The Hunted

Chapter Twenty-Two

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Chapter Twenty-Two

Just one night, she pleaded in prayer as she flopped down on a musty mattress. No more drama, just sleep. A camp of thirty-three warriors with the spiritual juice of a small army, who had enough amulets and circles and holy water lines drawn across sills and door jambs should allow a moment of peace - please, Father. Just another day. No screams in the night. No battle stations, no standoffs, nobody flare up, nobody get puffed up. Nobody break anybody else's heart or piss anybody else off. Please.

Damali threw her arm over her eyes, willing her body to relax. But her mind would not stop racing. Tomorrow might be the final showdown. Might be it. They'd have to hunt these things in the day while the Amazons were in human form, well before they transformed and got stronger. That much they'd figured out. These demons took human form by day, but at night, who knew the full extent of what they could become? Okay. Fine. But even as human female warriors, she had to admit, these bitches was bad.

"Cool," she said out loud to the empty room. Like Kamal said, warrior to warrior, and with honor. Hopefully he had a strong amulet, a little sometin', as he put it, for Mar. But damn, he was dancing on the edge of disrespect with 'Bazz. Love will make you stupid, step out of order, no matter how old.

Part of her really hurt for Kamal, though. It was crazy, but it had nothing to do with her rock-solid love for Shabazz, either. It was an oddly separate thing... compassion. That's what it was. She could feel that brother's deep-down soul wound. Knew what he was going through to want somebody so badly, but because of the realities of the situation, and the passage of time, had to let it go. But just to have to stand there and let it go and take it like a man. That was some deep and hard shit to do. For real discipline. Shabazz had that kind of control, too. She'd felt Kamal's desire for Marlene run all through her - not from second sight, but plain ole twenty-twenty vision. And she had felt Marlene's response. It was visceral. When Kamal locked into her, Marlene looked faint. Been there. Damali shook her head.

"Oh, Mar, sis, I been there," she murmured, repeating the thought. All out in public, in front of the team, wanting to crawl under a rock and die from the embarrassment. But can't do a thing to hide it because that lure is right in front of you and you're so hot you can't even play it off.

"Damn." At fifty-plus years old? Whew, shit. Memories would mess you up. There were no words. Now Marlene had to do the hardest thing in the world, kill part of her mind with honor. Had to act like she knows.

And what was that? Act like you know? When your brain was on fire? Lit by an old flame? Not to mention the other body parts that clear memory ignited. Shoooot.

Damali let her breath out hard, trying to fathom how any of this applied to the next day. This female were-jag demon wasn't going to run off in the bush from no love jones, or stalk away so there could be a confession followed by a meeting of the minds. This Amazon creature was coming for her, and was probably going to wield a battle-ax to try to lop off her fucking head! The situation did not apply, and they'd come all this way for only an amulet and some good food. Cool. Whateva.

If it gave Marlene a shield, then fine. But beyond that, it had probably been a waste of time - unless the guys could pull it together and work out some weapons strategies without arguing with Kamal's squad. This was Kamal and his boyz' house, their yard, just as much as the Amazon's. Maybe they'd just come here for discipline?

Her breaths started to come in slow, deep, drags of drifting sleep. Marlene and Kamal were supposed to know some people that knew some people who could get a boat with a full payload of automatics, silver dust and colloidal silver-filled shells, hallowed earth-packed bazookas -

"That'll help, but it won't work alone, baby," a familiar male voice whispered, inches from her face. "She moves too fast."

"Oh, shit! Don't do that!"

She sat up quickly, and jumped out of the bed. A collision of feelings swept through her. Anger, fear, invasion, remorse, relief, joy, desire... too many to catalog in her mind, or to prioritize.

"You learned a lot, tonight," the figure in the shadows murmured, low and seductive. "It was painful, but it was all good. You needed to see that. Sometimes shit ain't black and white."

"Carlos," she whispered furiously. "How the hell did you get in here?"

He chuckled, but the tone in his voice was sad. "I can get in, my squad and any other vamp can't. Guess a little bit of a soul, and a few prayers from the Covenant, work like a passport, baby."

"You need to get out of here. And I'm not sure how I feel about any of this mess between us, okay? You've obviously made your decision. I told you, I made mine." The fact that he could move so easily through any barriers around her worried her.

He stepped in close enough for her to see him in the moonlight. The blue glow of it painted streaks down his black T-shirt, over his shoulder, and the bottom of his jaw. His eyes were dark, not flickering. She was glad. But another part of her felt a pang because she no longer had that effect on him.

"I'm stronger, too, that's all," he murmured, stepping even closer now so their bellies touched. "You do have that effect on me, still. Always will." He closed his eyes and smiled. "I'm just trying not to strike a match."

"You don't have the right to go into my head like that anymore," she said, pulling away. But she had to fold her arms to stop the shiver of want that rushed through her. She couldn't even watch the hunger in his eyes when he opened them. It wasn't gonna work this time. No.

"I didn't go into your head. All I had to do was listen to the night. I knew you wouldn't run, and were in trouble. Just like I know your team is in deep shit out here. That's why I came. You were yelling it in your mind, broadcasting it for me to hear." He chuckled, putting his hands on her shoulders and allowing them to deliciously slide down her arms. "You're powerful, honey. Your thoughts are stronger than you know. You also sent more than a regulation SOS to me. After what just went down between us, too... I don't have to go in to hear you. Never did."

"Look," she said with a swallow, stepping back. "My guys will be up here soon, this whole convo is bad form. Plus, this isn't even my people's place. It's a friend of Mar's - "

"You all need to watch your backs out here. They ain't what you think, baby. His squad has some deep shit with them. But they seem to be cool at the moment."

"They're trying to help us, no matter what you think you saw."

"So I gathered," he said softly against her neck as he moved in to seal the space she'd made between them. "Know exactly where the poor brother is. He's dying inside. But he had to make a decision."

"We both did."

She'd meant her voice to come out with more force, more anger. She also noticed that he had referred to Kamal, and not the incident with Abdul being in her face. Growth perhaps. Guilty conscience, most likely. But oddly, and as irrational as it was, the fact that the presence of another male competing for her attention hadn't even fazed him, stung.

"I know, baby," he said quietly after a moment. "This time I got myself really snagged between a rock and a hard place, but I wanted to see you just one more time. No disrespect to you, or your people intended."

His kissed her ear, and pulled it between his lips slowly, and let his breath out hard, then backed away. "I gotta go, but I just wanted you to know how I really felt, before some shit went down that's irreversible."

The sensation that began at her ear had traveled down her neck, past her shoulder, wound its way around her heart, and was sending a slow, deep charge of desire through her belly as it crept lower. She could barely speak, much less breathe, but she had to know. "You're gonna do this insane thing, aren't you? For power and glory? Try to hijack daylight? To what end?"

He shook his head and came in close to her again. Even though she stepped back, his finger traced her cheek. "Aw, baby, no. I'm doing it for you."

She closed her eyes at the sound of his voice, tender and gentle and reminding her with the touch the way he used to trace her face on the beach. "Don't do this, it's not fair."

"Life ain't fair," he said with a thick swallow. "I got busted. They found out I was playing both ends against the middle. The council called my bluff, the old counselor wants to cut a deal - your life, and your team's lives, for this one thing I gotta do for him. You're worth it."

"No, I'm not." She shook her head and reached up to stroke the nape of his neck. "Nobody is worth your soul. Why didn't you tell me before that they'd found you out?"

"My soul is probably not even on the table for negotiation, baby. That's long gone, now, no doubt. I'm scramblin' for crumbs at this juncture. When you do some shit and you plea-bargain, you gonna do some time. Shabazz told you as much. That's the law in all realms. So... I gotta go away for a little while. I didn't tell you earlier because I didn't want to break your heart. I knew you'd try to rush in and fix something that just couldn't be fixed."

Her hand slipped from his neck. Part of her registered something in him that gave her pause. He'd told her the truth but not all of it. He still had a window, a sliver of a chance, but had lost hope... was too afraid to gamble one more time. Why? And that information was securely locked away.

One palm rested on his shoulder as she held the side of his face, and her eyes sought his in the darkness. "Tell me why you have to do this. I can fight. We can get rid of this thing together."

"You won't give this up till I show you what you're up against, will you?"

"No, the deal is, you still don't get it." She stared at him, her body tense with renewed anger and frustration. "I'm a Neteru. This is what I do for a living... I'm not just your woman, or your ex-woman, whateva. What hurts more than you can know is that you have no respect for who I am, my capability, or my skill." She dropped her hands and folded her arms. "And it fucks me up, because, brother, I'm your damned equal. Yeah," she said, nodding slowly, her eyes never leaving his. "Different strengths, different skills, but just as worthy as yours—and don't you forget, I told your ass that this threat was serious—waaaay long before you had to come over here and find out. Do not patronize me, or treat me like some young girl who can't hold her own. Got it? Your info is late and corrupted. Female instinct. Neteru style."

He sighed and cradled her face in his hands and closed his eyes tight. Her speech, while noble, was way off the mark. She couldn't handle this bullshit coming down any better than he could, and she had no concept of how his world functioned... the lengths they would go.

"Damali, you have always been so stubborn, but I love you too much to watch you go out there without a strategy, just swinging wild tomorrow. This thing that hunts me is in so much pain, is so wounded, that it's gone insane. Yet, the glimmer of what she was, still remains - and they want to prostitute even that. Part of me feels sorry for her, strange as that may seem."

"Show me, then, and stop all the lies of omission and stop blocking my hunt," Damali whispered through her teeth. "Compassion is in the man I know, so it's not strange to me that you'd say that. But to never back down from a threat against the innocent, is in the woman before you. Give me and my team a fighting chance, Carlos. Lift the mental block on at least some of this and let me in... As crazy as it sounds, I'll be honest with you - even though you've lied to me, because I can stand up for my shit and put it in the light. That's a Neteru strength you need to respect. So, I won't lie, I miss being there... in your head with you, along with everything else we shared. One last gift. The truth, please, so I can turn it loose, and finish it."

Her words contained double meaning, and he nodded, acknowledging both issues. It was going to be hard to turn anything between them loose, or to finish it, and yet a mental lock was a final gift, as well as a final torture. So strange. So complex. His lungs expanded on a ragged inhale. He nodded.

She relaxed and touched his shoulders to make the connection more direct, but could tell he was gathering control over his emotions, just like she was. She could feel that through his hands, hear it in his breath, didn't need to do more than that. No extra-sensory perception required. She knew this man. He knew her.

Carlos's cool palms became warm against her face, and as their minds locked, a full blast of sensation hit her. Everything this man had kept away from her since it all began filled her, rushed through her, making them both fight not to make a sound in the charged night air. He suddenly held her to him hard, and she could feel him making love to her, right there, standing in the middle of the floor, neither of them moving, him clutching the back of her T-shirt, her holding his shoulder blades in a familiar embrace, phantom spasms claiming her, rocking her from memory. No, that's not what I was asking you to share! His eyes went solid red.

When he lowered his forehead to hers, the perspiration from his mingled with the sheen on hers. His damp cheek stuck to her cheek as his face slid to her throat. Her skin drank in his salty essence, making her knees buckle. He let out a hard pant and swallowed down a swift-moving moan that threatened to pass his lips, and turned his head from her.

This isn't fair...

I keep trying to tell you, none of this is fair. But you wanted everything in my head - this came before her, will be there after her. Respect that much truth from me.

Just the sensation of him repressing the spasm that was coursing through him made her gasp against her will. She pressed her breasts against his chest, unable to conquer the sting and ache, the need for him to touch her there. He lifted his head, and glanced at the bed. She immediately read the thought, and shook her head, even though he'd already banished the concept. Not here. Never anywhere.

He was talking to her in fits and starts of mentally stumbling words. Admonishing himself, trying to stick to the subject of the Amazon threat one moment, begging her for one more hard-down passionate time together in the next, his inner voice panicked. After tonight... we won't ever again. Damn, just one more time.

Instantly she could hear her shirt seams giving at the shoulders, and he flattened his palm against her back to keep from tearing the fabric. He dropped his hold on her, walking in a circle, going to the window to just be able to breathe.

"I know you already knew all this," he said, trying to steady himself. "But before you saw anything else, I wanted you to know how much you're in me, are a part of me. You needed to know that first."

"I don't understand? First?" She blinked back tears of fury. Oh, shit, it was already too late...

How could she comprehend any of his feelings if she went into the next level of his thoughts - the darker levels? Her understanding would get twisted, just like all things do when they sink into the abyss. It might ruin her. She didn't need knowledge like this.

Yet, the only thing he could hold onto was the hope that after what she'd just felt, she had to know beyond a shadow of a doubt just what she'd meant to him from the start. That total consumption, that brand, was right under the surface of his skin, damn near oozing out of it. She didn't have to venture deep to connect with it, and it had been a monster trying to hold her mind at bay. It was too hard, next to impossible, to keep it compartmentalized with the scent of her so close, her body heat sending infrared tracer toward him. The quick heartbeat in her chest was getting confused with the throb in his groin, was married to it now.

He was in so much distress, mentally, physically, emotionally, that for moments he couldn't answer her - new strength notwithstanding. He wasn't ever gonna be strong enough to pull out of her magnet. Her eyes. Her arms. Away from her mouth. Once he'd touched her, held her, it was all over. Kissed her, he was done. Remembered what it felt like to be inside her, history, her voice. Then he saw her onstage on her knees in her red dress, calling him hard like a siren... "Baby, don't make me do this..."

Tears glittered in her eyes. She didn't understand. Nothing he was about to do would ever change how he felt about her. But everything he was about to do would irrevocably change how she felt about him. And perhaps a selfish part of his mind, the part that knew he'd live an eternity like the old counselor, nursing the memories - he wanted a fresh videotape to play over and over again in his brain. She just didn't understand how much he needed to be with her just one more time before tomorrow night... just one more, long, sweet, pure, awesome, stop-the-hands-of-time till the sun came up before she'd never let him hold her like that again.

When she came to him and touched his back, her hands burned where they fell, and he thought for a moment that she might understand. He grabbed her so fast, and kissed her with such intensity that it brought new tears to her eyes as he sent his full spectrum of emotions for her without censure. He couldn't help it.

"Remember, please remember, no matter what," he whispered hard, panicked, kissing her face, her neck, her eyes, and finally her mouth, crushing it, making her scrabble at his back, yielding to the sway.

"You remember," she said on a shallow breath, breaking his seal. "This is how I've always felt about you... don't do this. Take me to a lair, somewhere, anywhere, just one more time... Carlos, please. If that's what you need to keep you from giving up your soul, then..."

Her fingernails dug into his scalp and through his hair as she pulled him down, standing on tiptoes, her body arching against him so hard that he had to break from her mouth to release the sound he could no longer swallow. The night creatures went still beyond the window. Near sobbing, he separated their bodies, and placed her hands at either side of his face, covering her wrists, holding her palms firm to his cheeks so she could read him deep.

"You're not safe in a lair with me, and I wouldn't be able to hear anything but you. I'm over the top. I've got two minutes and the whole camp squad will be up here. Look at it, baby, and weep. It's so ugly. Don't fight this thing on its home court. Go home."

He watched her struggle to remove her hands from beneath his, but he held her firmly. Tears ran down her face, and she began sobbing.

"Let me go!"

"No, you wanted to see it, and are determined to fight it. Then you have to know it." His voice was gentle, calm, her struggle maddening, ripping at his heart from the inside out.

He could hear a squadron rallying, running in their direction. Damali's shoulders were slumped, her head bent and resting against his chest. Repeatedly she wailed no. The sounds of heartbreak coming from low in her belly as she chanted, begged, saying no like a mere word could change his fate.

Bitter sobs threaded in the stanza. Her plea "No," had initially come out shrill, deepened, got bottom in it, was whispered, was harmonized with hiccupping tears, hysteria giving way to pleads, no, then lucid, calm, talking to his chest in a low murmur of reverence, speaking to it like it was a dark confessional, searching for an invisible priest within it to give her absolutions from the sin of still loving him. Trying to negotiate with the insane, trying to use one word to release the hostage, him, held behind high, dark walls.

Through the word no, he could still feel her loving him. Through the grisly visions trapped within the mind of a twisted entity, Damali loved him. Through the scenes of massacres he could feel her heart shattering for this thing that would take from her in much the same way. Even while she shut her eyes and sobbed until no more tears would come, she repeated the refrain, loving him so hard, refusing to turn it loose, even when her heart went into mild arrhythmia as she saw him lie down with another woman. That's when he couldn't hold on.

He pushed her away, the pain too great to endure. Looking at her once, he begged her in his head to remember who he was before she saw that, and was gone.

Frenzied yells for Damali bounced off the walls, echoed in her, scored her mind as she shut her eyes and sat down slowly on the side of a bed. Her hand remained over her chest as she sat without a word. Storm trooper - sounding footsteps slammed against the wood stairs, rocking the single-story guest house as thirty-two armed guardians tried to enter the bunker at once.

A chain yanked and a hundred watts slapped her tear-streaked face. A strong hand forced her chin to the side as three guardians appraised her neck and checked her for puncture wounds. Too late. It was in her heart, the gash. It was in her soul, the siphon. It was in her lungs, the silent scream. It was in her head, the unfathomable. And it ran all over her skin making it crawl.

Curiosity killed the cat; satisfaction of knowing wasn't even bringing her back. Every image was more horrible than the next, but the last one... no. The last one wasn't historical tragedy. The last one wasn't watching a war tear through a village, like a remote mental movie - a horrific but somewhat distant newsreel. It wasn't buffered by the double helix of memory passed from one entity, supplanted in the vision of another, with all the smells, sounds, textures, tastes removed from it in the transfer sanitized for her consumption. It wasn't like watching the sinister mob-like confession of the counselor, just a dirty deal. Angering, yes; heart stopping, no. Oh, no.

The last image was brought to her in Technicolor... just as her man had allowed it to take root in his desire, his bloodstream, then to harvest his mind.

She could feel the burn, the crave, took the hit of foreign Neteru that knocked his head back. Mature, ripened slayer. Felt the Amazon's skin, nuzzled her scent as her jaw grazed the inside of her thigh. Tangled her fingers in her long, dark braids, tasted her tart, blood-bitter mouth. Felt the power of her arch, heard her voice come from low in her throat, felt what he'd craved from the reverse point of view. Damali stared at the wall, staring a hole right through it as Shabazz knelt on one side of her, Kamal on the other, trying to reach her.

Wasn't nobody home to reach after the shit she just saw.

Damali closed her eyes slowly, willing the image to go away. But a permanent visual adhered to the inside of her lids. She could still feel Carlos, the tremble, the initial penetration, what it felt like to sink into aching, wet woman... the rip of incisors in a jaw as thrusts drew seed up from a tortured place beneath a shaft stroking pleasure, and the unrelenting need to deliver a bite at the same time. She was on her feet. The team backed up. She turned over a cot, wild in the eyes, driving that picture out of her head. Sad eyes met hers. Crossbows, arrows, walking sticks, automatic weapons were lowered.

"No!" She screamed again as the vision began to repeat in slow motion, Carlos's hand caressing a full, round hip - not hers, and knocking Big Mike to the floor when he came for her. "No, no, no, no no, no no, no no! I will not, oh, Father God, not, no no, shit no, oh no! I'm not seeing this!"

None of the team members said a word as Big Mike stood slowly, stunned at being toppled so easily, studying her with concern. But she could not stop walking, snorting the scent out of her nose, her lungs, her mind, spitting it out of the back of her throat, dry heaving, then dashing to the porch rail to give it away, mangoes and all. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she brushed past Marlene.

"You're a seer - don't touch me. Not yet. This will ricochet through you." Damali kept walking, willing kinetic energy to be a blanket. She needed space, needed a magnet to erase the corrupted mental disk and get rid of the virus in her head. •

"Oh, God," she whispered, new tears brimming, falling, having found the tapped reservoir refilled, the dam broke. But she would not let them touch her. All the faces in the room stared at her with concern, pity, whatever expressions she couldn't name.

If Madame Isis were in her hand, she would have cut them to keep them back from seeing this. She turned to Kamal, searching his eyes. "You know - tell them not to touch me!"

He nodded. "She's a vet now, too. Saw it all. Full-blast. Oh, sweet modder of God... Marlene, I held it back from even you, baby. No woman should see... Lord." Kamal walked away and punched the wall.

Shabazz and Rider glanced at Big Mike, confused. JL and Dan shrugged, not understanding. Jose ran his hands up his arms as Damali paced. Kamal's team looked like they were in shock, the question about what had happened poised on the edge of their lips, but their master had dared them to speak with a glare.

"You know how to fight her though, right?" Kamal said as Damali found a space against the wall, leaned against it, and shuddered.

"Oh," she whispered, not looking at anything, unable to meet any more eyes, "I know how to fight her. Cut her fucking heart out. Yeah, I know. Already planned."

"Go past de pain, and past de rage, and get still," Kamal said firmly.

Damali laughed. New tears sprung to her eyes and fell, and she laughed harder. It was the laughter of near-insanity from profound hurt.

"Get her some water, or something," Big Mike said in a raspy voice. "Slap her, I dunno. But don't let her go wherever she's going." He sucked in a shuddering breath and held it as Kamal shook his head.

"Water just run it all through her like a current right now. Better she deal here den out there in da heat of battle," Kamal replied, raking his hands through his locks, his line of vision on the floor. "Saw dis bullshit comin' when Mar called me. Blocked it from Mar, had to. Said, self, you gitting to be too ole for dese tings."

Shabazz nodded. "Word, man. What we need to do?"

Damali had stopped laughing, her gaze fixed, trying to shake the image of two panthers circling each other in a mating ritual out of her head.

"Make the panthers go away, Kamal. Brother... I just can't - " Her voice was a low, silent plea as she shut her eyes tightly and bent over, dry heaving again.

"I can't take it from you, gurl. Gotta run its course. You're all Neteru now, can see deeper than any of us - which is why you gotta guard your mind at all costs. I knew the dark lover would come... we didn't set a barrier for him, on account of who he was in dis triangle."

"What!" Rider had gotten up real close to Kamal's face, inadvisably close.

Kamal snarled. Rider backed away. Jose spun and went into a battle stance. Pure shock held Damali's other guardians momentarily still.

Kamal and every man on his team had upper and lower canines that were two inches long.

"What the fuck..." Shabazz whispered, as Damali and the team stared.

The room was divided in half. Kamal's team was on one side, the guardians on the other. Kamal's crew had bulked in size and had large canines now. Marlene sighed and walked between the lines.

"Tell 'em, Kamal." Marlene looked at Damali as she dry heaved, and glared at Jose. "Put it down, Jose. They're on our side."

"What the hell Mar?" Damali wheezed. "They don't need to be bulking now, and not on us!" She was in no condition to deal with this shit, too!

"Y'all got nicked? Oh shit..." Rider just shook his head. "Now we gotta deal with werewolves, too?"

"Were-humans," Kamal said more calmly, his jawline and his team's normalizing as Jose nervously lowered his weapon. Kamal cast a disparaging glance to his squad, and waited until they'd disarmed, appearing unfazed that the guardians hadn't followed suit. "That's why my crew had a problem with Jose. He's the weaker one I spoke of, got vamp in his line - "

"Get the fuck out of here!" Big Mike bellowed, noting that the other guardians stepped back from their own man, seriously confused.

"It was the Dee Dee tracer," Jose argued. "This is bull - "

"What?" Damali yelled, not knowing which side to go toward, if any.

"School her fast, Mar. I told you that this would come out - that you gwan hatfta tell your people 'bout dis." Kamal had yelled the command to Marlene in frustration, but the pain in Kamal's eyes kept all parties temporarily cool.

"Look, I doubt Jose has any vamp in him, but he got nicked, spiritually, by his old girlfriend - but he's healed, does daylight. That's what your men picked up. So, drop that," Marlene said calmly, quietly, as though speaking to people on the verge of nervous collapse. "Years ago, Kamal got bitten by a were-jag. Just nicked." She looked away from everyone and let her gaze go out the window. "When bitten by something from the were-realms, if the bite doesn't kill you, you're sorta trapped between here and there.

"That creates were-humans... and living weres have a chance, if they keep their karma straight, to ascend to the light when they die, unlike were-demons, which have no chance, unless deceived into the realm. Even those that die from a were-bite have a slim chance, as long as they make the right choice. That's because the choice always remains with the living, and with those who have died unwittingly as innocent victims. These guys still have souls. Everybody in Kamal's squad got nicked, and were brought here by their families for help. Upon their deaths, the were-attributes will flee. Their bodies and spirits normalize. Kamal set up this retreat, after his encounter, to help others sharing his same fate."

She glanced around. "They fight their impulses by eating nothing that contains blood or animal products. Their mission is to keep the demon elements from the were-realms at bay and away from humans. Their enemy is our enemy; their fight is our fight. They're our allies. They've got a militia that hunts the demons and tracks down human victims before they turn. They are the best of the best at what they do."

"I'm Kamal's second in command," Abdul said with pride. "I do rescue-and-recovery. Thirty days after a bite, a human victim has to make a choice - to eat flesh, human or otherwise, or refrain." He thrust his chin higher.

"We scout the hillside, villages, and find people to help them and to bring them to compounds like this. If they go demon, then they cannot come out until the full moon, their souls are damned, they are bound to a region, and they must live down in the pit of the were-realm. They eat human flesh when they come topside every thirty days to keep their human form from decomposing back to the date of their death. If the demons don't eat flesh, they have to stay in were-form, which means they cannot come out during daylight. They must be able to assume their nondecomposed form to blend in and scout for human victims they will feed on. They are dead; we are not. We are not demons. We are humans that have a compromised genetic structure. We live longer, age slower, but we're mortal and can die from injuries just like any of you."

His gaze softened on Damali. "We're faster, stronger, and have sharper senses than humans. It only gets a little intense during the full moon." He smiled and glanced away. "Then we do have to check our more primal side."

The tall brother that looked like Shabazz nodded. "Our urges are the same as the animal that bit us... it takes a lot of discipline to master and control that. That requires focus. We try to only partner with those like ourselves." He glanced at Abdul. "Because we might not be understood. There's a female encampment not too far away. A small sect of the Amazons used to be were-human, too. Their compound is marked by were-jaguar totems. They were guardians, like us. Used all the attributes of superior were-strength to fight evil, and were revered... among our clans and our colonies, they are legendary." He looked at Big Mike. "Brother, you know what I'm talking about. They're fine... tall, built like..." he sighed. "We generally stick to our clan."

"I hear you," Mike said with appreciation. "Think I pulled one in Rio." He rubbed his jaw, avoiding eye contact with the others. "I'm cool though, right, man?"

"As long as she didn't bite you. Maybe she was just from human Amazon lineage." He shook his head. "That's the thing... you just never know."

The two strong men on the teams looked at each other for a moment, then Big Mike smiled and glanced out the window as the guardians from Damali's team held their breaths.

"I'm cool," Big Mike muttered, and wiped his palm over his gleaming scalp. "But tell me this. If the small sect of Amazons were like you guys - were also guardians, then how did the demons get them? How'd they turn?"

"She polluted her own camp, that's another reason we have to be so careful among the were-human clans. The whole thing was a sad act of desperation." Abdul folded his arms over his chest and looked at Damali. "We always have two seers on our teams. An elder and an apprentice... that's why I was feeling your vibe so hard. Be wary when you go out there. She'll have a junior seer that can level dark arts, be careful of her. The older one that you're battling is twisted, thinks she's the Neteru now, but has probably taught her apprentice much."

"Yeah," Damali said quietly, looking at Marlene. "We experienced a little bit of what girlfriend's apprentice can do. But I had something for her."

Abdul paused, as though trying very hard to check himself, but lost the battle. "When, uh, I heard that you and your vampire were done, baby - "

Before Shabazz could respond, Kamal had walked a hot pace down the guardian lines toward Abdul, making his team part for him like the Red Sea.

"It wasn't all his fault," Damali said quickly, trying to avoid another disaster that could further splinter the teams or make them lose focus. "I was hurt and throwing vibe. Let's get back to the point." As tempers flared, she instantly became aware of the scent that had been haunting her - strong, primal, earthy, male pheromone, something stronger than human male, but not quite animal. There was too much going on before to put her finger on it, but now knowing what the other team was, she understood.

Abdul nodded and shot her a glance that said, thank you. "Look at the moon, man," he snapped toward their leader, as Kamal calmed down and walked away, trying to preserve his pride. "It was definitely no disrespect intended." He walked away and stood by the door with his arms folded, indignant at the rebuff. "Can't barely keep your own shit straight yourself, tonight. Don't worry 'bout me."

The obvious peacemaker in the group, Kamal's youngest man, Ahmad, immediately stepped between the possible combatants when Kamal whirled and snarled, backing Abdul up to stand nearly on the porch. All the Neteru guardian team could do was watch from the sidelines.

"While here, Neteru," Ahmad said with deference that seemed to slowly calm every male in the room, "we focus and hunt down the demons that made us. That focus is imperative - because each full moon, the demons will also seek a were-human, try to re-infect us anew, and try to get us to commit an atrocity that will allow them to trap our souls in their realms. They view us as infidels, literally, beings that have dodged a silver bullet - and we are mortal enemies with them. Vampires come for us, too, as they register us in their sensory awareness as were-demons. They make no distinction within our culture."

He glanced around the room. "They bite animals, too. Infect them, and turn them into familiars. The animal cannot take on human form, but the worst of its nature comes out, and it will do a demon's bidding, will bring information, and can be a disease carrier. So, if you see an animal that is larger and more aggressive than it should be, or that hunts humans almost exclusively, it's infected - an abomination of what the demons have altered. We hunt those, too, to put the were-creature out of its misery. Do not get the three categories confused; were-humans, were-creatures, and were-demons - each are different. We are not one and the same."

"And that's why you ain't got no real challenge from me," Kamal said in a hard tone, now looking at Shabazz. "She can't stay wit me, even if I wanted her to... or if she wanted to. There would be no future in it. One night, I'd level a bite. That's nature. Fuck it. I've said all that needs to be said."

Kamal glanced away, swallowed hard and went to stand in a far corner of the room. Damali's line of vision followed him, watching the shoulders of his team slump in defeat, as Shabazz seemed stunned by the man's sudden honest outburst.

Kamal nodded. "I run a clean operation here. I was a guardian, and hunted demons - still am, still do! I deserve respect for that, man. One got to me. Can happen to anybody. She came here before my encounter, my compound will remain a clean safe house, will be so until I die. That's why Mar had to leave here. In my early days, newly turned, I didn't have the restraint." He glared at Abdul. "In later years I learned discipline. It became evident dat one day I was gonna hurt her. So... we let it alone. I never passed this virus to her, hard though it was not to. But when she asked for my help, what could I say?" His gaze softened as it left Abdul and went to hold Marlene's. A sad understanding passed between them. "Vamps were following her, too. It was best."

The two looked at each other and glanced away, each considering a section of the barren wooden floor. Shabazz went to the window and let his breath out slowly.

"Like wit all tings, not just the vamps," Kamal said reverently, "it happens with us weres like dat, too. A nick that doesn't kill releases something powerful and can pass through generations. A vamp nick infects only the human that was bitten, but if they have children wit another human, it runs through the genes. Unlike the vamps, however, because I'm alive, I can directly sire. My children wit her woulda had some of me in them, been double vamp bait, and had to live this type of life."

He shot a glance to Shabazz, but it wasn't filled with rage, just defeat. The two guardians stared at each other. "So, we let it alone. So, you need to let the past between me and her rest. Me and her know what time it is - you ain't got nuttin' to do wit dat. I ain't no threat."

When Shabazz looked away, Kamal swallowed hard, his gaze seeking the sky. "If we don't kill, or never eat human flesh, then we are not doomed... but we have to keep our infection out of the generations. Every man on this team was nicked by the big cats of this region. The wolfen clans are indigenous to North America and Europe. Some of my men have come here as children 'cause of dat plague. Maybe that's why your man, Rivera, was so susceptible to his misfortunes? Maybe he had a little vamp in him already? Like me wit da were issue. Who knows? Dat isn't important. What is important is the fact dat he can track - because vamps and demons can smell each other immediately. Don' be hard on Mar. She didn't walk you into an ambush. She brought you to some people who can track demons and vamps better than anyone else on da planet... but also didn't fully inform you, because you would have freaked out and never agreed to come where you must."

Jose appeared faint from the new information that had just been draped on the group. Big Mike put his arm over Jose's shoulder in a quiet demonstration of emotional and physical support. "It's Dee Dee's tracer, man... you ain't vamp."

Kamal looked at Marlene's sad eyes and then over at Jose. "Yeah, man, that's probably what it is. But just in case me and my boys are right, and we're picking up a diluted strain of vamp, you need to watch da kind of women that you're attracted to. Understand? You gwan have a ting for sisters wit fangs and could find yourself turned one night. Dat boy definitely got a nose for da Neteru, and you don't hafta be a seer for dat - the odder vamp, the master one, gwan always have a problem wit his ass."

He looked at Big Mike, took a long sniff in his direction, and smiled. "You best school your young blood... you got nicked, but cleaned out, and know da deal. I can still smell it. That master vampire gwan take issue wit him, too, seven years from now being 'round your Neteru, living wit her in da compound, if we ain't wrong."

Big Mike's grip on Jose's shoulder tightened. "Our boy's cool. This was just from something that went down in the States with his woman. You saw his ass roll up here in the sunlight, like Mar said. Don't trip, and stop messing with his head, brother. We all gotta keep our heads going into this fight."

"You're right." Kamal nodded, and his squad followed suit but seemed unconvinced.

"But you all let a goddamned master vampire up in here, too, in this twisted bullshit!" Shabazz suddenly began pacing back and forth before the window like a madman. "You have the nerve to talk to me about putting my woman at risk - and the Neteru? Fuck all this! You could have just told us what to do, then - "

"The dark lover had to show her dese tings, man. Had to get it in her head, let her feel it, so she had something to work wit. Will save her life. Couldn't just tell her, had to show her. Some tings you must experience to know in your soul, not just up in your head like from a book. You know dat as much as I do, brother. Dat's how your team been schoolin' her all along - demonstration... letting her taste life, den guiding the process. What about dis you don' understand? Huh? Because of Marlene, you can't tink straight?" Kamal sighed, weary patience laced in his breath. "You and me ain't dat different, same tribe. So, chill. Let ego go on dis, too. Just like I had to - way before she met you."

Shabazz bristled and stepped forward. "Nobody needed to come here for - "

"Bullshit!" Kamal yelled. "You blind? The Neteru needed to learn, see for herself, the kind of tough choices got to be made, sometime, for the good of the group." He pointed toward Damali, but his gaze was on Shabazz. "Can't speak out both sides of your mouth. Can't tell the young ones to do as I say, not as I do. Gotta show by example, and on dis one, Heaven asked a lot of all her instructors... even you. Can't put the whole squad in danger over your own personal shit; she had to learn dat! And, she needed to see that the master who was her lover was making a tough choice, too - pushed her away before what he is, or what was in his life, consumed her. That shit is beyond honorable; ask me how I know! Everybody in here bleeding. So, I'ma ask you again," he said, retracting his trembling arm, "You blind? You tink I wanted to reveal dis tough lesson in front of my own men? Fuck your ego. Hell yeah, I let her teacher come over our barriers to school her."

Kama! folded his arms over his chest and faced the wall, breathing hard. Shabazz just rubbed his jaw and went back to the window as both teams relaxed, sober defeat claiming all of them.

Rider backed up further, spat on the floor, and went to a wall to lean on it, nervously eyeing Kamal's crew. "Tell us something we can work with. Who cares who got nicked from what on these teams? The point is moot. We've all taken a hit from something by this age. It was just a bit of a mindblower to see it up close and personal, instead of theoretical, when you guys did the fang thing - but, hey, we all got issues." He shook his head in disbelief. "Mar, don't argue with me about drinking too much when, and if, we get home."

"Dis dark passion that you've seen has not happened yet, gurl," Kamal said carefully, his voice gentle as he spoke, not looking at Damali. "It was in his mind, a want, maybe a need. You got some visions to send her, too. Will draw her out. Make her use rage to battle you, not strategy. You got a soul dat can forgive, she don't. This one thinks she's the Neteru. This demon has ingested the essence, and it is corrupting her mind. Has polluted ripe Neteru scent to sway his judgment. She had an entire guardian squad trapped by a misguided - "

"I don't know anything anymore," Damali whispered.

"You do!" Kamal insisted and whirled on her. "It was the ancient Neteru's mother-seer that took her body and desecrated it, and chose to become a demon for vengeance and rage. If the portal is open, with those conflicts in her spirit, we might even have to battle Amanthras out there, who knows?"

"Her mother-seer?" Damali looked at Marlene horrified, finally hearing all the words that had been said around her.

"That's why you knew her magic, how to reverse it to save me. Baby, a Neteru went down, her mother-seer lost her mind, and did this terrible thing. Her team followed the seer into the pit, trying in vain to resurrect their Neteru, but what happened in the dark spell was the mother-seer took on everything she held dear about the Neteru. She's got the strength of a demon, but she will fight you like a Neteru warrior... and she wants Carlos to release her from regional and moon-based captivity. We've been over this, but your concentration has been scattered." Marlene looked at her with a gentle gaze. "In fact, she wants him as much as she wants the freedom... a dark guardian, an eternal mate. Baby, you've gotta fight this on a lot of levels."

Damali covered her face with her hands and breathed into them slowly to keep from hyperventilating. She finally understood what Carlos had said, and the profound pain that went with his crazy but honorable choice. Understood Marlene and Kamal's decision, and felt Shabazz's hurt like a knife to her skin. Everyone around her had done and was doing the right thing, but the shit hurt like hell, especially now that it was her turn to do said same.

"Now you got an image to put next to hers," Kamal said in a quiet voice. "Show her what it's like when a man wants to be there, versus when it's jus' somethin' to do, or he's forced. In dis case, it's somethin' he's being coerced to do - plantations did that to breed de oppressed, her own people. If she does dat to him, let her taste dat bitter wine."

Damali just lifted her head slowly and stared at Kamal, not even blinking.

"Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!" Rider hollered, walking back and forth, losing a section of his sanity in the process. "Is that what that bastard came in here and showed her? Oh my God, no wonder she leveled Big Mike!"

"No lie, man... but if Damali did that, and you piss off that Amazon with the suggestion, Kamal, man..." Big Mike shook his head.

"Female strategy, done every day by wives to let an interloper know she's just a piece of tail. Show her how much he cared about you, wanted you, before you even had Neteru to knock his head back... let her see that shit raw. You were his choice; she was his option. There's a huge difference. Don't let her flip the script and mess with your head - you know who you are - his first love! That shit's stronger than Neteru. Claim your title. It will draw her out - " Marlene said coolly, " - will get her out in the open." Not a man spoke when Damali raised her head and stared at Marlene. "Baby, what else did you see?"

"How they did her people. Massacred them," Damali whispered.

"Show her how they did your people, which are also mixed with her people - making you both from the same people just a couple of continents in between," Marlene spat back. "That's what we both picked up, as seers, as soon as we set foot in the heart of Rio in the hotel lobby. So, show her a hundred twenty-five million in the Middle Passage," she added, waving her arms in the air. "If you wanna look in my eyes, I'll give you plenty of images from my folks down South, folks that raised me and taught me to see. Lynchings, rapes, burnings, all the same horrific shit - but your methods and her methods to correct oppression and injustice are real different, baby. Worlds apart, and ain't even the same. Just like what you and Carlos have is very different than her proposition."

"You gotta get to her fast and hard, den," Kamal said quietly. "Before the were-demon senates form an alliance with the weakened Amanthra empire - "

"What?" Rider was walking between Shabazz and Big Mike, shaking his head. "They have senates, plural, like the vampires have a council - "

"Don't be foolish," Kamal said with disdain, looking at Rider hard as his gaze scanned the group. "Every sector of the were-realm has a senate segregated by fila. Each of the Hell levels has some form of organized, governing body. There are legions of evil down below, brother, just like we got up here. Dat's why there are so many types of guardian teams on the planet. We may have deeper insight because of our circumstances, but we don' deal wit dem, thou'. Like I said, we are not demons - we are humans dat had da misfortune to get nicked. And we are very clear on what side of the line we're on." Satisfied when his entire were-human squad nodded, Kamal let his breath out hard and raked his fingers through his locks. "We got your back."

"Oh, I feel better," Rider said with a sneer of disgust.

Marlene walked away from Damali's side. "All respect for what that the female were-demon lost and endured, since she was once one of us - a Neteru guardian - but, yeah, you show her what you lost, first. You show her your history, too, honey. You've got one; believe me. Your past life was here, your DNA is tied to this region, and your people went through hell on earth, too. So, when you confront her in battle, you ask that twisted bitch if she's gonna pass out green cards for all the oppressed people of the world to keep them from becoming something her ancestors fought against! Ask her how she's gonna keep the same oppressed people, who've already had horrible things happen to them, from having to endure more - and ask her how she's going to keep the human power structures from nuking the joint, leaving a smoking, black hole topside," Marlene yelled. "And you ask her how she's going to justify going against you, a Neteru, a light-chosen warrior. If she has a sliver of a conscience left, even if only through ingesting the strength of character resident in a Neteru's cellular makeup, it might give her pause, might make her hesitate for a split second, and that's when you take her."

"Yeah, you think once the human superpowers find out, they won't detonate something, trying to stop a vamp-demon army that's come topside - not having a spiritual reference for how to deal with something like this? And you think they'll listen to us?" JL shook his head. "Can you see world leaders, or the United Nations convening a summit on this? They'll act like aliens had infested the planet, will shoot everything with all they've got, not realizing the firepower ain't what they need to fight this madness, and that this is a spiritual war."

"This crazy shit will kick off the Armageddon just from the fallout," Dan added with a shudder. "Maybe that's what this is? The prelude to the Armageddon?"

"Crazy motherfuckers with their fingers on the red button will probably go with the alien theory first - won't ask a church, temple, or mosque, and definitely ain't gonna come to no people down the way to get the answer. We're oppressed and ignorant, remember," Jose said, walking toward the porch.

"By the time they do, the war will be over," Rider snapped. "Just like that. All right. I'm down. This is big shit that transcends the drama, kiddo. We've gotta sync up with Kamal's team. We're talking potential world peace hanging in the balance. How many innocents do you think will die from a nuclear, human-sent blast?"

Marlene held Damali in a firm stare, sending confidence with it, trying to heal with a look. "You've got a long tale of woe that lasted the same four hundred years or more in the US. But you show her, also, the faces of the innocent people she murdered. Folks with children and partners, and parents, and what have you. Give her a dose of that while we're out there. She hit 'em with no warning, not like a warrior - and with no honor. Civilians. And they weren't even armed. You let her see it, taste it, breathe it, and ask her how it feels. Baby, you've gotta fight this one spiritually, psychologically, and with some serious artillery to back it up."

A grumble of agreement rippled through the room, fist pounds got exchanged, and suddenly the two teams became one.

"If she persists," Kamal said, rubbing his hands over his face, "den you twist her heart wit de last image you have, draw her out. Make her crazy, give it up - to da bone... till she don' care 'bout ambush, takin' cover, all she wants is your head on a pike, gurl. Den, you swing de Isis. Hear me? Show her you with Rivera, and what dat really means."

"Tell that bitch you're her daddy," Shabazz muttered. "Use what you saw, in any voice you need."

Shabazz and Kamal shared a glance, but this time it wasn't a look of hatred between ardent competitors. Their stare contained the silent agreement to disagree, for the good of the whole, for the safety of the squads, for the protection of the Neteru, for the love of Marlene, and with much respect for the position the other had to endure. The two masters nodded, then allowed their gazes to trap Marlene's for a moment before finding a neutral point in the room.

"She even wanted to take Madame Isis from me," Damali finally murmured. Steadier, more lucid, Damali nodded as the images receded. But the place inside her soul was raw. Stripped. Kamal looked at her, his eyes gentler now, and not blazing with conviction.

"Took a lot for him to show you what he showed you to save your life," Kamal murmured, sitting down on the side of a bed. "Felt da love. Dat's why I knew... let dat one through - set no barrier for the vampire wit half a soul in da balance. 'Cause de man would die for you. Dis makes one more time he did... 'cause he know, like any man in his right mind know - once a woman tink 'bout another lover wit him, let alone see it, part of dat love dies between you two."

"Baby," Marlene said gently, only looking at her, "you have immediate, recent, visceral memories of being with Carlos. It's a primary memory, not a secondary illusion of one... but stronger than even his fantasy of being with her, because you've lived it. Her images of the past don't have the texture of the present, because they were transferred to him - didn't come directly into your consciousness from experience. Just like what you show her of your history will have the depth of a textbook, or movie, because it's a fourth-generation down - my great-grandmother lived it, told my grandmother, who told my mother, who told me. What I show you, just like what Carlos showed you, is diluted. Only first-line feels it directly, the eyewitnesses. So, she won't smell the insides of the slave cargo ships, won't feel the lash. Unless she has a lot of compassion, and she doesn't, it won't move her."

When Damali nodded, Marlene pressed on, holding her in a stare to get through, to strip away some of the pain in the only way it can be purged at a time like this - by another supportive woman-friend's voice. "His fantasies of being with her are not grounded in the other senses all the way. Close, because he imagined it, but he still doesn't know because the act wasn't consummated. But you've got a nuclear bomb of recent memory grounded in every fiber of you. Hit the red button, baby. Use it. Blow her head up so we can take it off. Use the truth. And kill her with your love." She shook her head and closed her eyes. "That's what Father Pat had said. This scenario had to be fought with compassion and love, and he, as a cleric from an order with blood on his hands here, couldn't be there to witness it or help."

"You might feel like you're gonna die, and when you walk away from what you need to walk away from, part of you will," Rider said in an inordinately gentle tone, "but sometimes you have to opt to exist, even if it's not how you want to live. Y'all both might have to do that. Much as I hate to, I've gotta give Rivera credit for that. Welcome to being an adult. The shit sucks."

Kamal let his breath out slowly and rubbed his jaw and sent a silent message of thanks Rider's way for veering the way-too-personal subject away from him, Marlene, and Shabazz. He waited until Damali looked at him before he spoke.

"Granted, his fantasies were fucked up. But all I'ma say is, dis ain't happen yet, and nobody needta be judged on a fantasy, or we'd all go to Hell in a handbasket." Kamal's gaze swept the room, avoiding Marlene. "Ask any and all of your brothers, dey'll tell you. Don't let what could happen drive a wedge between you and him out dere. Deal wit what did happen, and if it's going to go down in a way you don' like, suck it up. That's life. You won't die of no broken heart - you will die, however, if you misjudge your opponent. Shit happens fast."

Shabazz looked at him. "Yeah it do, man. I'm real sorry it does, too."

The two old masters looked at each other again and nodded. Respect and silent understanding passed between them once more, sealing their pact to let their personal incident ride.

"Heal up your slayer's head, man. Baby girl took a hit of something she didn't need to see for years - if ever. Fucked-up, man... but in dis case it was de only way. Truth was da light. Bring da light."

"Word."
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