T he entire team watched in horror from the other side of the thick, unbreakable glass as the men who had questioned the Guardians relentlessly turned Marlene into a lab rat. On one side of the glass in a stainless-steel observation room, the team was tethered to chairs and taunted by a voice over the ceiling speaker. On the other side of the glass, Marlene struggled against restraints, but had a bit in her mouth and her hands covered in iron boxes to prevent a psychic discharge.
When the scientists had done that, the team looked at each other, a strange calm befalling them. If they knew how to neuter Marlene's powers, then these boys had obviously been investigating the paranormal, in depth, for quite some time. This was not simply Homeland Security run amuck. It was something just as bad, if not worse.
"Still don't wanna talk? Still don't know how they go through the gates?"
"We don't know what you're talking about!" Shabazz shouted. "You motherfuckers hurt her, and it's all over!"
"Well, until someone knows anything useful, we'll have to try to see if we can break the code using the one with the most psychic ability, and then work our way backward. Reverse engineering," the disembodied voice said from the lab. He lowered his surgical face mask and pressed several buttons on a control board that the Guardians couldn't fully see.
A team of white coats hovered near Marlene, watching her vital signs, computer readouts, and managing equipment that not even J.L. had ever encountered.
Marlene's strapped-down body began moving into the black mouth of a large tube that resembled CAT scan equipment. The gaping dome flickered with an eerie bluish electrical current that finally made her disappear.
"Marlene!" Shabazz's wrists bled with deep gashes from constant struggle against the restraints. Then suddenly he became still, popped the nylon, flipped a chair, broke it in one kick to create a weapon, and was summarily shot in the chest with a tranquilizer dart from across the room.
Mike was up in seconds. Pure fury and brute strength popped nylon, creating another raging bull that went down hard--but only after two darts struck his chest and thigh.
Yonnie lifted his head from Tara's throat as she slowly sat up. "Carlos is outside, and I ain't never heard an SOS like this from him."
Within seconds, both vampires had dressed and cleared Gabrielle's barriers to meet Carlos on the front steps.
"What's up, man?"
"You gotta get Gabby to work up a divination," Carlos said, his voice laced with panic. "Damali is gone. I had to regen. Couldn't get to you earlier to even send a signal. Phones are tapped; didn't wanna risk calling Gabby that way. I came as soon as I could. The team's house has been ransacked. There's a tear in a new realm we just saw--"
"We don't need Gabby for that shit, brother. Me and you can go down there and handle that shit. We'll take out--"
"They have perpetual daylight over there, man." Carlos began to pace. "Two suns, twenty-four/seven."
"Oh, shit, man... You start the big one, or what?" Now Yonnie had begun to pace. "I ain't no punk or nothin', but if you're talking warrior angels, man, I don't know."
"Naw, man. That's not where they're from."
Carlos and Yonnie stared at each other for a moment as Tara drew near to Yonnie and protectively held him.
"The only reason I'm here and asking you to get anywhere near this situation is 'cause we family," Carlos said. "I ain't trying to get you and Tara directly involved or possibly smoked, but could use a master's sensory lock to work with mine, if that's possible. I'm getting conflicting sensory data. Like, I just felt a serious panic surge on the team. I know they're in a human lockup somewhere, but that's the crazy thing. I know they ain't dead, but it's like they're in some kinda black box. I just came back from somewhere that none of our people had gotten sucked into, but now I'm feeling both Damali and another female team member over there."
"Man," Yonnie said, rubbing his chin as Tara melted closer against him for support. "If it's a divine realm with perpetual light, me and my lady can't--"
"I know, I know," Carlos said, beginning to pace again, "but that's why we need to talk to Gabby. I didn't just bust into her joint and ask her directly, because I didn't know what kinda clientele she was servicing tonight, and I ain't got time for a side battle over dumb shit. This ain't Heaven, and it ain't Hell. So I'm figuring maybe she can whip out her crystal ball and do an oracle-type thing."
Yonnie nodded. "Yeah, man, c'mon in. We family. Stay strong," he added, pounding Carlos's fist.
It took everything in Damali to keep up with Cain. Her density differential and the stress of what had just gone down was seriously slowing her up. Cain got to the ravine first, blade drawn, and backed up several hissing predators from the sky. She went to cover the ones with white feathered wings that were on the ground, body-shielding a wounded human beneath them.
"She breached our realm; we did not drag her through the barrier!" two aerial attackers said. "The human encroached. That gives us eminent domain over the carcass."
"Be gone!" Cain thundered, the gleam of his sword pushing them back.
Damali's attention ping-ponged between the half-human's hovering and diving with massive, black bat wings, and the ones on the ground covering a cowering woman. She'd seen a lot of weird combinations, but when things from the Dark Realms transformed, it was an all-body shape-shift, not this half-human, half-whatever type of creature.
Black arcs met blue arcs as the entities on the ground fended off a kinetic body snatch with deflective rays. She watched the muscle in Cain's jaw jump, his silver-gold eyes narrow, then suddenly a loud battle cry erupted from within him as he leapt, holding his blade with both hands, making a blue-white arc exit from the tip of it that blew one entity back to slam against the mountain wall, and then took off two heads with one swing.
"Do not test me!" he shouted, hitting the side of the ravine with one foot and pushing off of it to go airborne again.
Damali looked at her Isis, and kept a battle stance to protect the human she couldn't see. But, dayum, her Isis didn't work like that.
Two smoldering heads dropped at her feet and rolled around in a screaming, slow smoking circle, eyes still seeing, blinking, tongues moving. She could barely take her gaze off of the wailing heads. Even the death process was so eerily different here. And just as soon as the battle had begun, it ended. A long echoing wail followed the leathery retreat with a promise for vengeance ringing through the bright, three-moon night. The seraphim-faced entities by her feet wept as they gently eased back and removed their wings to reveal the injured human they'd valiantly protected. A charred, smoking figure of a woman shuddered as third-degree burns covered her body. Her eyes were sealed shut as though her skin had melted and fused every feature on her face together from the heat. Her skeletal, raw hands trembled in agony as bloody hunks of flesh just hung like cooked meat from her bones and her hair had fallen away in red-ember, glowing cinders. But with her mouth sealed in raw, bubbling burns, she could only whimper and mumble as her heels dug into the rocky ground in writhing pain.
"Oh, dear God," Damali said, dropping to her knees. "The Caduceus rod--Cain, bring it to me, we're both Neterus, we can do this! Hurry, before she dies."
It materialized in his hand. "Open up her throat at the trachea. She cannot breathe, Damali. She will suffocate before we can heal her."
Damali gripped her Isis blade and rested the tip against the unrecognizable woman's throat, and then her blade fell away. Damali's rippling scream made Cain work with his hands, and he slit the woman's throat to open a hole and blew air into it, and then repeatedly pressed down on the woman's chest keeping a steady, life-sustaining rhythm.
"Do it now," he said 'between pants. "Hold the rod to her heart chakra. Join me." He glanced at Damali, growing impatient. "Neteru, on your mark! Begin--"
"That's my mother-seer," she whispered.
Cain glanced down, nodded to the seraphim hybrids. "Balm this Neteru while I work. She's going into shock. Guard her third eye."
"Doctor, this one has been gone for ten minutes. This is the longest we've been able to sustain the disappearance without the body bouncing back into the lab as ash. I think we should try to reverse polarity now, before we lose it entirely."
The lead scientist looked at the others in the room. "Do it."
Cain could feel his body heating, lifting, something strange and artificial pulling at his limbs, raising the rope of locks from his back as his hands grabbed the dying woman's shoulders. At one moment he was making his breaths one with hers, offering her his life force as a bridge, like his heartbeat, joining his energy with the healing power within the rod, using the conductive energy of the sacred metals, and then the next thing he knew, he was with the victim's smoldering body on a cold floor in a white and metal room with bright lights.
Masked men surrounded him, a projectile came his way, and he deflected it with a snarl and stood.
"Keep recording!" the lead scientist shouted. "One actually came through with the body and was feeding from its throat!"
"Contain it!" another voice said, making Cain spin and turn in a confused pivot.
One of the men in white slammed a panel. Cain stared down as the floor quickly separated, putting a ring around him and the injured woman, as well as the men now holding Old World crossbows made of gleaming steel. Holy water instantly flooded into the small gulley that had opened in a circle around him on the strange floor. Within the bizarre concoction he also smelled pungent garlic and wolfsbane as a steel net dropped from the ceiling with bags of the demon-barrier substances laced through it.
"Are you humans mad?" Cain swept up the injured woman and glanced at the stricken faces around the room that he vaguely remembered. "The mother-seer is dying!" He almost wept at their stupidity. Her fragile body was convulsing and her flesh was coming off in his hands.
Suddenly he realized that there were two sets of humans. This was not a cohesive group of Damali's team. Blood was in the air with her team's signature in it. Cain hesitated, not sure, his blade leveled as it materialized in his grip. They had not performed the experiment to go in search of a missing Damali. Something stuck him in the leg, the back, the chest, his neck. Tiny bee stings from high-powered implements. His vision blurred, he could sense a vampire... two... just beyond the walls but held back by sacred objects. Bright, artificial light, and somehow he was on his knees. Men were still stinging him with the poison darts, saying to put the big bastard down hard, but not to kill him... who did they speak of that was a threat? Him. Absolute chaos reigned. Men in white coats screamed about another one.... Another what?
He could sense silver, a Neteru brother. All faces were blurry, just a tattoo let him know one of his own had entered the battle. He would not drop his blade. He would not leave the dying human female as he fell to all fours. She was his beloved's mother-seer. His words were slurring in his mouth and in his head. The carnivores in white would not befoul the mother-seer's body. He struggled to brace himself over her. He would use this last breath to pass the message telepathically. "Take the team to safety, my brother! Do not let the mother-seer die."
Two deft whirs collected the team that had been trapped behind the glass wall, the steel room around them was like a bank vault and so was the lab. Against every instinct within him, Carlos pulled Cain into the void with the others, as well as Marlene's lifeless body.
Arizona was the first thought that came to his mind, a place far enough away to make the feds have to scuffle to find them fast, but close enough for his energy to hold. He knew the terrain; it was hallowed ground. But Yonnie and Tara could cross it. If Cain was on the wrong side--his ass would fry. They had a serious core of shaman friends in the Navajo Nation, all financial bickering about the old compound, regardless. It was about quick decisions with no margin for bullshit or errors.
The landing was hard and sloppy with so much dead weight, but Yonnie and Tara couldn't help him while inside the military containment center that had been made white-hot for vamps.
"Put a stake in his chest now, while he's down," Yonnie said, looking at Carlos and then down at Cain. "Motherfucker gotta be Level Seven, sucking her guts out through a hole in her throat after torching her. Fucking flesh-eatin' bastard!" Yonnie spit.
Rider nodded, going to get a thick tree branch as Tara disintegrated everyone's nylon handcuffs and Jose snapped a low-hanging tree limb.
"We've got two big men down," Berkfield said, glancing at Shabazz's and Big Mike's limp bodies. "Tara, baby, you vamps got any way to pull the tranquilizer out without a nick, while I see what I can do for Mar? Might need 'em if those boys don't hurry up with a stake," he added, glancing over toward Cain.
"No," Tara murmured, kneeling beside Marlene. She stared at Marlene with pity glittering in her red-glowing eyes while Marlene's chest heaved and shuddered, struggling for air. "There's only one way I can extract the tranquilizer." Tara's sorrowful gaze held Berkfield's. "It will leave both men permanently damaged." She returned her attention to Marlene and gently touched the side of her throat, feeling a weak pulse. "Before her life essence goes, however, I may be able to give her life... but it will not be what any of you had intended."
Marj immediately dropped beside Tara on her hands and knees. "Oh, Jesus," she whispered, tears streaming down her face and causing Tara to wince and stand. "Richard, she's almost not breathing, almost doesn't have a pulse. She's so badly burned." Her gaze went to Carlos. "Don't let them turn her! Can't you heal her?"
Younger Guardians looked away. Inez's sob broke through the night and roused Big Mike to a drowsy rollover.
"Don't wake Shabazz up, yet," Rider said quietly, standing over Cain with a stake gripped between both hands. He looked at Jose. "This one and Mar. Together. She's nearly dead, already. He bit her. It's the only way."
Rider raised his stake high above his head, coordinating his timing with Jose's. Bobby wiped at his face and turned as Dan stalked away with Yonnie to avoid watching. Krissy's head went to J.L.'s chest. Juanita drew Marjorie away from the pending gore and held her. Inez dropped to her knees and hid her face in the crook of Big Mike's neck. Tara turned her back and set her sight on the moon and then shut her eyes.
Carlos nodded and found the distant tree line. Dark entities blackened the sky. Seraphim tried to rally around her, but were outnumbered and had to pull back. A golden rod and her Isis blade stabbed and cut at slashing tails and wretched claws. She was female. She was flesh. She was meat. She knew the imperative encoded in demon DNA, Carlos had also taught her that--fuck it, feed from it, kill it. Not today!
The golden staff became a goring rod, spilling hybrid demon guts and blood as it plunged in and out and left entrails; her Isis a master decapi-tator, blazing, singing, filling the air with thuds of demon death. Her golden stick doubled as a nemesis blocker, wielded with everything Marlene and Shabazz had taught. Deft Capoeira ducks, fluid Aikido leverage pivots off winged bodies, the ground, the ravine wall, energy and adrenaline shooting through her system as a flip dodge, land hard, get up quick, keep moving, side to side, rock hop, crack skulls, take heads without names. "Back off!"
Energy waning, but just get to a light band, snap off the energy, add it to her own, then... free-falling?
She was moving so fast that air left her lungs. Impressions, her name being called within a nearly dead mind. "Marlene!"
Still fighting. Navajo shaman chants running through the ground into the soles of her feet through her sandals. She could smell vamps surrounding her. Her ears ringing with Marlene's mental wails of agony. Spinning on many bodies everywhere. Back 'em off. Oh my God, they'd killed her mother-seer! They'd all die for that. Mar, Cain were down, "Back the fuck up!" Blade raised, Isis ready to take another head--no problem. Mike was down, body count. Shabazz was down, oh, she would kill these beasts!
"Stand down," she yelled, knocking Rider out of the way. "He's clean!" Her attention pivoted. "Jose, are you crazy? Put that weapon down!"
"He bit her, D!" Carlos shouted, grabbing her by the arm and receiving a hard elbow to his ribs that backed him up.
"No, I was there on the other side with him! He performed a tracheotomy to keep her breathing when something pulled her through the rip. He wouldn't leave her body, she'd come through the veil already burned." Damali dropped her sword, not sure which injured family member to run toward first. "What happened? Get him roused, wake him up, he--"
"Your mother-seer is over there fucking dying, Damali!" Carlos shouted, pointing toward Marlene. "You got that? And you're worried about--"
" Shut up, Carlos/ Wake him up! He's the superior healer. We've got three Neterus. Three serious seers. I have the Ancient Caduceus--do you even know what that is?" She shoved the healing staff forward and when Carlos didn't respond, yanked it back and went to Marlene. "No? Then stop jacking with my order and wake Cain up!" "Her pulse is so weak, dear one... I don't know if even I. . ."
"Try. For me," Damali said, brushing Cain's disheveled locks away from his brow as they knelt beside Marlene with the team looking down at them.
Yonnie paced back and forth behind the ring of Guardians as Carlos paced inside the circle. Tara rubbed Rider's back as the older Guardian silently wept just staring down at Marlene and Shabazz.
"It wasn't your fault," Tara whispered gently. "You didn't know. Had to do what you had to do."
Rider nodded and swallowed hard. "Two more seconds, that's all it would have taken."
Jose was so distraught that he'd sought refuge against a tree, refusing to allow Juanita to come near him. Shabazz was on his hands and knees, his palm trembling over Marlene's forehead, unable to touch her, unable to draw away from her, huge tears dropping to the ground as he sucked in and released quaking breaths. The rest of the team formed human standing stones of numb anguish, not a dry eye in their midst. "I will need the third Neteru's assistance," Cain said, still seeming a bit disoriented as he gazed into Damali's eyes and cupped her cheek. "This is not a demon attack that has damaged her. This is a purely physical injury, a mortal one, from the earth plane." He sighed hard. "Reversing black magic is one thing, intervening in an appointed hour of mortal death is another."
"It's not her time, though," Damali said, new tears brimming in her eyes. "It can't be."
"The poison from their darts is in my system, that with the density of this plane... we must make the circle of completion around your mother-seer's energies. I do not know if it will work, my love, but I will attempt anything for you, or die trying."
"Oh, shit. . ." Yonnie whispered through his teeth, rubbing his palms down his cheeks.
"I don't care what the fuck else is going on," Shabazz said, not even looking up from Marlene's disfigured face. "Suck it up, Rivera. Make the ring, and let that brother work. She's suffering, and I can't draw enough of the pain away from her to make a difference." His hands went to her temple, and then the shuddering flap of skin at her throat that wheezed in blood-wet exhales and slow inhales, but didn't touch her. "Oh, Heavenly Father, please . . ."
Yonnie and Tara hissed and turned, then bulked as a black jaguar took to a limb above Marlene, roared, but dropped to the ground and instantly transformed. The moment they saw Kamal, they normalized.
Kamal's entire body trembled as he walked a hot path back and forth behind Shabazz, unable to keep his eyes on Marlene. "Whatever I can do. If you need another seer, mon, I will go blind for her. Just tell me."
Berkfield dropped beside Shabazz, shrugging out of Marjorie's protective hold. "Man, for the love of God, let me help you. Me and you, together, with Kamal, bring the burns to us while the Neterus go in. Maybe Kamal's help can block it?"
Carlos was instantly down on his knees by Cain's side. No matter what he'd seen, no matter what was going on, the priority was to staunch the pain, make Marlene breathe, and try to keep her heart beating before hysterical Guardians went in with good intentions and killed themselves from pain-shock.
"Tell me what I've gotta do, man," Carlos said, focusing on Cain's eyes and blocking out the look of affection Damali had offered his competitor. It was beyond all that, with Marlene's life in the balance.
"Grab Damali's hand with mine," Cain ordered. His tone was that of a senior surgeon as he motioned for the correct physical, kneeling alignment. "The female Neteru at her head, each male Neteru at her side to form a pyramid--us as the platform at her heart level just beneath her lungs, and Damali siphoning life force up through the most damaged organs through her crown chakra."
Cain waited as the other Guardians quickly moved out of the way and Carlos and Damali took their positions. "The staff," he said to Damali. "Female energy therefore, you hold it, our hands over yours. Place it on her heart chakra. Visualize the kundalini serpents coming to life. One ascending into the Fohat macrocosmic field, pure white Light, the other descending into her energy field bringing the Light from the upper realms into her being."
Cain glanced up at Carlos. "Mind lock with me, brother. See only the green bands of Light. The harmonic frequencies of healing tones. Let it radiate out of your third eye, engulf your hands, and send the gentle pulse into the conduit, the rod. Do it easy, with skill. This woman a severely injured and what we do must be delicate. Then, we wait."
Carlos nodded. Damali positioned the staff over the center of Marlene's now-quiet chest, noticing that it no longer struggled as hard as it initially did to take in or release air. Damali's grip was slicked by nervous sweat. Her mind screamed a prayer, held Marlene's mind in constant monitor, begging her not to let go or flow into the Light.
Carlos closed his eyes. Searing silver strength held his mind. His initial impulse was to fight it and pull away, but he surrendered to the invasive sensation, and tried to find the green harmonic Cain mentioned. But this was his first time ever attempting such an advanced Neteru procedure. His focus repeatedly fractured as everything that had recently happened in the frontal consciousness of Cain's mind ripped into his.
"Focus," Cain ordered through his teeth, grappling with Carlos's untrained entry. "What you are witnessing with me and Damali is of little consequence. Go deep. One mind. One path. Healing." Total frustration made Cain open his eyes, which made the two junior Neterus stare at him. He looked at Damali. "Show him how to do it," Cain muttered, thoroughly disgusted. "If he cannot use sight, then tune his ear to the harmonic so he can do what must be done!"
Damali grasped Carlos's hands tighter as Marlene's chest went still. "Listen to me. Look into my eyes. Hear the sound in my head and follow that until the color takes over your mind. We're losing her."
Cain nodded and closed his eyes again. Damali settled down. Carlos closed his eyes but was anything but settled. In fact, so much was riding on his shoulders at this point that he wanted to stand and bolt. Not only was he shown to be the weaker Neteru in front of the entire team, his boyz--but also his woman, in front of her near lover, with her mother-seer's life hanging in the balance... and if Marlene died, it would be his fault. No one on the team would ever forgive him; just like he would never forgive himself.
The strength, this time, is in the surrender, a quiet female voice said within Carlos's mind. Oddly, it wasn't Damali's voice. He'd lost the quiet connection to her, which made him panic further. Being the better man, sometimes, means pushing beyond one's own pain in quiet surrender. You will win if you lose. You will never win if you do not learn when to retreat.
Zehiradangra's voice was so gentle and soothing within his mind that it made his shoulders relax. His breathing deepened as she hummed the right pitch within a sound chord that he could mentally follow and he slowly saw her jewel-green eyes filled with empathy. He watched them glow with compassion and caring and friendship until the whole of Cain's silver burning mind was threaded with the deep, resonant hue. He could feel layers of Damali's harmony wind into the mind-melody and run through his body, making him shudder, then burn his hands hot, make his clothes stick to his skin, building like slow pressure inside his chest, filling his arms with a throbbing, dull ache that demanded release through his palms.
It hurt so bad, but hurt so good, as the she-dragon's voice coaxed him each time the fleeting sensation of energy expulsion slipped back up his arms, unable to connect with the steady stream of heat pouring out of Cain and Damali's hands. His arms felt like the skin on them was splitting and opening. Zehiradangra's voice shushed him to be still, to channel it through his palms and to not let it splatter to evaporate into wasted energy within the atmosphere around him.
He was about to give up when he felt her tongue lick down his shoulder, glide over his elbow, and caress each digit on his tightly clenched fist.
Right there, she whispered, just like it's your lover. Be one with the energy, and let it flow into the staff.
"I don't know how," Carlos whispered out loud, feeling Cain's massive fist tighten hard enough to crush the bones in his hand. Damali's pulse beneath his palm was a distraction and his arm was now almost so laden with energy that it felt nearly impossible to keep it extended.
"Strike him," Cain murmured. "He is not that evolved."
Before Carlos could drop his arm from fatigue or process Cain's command, a blinding dragon strike scored his jugular and released the pent-up energy in waves of color throughout his system in hard, pulsing jags. His eyelids fluttered, bright flashes in every hue singed his senses. He couldn't breathe. His hand was on fire. His arm shook as the muscles within it contracted and released in spasmodic jerks. Cain pulled the brunt of the unharnessed ejection and fused it with a gold-green spiked jolt; Damali received and mellowed it, then sent it into the staff in a smooth, steady stream.
Unable to move, Carlos could mentally see the staff light up, glow golden, then become deep crimson, and then finally go burning white. The serpents opened their mouths and screamed, quickly slithering in
opposite directions, leaping off the staff and catching energy rays in their mouths with their fangs to pull it down with them, connecting it as one unbroken thread of shimmer, as they instantly reunited with the searing rod. Green flames tore down the staff in a dizzying spiral and slammed into Marlene's chest. Her body arched, her throat wound sealed, her lips tore apart as a shriek pushed its way between them.
"Drop the Caduceus!" Cain shouted. "Link hands. Lower the pyramid!" The threesome worked on reflex motor skills, quickly clasping hands, creating a wide, green-glowing pyramid between their bodies that hung midair like a translucent shield above Marlene. They lowered it with Cain's guidance to slowly sweep over the surface of Marlene's prone body from head to toe. Once the energy stopped sputtering, Cain slowly released their hands and sat back on his haunches, winded. Damali fell back on the ground with her legs sprawled, breathing hard and staring at Marlene.
Carlos fell forward on his hands and knees, panting and watching Marlene's skin begin to knit and her nose rise out of the twisted flesh of her face. Soon her eyes separated from the morass of melted, scarred skin. Her lashes reappeared, but were pure white. Then her eyebrows surfaced slowly, one hair at a time--snow white. Her charred skin slowly returned to its ebony beauty... but her face was so old, so wrinkled, like that of a crone. Carlos looked away.
Cain moved forward and spread his hands over Marlene's face and slowly pulled them away as her eyes opened... then he closed his when her irises were pure white.
"Damali," Cain whispered. "She's blind. Go into her mind." Cain wiped the sweat from his brow and whispered into Marlene's ear, but she didn't respond. "She's deaf." He stood and paced back and forth and then dropped down again beside her, watching Damali slowly move to Marlene and extend a trembling hand above her third eye.
"We must know whether or not she is brain dead. I am so sorry, dear one."
Damali closed her eyes, and placed her wet cheek on Marlene's forehead. Shuddering breaths repressed a sob as she stroked Marlene's hair.
"I love you so much, Marlene, come back whole."
A sob tore through Shabazz and put him on his feet. He walked away, deep into the brush. No Guardian followed him. Kamal put his fist to his forehead and walked away in the opposite direction with his eyes closed.
Damali continued to stroke Marlene's now all-white hair, and whispered gently. "Mom, don't die."
I have done all I have to do, you know all you need to know from me, Marlene replied in a serene voice from her mind. / won't be alone, Christine is with me.
"Don't you leave me, Marlene!" Damali shrieked, clasping Marlene to her breasts.
You will not be alone, child. It is time.
Bitter sobs wracked Damali as Marlene's voice became weaker and began floating. She hugged Marlene up from the ground and began rocking with her mother-seer's body in her arms. "You have to be here for my babies! You have to be here when I act crazy! You have to be here--because I cannot breathe on this planet without you... Marlene!" Damali's voice dissolved into hiccupping, shrill bleats.
"Let her go, D," Rider said quietly. "Baby, she's gone."
"Give me the Caduceus!" Damali shouted, glaring at Cain as he stood and slowly shook his head.
Carlos stood and stared off into the distance, eyes glistening.
Damali closed her eyes and materialized the rod in her grip when no one would hand it to her. "Now you listen to me, Marlene Stone," she said between her teeth. "I refuse to let you go because foolish men tampered with the fabric of the universe!"
She rammed the staff into the dirt, making the ground beneath Marlene's body begin to glow gold as she gently laid her down. "I call nature energy!" Damali shouted and stood, opening her arms to the dark heavens. "I call all the elements of the universe, female power to give life! Through me, I call Isis, herself! Aset, every Neteru on the Council of Queens. Eve--you owe me! Your son is beyond the barrier! I delivered your message, now hear mine! My mother-seer is my sanity! Do not let her die!" Damali snatched the rose quartz crystal from her pants pocket and held it up in her fist. "Love, all the way from the original temple of Hathor, from the pavilion of Trajan in Egypt, I love her with all my heart and soul!"
Strong winds gathered. Lightning touched off dancing energy in the sky. Trees shuddered. Green grass grew around Marlene's body where it was once parched and dry. Rain fell like tears. A stunned team looked on in awed silence.
"I am woman, thus water, and water is the essence of life. My tears are the rain which replenishes the barren earth. I am fire--love, profound passion, the spark of conception--which gives inanimate cells motion. I am the air, which fills lungs. I am the earth, form and substance, nourishment and healing. I am pure faith, for I own the heart and soul of a woman. I am hope... because of my faith and my love. A trinity resides in my soul. My female symbol is the circle of unity. My spirit is unbroken, like the infinite circle. She will not die. Not on my watch!"
Silver tears streamed down Damali's cheeks and she stood legs wide, head back, eyes closed, arms open, begging Heaven in her mind.
Slowly, the wrinkles in Marlene's face began to recede. Her dead, white irises became warm, and living, and brown. Her hair began to grow out dark ebony from the roots as the white, dead locks became brittle and fell away. A shudder, then a cough. Damali was on her knees in seconds before Shabazz could ever reach his fallen woman. Marlene was in her arms gasping. Kamal hung back weeping. Shabazz was sobbing so hard that Big Mike had to come get him. Yonnie had silent tears running down his strained face. Younger Guardians slowly came near, too mesmerized to emote. Carlos stared down at Damali and Marlene in awe. Cain stooped and gently touched Marlene's warm, healed hand and drew his fingers back in utter amazement.
Cain finally stood and raked his hair and paced away from Carlos's side. "She is a true queen. A goddess... if not an angel."
Damali continued to hold Marlene as though she were a long-lost doll that had just been found. She refused to even move aside for Shabazz. She simply kept petting Marlene's hair, her face, and then would crush Marlene to her breast again. She didn't care what any of them were talking about as she and Marlene sat on the sofa, the whole team huddled into the small confines of Jose's grandfather's house.
But when Kamal came to the door, all peace in the house was shattered. Shabazz drew Sleeping Beauty with such swiftness that no one could even speak.
"Be clear!" Shabazz shouted. "While she's in the flesh, Marlene is my wife!" He cocked the gun to the side, dead aim at Kamal's forehead. "Astrally or any other kinda way you step across the divide, you die.
Fuck a shape-shift and hand-to-hand, I'll blow your brains out. As long as she's living with me, she made a personal choice! This is the last time, I'm telling you!"
"She saved my life," Kamal snarled. "Back in Bahia, years ago, mon. She and I were meant to be--this makes three times she almost died on your watch!" Kamal's voice broke as tears streamed down his face. "I had a mortal were-jag bite, and she didn't let me die. I let her leave me," he said, slapping his chest, "to save her pain, and now this?"
"I don't give a damn!" Shabazz hollered, his finger slowly depressing the trigger. "You're a dead man walking!"
"Don't," Damali whispered. "You kill him, 'Bazz, and your soul is lost to this team."
"Your Neteru is correct," Cain said slowly. "I killed my brother with the same rage, and was lost. What purpose does it serve to bring back the love of your soul, to only be separated by the chasm of Hell? You have won. She made a choice to be with you until her end of earth time. Let that be enough."
Marlene stirred and sat forward slowly with Damali's help. "Shabazz... don't become lost to me," she whispered. "I love you." She glanced at Kamal. "I love you, too, but it's time to say good-bye... permanently."
Kamal closed his gleaming were-jaguar eyes, unconcerned about Shabazz's gun. He allowed his shoulders to drop and the battle bulk to fade to normalcy. His upper and lower canines retracted as he held up his hand. "I will always love you, Marlene," he whispered. "You will always be my angel of mercy... and more importantly, always my friend. I'll see you on the other side, when we die, and when none of this matters."
Shabazz pulled back his weapon and lowered it as Kamal turned and loped away. "Not even in Heaven, motherfucker," Shabazz muttered and then slammed the front door. Tears still glistened in his eyes as he glanced around the team, looked at Marlene, and then sought the solitude of the kitchen to csllect himself.
Carlos rubbed his palms down his face, gripped by the scene of two men who had been competing for a woman's love for decades. He glanced at Big Mike, who simply nodded and calmly walked through the house to go to Shabazz's side for support. What the fuck was happening to his world... to the team?
Damali gathered Marlene into her arms again and kissed the crown of her head, searching the faces around her for answers that weren't there.
"Since this was a hit attempt by the feds, unfriendly ones--and obviously not the guys that sent us on the mission before, and they're onto us," Dan said, his tone reverent. "We're gonna have to move underground, from now on. I put stash, IDs, weapons, all over, like Carlos had showed me. Did that after we knew who abducted Berkfield, the first time out. We've got unmarked accounts; I separated some of what we had. Swiss banks and whatnot," he said, glancing at Carlos for approval.
"Good looking out, young buck," Carlos said, nodding and glancing at Yonnie. "Never completely trust the authorities. They've got agendas, and the last one almost killed Mar."
"Sho' you right," Shabazz said, coming back into the living room from the kitchen, Big Mike bringing up the rear. Shabazz gazed down at Marlene. It was obvious how badly he wanted to hold her by the way he kept his arms wrapped around himself. But something within him seemed to know that Damali wasn't ready to release her to anyone else yet.
"We've gotta get out of the country," Berkfield said quickly, his gaze roving the room. "If they're feds, or CIA boys."
"The only place we know of that's outside the country is Bahia," J.L. said, pacing. "Regardless, that compound--"
"No!" Shabazz said. "That's out."
"Man, we can run, but we can't hide. If it's some kinda black ops groove, they have tentacles in every country. So, it's about motion, constant," Big Mike said, his voice an angry whisper. "Bahia is out, though, for obvious reasons."
"Me and J.L. can find safe harbors, wireless Internet connections, keep the signals going, encrypt them enough to make it a bitch to break, and by the time they do, we're at the next location," Krissy said, her red, tear-puffed eyes going around the room.
"Then maybe the other Guardian teams around the world will be at the ready for backup," Carlos muttered. "Any place, any time."
"Me and Tara got your backs, too. Can cast illusion, get Gabby on the crystal ball to divine before they come at you, do money transfers, IDs. shit like that to keep 'em blind topside once Krissy and J.L. find out where your next move is gonna be," Yonnie offered, staring at Carlos.
"I'll work with J.L. and Dan," Jose said. "We've gotta now figure out
some mobile early warning systems that include human predators." He sighed and let his breath out hard. "I'm not sure how to do that, though, and stay to the mission of keeping everybody in the Light, since we ain't never dropped a human body, but might have to, if they're coming for us."
"Then we'd better find a way to have a private conversation with our clerical crew, 'cause all I know is, dropping a human body isn't as easy as it sounds, Jose," Berkfield warned, gaining nods of agreement from Rider and Big Mike, as well as Shabazz. "Trust me, junior, you don't want any man's blood on your hands."
Cain pushed away from the wall, speaking for the first time since they'd dealt with the near tragedy of Shabazz shooting Kamal in the small house. "This man is wise. He is correct. It is unpardonable and carries a heavy karmic debt." Marjorie shook her head. "Avoidance. That's the best strategy. Juanita, Inez, and I are supposed to be seers, too." She glanced at the other women in the room. "Marlene can't be the only one who carries this burden for the team. She, like us, is only human. Therefore, we have to help and step up our efforts. If we can be on point, take turns, sense when a pending invasion is about to happen, then we won't have to take a human life--no matter how despicable it might be."
"Yeah," Jose said, his gaze becoming gentle as it went to Marlene. "We can leave messages for the people in our music. We can upload MP3 files on the Net through J.L. and Krissy's efforts, and go guerrilla. Those humans on our side will help hide us, those not down will have to try to decode what's in the newest release we put out there, one song at a time. No direct messages, everything in code through the music."
Cain weaved and braced his weight on the wall. All eyes turned and stared at him. "I must return."
Damali looked up at him, but didn't release Marlene who rested with her eyes closed against Damali's chest. "Are you all right?"
"My kingdom is in tuKnoil. My people are being slaughtered."
"What's going on, man?" Carlos said, not sure why he was suddenly so concerned.
"I can feel it," Cain whispered, "just like I can feel the earth plane's density weighing in on me. My limbs... the gravity is so heavy... the putrid vibrations of hate and violence and pain, so visceral. There is not enough Light. The night is dark. I do not like what the sensation of dark atmosphere does to me, or what it places within my mind. It is too dense. He inhaled through his mouth as though he were drowning. "Were this not hallowed ground I do not know what would become of me."
Damali gave Shabazz a look to let him know that it \was all right tor him to finally take up her position holding Marlene. She stood and gently slid Marlene into Shabazz's tight embrace and went to Cain.
"How do we get you back? I will go stand with you in battle until order is restored. Let me move the team into safety, then--"
"Hold up, D," Carlos said carefully. "Your primary mission is here."
If a glare could have cut, Carlos would have been feeling his throat for the slice. Fury tore through her. "I know my primary mission, brother," Damali said coolly, making the room go still. "I also know that it is not in our code as Neterus to abandon a friend." She returned her gaze to Cain. "The civil unrest, how bad do you sense it? I can--"
"No," Cain said, his breaths becoming more ragged as he spoke. "He is right. The blade of Asuar is the only thing that has kept the peace for many years. I could not in good conscience put you in harm's way, although you are more than worthy as a warrior. The hybrid beings on the side of Light are in the minority. Angels only rarely transgressed the edict not to mingle with humans... there are not many of those, and even some of them have gone dark. However, as you can imagine, the other side... the scales are unbalanced. The human breaches must stop. Each invasion creates a taunt, drives frenzy throughout Nod. Each incident wreaks unimaginable havoc."
Cain's eyes became sadder as he glanced around the team and allowed his gaze to again settle on Damali, their minds meeting with silent understanding. "Soon, I will not be able to keep them from the ravine or learning how to cross the barrier as the veil weakens. Then your plane will be overrun, Hell's weakened gates will open to join the legions with those hybrid forces. But the hybrids are impossible to delineate in their untransitioned forms, and they can conceal themselves within your human population making your people vulnerable day and night to attack. Humans could accidentally annihilate themselves, mistaking a demon-hybrid for one of their own. Karmic debt would spiral, adding to the minions of Hell's army. Therefore, I must return and guard the veil to ensure that never occurs."
"If you go back alone, then, you have to go back strong. What can I do?" Damali said nearing him, her voice tightening with worry.
"Your counsel is wise, but I do not know the answer to your question," Cain murmured, ignoring all others in the room while gazing at Damali. "I do not fully understand this earth realm now. When I walked the earth as a man, the weapons were different. The inventions were different, even while based upon our foundations of knowledge. I have read all there was up to the point that Nod was swept into the void and cloaked behind the veil. Ours was an advanced civilization, but there are new implements that leave me unknowing."
His eyes held an apology as he continued to stare at Damali for answers. "I have received impressions, from you. But that is not full knowing or comprehension of what has been witnessed. I have pondered... dwelled, on the many things your beautiful Neteru eyes have shown me. There is so much that I saw. Things... types of illumination, panels, poison darts..."
"He's talking about the lab, tranquilizer guns, all this modern technology shit... the computers and whatever else he's seen from Damali." Rider ran his hands down his face and let out a tension-riddled breath. "Don't get me wrong, the guy is definitely an awesome fighting machine and the wildest healer I've ever witnessed, but he's out of time. A few centuries short on what's happening or what we're up against, D. If he goes with us, it would be like putting the fastest gunslinger in the West up against a semiautomatic--yeah, he'd get a shot off before the other gunfighter could draw, but he'd probably die from the still-firing rounds of a dead man. We've gotta find a way to send him back before he takes a bullet."
Cain tore his gaze from Damali's to briefly stare at Rider. "What is this, bullet?"
Damali closed her eyes and gave Cain a hug, ignoring Carlos's instant bristle.
"I can show him, D. No problem," Carlos muttered. "A nine, hollow point--"
"If you have a legitimate grievance," Cain said, extricating himself from Damali's hold, "state it. Outside. Not where innocent women or children could be harmed, or the mother-seer will be traumatized further. Shall we?"
"No," Damali said as Carlos headed for the door. "One team. We have to get our squad to safety; Cain is weakening in this density--"
"Rest assured, my love, I am not so thoroughly depleted that I cannot crush this young, foolish--"
"Step outside, motherfucker--now," Carlos whispered. "That's the last time you call her anything but Damali in my face."
To Carlos's surprise, Damali spun on him and not Cain. Her tone was eerily calm.
"This man just saved my mother's life. This man just abandoned his entire kingdom to ensure nothing came through the veil. My mother and this whole family has been through enough, and we have a serious situation." She glanced at Marlene as her mother- seer weakly lifted her head. "Marlene is in recovery. We only have a few hours to act before we have to move out again."
Damali's eyes burned with an intensity that he'd only seen in the midst of sure and sudden battle. Even at the height of their arguments, he'd never quite seen her look at him the way she was looking at him now.
"Start some shit. Offend him," Damali said through her teeth, putting her body between Cain and Carlos with a blade suddenly appearing in her hand, "or call him out of his name in my presence, hear, and you and I will be the ones who step outside."
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