Houston, Texas. Present day.

LaShawna left the house early in the morning, just as her aunt expected, but instead of getting on the bus to school, she waited until she knew Aunt Belle would be on her way to work, and she doubled back. What was the use of school these days? School hadn't kept her momma from dying from a crack overdose. It hadn't kept her brothers from selling it out of their momma's house with her mother's boyfriend after Momma was gone. Now she was living with tired old women who wrung their hands and called on Jesus. Grandma and Aunt Belle didn't know her world. School and church didn't keep nobody safe.

Today she would go back home - her real home - and find something that hadn't been stolen or broken, then she was out of her momma's. Maybe she would go live with her boyfriend, or wherever. It didn't matter, as long as she didn't have to answer to people always asking her if she was all right. That was a stupid question anyway - who could be all right after their momma just up and died a month ago?

She trudged around the corner, hoping that her brothers would be asleep. Worse than worrying about them, she just hoped Sylvester wouldn't be home. Her mother's boyfriend had started the whole thing anyway - first getting her momma high, then getting her brothers to help him with his business. They were the last ones who could tell her anything about anything.

She peered up at the dilapidated aluminum-sided house, and tears slid down her face. "I ain't even get to see you before you died," she whispered. She went up the steps and inserted the key in the door.

In her heart, given the way her brothers and Sly rolled, she knew it was dangerous to enter while they were asleep. If they woke up startled, a shotgun blast would end her life. But that wasn't altogether a bad thing, either.

Steadying her nerves, she pushed on, half hoping to die, half hoping to find some peace, and knowing full well that anything her mother might have had, had already been picked over by Sly, her brothers, crack buzzards, her aunts, family - and maybe sold. But that was just it. She wasn't looking for anything of value. What she'd set in her heart as a treasure to find was something not sentimental or valuable to anyone but her.

LaShawna headed for the kitchen, a place that her mother once occupied when times had been good. A place that had seen laughter and good cooking once. The place where her aunts would gather - before her momma got caught up in the madness. Before Sly moved in.

But as she crossed the threshold to the tiny kitchen, LaShawna froze. A scream lodged in her throat and made her chest tight. A warm trickle of urine wet her jeans. She couldn't move or breathe.

Her mother stood at the sink looking out the window. The back of her baby blue burial dress was slit from the neck to the hem where the undertaker had dressed her. Every disk in her mother's frail, knotted spine pushed up beneath her ashen brown skin. Her hair was flattened in the back as though she'd been lying down for a month. Dirt stained the dress. Patches of light danced across LaShawna's eyes as she wobbled and grasped the doorframe and began backing away slowly.

"Baby, don't be scared. It's Momma," her mother said in a rasp without turning around. "Came home to see my only girl. Can't nobody raise you but me. 'Sides... your brothers didn't have what I needed, neither did Sly. But that's okay. You here now, honey."

Silent horror transformed into bleating sobs, and the young girl remained paralyzed between bolting for the door and going to what had to be a ghost. Everything in her told her to run, but her legs wouldn't cooperate. Yet, it was her mother's voice. It was her! What if her momma had come back with a message in a vision, like her grandmother always prophesized about?

"Momma, I missed you so much... but you supposed to be in Heaven!" LaShawna cried out, covering her face.

A groan and a thud made her jerk her attention behind her. She stumbled backward until her spine hit the adjacent wall as she watched Sylvester's body collide with the post at the top of the steps, catch the banister, and tumble over it, leaving a tangle of entrails from his slashed-open stomach behind him. Her eldest brother crawled to the top of the steps and simply slid down them. No face. He just left a bloody streak in the stair carpet.

This time LaShawna screamed. At the same time, her dead mother turned, bulbous eyes glowing black-green, twisted teeth distending her gaunt, worn face. LaShawna pivoted and dashed for an escape. Claws snatched her arm, spun her around, and pinned her against the shut door. Putrid breath covered her, and she escalated her futile screams. Dogs barked and howled in neighbors' yards, but she'd gone deaf from the fever pitch of her own shrill voice.

"I didn't go to Heaven, baby," a deep, demonic voice rasped. "I went to Hell instead."

The local newspapers said that a horrible family butchering probably occurred due to drug affiliations the family had. The police said the assailants were still at large. The community held a candlelight vigil to end the violence. But old folks and preachers who knew better whispered on porches about the devil and his damned.

The Gullah Islands off the South Carolina Coast. Present day.

The nightmares were back. Running hard and long to Marlene's old safe house path proved worthless, as far as improved sleep went. Damali sat up in bed with a jolt, her nightgown damp and clinging to her body. Her breath was ragged as she sucked air in through her mouth, shuddered, and placed her hand over her heart. She peered down at Carlos, who hadn't moved. It was odd the way he slept like the dead whenever she had these dreams. Other times, he slept like a cat; always ready to spring awake. The Sankofa tattoo on her back tingled eerily.

She glanced at Carlos's neck, where he'd received the invisible marking of a male Neteru. There was an identical one at the base of his manhood. Neither had glowed silver since Philadelphia, not even when they made love. Hers never came alive anymore, either.

It also no longer sent guiding messages through her system. Now it only throbbed vaguely or tingled like a pinched nerve when the night terrors swept through her, as if struggling to communicate with her chakra system to no avail. She wondered if either of their marks would keep her from conceiving when lit... not that that was an issue, it seemed, given the infrequency of their lovemaking these days. Latex had been a temporary, disappointing answer. She wasn't about to tempt fate.

Damali touched the small of her back, feeling for the tattoo, hoping that it would rise beneath her skin as it should, would move to let her know that it was still alive. But her hand touched the smooth, flat surface of her damp skin. It was as though all that was Neteru within her was slowly dying.

Why was this happening? She'd even helped Raven into the Light in a quiet parting that now allowed Marlene to sleep peacefully. Damali ran her fingers through her locks, searching for some task left unfinished. Commissioning Raven into the Light had been swift, merciful; within an embrace - semivamp style, one quick hug laced with a point-blank stab from the baby Isis dagger, her mother watching ether turn into light, a prayer on both women's lips, and then it was over. The purging was private, the heavy soul transfer done neatly. She'd keep her word. It was an act of kindness, and it delivered a tortured soul that Heaven wanted back where it truly belonged. So why the nightmares?

Suddenly, there wasn't enough air in the room.

Full daylight filtered through the windows, but didn't chase away the lingering shadow of terror. The sensations evaporated so slowly that she could almost reach out and touch them. The nightmare was always the same.

The ground near her feet would yawn wide, allowing Lilith to slither away and escape. Then billowing black clouds would gather beneath the hem of the Chairman's robe, where Lilith had descended back into the pit. It would crawl up his body as though a living entity, caressing his face and entering his nose. He would breathe it in and gasp. Blood gurgled in the opened, fanged, black hole in his face, bubbling, spilling over his thin lips and chin, coursing down his throat and the front of his robe as though there were an endless fountain of the thick crimson substance within him.

She would raise her Isis blade, but it always felt too heavy, requiring her to grip it with both hands. Moonlight would glint off the silver. The Chairman would smile. She would try to rush forward, but it felt like she was standing in waist-high water, wearing concrete boots. She moved in slow motion, but she would not be stopped until his head rolled.

Damali looked down at Carlos and stroked his tousled hair. New tears rose to her eyes, and she shut them tightly as she remembered the dream.

She would raise the blade, swinging the heavy metal until it connected with demon flesh, bone, gristle, cartilage, sending a black-blood geyser into the air, on her, spraying the terrain until she almost couldn't see. The Chairman would laugh as the last of the tissue was severed, then he'd wink, and his face would become Carlos's stunned, dead, glassy eyes... flickering silver, then going brown, a haunting question of why left in them.

Another horrible shudder ran through her. Marlene and Father Patrick had said it was posttraumatic stress syndrome - something all warriors dealt with - and it would pass. Big Mike and Berkfield, who had been to 'Nam, confirmed the diagnosis, and the others admitted having similar after-battle nightmares, too. She could only tell Carlos about the first half of the dream; the last part felt so frighteningly real that she couldn't speak of it to him while looking into those same questioning eyes. He'd told her that he still had sleep terrors from time to time, taking him back to his old vampire existence or his torture, but it would soon pass... just like her nightmare of the Chairman would.

He no longer woke up screaming, wiping nonexistent blood from his mouth or cringing at whatever sunlight had filtered into the room. So, why was she still so freaked out? Why was the dream the same, over and over and over again, as if her mind was a CD with a nick on it? And why did it take her so long to warm up in her man's arms? Why did this horror she experienced while sleeping always feel so real?

She had to get the team to the Native American lands Jose owned. Sanctuary, hallowed earth. It was also the only safe place left for them. However, it wouldn't help with the dreams. The dreams still attacked her, whether in a cathedral or hotel bed. As long as Carlos slept beside her, she was tortured to near hysteria day or night. When she slept alone, peace swaddled her mind.

What did this mean? Dear God, what did this all mean?

Just as day broke, Carlos watched Damali finally drift off into a fitful slumber; then he silently crept into the bathroom. He shut the door with care and latched it behind him. Why did Father Patrick have to choose now to go back to Rome? He needed someone to confide in, a man of the cloth, the one who took him to his heart like a son.

A stability factor was needed. Father Pat was definitely that. But every man had his limits; maybe Father Pat found his after Lopez bought it. And who could blame him? The shit they'd all gone through was more than anybody should have had to deal with at any age. It was ridiculous.

But he couldn't escape the fact that every man who had been a force in his life had walked when he'd needed him most. Besides the aged cleric, who'd been a ground wire for a while, who had ever really been around to guide him? He wasn't complaining about it, wasn't crying. That was just a fact. All his life lessons came from the school of hard knocks. The way of the world, alive or dead.

He ran his palms down his face and breathed in deeply, then let the air out of his lungs in a resigned rush.

Weary of the thoughts that besieged his mind, Carlos sat down on the closed toilet seat, hung his head, and shut his eyes to the blue-gray dawn.

"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned," he whispered to the elderly priest in absentia. "It's been who knows how long since my last confession."

Carlos kept his voice to a low murmur, battling for composure and using slow, deep inhalations and exhalations to steady his voice as his thoughts raged. "I can't get Padre Lopez's death out of my mind. I'm so sorry about that, I don't know what to say. They were seeking my essence, my vamp line... and Lopez had it in him, as well as that... image of Juanita I'd poisoned him with, before I knew better." Carlos swallowed hard.

"If I hadn't, then maybe... he was just a kid, really. They didn't come after Jose like that, so there had to be a reason, a cause, a link with more juice than Jose had in him, so you can't tell me it wasn't my fault. I got serious debt behind that. I know it. And they honed in on that foul shit, thought he might have been me because of the heart chakra connection he and I shared, and they" - Carlos choked and he made the sign of the cross over his chest - "they took his heart, man. How am I gonna live with that?"

A silence interrupted only by a slow drip from the sink faucet was his answer. Two huge tears rolled down Carlos's cheeks, and he let them fall, splashing his thighs as he leaned forward with his face in his hands. "Father Pat, I know you said it was fate, he had fulfilled his purpose without breaking his vows to the Covenant, which was eminent, but how come that don't make me feel it's okay?"

Again, silence. It pounded in his ears and added to the ever-present throbbing headache he was constantly nursing these days. Drawing a shaky breath, he pressed on with his complaint in the eerie quiet, hoping Father Patrick would hear him in his mind and send a sign, something, anything, maybe a little salvation for him to cling to.

"Everything is falling apart, Father. The team is in disarray. My claw of Heru ain't working no more than Damali's stones can give up a charge so she can do a shift; none of our powers are stable, and our reaction time is slow. Bad position for everybody to be in."

He breathed out hard and pulled his fingers through his hair as his voice faltered. "Father Pat, this is too much shit going on at the same time with all the newbies to train when I ain't even ready for whatever myself."

Carlos drew in another shuddering, ragged breath and let out a rushed exhalation of frustration. He took his time, framing his next statement. There was something he had to get off his chest that he could never tell another living soul, could never tell another man... but Father Patrick was somehow different, in a different category than a Guardian brother, or a friend. But even sitting alone in the privacy of the bathroom, which had been turned into his tiled confessional, just forming the words in his mind gave him a chill. Saying it out loud would give it energy and reality, and then he wouldn't be able to tuck it neatly away and ignore it. It had gnawed away at his brain so long that it nearly bled. He had to get it out.

"Father Pat," he whispered, his voice barely audible to his own ears. "I'm scared, man. I can't lead this team. What if I fail? What if I really fuck it up this time and get somebody else killed? My powers ain't fully back, been dwindling since the battle in Philly."

The words had come out in a panicked rush of emotion. A repressed sob held back more of the truth for a moment as Carlos began rocking and speaking to the cold bathroom floor. "I know this ain't your department, but, even with my woman... you know what I'm saying... things ain't right." He clutched his hands together as his forearms rested on his thighs, studying the blurring mortar between the tiles.

I can't sync up with her, he murmured within his mind, unable to verbalize this deeply personal pain. "I hope you can hear this part, man," Carlos whispered, talking as much to the absent Father Patrick as to himself. "I can't even say it." He glanced toward the window, as the walls in the bathroom felt like they were closing in on him. Just thinking about it, much less mentally stating it, made him want to get up and go take a long walk. He needed fresh air. "I'm a Scorpio, what do you want from me, hombre?" he muttered with a sad smile, trying to joke it off. It didn't work; it just made him feel worse and made the truth barrel into the forefront of his mind.

"All right." Carlos sighed. "No games." He focused on the small clerical cot and wooden chair that used to be the only furniture in the old safe house room where he and Father Pat had some of their deepest discussions. Then he jarred the lid to his very personal thoughts, the real dark and scary portions that he shared with no one, and mentally told the truth.

At first, when I got marked by Ausar... I thought I'd been, you know, messed up - permanent. Then I found out I wasn't. And I'm not, but it's complicated. My silver ain't firing on all cylinders. Comprende?

Carlos let his shoulders drop and intensely studied a single tile on the floor.

When I go to touch her, she pulls back, almost like she's afraid of me or doesn't want... There's no heat, you know what I'm saying? Half the time I don't even feel like it, when we... There was a time when I'd give my eyeteeth just to get with her, and could get a mind lock going to make her hit high notes in three-part harmony. Now... I can't explain it. We don't even lock anymore. It's like we're just roommates.

Carlos stopped breathing for a moment, and then pulled in another hard breath through his nose and let it out quickly through his mouth. He closed his eyes and allowed his head to hang back. "What's wrong with me, man? I've never dealt with nothing like this in my life." Me, I could always count on, if I couldn't count on nothing else... now...

He looked at the door, wishing his vision could bore through it to see Damali like before. Good memory was a bitch, and he knew he was nursing the past like an old drunk nursed a drink in a rundown bar... thinking back on the good old days or nights and mentally editing out the twisted parts about it. Yeah, he knew that's what he was doing, but that still didn't make it any better. His past was a complicated blend of the horrible and awesome. Bitter irony.

Perhaps karma, as Shabazz would say. But he'd never breathe any of this to his seasoned Guardian brother. The shit sounded weak, pitiful. Soft.

He wasn't about to divulge to another man beyond a priest that all he had left was his hard outer shell, and some of his pride—illusion caster that he'd once been. It was the law of the jungle; you never showed anyone or anything your soft underbelly, lest you get it ripped open... and that wasn't an option in the joint, in the 'hood, or in Hell. Never. And no woman wanted a soft man. Forget that. Natural law. Yeah, he'd suck it up and figure this out alone. Father Patrick didn't have advice for something like this.

"I'm not feelin' this shit at all, man," Carlos whispered. Out of reflex, Carlos ran his tongue over his teeth - something he still did when thinking hard or pissed or both. "Old habits die hard," he said with a crisp tsk of his tongue against a normal canine, and then stared at his hands. "Fuck it."

He didn't miss the blood, the torture, or the foul darkness, but there were some things he secretly had to admit his soul ached for. He tried to tuck all that away and into his mental black box before he left the bathroom to go back to bed; he couldn't even tell Father Patrick about that part, or about missing his old power, even if it did come from the dark side. He was a priest and definitely wouldn't understand.

But strangely, all the stuff he'd pulled out of the box seemed to mysteriously expand on its own and didn't go back into it as neatly after it had fallen out. Nothing was crisp and folded as it spilled out.

Carlos stood and stared in the mirror and set his jaw hard. "Show me something, then," he said quietly through his teeth, "that'll make me know what to do from this point forward, 'cause right now, I don't know. All I know, that works, to get the job done, is power. And so far, it's only been shown to me, for real, from a throne that had a lineage arc to it that was no joke. Serious kick. Feel me?"

The bathroom was silent. Now, so was he. Dawn fully crested. He was too disgusted for words. The good old nights had to go back where they belonged, inside his mental black box. He'd let them stay there until they begged for another private review with a nonjudgmental audience - him. Carlos closed his eyes and steadied himself for a Joe-normal day. The old nights whispered good-bye like an unhappy lover and slipped back into the shadows of his thoughts. It had been real.

Quiet as he kept, he missed all of that.
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