Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Three

Thirty-three very serious, fatigue-wearing warriors entered Belem, causing other pedestrians to cast fearful glances in the combined team's direction. Humid, thick air almost stole every breath while sweltering heat bore down on them. Waiting for Kamal to do the necessary weapons transaction with his unnamed contacts from places she was too weary to imagine, Damali absorbed the collage of tower blocks, crumbling Portuguese churches, and the dotting of Old World Mediterranean palaces in pastel hues. Cobblestones, hand-laid, brick-by-brick by slave labor met her footfalls. Every sense quickened, she was not about to miss anything that could be of importance to the group's safety.

Sitting, waiting, watching, sipping cool glasses of cupuacu juice on rickety wooden outdoor cafe chairs, the table umbrellas mild relief from the sun, she studied the terrain. A dog ran by and thirty-two pairs of eyes behind dark sunglasses, expressions masked, looked at the animal. Children and vendors plied their wares, but made no move toward her group this time. She hunted the environment with her sweeping gaze, roving over every aspect of it, taking mental snapshots of the borderline Belem presented between elegance and shabbiness. It was a gray zone, too.

She felt it. The Jesuits had aided in the destruction of the Indian populations here. Smallpox, dysentery, the lash for not adopting the conquering religion, cultural destruction as much as physical annihilation, people who had known freedom remanded to aldeias - reservations. Segregation. Lands snatched and plundered. Righteous anger lived here, just under the surface, crumbling the buildings as much as the weather and the insidious heat. They were getting closer to the Amazon. The question was, how to reach this agonized entity that wanted to unleash a demon army upon this land to wrest it back from modern invaders?

Damali looked up at the sun, not needing a watch now to tell the time. It was late. The travel had been yet again delayed, as things were always delayed in parts of the world that lived by the natural rhythms. She was still uncomfortable about Kamal's decision to go all the way with the group, since it was not the original plan. She was worried not because of Shabazz; a truce had been established. The elders forecast that the number thirty-three in a situation like this was a double trinity to deal with a triangular relationship; three issues within it�love, war, lessons. Two triangles made the hexagon balance. Three and three, the number thirty-three, half-were and half-human forces joined. Crazy. Yeah, they needed an army for this battle.

The triumvirate of Marlene and Kamal and Shabazz were cool. The men were cool; the teams had melded. But she looked at thirty-two innocent people possibly going to their final destination with her. The responsibility was enormous. She knew how her adversary felt. Damali had to respect that much about her. She respected the place from which the rage bubbled within the Amazon's soul. But the methods the Amazon used, and was about to deploy to redress the wrong, Damali could not abide.

"We're gwan fly into Santarem to refuel, den Manaus for de weapons," Kamal said in a low tone, returning to the table where Damali, Marlene, Shabazz, Rider, and Big Mike sat. "From dere, Jeeps take us to de boat. Once on de Amazon, look alive."

"Your people able to take that knot we gave you and convert it into some serious gear?" Shabazz had asked the question while studying his drink.

Kamal nodded.

"What we looking at, brother?" Big Mike said low, leaning in.

"Two bazookas wit crystal-packed shells. Semiautos for everybody; silver shards in de bullets. Hand grenades loaded wit crystal and silver shrapnel. Standard crossbows - but they're slow, and dese tings move fast. Ultraviolet light lanterns and floodlights, in case we get caught out dere after dark, which is not advisable. C-4 bricks coated in silver alloy. Other standards - holy water, hallowed-earth bombs, but crystal-tipped stakes. Food, bottled water, medical supplies, gasoline for the boat, regular guns for da caiman, de crocks, anaconda nets, tents�tings like dat, too."

The small group of generals nodded, satisfied.

"How'd you get all this arranged so fast, dude - not that I'm complaining, but damn?" Rider smiled and pounded Kamal's fist.

Kamal offered a lopsided smile in return, casting a sly look at Shabazz. "When you're hiding in de jungle for a couple decades, and have to ward off rebels, and whatever else come for ya, mon, ya learn to know some people who know some people."

Shabazz chuckled, his laughter an unspoken apology for the assumptions he'd made the night before. Kamal nodded, quietly accepting the apology with grace.

"But, if Shabazz is cool wit it... I have sometin' for Marlene." Kamal hesitated, stared at Shabazz for approval.

"Yeah," Shabazz murmured, nodding and taking a sip from his glass. "If you got something to protect her, cool."

Damali watched the transaction from a remote place in her mind, as Kamal went into the vest pocket of his fatigues and pulled out a magnificent hexagon-shaped quartz crystal the size of a small bread plate. It was dangling by a silver-and-gold chain, and the markings on it, except two overlapping triangles, were indecipherable. Kamal looked down at the amulet, rubbed the gleaming face of it with his thumb, and didn't take his eyes off it as he spoke.

"Was me modder's," he admitted quietly, taking a long breath before continuing. "Shoulda gave it to you a long time ago, to keep you safe while in de States." He nodded, in deep reflection, still not looking at Marlene. "But, no matter 'bout water under de bridge. Had solid protection wit you dere, anyway. Got good people around you, gurl. Just as well." He stood, glanced at Marlene, dismissed the past, and handed the amulet to Shabazz. "You take care of her heart now." Then Kamal stepped away from the table to go sit with his own men.

She watched Shabazz study the piece, look back at the man who had removed himself, then gaze at his prize, Marlene. Shabazz looped the amulet over Marlene's neck, stood, walked to Kamal, briefly rested a hand on his shoulder, then slipped inside the cafe. All the warriors in witness had lowered their eyes in reverence of the dignified act. Marlene's hands shook as she brought a glass of cool juice to her lips.

Damali stood and went to Kamal's table.

"Thank you," she said quietly, "for all your help. For everything." She appraised the three tables of young men, good men, fine men that were going off on a mission that wasn't necessarily theirs to fight.

"But none of you have to go the full distance with this. You've given us too much already."

A murmur of discontent rose from the tables. Kamal held up his hand.

"Dis ting ain't personal, gurl. Dis ting is 'bout everybody's way of life," he said, bidding her to sit in a chair that one of his men had abandoned for her. "Evil to walk da planet at will? Why you tink we live where we live, study what we study, give up what we give up? To hide when da hour comes? All my life," he said, motioning toward his men, "all dey lives, we knew we were summoned to a call... just didn't know when da call would come. It is now. We all go of free will. We all are prepared to do what we gotta do. Dis ain't on your shoulders, or Marlene's. If we die fighting for a good cause, we get released from dis half-life we've lived since nicked."

His gaze had slipped away from hers with the mention of Marlene, and she wondered how a person summoned such restraint. But she'd felt herself strengthen and her emotions harden in just one day. After last night, she now knew that she could take one helluva hit and still keep going. Kamal smiled.

"First time," he said with an empathetic grin, "is like a sucker punch. Tink you gonna die. But den, you don't. You surprise yourself, and you live. And just like you gotta break down da muscle, feel da burn, work through da pain to make your body stronger, you hafta remember, the heart is a muscle, too."

She nodded, smiled sadly, sighed, and stood. Kamal held her hand, stopping her.

"But, every warrior also knows dat it is foolish to suffer unnecessarily after you've worked a new muscle. Needs balm. Ointment. Care. Take care of everyting God gave you, including your heart, gurl. Sit down. Suffering for no reason is not courage, it's foolishness of youth. Proves no point."

Nervous, and not sure where the conversation was going, she sat slowly, her eyes steady on Kamal.

"You young bloods wear yourselves out, den don't do what is proper to heal and get stronger. That will only break you down, not build you up; will make you bitter. Dat's no good." He smiled, his eyes gentle, his voice tender as he traced her cheek the same way Carlos always had.

But it wasn't sexual; it was a touch of affection and admiration. Familial. She felt it enter her, and it calmed her while also shaming her that any glimmer of distrust remained in her about this man. She had so much to learn. And as she looked at this elder, this mentor, this guide, she thought about how odd life was. The man could pass for Shabazz's older brother. Who knows? Maybe they'd really shared the same ancestors, the same blood?

"I don't know how to heal after all this, assuming I'm still alive when it's over," she admitted.

"We don't know how dis gwan go down, right? But, say if God smiles on us, and you make it, den, I have a balm. Heal as much as you can before you take another blow, little sista. Before you work dat taxed muscle again. Dat's why time and attention heals wounds."

She squeezed his hand and chuckled. "Oh, Kamal..." She didn't know what to say. This man with his wisdom and wry sense of humor, his warmth; how did Marlene ever leave him, were-jag in his system, regardless?

"I'm gwan show you sometin', but I don't want you to tink I'm being fresh, all right?"

Damali swallowed away a smile with another tremor of guilt. She nodded.

Kamal opened his right hand wide and held it up to his shoulder level, splaying his fingers and closing his eyes. "You already know how to do dis," he murmured. "Nobody got to tell you. It's in your cells, gurl."

She watched him, stunned, as she raised her hand to hover a few inches from his. She could feel the electric current pass between their hands and knew he and Marlene had done this, too. And also understood that was why Marlene was so freaked when Carlos had called her like this from miles away. Carlos had opened his hand and mentally placed it on her compound window, and she'd responded in kind to feel his emotions across the distance, even through four inches of bulletproof glass.

The warmth in the center of her hand began to tingle. It was a very intimate gesture as they both sat in the late-afternoon sun breathing slowly.

"You do dis by de ocean, until your heartbeats match da waves," he murmured.

She wanted to weep, but didn't. Her tears had dried last night. "He doesn't have a heartbeat," she whispered.

"You're so wrong, gurl. Can't you feel it? His skin vibrates with your touch, his eyes, de way dey look at you. The breath he breathes in deep when you're in his arms. The way he catches your breath when you have him teeterin' on de edge of oblivion. All dis has a rhythm, a pulse, like music. Sync it up to da natural rhythm of da tide, and when your palm pulses to that rhythm, your heartbeat matches de pulse of the cosmos which is in the sea - sometin' unbroken since da dawn of time, place his hand over your heart, yours over his, and send him everytin' of love for him inside you. He will send it back, like da tide ebbs and flows, giving and receiving, da rocking motion of back and forth. It is how life is created, and it heals, gives birth to new tings, his heart will beat in your palm, and for your hand only."

Kamal lowered his palm and placed it on Damali's chest, and she was immediately filled from the inside out with indescribable peace, warmth, gentleness, solace, everything that Kamal wished for her that was good. She'd thought the tears were gone, but cleansing waters flushed her system of worry, doubt, fear, anger. She breathed hard and placed her hand over his chest in return, willing back his safety, his healing after finally losing Marlene, and when she opened her eyes she saw his eyes glittering with moist appreciation as he removed his hand from her chest.

"Thank you," he whispered. "Getting ole, and forgetting to put balm on myself from time to time."

No one said a word, but thirty-three veterans of spiritual wars simultaneously looked up from the barge, judging the low angle of the sun, concern in their eyes behind dark glasses. A low canopy of trees allowed in dappling sunlight. Insects hummed in loud passing whirrs and took potshots at human flesh. Dragonflies, water skeets, frogs, monkey chatter and birds reveled in their habitat, sending a chorus of busy jungle conversation to drift with the boat, unfazed.

This was their home. Mother Nature's domain. Lazy crocodiles sunned themselves on the shorelines; their huge jaws open, waiting, just in case something miscalculated a branch and fell from the trees. Sets of reptilian eyes slowly waded by the edges of the flat vessel, unconcerned by the gunmen who rested automatic weapons on their laps. Those eyes seemed to wink a warning that the armed men respected; sit too close to the edge, dangle a limb, and it's fair game.

The two-level boat pushed a V of disturbance through the brown water with a dull motor drone of its own. The flat, wide lower deck was a repository for three quarters of the team; the upper deck held the center core of warriors - Damali, Kamal, Shabazz, Marlene, Rider, Big Mike, and the dry ammo. Up high, if there was an ambush, the strongest would go first, but also had the most skill to survive a sudden attack. There was nothing to do but wait, move forward, endure the heat and humidity, and blend in with the rhythm of the Amazon. She could feel the jungle give strength to Kamal's group, and she monitored their vibrations, knowing somehow that his team hungered to hunt in a pack, called by the elements.

Finally, Kamal nodded. That slight motion was enough to bring the upper deck's inhabitants to attention.

He'd motioned toward two twelve-foot statues carved in black stone. The figures were almost obscured by the natural camouflage created by a heavy strangle of vines that wrapped around them. "From dis point," he said, his voice drawing the lower deck occupants' attention, "on guard."

All eyes carefully appraised what antiquity had left behind. The heads of the tall stone totems were of jaguars brandishing vicious fangs, eyes sunken. But the bodies bore human female breasts with hands crossed over them, fists clenching battle-axes, bows over their shoulders, quivers affixed to their hips, their bulging vulvas covered by loincloths, their calves wrapped in bootlegs, their feet hooked, jaguar claws.

"The heart of the old human were-jaguar territory is overrun by demons. We gwan hafta go three miles inland on foot to da caves. By day, dey sleep in their original female bodies. By night - "

"We have to get off this boat?" Rider wiped his brow and checked his weapon. "Thought we could serve this prom invitation longdistance, bazookas in hand."

"You know better than that, brother," Shabazz said as he checked his weapon. "Gotta take it to 'em, just like big-game vampire hunting in the day. Gotta catch 'em on the offense."

"Judging by the sun," Damali said, "we don't have much light left and we still have to drag all this ammo three miles inland toward their lairs, and get back to the boat before sundown."

"You hear how quiet it is all of a sudden?" Big Mike murmured.

Both decks of soldiers nodded and looked around.

"Dock it," Kamal ordered. "Don't have a lotta time to be worrying 'bout it."

Three annoyed crocodiles slipped into the water as the craft neared the shore. Even Big Mike took his time before jumping down from the vessel. The shore was pure mud, crocodiles moved fast - one false step, and it was over. But the big men got down first, and gave a nod of all clear.

Jumping down, the team disembarked, guns held high as Big Mike and Kamal's huge man, Drum, strained to draw the rope tight, mooring the boat to a nearby tree. Ammunition was loaded down next, also held high, handled with care to keep it dry and stable. Kamal began walking; nobody talked. Everybody listened and prayed.

All of a sudden Big Mike, on right flank, held up his hand. The group froze. He used his gun barrel to point at a massive coil that was silently unfurling under a wide spread of palm leaves on the ground.

"Anaconda," Kamal murmured. "It lives here. Don't bother her; she won't bother you. Rattlers will warn before dey strike, so open your ears and respect what you're being told." He began walking, then stopped and pointed up at another huge snake. "Emerald tree boa - dey blend in, look like sunlight coming through da trees, and drop heavy from them. Keep one eye up, one eye down, like de lizards out here do."

"Mike is right, though," Damali finally said. "It's too quiet." The group stopped walking. "The bird calls are too distant. They're moving away. Don't even hear insects." Damali sniffed, catching a foul whiff of something she couldn't immediately describe, and she glanced up at the waning sun. The dense thicket of trees made the light stop before it hit the jungle floor.

Rider sniffed with Kamal and Jose. Kamal's team seemed to be in sensory overload, as they cocked their heads and took in deep inhales to pick up a scent. Using the barrel of his automatic, Rider pointed toward a cluster of vines and broad leaves. Kamal nodded. Damali tightened her hold on her Isis blade, and Marlene gripped her fighting stick harder.

"Dead flesh," Kamal confirmed. Each of the teams' olfactory sensors just nodded.

Slowly advancing, Marlene held up her hand for the others to wait. In unison, they all looked at the same spot on the ground. Using the long ebony stick, she lifted the leaves and then quickly turned her head away. The corporeal remains of several rotting bodies writhed with insect larva, angry beetles, river rats, and small snakes all trying to continue the decomposition process that the sun had abandoned in the shade. "As many times as I see it, I can never get used to it," she said quietly.

Her stick trembling, Marlene motioned for the others to look at the dismembered arms, legs, heads, and still-slithering intestines. Talismans had been dropped over the remains. "Sorcery," she stated, and then covered her mouth and nose with her hand to help block the stench.

"We're near, but the markings are wrong. These decoys were only left to confuse our trackers. We could spend hours wandering around trying to find the right cave entrance." Damali shook her head. "By then, we'll be lost with no sense of how much remaining sunlight we had left. It's a trap. Take a whiff. Something stronger is coming from the other direction." She pivoted and headed off on a new trail for a few yards, then walked back.

Kamal smiled. Marlene smiled. Shabazz nodded, picked up a rock, and threw it a few yards toward the path where the entire team was previously headed. The slight vibration of the stone hitting the center of the trail sent a hail of arrows flying from both the left and right sides of the route that the team would have taken. The arrows whooshed and mounted in nearby foliage, sprung loose from a giant Venus flytrap catapult hidden under leaves. One of Kamal's squad raised a bow and arrow toward a high canopy of branches beyond that and fired. Heavy rocks and fetid dead bodies fell, blocking the same path.

The noses in the group dry heaved, but quickly collected themselves before they lost their lunch. Even without the gruesome discoveries, the terrain was brutal on all the five senses. Kamal's team seemed to be fairing better than her guys, having adapted to the jungle environment, but not by much. Human flesh was the most potent and disgustingly foul scent to the animal kingdom. To eat it was unnatural, especially among the wild. Most animals avoided it like the plague.

Damali nodded, forcing the foul air from her lungs. "Yup, folks. It's so quiet because we're so near. Let's move."

"Douse it," Marlene ordered, glancing at Dan. "Just like we do with prayers, black magic also sets up a perimeter. Drop some holy water on the talismans; don't worry about the sacrificed bodies in the traps - too dangerous. But where they've left markers, we can weaken their defense systems."

Dan complied, holding his nose and sidestepping toward the stinking morass on the ground under the leaves, one arm extended as he dropped an open vial and jumped back.

"Get back further than that," Marlene warned, not having to tell Dan twice as the pile of flesh smoldered, began to smoke, and released dense yellow sulfur.

"Definitely the work of demons," Marlene said.

"Okay. That was fun. Now can we please go? Us guys with the noses are catching it."

Rider held a bandanna over his face, and Jose's eyes were watering so badly it looked like he was crying. Kamal's skin had become ashen and seemed like he was about to wretch. Kamal's men were practically staggering. But oddly, even though Damali could taste it all in her throat, the putrid odor invading her nose, her stomach remained steady. Kamal looked at her, and pushed out an answer.

"You stronger, Neteru." Then he covered his face again and walked faster.

Suddenly the hair stood up on Damali's arms, and she stopped, making her way to the front of the line. "I need to walk point from here," she said, looking around, her Isis leveled. Spots moved ever so slightly, like sunlight dappling and shifting in the trees. "Shabazz, use a crossbow and stake, with a holy water tip, to light the trail. I don't want loud gunfire or bazookas going off before we get inside the caves." She pointed to the men behind her. "You guys in the rear, watch your backs, these things circle and pick off stragglers."

Shabazz nodded, sensing with his skin, catching the weapon JL threw toward him, but seeing nothing.

"Five o'clock, my right. A familiar, or one of her girls," Damali whispered. "Light it up, on my order. Soon as the blaze catches the trail, we advance, fast, before the map in the air disappears."

Damali waited and watched, Shabazz circling with her until she dropped her hand. He released the stake, thrusting back his shoulder, cutting through the branches and sinking into something soft that roared.

"Battle stations!"

A rush of leaves, crossbows leveled, two greenish-gold glowing eyes blinked. Then there was a loud hiss, a roar, and instant motion. A gunman from Kamal's team panicked and let out a round from his automatic weapon. The thing was only partially visible, as it lunged through the trees, its deep golden coat oozing black blood, spreading, closing the multiple black spots to cover it and turn the jaguar all midnight.

"Oh, shit..." Rider's section of the squad backed up. "We could use that shoulder cannon now, Big Mike!"

Big Mike fired, but the blast went past the entity as it moved in a lightning-fast, powerful dodge and was gone.

The shell hit with a loud boom and flash of bright yellow light and felled a tree. Spinning fast, the team whirled in all directions, hands sweaty, clenching weapons. Waiting for something to appear again so they could shoot it.

Using her sword as a pointer, Damali motioned to the air. "See why I just wanted to injure it and not kill it, fellas?" Her tone held annoyance. The rounds had probably echoed all through the lair caverns. Making the beast dodge a shoulder-cannon blast only stirred the air, disturbed the path of its retreat, and made the trail of sulfur it bled harder to track on foot. "Damn!"

Shoulders behind her sagged. She didn't look at the squads. She knew they didn't know, but if they were going in, they had to get something straight - if they didn't follow her lead, their asses were gonna die. She spun on the teams, her expression fierce.

"Look, something in me knows what's up out here. Don't ask me how. So let me guide you without giving me a lot of bullshit in return!"

"She's right," Marlene said. "She's the Neteru. She must be the one to lead us here."

Damali could feel her shoulders relax. Cool. Mar had her back. "We follow this trail, stay close, be strategic, and conserve artillery. That way, God willing, we all get back on that boat."

Damali waited. Heads slowly nodded in acceptance. Kamal and Shabazz pounded fists. Marlene gave her a thumbs-up.

"Cool. Follow the sulfur. We're going in."

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