The Hunted

Chapter Thirteen

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Chapter Thirteen

Damali sought Marlene's eyes, and all modesty fled as she sat up slowly. "Marlene, I felt Brazil running through my veins. I could taste the food, smell everything, knew the language, knew the landscape, and... and I felt myself calling him - hard. So much that I felt a presence... a highly erotic one, in broad daylight."

She wrapped her arms around her waist, but never lost eye contact with Marlene. "What's freaking me out is, while whatever is out should have been my primary concern, it wasn't. Isn't. Are you hearing me? I shouldn't be thinking about getting with him, not with my girl's family at risk, innocents at risk, my whole team at risk, but I swear Mar, I can't shake this feeling. It's not normal. I'm so ashamed to be acting like this; I don't know what to do with myself. I hate being out of control, and I think I am." Damali's voice went to a low murmur and her gaze went to the floor. "Marlene, I don't know what he did to me, and I'm scared."

Her eyes sought Marlene's again for understanding and found it, which gave her the wherewithal to continue the confession. "Plus, he's got strong vibe, but brother ain't that bad that he can cut through equatorial sun. Come on, now."

Marlene nodded. "I don't think it's him," she said quietly.

Damali was on her feet. "And then when we arrived here it felt like I had done some of this before... I just knew what was going to happen next, but it wasn't like a premonition. Then I felt this really hard-to-shake sexual presence... That's what made me freak. But it was there, and it wasn't playing."

Marlene's voice was quiet and her expression was grave. "I know, because it happened to me, too."

Damali let her breath out in relief. "Glad I'm not trippin' by myself in here. But I'm really worried. I thought I was the only one."

"You're not." Marlene stood and paced to the window. "Have you been watching Jose? He had the opposite reaction - nearly bristled when we walked through the hotel lobby."

For a moment, the two women held each other in a worried stare. Truthfully, she hadn't noticed Jose's reaction. She had been too immersed in her own. "You think he's all right, Mar?"

"Yeah. But he sensed something, too. And the guys are losing perspective here. Shabazz is quietly going nuts..." Marlene's gaze slid from hers. "I know him very well, and my man is a tactical. He's usually the team's voice of reason; the rock. He had to get away from me in the lobby and go get a drink - that ain't Shabazz's way. And I watched Rider inhale and go weak in the knees. JL and Dan practically melted down as soon as they crossed the threshold. And Mike..." Marlene shook her head. "We've gotta put a short choker chain on him. Boss is ready to nail anything walking, and Mike is usually pretty selective. This environment, for whatever reason, is kicking everybody's ass - even mine. It's making everybody lose focus. But it's also like our whole team has done this before, and we can't get our concentration together."

Marlene looked at Damali, her gaze a stronghold, and nodded. "Yeah, even me, the den mother," she admitted. "None of us should be thinking like that, given all we have to do. The question is, why? Carlos didn't do that to the entire team. Something else is in the equation. So don't be too hard on yourself, for whatever it's worth."

"This whole thing is weird. Not like what we generally do isn't out of the ordinary, but you know what I mean."

Marlene nodded again. "When I heard your song lyrics, I knew what you were going to say before you read them to us in the studio, and not because I was inside your head. I knew the music, the sound beneath it, just like JL was able to pick up the percussion and lay it in - perfectly. Everybody on the team almost knew the same song, all of us were throwing in flava with the sound. Then something jumps off that makes us need to book here for a concert? C'mon, D, you know how this mess goes. You don't cut a CD in a night, in one take - it's not done. Nor do coincidences like all of us vibing on Brazil just happen. We were all beginning to get drawn to this region before the bodies dropped. It was in the music, came through before this mess hit the news. Once it did, we were all on lock. But we wanted you to zero in on it on your own. After ten nights, you did. Give yourself a break."

"I know..." She walked about the room, raking her fingers through her locks. Marlene's absolution meant a lot, and it took some of the sting out of her wounded pride.

"I didn't put innocents at risk," Marlene said firmly. "Wouldn't do that, even for you. Bodies have dropped at distinct moon phases... and you and Carlos hooked up when the moon was full, and the relationship ran aground when the moon waned, just like the incidents did. Father Pat and I convened and both came to the conclusion that your telepathy would start to strengthen as the moon waxed over here again. But I think I need to call in some experts on this particular hunch. I know some people who've mixed it up with were-demons and have even been nicked. They would know."

Damali looked at Marlene hard. "All of our guys are solid, right? So are Father Pat's... I mean, even if they had a little vamp in them from generations back, it should be diluted enough and they'd passed all the will tests to be able to handle this. Talk to me, Mar."

Marlene nodded. "If what we're dealing with are vampires."

Damali sighed. "The Covenant said some mess went down over here, right? They were trying to talk to Carlos about finding out more about what was happening here when he disappeared."

"Yeah." Marlene folded her arms over her chest. "Said all they knew from their Vatican sources was that in 1500 the pope, unrightfully, gave the Amazon and Brazil to Spain, months before Pedro Alvares Cabral claimed it for Portugal, and he brought a bunch of convicts to settle it. But for about a hundred years, things were fairly cool - the Portuguese harvested the red dye, basile, from the Caesalpinia echinata tree, where Brazil gets its name, and - "

"Red... The color red... I just was thinking about how that needed to go with 'In the Dark.' "

Marlene looked at her. "Right. And, then the Germans came. Ambrosio de Alfmger - beheaded the African-Brazilian Indians, and - "

"Stop!" Damali walked over to Marlene and held her by both arms. "Okay, now listen... Didn't the clerics say they couldn't intervene on this one?"

"Yeah," Marlene said.

"Don't you think that's odd?"

"Definitely."

"What if they can't get in it because... like Carlos always says, 'fair exchange is no robbery'? A Catholic pope sanctioned - "

"Oh, my God."

"Right," Damali said quietly. "And, isn't beheading the only way Carlos can be killed, because of my brand?"

Marlene took in small sips of air.

"Mar... you should see the way he looks at the color red. Maybe he was scared to death for me to come to Brazil. I thought the red fetish was some vamp blood thing, and the fear of me coming to Brazil was just Carlos being selfish. What if there's more to it that he just didn't tell me? In fact, I know there is, but he's got me blocked now." She sighed. "This is getting complicated. I just wish he would have been honest with me." She rubbed her hands over her face in frustration and let her breath out hard. Secrets, lies, drama, she hated all of it, but needed to figure out this maddening puzzle to keep her team safe while they hunted. Shit!

"Damali," Marlene said slowly, "he told Father Pat that the other portals had been closed, but the vamp empire was still seeing disturbances in his realm coming up in Brazil - "

"Where people have been mauled and beheaded." Damali grabbed Marlene's arms and stopped her words. Two weeks of getting ready, going over battle plans, preparing for the show, doing promo hype for an impromptu venue, and staying away from the subject of one Carlos Rivera, had left a hole in their strategy. Her gaze locked with Marlene's. It was in her mother-seer's eyes. The team had been too concerned about her sense of privacy, not wanting to violate it, needing her to fathom the facts on her own, and had not gone over this essential data... all for her. They needed their Neteru to come to her own conclusions on her own terms, and within her own time frame. Marlene just nodded. Fury at her own selfishness claimed her.

But Marlene simply looked at Damali with gentleness in her eyes. "Baby, don't disbelieve everything you saw in him during those ten nights - and yeah, you deserved to have a little respite, a little happiness all your own - not shared with anyone but him. All right?" She waited for Damali to nod. "Recognize that the team was conflicted, too, about not being able to just blurt out what was happening. That was hard, as well as necessary. It was easier when things were black and white, not all these shades of gray. We've all been selfish in our own way - even Shabazz didn't want to come here and do our job... because he has a personal issue at stake. That's human."

Damali let Marlene's arms go, and went to lean against the wall. "You guys were right, though; I was still blind... and it wasn't all Carlos's fault. I played myself."

"We all do that the first time out," Marlene said quietly. "That's the process, and it's normal... it's just that, given your level of responsibilities, you had to come to these conclusions fast and on your own so that your judgment never gets clouded again. We didn't have time to burn - but we all wanted you to have that small window of joy. All of us did, even the clerics. Child, you have a bigger responsibility than any of us know."

"Mar," she said, her voice strong, even though she wasn't completely sure what Marlene meant about a bigger responsibility than known, "all right. I'm over it." She looked at her mother-seer and snapped her focus to the mission. "These deaths are possibly history repeating itself, right? You and Father Pat knew that, didn't you?"

"Yup. What's going down here is just like what the angry mobs did to the Jesuits in Belem, and Para, and Maranhao - because the Jesuits went against papal edicts and were trying to stop the human trafficking. The church was at war with itself. The Jesuits were the only ones against the Amazon slave trade... there was an old Vatican letter that Father Pat showed me, it said a cleric had even written a plea... 'What is a human soul worth to Satan? There is no market on earth where the Devil can get them more cheaply than right here in our own land - an Indian for a soul.' But even the Jesuits created havoc from the diseases they imported while going out trying to stop the violence. It was a mess. It was all a big mess - the conquistadors were insane barbarians searching for gold and the mythical El Dorado... burned people at the stake, even cut up and fed the Indians to the alligators. That's why we're not sure it's vamps running amuck, or what. The moon-phase killings make me say it's the work of demons."

"How much of this did Father Pat tell you, and how much of this did you pick up in visions?"

Marlene sighed. "Half and half. I saw wars, saw mauled bodies, and went to Father Pat... he told me I was seeing the conquistador history, and he was ashamed that the highest levels of his particular church at that time had a hand in it. That's why he didn't want to come over here. He thought he'd dredge up more of this near the team, and was ashamed. Then he confirmed it with the letters and sat me down so we could talk about the history, where a sixth of the native population was murdered. Then we started scavenging as many facts as we could from the Internet and the news sources, and did the astronomy on when the bodies began turning up."

Marlene drew a long breath and shook her head. "Until the lobby thing, I just assumed I was picking up residual vibes from the past in a place that had a lot of bloodshed on its grounds... that happens to seers sometimes, so I didn't put a lot of stock in it. Didn't pick up vamps, demons - so, I let it go... till you and Jose freaked quietly in the hotel. I was hoping that the music thing, with the sounds of Brazil in it, was just your sensory systems kicking in to feel this location, and groove with it. Truthfully, I was praying that we only had another twisted master vamp to contend with, and that perhaps he'd brought up foul energy with him... but, baby, now that I'm here and watching the effect on the team, I know it's way more than that. I just can't put my finger on it, though, because I can't get a lock. That concerns me."

Again, silence passed between them as both women looked at each other, slowly nodding.

"All right," Damali said, holding her hands out, trying to make sense of the jigsaw puzzle that had eluded them for almost two months. "We have seen the killings around that specific region in the Amazon - and near Brazil, which also means red... which Carlos has a thing for. Don't ask. But it also makes a metaphor for blood, and red peoples, peoples of color, and war, and he's connected to all of that somehow. Correct?"

She waited until Marlene nodded. "The Catholic cleric of European descent can't get into it, because his line already has blood on their hands, so to speak, past karma on this one... and those that weren't directly dealing with it from that perspective, did as much harm from the diseases they brought with their attempts to convert native peoples. It was genocide - a sixth of the people were wiped out here, is what you're saying. So Padre Lopez, of Indian descent, or . Asula, of African descent, and even Monk Lin - because his people weren't in it - could have come, but not Father Pat. Deep."

"Yeah, seems so," Marlene said, her voice heavy, matching her heart. "It all went down so long ago, and is in perfect alignment with the stars, too. Remember, right before your birthday, when me and Shabazz saw the trinity in the sky - Mars, war, Venus, love, and Saturn, the planet of big karmic lessons - make a huge triangle in the sky?"

Damali nodded. "How could I forget?"

"Yeah, well, Mars is the red planet. Saturn is dealing with lessons and karma... and Venus is about powerful female energy, love, plus is the planet of female warriors... girlfriend, we just thought it applied to you - but it appears that, wherever there's some mess to be worked out, this alignment is affecting more than just you. And, let's not forget how close Mars is coming to the earth. It's the closest transit in sixty thousand years. Red war."

"I almost can't even wrap my mind around this right before the concert, Mar, for real. The fellas are going to freak. They think they've died and gone to Heaven here. They're not even thinking about chasing evil, they are too distracted chasing tail. I ain't mad at 'em, ain't throwing no stones, believe me - but you hear what I'm saying, right?"

Marlene sighed and nodded.

"Have you told them all of this?"

"Some of it, most of it... but it's not sinking in - which is also very strange."

Damali paced in a slow, thought-filled stroll back and forth across the room. The last thing she wanted to do was blow the groove on some hypothetical past yang. And after experiencing what she had with Carlos, she could appreciate the guys' need to break out and have a little fun. However, all stress-relief therapy aside, there was definitely something to go after. But it didn't register like anything she'd ever experienced. It also gave her pause as she thought about Carlos. If this mess was in his territory, and he was vibing on it hard, maybe it had already drawn him here ahead of her? That could not be good. She wiped her face with both hands again. It could be a past life, or a present danger, or a combination. Oh, this shit was complicated. She needed to be angry with him, and to put what was going on into a neat box - but none of it fit. One thing for sure, something was dropping bodies in a very nasty way.

"Maybe we're just feeling what went down before, and it's unearthing everything that should have stayed buried, or something." Damali's tone was hopeful as she stared at Marlene. "Or maybe there's an ancestral link that a few of us on the team are extra sensitive to? Something we've all experienced before, in some way?"

Marlene had a crazed look in her eyes, like she'd just had an eerie epiphany. "Or... what if this is reverb from a past life, Damali? What if it isn't so much that we've lived it before, but that each of us fits a role to something that went down before?"

Again, both women just held each other's gaze.

"Whichever scenario is correct - and we'll figure it out - after the church conversions, the conquerors brought in Africans. So you have the same ancestral ethnicities that are represented on our team... Spaniards, Africans, Portuguese, with native Indians here, children and women and villages held hostage with men beheaded and ripped apart... all for the quest of gold, and sugar, rubber, and - " Marlene stopped herself and slapped her head. "Damali, your eyes! Gold! The flickers of gold! That wasn't a vamp trait from those love bites Carlos laid on you! It wasn't because you temporarily overdosed your system with vamp virus from repeated bites - your body has been giving clues like a road map!"

Marlene had flung herself around the room like a madwoman as she snatched up her mud cloth satchel. "I have to look this up in the Neteru Temt Tchaas," she said with a wink. She pulled out her huge, mystical black book, the one that nobody in the compound dared touch or ask her about.

Damali got very, very still. "Mar? When did the first Neteru show up in this neck of the woods?"

Marlene shushed her with a wave of her hand, going through the symbol-covered leather bound book and then sat down very slowly. Then she stared at Damali. "There was no Neteru in this area. Just guardians... the one before you came from the Nubian empire in Africa." Then Marlene fell silent, and her body tensed.

"Look it up," Damali said firmly, and then sat by Marlene. She could tell Marlene was holding something back as she peered down at the pages with Marlene, trying to read the symbols and gleaning some phrases that her mentor had taught her.

"Okay," Marlene said on a weary sigh, "I'll look up the guardian history here again. I've been over this section of the book a hundred times, if once, Damali."

"Humor me," Damali said quietly. "Read it to me out loud as you go."

"The Pedra Pintada... based in the caves, and painted the insides of them at Monte Alegre, who used triangular arrowheads like your Madame Isis blade tip - same folks who'd been there over 12,500 years before the conquistadors discovered it." She looked up and closed her book. "President Roosevelt's daughter, Anna Roosevelt, studied them, too, and took a Brazilian team with her. These peoples that they found the remains of were skilled navigators, and artists, Damali. A woman was the one to find it. Female energy is all in this situation."

"Open the book," Damali said, her eyes glued to it, "and read, Marlene."

"I know what it says," Marlene protested. But she gave in and looked down and read. "All right, in the footnotes it says that when Anna Roosevelt went in, she found mummified bodies that suggested a stratified society of rulers and leaders." She looked at Damali. "These people had it going on, before they were wiped out, and there was a thousand years of calm where they created art and music. They still don't know how to make sense of these people's agricultural techniques that were so advanced. The last of them were massacred during the fifteen hundreds, during the conquistador invasions."

"Talk to me, Mar... Follow the thousand years of peace, and read it directly from the text."

Marlene conceded on a tired sigh. "There was major movement upstream of the peoples from the Amazon Basin during 2000 to 3000 BC, from a stretch of river between Santarem and Manaus in modern Brazil." She glanced up at Damali.

"Didn't the newspapers say that there'd been killings centralized near that area, and near those caves? The other similar ones had stopped, but these over here hadn't."

"Yeah, and a thousand years comes up - a Neteru is born every thousand years to create a reign of peace. If a Neteru was born in that span of 2000 to 3000 BC to peoples untouched by outside cultures, then ancestors of that tribe had heavy concentrations of Neteru in them. Maybe enough of the recessive gene to create another actual birth of a Neteru - at least a serious female guardian - that would come to those same peoples, one would think, during the end of their era to help them. But that couldn't happen, because the timing would be off. She'd be born five hundred years too early for what happened with the conquistadors. Plus, she isn't in the book."

Damali froze and kept her gaze locked within Marlene's. "What if for some reason she was born, though? Like in the conquistador era?"

Marlene rubbed her chin. "But she's not in the book, even though those conquistador guys invaded paradise. They were running rampant, just running amuck with these old civilizations that had been cool for thousands of years, until they bumped into these two huge jaguar totems at the mouth of the Rio Negro, the black river, which is how it got its name. The newbies to this region renamed everything in their language." Marlene's expression was incredulous as she pointed out the information to Damali with her finger. No matter how many times she read the history of old cultures, the arrogance of men never ceased to amaze her. "Further downstream from that they ran into a tribe of women warriors, otherwise know as - "

"Amazons."

Marlene smiled in triumph. "Guardians. Carvajal, the Spaniard expeditions' chronicler, wrote of ten to twelve women warriors near Monte Alegre, close to Caverna da Pedra Pintada, where there were these gorgeous villages - you know women ran that, right... Okay, I digress for editorial comment, but he wrote that the female warriors were out in front of the men, leading the native troops. The Amazons were said to have fought so courageously that the Indian men didn't dare turn back - the sisters killed anyone who turned back, dig? He described them as tall, with braided hair, wearing white, and could each fight like ten men." She looked at Damali.

"Sounds like a female Neteru team to me. Or, at the very least, an all-female guardian team."

"What are you wearing... or I should say, what possessed you to put on that outfit?"

Damali looked down at her all-white outfit and then back up at Marlene. "I just wanted to wear this color today for traveling here. You think a Neteru was with them, the Amazons? Sounds suspiciously like the stuff of legends - and they have actual historical accounts of these women, too?"

"No lie, girl. But it's not in the book! All of that last battle Father Pat told me about went down in June 1542 through September 1546, or thereabouts... the massacres continued, but the Amazons held their own against the expedition crew that was trying to plunder their villages, after being cool for over twelve thousand years - you following me?"

"The Raise the Dead concert happened between those months, just like the subsequent mountain-climber deaths, and within the new millennium same years - right in the middle, 2003." Damali rubbed her hands over her face. "Back then, women were leading the charge, the men followed, it's all in the same area. Shit, Mar... but what's come back from the dead - the good guys, or the bad guys? And, how the hell do we tell?"

"After we do this gig, we gotta go north to the spiritual cityóBahia, also known as Salvador... to get a bead on this thing before we go in deeper. September here is their spring, and although it's now October, I wanna ask the folks in Bahia if they noticed anything deep when they went through their normal spring fertility rites ceremonies - for us, the third week of September is when fall equinox happens - "

"Mar... Carlos and I, uh... that third week. Uhmmm. It was a month after my birthday, plus ten nights when we hooked up."

"Harvest... The fall harvest rites." Marlene covered her mouth. "Something over here is waxing, as you were waning... you were coming out of your ripening, as something here was going into its ripening - right before the rainy season of rebirth here. This is female energy, girlfriend. This ain't male - that's why our mostly male team is jacked up. Probably what's messing with Carlos's head, too."

"Now, I'm really scared, Mar." Again her arms went around her waist and Marlene came to her, placing an arm of support about her shoulders.

"All right. Let's not freak ourselves out here. From Bahia, we can fly into Belem, the capital of Para state in Brazil to get close to the first maul citing. From there, we're gonna have to trek down the Amazon the old-fashioned way - by small planes and boat to hit the 'interior where this stuff has been going on in Santarem and farther west beyond Manaus, near where the Amazon and the Rio Negro meetófemale Amazon warrior country. Ya oughta be at home, kiddo, with the same DNA and peoples all running through your veins. You'll be our lead tracker. Always will be since the last major battle."

Massaging her temples, Damali sat slowly on an overstuffed chair, abandoning Marlene's arm. "You remember the Raise the Dead concert?"

"How could I forget it?" Marlene scoffed and went to put her book away carefully.

"The energy was to open portals, but also the ritual in the music was to make a Neteru, me at that time, able to merge with male vampire energy - "

"For a mating ritual."

Damali nodded. "A highly sexually charged event. One that happened on the onset of their spring rites of fertility here, too. Now, we know there are energy zones in the world that have - "

"A lot of history," Marlene said, finishing her sentence. "Could it be that the people didn't even know - maybe nobody ever intended... but the dates, the times, the cultural norms of what was going on, the stellar constellation, and crazy Fallon Nuit messing with the cosmic order of things..."

"Ya think?"

Marlene stood and began pacing. "What if something backfired? It happened before, that's how Fallon Nuit got out of vampire incarceration before to form an alliance."

"Yeah, but I drove a sword through his evil heart myself," Damali protested, still rubbing her temples.

"But what if this doesn't have anything to do with him?" Marlene's question hung in the air. She sat down and looked out the window as she spoke. "Say if the vampires went and closed the seals - and we did too, with our Warriors of Light positive energies... but say if the prayers couldn't seal a certain area, because the church had blood on its hands? What if the spring rites held open a seal to something the native peoples didn't even know was opened?"

Damali stopped rubbing her temples. "And what if the old vamps could seal those concert areas, the portals where no additional energy was added this strong by concurrent spring rites that were going on in the hillsides, plus given the history, thus energy charge this ground already holds - "

"The incantations of the evil concert, plus the positive spring fertility rituals, might have crossed, fused, and called up something the vamps and demons couldn't vanquish... like an entity peculiar to this region formed by the chaos of this region? A dark one, a female one, twisted by Nuit's ceremony and strengthened by the rites, and jettisoned from a place down deep? Something like that could have easily been made here in an act of desperation by oppressed people, where justice was never served to the native peoples." Marlene closed her eyes. "If that's what came up, if that has been dredged up from the caverns, what are we going to do?"

"Oh, shit!" Walking in a circle, Damali felt her breath getting short. "Mar, Mar, the amount of rage... the amount of righteous indignation, the amount of unfinished business... or karma. Oh, Lord! No wonder Father Pat didn't want to come over here wearing robes, carrying a conquistador's sword with a bleeding, high-ranking Vatican cross on his chest! Shit! I wouldn't!" She looked at Marlene hard. "There were also two master vampires in Nuit's lair during that concert."

Marlene opened her mouth and then closed it.

"One died, one didn't... and one lost his vampire cool on me out in the woods - went near ballistic primal, and - "

"He didn't shape-shift on you, did he?"

Marlene's question felt like a slap, it hit her so hard. The tone of her voice was so panic laden that it made Damali shiver. She swore she'd never tell a soul something so deeply personal. Damali looked away and wrapped her arms around herself again.

"Normally," she said, trying to make herself sound calm, "he is, uh... smooth. In control. Yeah, passionate, but uh, brother never just lost it."

"What did he turn into, Damali?" Marlene's voice was firm, like a doctor who was trying to diagnose an ailment.

Damali shut her eyes tight. "He didn't actually change, on me, but, he uh..."

"He flipped out and went were, right?" Marlene stood and walked across the room. "What creature, kiddo? It's just me and you; just us girls. So let's be real. I need to know."

It took a moment to answer Marlene, but she found her voice and finally did. "He kept looking up at the moon and went panther."

"Oh, shit..." Marlene shut her eyes. "Don't you understand the were-realms? Didn't I explain to you how they roll?"

Damali just nodded.

"Tell me he didn't go all the way, did he?"

"I'm not exactly sure what you mean." Damali glanced up at Marlene and then looked away. "He went far enough, though."

"Did he actually transform and hold the form while with you?"

Marlene's eyes glittered with something she couldn't put her finger on. But the question was so damned personal. She couldn't speak.

"Did the man bring you fresh kill afterward, and drop it at your feet?" Marlene's voice was escalating with renewed panic. "Did he - "

"No!" Damali said, unable to have this conversation with her mother, of all people. "I just felt the animal presence, he didn't actually, I mean... oh, shit, Mar. Close, but - "

"Girl." Marlene began pacing, and had stopped speaking for a moment, appearing completely frazzled. "Master vampires detest the were-demons. They only shape-shift to amuse themselves, or to leverage their advantage during a fight, or to use it as a means of escape when cornered and they want to drop a body in a gruesome way as a warning. They'll mist on you in a heartbeat, will vaporize for you in a flash, but they generally prefer the superiority of holding the human form - that's their signature, chile. They do not drape that on a woman when seducing her - ever." She stared at Damali until she looked up. "Honey, I told you I was feeling a serious primal undercurrent coming from him. And I told you that something was pushing that man's buttons."

"I know, I know," Damali said quickly. "But I didn't do anything out of the norm..." She stopped, and tucked the whole thong incident far in the back of her mind.

"I'm not blaming you. I'm not saying it's your fault. I just felt it coming, but you were so caught up in love... plus you know my rule. I don't get into people's heads or envision that aspect of their personal business - so I refused to vibe on it." Marlene stopped and walked over to Damali and put her hand on her arm. "Were sexual energy is very different than male vampire energy. You hearing me?"

She waited until Damali looked up at her again. "It's raw, unshakable, violent. It is touched off by the phases of the moon - something vampires are impervious to. If that's what Carlos is tracking in his territory, then his normal male vampire reflex would be to hunt it down and kill it. He wouldn't allow it to be near his females, or poach his zones, no matter what its gender. If a female vamp called him into the night, the way he feels about you - plus the fact that your Neteru call would block her call - would not have been enough to make him leave you." Marlene's gaze narrowed, not in anger, but in an attempt to gain critical information. "I'm not trying to get into your business, but when he left you, how was he?"

"Still on the hunt, and not for fuel," Damali said quietly. "He never totally chilled out." She couldn't even look at Marlene as her self-confidence fractured.

"Has that ever happened before?" Marlene asked as gently as she could.

"No," Damali admitted, her voice becoming softer.

"All right, baby, listen. This isn't normal - not that anything about any of this is normal, per se, but you know what I mean. A master vampire is smooth enough to leave your side and go find a female vamp without your even knowing it. He wouldn't be blatant about it. So if you saw that he was still... well, that lack of suave just ain't done by masters. Period." The older woman sighed and scratched her head. "That mating ritual put some spin on it, maybe..."

"That's what's messing me up, Mar. Right in my face! He had the nerve to be trying to tell me some raggedy shit about why he needed to go out. To my face, Mar." Damali let her breath out in a slow, unsteady exhale.

"Uh, uh," Marlene said, shaking her head. "Not done. Out of character. Shit, even alive, Carlos Rivera had more cool than that. Something got his nose open, and it ain't the average vamp female."

"This thing has a lock on him, Mar. Even I can't break it."

Both women held each other's gaze for a moment.

"Damali, male vampires are not attracted to were-demon females. Conversely, were-demons will try to use strength in numbers to rush male vamps to get them out of their limited feeding grounds - since that entity's available time to feed is bound by both the phase of the moon and the location it was turned in. They wouldn't draw a master, of all things, right into its feeding zones. But we do know that a male vampire will accommodate and respond to the female he's trying to seduce by becoming what she wants him to be. They are masters of illusion."

Marlene rubbed her chin deep in thought as Damali kept her gaze fastened on her. "That's in their nature, too. So, if Carlos is suddenly taking on these new proclivities, then he's drawing something to him - or being drawn by something that is primal like a were, has form like human female, and a scent that beats Neteru. It's also bound to this region, one that has very funky karma, because that's where the bodies have been dropping. Whatever it is, it eats human flesh. That much we do know." Marlene blew out a long whistle.

"We've never seen an entity like this before, one from the demon realms that has enough power to attract a strong male master vamp. Carlos probably hasn't either." Marlene's gaze softened as she touched Damali's cheek. "You need to fight for him, and not let this thing get ahold of him. D, this ain't a normal male-female vamp pull. Whatever this thing is can jeopardize more than your relationship, it can compromise his soul in Purgatory - if he hasn't already dropped a body to feed her. And, trust me, I would never tell you something like this as a mother figure, or just as a woman, because I normally don't believe in it. But in this case, baby, screw it. Pull out all the stops. Fight for your man."

Marlene let her go and folded her arms over her chest. But suddenly both women's focus went toward the abandoned book on the bed.

"Mar, I smell paper burning."

They both rushed to the bed, and Marlene took the book up slowly. They watched in awe as the pages scorched and realigned, ancient markings entering new information beside it as they gaped.

Marlene's gaze remained riveted to the text. "The book reveals what it wants you to know, only when it is time for you to know it... this name was never entered into the pages until I just opened this book in search, or I would have seen it before now - so would the vampires. How is it that none of us knew?"

She had no answer for Marlene, just a wide-eyed stare.

"Baby, something foul had to go down beyond the mere history of this region, to keep her shadowed from the sacred texts. The Amazon in my books was only made five hundred years ago, not a thousand. We knew the light sent you early, child... that had to be by designójust like the one now mentioned in there was sent early. Hold it... she actually predated Nzinga's reign?" Marlene's eyes were so wide that it made Damali cover her heart with her hand. "Damali," she said reverently, "you know Queen Nzinga lived from 1583 to 1663, and never surrendered, even at eighty years old when she died. Girlfriend battled the Dutch and Portuguese from her base in Africa - she was the only one me and Shabazz had seen on the pages before you."

"You guys knew Nzinga was a Neteru, and that I was born early, but never gave me the dates... Why?" So much new information was hitting her, it made her head spin.

"Because if you were, it meant something serious - we had to know what that was to ensure your guidance. Only Shabazz and I know. But that's why she pulls you as a role model, and you admire her headdresses and garb... and like we told you, before that, we thought the Isis blade was held in the Nubian empire. If this Amazon fell in the mid 1540s, Nzinga was sent real early, too! A forty-year gap, not a thousand? That, we didn't know. I'd put money on it that the vamps didn't, either. As above, so below... Heaven has her mysteries, too. And now that we're standing in Brazil with the Temt Tchaas on us, the Amazon is written in? And she'd been fighting the same people... same slave trade?"

Marlene shook her head as her fingers reverently touched the new •etchings. "Uh, uh. This is scary deep. The Temt Tchaas rarely violates itself like that. It took your energy on this soil to make it respond. I've only seen it do that one other time since I've had it." She looked at Damali hard.

"When was that?" Damali whispered, almost afraid of the answer.

Marlene's eyes had never left her face. "When Carlos was named your life-mate guardian, then burned away early. Wasn't supposed to happen like that. I wept as I watched it. You were only fifteen when his drug trade kicked up a notch too far."

Damali's hand slowly covered her mouth but her eyes remained fixed on Marlene's. Her mentor only nodded and quietly closed the book.

"Go get him, and burn him back into the pages, baby. He was one of ours, and whatever's over here can't have him - not like this, just like Hell hasn't been able to hold him. This is big shit going down in the universe. I can't claim to know all, but I've seen enough. You were born early. There has to be a reason that you both have all these influences battling over y'all. He's a pivot point to disaster, somehow, too. But you're the only one who can get a lock. Use it, before the wrong side uses him. Do that for me; it's way personal now." She closed the book slowly. "The light has sped up the cosmic timetable. Neteru's are coming fast and hard, and there must be a reason female warrior energy is required for the big one, the Armageddon. This is real personal, even at the levels of Heaven."

For the first time in her life, she saw something in Marlene's eyes that went well beyond being a guardian. There was a shadow, an angry one that spoke of a past experience that couldn't be shared. And for the first time Marlene's focus wasn't solely on the universe's grand plan to save the world, but was also on salvaging a little bit of happiness for one of her own. Within this frank discussion, Marlene wasn't giving her platitudes, cautioning restraint, or telling her to be patient. Marlene's eyes said to go for broke. Claim your territory; mark it. Just do the shit with authority, like you own it, because you do. It was destined to be yours. The book said so.

"Marlene... I had a feeling about there being a Neteru in the equation." Damali steadied herself. "That's the DNA link - and why the team is vibing here so hard, linking to female energy. I have a mostly male team, the Neteru before me had a team of Amazon warriors... and I had a dark guardian life-mate. Whatever this thing is, it's syncing up and shadowing our team in a one-to-one matchup, and like you said, the mating ritual is giving it additional energy - topspin. It's gotta be the past trying to link to the present, finding cellular matches to draw more energy... and Rider and Dan have bloodlines, like Father Pat, that could make them instant targets... while the others would-be mates. Either way ain't good. What if - "

"This is definitely personal, then - and all of it, since you began fighting, has centered around mating energies," Marlene said, cutting her off. "It ain't about losing any of the fellas, especially Carlos, because he's the strongest one on the team and has the most to lose... and if it's a female vamp that got caught in the vortex, or a demon, who cares? We smoke that bitch." Marlene's eyes held Damali's in a lock. "I know we have innocents to protect, but I also care about you, your joy, your future... and I damned sure care about this team, way beyond some grand cosmic plan. Nzinga wouldn't have it; you shouldn't either... and if this Amazon couldn't hold onto her reign, or something corrupted it, do her. Yeah, girl, it's personal, now, if that's what's going on. I trust your instincts on this one."

That small but profound statement, I trust your instincts, made a huge difference as Damali stood there watching her mother-seer's outrage over something threatening her joy, her future, as well as the team's. For a few moments she could actually feel that, while Marlene grieved the loss of lives out there, it was okay that this was also personal. Something was after her daughter's man, and the lives of their squad, which made it a more visceral mission. It linked them in that very private moment in a way they never had before. Right now, they weren't just mentor and protegee, master and apprentice... or even friends. They were something much more than that. They were peers.

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