T he team rode for hours in blindfolded silence, huddled together like sheep in the black van that had become a temporary prison. Yanked to their feet when the vehicle finally stopped, they were shoved and pulled out into a warm climate, but couldn't tell where they were.

They could each feel a strong, angry body beside them, hurrying them along as they stumbled forward being half-pulled, half- dragged, their hands restrained in tight nylon cords behind their backs, and then the brightness beyond their blindfolds gave way to darkness, and it became cool. Instead of their footfalls landing on what had felt like asphalt, they now echoed. The Guardian team was inside a structure somewhere.

"Sit down," they were ordered, and then shoved into what felt like metal chairs. "We have a lot of questions about this terrorist cell you guys are trying to operate on U.S. soil."

No one on the team moved or spoke.

He didn't want to land here. The compound wasn't home. This place would never, ever be home for him again.

Carlos glanced around the destroyed studio with waves of nausea roiling in his stomach. Panic vibrations were everywhere. He didn't want to face the team, didn't want to see the pity in their eye or the expressions on their faces. The team had betrayed him; they knew. This was Damali's family, not his. This was her world, not his. The only real family he had left, crazy as it seemed, was an old priest and a vampire brother from his old life.

Unable to stay in the studio another moment, Carlos bolted out the door, up the stairs, and then froze. What the hell had happened in here?

A different level of panic shot through him as he bellowed out names. "Damali! Jose! Rider! Marlene! Shabazz!"

Running through room by decimated room, he looked at the destruction. The front door was splintered. Armored-vehicle tracks on the carpet? Shit! He immediately raced to the weapons room and just stood in the doorway. Computers had been ripped from their housing, glass was everywhere. Weapons gone. Furniture overturned.

Carlos began running through the house, his senses keened, trying to feel for any distinguishable tracer that could tell him where his family had been taken. Unknown human blood and sweat was in the air. He honed in on Damali, but came away with nothing.

One by one he tried to sense each team member's vibration. They were alive, but very far away. In a cell, but where? Prison, a police lockup, military base, where? They had once worked for the government, had done a job in Tibet and in L.A., so how could this be happening?

Carlos spun in a confused circle and gathered the last of his strength to propel himself home. There was no getting around it, attempts to do anything but rest for a moment, eat, drink, and regenerate the expended energy would be futile. Then he'd try again... would go get another soldier to work with him--Yonnie.

Damali stood in awe at a place along the Nile controlled by dams, making the massive river capitulate to being a placid lake dotted by a series of islands, which turned black or red depending on the sun's mood.

Eve had told her about the ancient tombs of the Elephantine nobles that were dug into the rocks of the Gharbi Aswan escarpment, and to use those as a landmark. Here, she'd said, was also Aga Khan's mausoleum, and an ancient Coptic monastery. A place where the ancestors kept watch over the palm groves, temple remains, and massive, old botanical gardens.

This was the beginning point. Damali peered around and became a sparrow, following Eve's directions to go toward the terminus of the valley of the Nile in Upper Nubia, where the river was no longer navigable. Her destination was Lake Nassar. Beneath it were more than twenty-three temples and sanctuaries that had been rebuilt elsewhere. Everything had been submerged, like rumored- about Atlantis.

As she sailed over the surface of the azure blue water, she could almost feel the stones speaking to her, directing her on her quest. She needed the Caduceus, the Staff of Aesclepius... Thoth Hermes, in order to wield enough energy to break into the Land of Nod.

She touched down on Philae Island and hopped about, tilting her head. Where was the temple of Isis and the temple of Hathor? Eve had been sure that the island that bore the forerunner name of Philadelphia would be the one.

Damali quietly and discreetly took her human form. A small rose quartz stone bit into her sandal. When she stooped to collect it, she held the fifth stone she'd received tightly in her fist. Love? But she was on a mission to keep the realms separated.

Rather than argue with the mysteries of the universe, she shoved the stone into her white gauze pants pockets. Immediately the stone warmed her leg and she closed her eyes, sensed the vibration, and once again took flight as a small bird.

Everything had been moved to the island of Ajilka in modern times. Damali saw it mentally as she whirred against the wind, excited. The pavilion of Trajan used for the complex rituals of the goddess, just as Eve had said, was there. Fourteen bell-shaped sepia- hued stone columns on one side of the temple of Hathor marked it. Damali touched down hard, anticipation making her a little clumsy and stirring up dust.

But it took a moment for her feet to move as she stared up at the monumental entrance of a temple of birth dedicated to Isis the Elder. Her palms were moist with both reverence and awe as she began to move along the wide, flat steps toward the second pylon which gave way to a colonnaded room with ten columns and a portico with twelve shrines. Damali stayed extremely still, feeling the vibrations emanating from the interior crypt and the terrace devoted to the funerary shrine of Isis.

"Oh, great Queen Mother Isis, Aset, please guide me in the right path, make my choices wise," Damali whispered.

Instantly Damali's Isis materialized on her hip, not in her hand. She could only take that as a, message to be guarded, but stand down, there was no imminent danger. Damali nodded. "Thank you."

A slight flicker of light flared along the eastern wall of the portico, drawing her attention. A decree from Ptolemy V Epiphanies-- same one as on the famous Rosetta stone? Damali smiled, not needing to know the decree. That wasn't the point. Epiphanies, plural, that's what the old queens were signaling. Okay, she'd go with the flow of discovery.

"But where is the staff of Thoth Hermes?"

The word Philadelphia echoed in her mind in response.

"I've already been to the island of Philae, and it's not there," she said in a quiet voice, her patience straining. "Please don't send me back to the States to Philly."

"Under Ptolemy II Philadelphos," an out-of-body female voice whispered.

"Begun by the king of Ethiopia, on the site of the old temple," another whispered.

"The Temple of Dakka."

"Thank you," Damali said with an exasperated sigh as she turned and hurried outside.

Small fishing boats dotted the shore with splashes of prickly bushes and dried grasses. Deep yellow sand and earth covered her feet and clung to the hem of her white pants as she found the structure. The desertlike heat, however, was mercifully tolerable because of the off-water breeze.

She gazed up at the three floors of rooms and two terraces, deciding. Simply sensing her direction, Damali slipped into the entrance and vestibule, and made her way into the dark, musty space. Philae had given her a token of love via a rose quartz crystal. The temple of Isis promised epiphanies to come. Now all she had to do was navigate the isolated, dusty old building. The queens were deep, always answered spiritual questions in a riddle and in accordance with a cryptic numbering pattern. Three stops on this one. Damali froze. Three was the trinity, also representing man, woman, and child. Wholeness, healing. This structure had three floors. Okaaaay.

She raced up the steps and got to the top floor and counted three rooms to the right, working on a hunch. As she entered the dimly sunlit room, her eyes scanned the intricate friezes that were carved into the stone walls. Right in front of her face. A battle scene, a staff lowered over a king. The moment she neared it, the dual serpents on the scepter slid along the wall, making her jump back.

She watched the moving stone exit at the base of the wall with her hand readied on the hilt of her sword, but didn't move as two black snakes slithered along the floor, hissed at each other, struck, and then entwined in an erotic, pulsing dance. They separated so that a golden staff came between them and formed a large crystal ball at the top supported by a twined golden platform beneath it, and went still.

"Awesome," she whispered, not sure she was ready to go near the staff until the energy within it settled down. But she took a deep breath, moved toward the now all-golden instrument, and closed her fist around the smooth, round crystal globe.

Instantly, she was moving fast, everything around her blurred white, and she came to a hard stop on a grassy knoll. Majestic mountains were all around her. She glanced up at the strangely vivid blue sky that had two suns, one unnaturally iridescent, the other bearing down radiant solar heat. She scanned the horizon and slowly but surely, the mountainside wall gave way to the presence of two huge, black onyx sphinxes. Did she fall into the Valley of the Kings, or what?

Her heart beat fast, her nerves were wire taut. Even with her blade and a scepter on her, it wasn't about standing around waiting for something weird to jump off.

"Cain!" she shouted, hoping that he wouldn't materialize as something really freaky she'd have to fight.

Damali waited as she heard leisurely footfalls. She listened hard. No hoofs, okay, that was a very good sign. Two feet, not panther paws or something whack. No bat wings or the sound of leathery flight, a real positive sign. She clutched her staff tightly with one hand and her Isis handle with the other.

But her grip loosened as Cain came out of the entrance of what seemed like a temple. All he had on was a sheer swath of white linen casually tied at his hip. His broad chest was bare, his locks clasped back in a golden, scarab-studded band, his smile a serious weapon right through here.

"You came to me?" he said, his eyes appraising her without censure as he raised one knee, placed his bare foot against the onyx, and leaned against a sphinx base.

"Uh, yeah," Damali stammered, almost unable to look at him, he was so fine. "We need to talk."

"Be my guest," he said, his eyes constantly roving over her as he pushed away from the statue, gave her a slight bow, and waved her forward to enter.

Still a bit skeptical, Damali maintained her distance as she passed him. But as she did so, she could literally feel the charge of pure rnagnetism wafting off him. It almost knocked her down when she entered his space, and for a moment she just stood and openly gawked, unable to hide her amazement.

"This is you?" she murmured, her eyes drinking in the splendor. The pool immediately caught her attention, and she glanced at the bed, felt her face warm, and stared at the columns and ornate pottery instead.

He chuckled low and deep in a sensual, relaxed manner. "This is a part of me," he said. "Come, sit down, and we shall talk."

He bade her to sit beside him on a white alabaster bench by the pool. She did, no longer feeling quite so tense. There was no way to keep her line of vision from his. "You have the most amazing eyes," she said, not sure where all that came from. But it was the truth.

His smile became gentle and he looked away as though her forthright statement had embarrassed him. "As do you," he finally replied. Then he chuckled self-consciously. "I thought you came here to talk?"

He'd made her laugh.

"I was all prepared to do that, and then you came through the door in a half-toga and messed me up."

They both laughed. She couldn't believe she was saying this stuff to him, especially when she was supposed to be getting hard questions answered... but she was actually flirting with him. Crazy!

"I was resting," he admitted with a brilliant smile. "After coming through the rip, and dealing with my wayward guest--"

"Carlos!" Was she outta her mind? She'd almost forgotten why she was over here in Nod.

Cain chuckled more deeply and sighed. "Yes. Him."

"Where is he?" she asked, now appropriately alarmed. If this brother was all chilled out after a battle and resting and cleaned up, that meant only one thing, Carlos was--

"No," Cain said calmly, taking her weapon and the staff to lay them aside in order to clasp both of her hands within his. "He went back home."

Damali removed her hands from within Cain's, and then glanced at the staff and her blade on the bench, wondering what in tarnation would allow her to let the man so easily disarm her. "How do I know that?"

"Would I lie to you, sweet one?"

She smiled. He laughed, sat back, and slung his arm over the back of the bench.

"First of all, you would not be smiling if you thought I had done harm."

Damali swallowed her smile. "All right, true."

"Secondly, you saw how we entered this space." He waited until she nodded. "We both needed to come to terms, he and I." Now she was really nervous. "And?"

"We did what irrational males do," he said, looking at her with a sidelong, sheepish glance and a grin. "We fought until we both were battered and very tired. Then we stood in the glen hurling insults at each other, attempting to catch our breaths. Then we decided that the whole ordeal was futile, and I invited him back to my home to clean himself up, change, and rest so he could go home."

She covered her mouth and laughed. "Stop playing."

"No, sweet one. He and I were evenly matched. I was weakened from the energy distortion in your world, he from the molecular difference in mine. He had to go home, as we subsist on only energy here. There is no food or water to replenish him... or blood. Which is why, as much as I would enjoy your enduring company, you cannot stay for an extended visit, either."

"That is so deep," she murmured, looking at the room again with new eyes, her gaze fastened to the pool.

Cain cocked his head to the side and motioned toward the scepter with his chin. "You must have really thought we had done bodily injury to each other to come with the healing rod of Imhotep."

"I did," Damali said quietly, so glad that she'd found Cain this way. "So did your mother. We were both worried about you guys." "My mother?" he said, his tone so tender that Damali could barely breathe. "You went to her on my behalf?"

Damali nodded. "She told me to tell you that she loves you and always has... always will."

Cain stood and walked down the long edge of the pool, his back to Damali. She could tell that deep emotions had propelled him from his seat, and that he was battling his composure. She hadn't meant to upset him, but had promised his mother that a message would be delivered.

His regal waist-length locks swayed gently side to side as his long, calm strides moved his body like living fluid along the reflective water's edge. "Please tell her that a thousand lifetimes can never blot the stain on my soul for breaking her heart," he said through a shaky inhale. His voice dropped an octave to soft whisper. "Tell that queen of all that is human, I love her, too."

Damali almost burst out crying, but took a deep breath instead. "I'm so sorry that I picked at an old wound, I just promised her, though, for the key into Nod, that I'd--"

Cain held up his hand, closed his eyes, as he turned to face Damali. "No apology for giving me a gift beyond compare. That you found out my name, went to such lengths to visit me with no harsh judgment in your eyes, and came to me with my mother's message on your beautiful lips . . ." He looked at the scepter in her hand. "My mother is always trying to fix what she never broke. She has sent you the spiritual teacher's rod, the healer's rod with kundalini energy tapped into the microcosm." He closed his eyes again. "Ever hopeful that I would not turn out like my father again, she sends this as a message of her hope. You did not need the staff to enter. As an in-flesh Neteru, you can enter at your focused will."

Damali looked at the staff and at Cain as he opened his eyes and pure tenderness reflected back from them. "She--"

"Is worried, by all rights," he said, lifting his chin and raking his hair. He stopped moving and stared at Damali. "Do you know how long it has been since I laid eyes on my beloved mother?"

Damali could only shake her head. His pain was so profound that it entered her pores. All she wanted to do at that moment was hug him and take it from him. How could this man be the harbinger of evil?

"I served my earth sentence as a banished man," he said quietly, no bitterness in his voice, just weary acceptance. "I lived a long time, tried to make things right by marrying many wives, living a respectable life, and caring for and loving all my earthly children. But when I died, the realms could not decide where I should go. Both had reasonable claim, so I was reincarnated here, with full memory. The boredom was nearly maddening, at first. However, I tethered my mind to learning all from every papyrus scroll in the great libraries."

"But you still have the blade of Ausar," Damali said, standing, collecting the staff, and going to him.

"Indeed," Cain replied, motioning toward it on a faraway bench. "The Roundtable of Kings wanted to see if I would bring order from chaos, would be able to even hold it--a sign that I had not gone dark."

She came close enough to him to place her hand on the center of his chest. The staff touched the floor as her palm connected with his skin.

His eyes slid closed and a slight shudder passed through him. Now she knew why Eve had sent the rod with her.

"Enough pain for a lifetime, the last one or this," Damali whispered. "I feel you are a good soul."

He covered her hand as he drew a ragged breath. "The balm... you would offer me a Neteru heart balm?"

"You deserve it," Damali whispered, fully embracing him in a hug. "You are a good man, son of my queen mother, of Neteru brethren, with silver in your soul. What happened before was tragic, should have never happened. But I also believe in redemption."

He held her tightly with a sob trapped in his chest, just rocking her and kissing the crown of her head. She could hear him about to speak several times, but then heard his words get choked back down his throat on a thick, mucous swallow. Yet she also knew he was too proud to allow his tears to fall. So she didn't require that he speak, or look at her, and simply allowed her balm to penetrate his heart through the patient strokes down his back.

After his inner storm passed, he held her away from him, brushed her mouth, and let go of her to walk across the room.

"You should see what I guard," he said with regal authority.

Damali watched wide-eyed as he stripped the sheath of fabric away from his body at the door of his closet, and began searching for his armor. Totally mesmerized, she had to find a bench to sit down on before she fell down.

"While here, and should you ever come due to a barrier break in the energy seals between our kingdoms, you cannot judge by parental lineage."

She wasn't sure what he was talking about. His baritone voice was running all through her, the military battle, no-nonsense tone in it making the hair on her arms rise. She almost wanted to just start some mess to see the brother pull a blade, but tucked that insane thought away and tried to listen as he mounted his golden breastplate, and put his helmet under his arm. Have mercy . . .

"Half-human, half-angel does not mean that entity is good. It may have made a choice to use the preternatural power in a negative way-- just as my grandfather fell from grace. Conversely, I have a best friend, her father was a dragon... but she has a heart of gold. This is what makes this realm so challenging. It is a mirror image of earth, a gray zone, where choice is based upon an individual soul, not a broad category or fila. Any entity with a soul can make a choice, hence be redeemed, unlike original demons created in the nether realms."

"Then how do you know?" Damali whispered. Cain was blowing her mind with new knowledge.

"You must sense the vibrations off the entity in question. Hence, I, no more than you, am interested in having the earth prematurely flooded. There must be a very strict scrutiny for passage out to assist in the final war."

Damali nodded. This brother was pushing so many right buttons she was sure she was glowing. "Like a celestial or interdimensional passport system."

"Yes," he said, offering her his elbow as he passed.

She accepted it, but it was such an Old World gesture that she wasn't sure how to react. He brought her to the edge of the clearing at the end of the cliff, unsheathed the blade he was wearing, and used it like a pointer, lighting the sky in sparkling, golden filaments.

"I will show you the main pavilion, the broad thoroughfares, and the temples. The libraries are expansive. As are the universities. In the residential districts, each palace was the prototype for the ones later human-designed. There is a sensory space at the outreaches. The hall of whispers. This is where beings so moved will try to pierce the veil to send humanity inspiration, or nightmares, whichever their choice."

"Is that where you met me?" she asked quietly, still marveling as she looked down the building-studded landscape in the jewel- green valley below. Then she remembered the vibes coming off the alley bricks behind the club, her mind ablaze with curiosity.

"No," he said quietly. "I will tell you where, later." He smiled. "To begin that explanation will make me lose focus."

Again she felt her face warm from his words. "This is awesome though," she said, peering over the cliff. She backed up from the edge of it and glanced around. "This is all energy?" She stooped to pick a blade of grass, studying it so closely her eyes nearly crossed.

Within the cool green blade, she could see tiny whirls of energy in-teracting as though the atoms in the structure were visible through the translucent, iridescent-green casing. Delighted, she brought it to her ear and listened hard to the soft, humming resonance it contained.

He seemed so pleased that he rubbed his jaw and paced away from her as though needing the distance to not touch her. "I can transport you down--"

"No," she said, laughing. "I can do it."

"You can? Here?" Raw desire began to take over his brown irises. "The laws of gravity still apply, you know."

She shrugged, dropped the scepter, and unfastened her Isis, which made his eyes go straight silver. Then she became a sparrow and took off down the side of the cliff. He was waiting for her when she reached the bottom, and he held out her Isis and her scepter to her.

"You should have these as you walk," he said just above a whisper.

"Thanks," she replied, more quietly than intended. "But why do you have armor on, just to stroll through town?" That she needed to know.

"Because I'm with you, and you are flesh," he said calmly, his gaze sweeping the pedestrian-packed boulevard.

Spectacularly attractive beings in unique combinations from every human ethnicity nodded at him as they passed along the pristine, shimmering stone streets. She'd been many places in the world, but had never been anywhere that one could potentially eat off the glistening, clean pavements.

Some of the passersby glimpsed his sword and hers, showing a hint of fang in their smiles, but allowed them to continue onto the destination without incident. She could feel him bristle with each visually curious invasion.

"People seem to be cool, so . . ."

"I may be king, but--"

"You're what?"

He looked away and smiled and held his chin up a little higher. "I will show you where it is dangerous to be when the three moons rise. We do not have a formal night. But once the solar sun goes dark each eve, the one that bears no heat is dimmer, not reflective light. Three moons rise... ours, yours that can be seen through the barrier, and the one that is the lunar pulse of creation. I will also show you where there are residences to avoid."

"Y'all even have a badlands here? Deep."

"Quite, and no place for any human, much less a lady."

"What happened?"

He stopped walking as they passed a massive library flanked by huge,

white marble lions. "In a.d. nineteen forty-three your calendar, foolish men on your plane, in what they called scientific pursuit, manifested a battleship into our harbor. Because of the energy distortion here, and the higher molecular frequency that only Neterus can adapt to, some of the men on the ship spontaneously combusted on impact with our atmosphere. Some got frozen in a motion stasis as their atomic structure could not make the transition from the slowed vibrations to the higher ones here. They were the lucky ones." He began walking again, but she placed her hand on his arm.

"Talk to me, Cain. This is partially why I'm here. I have to know what could happen if beings from your side come out to earth's plane."

"I was at court when it occurred." His eyes blazed with anger and pain as he spoke. "The smell of scorching human flesh hit the atmosphere and blackened it with a stench that those from the lower proclivities hadn't smelled so strongly since their time on earth. The smell of human flesh and blood created riot. Screaming human men rent the air, drawing the strongest of the dark-soul beings to the battleship first. Those with higher vibrations attempted to intervene. My parliament fractured right on the spot. Angelic-based beings tried to cover the living humans with their wings and carry them to safety, but those with equal strength and larger, leathery wingspans ripped bodies apart in midair struggles. Those humans that survived were taken to the shadow wall as my allies and I battled our way to them."

He raked his hair and looked off into the distance. "But by the time we got there, those human men had been raped and violated and passed around until their internal injuries killed them." He closed his eyes and let out a breath of frustration. "Then the ship summarily vanished with a few humans who had escaped desecration. That is when the feeding began. We sent battalions into the air, searching for remains that had been secreted away. We could not even bury the corpses. Those who burned... even their charred bones were fought over."

She couldn't speak as he began walking again. This time she didn't stop him, just stayed by his side in a matched stride. The horror of what he'd described put a chill down her spine, and definitely put the experiment Rabbi Zeitloff had explained into serious perspective. Cain needn't worry though. She had no intention of getting caught here, alone, after the three moons rose, if it was all of that. But what he'd told her also put every last piece of the puzzle in place for her. Plus, he hadn't lied to her--major points for him.

However, these beings could not get out. If this was what was over here all mixed up with humans and some half-angels and half- demons, then the breach had to be sealed ASAP, and any crazy military experiments had to stop. But even with all the insane information she'd just acquired, several very comforting things had also been determined in her mind. Cain was good. He was obviously supposed to have a blend of three elements--to be the mirror image of what Carlos represented on the earth side.

Cain, to her reasoning, was a strong spiritual Neteru warrior to guard the inside of the door, after serving a sentence for doing the unspeakable. This brother knew hard time, had been in the streets back in the day when the real biblical deal was going down, had been seasoned by experience, and knew a game when he saw one. He had to live it in order to know a demon with fangs hiding in half-human form when he saw one. Just like the Light had clearly made a younger, strong male Neteru on the outside who had similar experiences and proclivities, and who was helping to keep a lid on from the earth side of the door.

Problem was, she was really beginning to like this one over in Nod perhaps a little too much for her own good. She spied Cain from the corner of her eye. He was sexy, knowledgeable, and real cool. He seemed to know so much, and she wanted to spend hours picking his brain about all the things he'd seen over the years, all the aerial battles and strategy, down to the technology housed in all the libraries flanking the boulevard. He had both street smarts and ancient scroll smarts, and packaged in a body that made her wanna slap her mother-seer.

Thick vibe had settled between them as they walked along quietly side by side. The brother wanted her, but wasn't all up in her face, the time in the studio notwithstanding. He had backed off, was serving gentleman to the bone. She wouldn't hold that momentary lapse in her condo and studio against him, given an apex, anything coulda kicked off. His mom was good people, in fact, she was a queen. He exuded quiet, secure authority. Plus, by rights, when he could have just kicked Carlos's ass, he didn't. Took the high road. Now that she respected. Comparisons and what ifs were tumbling around in her brain so hard that she almost forgot they were walking beside each other.

Cain stretched out his arm before her to keep her from moving forward as they approached a shadowy corridor in a realm that cast no shadows. The light from above didn't reach the ground here where the small opening at the edge of the city was lined by high walls. "Draw your Isis."

Damali did, but a current of desire ran through her when she obliged. Cain hadn't told her to wait here. Hadn't said some macho bull like, "Baby, I got this, it's too dangerous for you." Instead, he'd simply put her on guard and told her to draw like an equal warrior, while nonverbally requesting that she only follow him because he'd been here before. Now that was also deep.

"The walls," he said, leveling his blade at them. "Put your hand near one.

She did, and a human face with its eyes closed and mouth opened pressed against it as though the structure were rubber: She snatched her hand back.

"Those are seekers. Humans with deep, unfulfilled desires in their subconscious, which makes them vulnerable to suggestions-- good or bad. They want what is not resident in them, seek gifts that are not theirs to be had in their current incarnations, and want things from the exterior of themselves, versus what is already deep within."

Cain stared at her. "I never sought you here. You never yearned from here. Knowing in your soul that you had a gift, and you did, and wanting your gift to shine does not send you to the seeking wall, and does not draw the negative energies. That brings the Light. That brings inspiration. Not false promises in trade for the liquid sensation of mental touch at this wall."

"Damn," she whispered. "Your red-light district? This was what I saw behind the club."

"Even some good beings accidentally wind up here under the self-deluded guise that they are helping the seekers move away from the wall. When caught and embarrassed, they claim that they've told the seekers to go within, to focus on their real gifts, and to seek divine guidance." Cain scoffed. "Self-professed evangelists, who get enmeshed in the seduction of this corridor and wind up whispering more than inspirational messages of Light." He smiled. "Let us leave this foul place. But you needed to witness it for yourself. It will flood with negative energies as the moons rise."

"Where to?"

He smiled as the rejuvenating light poured over them when they exited the dank, gray corridor. "Would you like to see my palace, and where I hold court?"

She swallowed a chuckle. Once all business was handled now he was the one flirting. "Okay."

Damali almost laughed out loud as an occasional blue arc would creep across his armor, discharging static as they leisurely strolled down a palm-lined boulevard. Cain seemed like an excited teenager, and she could almost feel his energy quickening her pace as his anticipation built. She glimpsed his strong, proud profile from the corner of her eye. How in the world did she wind up in the company of a king, she wondered?

But as they passed a huge, glass pyramid structure that had blocked her view, she simply stopped walking and stared.

"Oh, my God . . ."

"You like it?" he asked, unable to stop beaming at her.

She shook her head and blew out a long whistle, then censured herself as the sound with vibration made him briefly close his eyes. "It's amazing," she said, recovering quickly. And it was.

A glistening white, monumental seven-columned structure sat on a slight rise with a three-block-long promenade of majestic palms before it. Above the main entrance was a carved relief of the disc of Heru, with the blade of Asuar. On one huge golden door a winged falcon was fused with a double sun, and the same symbols she'd seen on his sword inscribed into the metal. On the other was the feather of Ma'at with the forty-two laws written in the ancient language. Six white stone lions, three per side, guarded the doorway. She watched Cain snap, the lions come to life, purr and fawn at his passage as he guided her up what had to be three hundred steps, and then find their perches again to once more become stone.

With a gentle shove, the several-ton doors opened, perfectly weight-balanced. In the grand portico, they stood on a mosaic-strewn tile floor of opalescent white fused together with silver and gold mortar. She could look down what had to be a thousand steps to an azure-surfaced pool studded by indoor palms and benches that terminated with what seemed to be a parliamentary galley facing a marble podium and an ornately carved white marble judge's chair.

"Whew," she whispered. "You guys don't mess around on this side, do you? Talk about taking things to the max."

"The rest of it is behind the main court. Very similar to the smaller design that Solomon employed once he understood the architectural dynamics."

"Solomon based his temple on yours?"

"All the great architecture is based on ours," Cain said, seeming slightly offended. She swallowed another smile and briefly thought of Carlos. If he'd seen this, then her man was definitely not all right. "Are you sure that you don't have Carlos locked away in a dungeon somewhere?" she asked, half-joking. "I know how he can be, and he might not have taken any of this well."

Cain chuckled and sighed. "Put your hands out before you. Sense for him here. Do you pick up any physical distress?"

Damali cast Cain a sidelong look and began sensing. It wasn't physical distress that concerned her.

"No," she finally said. "But I just don't see him coming here under battle bulk conditions, getting tired, chilling, and then saying see ya later. I am worried about him." She sheathed her blade and placed her hands on her hips. "Wanna tell me what really happened when you guys hit the pavement on this side of the world?"

"I really do not," Cain said with a sly grin. "But I will relent. We will save the tour of the palace for your next visit, should you honor me again." He touched her hair and allowed his hand to fall away. "I should take you back to the cliff dwelling, before I forget why you came here."

On that note, she decided it was best to keep any further questions to herself for the moment. The air had charged around them again, and she had to stay on mission.

It was all in the way he turned slowly, rolled his neck as though he was talking to himself hard inside his head, took a deep breath, and began walking. The erotic charge he left in his wake stripped the air from her lungs for a few seconds, and only then did her feet heed the command of her brain to begin moving.

"I should take you back up," he said calmly once they'd reached the base of the mountain. "You have been here a while and your energy is starting to wane. I can feel it."

That was no lie. It was getting harder to put one foot before the other, and a shape-shift right now would be difficult to pull off.

"I'd appreciate that," she said quietly, almost afraid to go near him. As the second moon rose, he was reeking raw sensuality. It wasn't that she didn't trust him; she didn't trust herself at this point.

She closed her eyes as his arms enfolded her, and felt the lift, the slight whir and pressure change, then a soft landing.

"I will take you to the ravine where the barrier is thin," he murmured, his eyes searching hers with a question. "But... I have questions I would like to also ask you. Will you visit for just a while longer? Please."

What could she say to that? Damali nodded against her better judgment and allowed his warm hand to cover hers as he led her inside. She noticed that he'd deposited her on a bench deeper into his cliffside palace than she'd been before, closer to the bed, and she watched him stall for time, changing into a soft white robe, losing the armor and weapon. Her Isis got discarded at her feet as she silently slid it under the bench with the staff. She waited for his return with her pulse racing. She knew she wasn't supposed to be here, like this, but. . .

"May I ask you a personal question, sweet one?" he said, sitting slowly beside her and not leaving her much room for evasion.

"I guess," she shrugged, trying to break eye contact with him. Impossible.

"What do you want for your life? How do you envision it?"

Somewhat stunned, she blinked twice and really had to make her brain work on the last question she'd expected him to ask. "I'm not sure what you mean. I have to be a vampire huntress, Neteru, whatever. That's just the way it is."

"That is not what I am asking. That is a duty. You, nor I, have any additional choice about the call that we have chosen to heed. What I have asked is, what do you want to do with the part of your life that is not already consumed by this responsibility?"

His low, sensual voice rumbled through her belly as she fought to remain centered on his question. His finger traced her temple down to the edge of her jaw, which definitely helped to make the answer fuzzy.

The truth leapt out of her mouth as she stared into his eyes and slowly took in his handsome face. "I don't know, honestly. My life is kinda crazy, and there isn't room in it for all the things I used to want."

"Examples. The past is illuminating. Did the old queens not give you the Sankofa symbol that looks over its shoulder to the past to inform its future?"

The brother was rapping so hard and calm that he was a serious contender for change. At the mention of the tattoo, her back lit with a slow heat.

"Yeah, they did. But lately I feel like I've been looking over my shoulder running from stuff, not being informed by it."

He smiled and traced her collarbone, making her nipples sting. "The huntress being hunted? That will never do."

"That's how it feels sometimes," she told him honestly, trying to keep from drowning in his eyes.

"Think of the areas in your life beyond the battles," he murmured, the pad of his thumb leisurely stroking her upper arm. "Your music. Your mate. Your home. What makes you laugh? What do you do for enjoyment when not working?"

She almost gasped as the gentle stroke transferred from her arm to the now very wet slit between her legs. "If you want me to give you a thought-filled answer, you have to stop."

He offered her a contrite smile. "My apologies. You are just so incredible that the very male part of me often gets confused in your presence." He pulled his hand away and the ache it left behind was nearly painful. "I really do want to know what is on your mind, Damali. Although it might not appear that way, I am concerned about more than your body."

Now that line, even if it was probably a line, blew her away. She swallowed hard and folded her hands in her lap to keep from touching him. And the way his voice bottomed out when he'd said her name... oh, man, she was in trouble!

"Uh, I don't know how much I've allowed myself to really think about what I've wanted, in all these years. Like, with the music, I didn't want to be a superstar, really. I just wanted to be up on the stage, jammin', giving it, serving the people serious knowledge, music... aw, man, Cain, when I'm up on the stage, it's like, like--"

"Making love," he said on a deep exhale, his voice bottoming out again. "Sweetness, I know."

She stood up and walked around the bench to give herself some air. The passion in her outburst, and the way it had almost knocked his head back--it was time to change the subject. "I love going to the movies, rollerblading, just hanging out, grooving on people, playing cards with the fellas . . ." She stopped and came back to where she'd been sitting and flopped beside him. "But the best part is the kids."

She leaned in toward him, her gaze locked with his, stone serious. "When we go to a rec center, or just out in the neighborhoods, and I see a kid really hearing me, not just mesmerized by the drama of some icon rolling through... ya know. Like, when one of them gets it. Hears me. I can feel it. Like, that one's got potential, no matter who their mom or dad is, no matter what circumstances they're living in, one of 'em got the message--that's what I live for."

He'd stopped breathing for a moment, his eyes blazed silver rimmed in gold. He nodded, stood, and paced away from her to stand behind their bench. "You are vibrationally sensitive to the human condition and want to elevate it. That is pure Light, Damali. Do not allow the battles to keep you from remembering the human condition, from being gentle with it, from returning to it regularly to recharge your spirit."

The conversation was turning them both on too much, but it was the first time anyone had ever asked her what she really wanted. She was drawn to finish it, didn't want to break the connection now. The philosophical exchange was opening new channels of discovery in her mind. But she also had to be careful as she listened to him labor to breathe while he kept his distance.

"That's what I want," she said in a faraway tone, her voice so melancholy that he rounded the bench, sat quickly, and held both her hands.

"I want, for the relationship part of my life, a situation that recharges my battery, and doesn't drain it."

She could feel his hands heat up and tremble so hard as they clasped hers within them that their fingers simply entwined by reflex to stop it. Her truth poured out, and flowed over their laps as she talked to their hands. Sudden tears stung her eyes for no reason at all, needing to release the tension and weariness of dealing with a high-voltage duo for so long that she couldn't remember what normal might be.

"I don't want to fight all the time," she said in a tight whisper, "or be in mad-crazy drama all the time. I want some stillness and serenity in between battles where I can create music, and work with kids.... I want trust, everlasting. I want to never have to walk on eggshells around egos about who's in charge... ya know? I want to be able to teach as well as learn--not just battle skills, but deep stuff, spiritual stuff. I want mutual respect and safe harbor for my deepest dreams. And, one day, I want to have children and not be afraid that their father is gonna go do some wild mess to put me or them in harm's way."

He slowly lowered his forehead until it touched hers. The damp sheen of perspiration on his brow had risen in shimmering, infinitesimal droplets as though his skin were leaking gold. The silver Neteru symbol on his chest had lit a neon signal beneath his sheer white robe, and had begun pulsing. Every structure in the room vibrated with slow, melodic murmurs that strummed desire through her cells. His bed was literally calling her name in a low, whispering mantra of bass lines and quiet baritone gasps. Their breaths in the small space between their clasped hands and touching foreheads created billowing warmth that spread over their chests and thighs, added a recycling heat to their faces as they both drew in and released slow, agonized breaths.

"Your spirit is sure. Your body is sure," he murmured. "But your heart is conflicted. I will not press the issue to add to heartbreak, though you cannot imagine how much I want to right now."

"I've never been with anyone else but him," she whispered.

Cain took in a breath through his mouth, cringed as though she'd stabbed him, and tilted his head. "Devastation, listen to me. Right now, you have--"

"He hurt me, Cain," she said, her eyes shut hard and her knees pressed tightly together. "This time around . . ."

"Go home. Become clear. I do not want you to do this because you are functioning from a vibration of anger or fear or anything from the lower octaves, and then blame me later. That would kill me."

She almost slid off the bench when he let her hands go, pulled his forehead away from hers, and dropped his head back with his eyes closed, beginning to hyperventilate. Her blouse and pants were sticking to her in a damp fusion with her skin. She was so turned on, it felt like she was ripening. "You sure?" She'd never had to ask a man that in her life.

He nodded with his eyes closed, breathing through his mouth. His voice came out on a gravelly whisper. "You are a child of the sun, as am I," he said, his sentences becoming choppy. "You are a Leo, I am a Leo, which rules the higher self, rules the will sector of the spirit."

She couldn't tell whether he was reminding himself, or trying to impart some deep information to her. But watching him try to talk, make sense, be chivalrous and not touch her, all at the same time was disorienting. His discipline was shredding hers. "That's why we're probably a perfect match."

He shook his head, now gulping air. "That is why you cannot go back and forth. He is a Scorpio, which rules the lower self-- desires and lusts. You two will be at odds back and forth until the end of time."

She pressed her hand to her heart, unable to stop looking at him as she spoke. "I know. I'll go home and resolve it, either way. I don't trust him anymore."

"That is not a reason to be with me," he said, bringing his head up slowly to stare at her with solid silver irises rimmed in three layers of gold. "If you choose to be with me, let it be because you trust me. That I am your friend, above all things. That you know I will never hurt you. Understand that my honor for you is worth drawing a blade in battle. Know that I would protect your music as much as our children."

Hot silver tears covered his irises but did not fall. A slight hint of fang crested, which almost made her stand as his voice dropped another octave and set off a depth charge within her canal.

"Detriment to my soul, I am hunted by you. My pride is no more. I would share you with him, rather than to not have you at all. Me. A king. Yes. But I am so torn apart at this moment that I am compelled to tell you what I have never told another woman. I would allow him to live, rather than have you ever hate me and shun me. And if he sired with you first, I would protect what grew inside you--because it was half yours! This is why I am afraid to bed you in my own lair tonight. After that, I will be slain, and I am old enough to be aware of that consequence."

He shook his head, stood, and pointed at her. "That is why you must be clear, and there can be no back and forth on this issue. It is not fair to either of us." He pulled his arm away, placed both hands atop his head, and began walking deeper into the massive room.

Somehow she found herself on the floor, not sure if she slid off the bench, or what. Every long stride he took down the side of the pool made her want to get up arid follow him. She was sweating silver; it was all over her hands as she tried to pat the puddle of moisture that had formed in the V of her throat. Her face was flushed, mouth dry, body flashing hot and cold as she watched his shoulders knead beneath fabric that should have been gone to show off his fabulous skin.

His thick ropes of dreadlocks swayed down his back like an angry lion's tail, his tight, stone-cut ass tapered into thick, marble-hard legs, and when he turned to hotly walk toward her, she fell back balancing on both hands behind her, eyes half-closed, panting.

"I've never felt like this in my life," she whispered, her gaze purely carnal as it raked its way down his torso and lingered on his groin. She had to remember to look up at his face to finish what she was trying to say, but forgot what that was as he outstretched his hand for her to stand and follow him to bed.

"Nor I, ever, in several thousand years."

It was now or never, and she was beyond saying no. But the fact that she was actually going to do this was almost an out-of-body experience. Forgetting that the pool wasn't water, she dipped her hand into it to splash the cool substance on her face. Last-minute clarity had been the objective. Yet it happened so fast, Cain's stooping down and yelling no, but unable to catch her wrist as it came up--the blue energy covered her eyes and forehead.

"What?" she murmured as he got down on his hands and knees, stricken, holding her to him.

"Oh, sweetness, I did not have time to remove the charged energy in this pool. No woman should ever see... Please forgive that it was in my home." .

He hugged her so tightly as he stroked her hair that she gasped just to breathe; it wasn't passion.

"Cain... I don't understand what. . ." Her words slowed down as the image finally settled behind her eyes into her second-sight. Her body froze and trapped a sob that she refused to allow to break free. "He did it to me again . . ." Her head found Cain's shoulder as she absently stroked his long bundle of locks down his back. "This time it's a she-dragon?" Damali laughed, but the sound of it was discordant with the harmonic energies around her.

"And here I was trying to put the Isis in my guilt," she said, her voice becoming quieter and quieter. "Right here I was wrestling that bitch of an emotion to the ground, trying to--"

"Shush," Cain said as her hand balled into a fist at his back. "Let me take this out of your mind," he said, kissing her temple.

She shook her head no as her visions blurred with the hot moisture in her eyes. "No. I need to remember this live and in living color." "I would not have--"

Her hard kiss crushed away his words, but to her surprise, he yanked out of her hold and held her cheek firmly, now on top of her, looking at her eye to eye.

"Not like this. Hand me the rod. You need the healing balm, not for me to add insult to your injury by fucking you. I will make love to you, but never fuck you. Now hand me the rod."

She could feel her face begin to crumble as his words and wisdom slapped her hard. It was the kindest, noblest thing any man had ever done for her, and she could no more reach for the rod than stop sobbing. She gathered up the front of Cain's robe and buried her face in it, as she felt him grip her with one arm and reach to something just out of his grasp with the other.

His calm, repetitive, shushing sounds made her cry harder as every indignity she'd experienced in dealing with Carlos and all his female side deals and shenanigans suddenly crested over the edge of her heart with bitter tears and wiped out a major portion of her respect for him. She saw it all. Cain had meant him no harm, had tried to take him to court, but, noooo... Carlos's pride and his side-dealing ways had him balling some dragon broad in Cain's house to get a passport home. Could he wait for her to break through--no--and why? Because he didn't give her credit as a Neteru to be able to quickly figure out a strategy. So doing some broad was an acceptable excuse? Not!

"I am so tired!" she shouted at Cain's chest.

"I know, sweet one. Light of my world, it will pass. Give me the pain. I will hold it."

"No," she finally said, as the fast-moving storm quickly ebbed.

She struggled to sit up and disengage their bodies, which he obliged as he laid the rod over his legs. She wiped her eyes and face and let out a cleansing breath.

"This isn't your mess. I need to go home and clean it up myself. You were right. I needed to be clear and make decisions. Being conflicted is a waste of energy. Clean break." She stood with effort and grabbed her Isis.

Cain gave her a spurious look. "Do not jeopardize your soul by goring him in vengeance, dear one."

"You keep the healing rod. I'll keep the blade when I have the conversation. If I lose my temper during the conversation--"

Cain stood so quickly that he stopped her words midsentence. His kiss crushed away her argument as his hand gently removed the Isis from her and it clattered to the floor beside them.

"Not like this," he murmured into her mouth. "Not ever like that." His tongue dueled with hers as his hands splayed instant heat against her Sankofa. "Let me take the pain."

"You can have it all . . ."

Her body hit silk sheets, blanketed by his radiant warmth. Sound fused with sensation as each fiber in the threads produced delirium-level pleasure. Lightning arced between each crystal pyramid on the four golden posts of the bed, and formed a central, blue-white globe of energy that rained down a sheet of erotic tempest that encased them. Her fingers tangled in his locks while her legs became a vise around his waist. The burn from his kiss became one with the throbbing tattoo on his chest, seizing her heart into pleasure arrhythmia as he moved against her, kissing her deeply.

The vibrations emanating from him, the perfect-pitch tonal vibrations of the bed, and everything around him, turned her gasp into a near shriek. Intoxicating scents released from the flowers and ferns, sending music into the depths of her soul with his low groans. Urgency combined with gentleness began to strip away her clothes as she arched to his touch, each caress falling upon her skin like liquid fire.

"Become my wife," he whispered, his voice ragged with desire. She could barely breathe, let alone answer as she forced herself to open her eyes and stare into his silver-gold gaze. Her hand trembled as it cupped his cheek and touched a jaw packed with what felt like pure steel. Before she could answer, his fangs crested and he knocked her head back so hard that she literally saw stars.

Hot, steaming, desire-filled breath covered her throat where Carlos had once marked her, and her hands gripped a pair of foreign shoulders, urging the bite.

"You must answer me," Cain said, his voice faltering with need. "I cannot deliver a divorce bite to a councilman's wife without it." He licked the overly sensitive pulse point and kissed each now-visible puncture wound before poising his fangs a quarter inch wider than Carlos's at her jugular.

A divorce bite? Sudden clarity sliced at her mind. Wait... that wasn't from the realms of Light. Her body tensed. Cain drew away just enough to look at her and then took her mouth so hard that his fangs nearly split her lip.

"I'll replace it with pure silver and gold," he murmured harshly against her forehead, and then nuzzled her throat until she writhed under him. "Devastation... God as my witness, you'll never have to go home to him again!" "Uhmmm . . ."

Lyrics filled her head, her spirit, and her very soul as a mind-altering orgasm shattered her with his kiss.

"Oh, God, I don't know--a divorce is--"

"Permanent. I don't want an affair! I want your all." Cain's tense whisper contracted her womb, spilling her wet readiness as her body flamed to another climax.

Jesus help her, she couldn't speak. The man was working on her in stereophonic sound waves of pleasure, driving ecstasy insanity to a level that made her weep. "But permanent is--"

"You are a queen . . ." he murmured into her mouth, and then swallowed her gasp. "I am a king. We both deserve the best--each other."

His kisses became more aggressive as her body began to yield again under his hold. Golden sweat dripped from his forehead to her breasts as his mouth found the V in her throat and his palms slid beneath her shoulder blades with a scorching caress.

"Damali, I can feel something just beneath the surface of your wondrous skin," he breathed out, his expression awed. "Please, do not deny me, lover; I must have your permission--you know this," he whispered, pressing hard, hot kisses to her shoulder as she arched and tried to think at the same time. "There must be complete acceptance of all that I am to you. Your body and mouth have already said yes... your mind is already near vapor... let me take you to the V-point and show you the cosmos as you have never dreamed of witnessing it. My angel of redemption, just say yes in your spirit," he moaned, now stuttering the request as he nuzzled her throat.

Cain's hands went at her skull. "Mind lock... while we are so close to the edge. You know how that will shatter us. Oh, Damali, what claim does that betrayer have to your soul?" Cain's words had become a frantic plea broken by a pleasure gasp. "Give me your trinity, baby. Let me take it." His head was thrown back, eyes shut tightly, the pulse in his jugular a magnet for a sudden strike.

She couldn't help herself, the bite was reflex, carnal instinct that released his voice in a thousand splinters of pure white light that bounced off the lair walls and refracted in a blinding essence behind her lids. Her black box collapsed in on itself. Only a small line of silver arc blocked him from Carlos's domain in her mind. The rumble of frustration that thundered up from Cain's groan almost melted it away.

Instantly nude, their sweat stained the sheets silver and gold, his throbbing length poised for entry just as his incisors lowered in wait for the plunge. Her head was spinning and pleasure had created a near blackout as he slid against her wet slit with hot friction, but didn't penetrate her. She could feel her spirit giving way as her hands slid up his massive back, setting off a low, aching resonance within them.

A loud gong rang out and jerked their attention toward the entrance. The unmistakable sound of both feathered and leather flight made them both sit up quickly, as Cain materialized his sword in his hand and growled.

"What is it?" Damali said, unknown terror making her heart pound. In a snap, she was clothed and the Isis was in her grasp. It was impossible to catch her breath.

"Human barrier breach!"

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