The Hunted

Chapter Twenty-Four

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Chapter Twenty-Four

The climb to get into the demon's lair would be steep and treacherous. The footlocker of artillery was going to be a problem. The squads were breathing hard, bent over from the steady uphill trajectory. Even Kamal's guys looked winded, sweating, and several men were bent over, hands on knees, sucking in air. Marlene was holding onto a tree, her age beginning to tell on her. Just like there was no easy way to climb mountains with gear out in the wilderness, some things required endurance.

As they stood at the foot of the steep crag of pure rock incline, everyone on the squad shook their heads one by one. Her teams had their eyes on the ground-level mouth of the cave. However, vultures circled high above it. Damali watched the birds.

"There's an opening up there drawing the birds to the carcasses. If we go in from the bottom, there are traps for those coming in on foot. It's too far of a drop by rope, given the height of the trees. Girlfriend isn't stupid. She's very smart." Damali pointed up with her sword. "But, there's a hole up there. Bet she sleeps all day in the shade after eating, like all the big cats do."

"Don't they have to stay out of the light, though, to regenerate?" Rider had pulled off his hat to get more air.

"They have to rest in the day, they're weaker - but you just saw that thing that was spying on us, Rider. That was what they're like when they're weaker. But sunlight doesn't harm them like vamps."

"Duly noted," he conceded to Damali. "Now what? I'm not trying to leave the ammo behind."

"Normally, we've only seen the demons remain in human form by day," Kamal said, his voice tight. "If it held a were-shape in broad daylight, they're very strong."

"Yeah, I hear you," Damali muttered, her mind working. "This ain't the kind of place you go into with just a blade in your teeth."

"For real." Shabazz eyed the cave entrance. "Too easy."

"I agree," Kamal replied, glancing around.

They were stalled. The entire team was waiting for the order to move, but where did one go? Damali walked back from where they had come from for about ten feet and looked up the cliff. The desire to take off the Amazon-demon's head with Madame Isis was so strong it made her hands tremble. But they were losing sun.

"If we go up the side, we'd have to leave the heavy ammo, and with the way the cliffs are situated, and no mountain-climbing gear on us, a jag could take us easy. We'd die from the fall alone, and I've seen these things pull on their shape-shifting capacity to become huge snakes and crocks." She walked back to where the others stood and motioned toward the cave entrance. "We already know this is booby-trapped, but if we get into a jam, we can possibly force some of her own through it - in the heat of battle, in a flat-out retreat, disorientation is easy. Troops step on their own land mines all the time, if it gets hectic enough."

Kamal nodded. "De other entrances put us about a mile from her lair up top if we have to go through a more obscure opening. Then we have to hope dat we get up dere, zigzagging at an angle, before de sun drops and dey get even stronger." He glanced at Damali, and then at Shabazz and Marlene. "Unless..."

Tilting her head, Damali came near Kamal. "Brother, no disrespect, but time is of the essence."

"I know. But you gotta be strong. You gwan hafta speak out loud some tings to dis team to guide 'em... dat's gwan be hard."

"Oh, shit," Rider sighed.

"She don't have to go there, man," Big Mike argued. "We can do this like old times, you dig?"

"No. I'm cool," Damali said firmly. "Talk to me, Kamal."

He walked a pace away from her and stood with Marlene and Shabazz. "D, how does your man think?" Kamal asked gently.

"Oh, Lord, Kamal... don't make her go there," Marlene murmured.

"The Neteru got to tell it, Mar," Shabazz said, his voice unwavering. "You and I both know that. We got thirty-three lives on the line."

"Can't be no bullshit out here," Kamal added. "D, how he think?"

"I... I don't know what you mean, for real." Thoughts slammed and scattered within Damali's head. Two older male guardians were looking at her, searching her face, but she didn't know what part of the answer they were looking for. Carlos was shrewd. Intelligent. What did they want from her? "You need to be the ones that stop bullshitting out here," she snapped, feeling the pressure from their stares. "Say it plain. I'm no child!"

Shabazz and Kamal hesitated, obviously not expecting the indignant response. All team members straightened slowly and waited, watching.

"We're trying to hit were-demon mating dens, but if she's trying to snag a master vampire, you think he would go to her, or she would come to him?" Shabazz looked at Damali, an apology in his eyes. "From what we know of male vamps, during a seduction, they have to be the ones in control. Am I wrong?"

"If he gwan take her to mate her, where would he go?" The expression on Kamal's face looked so pained, like it was the last thing he'd wanted to ask - but through her lack of quick clarity, she'd forced him and Shabazz to go there.

Damali sucked in a deep breath, and tried not to allow her gaze to leave their faces. This shit hurt so bad that she almost couldn't talk.

"He's old-school," she said, her voice flat, confident, and devoid of emotion. She used her sword as a pointer. The edge of the blade disconnecting her emotions from her body, cutting them, hacking them away like useless vines that had barred her path. Yeah, the forest floor bled when she mentally cut away the part of herself that clung, but the vines would eventually grow back. They were in the way right now.

Damali massaged her temple with two fingertips. None of her men could look at her as she spoke. She studied the cave layout. "He wouldn't take her to the top if she's throwing scent like she's ripening... I should have known. She's up there now. But by sundown, she's coming in low, will come down to meet him, to bring him deeper into her lair."

"Why, when she has da strategic advantage of mobility out in the jungle, versus inside a cave?" Kamal asked, looking at the ground. "Or why wouldn't she stay at da top and wait for him? We just have to be sure the cave isn't a death trap for us. Dat's the only reason I'm picking at this fresh scab, baby."

"Carlos, in that state..." Damali steadied herself, leaning on the Isis. "In that state, the sun would come up on him. He wouldn't risk the rays, and he knows himself well enough to protect himself. Once he gets started, time stops for him."

"Damn..."

Rider's voice haunted her. She began walking, needing the motion of pacing to keep her mind from exploding.

"If he's being turned out, and she's giving off ripe Neteru, he'd take her to somewhere he knew no sunlight could harm him. Roll up on him while he's working, though, and you'll die."

The glances that the team exchanged made her want to impale herself on her own sword. But they needed to know what they were dealing with - how volatile a situation this was. "Once ripened Neteru hits his system, he'll be more dangerous to any of us than her eleven were-jags could ever be."

She looked up and made each member of the squads look at her, using sudden silence. "If you catch him with solid red in his eyes, do him without hesitation. He will even snap my neck in that state - if I get between him and her. I'm not ripe, and I'm the Neteru - a threat to his mate. He won't be rational. He won't be Carlos Rivera, he'll be Master Vampire Rivera, two extremely different entities."

Damali glanced up at the sky as the faces of the team blurred. "I've seen it... and once you see it, you never forget it. He was strong as shit and ripped a competitive male master's jaw off with one swipe, because there was a ripening slayer nearby." She swallowed and pointed to the top of the cliff. "She's no fool. By sundown, her crew won't even have to fight us, Rivera will. Why take the bullet when the male will? Law of the jungle, just like the streets.

"Let's move." Damali began walking again; her chest was getting tight as she spoke and they followed just listening. "Plus, she'll definitely need her strength to take the body blows and the siphon, especially if he doesn't love her. I was lucky that way, then. If we kill her early, and I happen to survive... he'll come for the next available female with the nearest scent that's driving him crazy - me. But he'll be very, very disappointed and angry, because I'm not ripening... so when he's done, what's left of me when he wakes up and needs to feed - "

Marlene's gasp behind her carved Damali's insides out. The fact that Big Mike had stopped walking for a minute hurt her through and through. Her biggest brother was shaking his head and repeating a mantra, "Oh, damn," low and quiet as he walked much slower. Kamal had so much pain in his stricken expression as he mouthed "I'm sorry," that Shabazz put a hand on his shoulder. Rider simply stopped, found a large bolder, and sat on it hard, crushing small stones with his foot. Dan had also stopped and was leaning against a tree like someone had punched him in the stomach, and Jose just looked off into the distance with JL, watching the vultures circle, not moving. But they had to know. More important, they had to keep walking. It was about survival.

"Gentlemen, let's move out," she ordered, and brought the team together in a forward progression once more, looking for potential lair entry points as she tried not to think too hard. But that battle was lost the closer they got to the base of the mountain. Her mind wouldn't let go of the thing that hurt her the most and it cut her deeply.

Kamal's team might act swiftly, having no prior knowledge of Carlos as anything but a vamp. They'd see him and do him. Point blank without blinking or stuttering. But her guys were in danger. Her guys would hesitate. Her guys would hold out for hope. Her guys would think of her heart. Her guys didn't understand what went through her hands the night before and terrorized her mind. And, before, she'd been the only Neteru in Carlos's nose. Her scent was dominant. Her cycle changes had been the only ones he followed like the natural phases of the moon.

When her guys saw him flip out, Carlos didn't have two competing priorities confusing him, enraging the beast within him. The Neteru guardians had been on Carlos's side before, the side that was protecting his interests - a ripening slayer. Now they'd be on opposing sides, as their squad attempted to get between a jacked up-male vamp and his cycle-ready female. Not good.

Their horror notwithstanding, her guys had to suck it up, and deal—or die. Like Kamal and Shabazz had both told her, "Shit happens fast."

"When Carlos wakes up, hungry and... When he wakes up. He'll take her to his place, or somewhere he can corner her and keep her till she goes out of phase, or her phony scent wears off. You won't be able to get to her then, because he won't even sleep in the daytime. As long as it's dark where he is..."

She stopped and looked up, sensing for a good entrance point and trying to think like a master vampire would. Damali's voice trailed off, needing a moment to say the words in her mind before she could form them on her lips and push them out of her mouth. The team stopped near her and hovered, their eyes hungry for understanding, but pure grief flickering within them.

"You can't even go into his lair during the day," she said plainly in a strong voice. "If she's in there, still in phase, he will be making love to her night and day as long as the lair stays dark. Do you follow?" She shot her glance around at the faces that just stared at her in disbelief. "He'll be ravenous."

"But, he's gotta feed," Marlene finally murmured. "Replenish his blood supply to regenerate."

"We've always gone after the vamps in their lairs during the day, right guys?" Rider glanced toward the others who nodded in confusion. "Damali, maybe because you're so caught up in this thing, you're exaggerating the - "

"No, Rider, everybody. I'm trying to tell you what I know from experience. You've only dusted lower generations in-lair, but this stuff is like PCP. Even the legendary vampire hunters don't have experience with this substance, because the masters they were hunting didn't have Neteru in their systems. But it will keep a master vamp up... you know what I mean."

She rubbed her hand over her face and sighed and began cutting away foliage. Each pair of available hands began clearing a path to the unknown, blindly following her. She'd tried to explain over breakfast that ripe Neteru would keep a master vamp awake, intermittently feeding and making love, until the object of his desire burned out of cycle or the phony scent evaporated. Then he'd drop.

The memory of how Carlos functioned stripped her just as brutally as she was slashing back the vines. It was simple. She'd told them, but in their hearts they just didn't want to believe what she knew. It was false hope. After that marathon, he'd seriously need to feed. Would eat whatever was within reach. Her team had to forget about hope. It was basic vampire instinct that they were trying to paint as a pretty picture. But the reality was ugly.

He'd keep whatever female was in his lair fed, just so she wouldn't die from the abuse - because he'd want her to live so she'd be able to respond under him. Damali hacked at the vines harder, needing to use up her rage on something. At night he'd hunt and drag the kill back to the lair, feed her, and start the process all over again. Jesus, don't make her explain this shit to them in more detail than she already had before...

Finally able to reach the cave wall, she walked ahead of her team around the base of the cave, unable to cope with her knowledge. He'd told her what to expect, but she hadn't understood until Carlos showed her with the images, let her feel them for herself. Firsthand experience. Completely primal. A hunger so profound that it was unfathomable. If what she'd seen was just a fantasy, then common sense extrapolated that vision into something real that was so much worse. She wanted to weep, but again could not. Her team was trudging behind her. The purging of information had left her hollow, and yet oddly unafraid. An Amazon arrow in the center of her chest wouldn't hurt as badly, and might put her out of her misery, she thought.

But she was not trying to endanger anyone else. Part of this was her personal battle, but most of it was a common battle for a common good. Her gaze narrowed, survival the singular goal.

"Found a portal," she said, flatly pointing to an opening that was low to the ground, and covered by a heap of dead human flesh.

"You have got to be kidding me." Rider glanced around and everyone shrugged. "Go through that disgusting pile on our hands and knees? Gimme a break."

"It's about four and a half feet high, but I put money on it that it opens higher a few hundred yards out."

They stared at Damali.

"This is not the normal vamp-lair, because this isn't your run of the mill, daytime smoke-a-vampire mission," she said with authority, not looking at the team, but keeping her eyes trained on the opening she was studying. She spoke to them, half thinking out loud and half processing the variables for herself.

"He's going after something in jag form, so he'll transform to match it. Male vamp, transformed into panther, is about four feet at the shoulders. Give him additional head space to lope at a full-speed run, in order to rush an attacker, he's gonna want a place were he can slow their exit to sunlight, and feed in a safe tunnel." Damali went to the heap, squatted, and poked in the gore with her sword and sniffed, getting a whiff of sulfur in the sickening mix. "Carlos didn't do this, though. She probably ordered this food left at his back door for him in preparation. Not his style. It's human. Woulda left her a buffalo carcass, something like that." She stood. "That much I still know about him."

Kamal sniffed and nodded. "It's were-demon marked. Damali is right."

She pulled herself up on a low-hanging branch and could make out a ledge about eight feet off the ground. She closed her eyes for a moment, feeling Carlos's presence had been there. "Found his front door." Damali looked down as her team assembled under her as she sheathed the Isis and began climbing.

"What are you doing?" Shabazz asked with a bewildered expression. "Didn't you just say - "

"He's not home yet," she shot back, grunting from the exertion of lifting herself. "Today, brother is getting his rest, probably ate real good last night, and at sundown, will shave, put on his rags, track a scent, and be out. So, we've gotta lay some booby traps in there now, and find the corridor that leads from her bedroom to his. Dig?"

"Damn..." Big Mike murmured, glancing at Shabazz, Rider, and Kamal. "Women are devious."

"Mike, you sure those detonators are good from this far away?" Damali glanced back at her team in the dank cavern.

"Yeah, we cool. Holy water set, C-4, right under the marble slab, li'l sis."

The lair was a cakewalk. If Damali's second sense was right, the Amazon's crew wasn't committed to guard it; their primary concern would be their queen. They were up top near her.

From what she'd gleaned from Carlos's mind, and the parts she filled in from common sense, since this was an unsanctioned vampire mission, there were no bats or messengers to contend with outside the master lair. One hundred yards into the cave from the ledge, it had gotten narrower and darker, until they had to fire lanterns to see.

But the heavy steel door wasn't bolted. From experience she knew they were bolted from the inside, and if nobody was home... Vampires didn't worry about break-ins. Human invasion was merely dinner dropping off at their door. While they were gone, all illusion disappeared and left what they'd found - a marble slab and sharp granite walls.

As the group moved forward, the cave widened again, and Damali halted them. The entire posse had been weaving their way past stalactites and stalagmites through the damp space, ducking at times where there were low spots, and avoiding small cave-dwelling rodents and insects underfoot along the path that she knew without knowing why she did.

"Ammonia," she whispered. "We got bats overhead."

"Here," Kamal said quietly, "we have natural vampire bats. As long as you move slowly, don't send them flying, dey shouldn't attack you - but dey do, at times, carry rabies."

"Oh, brother," Rider moaned as the group passed under a huge cavernous ceiling that wriggled and squeaked with the tightly packed, struggling vermin. "Why do we always have to go to the garden spots of the world, Damali? Geeze Louise," he fussed, pinching his nose as the bats indiscriminately plopped little globs of feces combined with urine-like leather-winged pigeons.

Dampness, sweat, and dread clung to their skins, and without ventilation in the caverns, it was insufferable. Albeit cooler in the cave than under the sun outside, the thick stillness of the air, along with the wafting bat odors and combined human team funk, was about to make everyone pass out. Water dripped in a steady rhythm from the multiple underground streams, and an echo resounded from it everywhere.

When Damali weaved, stopped, and leaned against the wall, the team took five gladly. She mopped her throat, forehead, and the back of her neck under her locks, holding her hair off her as she wiped away moisture with a bandanna in repetitive, futile strokes. The team's haggard breaths, and the echo of bottled-water seals breaking was the only sound to accompany the now far-off bat colony and the dripping water within the cave.

Damali lifted her head within the large expanse of cavern where they'd paused, listening past the team guzzling water, their breaths, the water of the drips... where was the drip... where was the drip? The bats weren't squeaking.

"Battle stations," she whispered. "Full metal jacket."

One by one the team passed the word, and each warrior slowly got his weapon readied, putting down his water carefully as though it were a bomb. Damali took a bottle cap from Shabazz and flipped it like a coin into the next tunnel opening, and immediately a hail of arrows was returned.

"Open fire!"

Ducking behind rocks and narrow ruts between boulders, her team sent rapid machine gunfire into the open tunnel where the arrows had been released. But soon she held up her hand, realizing that there was no return fire. Turning quickly to look behind them, the team froze, staring up at eleven low-crouched entities on cave ledges bearing fangs.

Green-gold eyes glistened in the darkness twenty feet above them. The lanterns exploded, putting the team in instant darkness. JL lit a flare, and it was summarily shot out of his hand by a blow dart. Then the eyes disappeared. The team drew in, standing back to back, aiming into the blackness, not knowing even if their own team members were before them.

Two eyes opened almost twenty-five feet out, a man yelled, his screams turning to shrieks, bones snapped, flesh ripped, the team fired. It became dead silent again.

Damali patted Mike for a grenade. "Light it up in here, Mike."

Hurling a series of holy-water bombs, the room flashed blue light, and then fast-rising plumes of yellow, fetid smoke gassed the team, choking them, blinding them, obscuring their vision. Kamal's men drew back.

Marlene shot a glance of concern and she dropped her voice to a tense whisper, close to a hiss. "Oh my God. They can't take the grenades, D. Kamal, you should have told us! They have an intolerance for what comes up from the demon pits, because of their human hybrid DNA that fights full turns. Get 'em out of here now! There's too much sulfur - "

"Do whatchu gotta do," Kamal yelled, still backing up and wheezing. "We normally fight them in the open, it's just da cave..."

"This is fucked up - we didn't know, man." Shabazz caught Kamal under his armpit as he stumbled and helped him to his feet. "But y'all ain't expendable. Get these men out of here."

"Just guard the Neteru," Kamal argued, clinging to Shabazz for support before he righted himself to lean against a wall. "We go all da way as one squad."

Damali glanced at Kamal's struggling team, and pushed herself off the wall. An adrenaline kick of pure frustration and rage jolted her forward through the sulfur, making her cut at nothing as she climbed on a high flat rock. Not another one of her men. Not one!

"You call yourself a warrior," she yelled, coughing and sputtering from the toxic fumes. "Then come out and fight!"

She had to get her now, well before sundown, well before things got crazier. The smoke was lifting, which meant they'd come in for another attack. All she could hope was that Kamal and his men had enough human-side to make them impervious to the demon sulfur that their other spiritual weapons would unleash. "Stand ready, guys!" The smoke was lifting, their barrier was burning off, and every warrior had to come out shooting and swinging.

As soon as Damali gave the order, a huge white jaguar parted the haze of smoke before her, lunging right at her. Damali dodged the lunge, getting a good slice in the shoulder section of the beast. It turned where it landed, let out a furious snarl, but it was positioned upon a jutting ledge in a way that would put Damali in the line of gunfire. Its angry glare swung from Damali to Marlene. From the corner of Damali's eye, she could see the other big cats had taken a position within tunnel openings overhead.

"This is your girl, Marlene," Damali said loudly, over her shoulder.

"I know," Marlene shot back, fast. She looked at the injured cat. "You wanna do this the hard way, or the easy way - seer-to-seer, bitch?"

The demon were-jag was off the ledge in the blink of an eye. Marlene backed up, circling with it, her prayer-reinforced stick in hand as she maneuvered herself and the stalking cat into a clear space. The jaguar hissed and swatted, tilting its head to get a good angle on Marlene's extremities, but Marlene was swift on her feet, her stick lethal.

"Stay with her, Mar," Shabazz called, frantically aiming and following Marlene's motion to cover her.

Kamal was crouching, moving, a semi in his hands and holding the creature in his sights, but he repeatedly called off fire, too, frustrated by the hazards of a deadly ricochet from solid rock. Damali was easing forward, the cats above on the ledges moving nearer to peer over it.

The white were-jaguar backed up, Marlene took a stance to prepare for a lunge, her stick a ready-made stake to spear the soft under-belly of the beast. Her team followed the moving forms, unable to get a clear shot that wouldn't imperil Marlene or Damali or cause a ricochet.

But unexpectedly, the thing circling stopped, transformed, and became human form. Marlene stopped, and remained in an Aikido stance.

"I should have finished you in the first ambush!" the albino warrior yelled, instantly sending a dark-blue electric current from her hand to Marlene's chest.

"No!" Shabazz hollered, but Kamal held him and Damali rushed to his side.

Marlene calmly closed her eyes and lowered her walking stick parallel to the ground as her crystal breastplate absorbed the energy. The current being sent into Marlene became weaker and weaker as the albino warrior screamed her discontent, fury drawing her fists into a ball. Marlene's eyes snapped open as the warrior rushed her. Marlene's knees bent, and the walking stick returned a bluish-white line of pure energy, knocking the albino on her back. Marlene was on her in seconds. It happened so quickly the creatures above couldn't lunge to save their comrade.

"Is that all you got?" Marlene said with disdain, immediately staking the creature before it could even sit up.

Struggling against the stake, a black-blood geyser spurted from the wound. Piercing shrieks of garbled warrior cries mixed with guttural were-demon howls filled the chamber as the thing at Marlene's feet bubbled and turned into green slime. Retrieving her stick, she joined the safety of the team crouched behind the rocks. Kamal slapped her five, Shabazz pounded her fist, and Damali hugged her fast.

"Mar, you took out their nerve center - they're blind, now. There's no top adviser. Plus, we wounded one outside. But we can't forget that the main one is a seer, too, unless she's totally gone into this Neteru wannabe bag." She looked at Kamal, trying to send her condolences through a firm squeeze on his arm. "Who did we lose? Your man, what was his name? I'm so sorry."

Kamal just shook his head. "Dominique... nineteen. No family. We were it. I'll bury whatever I find."

"I'll help you carry your man, if we get out," Shabazz murmured.

Damali moved forward when the eyes above disappeared. "They wouldn't have pulled back unless they're using too much energy to fight us as jags in the daytime. We've got a short window. Like less than an hour. The primary nerve center is gone, we've wounded one, but we could do this all night - we're trading one for one. It's an even match." She sent her gaze around the team. "We're not losing any more of our men, especially with the sun dropping. We'll seal this joint with C-4 and blow this whole damned piece. Let it implode. Fuck it."

"Or, we can save the cave and all the innocent creatures in it," a smooth, female voice said from above, "and do this the old-fashioned way."

The team looked up fast, their gaze darting around the perimeter of the cave ledges above. Eleven stunning women with tall, proud carriages, skin hues that ranged from deep copper to highly polished black marble, stood above them with bows, battle-axes, blow darts and machetes in hand. One was badly wounded, her shoulder ragged and bleeding black blood. Had to be the one the crossbow snipe got. Yet, there was no other way to describe the magnificence of their presence, other than to admit they were awesome.

Each possessed a regal countenance. Their hair, eyes, skin - radiant. They glowered down at the huddled warriors with disdain and lifted their chins ever higher, their athletic carriages rippling with the readiness to strike.

"I don't want to blow the cave and jack with the ecosystem," Damali shouted, coming to the clear area and holding up her hand as her team protested with their eyes. "You took one of our men, rushed him, we had to do one of yours."

The queen stepped forward, her eyes nickering green and gold with controlled rage. "That was my mother-seer!" she yelled, pointing at the ground where only ooze remained.

This very, very was good. The delusion had set in. This horrifyingly beautiful demon actually thought she was the Neteru. Just like Carlos had shown her. Yeah, keep that crazy bitch in the fantasy. Make her fight on the terms of a Neteru, not a were-jag.

With her Isis, Damali motioned to Marlene. "That is my mother-seer. Yours went after her for no reason and began this conflict. You went after my moms, so now it's on!"

The Amazon nodded. Her warriors snarled and backed up. Damali could feel them ready to pounce, but then the injured one dropped. The Amazon ran to her fallen warrior's side, crushed her to her chest, dropped the body, and swallowed hard as it began to bubble.

"You owe me another body," the Amazon said through her teeth.

"All this bullshit over a man? What, are you crazy?" Damali asked, knowing that no female wanted to admit that she'd lost perspective or pride over a man, especially not a five-hundred-year-old warrior.

Damali glanced around at the warriors behind the older female demon who were exchanging gazes of confusion. "It didn't have to be all this," she yelled. "You could have come to me, told me who you were, then we coulda worked something out."

"You lie! You would never negotiate!"

"No, you lie! You're the one who lives in Hell, the zone of the silver-tongued devils. They already tricked you once. I'm a huntress, and a warrior, and do my shit out in the open. Now you're trying to front like you're something you're not - a Neteru!" She narrowed her gaze on the thing that was snarling. "Did you tell your demon girls that you were wearing Neteru, not to attract him so you could hunt and kill the master vamp in this territory blocking your feed zones, but that you'd plan to do him tonight... even left food at his lair door?"

The demon on the ledge screamed and raised a bow and arrow and pulled back hard, training it on Damali who didn't budge.

"Look at this shit. Punk bitch can't even come down here and take the Isis from me like a woman - 'cause you know it's mine, by right!"

An arrow flew; Damali dodged it with a swift fake to the left, and caught it in her right hand. Her team bristled, but nobody opened fire. The group behind the Amazon narrowed their gazes, but Damali could feel an energy shift ever so slightly. Dissension was in the air. A memory of the old way was in the offing. She remembered what Shabazz had said, if you're weaker, be strategic. She remembered what Marlene had said, and watched the Amazon's eyes.

Damali folded her arms over her chest. "Your girls remember what it was like to protect a Neteru, don't they? By rights, you should be protecting me. I'm the real, living Neteru. But you've stolen the ancient Neteru's trademark, and you've tricked your own fellow guardians, too." She sent her glance to the Amazon's team. "She promised you your Neteru would resurrect, didn't she? Your seer-mother did some twisted shit and it didn't work." Then she smiled. "Or, maybe it did. Since I'm here five hundred years before my time - early, and have the Isis as proof I'm a Neteru."

Several demon eyes shared nervous glances up on the ledge, opening an opportunity for Damali to press her point.

"You and I share the same history, are of the same people... different eras. Believed in the same things. Then something happened to you, and you went south on us, literally. If you have nothing to hide, tell your girls to ask Carlos which Neteru authentically ripened first on his watch in this era - a master would know."

She could see them all hesitate, and the leader become concerned by their confusion, so Damali pressed on messing with their heads just like the best of mental seduction had taught her. She dropped her voice to a low, calm tone and looked at the weaker members of the group. "She's getting ready to cross realm boundaries and do a vamp because her potion didn't work. She led you to the pit, and left y'all hanging. Ask her."

The older warrior backed up, her gaze steady, but with her team not quite intact. "That is not true! We have never been from the same tribes. You come with your machines and filth that - "

"Take a look," Damali said, her pupils opening. "Marlene, Kamal, give a couple of her girls a view."

The two guardians stood by Damali, locking in with the ancient rogue guardian and her two top warriors that flanked her. Silent tears of memory streamed down the Amazons' faces. The one on the left turned away and breathed deeply, unable to take the images Marlene sent. The one on the right of the Amazon queen simply nodded and raised her hand to Kamal to request that he stop, and then conferred with the others behind her for a moment. Damali blinked, and took a deep breath, removing the Isis from the shallow plunge where she'd planted it into the rocky cave floor.

Holding up the Isis, Damali tilted her head. "Before you, Nzinga had this over in the Nubian Empire. What if she came back twisted during your Neteru's reign and tried to strip your huntress of her time? You wouldn't have it, would you? None of you who were guardians would have allowed it. It is in your code to protect a living Neteru, one from the light, not a dead one that's slithered up from the dark realms."

Murmurs echoed behind the angry queen. "Enough! I challenge you, then, to hold onto your reign. You have chosen a passive course for your era, instead of - "

"Instead of fucking up the world? Are you mad?" Damali was walking, no longer concerned about an arrow or being rushed by the demon were-jaguars. "You keep doing these unexplained ambushes on humans, they'll send in troops. They will nuke the Amazon looking for aliens and shit. Yes, you'll win, maybe, but they'll leave a smoking black hole for you to rule over! They have new shit up here topside these days. They have more than cannons and rifles."

She pointed her sword at the Amazon. "You shame our kind!" Damali glanced at the others. "Your girls died for you as the lead guardian once your Neteru fell, and followed you into the pit instead of Heaven, where they could have been reborn as warriors of light. They could have been fighting in spirit, swaying the balance, like the old way - which is not a passive move - it's honorable! But you let yourself and your other sister guardians go out like that."

Damali's breathing became ragged the angrier she became just thinking about it, but she reversed her strategy midway in her argument to throw her adversary off guard. Instead of outing the old mother-seer, she spoke to her as though she were the ancient Neteru. "You even put your mother-seer in jeopardy? Then you come back with a twisted plan? Look at them! These are the best of an era gone bad. Let them ascend!"

"There should be a fair challenge match, to end the Neteru feud," the warrior to the right of the queen said. "A true queen Amazon would never - "

It happened so fast both squadrons of fighters were left speechless. The Amazon ripped out the throat of her warrior in one lightning move. The stunned, lower-ranking were-jag fell slowly, looking confused, clutching the gaping black hole, gurgling black blood. The warriors on the ledge stepped back, casting nervous glances among them.

"If ever you challenge my authority - ever!"

"See, y'all. Your girl is over the top. Nobody else has to die, and mountains and shit don't have to blow up, if she'd just step outside and meet me woman-to-woman on a private matter we need to address. Damn..."

The warriors behind the Amazon backed up farther, nodded, transformed into feline form, then disappeared within the cavern.

"Deep," Shabazz murmured.

"See," Damali shouted, "some things ain't changed since the dawn of time!"

"At the top, me and you."

Damali and her team just stared at each other as the old Amazon backed away from the ledge and vanished.

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