The Hunted

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-One

Though Damali's hands were still sticky from the succulent mango juice that ran between her fingers, she was glad that she and Marlene were able to sneak down to the river for a quick bath and could change their clothes. She'd urged the guys to cool off, and was too grateful to Mar for rubbing the odd concoction of leaves on her that kept away the bugs. But the guys looked miserable.

Sweat had caked dirt lines at their necks; they were grubby as all get out. Streaks of smeared dust and perspiration marked their faces, and their fingernails were caked with two days' worth of travel and battle. Just looking at them made her feel yucky. And they were all supposed to bunk in the same room? Even the noses in the group didn't mind. Men. Damali sighed.

None of the team had shown any shame when a dripping array of fresh fruit was put before them along with the spicy dende-oil-seared kale blended with lime juice, garlic, and tomatoes, or the deep-fried bean cake with onion and pepper sauce, sans dried shrimp. Both Kamal and Marlene argued that the guardians needed their strength; meats sapped the energy field of the body, they said. It was all vegetarian fare tonight, and most of that consisted of uncooked foods. Fresh, cold coconut milk, papaya juice, mango juice, and flatbreads were inhaled without protest.

Time here was measured by the angle of the sun, the brightness of the stars, music, and activity. Kamal dropped back on his elbows on the gravelly riverbank, his billowing white pants reflecting the flickers of red and gold from the blaze of the campfire. Several of Damali's guardians yawned, sending a ripple of yawns and stretches throughout the group. Everyone relaxed except Marlene and Shabazz, and oddly, Jose. Damali was too full to immediately worry about it. The fire felt good, the breeze was soft and balmy. The sounds of the night were descending upon the river. The water made its own music. Brothers were laughing and talking among themselves, but Kamal's second in command, Abdul, made her chuckle.

"Marlene teach you about mari ariri kero dohpa?" He glanced at Kamal who only smiled as he came near Damali and sat down, trying to throw heavy rap.

"Our existence dreamlike appears," Damali said, knowing she was blowing his rap, but needing to set some boundaries. "Yeah, total opposite of western beliefs." From her peripheral vision she could see a few of the nearby brothers swallow away smiles, but they remain fixated on the verbal dance to see how their brother might recover.

He edged closer to her and gave a deferential nod in Marlene's direction, which seemed to make Kamal nod in appreciation. "Of course, you have a mother-seer who is renowned. She would have explained how the invisible, spiritual world is within the left brain, where fantastic artists like you draw from." His voice was low, sensual, and controlled as he ran his palm over his locks to demonstrate each side of the brain. "The right," he continued, "is the physical - what we call reality. But what is reality? Many things are illusion and yet they are so real."

Damali's smile broadened. Oh, now, see, brother was trying to get a metaphysical swerve on. She would not be baited as Abdul's finger trailed a lazy pattern in the sand and his intense, dark eyes glittered with open hunger. His vibe was so thick that she almost had to stand up and take a walk. Then he glanced up at the early moon that was competing to come out while the sun was setting, then over to Kamal, who only shook his head slowly in a quiet warning to be cool, then he returned his focus to her.

The glance he gave her was so hot it nearly burned her. She was so flustered by the bold approach that she looked down at the sand and began doodling in it with her finger. A part of her wanted to laugh... if Carlos were here to see Abdul's encroachment, or any of the pure animal magnetism exuded by the members of Kamal's team, shoot, it would be on. He'd turn the camp out, just like Shabazz probably wanted to now. And Carlos thought her dancing in a club was bad... Then just that fast her reality struck her. She and Carlos were done.

The moment the thought went through her mind, Abdul smiled.

"You are definitely left-brain oriented," he said, trying to flatter her, his smile brilliant. "That's the seat of moral authority, intuition, dreams, music." He leaned forward and reached for a peeled mango slice off a nearby platter and offered her a piece. The subtle action drew his team's full attention, and it made her guys briefly stop talking.

"Thank you," she said, taking the fruit. The translation was universal; if she'll take food from your hand, that's a sensual, intimate first step to seriously moving in for an encounter. She had to accept it, lest she embarrass the second in command in front of his boys. Then again, why not go for it? The brother was fine, she was single, he was a guardian, and, hey, if she was going to have to move on, had to begin to pick up the pieces of her life...

She smiled when Abdul moved closer, still deciding just how close she wanted him to be. She bit the mango slice and tried not to eat it too sensually, which was hard as the sweet juice of it dribbled down her chin and fingers. She could sense Abdul about to lean over and lick the juice from her chin, but then think better of it. He respectfully checked himself and sat back with a low laugh. Didn't Mar say there were a hundred and forty-four thousand guys like this she could choose from? Damn, this camp was loaded.

"I'm a tactical and a seer," he murmured. "That's why I'm interested in your mind, not just what you see, but what you feel." He reached for another piece of fruit, and ate it with blatant sensuality that made her look away and dab her chin.

She needed a fan.

Jose's jaw was locked so tightly that she was afraid he'd break it. The other guardians from her squad just ate nice and slow, watching the dynamic. But they had the same terrain-sweeping gaze that brothers issued in the clubs just before a bar fight was about to jump off. This was not good.

She glanced at Marlene for support and a bail out, noting that Marlene had stayed far away from Kamal while food was being passed, and that Shabazz was making it real clear whose territory she was within by holding the platter for her, refilling her drink. Wild. Yeah, Jose looked like he was going to go into apoplexy. He shot Abdul a lethal glare that made him slowly back up real slow, real cool, before returning his attention to her. Kamal's team reacted with a slow tilt of their heads and intermittent biceps flexes. Her guys glanced at each other and that's when Kamal sat up, seemingly annoyed at his younger team member. He gave Abdul a quick reprimand glance and then pirated Abdul's rap with a respectful tone and a platonic smile.

"What Abdul refers to means the sun-people dimension, dear Neteru. The left side is de older brother, and I know that Marlene has told you that in this side of da brain, the emekori manhsa turi, is where we interact with beings of the spiritual world and interpret the bogari, energy fields and transmissions from nature. The right side," he said, glancing at Abdul who was looking at the early moon with an expression of utter defeat, "the mahsa turi, is the younger brother. It is subservient to the left and rules practical knowledge. And while second in command, there are times where practical knowledge is important... to keep one's dreams in check."

Kamal smiled at her, and then at Abdul, before glancing at Marlene, who simply swallowed away a chuckle. "But the fissure between the halves, which we will explore tonight, is represented by a giant anaconda with stepping stones on its back... with a giant rock crystal shaped like a hexagon on its head. That's where we need to go to - "

"What did you say to Marlene?" Shabazz had turned from the river and his furious gaze locked with Kamal's.

The ripple of tension tore through both groups. Damali stiffened as she watched Marlene's tight expression. It was metaphysical info, true, but it was also suggestive as shit.

"I am talking about the hexagon. Two triangles make it. One half female, one half male. The nature energy runs through it. That's why it's primal, must be dealt with in a place like this to reach it." Kamal's voice was even, if not a bit patronizing, as he addressed Shabazz. He had not changed his relaxed position on the ground by the fire, nor did he seem concerned that Shabazz could rush him. "That's where we're going tonight. Good to tap into it after an awakening of certain energies."

"Brother, you know what - "

" 'Bazz," Marlene said quickly, "he's talking about triangles - "

Damali looked at Marlene, then Shabazz, and her stomach clenched when she heard Kamal let his breath out as though he were bored.

"Did you explain the ayahuasca walk to dis man so we can do the mind lock like we need to tonight without a problem?"

"First of all, you need to address me," Shabazz said walking forward, but Big Mike put a hand on his shoulder. "And second of all, yeah, I know about it." He looked at Marlene. "I just don't believe you were out here doing heavy hallucinogens with him, but that's a conversation for later. If you be cool, there won't be no problem."

Damali's eyes opened so wide she thought the corners of them would split. Oh, shit... Both teams were on standby now, but nobody moved.

"Shamanistic pharmaceuticals only taken with a real guide, during a ritual, and under monitored circumstances," Marlene said as calmly as she could. "The triangles are about the fact that the peoples of the Upper Rio Negro separate the male and female energies into the double triangle, the hexagon. It symbolizes both halves of the brain and there's a fusion of them shown as a windy, anaconda path between them."

She held Shabazz in a steady gaze that spoke volumes, namely, don't embarrass me out here. "Our Neteru has been dealing with triangles in planetary form since just before her twenty-first birthday - where two and one numerically make three - a trinity, a triangle. Right? She's faced three points of contention in her skills building, and has experienced this personally. We need to walk that fusion path, baby, to find out what's going on with this thing that attacked us. All three seers, me, Father Pat, and now, Kamal, feel a - "

"It is a real, erotic mental dance to get to fusion point and walk it - so you gwan hafta be cool, brother," Kamal said, his eyes glittering with something unreadable but akin to quiet rage. He narrowed his gaze as Shabazz flexed a fist. "And it's only something that can be done by a real guide."

Kamal was on his feet at the same time Shabazz broke free of Mike's hold. Damali had sensed the twig-snap of nerves before it happened, and was between both competitors in seconds.

"Listen, y'all. We've got this demon out here that's already attacked our team, and could attack yours." Both her arms were outstretched between the would-be combatants as she talked fast and used inscrutable logic as her weapon to keep them from squaring off.

"It somehow even masked itself to a master vampire, had him blitzed like he'd been exposed to ripened Neteru - he went for it, and didn't attack the demon. I saw it with my own eyes. We have three sides: vamps, demons, and us humans. Marlene is right. Some of this mess will be in the spirit realm of the supernatural; some of it resides on the practical side. And it is a combination of male and female energies, people. We have to work together to combat it." She looked at Kamal, begging him with her eyes to back down first. "You guys are were-demon specialists, right?"

Kamal nodded.

"Good, because we're vamp specialists. So let's do this thing and keep personal issues in the background." She looked at Shabazz. "We all have them going into this thing."

Shabazz nodded.

Both older warriors were sucking in hard inhales, nostrils flaring, battle stance readied, but oddly the rest of the team was watching this from a spectator's perspective. Marlene knew she was the fuse that could kick this whole thing off to another level, so she watched and didn't say a word.

"You actually saw him with some sort of false Neteru in his system?" Kamal finally asked, and relaxed his stance, which made Shabazz grudgingly follow suit.

"Yeah," Damali said, lowering her arms. "It was deep."

"And the vampire didn't attack you?"

She glanced at Marlene. She was not having this conversation in front of thirty or more men.

"No," Marlene said fast, coming to the rescue. "That's why we need to investigate."

Kamal nodded, no longer focused on Shabazz. He glanced around his team. "We'd heard about this substance that the were-demons created, but no one could get confirmation beyond rumor. We need to know about this as much as you do."

Progress. Damali walked away and sat down where she'd been. She noted that Abdul had moved to a respectable distance, and wasn't close enough to really push up on her. Everyone had come back to the fire except Shabazz, but she could understand it. Had someone not jumped in, it would have been on, and homeboy might have gotten his pride hurt for real. Her team fanned out, as did Kamal's. He went to where he'd been seated and leaned on his elbows looking at the sky.

"Need to get my focus back," Kamal said in what sounded like a near snarl. "Shit makes no sense."

"You fuckin' A-right, it don't," Shabazz muttered. "So do your shit and be done with it."

Kamal gave him a hard look and then focused on the fire, breathing hard, regaining his composure, and momentarily avoiding eye contact with Marlene.

It took a while for all the ruffled feathers to settle. The combatants had to save face, the teams had to deescalate, the storm had to pass. So everyone patiently waited, saying nothing but just doodling in the sand with a rock or a stick.

Kamal's eyes had gone half-mast as he meditated on the horizon. Once all the sudden adrenaline tension had left him, the way his locks swept the ground made him look like a large, sated lion. The setting sun fired his dark, bare chest with orange. Damali grabbed her knees, encircling them with her arms as she watched the invisible dance to restore order.

Mar kept her eyes on the dropping sun. Shabazz kept his eyes on the river. Damali's team studied the ground, pushing sand around with sticks. Kamal's team sprawled out on the grass and the shoreline, some watching the fire. Kamal closed his eyes, and kept his breathing steady. Damali watched.

"You ready, gurl?" Kamal murmured, after a while. "Sun's 'bout to set." He'd issued his comment on a languid breath, and sat up, shook his mane, and stretched.

Marlene nodded. Shabazz's line of vision remained fixed on the river.

"You know dis we dealin' wit is strong. I'm gwan hafta lock up wit cha, gurl. It's de only way."

Shabazz looked at him squarely, the threat implicit in his eyes, then he looked at Marlene.

"It's the only way, 'Bazz," Marlene said in a weary tone. "Both of us need to lock to get this done. Needs two seasoned seers with opposite gender energy to do this. We can't do stones or shells for this one."

Shabazz didn't nod or say a word, he just returned his gaze to the water. Big Mike looked away too, like his heart was breaking for Shabazz. JL and Dan just cast a glance into the fire. Rider was still doodling in the dirt with a stick with Jose.

Kamal reached into his pocket and pulled out several highly polished stones, opened his legs wide, making a circle between his legs that ended at his bare feet. With shells he made two triangles within it. One side for male energy, one side for female energy, which created a large hexagon shape on the shore. Seeming uncomfortable with the audience, Marlene took her time to stand and go to sit before Kamal. But when she did, he looked at her and smiled.

"Been long time," he murmured as her legs slipped over his and their hands joined.

Damali didn't move a muscle. Aw, shit... brother, do not strike a match. Shabazz's jaw muscles were jumping, as was the muscle in his upper right arm, his swing arm. Big Mike's hand landed on his shoulder once more. Shabazz looked away. Marlene didn't respond to the comment. But in a way she did, because she looked at the ground like she couldn't even bear to meet Kamal's eyes.

Kamal's half smile was barely visible, as he reached into his pocket again and pulled out a series of shells. "You're blocking, baby. You got to flow, or dis don't work. You know that. Flow wit me, and let me in."

Shabazz stood up and walked to the river's edge and back and sat down. Marlene nodded and closed her eyes, seeming unable to concentrate. The sun was a red-orange orb in a vast blue-gray carpet of clouds. Damali studied the vista. Hard.

Kamal released a sound from inside his chest, however, that made the group go still as their gazes shot to the divination. Even Kamal's guys were on their feet taking battle stances. The guttural, sensual timbre that came out of him, and the way Marlene's shoulders slumped, made every warrior in the house ready themselves for a showdown. It was on, now, no doubt. Shabazz was on his feet again, so was Damali, her hand in the center of his chest.

"I'm locked in with 'em, brother," she lied. "It's cool. It's, uh, part of the process."

Nobody relaxed, nobody moved. When Marlene let out a hard exhale and breathed in through her nose and trembled, Shabazz looked Damali dead in her eyes.

"You're locked in?"

"Yeah," she said quickly. "For real," and walked over to plop down near Marlene. Girl, not here, not now, c'mon!

"Fertility and restraint," Kamal murmured. "Yeah, I see it. I can feel it strong."

Damali let out a breath of relief, not caring that everyone around the fire heard it. Kamal's team squatted in a stand-down position. Shabazz turned his back, but listened.

"Orion, male energy. But also weaker male in the equation - dark. Two women. One stronger. Dark."

Perspiration had formed on Marlene's brow as Kamal clasped her hands tighter. Rider stood and came over to Damali, sitting down beside her.

"This part we know already, D. It's bullshit for Shabazz to have to deal with this," he whispered through his teeth.

"I know, I know, but this isn't like looking up an Internet file. It's a process, not an exact science. The seers have to get in sync first. Chill," she warned with a hissing whisper. "All these negative vibes are slowing it down. The faster it's over, the better."

Rider thrust his feet out before him and sighed. He closed his eyes.

"Oh, gurl, damn... I remember." Kamal had dropped his head back and was breathing through his mouth.

All teams shot to their feet. Big Mike was body-blocking Shabazz.

"Fuck all this! Damali, what the fuck is this bullshit?"

The two seers never even flinched. Kamal's men were cool, but amused - however, they were also ready. Damali's gaze shot between Shabazz, Big Mike, and Marlene. Shabazz was practically breathing fire. Big Mike was doing a two-step dance to keep him blocked. Rider looked like a defensive back, prepared for a tackle. The expressions on both Marlene and Kamal's faces sent a quiet ripple through Damali. She had never lied to Shabazz like that in her life, and God help her, she never wanted to hurt him - but what could she tell him? The ripple turned into a shudder within her. It was then that it became so clear.

" 'Bazz... listen to me. Mar is not where you think." She approached him slowly, calmly, as if she were approaching a wounded animal.

"Then where the fuck is she, huh? Somebody answer me that shit, pronto!"

"She's where I've been," Damali said looking away, too humiliated to say more.

Immediately the struggle ceased. Big Mike dropped his hands, Rider sat back down, the teams fell into at-ease positions, Damali found Marlene's side again. Shabazz took a walk to the river's edge, returning after a moment and plopped down next to Mike.

"He's near," Kamal said in a husky voice. "No danger to us, but in pain... hurt. His chest. Heavy. Wants her bad."

"I know," Marlene said quietly. "Been that way for a long time."

Kamal threw his head back. "It's all through his system. The choice is killing him."

Marlene was drawing quick sips of air. "Her team..."

Suddenly Kamal stiffened, then he dropped Marlene's hands, stood up fast, and spun on Shabazz. "How you gwan let dis here woman almost die wit a gun in you hand! Bullshit!"

Everybody was on their feet now. Damali was between Shabazz and Big Mike. Rider was back up. JL, Jose, and Dan were holding a line between the teams. The two largest members of Kamal's team looked like they were ready to grab their master to avoid a brawl.

"It wasn't his fault," Marlene said, quickly standing.

"I don't need you to explain shit to this bastard about anything I did, or do!"

"You let a demon witch hit her wit dark current!"

"Yo, dude. None of us saw that coming," Rider said defensively.

Kamal was blowing hot snorts of pure rage out of his nose, and even his squad looked startled to see him lose his cool. "Dat's because your ass is fucking blind, mon! You had da gift - you would have known!"

"Motherfucker - "

Shabazz lunged. Big Mike lifted Shabazz off his feet and pulled him out of reach.

Kamal straightened his locks and turned to Marlene. "For dis, Marlene, you gwan need some serious help. No amateur."

Damali could see Marlene steadying herself, trying to maintain a calm voice as she carefully chose her words. "Kamal, what are we dealing with?"

Although Shabazz still bristled, the circle widened as the veteran seer went back to his circle and sat down. Bodies relaxed within the group. Marlene sat down again, but cast a warning glare to the team as the men one by one sat - Shabazz conceding last.

"Dis ting dat come up from de pit, lures him with ripe Neteru. Dis ting dat hunts the vampire is were-jaguar. Female hunter by day, transforms at night. She took down an entire guardian squad with her, all weres. He's torn, but isn't - you follow?"

Marlene nodded and took Kamal's hands again.

"Her seer is old, seasoned, like you, baby. I need to make you sometin' special. My mother, you know dat, was Tucanoan. I have their crystals. I'll make my baby an amulet, sometin' to keep - "

"Oh, fuck all dat," Shabazz said low in his throat. "All we need is some ammo, and - "

"You ain't take care of me woman enough to keep a witch from burning a hole in her chest!"

"First off, goddamn, she ain't your woman," Shabazz shot back, standing again, sending the group to their feet. "Second of all, for fifteen years, I protected her while your ass was hiding in the woods, okay? So don't tell me about - "

"Hidin' in de woods? What? I sent - "

"No!" Marlene yelled. "Everybody just amp down. We did not come here for this!"

Both Kamal and Shabazz backed away from each other. Damali looked from one group to the next and stepped up.

"Okay, look. Let's calm down. If Kamal has an amulet or a charm that will keep Marlene safe, then let's be rational."

"Thank you, gracious Neteru," Kamal said, still indignant. "It's a hexagon breastplate, white crystal, to keep her from getting her heart fried."

"All right, cool," Damali said quickly, glancing between both men. "Then what about the main one, the queen-demon I need to off?"

"You gwan hafta kill 'er wit love," Kamal said slowly. "Gwan hafta rip her heart out and then take her head off her shoulders so she can't tink about it. Kill da head, and de odders will die, too. But dis ting is like a hydra... many heads, many faces, only one though, makes the difference." He looked at Damali hard. "This demon wants the vampire in unnatural ways - will cause a breach if he succumbs to the scent."

Kamal began pacing and his team moved in closer, their faces strained. "If they become one, the vampire will have access to daylight."

Damali's hand slowly went to her mouth. "With the scent of ripe Neteru as the lure, and the promise of daylight, he'd made a choice too seductive to ignore. We have to get to her, first, then him."

Kamal's gaze became tender as he stared across the fire at Marlene.

His words were spoken so quietly, with so much pain laced through them, that his own team looked away, watching their master surrender.

"It'll keep coming back, gurl, if you don' finish it. And when you get near it, you will feel everyting it feels, know everyting it knows... and desire everyting it desires but cannot have. It's a female locked to a male, both trapped in their own realities - just hoping for a way to break free of them. It suffers, so be gentle wit it, though. When you kill it, kill it wit honor."

Marlene swallowed hard and looked away, then walked toward the river's edge. Shabazz headed for the guest house, and Kamal walked into the brush.

"You guys stay with her," Damali said to Rider, who only nodded. "I'm gonna go get 'Bazz," she added in Big Mike's direction.

Every man standing on the shore eventually one by one just ran their hands through their hair.

" 'Bazz, wait up," Damali called behind him, running to match his long strides. "Hold up," she urged, trying to keep up with his furious pace. "There's a message in this we gotta listen to."

Unexpectedly Shabazz stopped and whirled on her. "I heard the message, loud and clear. Didn't you?" He began walking again, yanking and kicking brush out of the way in the darkness.

For a while, she just walked by him in silence. Yeah, she heard both messages in Kamal's divination loud and clear. Saw it in Kamal's eyes, too. Saw it in the way it quietly broke Marlene's heart. This was really messed up. Her brother, mentor, friend was bleeding with a walking mortal wound. Her seer, mother-mentor was bleeding to death like a vein had been opened at the riverbank. And another master was somewhere in the bush eating his own heart out. This was screwed.

Shabazz punched the van as he passed it, kicked the post of the steps by the guest house, and paced back and forth like a caged bear. Moonlight and a dim floodlight washed over Shabazz's face, illuminating the silent anguish in it. His locks swung hard, slapping against his shoulders as he walked, having broken free of the band when Mike hurled him. Humiliation didn't even begin to describe the pain in his expression. It was far more complex, containing so much more than one thing.

"It was total disrespect, Damali. Total fucking disrespect!"

She didn't say a word. A match hadn't been lit; it was a torch - an old one. This forest fire it created in the bush had to burn. Yeah, it was disrespect, but a love jones will do that to ya, too. Yet as she watched the pain work its way out of Shabazz's system, enlightenment came with it. Damn, she'd just been there.

" 'Bazz," she said quietly, as his pacing slowed and he dropped to a step beside her. "She loves you, brother. Only you. I'm a seer, too. Remember?"

"I know what I felt, been feeling all day... and while I ain't no seer, I'm also not blind." Shabazz cast his gaze out toward the now-black bush, watching the campfire that was far away. "Fifteen years, D."

"Fifteen good ones, and plenty more."

Shabazz shook his head.

"Yeah, more good ones," Damali repeated, kicking a stone with her foot.

Shabazz released a hollow chuckle. "Met her in a freakin' alley." He continued to shake his head. "Can you believe it? Then lost her in a jungle. Go figure. Shit happens."

"Where did you meet her?" she asked in a soft voice, hoping to draw him out.

"I had just got out." Shabazz shrugged. "Shot my own boy by accident, so had to do some time." Shabazz looked away, his focus up at the now blue-black night and the stars.

"We was kids, you know. Out in the street, hustling. Waiting on a drop-off. My boy was behind me in the alley. Kept telling him to back up. He said he was. Every time I looked over my shoulder, he was ten paces back. But when I turned around to keep watch, I could feel him breathing down my neck. Then, he licked my throat."

Shabazz swallowed hard. "I was like, what the fuck... and when I turned around, somethin' I ain't never seen before was standing between me and my boy. I freaked. Unloaded a whole clip, and it went right through her into him. Then, it was gone, and my delivery came."

Shabazz stood, snapped his fingers. "Just like that. A life was gone, my life hung in the balance, and everything had changed. Damali, shit happens, but they never tell you that the shit happens fast... just like it did tonight."

She was sipping air quietly, as the pain of her eldest guardian brother's confession crushed the oxygen from her lungs. "Where did you meet Mar?" It was all she could think of to keep Shabazz talking, keep him purging his history so he could get his head right.

"While I was in, I kept feeling shit, sensing things. This cool brother helped me clean up - he watched my back so they ain't make me no bitch in there. First, I thought he was on me, you dig? But he was a seer. Said I had better things to do. So, he gave me an address in New Orleans - said there was this sister he once knew there who was a bad seer, who would know my path."

He stopped, looked at Damali, and sighed. "I ain't have nuthin' to lose, then, li'l sis. Nothin'. My whole posse was threatening me for shooting my boy, said I was claiming bullshit and trying to get off with an insanity rap, talking about vampires in an alley. Public defender got me a plea bargain. Had to finally admit to something I ain't do the way they said. My momma practically disowned me when I bargained - she didn't understand I wanted to see daylight before I died, then she up and died before I got out. Quick. Happens quick."

Damali nodded and kept her gaze level with Shabazz's.

"Went down there to the only address I had, but homegirl had moved. Went to a bar to figure out my next move. Got a drink. Left. Saw this sister in the alley out the corner of my eye, wielding a walking stick against three guys. Was deep. I stopped, was trying to stay out of bullshit - had just got out, didn't need no problems. But then the streetlight caught a fang, and I knew. Once you see it, you always know it, even at a distance. And I went in there with her - don't ask me why. Maybe I just wanted to connect with another living soul who had witnessed some shit like this. Had to help her, too, 'cause they were on her. Knew better than to pull my Glock." He laughed. "Yeah, I know, parole violation, but fuck it. I was goin' to New Orleans back in the day."

Damali smiled, watching Shabazz relive the past, watching his expression mellow, listening to his voice go gentle.

"She was beautiful, D. Poetry in motion. She kicked their asses. Knew my Aikido moves that I had learned under Haneef Shabazz. We didn't even have to look at each other, D. We were back-to-back, and stomped them vamps. Together. I kept them off her, she staked 'em. We made a good team. Been with her ever since... shit... I didn't even go back to my motel room that night."

He laughed quietly, looked at the horizon. "Had done ten years, and hadn't been with nobody since I was eighteen. That first night out in the world, back in daylight, though... Spent it with Mar. Didn't even know her name - didn't care. Just wanted her." He nodded, and pushed away from the post. "Been that way ever since... but like I said, shit happens fast, and nothing lasts forever. Fuck it."

"You got your name from your mentor?" Damali avoided the obvious hurt, and backtracked the conversation to help keep Shabazz focused on that which was good.

"Yeah. Gave up my street name, and my family name... ain't had no family no more, so, whatever. Needed a new name and a new identity to keep myself from gettin' snuffed on the inside, and from my old posse when I got out. My boy's family didn't take it well that I was the one who'd put a bullet in him. Plus, Haneef had my back inside, literally. Was like a father to me. Gave the word, and it was soI was off limits. His name was like a shield, and the man who'd had it had honor."

Shabazz let his breath out again on a quaky exhale, then recovered in moments. "I was hard, and all that... but I'ma tell you - five, ten, twenty to one and no weapon? Sheeeit. Never been so scared in my damned life. Rather have a vamp snatch my heart out than live through some of what I saw inside. That's why some of this don't faze a brother, feel me? My mentor told me that until I could take ten to one, I'd always have fear in my eyes, which would draw 'em, the predators in the joint... and one day he might not be around. So, I listened, studied, and listened good. Feel me? Gotta be strategic. When you're weaker, gotta use your head to stay alive. Keep from getting jacked. Just like with the vamps."

She nodded and placed a hand on Shabazz's arm. "There's a lot worse things than dying."

"Right." He looked away.

"I listened to my mentors, and listened good... didn't I?"

Shabazz chuckled. "Sometimes."

She laughed with him. "But I was pretty good with healing Mar's heart, right?"

Shabazz nodded but kept his gaze on the stars. "You did good, baby girl - real good. Thank you." He looked at her and nodded. "Seriously." Then he swallowed hard and glanced away.

"I learned how to hear, see, feel, track, taste situations, right?"

Shabazz nodded. She made him look at her by brushing a lock over his shoulder.

"She ain't goin' nowhere. Yeah, there's history, but we all got a long story, 'Bazz... You just told me one. Kamal was just her mentor - she told me that, woman to woman. I felt her torn, trying to get info, trying to show you respect, and trying to be gentle with somebody who didn't do her no harm... who was trying to help our squad. Sis was between a rock and a hard place - like you were the other night in the club, before y'all left."

Shabazz laughed but let his gaze slip away. "You getting pretty good at this stuff we been teaching you to pick up on. Need to mind your business, though."

She chuckled and kissed his cheek. "She ain't goin nowhere, big brother. But she might need a protective escort down by the river all alone. Do what you want with it, but that's gospel." Damali walked up the steps and left Shabazz studying the moon. She wrapped her arms around herself and smiled as she heard him stroll back toward the bush.
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