The Cursed CHAPTER NINETEEN


CHAPTER NINETEEN

This is the part that I'm not gettin',’’ Shabazz said, look ing around the group. ’’Why are we here, why are demon legions forming underground - here? Why here, why now, when you thinned out their numbers in Nod? It doesn't make sense.’’

’’Makes sense if we're being set up for a total wipeout,’’ Mike said, packing shells into his weapon.

’’But you bring everyone to the holy land to do that? Nah,’’ Rider said, shaking his head.

’’Why come to sacred ground where you don't have the spiritual advantage?’’

’’That's the part that's bothering me,’’ Carlos said, walking back and forth along the wall, studying the ramparts. ’’They also know that, out of respect, we won't wanna blow up any thing, like those ramps. They've gotta come down. That's what trapped the people up here.’’

’’Sacrilege,’’ Rabbi Zeitloff said quickly. ’’I forbid it. The destruction of a shrine such as this.’’

’’You see what I mean.’’ Carlos looked at Mike. ’’You might as well put the heavy ammo down, bro, unless you got dead-aim to knock a demon funnel outta the air. Otherwise, you blow a piece of this monument, and we've got problems.’’

’’My aim's dead-on, C-los, you know me. But if a funnel comes, I'm worrying about the living, not the dead.’’

’’Aw'ight...tacticals. See if you can juice the ramp real good, and you ladies that do stonework... maybe see if you can get a perimeter set using the original walls here. If we use as many natural barriers as we can, then it might reduce breaking out the heavy artillery.’’ Carlos looked down. ’’I can't see 'em yet, but I can feel 'em crawling under the surface like termites ready to come up. I just wish I knew why.’’ Heather and Jasmine screamed at the same time and yanked their hands away from the wall. The whole group went on alert as Heather grabbed a gun, pushed past Dan, and began running. The team was on her heels as she kicked in a door and held a weapon with both hands.

’’Out now, bitch!’’ Heather shouted. ’’Hands on your head, blink and you're gone.’’ A very smug, petite woman with black and purple hair slowly moved out of the shadows.

’’Who in the hell...’’ Rider said, gaping, his weapon trained on the woman like the others.

’’No vamp tracer. Be cool, Heather. Could be civilian.’’

’’Yes, Heather. Be cool,’’ Lorelei taunted.

’’She's no civilian. She's dark coven all the way - second in command to Gabrielle, and probably set Gabby up, if I know her shady ways. Get up, Lorelei.’’

’’Gladly,’’ she said, glancing around the team. ’’Tie her up - duct tape is with the ammo,’’ Carlos said, looking at Damali. ’’We're not exactly in a position to deal with POWs. Damn!’’

’’Throw her ass over the wall,’’ Damali said, drawing very concerned stares from the group. ’’You're right. We're in a take-no-prisoners frame of mind. A dark coven witch is

up here obviously conjuring behind our backs,’’ she added, white light charging the small pentagram and charms Lorelei had left, using her Isis. Damali then looked at Father Patrick for theatrical effect. ’’We even have a member here from the Catholic sect. What were the witch tests, Father?’’

’’Damali, no,’’ he said, ashamed.

’’Oh, yes,’’ Damali said, grabbing Lorelei as she began to scream. ’’You mess with my family, I ain't got no love for you.’’ Quickly she rammed the blade into the ground and yanked Lorelei's hands behind her back, kicking her legs out from under her so her cheek hit the wall. ’’Who sent you and why?’’

Damali looked up at the stricken faces. ’’See? Uncooperative. Gotta go.’’ She hoisted her up as Guardians shouted no. Even Carlos was unsure.

’’I know you're stressed, but she's still human, baby,’’ Carlos said, trying to get a sightline to Damali to negotiate.

Damali looked over the edge of the cliffside wall and laughed. ’’Oh, she wants to die - she won't be human for long. Don't worry.’’ The moment Lorelei screamed, Damali heaved her over the wall and flung her as far away from her as she could. Clerics yelled, hands reaching over trying to catch the falling girl. Eyes held terror and total disbelief.

’’What have you done?’’ Marlene whispered.

’’Found out who's gonna catch that bitch,’’ Damali said, taking a running leap and going over the edge, wings extended.

With no small measure of satisfaction she watched Lorelei hurdle toward the ground, hands extended, face contorted, vomit choking her, body voiding - yeah, she had it coming. And just as she suspected, Lilith opened the earth and stood with arms outstretched, screaming no. An unexpected variable was that Lilith's wings had been scorched off by Eve's white light net - oops.

Harpies swirled up to try to catch the tumbling woman, but their greedy, eager little hands would fillet her, falling from that altitude as they grasped with claws. Damali brought her wings in close to her body, along with her hands and dive-bombed toward her, grabbing Lorelei's outstretched arms, dislocating both of the witch's shoulders, but keeping her from a ground collision.

As soon as they connected, Damali opened her wings and headed back to the top of the mountain. She'd been able to siphon enough from the traumatized witch to know that whatever it was, was coming out of Nod. Amazing how fear just breaks down all communication and black spell barri ers, she thought as she dropped Lorelei hard on the palace floor.

Lorelei lay on the floor weeping and breathing hard. Damali walked over her body and looked at the team.

’’Found out a coupla things,’’ Damali said, panting. ’’One. Lilith can't fly. Eve permanently maimed her wings. Very cool. Two. Whatever they're waiting for is coming out of Nod -

so I say, me and Carlos go back, the team hunkers down here. If we can slaughter it over there, all the better.’’ She wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her forearm. ’’I learned something else, too. Three. How badly I wanted to just drop this ho'.’’

’’She's injured,’’ Dan said with disdain, holding the duct tape. ’’What do I do?’’

’’She didn't want us to have any special powers from the Light working to help her foul

ass,’’ Carlos said. ’’Pop her shoulder blades back in the old-fashioned way, then tape her up. We can drop her at the hospital later, assuming we make it off this mountain.’’ Juanita, Inez, Marlene, and Heather stepped up.

’’I ain't got no problem with it, Dan, if you're squeamish about doing a female,’’ Juanita said.

Inez and Marlene slapped her five.

’’Oh, no,’’ Heather said. ’’Let me do the honors. I picked up something else she was party to ... something personal.’’ She glanced at Damali and mouthed a quiet thank you.

’’Don't let Heather kill her, Dan,’’ Damali said, walking away. ’’And tape her mouth up before you pop her shoulders into place. She deserves so much more ... but, you know, we're Guardians ... blah, blah, blah.’’

Mike squinted and went to go check more ammo with

Shabazz. ’’Damn, the ladies is cold, man. And they say men are bad.’’

* * *

COMPLETE DESOLATION is all they saw when they entered Nod. Just as the Neteru Kings had communicated, the shields were still in place, but the weak spot was over the holy land. The Middle East had been the target of constant bombard ment. The square downtown was so quiet their footsteps along the pavement sounded like thunder. When they got to the palace, the huddled masses were still there, but the numbers were vastly reduced. Even the lions were gone.

’’What happened?’’ Damali called out, hoping those she'd healed would remember her. She looked at Carlos.

’’Yeah. I know. Something is way wrong.’’

’’You seek Valkyrie to assist her in battle?’’ the angel hybrid with amber wings called out from a bench down on the court floor.

’’Yeah. Where is everybody?’’ Damali looked around. ’’Where's your sphinxes?’’

’’Those who could still fight went to Cain's old cliffside lair. The ravine there is where the barrier is the weakest,’’ an other hybrid called out, and then gathered a blanket tighter around him. ’’They are afraid to go to the seeking alleys now, because they would have to come past the central palace here. But Valkyrie takes the lions to help protect the shields that are weakening over the holy land.’’

Carlos nodded. ’’We're out. We know the way.’’

’’very good,’’ lilith whispered to her Harpies. ’’They're here and in position. Lorelei will crack under pressure, and they'll go into Nod, blades swinging.’’ She petted the most aggressive little beast that snuggled against her legs. ’’Go tell my scientists to hit the veil between worlds one more time in the same spot they've been hammering. It's weakening so much that I can feel the pulse of my heir through it.’’ She kissed the top of its bald, scaly head as she caressed it. ’’You must fly quickly. Our internal network has been temporarily shut down. I need you to do this before my husband com pletely repairs it and seeks me.’’

* * *

full battle was underway as the Neterus approached the ravine. Huge marble sphinxes made aerial lunges at loy alist forces battling Valkyrie's small but courageous band of

warriors. Damali and Carlos immediately joined the fray, decimating whatever entity that dropped to the ground, blades swinging, Madame Isis chiming through the air. Every indignity that she'd ever witnessed that had been committed against the innocent, the weak, the outnumbered, or the unprotected felt like it entered her nervous system one disk in her back at a time until the power of righteous indignation sent laserlike white light into her blade arm. When she swung, heads came off so fast and clean that it wasn't until the entity moved that the look of surprise cap tured its face as its head fell to the ground. The light that burst from the end of the blade was a torch. While the razor edge cut through flesh, gristle, and bone, the tip of the blade took out predators behind the one she was beheading, just because they'd passed through the swath of light. Insane with the images in his mind, the need to ensure that not one beast crossed the shields erupted old hellfire in his DNA. His left fist became an anvil;his right hand clutched a blade of destruction. Throwing roundhouse punches that broke jaws, sent fangs in the opposite direction of their owners, Carlos cut his way to Valkyrie's side. To the point of primal fury, Carlos spotted Damali and threw her his blade. Satisfied that his wife had a double blade advantage, he spun on attackers, loving the carnage of getting his hands dirty.

Throats came out in his grasp, dangling esophagi just like the old nights. Demon hybrids backed up, now truly sensing one of their own in their midst, one insane like they knew Cain could become. One with fangs dripping saliva, silver sightline that burned with a look of near-ecstasy in the killing of them ... they could understand that look, that passion, and it demoralized their troops. The psychological toll of seeing what to them was a chairmanlevel vampire in their realm, impervious to the Light, with ten inches of battle fangs, two hearts in his fists that had been snatched out so fast they were still beating when their owners dropped, gave the loyalists serious pause.

A call to retreat rang out. Damali blocked the path to es cape. Her Isis in one hand, Carlos's blade of Ausar in the other, she became an angel of death, Hell, and destruction. Wings dirty and splattered with blood, she flew at the demon hybrids that were trying to get back to the shelter of Cain's half destroyed cliffside lair. There were only fifty left. Take no prisoners was her inner war cry as she saw them slow down in the air, her blades crossed before her chest as she sped toward them. Midturn to get away, her blades opened, slicing through two at a time, screams of the falling echoing in the ravine as they burned.

Think of the abuses - slash. Think of the rapes - direct jab. Think of the tears - double cut, heads roll. Think of the children - aerial fly kick, blade through a rib cage claims a heart, slice through the midsection makes one demon hybrid two. She was on fire, white light flame. An avenging angel;a deliverer. Carlos had become a destroyer on the ground with Valkyrie, rooting out hiding loyalists and sending them to Hell by hand. At the edge of the ravine, piles of ash and bodies littered the ground. Breathing hard, Valkyrie and her meager forces of twenty-five rebel hybrids looked around as Carlos and Damali joined her. The sphinxes roared, paced a bit, and then quieted.

’’Feel the vibrations in the air,’’ she said, looking around astounded. ’’They're all gone. I only feel one very far away and hiding.’’

Damali and Carlos nodded.

’’If one small one gets out, we'll get it on the other side,’’ Carlos said, gulping air and

normalizing.

’’Yeah,’’ Damali said between bursts of breath, wiping sweat off her brow with her forearm. ’’The main thing is that you guys can stay over here without fear of being attacked. Once we can figure out a way to seal the rips, you should need supplies like you did before, but we'll keep your peo ple stocked until we can clean up the environmental dam age.’’

Carlos was still sucking in huge breaths, but nodded. ’’We'll get you plenty of stuff over here, maybe once we get things secure on our end, we can help you rebuild a little ... but our shit is raggedy back home. We gotta go handle our business there, too, sis.’’

’’I understand, and we are eternally grateful for what you've done.’’ Valkyrie grasped first Damali's arm and then Carlos's in a warrior's handshake, then dropped to one knee. ’’My mother came from a long line of Valkyrie angels ... my father was a Viking, who had a near-death experience, but was spared, and didn't die. I shall make petitions and burn incense in your honor here, that when your times come, a full flight escort of twenty-one Valkyries may guard your spirits to Valhalla.’’

’’Bless you,’’ Damali said quietly, knowing that Valkyrie's prayer, like all those people and beings of Light that had prayed for her and Carlos and their team, weighed so heavily on the thin margin and balance between life and death that she was at a loss to say more. All the wild, risky, edge of the razor experiences they had, Damali knew the only thing that stood between them and the eleventh-hour-and-fifty-ninth-minute save was some

body's prayer, somewhere, weighing in to tip the scales in their favor.

’’And, I you,’’ Damali told Valkyrie after a moment, so sad to say good-bye to what had become like a member of her team... family. ’’I pray that you rebuild this place to its for

mer beauty and dignity, and mat all those who remain live in peace, and that Nod's Valkyrie be known as one of the most dedicated and courageous of warriors ... like Sara, and Hu bert, and Sedgwick. We must remember each one that died, so it was not in vain. May a twenty-one-flight squadron also guide you home - with full Neteru Guardian spirit escort - when it is your time.’’

’’You fought hard, almost to the last soldier, to defend what was yours to the end,’’ Carlos said, lifting his chin. ’’Much respect, Val - because it wasn't just about the land, it was about a way of life ... being free to live without somebody trying to jack you or your shit.’’ He pointed up toward the white marble rubble that had once been Cain's lair and stared at it until the archway began to smolder. ’’Make that a museum, so y'all remember where the battle between worlds was fought and won.

’’Valkyrie,’’ Carlos said, sending her name into it above the pillars in a gleaming, silver Kemetian font. ’’Sara. Hubert. Sedgwick. Those are the ones we knew, who directly helped our team and came to the other side - or defended it on this side of the line. Silver. Your names stay in silver.’’ He nodded and looked at the thinning seal. ’’The others you can inscribe the old-fashioned way by chisel, but y'all... damn... if you hadn't been with us, ride or die, the out come mighta been real different.’’ Valkyrie stayed down on one knee and crossed her chest with both forearms in the ancient Kemetian pose of pharaohs. ’’To be recognized in perpetuity by Neterus and to have my name on your lips in a prayer means my destiny has been fulfilled. Forever grateful,’’ she said in a hoarse whisper laced with emotion. ’’I will guard this place until my end of time.’’ The others who had valiantly fought to protect the veil to the earth plane from being

breached surrounded Valkyrie in a semicircle and went down on one knee, facing both Neterus in a similar pose of respect. ’’Until our end of time.’’

’’Until our end of time,’’ a lame angel hybrid said, staring at the group and limping toward Carlos and Damali. Her gentle eyes looked longingly at the warriors before her and she wrapped her torn clothes in tattered, amber wings. ’’I wanted to fight, too. But I have missed the battle.’’ Huge tears welled in her eyes as Valkyrie and her forces stood.

’’No, dear one. You were never to be a warrior with your gentle spirit. You should help us bring peace and order and healing now that it is all done,’’ Valkyrie said, hugging her as she came to the group.

’’Thank you for healing me,’’ the amber-winged beauty said to Damali, and then went to hug her as Valkyrie stepped back.

A sudden, shattering blast rocked the ravine making Damali lose her footing with the angel hybrid in her embrace. Something chilling attacked her mind, threw off her sense of orientation, and seized her heart as she clung to the wounded angel hybrid - trying to save her from reentry burnup as the pair slammed a frayed edge of the shielded veil rip. In the distance she could hear Carlos shouting, heard him call her name and tell Valkyrie to stay back - the area was unstable.

Pain seemed to knife her from the inside out as she came to a burning, skidding halt on the palace floor. Her team gathered around. She was semiconscious but not so dazed that she didn't know faces. Voices sounded like mud. The sky looked like it was smeared with blood from her meteoric entry. Something warm and shivering and possibly dying was in her arms. An amber-winged angel sobbed against her chest.

’’Incoming,’’ Damali said flatly. ’’Hold your fire, I think it's Carlos.’’ He hit the ground so hard he bounced twice, skidded across the floor, and came to a crashing halt against the far wall. Dazed, he lay there for a moment, not exactly sure where he was. Guardians were all around him, asking him to count fingers. He thought he saw Damali in his peripheral vision holding an angel hybrid, half-sitting up. Okay, that was a good thing. He looked up into Big Mike's face and blinked twice. But there were white things seeping from the walls, up from the floor, oozing down from the crevices. The voices of the team sounded so far away that he told them to shut up. White protoplasm was seeping from the f*king walls!

He rolled over, pushed up, wobbly, staggering, disori ented, trying to call a blade in his hand, only getting sparks of energy for a moment, the words ’’watch your backs,’’ stuck in his throat. Then he was on his knees, unable to breathe, feeling like he was gonna pass out. Hell no, Berkfield was wrong, he didn't have a concussion, even though he'd hit the wall like a bullet. Naw ... it was the stuff coming out of the walls. He needed to vomit but nothing would come up. Pain was making tears run, but it wasn't pain from the ground hit, it came from the inside out and leaked through his pores, making him holler. It was pain so intense that it threatened to explode his heart. Guardians were trying to make him lie down, but the floor was running blood.

’’Get me off the f*king floor! It's everywhere! The walls are bleeding! Get off me!’’ He was up, a blade in hand, eyes wild. ’’Where's my wife? Where is my damned wife! Get her out of here, now!’’

’’I'm right here,’’ Damali shouted, making him whirl. He watched her hand off an injured hybrid to Marlene and come to him. ’’Look. Don't you

see it?’’

A cold sweat had replaced silver battle sweat. He was panting, frantic. Adrenaline was spiking flight-not-fight mes sages to every cell in him. Damali placed both of her hands to his temples, stared at him for a second, and then dropped them away screaming. She bent over holding her arms around her waist. Clerics and Guardians rushed to their Neterus and then all of a sudden, one by one, each cleric began to sob. Rabbi Zeitloff went down on his knees first, pulling at his clothing and beating his chest, wailing. Father Patrick leaned over and retched, as Imam Asula dropped, shell-shocked, and closed his eyes, tears running down his dark, weathered cheeks. Monk Lin stood staring at nothing, and then walked away to a far corner to slowly sit, then lay on his side and curled up into a small ball.

Thoroughly panicked Guardians looked at their group seers for help, and within seconds the same reaction that had decimated the clerics began to run through the seers . .. then the tacticals felt it, and the stoneworkers cried out and moaned as they felt it through the stones, and Mike began rocking, covering his ears as he heard it, and finally Jose and Rider walked away, and vomited as the smell overcame them.

’’Masada!’’ Rabbi Zeitloff yelled, crying hard. ’’Never again.’’ He began reciting rabbinical prayers in Hebrew, and then the other clerics quickly began to pull themselves together and add theirs of their own faith. The tidal wave of white light sent Heavenward helped each Neteru begin their litany, which in turn helped Guardians to find their path back to sanity as they slowly began to join in, too. As their prayers reached fever pitch, they could all see with their naked eyes, one thousand moaning, wailing, an cient rebel spirits that had been trapped in the palace. Women grasped children to their breasts. Babies cried and older children hid against their mothers'

bodies. Husbands tried to drag children away from women's arms, their own flesh and blood, while they themselves screamed in a pain so feral that thunder and lightning flashed in the sky.

Demon sulfur wafted up from beyond the wall and the wailing ghosts shrieked as they drew blades and became skeletons. Guardians broke formation and ran to look over the wall. Clerics increased their prayer chants.

’’Legions are on the move, yo!’’ Jose shouted.

’’The ground's opening up, people,’’ Rider said. Locking a Gatling gun onto the wall.

’’Decision time, D.’’ Shabazz looked around. ’’The phantoms in here or the demons outside?’’

Mike grabbed a bazooka. ’’Lemme know what to do, C! Start the party, or what?’’

’’Fight with us this time!’’ Damali shouted. She looked at Carlos and sent pure silver thought into his mind like a razor. They're trapped. They think it's happening again. They don't know if we 're Romans that made it over the wall or what, because we 're foreign. Tell them you have the Ark and let them see it - you saw it in Ethiopia. Tell them we have some thing to fight eight demon Roman legions this time and win, baby! Together we call our families.

The moment the thought of calling their families blazed across Damali's mind, every ancestor who was ever con nected to the Guardian team stepped out of the folds of ether behind the disoriented ghosts of Masada. She could feel her team members'hearts breaking and taste their tears on the wind as the spirits of their loved ones appeared. The

vibra tions of love mat oozed from the living to the dead and back again coated the very air with a shimmering, protective haze. Gently, reverently, ancestral spirits calmed and hugged terror-stricken phantoms. Damali's father stepped forward with Father Lopez, flanked by the Brazilian team with a readiness for war in their eyes. Karnal slowly nodded to Shabazz and then Marlene and he closed his eyes briefly as they returned his nod, acknowledging him as one.

Damali and Carlos watched mute and transfixed as their parents, grandparents, Father Lopez, Christine, so many spirits, some of whom they didn't know, whispered into ears, took up hands, wiped tears, and brought peace.

Soon the gathering of spirits parted like a fine mist and Damali's mother walked forward, spreading her set of beautiful, luminous wings. ’’We all stand with you as we have al

ways, my daughter.’’ She looked at Carlos and pure peace radiated from her expression.

’’You contain more than you know - use it all, son. Open that which is within.’’ Instantly the ghosts sent up a huge cry. Complete chaos surrounded Damali and Carlos, making them seek each other's gazes for a clue about what had just happened. The Ark, Damali's mind shot into his. This is the end of days. That's the only thing my mother could have meant, because surely she wouldn't want us to open a biblical seal! The angel hybrid huddled on the ground and slowly crawled her way over to Lorelei. Carlos closed his eyes for a moment, remembering what he'd seen when he was in Ethiopia. The old men in the boat, the blind monks had shown him the Ark of the Covenant, and it had turned his eyes silver. He sent the image into the wall, against the floor, and into the very rock of Masada. The ghosts of Masada stopped moving and shrieking and began to silently weep. They dropped down on their knees and then turned to whomever they were next to and hugged and rocked and wept. Whole families became reunited, and then slowly men stood. Three hundred men stepped forward along with the ancestors and every felled Guardian of the past, turned in unison and faced Carlos, ready for war.

The team and clerics stared in awe and fell silent, not sure what it was that Carlos had shown the dead that made them quiet, or what it was that had made their eyes burn with re solve.

’’It was the dark coven energy they were sensing,’’ Damali said to the group, opening her arms. ’’The ghosts of Masada were confused - they couldn't tell who we are. Even with the prayers, something really dark was blocking their read of our vibrations. It might be her,’’ she said, pointing at Lorelei. ’’Just her foul presence here is probably arcing a dark current down to Lilith's ground troops.’’ Damali raked her fingers through her locks in bitter frustration. ’’I swear I'll throw her skank ass over the wall this time and not catch her!’’

’’No, let me,’’ the angel hybrid said, looking at Lorelei. ’’I missed the battle in Nod, but I want to be in this one. Let me guard her.’’

’’Done,’’ Carlos said. ’’You keep an eye on that bitch, and if she tries something stupid, do her.’’

Damali turned away from Lorelei and the hybrid rebel from Nod as Carlos's next command quickly positioned the team.

’’Tacticals on the walls, supercharging all surfaces, espe cially the winding snake path up here, any cables overhead, and the earth around our perimeter - me and D will send cold

body seeking white light pulses behind that. On D's call, Mike, you start the party and fire up those demon for mations on the ground. No hits to the palace;send it south.’’

’’I'm on it, boss,’’ Mike said, leveling the bazooka.

’’Clerics, four corners, to keep this mess at bay and to put up a prayer dome against an overhead attack - 'cause once Mike fires, it's on. Everybody, automatics up. If it gets stupid, Carlos can throw up a shield, but he needs to leave you open to fire as long as humanly possible.’’ Damali looked around. ’’Minimum to zero damage up here and to the cable cars. This is a shrine. The Roman ramparts they can rebuild later, but this, where we are, can't be.’’

Carlos nodded. ’’All right. Dan, you fall back, even though you're a tactical - I want you lobbing hallowed earth and silver shrapnel explosives. You got dead-aim, brother. I want an acid line of holy water... clerics on the four walls, that's all you. Bobby, 'Nez, Juanita, Jasmine, you're water runners and our radar from all sides - Bobby, you got da wizard moves to lift that water, steady stream from the pipe system like a fire hose, passing by clerical prayers - you're my flame-thrower, man - not a water boy, so don't get it twisted. I need your head right, and you work with Krissy on that, got it? Keep the Covenant in water, anything liquid, that they can bless and hurl over the walls.’’

’’Got it,’’ Bobby said, standing up taller.

’’Got it,’’ Krissy said, slapping her brother five.

’’Berkfield, you're a gunner, with Rider, Jose, and Tara. One of y'all on each of the cardinal points with a cleric, a seer for radar, and a flame-thrower. Mike and Dan will move around at your holler. Marj, you lead the wall jolts, you and Heather, with Marlene, power of three,’’ Damali said, nodding.

’’Then Shabazz, J.L., and Dan can keep sending shock-waves down the walls between clicking off rounds to keep 'em back,’’ Carlos said, his gaze going around the team.

’’Everybody got it?’’

’’Yeah,’’ rang out in a variety of timbres.

’’Move out.’’ Damali waited a beat until everyone took their places. ’’Mike, fire it up.’’

’’As the lady asks,’’ Mike said, releasing a bazooka blast that made him take two steps back.

The hit rocked the dirt, sending a plume of dust up with sulfuric smoke. Eight demon legions immediately erupted from the ground like lava, splitting the earth in angry gashes and fissures as hellfire flared up behind them. Spaded-tailed, black Roman armor-clad nightmares with black blades, red, gleaming eyes, mangled fangs, and huge bat wings positioned for an aerial attack.

’’Automatics up! They're sending in their fliers, first!’’ Carlos shouted.

’’Wait,’’ Damali said, looking at Carlos. ’’Shields up, white light it, they'll have bullets raining back down on our own team.’’

Carlos shook his head hard. ’’Damn ... that's fundamental.’’ He looked at Damali. ’’Maybe I did hit my head harder than I thought.’’

’’No,’’ the amber-winged hybrid said. ’’It's her! You can't have a dark coven witch behind your lines like a sleeper cell!’’

The entity from Nod jumped up so quickly and grabbed Lorelei that the word ’’No!’’ rang out on the team in a Doppler effect. Carlos couldn't hit them with a knock-down pulse

without injuring the pregnant angel hybrid that Damali had just healed and saved. She moved too quickly. Lorelei's skinny, petite frame was no match for the more muscular, winged creature. The hybrid rebel went over the wall in a suicide plummet clutching a screaming Lorelei. Everyone, including phantom warriors, rushed to the wall to watch in horror as the angel hybrid tumbled in a struggling spiral. Demon Roman legion fliers took flight and surrounded the spiraling pair, snatching them out of the sky. But to the team's surprise, they gently set the amber-winged hybrid down, and settled Lorelei beside her -

holding her.

’’Something's seriously wrong,’’ Damali said quietly as they all stared over the wall.

’’Maybe they think they've got a Nod hostage and can negotiate,’’ Carlos said, pacing like a trapped panther as he con tinued to stare over the wall. ’’They know we won't allow an angel to be eaten. Everybody be cool, hold your fire, until they set terms.’’ A swarm of Harpies flew over the ground and surrounded the hybrid and frightened witch as demon legionnaires stepped back to form a menacing, threatening ring around the Harpies.

’’Oh, they are definitely reinforcing troops around them so we can't do a snatch,’’ Damali said, raking her locks. ’’Shit! Why would that crazy, zealot hybrid break ranks on a suicide mission like that? We might not be able to get to her.’’ Lilith's sulfuric plume made veins of rage stand up in Carlos's temple. He spat and then glanced at Damali. ’’What did I tell you? Let the games begin.’’

’’In Dananu like old times,’’ Damali said through her teeth.

’’What do you want, Lilith!’’ Carlos hollered over the wall in Dananu. ’’A body for a body?

State your terms!’’

’’I don't want anything,’’ Lilith cooed in a loud echo. ’’I've already got what I want ... a body for a body, and then some.’’ She stroked the angel hybrid's hair and then tongue-kissed her. Clerics closed their eyes and cringed.

’’Desecration ... complete sacrilege - get thee away from thy angelic host, demon!’’ Father Patrick shouted over the wall with his eyes squeezed shut.

’’No, no, no,’’ Lilith clucked with her tongue, leaning the hybrid back. ’’This is of her own free will, isn't it, my dear?’’

’’Away from an angel, you unholy beast! May the wrath of Heaven scorch your vile body and exterminate your rav enous spirit from existence!’’ Father Patrick yelled, thor oughly undone by the cruelty he was witnessing.

’’Of all people, Father,’’ Lilith said with a snide chuckle. ’’I know you aren't the one calling for Heaven's help or cast ing stones. Chastising me, are you?’’ She narrowed a withering gaze on the elderly priest. ’’Why, not too long ago, I believe, you lost your faith.’’ She glanced around at the laughing demons at her flank. ’’Isn't that right? Didn't he renounce the church?’’ Her gaze widened as she studied him and clucked her tongue. ’’Such a dangerous position to be in as a priest out here with all of us ... my ... my ... my. Well, you all do keep it interesting, that I will give you.’’ With a lightning quick motion, she sent a black charge toward the elderly man, but was surprised when a white-light bolt from the sky deflected it.

’’I never lost faith in the Almighty, Lilith!’’ Father Patrick raged. ’’I lost faith in men - men, not God! And as we know, in the last days, the devil will even take up residence in the

churches. My love of the Almighty never wavered! So I call on every prayer, every righteous cleric that ever died to pro tect this team! We will have your head! I still believe, and will to my gasping last breath!’’

’’Guess the thunder and lightning from above served as your answer, bitch,’’ Juanita shouted over the wall, training a machine gun on Lilith. ’’You ain't fronting on no priest up in here!’’

Mike fingered the bazooka trigger. ’’D, just say it, baby ... just tell me I can blow that bitch up.’’

Lilith glared at the sky for a moment, ignoring the Guardians, before returning her attention to the hybrid. ’’No matter. I have what I want and she wants this, right, my dear?

It's your choice.’’

’’Tricks of the unholy,’’ Rabbi Zeitloff yelled. ’’Fight her with your mind and your spirit, angel!’’

’’Link to us in prayer to keep the unclean from your soul, even if they defile your body until we reach you, do not give in to her foul words and lascivious intent!’’ Imam Asula shouted.

’’Go to a quiet space of pure white light and find us there,’’ Monk Lin shouted. ’’Now, for your safety of spirit!’’

Rider slowly positioned a weapon and squeezed. ’’Or let us blow these f*kers away.’’ The bullet whizzed past Lilith who jumped back and took out a lead demon that had flanked her, splattering the site with ash. Two quick sharpshooter squeezes and Harpies that had been touching the hybrid were green gook. Lilith laughed and covered the hybrid and Lorelei with a black energy shield.

’’Our negotiation was over before it started, Rivera. Tell that bitch, Damali, to watch and weep - this is her healing handiwork.’’ Lilith took cover and ordered her less expendable guards to fall back out of Guardian weapon range. ’’Splatter the Harpies;they breed fast enough to replenish any you kill. But I want you to see this ... see what a Caduceus lifesaving jolt will do once it hits earth's atmosphere.’’ Damali looked at Carlos. ’’What's she talking about?’’ Her voice was strained as she clutched Carlos's arm.

’’I don't know,’’ he said, his gaze riveted to the two beings under Lilith's shield. ’’She's f*king with us, trying to mess with our heads. Block out the bullshit she's talking about and let's focus on how to get the angel up and outta there.’’ But before they could even take another breath, the hybrid laughed and waved at Damali.

’’You should have bedded Cain and been his co-ruler. We were all waiting for you to give him an heir, and you were such a stupid bitch that you didn't.’’

’’It's the influence, Lilith bending her mind,’’ Damali said. ’’Ignore it, people. Lilith wants us to fire on her, kill our own.’’

’’You Neterus think you know so much,’’ Lilith said, cackling. She sighed and then slid under the shield like vapor.

’’Oh, man,’’ Carlos said, wiping his palms down his face.

’’Head-screw tactic, one-oh-one... make you watch the torture.’’

’’See, Carlos still remembers a lot of things from his old throne. He could have been chairman and had my job and run it all, too - but just like his silly little goody-goody wife, he chose the Light. How foolish.’’ Lilith kissed down the angel hybrid's breastbone and

caressed her abdomen. ’’Come to me,’’ she said in a whisper that reverberated up and over the wall.

The angel hybrid opened her legs and arched with a moan. Guardians and clerics turned away, making sounds of raw disgust.

’’Everything isn't always what it seems,’’ Lilith said, her hands gliding along the hybrid's inner thighs. She turned to the anxious witch who had been released from her duct-tape bondage. ’’Is it Lorelei?’’ she hissed, kissing her deeply and then turning her focus back to the hybrid.

’’I'm gonna be ill,’’ Damali whispered, wiping her palms down her face.

’’Yes, you are,’’ Lilith said, laughing.

’’I can get off a mercy shot,’’ Mike said, positioning the bazooka. ’’This don't make no sense... I think it'll go through the shield if y'all Neterus white light it.’’

’’It just might,’’ Lilith said with a smug cackle. ’’But I don't think even your big dumb ass wants angel blood on his conscience... do you, Mike?’’

Mike hesitated and Lilith threw her head back and laughed.

’’I guess we're at an impasse, then,’’ Lilith yelled up the mountainside. Stalemated, the Guardian squad peered over the wall, keeping seers sweeping the other sides of the mountain for a possible rear sneak-attack. But their senses came away wanting, and all eyes remained riveted to Lilith's theatrical display below. The she-demon had gone back to stroking the angel-hybrid's hair and caressing her lower abdomen, making the hybrid begin to sweat and strain against the touch.

’’All right, Lilith! A body for a body,’’ Carlos hollered.

’’No, thank you - you waited too long.’’ Lilith laughed as the hybrid's distress increased.

’’Fine, then take me - you always wanted me!’’ Damali shouted, her eyes telling Carlos not to countermand her.

’’Thank you, but no. I must decline. You're no longer a virgin, tsk tsk. You're soiled, used, unclean, and of no use to my empire now.’’

Raucous demon laughter from forty thousand troops filled the valley, making the Guardians and clerics briefly cover their ears.

’’Then we will trade!’’ Imam Asula said. ’’Any man of faith here of the Covenant.’’

'Touching ... and probably the most tempting offer thus far, but no.’’ Lilith looked up as Berkfield leaned over the wall. ’’Don't even think about it - you are so unclean to my kind you make me retch just at the thought of what runs through your veins. The rest of you can save your offers, too.’’

’’Then what do you want?’’ Damali hollered in Dananu as Lilith dropped fang.

’’I was just waiting for you to ask me again nicely,’’ Lilith replied as she touched the hybrid's belly and stepped back. ’’ This.’’

To the team's horror the hybrid arched and dug the crown of her head into the dirt, writhing in pain as she let out a piteous wail. But what she said made them glance at each other, even while partially mesmerized by the way her body was contorting and expanding, as her belly grew to the proportions of a beach ball.

’’Do not forget our bargain, Lilith,’’ the angel hybrid gasped. ’’I have served you well - I deserve my place at your council table!’’

Lilith nodded. ’’Once you are done, so be it.’’

’’What will my reward be?’’ Lorelei asked expectantly.

’’Yours will come as hers comes,’’ Lilith murmured, and sent the echo up so the team missed none of the transaction.

Carlos had to physically restrain Damali, holding the back of her torn white dress between where wings had ripped through the fabric.

’’You ought to know by now, Damali, that a blow delivered by your own kind is the worst - and that looks can be deceiving - because you just don't know.’’ Lilith laughed again and shook her head as the hybrid be gan panting harder, tears running down her face and her nails digging into the dirt. ’’I am older than you can fathom, Neterus.’’ Lilith's tone became lethal, quiet, controlled as she kept her hand on the hybrid's rising abdomen. ’’I was here at the beginning, at the crest of time, just as my hus band was there at its dawn. You two against us? Ludicrous, if not arrogant. How many Kings and Queens have we lived beyond! How many empires have we seen rise, and then we - us -

our combined evil felled? How many cultures have we ruined, and wars begun while you weren't even a shadow of passion on the horizon... and you dare challenge me as Neteru children? Fools - the lot of you!’’

Just as soon as Lilith's last words were spoken, the hybrid seized and hiccupped blood. Her wings went black feather by feather, and her eyes melted from her skull only to be re

placed by shining red, glowing orbs. Her humanlike screams became screeches as twisted fangs filled her mouth, and the standing legions moaned and hissed in abject awe. Then, just as quickly, she convulsed hard, her stomach ripping and her bewildered gaze held Lilith's as she shrieked. Something large and angry was clawing its way from the inside out and began to shred flesh, a spaded tail slashing its way out of her vaaa**l canal as an elbow presented in a gaping, blooded section of ripped belly flesh. A small screeching demon head popped out of the hy brid's stomach, eating away organs and flesh as it fought its host enclosure. The hybrid held the sides of her stomach, convulsing with an open-mouthed silent scream, and then the feral little creature snapped and bit at her fingers, sever ing one. She dropped. Her hands slowly sliding down her sides to hit the ground, eyes no longer glowing but black and glassy. Whatever was inside her sucked in a deep breath and pushed, splitting open her body vertically to come out with new, wet wings trembling.

’’Eat, my baby,’’ Lilith crooned. ’’She took my womb but never my love of producing you.’’ Transfixed for seconds that felt like minutes, the team and clerics couldn't move as forty thousand demon soldiers went prostrate at the same moment the newly born creature turned to Lorelei and ripped out her throat, greedily sucking as she struggled for life and expired. Lilith dug into her rib cage and gave the bloodied thing covered with innards Lorelei's heart. ’’Her reward was simply to feed you, and she should have been honored.’’ Mike released the bazooka with Carlos's white light pulse on it. Ghosts of Masada were over the walls like teeming white foam. Every Guardian went to battle stations firing at anything that moved. Lilith covered her newborn and then had to send it in flight as a bluewhite pulse charge from Damali made the ground temporarily impenetrable. Damali was airborne, Carlos hurled discs of Heru one after the other like razor-edged, gold energy Frisbees at the thing that took flight with shaky wings and a wobbly pattern. Demons went to the air, body-shielding the creature that was no larger than a huge Harpie, giving themselves in to the blade, burning on contact with Heru discs, and fighting their way up the side of the mountain.

Flame throwers sent water over the edge to incinerate everything in their path, but the demons kept coming as though they were multiplying on the hill, heeding Lilith's battle cry to wipe out the team, clerics and all. Gun reports created a deafening echo, semiautomatic bursts lit the night with Mike's bazooka blasts. The stench of sulfur was every where, each hallowed earth shell hit, holy water scorch cre ated blinding plumes.

’’Open the Ark,’’ Rabbi Zeitloff shouted to Carlos, hurling blessed plastic liter bottles of holy water like Molotov cocktails.

’’It's within you, son!’’ Father Patrick yelled, spraying holy water over the side of the wall from a bent pipe Bobby had commandeered.

’’You could not see it, unless it was within,’’ Monk Lin called out, training a water pipe on demon incursion.

’’From Ethiopia - the time is now! Do not let them take Masada again!’’ Imam Asula urged, firing a hallowed earth mortar the moment his holy water supply ran out. Carlos ran to the side of the wall, not sure how to access this thing they said. He looked at Damali - nearly surrounded in the air - folded away, and did a midair grab to tumble with her toward another swarm that was amassing beneath them.

From the spiral he could see the top of the mountain in spinning flashes: the front line of Masada ghosts were ringing the mountain as a palace barrier;the entire perimeter was lit in blue-white light;the ground was white hot from prayers;an arch of opaque light created an opalescent prayer dome over the team and clerics. Bursts of golden-hued gunfire and brilliant explosions lit the mountainside. Seconds elongated. Pure Hell was beneath them. He remembered it so clearly. Damali's fist was against his chest in the exact position when she'd first branded him. She looked up at him as they plummeted like a boulder tossed from a high cliff. Demon claws reached out to rip at them, but burned away the moment they entered their combined white hot aura. Damali's mouth moved, and he read it in his mind. Do it.

He envisioned the Ark, but this time he saw it opened. Her mind latched onto the vision, too, and the moment Damali's mind touched his, a sonic boom and a blast hit them so powerfully that their downward spiral stopped in midair and they were thrust horizontally in a blue-white, slow-motion miasma. Suspended in midair, they watched from afar as the white lightning sent nova light upward and downward to incinerate whatever had been airborne.

Guardians and clerics had fallen behind the wall, but the numbers of furious ghost soldiers from Masada multiplied like a thick carpet of souls that popped up, stepped out from the forms already there bearing arms. They threw their heads back and released a cry. All the fallen martyrs, Carlos whispered in his mind, full of awe. Every warrior felled by injustice.

Both he and Damali jerked their attention skyward as the unforgettable Neteru war cry echoed above, the night parted, a splinter of golden-white light cut through the darkness, and winged steeds filled the air. Neteru Kings riding hard began the aerial assault, battleaxes and blades swinging. Phantoms on the ground outnumbered demons two to one. Neteru Queens came out of golden-caped folds right next to demons to stab out their hearts, incinerate them in a blink of an eye, and then fold away again to reappear as cloaked assassins. Guardians and clerics stood, weapons lowered, watching with tears in their eyes, and yells and cheers filling their lungs. A Valkyrie core flew into the distance,

blades at the ready, swiftly hunting the sky for Lilith's offspring. Damali and Carlos slowly dropped to the ground, her wings lowering them as the energy miasma around them receded. Blades filled their grips. Carlos's eyes cut a silver swath in the darkness beyond the immediate battle. Damali's third eye was keened. They both turned at the same time and headed toward the Judean Desert in his foldaway. Their minds ricocheted commands back and forth as he stopped to get his bearings so that he didn't overshoot the target.

She's moving toward Sorek Cave, east of Bet Shemesh, Carlos mentally shot. I can feel her vibe pulling west.

The thing she gave birth to is headed to Mount of Temptation, baby. Northeast. To get them both, we have to split up. I'll go -

No! Together! Lilith we can get to later. This other thing I don't wanna name - we do it as one. Even if it's still a baby, you know what it is. Northeast - as one. Just as suddenly as they thought it, a large, red-winged stallion ripped through the air snorting fire. Its translucent red hooves gleamed like its ruby coat and mane, and it moved like a missile, almost so fast that they'd nearly missed Hannibal's battle-hardened glare on the horizon.

White blurs shot out of the clouds with him like tracers, and the only way Carlos and Damali could truly see what they were witnessing was by slowing down the visual inside their minds'eyes. Huge warrior angels at the archangel level had hurtled by, the gleam from their golden blades and armor, and glowing white light auras, was blinding. Hanni

bal led the charge with Ausar and Adam at his flank. Hanni bal spurred the great steed on with a war cry, blade raised, rocketing toward the northeast. His mental command was clear, blending in with the trinity force of Ausar's and Adam's intents. Turn back. Lilith is not even reachable now - her husband opened the ground at Sorek. Water your horses and live to fight another day.

Carlos and Damali both stood in the middle of the desert with battle lust running through them so hard that their blade arms shook and tears of frustration were in their eyes. The need to head in either direction to finish it once and for all made Carlos ram his blade into the gravelly sand, Damali's right behind his.

’’Damn!’’ He paced away and wiped his face. She closed her eyes and leaned back and screamed. They stood out there in the night for what felt like an eternity and then finally sat down hard on the ground. ’’We were so close,’’ she said. ’’Right there, girl. Right there.’’ ’’That thing that got away...’’

’’Don't name it, Damali. I know our brother, Hannibal, and the rest of the brothers, they had to get it.’’

’’They broke another seal,’’ she said in a horrified whisper.

’’I know, that's why I'm saying, they had to get it... they just had to ... probably why they sent us back.’’

Probably why,’’ Damali said, accepting Carlos's hand as she stood. ’’That's gotta be why.’’

’’Yeah ... that's gotta be,’’ Carlos said. ’’So ... when the team asks ... for the sake of everyone's sanity and morale...’’

’’Hannibal rode a red steed to the Mount of Temptation and got it. Hannibal, Ausar, and Adam were on its ass. Lilith - we were given orders to deal with that grimy bitch another night, but not tonight.’’

Carlos nodded and slung an arm over Damali's shoulder. ’’Right.’’ They both released a weary sigh and pulled their blades out of the sand.

’’You wanna fly, or me?’’ he asked, using his sword like a walking stick. She let out another hard breath. ’’Guess this ain't like New York ... no cabs in the Judean desert, huh?’’

* * *

they'd half-flown, half-walked, too tired to do ei ther for very long. But as they watched the heavens part to usher in the rose-orange dawn, sunlight painting the moun tainside and sending rays of vibrant renewal to Masada, they stopped and watched in reverent awe as angels scurried to clear away demon ash from the sacred site. Bullet holes and bazooka blasts were buffed out of antiquity;the mountain side was filled with cheering spirits for as far as the eye could see. Guardians leaned over the walls yelling in victory and clerics went down on their knees, one facing Mecca, and gave thanks for the battle that was won. It was then that they realized why they'd come to this holy land and why the tours and lessons were in such a trun cated time frame. Carlos drew her near.

’’We needed the renewal of faith. Last night gave them hope.’’

’’And because we love them, we can't take that away ... the trinity. It always comes back to that.’’ She sighed. ’’What happened out there in the desert is on a top-security, need-toknow basis. They just kicked ass - beat forty thousand demons, eight ’’Roman legions. For once, the cavalry came for our side in a dazzling display that wasn't subtle.’’ She smiled a tense, fatigued grin. ’’Let them mentally have this win.’’ Carlos kissed her temple and nodded up to the top of the mountain where their entire team hollered and waved at them. ’’We were blessed ... didn't lose anybody this time. That was victory enough for me. Living in the present, from now on, baby. That's all a brother can do.’’

EPILOGUE

Three months later... New York City

Over a hundred thousand screaming humans had lost their minds in the Garden. The Internet package that the Neteru Guardian team had sent months ago actually circled the globe at least three times, with bootleg copy after bootleg copy getting posted on the underground everywhere. MySpace, your space, every space had it, the buzz in full effect - the Warriors of Light were coming out with new music so controversial that the system had tried to shut it down, but failed.

Conspiracy theory Web-talk radio had it on lock. Somehow the mainstream outlets were having difficulty get ting their arms around the issue and still experiencing strange, intermittent blackouts.

Money, the so-called real root of all evil, won out over dark coven spells and deep cavern edicts - human nature be ing what it was and having a choice to prosper. The new sound of WOL was cash on the barrelhead that sent promot ers into a feeding frenzy. Simulcast?

No problem - Dan had been in a haggler's heaven. Duke even got the word out that the original transmission came from his joint and it caused a bar fight unreal. He had posted digital Web pics of a silver glowing Bugatti Veyron and metallic candy-red Saleen S7

abandoned on the road by his joint with skid marks, and used the new chichi crowds flocking to his dive from Scottsdale, Arizona, to rebuild... but not too much - he kept the chicken wire with a mild current running through it, just for authenticity's sake. He still had to cater to the locals, even if he did now stock microbrewery selections. Madison Square Garden in New York was on fire from the new beats and lyrics being spit so hard at the first Warriors of Light concert in nearly two years. It was crazy. Damali leaned into the mike and spun in time to get up in Carlos's face, and he backed her up, making her laugh.

The crowd went wild when Shabazz dropped the bass hook to fuse with Jose's insane percussion. Juanita and Inez and Marlene brought the harmony to its knees, killing it, wringing its neck as folks jumped up and down when Damali layered her glass-shattering soprano opposite Mike's bottomed-out baritone, and then Carlos finished them off, talking rapid-fire cash-trash over the vocals.

Dan and Bobby stepped out on the stage with movie-set prop bazookas and street sweepers that made people holler for more. They did exactly what Shabazz told them to do for maximum effect - just stood there in dark sunglasses, long black leather trenches blowing from the hidden floor fans for theatrical composition. Then Berkfield walked across the stage as Marjorie came out from the opposite direction. They slapped each other a high-five as they passed to flank the younger Guardians already out there, and opened their long coats to show gleaming, set prop Glock nines in their waistbands. The New York audience went wild.

On the driving beat, a military-tight dance choreography squad led by Inez and Juanita, backed up by Krissy, Tara, Jasmine, and Heather, rocked the house so hard that Mike had no choice but to blow up the stage. Smoke bombs and pyro FX took the crowd to the next level.

Yonnie was jamming in the wings with a bottle of private label in each hand and a lovely lady he'd picked up in the audience under each arm. He'd told them all, for now, his job was the easiest job in the world - stay topside, keep a close eye on the Neteru Guardian team, and report back anything suspicious.

Cowbells and congas, Rider's screaming guitar, the call to Guardian arms went out like a beacon - power UV lights were set by FX to blow and allow the whole team to fold out of the white smoke cloud wearing fatigues ... Carlos and Damali, blades in their grips. Yonnie took his party to the green room just in time, but it was still one helluva show.

’’We love you, New York! Stay in the Light!’’ Damali hollered, and the stage went black.

’’Damn, y'all,’’ Yonnie laughed in the dark. ’’You make a comeback in the Big Apple, you can make it anywhere.’’

The team ran down the wings laughing toward semi-appalled clerics who tried to smile and who made no mention of Carlos's on-the-fly lyrical adaptations that caused them to squint. What could they say, the word got out and reached the masses, unorthodox or not. The call for an encore was so thunderous that it sounded like the roof was about to blow off.

Carlos smiled at Damali and kissed her quickly, loving the energy that zinged through her body into his. Adrenaline and joy and music were in her sweat. She smelled so good and seemed so happy, he was cresting a little fang.

’’They're calling for you, boo. Go on out there and give it up. What'chu gonna do for an

encore?’’

’’You.’’ She offered him a big grin when his eyes flickered.

’’Stop playing with my mind, girl,’’ he said, laughing. ’’Seriously - you hear that crowd?’’

’’I'll tell you what I decide on later tonight,’’ she said, laughing harder and teasing him unmercifully. ’’But they're calling for us ... all of us. So, what are you gonna do for an encore?’’

Carlos laughed. ’’I don't know - girl. I'm done. I'm not going back out there. Plus, I already showed you the galaxy, shit.’’

Curious glances passed between Guardians. Yonnie cocked an eyebrow, clearly wanting to hear more.

’’C'mon, y'all, pick a number we used to do before they tear the roof off the mutha,’’ Mike said with a big grin.

’’Y'all go 'head,’’ Carlos said, moving to stand in the wings with Yonnie.

’’I know after you did Masada, you don't have stage fright, man,’’ Shabazz said, laughing.

’’C'mon!’’

Carlos smiled and looked at Damali. ’’Nah ... lemme watch it from the wings, man ... like old times. Loving how she raised that blade back in the day, strutting under the lights - her solo.’’

Yonnie gave Carlos a sly wink. ’’Aw'ight, I'm out. Got some lovelies in the green room who wanna take a ride in a brother's limo, feel me? Coupla tours around the park... heeey.’’

’’Yonnie, don't make nothin'out there we're gonna have to ID on a slab or come after, man

... and get your ass in a lair before sunrise,’’ Damali fussed. ’’Love you.’’

’’Yeah, all right, ma.’’ Yonnie shook his head and pounded Carlos's fist as he began to disintegrate into vapor. ’’All I'ma say is, you are so lucky you're my boy ... damn.’’

’’All right, people, bust 'em one more time,’’ Shabazz said, rounding up the original band members. ’’OG's do the encores - nobody else knows the old standards.’’

’’L.A. finale,’’ Mike said. ’’Move out.’’

Shabazz nodded and ran the team back out to a screaming crowd that went nuts when they realized the Warriors of Light were returning for a few more songs. The Covenant went back to their positions covering the team from hidden spaces deep within the wings. But Damali hung back for just a moment to place her hand against Carlos's chest. Her fingertips tingled and he swallowed hard. She didn't have to say it, her eyes said it all ... then she allowed her mouth to confirm it with a slow kiss that he answered in kind. You 're my star, Damali... this is you. The behind the scenes is me. Go knock 'em dead, baby.

I love you right on back. . . how about after the encore I show you how much you're my star... one galaxy at a time? I think I remember how you did it. She laughed when he backed up and held up his hands, laughing and shaking his head. Yep, uh-huh, I'm pretty sure I do.

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