"You told me to work with my gifts; I'm telling you to work with yours," he said, now standing beside her. "A fraction of a second in battle can mean the difference in dodging a bullet, or worse. Work it, baby. You're the one that moves nature's energy. My thing is a little different. I don't think what we just saw came from me."
She nodded as they surveyed the lobby, and then she froze, motioning with her chin toward the doors, drawing his focus there. "They made it."
He squeezed her hand as his arm fell away from her waist. "Go over to them easy, they'll freak and we need this reunion to go down smooth until we get somewhere private."
"I know," she said quietly, as they began to casually walk toward the group. "Try to send to Father Patrick, I'll send to Marlene. If the seers aren't startled, then the group will be on guard to be cool."
Carlos closed his eyes briefly, following Damali's lead, and then they both began walking forward. Marlene looked up first, and Father Patrick jerked his head up from his suitcase quickly. The seers touched Shabazz and Imam Asula. Word rippled around the group in a quick, private flash. Casual smiles were exchanged. Shabazz walked away from the team and embraced Damali with a quick hug, and then pounded Carlos's fist. He nodded like he'd simply been expecting to meet up with them on another flight. It all went down as smooth as silk.
Dan was at the registration desk in minutes and came back with the keys to three suites. Eager bellmen were paid, bags all centralized to the main suite, while Rider kept watch out of the peephole to be sure the bellman was gone before the chaos broke out.
That's when the celebration began in earnest. Whoops and cheers and laughter and tears and everyone began talking at once.
Finally, Rider flopped down on the sofa and closed his eyes, wiping away the stream of tears running from the corners of his eyes. "So close to a bed, but so far," he said, laughing. "I thought I was gonna get a good night's sleep and here you kids come crashing into the lobby."
"You're a sight for sore eyes, I'ma tell ya-for real, girl," Big Mike said, laughing and hugging Damali up and off her feet. "You ain't too bad to look at, either," he added, dropping Damali and hugging Carlos so hard that he was two inches off the ground.
"Yo, man," Carlos said, laughing, unable to get Mike to release his bear hug. "You have no idea."
Marlene held Damali around the neck so tightly that she had to pry herself away just to breathe. "Oh, chile, Lawd, chile... my chile... oh, girl..." Marlene said through sobs. She held Damali away, petted her face, and then began bawling so hard that she made Damali cry.
The love siege didn't end until everyone had had their turn passing Damali and Carlos between them; even cool Monk Lin wept and laughed.
The missing were thrust onto the adjacent sofa, and furniture was moved out of its place as chairs and coffee tables were made into seating and the youngest Guardians in the room sat on the floor.
"Begin at the beginning," Marlene said, wiping her face. "We must tell the story. Oral tradition holds. Let it be said." She looked toward the clerics. "Please open this with a prayer, and when we're all done, seal it with the same... let the circle be unbroken."
And they did. Each told of their recent history and what they'd learned and seen. Awe, sadness, hope, joy, and fear filled all eyes and each expression, and their gifts were multiplied by the sharing of love. They all sat mesmerized by what they'd each endured, many times becoming overwhelmed by the emotions each storyteller conveyed. They were all repeatedly moved to tears as each member of the group testified about their last thoughts, how they felt about the others, their concerns for the safety of those people whom they'd willingly die for and how they were so worried about those that were left behind.
They all sat spellbound as Damali began her saga-no one interjecting, let alone barely breathing-as she told of her meeting with the queens. But she kept the more intimate details of the embryo and Lilith to herself, glad that Carlos caught her drift and let it be. Revealing that it was level seven and the chairman was enough at this point. They needed to get weapons and get onto hallowed ground at home before getting into all of that. It was a conversation she needed to have one-on-one with Marlene, where she could let down her guard and just weep.
So she put on her best face for the team, like any general would. The troops needed courage, inspiration, hope. They didn't need to know that they were sitting on a live explosive, were surrounded, and had few options. Not now. If they could believe, they could beat this thing. If they lost hope before they started the battle, they'd be doomed. Ethiopia had shown her, just like each wacky guide had, that it was possible to slay Goliath, no matter how small and outmatched.
As Damali dissected the science, Marlene scribbled wildly on a small pad she'd extracted from her bag. And as Damali went further to describe her passage to Ethiopia, Marlene diagrammed the new circle of protection that the grandfather had instructed and inspected the stones Damali had received.
But when Carlos began explaining about the ancestral spirits that had cushioned the crash, it was all the team could do to pull themselves together to hear the rest of his tale. Clerics broke down upon hearing their loved ones described in acute detail. Guardians wailed at the memory of dear parents and grandparents who'd come to collect them.
"The boy can see angels," Father Patrick said in a thick, mucous-laden brogue, pointing at Carlos. "I always had my faith in that one, him. I knew he'd come around and I'm so glad that I have lived long enough to see it."
"My momma, she's okay, right? Nana and Pops?" Big Mike asked, and then began sobbing all over again. "That was her favorite dress... the yellow one. That was her, man. I hope I did her proud."
"You mean my father came for me?" Rider asked, his voice a hoarse whisper before he stood, walked over to the wall, and broke down. "If he went to Heaven and could care... there's hope."
Carlos covered his face and breathed into his hands to steady his voice as he wiped his face. He couldn't even look at Jose who was sobbing with his head in Marlene's lap while Shabazz sat with his hands over his face rocking and saying his mother's name. Clerics hugged. Dan, J.L., and Berkfield held each other in a father-with-sons triad. Damali ran from person to person, rubbing their backs and kissing damp faces, holding the Light for each person as they purged years of anguish in a total group meltdown.
"That's what I'm trying to tell you, for real," Carlos said, his voice faltering as he put distance between himself and the tears. "Ain't nobody up there still mad about anything. All is forgiven. They love you, came to help, know what mistakes they've made and what you did, too... but it's cool, now that they've crossed over." He stood and walked to the window to get some sunshine and to mentally breathe. "I didn't understand it, never did until I saw it. They're in a better place; only want you to be safe and happy. That's it. That's all they want."
He turned and looked at the wide-eyed, stricken family before him. Then he took his time to explain about the warriors he'd seen, the old men, and the island... the whirling old man, Damali becoming a sparrow, and their trip to and from the pyramids.
Marlene laughed through the sniffles and went to fetch tissues for everyone. "Keep your eye on the sparrow," she said, trying not to set off a new round of tears in the group. "They always send the most obtuse sign that is really very simple, indeed."
"Yep. I'm learning, Mar," Carlos admitted, glad that the purge was coming to a close. It had left him spent and the group ragged, but in his soul he could feel that it was all necessary and all good.
"You know what we should do?" Big Mike said, wiping his face and then reclining on the floor. He closed his eyes and folded his hands over his chest.
"You okay, Mike?" Carlos asked, coming to his brother and swatting down. "It's gonna be all right, man."
"I know," Big Mike said thickly. "That's why we should all just take a deep breath, let the past go, and order some food."
For a moment no one said a word, and then laughter erupted.
"I want me some chicken wings and ribs and anything they've got American on the menu. Order up a case of brew to go with it, and let's celebrate that we made it this far by grace." Mike sat up, smiled, and pushed himself off the floor. "Y'all down?" he asked, not waiting for an answer as he walked toward the phone and pushed the room-service button.
Increased laughter was the response as one by one folks made it to the bathroom, splashed water on their faces, blew their noses, and took deep breaths.
"Whew, man... I didn't know all that was in there," Shabazz said, coming from the bathroom with a wet face and a towel.
Carlos nodded. "Went there a time or two myself during all this, my brother."
Both men hugged and let each other go, but stood close.
"I know you have, man," Shabazz said, his tone gentle. "It's all good."
"Yeah," Carlos restated. "It's all good."
The late-afternoon sun poured orange and gold rays through the window by the time the feast was over. Chicken and rib bones and all manner of fare littered the tables, the pungent scents mingling with fatigue. But no one seemed ready to venture away from the huddle of humanity in the room. Instead they each showered between stories and laughter, taking their individual suitcase into the bathroom to change and get the road dirt off them, only to return to the main room and sprawl out on the floor.
"Looks like those other suites are gonna go to waste," Marlene said, sipping a beer as she gave Dan a gentle glance.
"Reminds me of old times at home," Carlos said in a distant tone and then chuckled as he picked up his beer. "We didn't have no space in Momma's old house, but everybody came there, hung out, and crashed there. Might be twenty of us up in there on any given day... those were some good times."
"To old times," Damali said, raising her bottle toward Carlos. "I remember being in that house with them, too. God bless your momma's and grandmother's souls. May they rest in peace."
Everyone lifted their beer and held a moment of silence as Damali went to Carlos and hugged him, quietly conveying her condolences. There were no words that could take away the loss, only this gathering... a wake in abstentia, love of surrounding family, and the warmth of human touch.
Carlos stroked her loose hair, swallowed hard, and sipped his beer. Her gift was a living one-family. There were no words or enough thanks to offer her for that. So instead he rubbed her back and led her to sit quietly beside him. That was all he needed right now.
"I think we should all just plan on staying together tonight," Father Patrick said, gaining nods from the others. "There's comfort in that. Thanks, Dan, for your fast thinking, though."
"Yeah, I'm just glad homeboy had the foresight to double back and suggest we get clothes and luggage in the airport so we didn't raise suspicions when we checked in," Rider said, downing his brew and grabbing another one. He glanced at Carlos. "The kid has been on-point since you left." He nodded toward Berkfield. "Medic ain't half bad, either. Everybody is coming into their own, ya know."
Carlos smiled. "Yo, Berkfield. You're in now. You know that, right? Once Rider dubs you with a nickname, that's a sign."
Berkfield raised his beer. "I'm with you, dragging a wife and kids, too."
Dan smiled. "Good. Then I don't have to be 'the kid' anymore." He gave Rider a wide grin. "I'll need a new nickname."
"I'm working on it," Rider said, rubbing his chin. "Maybe Maestro, because of the way you orchestrated that paperwork and conducted that mess in front of the authorities, I think that's deserving. Whatduya say, brothers?"
"Maestro," Shabazz said as he and Big Mike clinked beer bottles. They laughed when Dan blushed and punched the former kid in his arm.
"Done," Jose and J.L. said in unison.
"Looks like you just stepped up," Damali said, chuckling. "Boy, a lotdid happen while we were gone." She yawned and stretched and flopped back on the rug beside Carlos. A sense of contentment eased its way into her bones. With her belly full, the effects of the beer kicking in, as long as she had her peeps around her talking and laughing, she could finally sleep.
Peace was like a tranquilizer, and soon the voices felt far away in the room as she dozed on the floor like a lazy cat in the afternoon sun. True, she and her family were not on hallowed ground, but she reasoned that they had had church, nonetheless, and were in hallowed company. She remembered that wherever two or more were gathered in His name, there also was the Father. She could feel a ring of protection around them as they healed and recovered and fellowshipped around her. She wondered if Carlos could see smiling ancestors joining in the party. And in her semi-sleep state, she also prayed for Carlos's healing and comfort, and she asked for angels to lift up the pain of losing his mother and grandmother just as he'd so gifted the group with his new sight of their loved ones.
For the first time in longer than she could remember, there was no anger, no fear, no guilt, no tension. This new elixir of serenity was like a nature-sent drug that allowed her to slip away into that floating place of calm, her family's voices a warm blanket over her as she slept.
A soft female voice roused her, but didn't wake her. She felt so sluggish that she could barely even stand in her dream.
"I brought news," the voice whispered. "Hurry."
Damali forced herself to stand and stagger to a dark corner in her mind. Raven stepped out of the shadows.
"Yonnie told me the way." Raven glanced around nervously. "But the problem is getting worse. If you're going to do this, you have to hurry. You have to make it back alive, too, to fulfill your bargain with me."
Damali nodded. "My intention. Tell me."
Raven shook her head no. "I have to show you. It's not like a street map. You have to follow dark-energy currents. I can take you down as far as the Amanthra level, but from there, you're on your own."
"What's below that?" Damali stared at her trying to sense a setup.
Damali laughed. "Oh, great."
"They're brutal. Don't get trapped down there. Be you male or female."
"Like the Amanthras are a picnic." Damali let out her breath hard and raked her hair.
"But if you get past the weres," Raven said, her gaze darting around like a frightened doe, "you can land in the hallway just outside chambers. Their couriers are weak and sluggish, however still dangerous. The bats are almost grounded, but those that still have energy will rush you. The passage to the door is a narrow crag, molten lava on either side to worry about. But the doors are impenetrable. You have to take a fang bite to identify your black blood to open them. If you blast your way in, you'll fall into the Sea of Perpetual Agony." Raven began to pace. "The chairman may be old, but he's not to be fucked with, Damali. He's strong, agile, and his international men-"
"I know," Damali said quickly, cutting her off. "I've seen them."
"If you take your Isis blades down there, Hell legions will swarm you. They'll smell it as you descend. Without a master to bring you there... and regular weapons won't work. You can't beat him in hand-to-hand combat, no matter who you are. This is suicide, then you'll be trapped down there forever like me." Tears formed in Raven's eyes. "I've told you all I know. Now, it's your turn to do what you promised."
"I said I would, and I will. But let's be honest, it's not like we used to be girls and have that type of trust between us. I'm going down there, and when I get back, you and I will settle our business."
"How?" Raven demanded in a sharp whisper, her hands going to her hips.
"Let me worry about that," Damali said. "I smoked Nuit down there, didn't I?"
"With a lot of help," Raven argued.
"You want to do this, or not?"
Raven hesitated. "You really did bring him to the other side, didn't you?"
Damali hesitated. "How come you're the only one that found us? We're masked to everyone else."
The two women stared at each other.
"Because I still love my mother," Raven whispered. "And she loves you. That tracer is never lost."
Damali nodded warily.
"I have to go," Raven said quickly, looking over her shoulder. "If you want this info, I need to mind-lock with you."
"You must be crazy," Damali said with a slow sneer. "Stop playing."
Raven's eyes narrowed. "I don't know of any other way. This is all we know."
The conundrum stood between them like a brick wall. Damali stepped forward.
"How about if I dredge you-just bring it to the surface?"
Raven let her breath out hard. "You sure you wanna see the pain I have in me? It's right under my skin." She looked away and swallowed hard. "Go ahead. Maybe then you won't hate me so much."
Warily, Damali moved toward Raven. She reached out her hand and allowed it to first rest on Raven's shoulder, amazed that on the astral plane her form was so solid. By increments, she gathered up the nerve to touch her temple. But she couldn't have prepared herself for what she saw.
Years of heartbreak flooded into her in a hard jolt. Fallon Nuit's abuse, tears for a mother that couldn't save her, turning to rage. Wailing, so much wailing that it made Damali's ears ring. She panted as the visceral images swept through her mind, and she finally got to the path to council's doors.
She snatched back her hand quickly, as though it had been burned and tried to shake the horrible images out of her mind. But as her blurred focus returned to Raven's haunted eyes, she could feel tears continue to rise and spill down her cheeks.
Raven's expression was serene. "Thank you," she whispered. "If only for a few moments, someone actually went down there with me and cared. I don't know how long the buffer will last, but if the Light is anything like that, please don't deny me."
Before Damali could stop her, Raven hugged her and began to sob. Damali didn't know what to do, the whole thing was too surreal. All she could do was pet Raven's back. Then just as suddenly, Raven pulled away and glanced around like she was being hunted, and became vapor.
"Your touch is healing," Raven's voice echoed. "No wonder they all craved it so."
Then she was gone.
The next thing Damali knew, she was standing over her own body, watching it lie prone on the hotel floor. She had an energy map carved into her mind, but a mission carved into her conscience. She owed Raven, big time, and felt for her beyond words. But more than anything she knew that she could never allow a child of hers and Carlos's to be trapped in that abyss. It was a wonder that Marlene hadn't gone mad.
She eased herself down to lie beside herself. Within her mind's eye, she saw the three stones; the last one acquired was the malachite for healing and balance and transformation, among other good things. It had lived up to its properties, and she saw all three stones on the coffee table in a small triangle formation that glowed violet and beckoned her to look within it. In her new dream her spirit left the floor, stood as ether above it and wafted over to the purple light. She peered down at the lit surface and saw a city. Then she felt a snap and was suddenly awake.
Slightly dazed, Damali stood on shaky legs and searched within the lavender-hued robe she now wore, courtesy of Marlene's faith that she would return. She found the three stones and roused Marlene with a gentle shake.
"Mar," she whispered, so not to wake the others, "I just had a dream that may be a vision. I want to check it out with you advising on what you see, too."
Marlene nodded and yawned, and quietly left Shabazz's side.
They walked to the tables by the telephone, cleared off a space, and held hands.
"Lay the stones, child," Marlene said, wiping sleep from her eyes. "You can do this yourself, now." She smiled, patted Damali's cheek, and stood aside.
Damali held the stones in her right hand and allowed pure thoughts to clear away any possible debris left over from Raven's visit. She mentally called down the white Light to guide her hands and to provide clarity about the pending message that she might receive. Then she carefully placed the stones in the triangle as she'd seen them laid in her vision and peered into the center of them until a slight violet glow connected the invisible lines between them and swallowed the center.
"Look into it and stay in the Light."
Damali did as Marlene coached and took her time, focusing on the wavering emission. They were supposed to be picking up a weapons supply in Algiers, and she definitely needed that now. "I know we were supposed to go to Algiers, but something has changed. The date, October thirty-first, and seven years comes up. It's more of a feeling, a sense, than specifics."
Marlene nodded and smiled. "Their war of independence began on October thirty-first, 1954-seven years and millions slaughtered. I know my history of the motherland, baby," she said with a wry smile, answering Damali's unspoken question.
"Okay," Damali said, smiling as she stared into Marlene's wise eyes. "But I was shown that country when the flags lit, and we were supposed to go to Algiers... there's all this desert, too."
Marlene chuckled. "Eighty-five percent of the country is desert, so no wonder. But Algiers is off-limits to foreign travelers, so I knew when we heard that as a destination, something would change. Therefore, now you have to put on your detective hat and look for the submeaning within the vision... this is the part that takes the skill-analysis. Ask yourself, child, where is the link?"
Damali smiled and offered Marlene a slight bow. "Oh, wise teacher, this is why I asked you to advise."
Both women chuckled as they moved back to the stones and peered down.
"It's like a castle, a huge palace, but it's not hallowed ground... not a mosque, like I'd thought we'd be going to."
"Listen quietly as you look. What are the mother tongues? What do you hear?"
Damali stared in silence for a moment. "Some I don't know." She jerked her head up. "Some Spanish?"
Marlene nodded. "There's an Islamic link from the motherland to Spain, by way of the Moors who came from North Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar, and ruled there for almost a thousand years. The last palace standing was the Alhambra, in the southern area."
"But... I don't get it?"
Marlene smiled wider and touched Damali's face. Her fingertips created a tingling sensation against Damali's cheek as her wise eyes remained gentle.
"Baby," she whispered, "we are preparing a second Neteru." Her hand fell away. "The queens told you that... You didn't spill all the beans to the group."
They shared a knowing smile and Damali clasped Marlene's hand.
"I couldn't," Damali whispered. "Not in front of the other men in the family. They didn't need to know how destroyed Carlos had been by all of this. His dignity..."
Marlene nodded. "Now you are wise." She held Damali's gaze within her own. "The Moors were mighty warriors and known for their swordsmanship. They carried the best-minted blades made of Damascus steel. Before he can wield a blade as well as you can, he has to go to where it was done best-and that wasn't in the courts of England, contrary to popular belief." She sighed and folded her arms over her chest. "He's gotta pick up that energy where the old brothers rode Arabian stallions, a thousand hooves thundering the ground going into battles with fearless abandon." She winked. "Girl, don't you know that's why the queens temporarily stripped you of your blade, among the other reasons they cited?"
Damali tilted her head and questioned Marlene with her eyes.
"At that time you hadn't acquired the wisdom to let him think he was the general until he could be comfortable enough with you by his side as an equal. Call it diplomacy or detente, but the old girls know that despite women's lib, ain't nothing changed under the sun. They can't have their Neteru squad fighting and arguing, and whatnot."
Marlene wagged a finger at Damali and Damali covered her mouth with both hands to keep from laughing out loud.
"You arebetter at wielding a blade, know Aikido, and he hasn't apexed yet. Right now, you would rock his world in a one-on-one sparring match, and before you make him lose confidence, boyfriend's mojo needs to be strong... especially if you ever want to find his obelisk one day. I don't knowwhat he's gonna do when he has to practice mirroring your fighter's stances-might get his head lopped off when you swing. Poor baby's third eye hasn't even opened all the way yet."
Damali turned away from Marlene and waved her hand for her to stop teasing. Her shoulders shook with repressed laughter as Marlene poked her in the ribs with one finger. They glanced at Carlos, who was sprawled out on the floor snoring with the other men. But as Damali stared at him, she sobered, although she couldn't allow Marlene to see the abrupt change.
How was he gonna react when she did this chambers job alone? He wasn't ready, even though it had been his old yard. That was the thing that was gonna rub his nose in it, but she didn't know any other way.She had to get the egg back . The old queens had said to let nothing stand in her way, not even a man. But her man was a part of the equation, the other half, and it was his child as much as it was hers. He knew the realms, but damn if she was gonna drag him back down there when he'd so recently escaped. Damali let out a sigh.
"Listen, baby, girls mature faster than boys," Marlene said with a wise chuckle. "We had that talk about the birds and the bees a while ago."
Damali forced a smile. Her connection with Marlene had changed. She couldn't openly read her. The awareness made her pulse race with new worry. She was actually going solo, for real. The cosmic apron string had been cut!
Damali swatted Marlene's arm playfully, feigning as though she had a sudden case of giddiness. She turned away as tears stung her eyes. She remembered doing that to Inez, just playing it off, laughing to keep from crying. Marlene was the last person on earth she thought she'd do that to, but it was out of love. There was no way in the world she could drape all this on Marlene without wounding her for life, and making her worry herself into apoplexy. She glimpsed Carlos. Her man had just lost his mother and grandmother and escaped a torture wall, only to be burned alive by the sun. Hell no. She had to keep this on the down low, and simply suck it up.
"Mar, it can't be that bad," Damali said, keeping her voice light. "He was able to transport. I love him, but when it's time to handle our business, I can't walk around him like his ego is glass."
Marlene just shook her head and sighed with a wide smile.
By her hinting statement, she'd tried to let Marlene know that there was something she had to do without him, and it might not be pretty. It was convoluted, though. A message within a message. Damali pressed her case, hoping that maybe one day Marlene and Carlos would understand. Rationalizing that they had kept big secrets from her in the past didn't help, nor did it make the burden feel any lighter. "If that's all the vision was about and this side trip is just... Look, we have to move out an army, and-"
"Damali, be nice," Marlene warned with a smile. She arched her eyebrow and placed one finger over Damali's lips. "He needs to go get some of thatmano-y-mano vibe from the old Islamic power centers to bolster his confidence. That's also where the fusion of cultures takes place-old world Spain, one of his root origins, plus the motherland influence... he's Latino, girl, by way of the motherland, and then Spain, then the conquests in Mexico. So we've gotta do the circuit with him, just like we did it with you, to allow him to come into his own. He's almost there and ain't there yet, plus he has a steep learning curve with abaaaad sister for a partner, and Hell bearing down on us. He's gotta get ready fast, so extreme measures had to be taken. Plus, you've both been through a lot. He just lost his mom and grandmom, and has to fight in what looks like the beginning of the Armageddon."
Marlene sucked her teeth and glanced at Shabazz. "He won't admit it, any more than the rest of them. To put it bluntly, they're all bugging out, and until you came back, the brothers were wringing their hands. Even the male clerics freaked."
Damali stood wide-eyed again, covering her mouth to contain the gasp.
"Yeah, girl," Marlene murmured. "Be gentle. Men don't have our intestinal fortitude, and that ain't changed since Eve, either. Got it?"
Damali hugged Marlene, kissed her cheek, and gathered up her stones. Marlene had told her all she needed to know. Carlos wasn't ready.
"All right. I hear you. We do Spain as soon as the team gets a good night's sleep." She sighed and put the stones back in her pocket, the whole time just shaking her head-not at him, but at herself, and over Marlene missing her point. "You don't have to say another mumblin' word."
A SEARING pain stabbed into Carlos's chest. His eyes opened wide and he yelled out as the sharp projectile tore away cartilage and bone and then lodged into the soft organ beneath it. He gasped for air in vain and scrabbled at the unseen object that had split his breastbone and pierced his heart while he was lying flat on his back in his sleep. The team was on their feet, Damali and Marlene on their knees beside him, while his body convulsed, a cold sweat covered him, and total chaos broke out in the room.
He could taste his own blood in his mouth as commands were shouted all around him. Then just as suddenly as the horrible attack had begun, the pain snapped away from his body. Carlos was on his feet in seconds, clutching his chest. When the team rushed toward him he clapped his hands, opened them wide, and surrounded himself with an impenetrable barrier of Light.
Big Mike hit the shield first and dropped as though he'd run into a brick wall.
"Back off!" Carlos shouted, his chest heaving as it took a moment to orient himself.
"It's us, man," Shabazz yelled, helping Big Mike up.
Slowly Carlos brought his hands together and made the shield recede. His body flashed hot then cold and shivers made his teeth chatter as he tried to speak through pants. "She staked me," he croaked. "Put it right through my chest!"
"Who?" Damali yelled. "Was it a flashback, or-"
"I dunno," Carlos gasped. "I couldn't see the face."
"It'll be all right," Damali said, "Go over what you saw slowly. You're a seer. It coulda been a flashback, baby, or a vision. We just have to make sure it doesn't happen. You cool?"
Carlos nodded and rubbed his chest.
Berkfield looked around the room. "After what he's been through, it mighta been a PTSD flashback. I used to get 'em after 'Nam."
Big Mike nodded as he got up from the floor slowly and went to Carlos. "Man, been there. We gotchure back." He extended his hand and waited for Carlos to accept the handshake. "You feel anything messing with you, you call Big Mike. You my boy, healed me, helped the team." Mike glanced around as all heads nodded. "Until you feel comfortable, I'll sleep with one eye open and guard you while you rest. Then when you get up, I'll go off shift. Cool?"
"Yeah, man. Thanks. But that won't be necessary," Carlos said, straightening his back. "I'm cool."
Everybody looked at each other. Damali ran her palms down her face. Her man was anything but cool. It was settled. She was going to Hell alone to squash this bullshit once and for all.
Marlene glanced at Father Patrick. "Psychic attack?"
"Or premonition, like Damali said," the priest said, studying Carlos as he approached him slowly.
"Whatever it was, we're out. Party's over, gentlemen," Damali said, snatching Dan's backpack and tossing it to him. "We're on the next flight to Spain."
Carlos shook his head and took in several huge gulps of air. "Hold up." Carlos glanced around at the shaken team. "I ain't feeling Spain. One stop, London, to get us a flight to the States. Period. I'm going home." He raked his fingers through his hair. "Whatever this bullshit was, one of my squad just bought it."
Damali and Marlene glanced at each other.
"You're still linked to Tara and the guy you elevated like that?" Rider said, moving in front of Carlos and holding him by both arms.
"Yeah," Carlos said, looking at Rider without blinking. "One of mine just went down. Problem is, I don't know which one."
Rider dropped his hands away from Carlos's biceps and walked away, picking up his overnight bag without a word and facing the door. "It's about a fifteen-hour flight to London. What difference does it make if it's day or night when we fly? This went down in broad daylight. Other problem is, and not trying to mess around here, is this-the way you woke up and freaked out, man, if you had a weapon in your hand, you coulda taken out one of the team." He looked at Damali and then his gaze went back to Carlos. "I've almost done it myself a few times. This shit ain't nothin' to jack with, and I'm not saying you'd do it intentionally, but you've been battle-freaked, and need to get with that for your own and everyone else's safety."
Damali watched Carlos's line of vision seek the window for shelter, knowing that Rider was right. She could feel her man's pride peeling away, and his confidence ebbing by the second. Nothing had prepared her for this turn of events. How did one deal with a partner who was so shook that he couldn't delineate a dream from an attack, a premonition from postbattle jitters? Whatever staked him might as well have put it in her chest, too.
"Okay," Damali said, trying to bring back calm so they could develop a logical plan. "Think about it. For just two minutes."
Rider turned around slowly and dropped his bag and folded his arms. Damali went to Carlos and touched the center of his chest, trying to sense for the origin of the attack.
"Marlene and I were just talking about Spain." Damali walked away from Carlos and he followed her to the coffee table as the group gathered around. Carefully removing the stones from her pocket, she laid them out the same way as she had just done for Marlene. "Before you were jolted awake, what were you dreaming about? What did you see?"
Carlos drew an unsteady breath. "I was in a sword fight. Couldn't see who I was fighting."
"Where were you?"
Carlos stared at Damali for a moment. "I was in a castle."
"Describe it." Her line of vision went to Marlene, then to the stones on the table, before returning to Carlos.
"It wasn't like the one in Australia," Carlos said slowly. "It was massive, spread out on gardens and grounds. High arches in stone with marble pedestals, Spanish tiles everywhere in the ceilings... red, everywhere... clay... the ocean." He looked up. "It felt like a mosque, but I heard Hebrew and Espanol with the Arabic. It doesn't make sense."
"The red castle," Imam Asula said, diverting everyone's attention. "The Alhambra, in Al-Andalus, old Moorish Spain. He is hearing the peoples of the old books-Christians, Jews, and Muslims-all had strongholds within the old empire, and until they were invaded, lived peaceably side by side. It is another nexus zone."
Marlene and Damali nodded.
"If he's already accessed it, he doesn't need to go there now," Imam Asula said. He glanced at Father Patrick, who nodded.
"I thought he had to go there, physically, to strengthen himself," Marlene said as her gaze slid toward the window in deep thought. "That was apparently just metaphor. It was the energy of the history he needed, and that transcends time and spatial relationships. I stand corrected."
Team members shared confused glances as they assembled around the coffee table to peer at the stones.
"But what about all the flags I saw lit on the parkway?" Damali said, stopping to stare down at the stones. "He has to go to thirteen countries to get-"
"No. Not necessarily," Father Patrick said quickly, interrupting her as his focus went to Marlene. "His male Neteru learning curve is ramping up so quickly that it's erratic and hard to follow. It could have meant that he has to amalgamate the histories and teachings of those sites... or gather the energies from there or its battle strategies." The elder cleric ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. "Son, I wish I knew... had we more time to bring you into the fold in the seven sequence, I would be sure." He looked up at Carlos with an apology in his eyes. "That's just it. I'm not."
"Father Pat, you've done a lot for me. My case ain't standard, so, hey. It ain't on you." Carlos looked at his mentor with respect. "If I had been where I was supposed to be, I would have had the time." He looked away, shaking his head. "I burned over a year going dark. That was when I was supposed to be marshalling forces, learning my shit, getting trained, so now I'm playing catch-up. Guess this is what happens when you take a left turn-you miss out, and gotta do it the hard way."
No one spoke, but no one disagreed. Eyes just sought a neutral point within the room.
Carlos went to where Damali was standing and peered down at her stones. "Get back to the Alhambra for a minute," he said, addressing Imam without looking at him. "When was it invaded?"
"North Africans crossed over to the Spanish peninsula in the year 711 AD," Imam Asula said, "and that Moor Empire reigned until 1492."
"Do the math on 1492," Damali said, staring at Carlos. "One plus four is five. Five and nine is fourteen, plus two is sixteen, reduces to seven. We're still working with sevens."
"The year the currently strongest nation was supposedly discovered," Father Patrick said. He looked at his clerical colleagues. "I so wish our rabbi brother was here, because the team is unbalanced. We have to have the Hebrew element. Something is missing. Our Covenant team is lopsided. According to the divination given to Damali, each one of us is to stand at a cardinal point in the formation. The Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist elements are with us, but our Jewish brother..." Father Patrick ran his finger through his thicket of white hair again and began to pace.
"How did it fall?" Damali said, her voice so quiet and far away that Father Patrick stopped pacing.
Imam Asula looked up. "The king's wife betrayed him. She wanted to set her son on the throne and she entered into a secret pact with Isabella of Spain. With Spanish gunships in the harbor, and cavalry invading by land from the north, the Alhambra was taken. But Isabella had secrets and was trying to double-cross her husband, Ferdinand, the king of Spain. They took the Alhambra, exiled the Moorish queen, and the bounty from the castle actually funded Columbus's voyage to the new world... her lover."
"Damn," Jose whispered. "And they said Rome was treacherous."
"It's female," Carlos said, walking to the window. "It was female energy that put the stake in the center of my chest." He turned and stared at the silent team that looked at him, waiting for him to elaborate. "I was battling her forces, and she kicked my ass. That's all I know."
Damali and Carlos shared a knowing glance. Yeah, it was female. Yeah, this thing was trying to betray a very bad husband with an empire-building lover in his midst, and then put her own heir on the dark empire's throne. It would happen near a large body of water, she knew it like she knew her name. That's why water kept coming up in the equation. There had to be something this entity needed near water, or the charge being near water created,something . Water was the essence of life and carried an electrical charge. Females were made mostly of the element; dark or not, it was the basis of their DNA. And it was gonna go down in what was, then, the New World-the States. The East Coast. Philly.
"Spain is out," Damali finally said to the numb team, grabbing up the stones that seemed to have gone dead. "Where to?"
"Heathrow," Father Patrick said. "London. The only other location in the world that has a Masonic Lodge like the one you visited in Philadelphia. The Rosetta Stone is also in London, at the British Museum, which unlocked much of the code of old languages-"
"I don't give a rat's ass about any of this crap until one thing gets straight," Berkfield yelled. "My wife and kids are somewhere in the Vatican, last I was told." He paced from the door to the sofa, his face becoming beet red as fury roiled within his voice. Berkfield stopped pacing and stared at the teams. "My wife and children. First. We could chase around the globe for twenty years and hit every so-called hot spot in history. So what?"
Berkfield opened his arms, imploring the stunned group when no one spoke. "Take every country Damali listed. Each has a history of invasions and conquests, with monastic outposts, refugees. Dichotomies abound. Whatever. Gorgeous, scenic landscapes where horrors have occurred centuries prior, or even in this current day and age. Don't you all get it? That's the point!" He looked at Carlos and Damali hard and dropped his arms. "You two kids suck it up. Once you step foot on London's soil, draw in whatever energy crap you have to. Siphon it all and be done with it. We're running out of time, and Rider's woman might have just been smoked." Berkfield looked at Father Patrick, his gaze determined. "You call your people over there, and have my damned wife and children under heavy guard and waiting for me when I touch down. I've had enough."
There was nothing to say during the long commercial flight to London. Even the pending darkness of night hadn't made the team so much as murmur conjecture. Civilians were on board with the team and at extreme risk because of that. No one wanted to open a potential horrific can of worms with babies sleeping and families going on vacation and business junkets. This had to go down smooth.
Night came and went in a slow-dissolving consciousness. Damali's hand remained clasped firmly within Carlos's. Their shared vision was the only communication between them.
It went by the forefront of her mind in a blur. The green oasis of Hyde Park chased the dark grandeur of Victoria Station. The imperial stood beside the plebian. Winding streets cast gray and dank transitioned to the solemnity of the Houses of Parliament. Bookstores on Charring Cross Road bumped into images of Bond Street fashions. The bubonic plague left corpses in the streets and high-domed golden ceilings within St. Paul's Cathedral ushered spirits in an upward spiral. The Tower of London loomed over the Thames River with the gothic structure of the Tower Bridge eerily stretching the expanse before the river spilled into the sea. Men in red jackets with straight carriages and high black mutton-plumed hats guarded the royal palace, while beggars begged for alms in a Dickens-like world of filth beyond it. Bankers in bowler hats toting umbrellas passed punk spiked-hair rebels. Celtic and Gregorian chants made her ears ring. The gray pelt of rain made her bring one hand up to shield her shut eyes.
"The one thing I remember from my old nights," Carlos murmured. "Don't try to take it in all at once, so fast, or you'll hurt yourself."
Damali opened her eyes. He smiled. She smiled.
"You talking about the vision?"
He chuckled and nodded. "Once you've sat on a throne, you never forget an information slam." He raised an eyebrow. "Why? Were you talking about something else?"
Damali shook her head no and swallowed a further comment on the subject that couldn't be broached. "Berkfield was right, though. We're running out of time."
Carlos nodded. "Yeah, but I'm not trying to concentrate on that at forty thousand feet in the air. Been there, done that, and came down hard. No picnic, baby, trust me. You got off the plane in a much cooler way."
So she left it alone and rode with him, immersed in her own thoughts and terror.
He could feel the plane shift and begin to descend. Carlos closed his eyes more tightly, bracing, praying, promising to kiss the ground if he ever got the chance. Images slammed into his mind the way he knew it was possible to slam into the runway. Monasteries, nunneries, winding secret passageways, rolling green hills, fetal remains, and baby skeletons littered the caverns. He opened his eyes and squeezed Damali's hand, making her turn to him.
"I know why we were supposed to go to the other countries on the list," he whispered, touching her face.
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