Kaneesh 1, block 6.
Ta-Seti, read with your mind's eye, for from this was born the struggle of ages.
A struggle not between good and evil, but between choice and submission and rooted in the strongest of emotions. This war of ages was born out of the will of the Katrasah to give thee, the created, the right of the gods, the power of the will.
Selah, we made thee. Yes us, the Council of the Gods; the Ragdan and Sarneph, the thinkers and the makers. We are your creator for from our hands, ye were born, in the valley of Paneeh. Ye, the Sarneph, we knew thy place in all that was created, and it was in our mind to have dominion over thine every act. But the Ragdan insisted on your power of decision, and by that, chaos was born.
Selah, and yet we would have prevailed in our quest, save the Council of the Gods worked the will of man against us. Man we knew could not be allowed to guide his own hand, and surely our time cometh. For in a sigh, the end of the Long Count calendar draws to a close and with it the mark of Venus, O' star of Aroz. In that day, the gates of our desires will align and lo, the time of the Sarneph will beginneth anew. We know thee, and we grant you no will.
Selah, the power of man shall cease. Indeed, what right does the clay have in determining its shape? We seek submission and grasp it through the hands of the Ta-Seti that holds the Stone of Kouros.
I have made my home in the high places, the wilderness my refuge and the deepest cave my sanctuary. I am the storyteller and the keeper of secrets. I shun the weak in spirit and harbor the heart of fear. Treacherous is the quest for my secrets and graver still is the price you must pay. But many are the secrets I long to tell you. Hear you now the second secret: Only through true love can the purpose of life be found.
1 The Falcon's Harvest, Senegal
It was a sweltering hot summer afternoon in Senegal, but the conditions were made worse by the hordes that crowded the streets of Sandaga market. The presence of the masses, like a sea of ants seemingly without purpose yet carefully choreographed, lured out the vile underbelly of the souk who, like demons, preyed on the souls of unfortunate patrons. This hell was only made worse by the smell of the sewer, which oozed from the deep, stagnant, garbage-infested drains that criss-crossed the market.
The hellish conditions coaxed out the evil Baroak embodied. He felt a strong urge to deviate from his mission and bask in the blood of those he considered scum. Baroak pushed the thought from his mind and found respite next to a wooden stall covered with a dirty blue tarp. He refrained from wiping the beads of sweat gathering on his forehead. The sweat pooled and naturally found its way down the deep, diagonal scars across his cheeks and the grooves around his nose and mouth. The stunned woman, whose stall he stood next to, had barely shifted her overweight buttocks since he took up his perch, and so far, no one had ventured by the second-hand lingerie she had on display. His low-cropped hair, permanent menacing glare, and sheer size made him a terrifying presence to behold.
Baroak was eight feet and one inch tall, and his massive frame held an impressive collection of muscles that he was barely able to cover with his sleeveless, oversized brown shirt. His wrists and disproportionate biceps sported special amulets forged by the hands of the Nuba, and his waist was adorned by a large tan leather belt. His partially unbuttoned shirt revealed the fierce talons of a falcon branded into his chest, just above his heart. The scar identified him as a member of Ta-Seti, the highest order of the Guardians and descendants of the Sarneph.
A group of half-naked men, covered in sweat with muscles contracting under their glistening dark skin, maneuvering four-wheeled contraptions weighted down by various goods, caught the attention of Baroak. Beyond them was a familiar sight a group of kids seemingly oblivious to his towering presence, wearing dirty shirts and shorts with no shoes. It was Chaka who first noticed the boy in their midst, and it didn’t require his experience to see that the blood of ancient ones flowed strong through his veins.
The boy, not knowing he was a falcon, had taken to living like a duck. “Voleur, Sacce ey, sacce ey,” an old lady screamed as she flung her walking stick in the boy's direction. The child disappeared between stalls and emerged in the alleyway where Baroak stood, grinning widely and clutching a fist full of money. Baroak stepped into the alleyway, his eyes briefly making eye contact with Chaka, who was barely an arm's length away from the boy and waiting for a signal from him. He was the Shar, the highest ranking Ta-Seti on their expedition, and he had the final say in deciding which boys would be brought back. So far, four boys had been so honored on their trip.
Ungrateful bastards, they fought to return to a meager existence. Baroak adjusted the two machetes he carried, secured at his waist and tied off to either thigh. They had proven far more useful than the sawed-off shotgun he’d secured in a custom leather holster under his right arm, the blood stains on the machete were proof of their efficacy. Baroak kept his eyes on Chaka and the boy; he could sense the boy’s apprehension as he drew closer to him. It was either now or risk chasing him through the crowded market. Baroak placed his right fist over the scar on his left chest.
Baroak saw Chaka's eyes acknowledge the signal, and with the swiftness of a falcon in a dive, he simultaneously dropped the large shawl draped over his shoulders and swooped in for the boy. His motion was efficient and without hesitation. The boy barely made a sound as Chaka's big arm crushed his ribs and starved him of air. His kicking and clawing had all but ceased by the time Chaka walked the ten paces to where Baroak stood.
"You will kill him like that," Baroak snarled as he stepped in front of Chaka.
"Shar," Chaka responded, losing his hold enough for the boy to gasp.
A crowd had begun to form around the flailing boy, but they stayed several arm’s lengths away as Baroak, and Chaka with the boy under his arm, worked their way through the throngs toward Sethi. Several of the onlookers appeared terrified, but there were a few born of the Sandaga slums—the same men pushing the four-wheeled contraptions—who seemed resolved to rescue one of their own. Years of harvest had taught Baroak to keep a watchful eye on their kind. He maintained a steady pace as he and Chaka parted the masses on their way to the parking area. A few of the young men were now hot on their heels, making inquiries, but still not bold enough to intervene.
"What did he do? Where are you taking him?" Baroak heard someone yell in their native language, Wolof.
Baroak ignored their inquires. They were only a hundred feet from Sethi and the modified Toyota bus. The confidence of the mob seemed to grow with their numbers. "Scum, they should know their place," Baroak said under his breath as they rounded a corner. The cries from the boy were like a contagion, driving the horde into a frenzy, and with it, an increase in their demand for Chaka to let the boy go.
"Taxawaal!" a skinny, dark-skinned Senegalese man screamed as he ran ahead of them.
Baroak knew the word well; it was one of the few that had stuck in his memory from a childhood he could no longer remember: Stop.
The lanky man cut them off, emboldened by the cheers of the mob. He held out an arm toward Baroak's chest, his face smug with confidence. From the corner of his eyes, Baroak caught others running toward them. “They must be drunk with stupidity,” he thought. Without warning, he reached down the side of his leg, unsheathed his machete, and dismembered the outstretched hand in front of him. "How dare you impede a Ta-Seti, " he seethed.
Baroak had been trained for this, and the blow was efficient. There was an instant look of panic on the man's face. The shock was fresh, and choked his tongue, preventing him from wailing. Several seconds passed before blood began spraying from the detached limb. Someone rushed forward to provide aid. Baroak produced a second machete, his voice full of rage. "No help."
Pure fear instantly paralyzed the masses and created a sense of calm around the Ta-Seti and their prize as they boarded the bus and drove away.
2 Taker by Night
Samantha grabbed her phone just in time to stop the alarm from going off a second time. It was nine in the morning and she’d already missed the six am alarm for her morning cardio session. It felt chilly stepping out from underneath the blanket, even though it was September and still warm outside. The sweet smell of Aqua D'Gio mixed with flower bomb flowed from under the covers and caressed her nostrils, leaving her with a smile. She’d taken to sleeping naked since Dave Kerns started staying over, mostly because she enjoyed the freedom but also because she felt completely safe around the former Special Operations warrior.
Dave laid sprawled out in bed as Samantha tip-toed into the bathroom. "Good morning babe," Dave said, his voice groggy.
"Hey soldier, did I wake you?"
Dave turned on the bedside lamp as he retrieved his phone from the side table; his beard had grown in black and thick and framed his chiseled jaw. "No, but I think I’m officially a bum. I haven't been up before sunrise in over two weeks."
Samantha splashed water on her face and made her way to the bathroom. "You’re in mandatory rest and recovery mode … you get to be my bum … just don’t get used to it soldier."
Samantha hated the cold of the porcelain lid in the morning but she had her favorite magazine, 'Runner's World,' to comfort her. She heard her phone ring in the bedroom. It was unusual for her to get calls this early in the morning, and she wondered who it might be.
Dave reached across the bed, picked up the phone, and made his way to the bathroom where Samantha sat. "It appears the boss's wife wants a word with you."
Samantha studied Dave's nude body as he sauntered over with her phone in hand. "My sexy man."
She spanked Dave on his buttocks and answered the phone cheerfully: "Samantha Brown here."
Her ears were filled with sobs and wails on the end of the line. "Oh my God Sam, it’s John .... John ... John, my love …. John."
"Ann! Ann?" The line went dead. Samantha stood up in a panic and made her way to the sink. Her mind danced wildly trying to make sense of the call. John Anderson was her boss, and even though she was friends with his wife, Ann wouldn’t call her this early unless something terrible had happened.
"What is it?" Dave asked, his voice laden with concern as he ran his fingers through his thick, ruffled mane.
Samantha stared at her phone blankly and pressed the call button. Someone answered, but the line was silent. In the background, Samantha could hear commotion. Ann wasn’t alone, and the sobs and screams gave Samantha chills. "Something is wrong with John."
"Dear God," Samantha added in disbelief after a brief pause. "I think something terrible just happened to John."
Dave was already dressed, his face purposeful. He’d become friends with John—they had all grown close after their journey to the Hindu Kush, and he'd admired John's tenacity. If something terrible was happening to John, he would be there to help. "Everything is going to be okay, Sam," Dave said, fishing for his keys.
Samantha's heart raced. As she turned to the closet to find a pair of jeans and T-shirt, she somehow knew instinctively the worst had happened. "I think John is dead." Her tone was matter of fact and a tear traced a line down her lovely cheekbone. "We have to call Craig Destinas."
Dave grabbed his phone from the dresser. "Let's just get there … we can call Craig when we know more."
Ann was hysterical. Her blue eyes were puffy from crying so hard, and her long brown hair was matted down from cold sweat. She reached out to touch John again, in a final attempt to rouse him. He felt cold to the touch and was beginning to get stiff. He was laying on his side, with his left hand under his chin. His brown hair was ruffled, and his strong jaw, slack. Ann swallowed painfully; her voice was hoarse and her throat was sore. The ambulance was on its way, but she hadn't been able to communicate much with Samantha over the phone.
The currents of emotion washing over her body were too much for her to sensibly formulate her thoughts. All she was left with were visceral wails that embodied her deep hurt. Griselda, their cleaning lady, had arrived just in time and had rushed to her aid. She’d also become inconsolable at the sight of John's corpse. There were sirens in the background now; police, EMS, and a fire truck had all been dispatched to their address. John Anderson had spent the past few years giving back to the community and various associations, and it was apparent the community was eager to help.
Samantha dashed out of Dave's Jeep Commander before it came to a complete stop on the grass. The paramedics were dragging a gurney into the house. She was shaking from the excess adrenaline her body had been producing the entire drive, while Dave had endured a chorus of "Oh my Gods." She was thankful for Dave's stalwart demeanor as she’d cycled through various emotions during their short eight-minute drive to the Anderson's residence.
Samantha elbowed past the paramedics to get to John's bedroom. There was a uniformed policeman at the door who prevented Samantha from entering the room. "Let me go!” Samantha snapped at the officer.
The officer looked surprised. "It’s a crime scene, ma'am."
Samantha pushed past the officer. John was pale as a ghost and she couldn’t bare the sight. She embraced Ann, and they both sobbed freely as they walked out of the room in a trance-like state, with Griselda following closely behind, her hands crossed over her bosom. Griselda's black hair was tied up in a tight bun and her face was stained with tears and black mascara.
Dave entered the grand living room as Samantha, Ann, and Griselda walked out of John's bedroom. He shook his head in disbelief. John Anderson, Craig Destinas, five other men, and him had recently embarked on a journey to some of the most dangerous places on Earth to save his wife's life, only for John to return home and die in his sleep. The entire home was covered with a heavy blanket of sorrow, and Dave wondered how many would mourn when he passed away. The lack of urgency on the part of the paramedics was telling.
Just outside the window, Dave saw more police officers arrive, including Detective Berg, a friend of John and Anderson Fulton Inc., John's company. Dave had previously met Berg through Samantha, but he’d never been a fan of cops. A local reporter had also made it to the residence. John had been a wealthy businessman, and other reporters were most likely on their way.
Dave made his way to Ann. “My deepest condolences, ma'am.” His voice was full of emotion.
Ann could not bring herself to speak; she was overtaken by sorrow. Dave stood awkwardly in front of Ann. He had to find somewhere to channel his energies. He made his way to the large bay window. A large crowd of police, emergency services, and neighbors were beginning to gather around the Anderson residence. The police were already preoccupied with directing first responders and keeping the press and gawkers at arm's length.
"Hey, I’m Detective Berg, and you are?" Berg said, appraising Dave.
Dave took his outstretched hand. "Dave Kerns. We already met."
"Ahh Dave," Berg said, trying to be cheerful. "We’re just going to have a quick look around, ask a few questions, and finish a preliminary report. When an able-bodied man dies in his bed, we’re forced to investigate."
"I understand," Dave said as he made his way to the couch where Samantha sat holding Ann's head in her lap as she sobbed. Griselda sat in a chair away from them, looking genuinely sad. Dave could hear Detective Berg in the bedroom, talking things over with the deputies who had been the first on the scene.
A few minutes later, Dave heard the distinct sound of Berg’s shoes as he walked on the hardwood floor toward the sitting room.
"Mrs. Anderson, I have to ask you a few questions," Detective Berg said, brushing the side of his crew-cut hair.
Ann sat up and wiped the tears from her face.
Berg bit the back of his pencil. "Was there anything out of the ordinary that happened recently?"
"What do you mean?" Ann responded, her blue eyes glazed over with tears.
"Tell me about last night," Detective Berg said, tapping the butt of his pencil on his clean-shaven jaw.
"We had dinner around six and went to bed around nine. Some ... sometime around four in the morning I had a nightmare. I went back to sleep and woke up before nine this morning ... I tried to wake John up but he would not ... Oh John ... John was ... " Her voice trailed off in tears and her hands visibly shook even as Samantha held on to them.
Dave moved closer to Ann and Samantha, his beard gave him a fierce quality. "I think that is enough for now, maybe we can continue at a later time."
Detective Berg got to his feet and fixed his grey suit. He was six feet tall with rounded cheeks, but he appeared fit underneath his suit. "Of course. My condolences, Mrs. Anderson. The paramedics and deputies will have a few forms for you to sign and we’ll be on our way."
3 Circle of Lords
Lord Guardian Ojam stood silently in front of the green stained glass window that filled the archway on the second floor of the building they called Ana Paneesh. He studied the solid stone construction built some three thousand years earlier, from technology that even to this day remains alien to humans. The magnificent edifice built by Memnon, the first Nepha, housed the Ta-Seti, descendants of the gods. For all of its magnificence, Ana Paneesh blended in nicely with the common architecture of Memphis, Egypt, and the surroundings worked well to disguise its true purpose.
Lord Guardian Ojam returned his gaze to the words written on an ancient golden plate he held in the palm of his hand. The plate was the sixth in an ancient collection of sacred texts written by the hand of the gods nearly ten thousand years prior, when they roamed the Earth. Only the Nuba and one man born of a woman could understand what the strange markings meant at any given time, and as Nepha, he'd been granted the insight needed to decipher the words.
The golden plate spoke of a conflict amongst the gods that became a struggle of men and, most importantly, spoke of what was to come. The words on the square plate of gold seemed to come alive at him, and he forced his attention to the final stanzas …. For in a sigh, the end of the Long Count calendar draws to a close, and with it, the mark of Venus, O' star of Aroz. In that day, the gates of our desires will align and lo, the time of the Sarneph will beginneth anew. We know thee, and we grant you no will.
Selah, the power of man shall cease. Indeed, what right does the clay have to determine its shape? We seek submission and grasp it through the hands of the Ta-Seti that hold the Stone of Kouros.
Lord Guardian Ojam's concentration was interrupted by the sound of the great gates sliding open. He looked down to see a late model Toyota bus pulling into the parking area just below where he stood. The gate closed before the bus could come to a stop, securing the fortress some had affectionately dubbed Marda. Lord Guardian Ojam placed the golden tablet carefully into an iron-cast box with images of men with wings etched onto its surface. “Is everything in order, Garrot?” Lord Guardian Ojam bellowed at the man standing a few paces behind him.
“Yes, Nepha,” the man responded, his countenance stern, his eyes maintaining an intense focus, and his gaze fixed straight ahead. They both stood nearly eight feet tall, were muscular, and each had diagonal scars that took up most of their faces and marked them as the highest members of the Ta-Seti.
Lord Guardian Ojam returned to the balcony. The doors to the Toyota bus slid open and Baroak, Chaka, and Sethi disembarked. Each man was built like the Pyramids of Giza and had the same number of diagonal scars, except for Baroak, who had two more scars that marked his position as Shar, the third in command amongst the Ta-Seti. They all wore sleeveless brown shirts and tan pants specially tailored to fit all the weapons they carried. The men were deadly with their bare hands, but the weapons they carried were necessary as bystanders would on occasion interfere with the harvest. They were the pride of the Guardian of Horus.
Sethi, the shortest of the three men, motioned to the occupants of the bus. Five boys no more than nine years old each apprehensively stepped out of the bus. They looked terrified, cowering, and in a state of shock when their blindfolds were removed. Only a few days before, they had been living mediocre lives, until they caught the eye of the Ta-Seti. Now, they had a chance to be gods amongst men. Lord Guardian Ojam smiled, remembering when he’d been Shar.
The Shar of every expedition was trained to carefully consider the proportions of the long bones and the dimensions of the skulls of the boys according to the ancient Saneih. With that knowledge, they were charged to find those in whom the blood of the ancient ones thrived and make them Ta-Seti. The Ta-Seti were the protectors of the highest secrets of the Guardians of Horus. Training to become a Guardian was a dangerous endeavor, but becoming a member of the Ta-Seti was especially deadly.
Lord Guardian Ojam turned toward Garrot again, his eyebrows drawn together. To the west, the sun was already setting and a ferocious sandstorm was brewing in the distance. “Begin their training at once!”
“Yes Nepha,” First Lord Garrot responded as he turned to make his way down to the lower levels of the compound.
“And Garrot … prepare the chamber and summon the Lord Guardians, there is a storm brewing."
Garrot bowed slightly. "As you command, Nepha."
Garrot navigated his way through the halls and down the underground passages. The sentries, most of them newly minted Ta-Setis, stood guard at the various gates of the passages and bowed their heads when they saw him approach. He ignored them. There was an uncommon urgency in Lord Guardian Ojam's voice. Something was consuming their Nepha. Maybe it was because they lost Massood and Maseru in Israel when they went after the Stone of Kouros. Whatever it was, it was not his place to ask. Such was the way of the Ta-Seti: to only speak to a superior when it was absolutely necessary, especially when it came to dealing with the Nepha. He hadn't become a First Lord without learning as much.
Garrot passed by the lower chamber, observing the boys, in their fifth year, perfecting their use of various blades before moving on to high velocity weaponry. He remembered this crop of boys well; they were from the last time he’d ventured out as Shar, before he became the second most powerful Ta-Seti next to Lord Guardian Ojam, their Nepha. Of the seven boys who were harvested that year, only four remained. Identity, language, hardening, and hand-to-hand combat training had exacted its pound of flesh. How many of the boys would survive the final two years of training was anyone's guess. The influence of the Sarneph was no longer what it used to be.
Lord Garrot burrowed deep underneath the sprawling complex they called Ana Paneesh. The underground was itself a large city broken off into various sections and powered by the most astonishing technology. The air here was always crisp, and light orbs provided constant light. After nearly forty years of living in Ana Paneesh, Garrot had never seen the generator or wires that connected the underground to the grid, except for the decoy wires connected to the main structure.
The First Lord slowed his steps as he walked past the sleeping area. The large beds were neatly made, not by the boys who slept in them but by the many Guardians who took care of the complex. First Lord Garrot continued on toward the holding area, and past the cells, the size of a small box, used to hold those who did not conform. The new arrivals would spend the first year of their new lives exclusively underground, and they would all earn time in the box of bones. Just north of the holding area was the changing room for the harvest party. First Lord Garrot barged into the room where Baroak, Chaka and Sethi were relieving themselves of their gear.
“First Lord,” Baroak said, rising to his feet and giving him a slight bow of his head.
Garrot's eyes darted around the room as he spoke. “Congratulations, you have done a fine job, Shar.”
"Kinds words from First Lord Garrot … How may I be of service?" Baroak replied.
Chaka and Sethi stood quietly, their heads slightly bowed. First Lord Garrot nodded, and they assumed a relaxed posture. “Our Nepha commands training to begin at once.”
The men looked perplexed. The boys were usually allowed a few days to adjust. "As he commands," Baroak responded, hoping his hesitation went unnoticed.
"And I will have a full accounting before sunset tomorrow," Garrot said, as he turned to make his way upstairs.
4 Final Rites
Craig Destinas adjusted his black suit and ran the palm of his hand over the low-cropped hair that laid in smooth waves on his scalp. His pronounced forehead was shiny from the oils he’d generously applied to his scalp. He was early. There were only a handful of church elders milling around, making sure things were in order for the funeral. It had been four days since Ann and Samantha called him to deliver the news of John's passing. They had cried together on the phone, and Craig had cried in private and then cried some more when he finally got to see Ann. He’d only spent a few months with John as they searched for salvation for Ann, to bring her out of her coma. They had traveled to fantastic places, some very dangerous, and in the end they found a long-lost stone with the power to bring Ann back.
Craig cradled his head in the palm of his hands and rested his elbow on his knees. He was glad he was early. He needed the peace the sanctuary provided in order to think. John Anderson had been a man of purpose and tenacity. He'd taught Craig more about life and love in a few months than he'd ever learned before. John was principled and willing to stare death in the eyes for those he loved. Craig was certain he was going to miss John, who had already prompted so many important changes. Craig now knew he wanted more out of life, to seek his purpose and live it—and doing body art in a small nude bar in Key West wasn’t it.
John had made accommodations for him in Fayetteville: a house, money in the bank, and even a commissioned work of art to get him started. "A small payout for the many times he’d saved his butt," John had said. But Craig was still unsure of his purpose or whether he would ever feel complete without finding it. "I will miss you man … I promise I’m going to find my purpose. Even if it means I have to travel to the ends of the world, man."
Craig felt like an empty shell as he shifted his weight and wiggled his toes in his black loafers. In the last few days before John passed, they had spent countless hours reliving their travels, after they had both been discharged from the hospital. Their daily conversations had allowed them to both deal with the several close calls and begin healing psychologically. "Man! This was going to be tough—way tougher than being shot." Craig heard footsteps behind him. He turned to see Curly and Styles walk into the church.
"Hey brother, how are you holding up?" Curly said, tapping him on the shoulder.
Craig tried unsuccessfully to wipe the tears from his face. "I’m good, man."
Curly looked Craig dead in the eye. "Very sad to hear John passed. He was a tough bastard … both of you are, and I’ll walk into a gunfight with you any day."
Styles gave Craig a hug. "My condolences brother, and ditto to what Curly said."
Craig nodded his head. It was all he could do to refrain from breaking down into tears. "Where are the others?"
"Cody is still home in Texas … should be here in a couple of days … Juan is in Afghanistan, working. I barely made it myself. I leave in a few days," Styles said, brushing a strand of thick black hair from his face.
John's coffin laid in state in front of the pulpit, propped open. Ann, Samantha, and Dave walked in just as Curly and Styles found a seat behind Craig. Ann wore a long, flowing black dress that fit loosely over her slender body. Her face was oval-shaped and symmetrical and her eyes were blue, yet bloodshot from shedding too many tears. Her hair was combed and draped freely over her shoulders. Samantha was equally distraught. She wore a black skirt that ended just above her knees, with a matching black long-sleeved shirt. Her brown hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail. They both broke down into fresh tears as they exchanged hugs with Craig.
Dave grabbed Craig by the shoulder after Ann and Samantha made their way to the front pew. "So sorry, brother."
"It's okay man," Craig said, "John got to experience true love. The kind you’re willing to die for … very few experience that, man."
Dave nodded his head; he now understood what John felt for Ann, and he felt the same for Samantha. He would do anything for her and then some. "You coming up, brother?" Dave said patting Craig on the shoulder.
Craig nodded a feeble "no" with his head. He didn’t feel like speaking, and he really didn’t feel like sitting up in front.
A plump priest with brown thinning hair and a long black cassock made his way to the front of the chapel. The room grew quiet as he adjusted the microphone and his glasses. His head was barely visible above the pulpit.
"My dear brothers and sisters, let us bow our heads in prayer," he said, bringing the room to silence and then repeating a short prayer with both hands raised.
Craig closed his eyes, but suddenly the room began to spin and a cold haze circled toward him; in the midst of it was an orb glowing with the essence of John. The orb grew brighter and brought with it a deep feeling of concern, and panic. Craig forced his eyes open and grabbed the pew directly in front of him for balance, his breathing labored and uneven. Something was wrong with him, and he was beginning to see things.
Craig felt a sudden urge to look behind him. Two men in black suits and blue shirts walked into the chapel just as the prayer was beginning. The men took seats in the back pews across from Craig and meticulously scanned through the audience. Craig felt an uneasiness about the men; something about their looks reminded him of the Guardians they had encountered in Egypt and then Pakistan. Their chiseled jaws and thick eyebrows were striking. Craig felt his heart skip a beat. “What if they are Guardians,” he thought. He pushed the thought from his mind as the congregation took their seats and the pastor began his sermon.
John had indeed affected many people in the forty years he’d roamed the earth. People from all walks of life were eager to eulogize on his behalf. The room overflowed with sorrow as Ann stood to speak. Craig looked around the chapel: there was not a dry eye in sight. Ann and John had shared an uncommon love, and her words conveyed her pain directly into Craig's heart. When the eulogies were over, the pianist began to play an old hymn, 'Rock of Ages,' on the piano.
The rosy-cheeked priest returned to the podium. "May we rise and bow our heads in prayer."
Craig took several deep breaths. He had to be suffering from some lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. He glanced back at the two men he’d spotted earlier; they were still in their seats. He was becoming paranoid; the men appeared focused on Ann, Samantha, and Dave. But he couldn’t be sure, because John's casket was only a few feet away from Ann and Samantha and they could easily be fixated on that. “This could all be a coincidence,” Craig thought. But the feeling that something was amiss lingered, and their stern faces and aura of intensity didn’t help matters any.