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Daphne & S.J. travel to Quito, Ecuador where they must discover the cause behind bizarre psychotic behavior spreading through a private prep school.
Sixteen was too young to lose her mind, but Pilar couldn’t stop the Darkness. Shadows seeped into her head. Slithered in slowly. Infiltrated her thoughts. It was aquiet invasion she had no control over.
It—the void, the nothingness—seemed harmless at first. A momentary zoning out. Attention disengaged. Pilar blamed her condition on the flu; two schoolmates were infected. Easy to catch at a boarding school.Headache, nausea, vomiting; the normal symptoms. No big deal.
She lifted her t-shirt and scratched where angry red stripes crisscrossed her stomach. The persistent itch was getting worse.
Her leg jerked.
Pilar stared at the five classmates huddled around a geometry book. Gossip about the super-sexy gardener took priority over memorizing math formulas. One minute she heard herself chat with friends about boys, clothes, and celebrities, the next she was gone. Her mind hovered over her body. Almost. A tiny part remained within. Observed. To waited.
Pilar’s arm twitched. The Darkness was invading. It silenced her voice. The other limb trembled, and an odd sensation forced its way past her lips and emitted a terrible noise. A gurgling, raspy mew.
Pilar watched as her friends laughed, tried imitating the sound. They couldn’t. Except for one girl. Maria.
Quiet, studious, pious Maria regarded Pilar with dark eyes and repeated the unholy growl. Or rather, Maria answered. And Pilar understood.
Let us out.
That’s all it took. Pilar tumbled on top of her. Arms grabbed one other. Pilar clawed at the buttons on Maria’s shirt.
“Stop it!” Shouts from far away reverberated down Pilar’s spine.
Pilar felt someone tug her arm. She watched her hand smash into a horrified face. Blood exploded from a nose, poured over quivering lips, and dripped off a trembling chin.
Pilar wondered at the force exerted by her fist, was astonished to have hit her best friend.
The others fled the dorm, their screams echoing down the hall.
Sisters Grace and Monica raced to the room. They stopped short, stunned at the sight before them. Sister Grace’s hand flew to the Crucifix she wore over her vestments. Bile choked her rebuke.
The evil was spreading!
Arms locked together, legs coiled around hips; Pilar and Maria twitched and writhed. Both were naked, clothes strewn about.
Sister Monica grabbed an ankle. Sister Grace clutched an arm. They yanked and pulled the snarling girls apart. And then an eerie silence descended upon the room.
“Call the archdiocese,” Sister Monica gasped as she dragged Maria’s now limp body through the doorway.
Pilar spoke to Maria. Not with words. Not with growls. With thoughts.
Let us out!
Saturday: One week later
“Dios mío! My God. We’re doomed!”
Not quite the warm reception I had in mind.
This dire prophesy was issued by a wizened old man who swept his eyes up and down my body. I gnawed on my lip, and yet met his gaze. I was nervous but not intimidated. Repeat: Not. Intimidated.
I stood in the midst of the crowded airport in Quito, Ecuador where vacationers and business people, passports clutched in their hands, jostled past on the way to baggage claim.
Frowning, the wiry old codger scratched a mane of black hair. The wrinkles etched into his face and a horseshoe mustache made him look like a Mexican bandit from a bygone era. Only his immaculately starched white shirt suggested a different occupation.
No one would have guessed his true identity. This man was an experienced merkabah medium, an expert at a skill I barely understood.
I disliked him on sight.
A polite throat clearing drew my attention to the handsome hunk beside me. My guide. “Daphne Sites, this is Caesar.”
Caesar guffawed loudly. It was not a laugh of merriment but of derision. “This woman is practically a child. She’s too young to be the new recruit.”
Arrogant old coot. I pressed my lips together. I’m twenty-eight-years-old, hardly a child, however, most recruits were in their fifties. I stuck out my hand. “Nice to meet you. I amthe new recruit.” A stood straight, shoulders back in a false display of confidence. I’m good at that.
Caesar did not take my hand. His chest puffed out, and he glared a long moment before exploding in a torrent of Spanish obscenities.
I didn’t understand the language, but there was no mistaking the insulting tone.
Red-faced, arms gesturing wildly, the volume of his voice increased with each syllable. Passersby turned to stare at the spectacle. I understood only one word of his vitriolic scorn. Puta.Whore.
My guide’s strong hands descended on Caesar’s shoulders. Dwarfing the grizzly geezer at a muscular six-foot-five, my guide’s spoke with the quiet, measured tone of authority.
Serik Jalani, SJ for short, is my merkabah guide, chiseled mentor, one-night fling, and all-around enigmatic angel-demon half breed. I’ve known him for exactly two weeks.
His job requires protecting me from the dangerous alien life forms I must extract.
A range of emotions flashed across Caesar’s face as SJ spoke to him. Anger. Righteousness. Disbelief. Skepticism. Resignation.
Finally, Caesar buried his face in his hands and moaned.
“Speak English,” I pleaded with SJ as I followed both men through the terminal.
Caesar glanced over his shoulder every few minutes to glare at me.
Can’t say I blamed him. Caesar’s assessment was correct. I wastoo young for the job. Three decades to be exact. My seven energy fields were not developed, and I had little control over my abilities to either intuit otherworldly life or operate the merkabah—the cosmic transport which sucks nasty creatures back to their own space-time dimension. I was, as my sisters often claimed, a hot mess.
SJ never really explained the reason for my premature recruitment. Not fully. There’s a lot of information—no, secrets—my guide keeps from me. Too many secrets.
I stepped outside the terminal. A remarkable skyline greeted me, a dense valley metropolis spreading into fingers of suburbia amid the foothills, with snow-capped Andes beyond.
Caesar ran his thumb and forefinger along the length of his mustache. “Don’t expect an apology, girlie. You’re too young to be effective. Too young to be any help at all.” His eyes narrowed. “There’s something…an energy…a sexual tension between you and your guide.”
My stomach did a little flip-flop. Caesar was crazy-intuitive, alright. He sensed SJ’s and my single forbidden indiscretion.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lied. Something about this elderly medium bugged me. He was conceited, hostile, and greedy. But greedy for what I had no idea.
Caesar bristled. “I think you do.”
“You don’t like me.” I fussed with my sweater, avoided eye contact, even though I felt his gaze on my breasts.
“We don’t have to like each other. We just need to work together.” Caesar’s thumbs hooked from his pants pockets, cowboy style. “What are we waiting for?”
Taxi after taxi drove by.
“Our ride.” SJ’s smile revealed no emotion.
Ironically, for an empath, I found it nearly impossible to interpret SJ’s feelings. Only the change in his eye color offered a hint. Brown for neutral. Green for anger or lust. Gold for…umm…bliss.
Caesar rocked back on his boot heels before pulling a crushed pack of cigarettes from a shirt pocket. “Nephilim guides are a secretive bunch, girlie.” The match flared and he inhaled, sucking on the filtered end. He smiled, then exhaled in my face.
I knew exactly what he was doing.
Scents influenced an empath’s intuition, either enhanced or decreased it. Cigarette smoke was a definite inhibitor. I waved away the smoke and stench. I reallydid not like the man.
SJ raised an eyebrow. “It’s no secret, Caesar. My friend Alejandro is picking us up. He’ll be our driver for the duration of our stay.”
“Obi never mentioned him.” Caesar shielded his eyes from the glaring sun as he peered down the street.
Obi was Caesar’s guide. That’s what SJ had told me on the plane earlier.
I shifted the duffle bag and regarded Caesar from the corner of my eye. I never met Obi, but I wondered how he or anyone for that matter could put with this nasty man. His ego was the size of Texas.
I turned to Caesar. “Have you been to Our Lady of Compassion Preparatory School for Girls yet?”
“Not here, Daphne,” SJ nudged me. “We’ll talk in the car.”
Caesar, stroking his mustache, glanced back and forth between us. He weighed our words, assessed our body language. It was scrutiny meant to intimidate.
During the flight, SJ provided only minimal information about the Ecuadorian merkabah medium. Apparently, Gramps was fearless and accurate, but his intuitive abilities had gone to his head, which make him arrogant and difficult to work with. He was also, to use my student’s lingo, old school. He believed women belonged in the home to serve their husbands. According Caesar’s standards, I had several strikes against me. I was young, divorced, and, up until a few days ago, a ladder-climbing academic.
Caesar smirked. Was he a mind reader? Impossible, empaths don’t read minds, we just feel other’s emotions. Maybe that’s almost the same thing.
I stepped away from Caesar. His spot-on assessment unnerved me. I was anxious enough about his cosmic assignment, I did not need some sneering senior judging my every move. In fact, this Ecuadorian mission had me baffled. If a seasoned merkabah medium like Caesar couldn’t figure of the type of cryptivita—hidden life—wreaking havoc at the private girls’ school, what made SJ think I could? This was only my fourteenth day on the job. Probationary status in the real world.
“Hey, girlie, heard you extracted an aswang.” Caesar poked my side with a bony elbow.
“I captured two.” I smirked right back at him.
“I don’t believe it. They’re vicious buggers. How did you stop one from ripping your heart out and eating it? Let alone two.”
“One at a time.”
SJ burst out laughing.
Caesar took a long drag on the cigarette, his bushy brows, like two gray caterpillars, meeting over his nose. “I’d love to hear every detail. I need to assess your abilities, girlie. Know who I’m working with.”
SJ shot Caesar a stern look. “I’ll say it again. No discussion until we’re in the car. Too many eavesdroppers linger at airports.”
A dirty gray, late model SUV pulled curbside, and a burly man with a shiny bald head emerged from the driver’s side.
“Hola.” A cherubic face with big ears brandished a broad, gap-toothed grin. “Alejandro at your service,PatrónJalani.” Alejandro rounded the SUV, both hands extended in welcome. He embraced SJ with a hearty hug, then whirled around to thrust out his beefy paw at me. “You must be the newest recruit. SenoritaDaphne, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
I received a welcoming double handshake. Two big mitts, rough and warm, enclosed my hand. I sensed love, peace, and grace.
Alejandro turned to Caesar and delivered the same friendly greeting. “You must be Caesar. I’m surprised our paths have never crossed before now, miamigo.”
Alejandra tossed our duffle bags, garment bags, and suitcases into the rear cargo compartment as though they were light as a feather. I admit, most of the luggage was mine. I tend to over pack.
SJ had laughed when he saw the four stuffed suitcases I had brought for the trip. I wasn’t sure what to bring for such an exotic destination. Clothes for adventure, outfits for stealth, dresses for bar hopping—intelligence gathering SJ claimed—and clothing for different weather conditions. Of course, every ensemble required different shoes, not to mention the feminine essentials needed for survival. The result was two suitcases and two bags, each bulging at the seams. I thought I had done rather well.
“Women like to be prepared for every possible event, no?” Alejandro wedged my duffle bag between suitcases before slamming down the rear hatch. “Ah, the ladies are always so concerned about what to wear, but men just wish they would wear nothing at all.”
I giggled, it was difficult not to. Alejandro oozed charm and huggable-ness.
And then I felt the tingle.
Cold shivers. Icy stings. The pins and needles begin at the base of my neck, spiked into my head and lodged in my ear and jaw. For years, I thought it was my imagination on overdrive, an eerie intuition that something was wrong with someone. Now, I knew better. My anxiety-producing shiver signaled the presence of a cryptivita. The stinging sensation was creature radar. A dark matter detector.
My head swiveled around, scrutinizing the people waiting on the sidewalk. Luggage-dragging tourists. Baby-holding mothers. Backpack-wearing students. Briefcase-toting businessmen. Could any of them be a creature from the netherworld in disguise? They all looked normal enough. I turned toward our SUV.
The smile melted off my face.
Was Alejandro causing the creepy quiver?
“Daphne, please get in the car.” SJopened the door with a flourish.
Evidently, the experienced merkabah medium and newbie recruit were relegated to the backseat.
Alejandro tossed me a cheery grin before climbing into the driver’s seat.
My tingle grew worse.
“Hold on, Daphne.” SJ cautioned as the SUV pulled away from the curb.
Alejandro gunned it and swerved into the bumper-to-bumper traffic. My shoulder slammed into the side of the door. Traffic was a nightmare. Not a Hollywood Freeway or New York City nightmare. The drivers in those cities obeyed the rules. Mostly. Here, vehicles broke every traffic law with reckless disregard. Cars swerved around people, honked incessantly, and ignored stop signs, yield signs, and red lights. Lane markings were a suggestion. There were five abreast at an intersection clearly marked for two. White lines, dotted or doubled, were ignored. Our SUV was close enough to other cars, I could have reached out and touched the passengers.
Throngs of people crossed the streets. Round-faced indigenous Indians wearing traditional felt hats and vibrant ponchos jostled among the trendy Mestizos and chic Europeans. A young teenager in an AC/DC t-shirt banged on the hood and offered windshield-cleaning services. Alejandro laid on the horn and waved him off.
The SUV lurched over a curb to avoid two women walking in the middle of the street. I hung on the handrail for dear life. Caesar and SJ merely looked bored.
“Aren’t there any traffic rules?” I gripped the armrest as we careened around a corner of a cobblestone lane.
Alejandro chuckled. “You Americans and your need for rules. Life has no rules, why should driving?”
Safety came to mind.
Alejandro slammed on the brakes. I hurtled into the back of SJ’s seat.
“What the—” I pressed my lip together as five white-habited nuns jaywalked across the street in front of our SUV. Apparently, the only thing Alejandro stopped for was nuns.
“PatrónJalani, I arranged everything according to your orders,” said Alejandro after waving to the good sisters. “First, we go to the hotel where you will rest a bit from your long trip. Perhaps enjoy some refreshment, eh? Afterwards, I will take you to Our Lady of Compassion School for Girls.”
“Perfecto.” SJ twisted around from the front seat, a half smile curled on his lips. “Enjoying the ride?”
Hell, no. The sudden stops, jerky starts, and near misses sent my heartrate sky high. Every muscle was tense. I teetered on the verge of a panic attack. Not an promising start to this trip. “Not really.”
“SenoritaDaphne,” Alejandro said as the SUV lurched forward, “PatrónJalani says you’re a scholar.”
“I’m an English professor.” Almost. I was one dissertation away.
“Might you enjoy learning a bit of Quito’s history?”
“I most certainly would.” Anything to take my mind off the drive from hell.
“Excellente.I will begin with our airport. It’s the highest in the world at nine-thousand-three-hundred and fifty-feet, and is named after Antonia José de Sucre, an Ecuadorian hero. Quito is the capital of Ecuador, is near several volcanoes. Did you see Pichincha when you flew in?”
“I certainly did. Quite spectacular.” I saw lots of volcanoes, enjoyed a magnificent view from forty-thousand feet of white-capped pyramids reaching into the sky amid green mountains and lush valleys.
The SUV screeched to a halt, threw me forward.
Alejandro flicked a small toggle on the dash. A loud siren blared, scattered slow-moving laborers shouldering shovels and pickaxes.
“In this country, you need two horns; one for driving, one for special occasions, no?” Alejandro rolled down the window, shouted in Spanish and waved his fist. “Now, where was I? Oh, the name for our beautiful city comes from the indigenous people who predate the Incas. Quito has been a thriving city for over two-thousand years. Impressive, yes?”
“What’s less impressive is that when the Spanish conquistadors saw it, they desired it like a man obsessed with making love to a beautiful woman. The Spaniards tried commandeering Quito in 1529, but the Inca warrior chief, Rumiñahui had a plan.” He tapped his head.
“What was that?”
“He set Quito on fire.”
“Better than then let the greedy Spaniards steal its treasures.” Alejandro swerved around a stalled banana truck. “A town can be rebuilt; but rare treasures are forever lost.”
“Smart thinking.” I gazed out the window.
Towering structures of glass and concrete stood next to imposing gothic cathedrals crowned with ornate spires and guarded by grim-faced gargoyles. The mishmash of architectural styles and people made Quito a blend of the antiquated and modern.
Buses and taxis spewing noxious fumes crammed the boulevards. A crush of laborers, tourists, and locals crowded the sidewalks. It was impossible to envision the town during colonial times, let alone two-thousand years ago.
“New Town is very modern, no?” Alejandro zig-zagged through the slow-moving traffic. “Here we have the finest dining, hotels, nightclubs, and museums. We’re entering Old Town now. Much different. Almost another world.”
He and SJ exchanged a meaningful glance. I was about to ask when a woman pounded on the window. An indigenous Indian with a moon face, jet-black hair held out her palm, and several missing teeth pointed to the swaddled infant tied to her body.
“Poor woman, it makes me so angry.” Alejandro blasted the horn, rolled the SUV forward, until she backed away. “Corrupt politicians lure the native Indians from remote areas of the Andes with promises of houses, food, and jobs in exchange for votes. These people come to the cities and, as you see, are worse off than if they remained in their villages.” He grunted. “Ecuador is a country of equal opportunity, eh? Even the dead may vote in our elections.”
SJ nodded. “Voter fraud exists everywhere, Daphne. The United States included.”
“Where there is politics there is corruption,” Alejandro snorted. “Forgive my digression. Let me tell you more about Quito.” He ran his hand across his bald head. “The city is only sixteen miles from the equator, Mitad del Mundo, the middle of the world. Perhaps, Patrón will take you to visit the monument.”
“It’s a tourist trap,” said Caesar. “I thought this recruit is here to help solve the cryptivita problem at Our Lady of Compassion, not sightsee.” He leaned over the front seat. “How much does this girlie know?”
Hellooo. I’m sitting right here, you arrogant old man.
“This girlie knows the Grigori Watchers believe your evaluation of the girls’ condition is incorrect,” I said. “They thinkduende may not be responsible for the mass hysteria at the prep school. I know a priest was called and—”
“It’s duende!” Caesar pounded his chest. “Many of them. A tribe of duende. I felt them!”
Then why wasn’t he able to get rid of them himself? Macho jerk.
“SenoritaDaphne, what do you know about el duende?” asked Alejandro.
“The Cryptivita Directory said—”
“Dios Mío! The Cryptivita Directory!” Caesar smacked the seat between us. “The Watchers send me a beginner. A too young nobody who quotes the Directory!”
The Cryptivita Directory was a compilation of all the otherworldly life in the universe. SJ had warned me not to rely on the information found in the Directory. Claimed it was an elementary primer at best. And yet I was still expected to memorize the book.
“The Watchers sent Daphne to confirm your theory,” said SJ, his voice polished steel. “Arrogance clouds your judgment, Caesar. Surely, Obi warned you about your attitude.”
An awkward silence descended. Caesar stared out the window, arms crossed. Anger emanated from his pores.
I touched the merkabah hanging from the thin chain around my neck. Enclosed within two rings, seven tiny spheres hung in suspension. Each hematite, onyx, amber, peridot, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and alexandrite stone generated an ancient elemental power. Encapsulated within the orbs existed a sophisticated alien technology. I was the conduit. Lucky me.
“Senorita Daphne,” said Alejandro with a voice like sunshine, “you were saying something?”
“The Cryptivita Directory says duende are mischievous goblins who live in the walls of a house. Each culture has a different name for them. Nisse, lutin, leprechaun, brownie. I can’t remember all the names. They’re all portrayed as creepy-looking gnomes. Parents tell their children that el duendewill eat them if they don’t behave. The Directory lists them as a harmless nuisance.” I glanced down at the merkabah. One of the stones appeared to be rotating ever so slowly. Not good. Rotating stones and orbiting rings meant a cryptivita was nearby. Maybe it was Alejandro. Then again, we were surrounded by pedestrians and traffic. Maybe a cryptivita lurked outside. “Duende have a domestic classification. I’m not sure what that means.”
“It means, young recruit, that duende belong in this world, but do not inhabit our dimension.” Caesar jabbed a finger in my arm. “They belong here as much as you and me. The houses they live in are their homes. The only reason people see them at all is because of the irregularities in the dimensions.”
“Duende share only one of our human dimensions,” said SJ. “Caesar is correct about the dimensional irregularities. They’re always shifting, never static. This is one reason why people often catch fleeting images or shadows. The Butterfly Effect is another explanation. The smallest changes in one dimension will impact the others.”
“Ah yes, Chaos Theory,” Alejandro added. “Earthly terms to explain what mankind cannot understand.”
According to SJ, there was a logical scientific explanation for everything. And humans, unfortunately, were only in pre-kindergarten in terms of scientific knowledge.
“Does that mean we can’t send the duende back?” I leaned forward, stuck my head between SJ and Alejandro.
“Only temporarily,” said Alejandro. “El duendeare like roaches. They’re hard to get rid of.”
“El duende means charm or spirit. They’re a blend of mostly energy. Their physical form merely a fraction of humans.”
“What are we?” And by ‘we’ I meant me, Caesar, and, I’m assuming, Alejandro. SJ was not entirely human. He was a nephilim, a half angel-demon, half human with a celestial commission to serve as guide and protector for empathic individuals with the power to control the merkabah.
“C.S. Lewis said it best in The Screwtape Letters,” said SJ. “Humans are amphibians. Half human, half spirit.”
SJ was more than spirit and body. He had something else. A something else that drew me to him like a bee to a flower. A physical, emotional, sexual flower.
“Is spirit the same as energy?” I stared at SJ’s hair, his dark curls begging to be touched.
Alejandro and SJ looked at each other.
“Sort of,” said SJ.
Alejandro turned left down a narrow street lined with wide shade trees and towering palms. Wrought iron fences and high stone walls enclosed the grand manors. Each gated entrance had a guard. Some wore uniforms, others were in street clothes. None, from I could see, carried weapons.
Caesar twirled his droopy mustache. “You will see for yourself, girlie, there are many evil duende creating the problems at Our Lady of Compassion.”
Alejandro stopped at a spike-topped gated entrance. “We’ve arrived, mi amigos. Hotel Conquistador. Exclusivo. Muyelegante. Your home away from home.”
In SJ’s case, since he both owned and resided in the posh 5-star hotel in the beach town where I lived, hotel away from hotel.
“Is there a problem with intruders?” I asked, noticing the broken shards of glass embedded in the wall.
“None at all.” Alejandro rolled down the window and passed a pack of cigarettes to the guard.
The guard, in a pressed uniform and holding a two-way radio, bent over, and looked inside the car. “Bienvenido Hotel Conquistador.”
Alejandro pointed to me. “Thisbonitalady is a muy importanteprofessora in the United States.”
I smiled, my fingers wiggling into a wave.
SJ reached over to shake the guard’s hand. A fat roll of bills was exchanged. The guard pocketed the cash as they spoke in rapid Spanish, the guard nodding solemnly all the while. A few times he glanced my way, eyes wide. Finally, he directed a terse comment to Caesar, who grimaced.
Alejandro howled with laughter.
“Carlos said several women have been by to ask about Caesar today,” said SJ. “He is quite the ladies’ man.”
Carlos the guard slid the bolt back and rolled the gate open to reveal a wide flagstone driveway that curved toward the stately mansion. The hotel looked like a classic Italian villa, complete with charming balconies, regal columns, elaborate cornices, and ornate widow’s walk.
“I hope you like the hotel,” said SJ. “It was once the home of an influential business tycoon. Obi did a superb job restoring the mansion to its original grandeur. I believe you will find the accommodations both lavish and endearing.”
Alejandro parked the SUV at the entrance, where a bellhop in colonial costume came to our assistance.
I stepped out, shouldered my purse, and paused to admire the whimsical depictions of mythological creatures carved above the front door.
“You like the zoophorous?” SJ stood beside me.
“That fanciful bit of art is called a zoophorous,” said SJ.
“I didn’t know it had a name.” What didn’t that man know? He was already a wealth of knowledge about science, mythology, religion, and ancient history.
A porter held the door as we entered the lobby. Caesar shuffled behind. We hadn’t taken three steps inside when a woman squealed.
“Serik!” A middle-aged woman with a Frida Kahlo uni-brow leapt off the chair. “How long it has been, dear friend?” Her thick brown waves bounced merrily as she slung around the reception desk. Wearing a snug red skirt and button-straining silk blouse that barely contained her curvaceous figure, she air-kissed SJ’s cheek before embracing him in a breast-crushing hug.
Rapid fire Spanish commenced, both speaking and laughing with the comfortable familiarity of old friends.
“Zeno! Zeno?” she called out into the air every few minutes.
I shifted from foot to foot, waited for an introduction while marveling at the lobby’s splendor. The walls were golden-hued walls, the moldings carved. Crystal chandeliers glimmered above the antique furniture, potted plants, and Ecuadorian-inspired art. Aged oriental carpets laid over the marble floor.
SJ, the woman clutching his arm, turned to me. “Daphne, may I introduce Araceli, a very old and dear friend.”
“Not that old.” Araceli wagged a finger at him. “Any recruit of Serik’s is a friend of mine.” Fleshy arms squeezed me. Two air kisses brushed my face. Araceli took both my hands in hers and stared into my eyes. “How young you are.”
I squirmed under her intense gaze. Araceli closed her eyes, the corners of her bright red lips curled up.
My empath abilities kicked in, a mixture of intuition and fleeting sensations. Until just a few days ago, fourteen to be exact, I had little understanding of the extent to which an empath felt another’s emotion, be it pain, joy, anxiety, or anger. Although people gravitated towards empaths, strangers make us anxious. They unloaded their emotions like a dump truck, smothered our own feelings. Empaths were like emotion magnets. Throw emotion dust in the air and it clung to us. It was one reason I was never at peace in a crowded room. Or why I had odd random thoughts.
Like the weird feelings I had while Araceli stared at me.
Araceli radiated wisdom, discernment, and kindness. And yet something else hovered over it all. A division. A profound contradiction. I closed my eyes, let her feelings penetrate.
My intuitions were often jumbled, like different sets of puzzle pieces in one pile. It was difficult to separate one person’s feeling from another’s. As if being an emotional sponge wasn’t trying enough, I’m a distinctive empath. A brain anomaly—something to do with super specialized neurons—allows me to recognize dark matter and operate the merkabah. So far, I’ve been lucky and escaped almost certain death twice. SJ saved my life each time but that was his job after all.
Araceli sucked air between her teeth.
My eyes flew open.
Araceli’s genuine smile had turned false. “You are most bonita, most…um…” Her forehead creased, she turned to SJ, “exceptional.”
My second less-than-enthusiastic introduction. Maybe I shouldn’t have come to Ecuador. I wasn’t ready.
“Is this the new recruit?” A voice bellowed from the other side of the reception desk. This time from a bear of a man, who introduced himself as Zeno, doting husband of Araceli, hugged me tight. Like Araceli, he held my hand and stared into my eyes. “You must be starving. Come, eat, we prepared some light refreshment.”
Zeno and Araceli escorted SJ, me, Caesar, and Alejandro to a courtyard dining area where we sat at a large table already set. There were chairs for two more.
My stomach growled. The trip from California to Ecuador took 11 hours, and although I slept for most of it—the flight departed at nine at night—I was hungry by the time S.J woke me to view the volcanoes.
Two crystal goblets, three different length forks, two knives, and three spoons were arranged with precision. This was their idea of a light meal?
Two people joined us, Obi, Caesar’s guide; and Jack, my metaphysical guru.
“Jack!” I gave him a hug. “I didn’t know you were here.”
A wizened old man with dark wrinkled skin and the habit of materializing from a nearby tree, Jack is the legendary Green Man incarnate. Nature made flesh. The embodiment of the natural world. Jack brought peace and composure to my soul.
“SJ asked me.” Jack bestowed his usual top-of-head kiss, the location of the sahasrarachakra, the crown chakra. This energy does not fully develop until age fifty or sixty, and was the basis for Caesar’s criticism of my abilities.
“He did?” I looked at SJ. “I thought…” Yesterday they had argued about me. It wasn’t their first argument either about me with. They didn’t like each other. Their relationship akin to a co-worker you dislike but have to collaborate with on a project. Except I was the project.
SJ held out my chair. “Jack will continue your training,” said SJ.
I didneed more training. A lot more.
SJ pulled my chair out, I sat, and he took the seat to my right. I was seated between my personal merkabah team, SJ and Jack. SJ claimed Jack’s purpose was to continue my training, but I had doubts. More likely, the Watchers sent Jack to prevent any further scandalous behavior between SJ and me.
Suitcase in his hand, Obi stood in the doorway. Like SJ he stood about six-foot-five and had the same regal bearing of all nephilim. They were a formidable race, imposing, but also kind and compassionate.
SJ and Obi belonged to a secret organization that protects empaths. They answered to The Watchers, aka, the Grigori. The Watchers were a physically and intellectually superior race who pissed off their superiors thousands of years ago when they impregnated human women. The Bible claims the Watchers are fallen angels. Demons, in other words. The nephilim were their progeny, a half-human, half-fallen angel race with haughty attitudes and superhuman strength.
“Welcome, young recruit. I hope you enjoy the accoutrements of my humble hotel while on this mission.” Obi kissed my forehead, the traditional third eye or ajnachakra location. The physical contact acted as a supernatural accelerator that encouraged the energy field to mature.
Obi’s focused on Caesar. “Serik will assume guardianship while I’m gone. Be polite and show care toward our youngest recruit. You will both learn much from each other.”
Caesar snorted his disapproval.
Obi’s eyebrows shot up, and I noticed a blink, one beat too long, aimed at SJ, who lifted his chin ever so slightly. A mutual understanding? A secret code? The air crackled with static. Or was I imagining it? No one else detected anything out of the ordinary. Not even Caesar, a veteran merkabah medium.
“You’re not staying?” I asked, while a waiter poured bottled water into my goblet.
Obi’s face brightened. “Another matter requires my immediate attention elsewhere. I go where our superior sends me.” Obi said his farewell to everyone, his last look aimed arrow-like at Caesar, who flinched in response.
Servers placed bowls of cevichebefore us and conversation took a brief pause as everyone dug into the lime juice-cooked seafood compote.
Caesar held a piece of juice-soaked bread to his mouth. “Ready to extract some duende, girlie?”
Zeno shook his head. “I know you’ve already visited the school, Caesar, but this is unlike any typical duendes pranks.” He gestured to me. “It’s good a new recruit is here. A fresh perspective will be helpful.”
“What exactly is happening?” I asked as the waiter served the next course, a creamy potato soup topped with sliced avocado and shredded cheese.
“Mmm.” Alejandro rubbed his hands. “My favorite.”
Some thing about Alejandro bothered me. I just couldn’t figure out what. He was friendly, funny, polite, and intelligent. S.J trusted him. Still, there was something…
I spooned the soup into my mouth and mmmm’ed right along with Alejandro. The soup was that delicious. Either I was hungrier than I thought, or I was still experiencing the super sensitivity from the nephilim energy spike. Having sex with a nephilim resulted in an interesting side effect. My sense of taste and touch became extraordinarily acute. The effect wore off after a couple hours; except, every now and again, the super sensitivity reappeared.
I kept this wee detail to myself. No point telling SJ. What harm could there be in experiencing a surge of heightened sensations once in a while?
“Eight more girls are exhibiting symptoms.” Zeno’s voice snapped me out of my food coma.
“Duendecan take over someone’s body?” I asked.
SJ, Zeno, Alejandro, and Araceli issued a collective no. Caesar disagreed.
Araceli touched the cloth napkin to her lips. “Because the doctors found no medical reason for the students’ behavior, the nuns whisper among themselves that is demonic possession.”
I picked up a glass of water. “If demon is another word for a creature from a different space-time dimension then the nuns are correct.”
Caesar smiled at me for the first time since we met. “Exactly. You see, girlie agrees with me. It can only be duende, many nasty little duende.”
I doubted the Watchers sent a newbie like me across the globe to get rid of a few nasty gnomes.
SJ turned to me. “Duende do not seek human hosts. For this reason, the girls’ symptoms cannot be attributed to duende.”
“Then who or what is causing the weird behavior?” Surely, someone had an idea.
SJ drew me close, pressed his lips to my forehead. “That, sweet nymph, is why you’re here.”
I blushed, bit my lip, my eyes sweeping over the table and immediately sensing the others’ reaction to SJ’s pet name for me.
Caesar scowled as though he had just smelled something foul. Araceli and Zeno exchanged a surprise glance. Jack winced, and Alejandro snickered.
The awkward silence that followed was replaced with oh’s and ah’s while the servers arrived with the next course, succulent pork morsels mixed with hominy and vegetables.
For the remainder of the meal, Zeno and Araceli regaled us with the antics of their more colorful hotel guests.
A few football-sized mango slices later, SJ reminded us that we had a three o’clock appointment with Señorita Espinoza at Our Lady of Compassion.
We all rose from the table, Araceli and Zeno heading to the lobby while SJ, Jack, and I walked to the elevator. As we waited, I watched Araceli. She looked up, waved to me, and then picked up the phone. Once again, I sensed a division within her, as if she struggled coming to terms with a phenomenon beyond her understanding.
“Do you sense something?” asked SJ.
“I’m not sure. Can’t quite put my finger on it. Araceli and Zeno are fully human, right?”
“They are.” S.J pressed the elevator’s call button.
“What’s their connection to the nephilim?”
“Araceli and Zeno have been caretakers for Obi’s hotel for many years. What specifically do you intuit?”
I chewed my lip. My intuition is difficult to explain, the fleeting images and weird premonitions were like steam from a kettle, vanishing into the air, only a vestigial trace of its heat left over.
SJ touched my arm. “It’s important to give words to your sensations. Without words, your intuitions remain only unformed impressions. There is power in ascribing words. Words create meaning. Give meaning. Without being able to label your thoughts, you cannot act upon them.”
“Ahem,” Jack cleared his throat as we got into the elevator. “I disagree. When we assign a mere word to an impression, you instantly create boundaries and limitations. A definition restricts and inhibits true thinking. An empath must embrace and master a world that defies explanation. You must resist the urge to shackle pure sensation with conventional vocabulary.”
I heaved a dramatic, shoulder-shrugging sigh. SJ and Jack were at it again, both voicing opposite views. Both logical. I preferred absolutes. Clear-cut explanations and direction. SJ insisted the universe did not conform to narrow ideals, and yet here he was demanding an explanation for an indescribable feeling.
What was the adage about serving two masters? And yet I wanted to make them both happy.
From now on, I would use specific words for SJ, and ambiguous terms with Jack. Problem solved.
The elevator door swooshed open at the top floor. Jack’s room was adjacent mine. How convenient. SJ’s room was at the far end of the hall. Whoever booked our reservations made sure SJ and I were far apart. It was for our own good. We were attracted to one another. Actually, attraction was an understatement. I felt irresistibly drawn to the angel-demon, which a giant no-no. Ancient rules forbid nephilim from having sex with an empath. They altered our unique brain chemistry, reducing our ability to intuit dark matter and activate the merkabah. SJ broke sacred rules that night. Wish I knew why.
Only yesterday, SJ had given me a choice: Reject my cosmic calling to be his lover or embrace my destiny. So, here I was in Ecuador embracing my destiny by trying to figure out what cryptivita was messing with the heads of a few students at a private prep school.
I’m a mature, responsible woman, I can handle sexual tension. There was no way I was going to let a muscular hunk of handsome with a colossal ego prevent me from realizing my destiny.
“Meet me in the lobby in half an hour,” said SJ from the other end of the hall. “Wear a skirt. The nuns appreciate guests who adhere to the school’s dress code.”
I unlocked the door, went inside, my mouth agape before the door closed behind me. The suite was a gorgeous feast of Turkish carpets, ornate crown molding, sumptuous drapery, and marble fireplace. My fingertips brushed across a canopied bed. My hand ran over a carved chair. I threw open the French doors to the balcony.
The view of the city and sierras was more breathtaking. In the distance and beyond the emerald mountains, a snow-capped volcano rose skyward. Beyond my balcony, low hedges surrounded a green lawn lush with fruit trees and vibrant with flowers. A slate-colored Great Dane sprawled in a shady corner. Sweet fresh scents perfumed the air. It was slice little slice of heaven, and my muscles unknotted at once.
I unpacked my suitcases and duffle bags, hung up a few items, and emptied my makeup bag when someone knocked.
I opened the door.
Caesar, reeking of cigarette smoke, barged in past me. “Sit down, girlie. There are a few things you need to know.” He sat in the chair by the fireplace and pointed at me. “The nephilim are lying to you.”
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