabazz to clasp Carlos's hand when he came near their seats. "Just ask that she come back whole and all right, and that all of us are able to be back as one family, with no one hurt." She looked up at Carlos, a silent understanding passing between them.

"I've been doing that since I've known her," he said in a quiet voice.

"Remember this," Marlene said, squeezing his hand tighter. "The Light doesn't rob. There are things we don't understand, but the tragedies don't come from that side-you've been to where they come from and should know that by now." She held his hand firmly, and looked deeply into his eyes as she spoke, boring her meaning into his understanding. "Do not be angry with our side, it will only slow your learning and new powers... I know you have something latent but very powerful within you-and it isn't evil. If you can set aside the rage, maybe you can bring it forth. We need whatever juice you've got right about through here, brother. Seriously. And so does she."

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