The Hunted

Chapter Twenty

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Chapter Twenty

Her guardians looked like a band of worn-out desperadoes. Each had on a variation of light-khaki army fatigues, heavy boots, safari hats, and sunglasses as they snoozed in the small charter plane waiting area. Tourists going on the more daring sight-seeing tours huddled nervously away from them, as though Damali's squad were drug-dealing hit men. People eyed the group's bulging duffle bags with suspicion in the oppressive heat.

The only reason that they'd been able to carry their artillery in such an open and flagrant display of firepower, despite the new era of heightened security everywhere in the world, was the fact that this tiny, puddle-jumper, flight school airstrip was off the beaten path—and no doubt, often used by the more unsavory element in the region. It seemed to Damali to be a place where a few dollars could get the local authorities to look the other way. Perhaps they had upon someone's word? She didn't even want to know what Marlene had done to transact their passage. But she was sure that, if it had been a more populated, commercial airport, they'd all be in a Brazilian jail somewhere by now.

Thank goodness Marlene had some contacts over here that could tell her where to go and with whom to do the travel arrangements. Otherwise, Damali knew she'd have to fight her own team to get them to part with their weapons, even in broad daylight. There would have been no way for her to get them to stash their gear in FX boxes disguised as stage equipment like they had to on the flight from the States. It was on, at this point. The fellas had rightly argued that under the circumstances, they wanted quick access to the heat they were packing. She could dig it. No one on the guardian team had really slept. They looked horrible.

Rider's jaw was covered with a thick five o'clock shadow, and he snored without shame under his scrunched-down hat. Sweat trickled down his temples and stained his back, chest, and underarms through his cotton T-shirt. Shabazz was practically gray, having kept one eye open all night just to be sure Marlene was still breathing. She was curled up in a fetal position in a chair with her head on Shabazz's lap, while he intermittently stroked her damp, silver locks. Dan was flushed, breathing with effort, and constantly wiping his drenched hair off his forehead. Big Mike just breathed slowly, and seemed to be the coolest of the bunch, but despite his warnings to be still, Jose and JL fanned themselves with a newspaper.

Frustration at the delay made Damali want to jump out of her skin. Everyone in Rio seemed to have a carefree, casual attitude about time. It had taken way longer than they expected, or in her opinion was necessary, to arrange for the shipment of their heavy band equipment and other items they no longer needed. Minivans were slow, airport personnel were slow, and the charter service was slow. No one moved with swift authority. Perhaps it was the oppressive heat. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the antique air conditioner needed Freon?

Damali dabbed the sweat from her brow and neck with a limp tissue as she tried to get comfortable in a hard plastic chair that stuck to her butt. The turquoise blue scooped seat was molding to her back, butt, and thighs, sealing her body to the suffocating surface.

Gnats and mosquitoes dive-bombed everyone in the room, oblivious to heavy coatings of insect repellent they all wore. The little pests were relentless, making people swat and slap themselves until the sheer volume of the attacks just made each person surrender to being bitten. Her only alternative was to spread her legs wide, lean her forearms on her knees, drop her head, and try to sleep like a soldier.

Finally, after two hours of waiting, their private flight was called. Damali didn't have the energy to stand, but understood why the guys were on their feet acting like they'd just hit lotto. Anything to be out of that dank waiting area was worth it.

But the group was also exceptionally quiet. Fatigue not only claimed them, so did fear of the unknown. In truth, this might be the last adventure they went on together, and she noted how considerate each teammate was being to one another.

Sure, they always operated as a crew, but they also bitched with each other the whole time they were performing a task. Rider would be fussing about everything in general, JL would be complaining about how sloppy everyone was with the technical equipment. Big Mike would be puffed up and close-mouthed about something smart Rider had said. Shabazz would get fed up and walk away with impatience, claiming not to have time for dumb shit. Jose and Dan would be steadily trying to keep the peace, while Marlene would get started, and make them go back over the entire process again.

Yet, as her guys filed out of the shack and down the tarmac to finally take their seats within the small twin-engine, the stronger ones were helping the guardians who possessed less bulk. Folks were giving up window seats, handing off fruit that could be peeled, passing snacks, and just chilling. Everyone was offering stuff to Marlene as she leaned against Shabazz. There was a community spirit happening, something going on that sealed the group's bond tighter than it had ever been. They were even sharing water with each other... would take a look at a partner and say, "Here, man, don't get dehydrated." Normally that was Marlene's roll - to check on everyone. Despite the perils of the journey, as Damali leaned back in her seat and looked down, one thought crossed her mind: it's all good.

Soon the jewel-green land beneath her became a blur as she dozed, her head bobbing, the drone of the plane's engines hypnotic. In her sleep-induced haze of semiconsciousness she felt like she, without the aid of the aircraft, was flying.

The sensation of freedom lifted her into cottony white clouds, the wind caressing her face as she soared. Her body dipped and rushed with the rivers, splashing cool, clear mountain water against her face. The smell of fresh grasses and wildflowers entered her nostrils, filling her nose and lungs with their sweet, pungent nectar. Her tongue could taste it as she took off running in a field, delighting in the textures of tall grasses that brushed her naked legs. Oh, but the forest, the dense tropical heat, and its sounds... a spectacular fusion of percussion and strings and flutes created by the natural chatter. Damali laughed in her sleep as a swirl of electric-blue butterflies took off as she approached. Parrots and wrens and creatures of flight in so many patterns and colors made her dizzy. Frogs and monkeys and tiny things that skittered coexisted with larger predators in each fila that only hunted what they needed - she watched.

Tears brimmed in her eyes as she sped past perfect harmony. Life balanced, natural. Beauty beyond comprehension, unfathomable danger. The magnificence of it all. Nothing wasted, everything designed and interwoven into the grand tapestry by grand design. Each blade of simple grass as awe-inspiring and necessary as the most complex creature. Remove one, and the tapestry is ruined, irrevocably altered. Like removing the bass, or keyboards, or guitar, or the single chime... once designed, once composed, it was what it was.

She felt the plane dip and returned to herself. Damali opened her eyes and peered around the cabin. Marlene lifted her head from Shabazz's chest and smiled. Damali wiped the tears from her face, stricken by the majesty she'd just witnessed. Marlene nodded again. Yeah, she thought, definitely a religious experience.

Although no one said a word as they deplaned and began walking down the tarmac, Damali's mind was racing at a thousand miles an hour. How could something from the darkness ever think it could go against the awesome power of the one who created all of this? She glanced around, incredulous. Pure genius, all-knowing, all power went into the creation of life itself - any life form came from the source, the one, the almighty. She'd known this before, had said it many, many times, but it hadn't registered at the profound soul level until now.

Immediately she became aware that her understanding had been intellectual, not emotional, it wasn't inside her; it was memorized like a school lesson, yet not inarguably known. But the sacredness and beauty of life was all around her as she allowed her gaze to pass the clutter of traffic and look out toward the jade-marbled hills beyond it. Then she looked up at the sun and shielded her eyes to its power. Whatever could create this, harness this, had dominion over this unparalleled power, was all.

Her mind flexed and the stars and moon filled it. The design... the design. It was all so rational, organized, planned. Who could not believe there were things greater, and that the side of what created it all in the first place would not triumph in the end? Damali covered her mouth with her hand, just looking out at nothing.

Near weeping as her team stood waiting on their ride, Marlene came to her side, took up Damali's hand and squeezed it.

"It finally hit you, huh, baby?"

She turned and stared at Marlene for a moment, not knowing how to respond.

"Finally felt it, didn't you? The connection."

Damali just nodded as Marlene kissed her cheek.

"You just hang onto that understanding, baby. No matter what happens, it doesn't matter. All good things are connected to the same source - only one side creates life, the other side destroys and creates death. They can't really kill you... or me, or the others, as long as our thread is connected to the right side. The side that goes on and creates, restores, and lives on."

"But, Mar, they almost killed you," Damali whispered.

"Almost killed my body," Marlene corrected gently. "As long as your spirit is right, you do not end. If my body had died, where do you think my soul would have gone?"

"Heaven, of course," Damali said quickly.

"And, which side do you think it would add to? This endless, nuclear combustion of turbine energy we are all connected to." Marlene smiled. "I would have fueled new life. Through spirit, you will learn in the hills, all matter is created. Life emerges from spirit, not the other way around. That is why souls are so valuable to both sides. One had an endless bounty of them; the other had none... the darkness covets what the light has in plentiful supply. They abuse the natural resource... but what they create is artificial, substandard, twisted, with no way to be efficiently, cleanly reabsorbed back into the spiritual ecosystem."

The guys had gathered near, making an intimate circle around Damali and Marlene to listen.

"Just like all of this greenery and the huge trees we see, all the plants and animals eventually die in the body, their remains get absorbed into fertile, rich soil, that later gives rise to something that reconstitutes into the growth of something new and beautiful. It is a perfect, efficient process. So, too, is a good soul. And as above, so below. But, man-made things cause pollutants, toxins, and cannot be reabsorbed, because those things, while manifest, were not created by the one."

"Mar, I just never understood the impact..." Damali leaned against Big Mike, needing to hold onto something tall and solid before her legs gave way.

"Whatever we are hunting, might be stronger in body, but is a spiritual pollutant, a toxin that the fragile ecosystem of the spirit world has no way to absorb. Thus, it is banished to the nether realm's dump site. Spiritual landfills are the best description of the dark side realms. They cannot create life - only twist and modify it. That's why Carlos's soul is so important to them and us... he's a great natural resource, like ore, that can either become steel beam for them that can never be absorbed, or important natural metallic infrastructure to our planet that is a part of the ecosystem. For us, he's gold."

"Deep," Rider said, shaking his head.

"You think she can beat this thing, Mar?" Shabazz stroked Marlene's back and stared at her with searching eyes.

"What they called up is stronger in body. Period. It can shape-shift, and is a more skilled warrior." Marlene put a hand on Damali's shoulder when Damali blanched. "But, you have a spirit. It doesn't. That's your strength and her vulnerability." Marlene smiled. "Have you seen the forces of nature destroy man-made stuff? Girl, dams have been washed away by natural floods, steel-beamed buildings have been rocked and felled by earthquakes, houses ripped apart by tornadoes. Forces of nature that even the nonsecular insurance industry, in their documents, call acts of God."

Marlene chuckled. "No, baby. They can fell a tree, they can strip-mine a mountain, and maybe temporarily harness some aspects of nature. But when it's all said and done, if that which is pure nature rears up and comes at 'em with sheer force - that, they ain't got nothing for."

Damali nodded as the team slapped fives, pounded fists, and grunted their agreement on the side of the road - pumped. However, Damali kept further reply to herself, not wanting to take away from Marlene's impassioned rah-rah speech. The fact was, Damali didn't want a single tree felled from her team, whether they would turn into spiritual essence, warrior angels, or whatever.

While all that Marlene had said was philosophically comforting, and intellectually stimulating, she wasn't trying to have none of her guys go out like that. Deep in her heart, each of her family members had their own irreplaceable and intrinsic value. She understood why Marlene had insisted they stop in Bahia to get spiritual fuel.

New dread overtook Damali. Marlene had come here to prepare her for the possibility that this battle would level casualties like no other before. Marlene obviously wanted her to be straight in her head if she had to watch one or many of her guys fall... even Marlene. Yeah, there were things she had to learn to figure out how to best this threat, but this side stop had as much to do with life after the team, as it did strategies to vanquish the enemy.

She glanced up at Big Mike, the big redwood, who was coddling her against him. Hell, no she didn't want this gentle, giant brother to fall. Nor did she want to see her mother-friend go up into the light... or JL, or Dan, or Jose's smiling faces laying on the rich, blood-covered earth to become a part of the cycle of life. If something happened to Rider, she would never recover, and God knows, if Shabazz went down, they'd have to sedate her.

Time crept in slow increments of perspiration. Forty-five minutes felt like four hours under the Salvador sun. Waiting on a bus in LA was very different than waiting on a minivan by a dusty road near the equator.

But it made perfect sense that a spiritual center would be near a port settled in 1549. One hundred and seventy-six churches, so much hallowed ground... yet sugar barons stole bodies from Africa and imported them to stolen lands. Settled? Nothing was settled in 1549, the drama had just begun, three years after the Amazon squad perished in '46. The numbers were the same as in the Temt Tchaas, everything coming full circle, just like her.

The scents of coriander, pepper spices, and roasted meats wafted from the vendors hawking fresh juices, cold coconut milk. Damali's stomach growled. African-based music was ever-present, as were the flies. Young vendors plied them with hand-woven bracelets that had three knots, brightly colored good luck charms that combined the African Candomble religion with Catholicism.

Damali chuckled, being a practitioner of neither sect, as a persistent boy just would not rest until she accepted one. He tied it in a knot around her wrist, eagerly accepting her coins, and smiling a brilliant white smile against ashy ebony skin, telling her quickly not to take it off, but to throw it in the sea when her wish came true. Was it that obvious she had a fervent wish? She laughed more to herself as they waited. Children and animals, the pure of heart, could always tell.

When Marlene abandoned a duffle-bag seat, and stood up with Shabazz's help, the entire team shielded their eyes and craned their necks in the direction of her gaze. A white, rusted-out van came to a lumbering stop, sending the roadside dust into a swirl around the team. A taller, browner, and more muscular version of Shabazz jumped out and raced toward Marlene. Damali cut her eyes at Shabazz from behind her sunglasses. Aw, shit...

The guy who swept Marlene up in a familiar embrace was all that and a bag of chips. Damali glanced at the faces of the team. No one's eyes could be seen behind their shades, but the tension in their bodies, and the way they ground out support for their brother with their clenched jaws said it all. Jose was nearly trembling, and she could see the veins standing in his temple. The brother from the van glanced at him briefly, smiled, and returned his focus to Marlene. What was that about?

This man had two inches in height on Shabazz, and Damali noted Shabazz trying to elongate his spine and puff up just a bit. The competitor for Marlene's affection had on a low-slung pair of jeans and no shirt. His chest was a dark set of perfect cinder blocks covered in a damp, glistening sheen of moisture. His torso was cut into six bricks that tapered into a slim waist. His locks were down his back, held by a thin leather strap. And judging by the power in his thick thighs, and his arms, he could take Shabazz if any drama kicked off. Damn. This was going to be a heck of a long visit in Bahia.

Sighing, and not totally sure why, Damali hoisted up her duffle. This brother was touching Marlene's cheek, staring into her eyes, and a private chuckle passed between them. Shabazz bristled, but didn't say a word, as Marlene turned to the group and formally introduced her mentor.

"Everybody, this is Kamal." Marlene's eyes sparkled behind her photo-gray round lenses. Her smile was as wide as a schoolgirl's. "Shabazz, Damali, Rider, Big Mike, JL, Jose, Dan - Kamal."

Each guardian muttered a half-civil hello. Shabazz had only nodded. Kamal chuckled, and went to the passenger's side of the van and opened the door, helping Marlene in first to sit beside him in the front. Shabazz just glared at the man, and grabbed his gear. But he was not fast enough to pick up Marlene's load. Kamal had swept it up in a deft, graceful motion, and all Damali could do was place a hand on Shabazz's shoulder. She would have sworn the man growled.

One by one, they piled into the cramped confines of the vehicle.

The thing sputtered and knocked, and looked like it was circa 1970s. But no one said a word.

"We gwan up to da mountains. It's late, and tonight the dances will show part of what you seek," Kamal shouted over his shoulder above the sputtering engine and loud African music that blared. "Safe ground, no? All protected by spiritual rings - no worries." Then he did the unspeakable. Turned to Marlene, smiled, and put his hand on her thigh. "Like old times, old gurl. Like da ayahuasca walk?"

Damali was rubbing Shabazz's back now, like he was a prizefighter sitting in a ring corner chair - just having been TKO'd by a former champion. She cast her gaze out the window. Lord, Lord, Lord please don't let no mess jump off with my already high-strung team. She sighed. The van was hot. Shabazz was smoldering. Big Mike and Rider were armed. This was supposed to be a spiritual enclave in the hills. Dang... she thought Marlene had been with monks and Templars all these years to gain insight, but it was obvious that Marlene had some other sources of information. Old times? She thought Marlene only dealt with the Covenant. Apparently so had Shabazz. Go figure.

Two hours later, and with a silent passenger section in the back, the van came to a stop. Kamal had pointed out all the sugar plantations, explained the politics of the region - the blend of African, Indian, and European peoples, and had given them a crash course in how the Candomble deities had been hidden within the Catholic religion by African slaves forced to give up their heritage.

Rather than focus on the private glances Kamal sent to Marlene, or the way Marlene swallowed away knowing smiles, Damali thought about Lemanja - the goddess of the river and waters he'd told them about. Maybe she would help? Damali chuckled. Going down the Amazon, assuming they made it that far, with the two elders of the group in a standoff, was not going to be good. All right, Lemanja, this is your house over here... Dag, can you help a sister out?

The group piled out of the van with a disgruntled series of grunts and stretches. People rubbed their shoulders, leaned forward to allow their spines to reset, and bent their knees. Even Rider, who normally complained about any minor inconvenience, didn't say a word.

But it was mercifully cooler in the mountains. The bush, as Kamal called it, was a rough-hewn version of forest with dense trees, wide palms, and tall grasses. He motioned toward what looked like a one-story, long, whitewashed shack. The paint on the clapboards was beginning to peel and Damali noted that there were no screens on any of the windows. There was no door to it, either. Obviously air-conditioning was missing in action, too. They were gonna get eaten alive by the bugs, and perhaps anything else that was out there at night.

"Put up your tings, then come to de riva. Marlene knows. Late afternoon, like early morning, we practice. Baths are in the natural riva. Insect repellent is from the bush, not de bottle." Kamal chuckled and a deep, resounding sound came from his full, sexy mouth. "You'll get the insects high."

Marlene offered him a wide smile and nodded. Then the man ran full-bolt through the woods and disappeared within it like he was a gazelle. Oh, boy...

No one said a word as they all marched up the steep incline to the guest house. The walk up the hill was enough to add muscles to one's legs, and this brother ran around the retreat grounds like it was downtown LA, not an obstacle underfoot or an incline in sight.

Climbing three shaky wooden nights up to the house porch, they filed through the door and just stared. Rickety metal cots with bare mattresses stared back at them. The water-stained blue-and-white ticking made it seem like the bedding was wearing convict's stripes. A thin layer of dust covered the floor and the one huge dresser in the room. They watched a fat beetle skittle by at the invasion. A single, bare bulb dangling from a metal chain served as the light. Spiderwebs and moth cocoons claimed the high corners of the ceiling. A carpenter wasp was busily working at a rain gutter.

Damali sighed, Marlene smiled, and Rider dropped his duffle bag with a thud.

"Ain't exactly the Copacabana Palace." Rider put his hands on his hips and glanced around.

"Man, don't start," Big Mike warned. "These folks are helping us out, and we all need to chill." But the fact that he'd shot a look in Shabazz's direction wasn't lost on a soul among them.

"It's all good," Damali said cheerfully, adding emphasis to the statement as she dropped her bag. "Let's go down and see what brother is up to by the river. Cool?"

"Yeah," Shabazz muttered. "Let's see what he's about."

It took her team fifteen minutes to pick their way through the thicket to a clearing. The heavy rhythm of drums and berimbau coming from the direction of the river fused with the chattering wildlife in the trees. Everything around them was alive.

Damali kept her lips sealed shut as Rider argued with Big Mike about the merits of having to use an outhouse versus indoor plumbing. She refused to get into the dispute when Rider started hollering about what might happen if he had to pee at night, and had to brave the unknown, alone, just to take a leak. The riotous conversation almost made her cover her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. But she dared not, lest Shabazz explode. He was so close to the edge that an electric current seemed to be going through his locks. She could dig it. There were no words when your competition was all that. Been there. Recently. Shoot, at least this guy Shabazz was worried about wasn't a demon from the depths of the Amazon.

But why did Marlene have to open her mouth to defend the spiritual hostel? If she had just been cool, hadn't said a word, then it could have remained smooth - but no.

"This is about spiritual expansion here. It's rustic because the emphasis is not on the physical - "

"Oh, that's good to know," Shabazz snapped. "Glad there was no emphasis on the physical!"

Marlene opened her mouth, then closed it with a smile and looked ahead as they made a path to the river.

On the other hand, it might have been better if the group just had a good old-fashioned, nonspiritual shouting match to clear the air before they got down there, because what they saw as they came to a halt, was gonna kill Shabazz.

Twenty-five hard, black bodies in thin, white loincloth strips moved like water on the flat sandy shore. Their fluid choreography was as breathtaking as their defined human structures. Burnt orange, late-afternoon sun reflected off onyx, sun-burnished skin. Kamal led the sultry capoeira fight dance that had the slow, controlled rhythms of Tai Chi combined with a mixture of kickboxing and karate. A guy as big as Mike worked out on the drums, and another slighter-built brother was funkin' out a berimbau. Yeah, Shabazz was going to have heart failure.

Damali glanced at him from the corner of her eye as the practicing brothers turned in unison, showing uncovered buns of steel as they bent their knees a millimeter from the sand, leaned back, their shoulders barely brushing the ground, and rose in a powerful, stable, slow limbo like a fighter avoiding the swipe of a broadsword. Kamal's long ponytail of locks gracefully swept the earth. A trickle of sweat ran down the center of his back, further defining the deep gorge of his spine that gave rise to thick walls of muscles on either side of it. And the brother was Marlene's age? Fifty something? Daaaayum... Okay, she had to talk to Shabazz. Later.

Marlene looked like her heart had stopped this time for real. Girlfriend was transfixed. Damali's gaze shot around the group nervously. Rider looked down at his own slight gut and shook his head. Dan had been so punked down that his shoulders slumped. Jose and JL had just leaned against a tree. Only Big Mike had the gumption to slap Shabazz on the back, obviously the only male on the team not feeling an ego singe.

"It's cool, brother. We good."

Shabazz only nodded, his jaw tense, his eyes unblinking, his gaze forward, his shoulders back - pissed.

She was not even going to ask Marlene how long she'd stayed here. She didn't want to know. True, these brothers looked like fighting machines. True, this center was probably where Marlene learned how to wield her walking stick. And, true, she might have learned divination and the process of calling down spirits, setting up protective prayer barriers, and cleansing baths, herbology, how to read the stars and all... but she also probably learned to appreciate some of the things that were real hard to walk away from. No wonder Marlene demonstrated such discipline. This was you, girl? Impressed, Damali mentally gave the older woman props. Ya just never could tell. Deep.

Blatant curiosity tugged at Damali until she couldn't help but monitor the expression on Marlene's face and glance at the control the capoeira master exhibited. He wasn't even breathing hard and was working his squad out like a champ. Marlene wasn't even breathing. Girlfriend was definitely going to have to give her some insight on how one walked away from something like that.

Damali could just picture it. Learning the stars from this master, under a flawless open sky? Bathing in the natural, in the river at dawn... walking in the woods to study nature, closing one's eyes to feel the energies enter you, making you one with the universe? Shit. Damali sat down on the ground, crossed her legs yoga style and leaned forward. This mess was reminding her of Carlos too much.

The hour passed as though it were a few minutes the same way it did in a club when the music is on and watching the people dancing holds your attention. As soon as the drums stopped, the freshly worked crew gave a slight bow of honor to their instructor and pandemonium broke out. They talked in a rapid patois-like language among themselves, and from what Damali could make out, they were joking with each other and commenting on their routine.

Kamal jogged ahead of the straggling fight-dancers and joined the guardian team. Still not breathing hard, he beamed at Marlene. Damali stood and dusted off her fatigues.

"Your squad is awesome," Damali said honestly, trying to play peacemaker.

"Thank you, pretty one," Kamal replied, bowing slightly. Then he turned and waved his crew to come meet the guardian group. "This is our brotherhood," he said with a proud wave of his hand.

Damali chuckled as the men in the group allowed their gazes to openly assess her and Marlene. Perfect white teeth set in dark skin so smooth it appeared to be marble flashed at her as though a hundred cameras had gone off at once. But the glances they gave Jose concerned her. It was a subtle thing, almost like a dog's bristle. They flexed a little, tilted their heads slightly, took a deep inhale, and then dismissed him with their eyes. Strange thing was, Jose had the same reaction to them.

"Abdul," one bolder brother said, stepping forward, immediately capturing Damali's hand, and kissing it like a gentle knight. His skin was the color of midnight, and his eyes blazed with mischief above high, chiseled cheekbones. His lush mouth relaxed into a sensual smile, and his voice dropped a purposeful octave. "Kamal said a team was coming to gain spiritual insight, but he never said we'd be visited by angels." He held her hand, stepping in closer.

Damali diplomatically extracted her hand with a smile, and raised her eyebrow.

"You are the Neteru?" another just as fine asked in awe. Before Damali could respond, he held up his hand. "Foolish question." The man laughed, outstretched his arms, and plunged an imaginary sword into the center of his chest. "Marry me. I am Ahmad."

All eyes were on her, curiosity mingling with awe as they bowed and held her gaze upon straightening their tall, proud backs. Yet she couldn't help notice how they occasionally glanced between their leader and Jose with confused expressions.

"Uh, this is my squad, fellas," Damali said, chuckling and nattered. "Marlene, and - "

"Marlene?" the huge drummer said, dropping his instrument and glancing at Kamal. "The Marlene?" The drummer immediately looked at Jose, then back to Kamal as though waiting for an explanation. "With the Neteru and him?"

Confused glances shot around the guardian team, but no one said anything. Kamal's people obviously had a problem with Jose, just like their man was having a silent problem with them. Shabazz hung back, his eyes a mystery behind dark glasses, not speaking, only issuing a nod when addressed. Later, Damali reminded herself. She'd do a sensory roll call with her group when they were alone. Now was not the time.

Kamal nodded, as though reading her mind and approving of her plan. He swallowed a smile, and sent his line of vision toward the bush. "Yes, brother. This is Marlene."

Marlene chuckled and studied the ground. The younger men in Kamal's group stood back, and then a flurry of indecipherable language exploded. One young brother just shook his head and slapped Kamal on the back. The drummer beamed at Marlene like she was the dinner he planned to feast on. A couple of the guys gave her bows of deference, and then glanced at Kamal with a too-wide grin.

"Enough," Kamal said after a moment. "Permit Damali to introduce the rest of her team."

"But, Marlene..." the drummer repeated, then let his breath out slowly.

"Uhmm... this is Shabazz, our esteemed Aikido master," Damali said very distinctly, issuing a long look to each bemused capoeira participant. "Big Mike, Rider, JL, Jose, and Dan," she said more quickly. "Each has a specialty and a gift," she added. "Shabazz is our tactile sensory, Marlene is our seer - they are our group's elders."

She had taken her time to be sure that she mentioned Marlene and Shabazz twice as a unit - an inseparable one. Kamal was obviously a gentleman and deferred with grace, another bow in Shabazz's direction, his expression one of understanding, respect. But Kamal's team was not so ready to relent. Their own master being a source of adoration, one of the younger guys pressed on.

"Our Kamal is gifted with a trinity... the feeling, the nose, and sight - and is a worthy adversary in battle."

Seeming satisfied when Shabazz bristled, the young man stepped back into his group, his statement an open challenge. Damali cast a warning glance at Shabazz, who had visibly stiffened when told that Kamal had second sight. She understood that her martial arts master was too irate for words, but now was not the time to start no mess. Yeah, chill. Shabazz would get his ass kicked out here and really be embarrassed - which would mean her boys would have to jump in, and get theirs kicked, too. Then what? Shabazz was gonna have to get over the fact that this brother could do a mind lock with Mar and probably take her places in his head that Shabazz had only dreamed of. She felt his pain, but couldn't acknowledge it. She understood that, too... not being able to serve one's lover all that he desired.

The brief silence pulled everyone's nerves tight as both teams watched both masters. To diffuse the situation, Damali stepped forward with a smile. "I'm sure if Marlene brought us here, Kamal is all that. You gentlemen are top-notch as well. Thank you for your help."

With her words, Kamal's team seemed to acknowledge her peacekeeping gesture, and they took her compliment, one coming from the Neteru, with open satisfaction. They all relaxed their stances, and gave her slight bows of appreciation and backed up. Finally, she thought, peace.

"Your Aikido master is legendary," Kamal said in a respectful tone after a moment. "Marlene has communicated his honor in battle. We are pleased to have your entire guardian team as our guests. We eat by de riva, we divine what you need to know in an hour. Refresh yourselves."

Kamal's team nodded, but seemed totally disappointed that their master was going to stand down on the man-woman thing. Damali's squad almost let out an audible sigh of relief. Shabazz begrudgingly nodded, his chin still set hard like his shoulders, but at least his dignity was intact. Then again, she wondered if it was because the other master had allowed Shabazz to have his pride. It was a classy move, but it still denoted who had the option to back down, who didn't, whose yard this was, and who was in control.

Damali sized up the new spiritual master again, allowing her senses to inform her. Yeah, Shabazz was in trouble. This guy was not only stronger, but had the distinct advantage of three gifts - not just one, like Shabazz had. It was clear that her team had sensed this as well, or were at the very least unsure of the outcome should some bullshit kick off. Marlene was trying her best to act like nothing unusual had occurred, as though all the undercurrent was everyone's imagination. But a few things that were not her imagination: this guy had a scent that she couldn't describe. It was awesome, drew you, was earthy and rich. His skin was like sable, made you just want to reach out and touch it. And his voice, once relaxed, was almost like a purr. Okay, now she was trippin'.

Damali mulled these new dynamics over like worry beads as her team quietly trekked back up the hill.

Everything was changing. Or, was it that she was now seeing more clearly? She wasn't a kid anymore. She was stronger and getting an insider's view of the more private struggles of her elders, was granted a real seat at the invisible adult table. Stuff wasn't flying over her head, going unnoticed, just because she was preoccupied with her own adolescent needs and wants. She'd had some pain to wake her out of her stupor... she was seeing it all go down in quick glimpses, swallowed smiles, tensed jaws, a misplaced breath, the signals of body language that the uninitiated didn't catch. Things that got missed when you didn't know... or made the mistake of assuming that people older than you had never been down this road before.

Climbing the stairs, she watched all her warriors. They all had lives, a path. They all had been here, more than likely. Before this near-fiasco, she never thought about it much. She made a mental note to rely on some of those lessons. Instinct told her that she was fighting an older warrior on two fronts; the demon out there, as well as this thing about to blow up between Shabazz, Marlene, and this new guy's interest in Marlene. Maybe her old warriors might have some discreet knowledge to drop about how to diffuse something as volatile as this. She'd never dealt with any yang like this before, and wished she didn't have to, especially this far from home.

Damali found Marlene on the porch, gazing out at the trees. Wrapped up in their own desire to rest, the guys had each claimed a cot and dropped on it, even Shabazz.

"Hey," Damali murmured, keeping her voice low. "Can I ask you a question?"

"No," Marlene chuckled. "Not that one."

They both laughed quietly.

"Girlfriend, what'd you do up here?"

"Nuffin," Marlene said with a wink, teasing her. "Not a ting."

"Shabazz is having a coronary," Damali whispered.

"We have an open relationship... like he always wanted."

Damali went to the rail that appeared like it could barely hold the weight of a bird, and peered over the three-story drop. "He was really concerned when he thought we lost you, Mar. You need to ease up on the brother. And how you gonna bring him to this placet Dang, Mar, you're rough."

"I know he was concerned," Marlene said in a low, calm tone. "He and I are best friends. No problem with that. Much respect, much love. And the location couldn't be helped, given where we have to go. I wasn't trying to rub his nose in it." Then she giggled. "But there is this weird thing in the universe called karma. It just snaps back and kicks your ass when you least expect it." She covered her mouth and shook her head. "Damn. Never in a million years would I have thought I'd be back here with any of y'all."

Damali was covering her mouth, laughing harder, trying to remain quiet. The last thing she wanted was for Shabazz to overhear their giggling. They weren't laughing at him, but the girl-talk was too crazy not to laugh. She held Marlene's arm, stepped in close, and dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "What did you do to that man that has his whole squad tripping about the Marlene?"

"Oh, chile," Marlene murmured, closing her eyes, giggling intermittently, and wrapping her arms around herself. "That was a looong time ago, and I was young, okay? The man is a tactile..." Marlene breathed in and cleared her throat, opened her eyes, and almost fell over the banister as she leaned on it. "D, he's an olfactory like you just cannot understand - don't be too hard on Carlos for that attribute, okay honey? When a man has a nose, it's hard for him to shake a seductive scent. Ask me how I know." She leaned into Damali's right ear. "All I'ma say is, girl, the brother has the third-eye thing going on." Marlene shook her head and walked down the porch, found a step, and plopped down. "Whew."

Dumbstruck by Marlene's admission, the intensity of it, and the way the older woman's expression seemed to take her back in time, made Damali claim a seat next to her on the step. For a moment, neither of them spoke, and Damali wondered if this was what older women did with delicious memories - stored them away in a repository that they could pull out and savor, like a favorite old dress stored in an attic footlocker.

"Why'd you leave?"

Damali's question was a quest to understand how one pulled away from something that obviously had Marlene in a vise grip of passion at one time. Neither woman was giggling now, as their own thoughts eclipsed their mirth. This was some serious shit Marlene had walked away from. She needed to know how the sister did it. Needed the insight from Marlene about how one garnered the strength to break away from the man who had her so messed up. If Marlene would tell her, she'd use everything her mentor said to help break the grip Carlos had on her. Even out here, and after all she'd seen, she was still thinking about him.

"Maybe that's why I'm here now," Marlene said with a sad smile. "To tell you how I did." Marlene looked up at the sky and shook her head. "Y'all ask an awful lot of people sometimes."

She could tell by the way Marlene was taking her time to choose the words that opening this attic footlocker was going to bring out more than a sexy dress. But the question had been posed before the realization. Damali waited. There was nothing else to do as Marlene tried to fix her mouth to explain how one walked away from an apparent soul mate.

"Loved him," Marlene said so quietly that for a moment the cicadas went still. "Had to leave before I messed up."

"Messed up?" Wide-eyed, Damali just stared at her.

Marlene nodded with a knowing smile. "I came over here while I was still in training. We'd seen the premonition about Raven. I wasn't supposed to have children, remember?" Marlene sucked in a deep inhale. "Out here... shoot, girl... with him, I couldn't keep to no rhythm method."

Marlene closed her eyes. "Also couldn't keep myself from wanting to bear what he'd plant, and in this, the master had no control. Slipped up once, dodged a silver bullet by praying to the ancestors and fasting all month." She laughed so sadly that tears came to her eyes. "And then he drove me to town. I begged him to... before we really messed up, and his entire warrior team got massacred by the vamps looking for me, because they were looking for you - the only infant I was supposed to have in my arms. The vamps had been watching me for years, and tracking me. We all knew that it would only be a matter of time before they figured out a way to break Kamal's spiritual barriers to this compound. The demons were watching, too... looking for the Neteru to use your scent to battle the vamps. It wasn't worth risking what he'd built here, or what he was trying to do here. Wasn't worth a vamp or demon war against Kamal's people." Marlene sighed. "Then didn't I mess up and get pregnant by some other guy I didn't love anyway?"

When Damali just gaped at her, Marlene gave Damali a serious look. "Don't you tell Shabazz that mess, ever. He'll freak. It's already messing him up that he and Kamal share a lot of the same attributes. Would be okay if Shabazz was the original, and Kamal was the print, but girl... lemme just say, I done lived me some life out here, and it was all good." Marlene hesitated and allowed her gaze to slide away. "Kamal was the one. Then came Shabazz. It's complicated. I care for them both, love them both, and both of them are different and mean different things to me for different reasons. Shabazz is the one, now. But there was one before him. That's the part he won't be able to deal with - the fact that... Shit, I'm not even making sense to myself. There's a lot about this place that I couldn't tell him, or anybody in the group."

She looked at Damali, her eyes searching for acceptance. "Just trust me, no matter what kicks off that, you needed to come here to fight what we're facing, and that's paramount. The rest is history." She looked away and her voice became very distant. "If I didn't have to come back here, believe me, I wouldn't have. Too hard."

She didn't know what to say to Marlene as she watched the older guardian breathe deeply and her tears evaporate without falling. She'd sucked it up, took it like a woman, was gonna keep the peace, and chill. But how in the hell? Marlene's jaw was set hard, her gaze went to the horizon, and she blinked slowly, like packing away old still photos in a hidden album. But she could feel the current coming off Marlene. The old girl was jacked up. And the way Kamal had looked at her, like a battle-ax was in his chest, but was so fucking cool it didn't make sense.

"Much respect, Mar, and I'm so sorry you had to bring me here to open up a wound," she whispered, meaning it with all her heart. "But I don't think I'm there, yet, for real. To have the discipline." She held Marlene in her gaze. "Mar, I've seen some crazy, crazy, mad-crazy shit, right?"

Marlene nodded.

"The man told me some mess that made me stop breathing for a minute, okay?"

Marlene nodded.

"The entire world order is hanging in the balance, and I should be too done with him," Damali said in a quiet tone, her eyes searching Marlene's for answers.

Marlene smiled.

"I'm on my way out to possibly get all our asses kicked, and we might die."

"Yup."

"But Mar..." Damali whispered now, her hands clutching the hair on the crown of her head. "He's in my nose, in my mind, a part of my skin!"

"Yup," Marlene said standing. "Know whatcha mean."

"But..." Damali looked up, confused.

Marlene leaned down to keep the conversation from being overheard. "You will always feel that way about him. It will never go away. For you, it will burn like a never-ending fire, and for him it'll burn him like quicksilver would. It will always be fossil fuel. But when you get strong enough, you will walk away to avoid a disaster. That doesn't mean you'll stop smoldering, it just means that when you're not in the vicinity of the blaze, you won't go up in flames. Distance, darlin'. Time and distance. But don't drop a match near it - ever. No matter how much time has passed. Ask me how I know." Her smile was warm. "That's why nobody who was old enough to know better dropped a match near my situation today, or will speak on it. Take note."

Marlene smoothed the front of her T-shirt and looked up at the sky. "I'm cool. I'm cool y'all," she said, laughing. "Just one night, I can hang," she said, speaking to nothing and everything, especially herself. "Damn, the stars are dredging up all kinds of triangles." She looked at Damali, shook her head, and started walking. "Ain't that a bitch?"
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