After the events in The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg, Blair seeks spiritual answers to the upheaval in his life. His search has unexpected consequences.

Story Note: Written for Faux Paws Productions' Virtual Season 5

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Linda MacLaren, Our Executive Producer, for having the idea to do the Virtual Season, for allowing me to participate, and for betaing. Special thanks to Garett Maggart, Richard Burgi, and Danny Bilson, without whom there would be no Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, or The Sentinel.

Rated PG:  a little swearing, a little violence.

Completed September 20, 1999

 

 

 

Following the Wolf

by

Susan L. Williams

 

The click of the alarm clock snapped him awake. Before the buzzer could sound, Jim slapped the button down, his blind aim unerring. He tugged the sleep mask off and lay back down, listening, taking inventory. He did it most mornings; he wasn't sure why, but he knew he did it more often in winter, when he woke in darkness. He supposed it was left over from his days as a Ranger, or some kind of sentinel thing. Or maybe just that he hated getting up in the dark. Sandburg would probably have some explanation full of two-dollar words, but he didn't really want to hear it. It was a habit. He did it. So what?

The bathroom faucet was dripping. Wind whistled through Blair's closed bedroom window, which still didn't sit right in its frame. They'd have to fix it, or Sandburg would be whining all winter about the cold. He and Blair were alone in the apartment: that was right. But Blair wasn't in his room and wasn't asleep, and it was only--Jim lifted his head to look at the clock--6:05 AM: that was wrong. Blair's heart rate and breathing were normal. He wasn't sick or scared or upset. He was just awake.

Jim sighed and rolled out of bed, automatically dialing down before the chill did more than touch his skin. No need for a robe; Sandburg hadn't brought home any stray felons or runaway teenagers during the night. His knee ached, and he dialed that down, too. Not too far, or Sandburg would lecture him on how pain was the body's way of telling him to take it easy before he did any more damage. Moving carefully, Jim padded barefoot down the stairs to the living room.

Blair sat on the couch. Just sat, his feet flat on the floor, shoes still on along with yesterday's clothes, hands in his lap, worrying a corner of his flannel shirt. It wasn't completely dark. Streetlight filtering through the balcony doors limned his silhouette with silver and cast deeper shadows than the night. Blair should be able to make out familiar shapes, but Jim doubted that he actually saw anything. He stared at a point somewhere between the couch and the door, pupils so dilated that his irises were narrow rings of blue fire. His usually mobile features were still and somber. No, not somber: sad.

Damn. He couldn't deal with this now, not until he'd had a shower and some coffee. Jim moved into the kitchen. Blair started as he went by, but didn't move otherwise, though his fingers stopped playing with his shirt.

"Jim. What are you doing up?"

"Getting ready for work."

Sandburg looked out the window as though he expected to see the sun. "Oh."

Jim put coffee on and went into the bathroom to shower and shave. When he emerged, Blair was still sitting there. He got dressed, came back downstairs again, turned on a light, and poured mugs of coffee for himself and Blair. He took a sip, and sighed. Better get it over with.

Blair took the mug when Jim held it out to him, cradled it between his hands, but didn't drink. Jim sat at the other end of the couch, and Blair automatically turned to face him.

"What's up, Jim?"

"You, Chief. All night, it looks like."

Blair studied his coffee. "I was thinking."

"What about?"

"Oh, you know," he said lightly. "The meaning of life, whether there'll be peace in our time, what the hell I'm going to do now. Stuff like that."

Jim frowned. "I thought we settled that."

"I know you did, Jim. But I'm not sure."

"Not sure about what? You've got an opportunity here, Chief."

"I know." One thumb ran back and forth over the handle of the mug. "I'm just not sure I should take it."

"You got something else lined up, Sandburg?"

"No, man. I just--I don't know if this is right."

"How could it not be right? You've been a cop for the past three years. All this would do is make it official. And get you a steady paycheck."

"Jim, you don't get it. This isn't about me becoming a cop. Well, that's part of it, but right now, I'm too busy trying to keep my head above water. Figuratively speaking."

A sickly grin ghosted across Blair's face. He raised the mug to his lips, and lowered it again, still without drinking.

"The other day, you said you didn't know who you were. That was wrong. You know. You've always known, somewhere inside. It's just that sometimes you forget, or you don’t want to know what you know. Me, I don't have that. I thought I did, but the more stuff that happens, the more confused I get."

"You're not making any sense here, Chief."

Blair put the coffee down and jumped up, starting to pace. He ran one hand through his hair, his body practically vibrating.

"Okay. Okay, you remember when Incacha passed the way of the shaman on to me? When he did that, I was scared. Terrified. I thought it meant something, that things would change. That I would change. I thought I'd know more. I thought I'd be more. Shaman of the Great City, you know? But nothing happened. Things went on exactly the same as they always had.

"When Alex killed me, and you brought me back, I figured, hey, this is it, it's shaman time. Symbolic or near-death experiences are a big part of shamanism in almost every culture. When I found out we shared a vision, I was sure. Then you said you weren't ready to go there with me, and it woke me up. I realized that whatever I thought I had wasn't really there. I just wanted it to be. You went to the Temple of Light on your own; you didn't need me for that. You didn't need me for any of it. I wasn't a shaman then and I'm not one now."

"Sandburg, you're doing your job."

Blair faced him, his gaze intense, almost pleading. "Am I, Jim? How do you know that? Do you know what my job's supposed to be?"

"Watching my back. Helping me with this sentinel thing."

"Okay, I watch your back. But I haven't helped you with your senses for months. Most of the time, you don't need my help. When you did, when Alex was around, I couldn't help you. I didn't know what to do. If that's my job, I'm not doing it. And what if there's more? What if I'm supposed to be doing something else, something I don’t know about?"

"Like what?"

Blair threw his hands in the air. "I don't know, man! That's just it: I don't know. I don't know anything."

Jim stared at his partner. It was way too early for this. "Chief, you've lost me here. Nothing's changed. You're still the expert on sentinels."

"No, I'm not, Jim. I may know more than anyone else in Cascade, maybe anyone in the country, but I'm not an expert. I only know what I've learned from my research."

"You know enough." Say it, Ellison. "You've helped me from day one."

"Helped. Past tense, Jim. What about now? Where do I go from here?"

"You go to the academy and become a cop."

"And what? Just forget about everything else?"

"No. Not forget about it. Just--put it on the back burner for a while."

"For how long? A year? Five? Ten? What will I be then?"

"A cop."

"What if a cop's not what I want to be?"

What was he supposed to say? Did Blair honestly think he had all the answers? Or was this something else? Something Sandburg didn't have the guts to come out and admit?

"So, what are you saying, Chief? You don't want to go to the academy?"

"No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying I don't know what I want."

Jim carefully placed his mug on the coffee table. He stood slowly, clamping down on the harsh words that threatened to erupt. "Well, you'd better decide. People stuck their necks out to get you an appointment to the academy and a gold shield when you get out. Do you have any idea how unusual that is?"

"I know, Jim. I'm grateful for what you and Simon did, I really am."

"Doesn't sound like it to me."

"That's because you're not listening."

"I'm listening. You don't want to be a cop; you want to wear feathers and paint and talk to the animal spirits. You want to do magic tricks."

"A shaman's not a magician, Jim."

"I know that. But I don't think you do."

"I know what a shaman is, Jim. I've read the books, I've done the studies."

"It's not the same as being one."

"I know that. Dammit, Jim, Incacha passed the way of the shaman on to me. It has to mean something."

"It does. Incacha guided me in Peru; you guide me here. He handed me off to you."

"And that's it? That's all there is to it?"

"What else do you want?"

"I don't know. It just seems like there should be something more."

Jim turned away. Keep a lid on it, Ellison. Don't explode in his face. "So what do you want to do, Chief? You want to go off and sit in a hut somewhere and wait for a revelation?"

"I don't know, Jim."

"You'll waste your life that way."

"So anything that doesn't involve being a cop is a waste? Is that it, Jim?"

Was the kid trying to provoke him? Jim shook his head. "Don't twist my words around."

"I'm not. You obviously think that me trying to get a spiritual handle on my life is worthless. What about you, Jim? What about the Temple of Light?"

"I didn't have a choice there. And I was in pursuit of Alex Barnes."

Bitterly. "You were in pursuit of her all right, man."

Jim faced him then, saw the rare anger lining Blair's features, but he was past treading carefully, his own anger had too hard a hold.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You know what it means. She killed me, and all you could think about was having sex with her. I know you had no control over it, I know it was some kind of sentinel mating instinct, but it still sucked, Jim."

"So, what, you holding a grudge, Sandburg?"

"No! I'm just saying it hurt."

"Well, I'm sorry. But what does this have to do with you wanting to be Super Shaman?"

He could see Blair struggle for control, see him pushing the hurt and anger back, fighting to be, and sound, reasonable.

"You were drawn to Alex, and to the Temple, by sentinel instinct. Maybe my conflicting feelings about this are some kind of shaman's instinct. Or maybe my instinct's screwed up and that's why I'm confused."

"Or maybe you just don't want to face reality."

The instant he said it, his conscience screamed at him to apologize, but he couldn't do it, the words wouldn't come out of his mouth. For a moment, Blair just stared, his face pale. When he spoke, his voice was cold, colder than Jim had ever heard it.

"That's it. That's exactly it, Jim. I can't face the reality of not publishing, or getting my PhD, or being an anthropologist anymore, so I'm obsessing about unimportant things, like just who the hell I am now, and whether there might be some purpose to my life. Why didn't I think of that? Problem solved. Thanks, Jim. Thanks a lot."

"Look, Sandburg--"

"No, you look, Jim. It may not seem like much to you, but this is my life we're talking about. What I decide now could change who I am and how I live. I need to retain some kind of control here. I need to know that, whatever decision I make, I didn't just rush into it. I don't want to have regrets because I couldn't take the time to think."

"Fine, Chief. Take all the time you want." Jim stalked away, grabbed his coat and cane from the rack, and opened the door. "Let me know when you decide whether becoming a cop is good enough for you."

"Jim--"

Jim shut the door, and his ears, refusing to hear the rest of whatever Blair said.

 

"God damn it, Jim!" Blair shouted at the closed door. "Why don't you ever listen to me? You're as bad as Naomi. Worse! Damn it!"

Blair paced the living room, gesturing at the air in time to his thoughts. He wanted to hit something. He wanted to break something. Something that would shatter into a million pieces so Jim could spend a couple of hours picking every last one of them up to appease his anal-retentive need for order. His life was shattered, why not a window or a coffee mug, too?

"Okay, Blair," he said aloud, "calm down. And stop the melodrama. Anger isn't getting you anywhere. Anger is counter-productive. Jim isn't the problem here. He's not the solution, either, but he's not the problem. Just calm down and think."

Coffee. He needed coffee. No he didn't. Caffeine was the last thing he needed right now. Tea. Pau d'arco. That was what he needed. Not coffee.

Blair snatched up his untouched mug of coffee and dumped it in the sink. Tea kettle on the stove, gas on, clean mug, tea measured into the pot. There, that was one decision made. That wasn't so hard. Maybe if he took this in small increments, he could make the rest of his decisions just as easily. Maybe not. Maybe he was being hopelessly optimistic. If he was, he got it from his mother. Good old Naomi. A boy's best friend was his mom.

Damn. He was losing it. He should be okay with this. Why wasn't he okay with this? He'd made his decision. He'd chosen friendship over his career. He'd do it again. So why the panic now? What was the problem?

He needed to talk to somebody. He needed to do it now. Jim was out, in more ways than one. Naomi. Blair reached for the phone, and stopped, staring at it. No. Bad idea. Naomi had checked into a hotel to give him space to think, and that was exactly what he should do. He needed to work this out on his own, not go running to his mother. Or to Jim. His life: his decision.

The tea kettle shrieked at him. Blair filled the pot and waited for the pau d'arco to steep. He wanted it strong. Strong enough to keep his brain from running in circles, if that was possible.

Five minutes. Ten minutes. That should do it. Blair poured himself a cup, and took it and the pot back to the living room. Maybe he should eat something. No. His stomach was already full of knots and worry, there was no room for food. Later. He could eat later. And sleep. Right now, he needed to think. He sipped the tea, and gazed through the liquid to the bottom of the cup. He could almost see the gold shield lying there, the one Jim had tossed him in the bullpen yesterday, the one Simon had taken right back. Maybe that should've been a clue.

God. A cop. A cop. They wanted him to be a cop. All of them. Jim, Naomi, Simon. Blair Sandburg, cop. Officer Blair Sandburg. Detective Blair Sandburg. Detective Blair Sandburg? With a gold shield and a gun?

Couldn't be. No way. Blair Sandburg only played at being a cop, he was really an anthropologist. He'd always been an anthropologist, always wanted to be one, ever since he was an eight year old kid who read encyclopedias for fun and spent every afternoon either trying to talk the local bully out of beating the crap out of him on the way home from school, or just trying to outrun him. Could that kid be a cop? The thought was--was--Well, it was very cool. But was it right? Was it him? Could it be?

Blair ran a hand through his hair, pushing it back, noticing the texture of the long strands as though for the first time. If he did this, they'd try to make him cut it. Could he do that? Of course, he could do it, but could he do it? Could he cut off his hair and put on a uniform? He fingered his left ear; the holes were still open, but he hadn't worn his earrings for months. Not since--since he'd died. The hospital had removed the silver hoops when he was brought in, and he'd never restored them, hadn't even considered it. Why hadn't he? He'd worn them since he was sixteen, on and off, almost half his life. They were a part of his identity, yet he'd discarded them without thought. Could he do that with his hair? Did he want to? What did it matter, anyway? It was only hair. It was only a book. It was only his life. Not important. Not important at all. Just ask Jim.

No, that wasn't fair. Jim hadn't asked him to declare himself a fraud on live television, to give up everything he'd worked for, everything he'd dreamed. Jim had made it clear that if something wasn't done, they'd no longer be partners, or friends. He'd said in no uncertain terms that he considered the whole mess to be Blair's fault, that he didn't trust him, not even after three years, not even after he'd died. But Jim hadn't actually asked Blair to do anything. No, he'd decided that on his own, and he'd done the right thing, he knew that. It was for the best, he knew that, too. He knew it. Jim had to be able to do his job. The sentinel had to be able to function. That was more important than a best seller, or an academic career, or even a Nobel Prize. He knew that.

So he'd done the right thing. And Jim hadn't seemed surprised by it. Though he was the same Jim who'd accused Blair of exposing him on purpose. But that little bit of conflict wasn't his problem, it was Jim's, and Jim would have to work it out for himself. If he'd even noticed.

So he and Jim were friends again, and he was openly in Simon's good graces, and he still had a place to live--Jim hadn't kicked him out this time, there was an improvement--and he had a potential new career as an actual cop with an actual paycheck instead of as an anthropologist/observer with a couple of grants and a lot of time donated to the City of Cascade, and even Naomi was happy about it, and man, that was weird.

Naomi. His mother. His mother. The woman who'd said, "The next thing I know you're going to be parading around in a blue uniform and jackboots." was happy that her son was going to be a cop. If anyone had told him that before the whole Sid Graham fiasco, he would have said no way, no possible way, so he wondered--he did wonder--why Naomi was so happy about it, and if it maybe gave her an out from her guilt over what she'd done, but that might be an unfair thought, so he tried not to wonder that and just to accept that his mother was happy for him and for the facts that he and Jim were still friends and that there was an institution that wanted him, even if it wasn't an academic one.

He didn't blame Naomi. Not really. Well, okay, he did really, but he had to let it go, he knew that, she'd only been trying to help him, in her own interfering, do what she wants no matter what anyone says and God forbid she should actually listen to the words coming out of his mouth way. Okay, okay, that wasn't fair either, she did try to listen, she just wasn't very good at it, and shouldn't he be used to that by now? Didn't he go through the same thing with Jim on an almost daily basis and hadn't he learned to deal, so that Jim actually ended up following his suggestions more times than not, whether Jim realized it or not? Naomi had done what she thought was a favor for him by having Sid read his diss. She hadn't meant to cause trouble. He knew that, and he forgave her. Mostly.
So, okay, he'd thrown away his career as an anthropologist. All of academia--hell, the entire world--now believed he was the fraud he'd declared himself to be. He wasn't going to get a Nobel Prize, or a three million dollar book contract. He'd deal with it. He'd deal.

What had he really lost? Money? He'd never had that; it had only ever been a pipe dream, not an objective. Fame? Ditto. The honor of his peers? Well, they weren't his peers anymore. And besides, it was his own honor that counted, not what someone else accorded him. He knew the truth, and that was all that should matter. His diss? Okay, that sucked. But who was he kidding? In three years, he hadn't figured out how to publish without exposing Jim to the media frenzy that had happened. What had made him think he ever would? Chances were good that he'd have had to give up the diss anyway. His PhD? Yeah, that was gone. But they were only letters, a public affirmation of something he already had: knowledge. Did he really need to be Dr. Sandburg? It wouldn't prove anything, except to other people, people he didn't know or care about. Teaching? Teaching. That one hurt. He loved teaching. He loved seeing the proverbial light come on in a young face when the student finally got it; loved sliding the knowledge into their brains without them even being aware that they were actually learning something; loved the enthusiasm of a student who had just discovered that anthropology was a completely and utterly fascinating field of study, worthy of a lifetime's devotion.

But teaching was gone, along with everything else. No reputable school would hire him now. How could they? How could anyone allow a man so obviously unethical to teach? He couldn't be trusted with impressionable students, because no one knew what corruption he might expose them to. He was a fraud and a liar. He'd said so himself.

Blair swiped angrily at the wetness around his eyes. Damn. This wasn't getting him anywhere, this was just a pity party. A self-pity party, and that was the last thing he needed. Okay, so he couldn't teach anymore. So what? Teaching wasn't exactly exciting. Field expeditions could be, but most of the time was spent on tedious transcribing or translating or organizing, not actually interacting with the people he studied. It was kind of like stakeouts: lots of waiting and prepping for a possible few minutes of action. He could live without that. And there was nothing that said he couldn't study on his own, anyway. Field expeditions to anywhere exotic were certainly out--cops didn't make that much and they sure as hell didn't get funding--but he could still do independent local studies of anything he wanted. When he had the time. Which, okay, wouldn't be often if he was a cop. Jim worked long hours and a lot of weekends. He should know that, he'd been working the hours with him long enough. So that wouldn't be any different. Hell, he might have more time, now that he didn't have obligations at Rainier. And he'd get paid for all those hours. Overtime. Overtime could add up. Not to three million dollars. But it would still be more than he'd made in--well, ever.

Not that money mattered, because it didn't. All he needed was enough to get by, to pay his own way. That was all he'd ever needed. Sure, three million would have been nice, but what would he have done with it? Bought a big house? Fancy cars? Designer clothes? Not his style. That wasn't what he'd planned in the five minutes he'd actually thought about it anyway. No, he'd had visions of expanding his sentinel studies, finding other sentinels--there must be some, Jim and Alex couldn't possibly be it--and helping them to live with their abilities. Training other people to guide them, so there'd be other pairs--sentinel and partner--to protect the tribe wherever they happened to be.
Of course, that was just a fantasy. It could never really have happened, even if he'd taken the money. The public finding out about one sentinel had caused enough excitement; a bunch of them would probably cause a panic. Anyway, what did he know about training other people to guide? He operated on a few theories, some research, and a lot of guesswork. He had no idea what he was really supposed to be doing. Hell, maybe he wasn't supposed to be doing anything. Maybe Jim was supposed to be on his own. Jim wanted him as his partner, but what if that was wrong? What if, by hanging around, hanging on, he was somehow holding back Jim's development as a sentinel? What if this whole mess was some kind of cosmic message telling him to get out of Dodge?

Maybe it wasn't about Jim at all. Maybe it was about him. Maybe there was something he was supposed to do and staying on at Rainier and the PD was keeping him from it. Maybe becoming a cop was the absolute last thing he should do. Maybe he was supposed to do something else, something that would make him a better partner for Jim than he could ever be as a cop. Maybe he even had some kind of destiny of his own, that had nothing to do with Jim. Maybe he'd really given up his diss because it was what he needed. Maybe he was a Jedi, and Darth Vader was really his father. Maybe Obi-Wan Kenobi would come along and tell him what to do now.

He did not regret what he'd done. He wouldn't. He'd done it for Jim, and for their friendship, and he would do it again, if he had to. Jim would--Well, Jim wouldn't ever be in a situation like that. But Jim had brought him back from the dead, and that was pretty damn big. Bigger than giving up money, fame, and honor. Because of Jim, he was breathing. Everything else looked kind of small in comparison.

So why didn't it feel small? Why did it feel like he'd died again? Why did it feel like his spirit was back in that jungle, waiting for the jaguar to come looking for him, or for some disembodied voice to say, "Okay, Sandburg, you've passed the test, you can come back now."? Because this was a test, right? It had to be, even though no one had told him about it, so he hadn't had time to prepare, and no spirit guide in whatever form had asked him an obscure question or shown him a cliff to jump off of. He'd made the sacrifice without any kind of otherworldly instructions. Shouldn't he get bonus points for that? Shouldn't he get something? A pat on the back? A gold star on his forehead? Something?

Oh, good. We're expecting rewards for doing the right thing now? That's not the way the cosmos works, Sandburg, and you should know that, even if you aren't the Shaman of the Great City. What reward did Jim get for choosing to be a sentinel? Nothing, unless you count a lot of aggravation, physical pain, and having to spend his life hiding the abilities he didn't want in the first place. It may seem to you that the sentinel abilities are an incredible gift, but you're not the one who has to live with them. Jim never asked to be a sentinel, but he keeps having to reaffirm his commitment to being one, and every time--after some prodding from you and the mysterious--he does it. Every time, he chooses the welfare of the tribe over his own comfort. And you? You whine because you had to give up your PhD and your diss and because, so far, you haven't been given any special powers of your own. Well, hey, Blair, maybe you're not supposed to have any. Maybe that's not what this is about. Maybe you're just supposed to do your job guiding Jim, backing him up, and shut up about the rest of it. Maybe that's all the universe requires of you.

But what if it isn't? What if I'm supposed to do more? What if Incacha was trying to pass some actual thing on to me when he died, and not just the words? What if I just haven't gotten it? What if I've screwed up, and I'm screwing up more with each passing minute? Incacha was Chopec; he grew up with people who know what a shaman is and what he does and what it takes to be one. What if he figured I'd just know what the way of the shaman was, that I'd just say, "Oh, okay, right, I'm a shaman now," and go off and do it and there'd be no problem? What if everything that's gone wrong since then--the whole mess with Alex, the diss, everything--happened because I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do? What if I'm right and the vision I shared with Jim was supposed to be some kind of wake-up call? Jim doesn't think so, but this isn't Jim's area; it's mine. It's supposed to be mine. But I don't know enough.

Blair leaned his head back on the couch, staring at the ceiling. He didn't know enough. He knew a lot about shamanism; he could quote any number of sources, and he'd observed in a variety of different cultures. He'd even written papers on the subject. But observing wasn't doing. He didn't know how to be a shaman. Or even if he was supposed to be one. Maybe Jim was right, and passing the way of the shaman hadn't meant anything more than passing the sentinel. But how was he supposed to know? And if he didn't know what his role was, how could he make a decision about what to do with the rest of his life? How could he continue to work with Jim, if he didn't know what to do for him?

Blair closed his eyes. This was getting him exactly nowhere. If Jim were having this problem, he knew what he'd tell him: follow your instincts. And that would work, because Jim was best operating on an instinctual level, he just needed a little prodding sometimes. Naomi would say, "Follow your heart," and that would work for her, because it always did, with a couple of spectacular exceptions. And okay, he did that a lot, too, because he was, after all, Naomi Sandburg's son and he'd been brought up on the philosophy and, for the most part, he liked it. But right now, his heart wasn't leading him anywhere and whatever instincts he might have were making themselves scarce. So the emotional track wasn't providing any answers, and logic had thrown up its figurative hands and walked away in disgust, and that left him nowhere. And he really would like to figure this one out before he went crazy or Jim came home tonight, whichever came first. At the moment, crazy was ahead of Jim by a nose.

So, fine, the tea didn't work. What now? He had to get focused. He had to--Meditate. That might do the trick.

Blair pushed himself off the couch and cleared the coffee table, dumping everything in the kitchen. He fetched a dozen or so candles from his room, all shapes and sizes, all white; debated a moment, and brought a small, hand-thrown smudge pot striped in soothing shades of blue, and a bundle of sage. He'd air the loft out when he was done so Jim wouldn't react to the sage, but he needed it right now. There was too much negative energy, in him and in the apartment.

He lit the candles and the sage, let the soft leaves get a good burn before he blew out the flame and waved the bundle around to spread the smoke. His Aboriginal CD was still in the player. Blair took it out and replaced it with a Carlos Nakai CD, setting it to repeat. Drumbeats filled the loft, and the song of a single flute. Blair knelt before the coffee table and breathed in the scent of sage, beckoning the smoke toward him, around him. He sat back, brought his legs around to a half-lotus, positioned his hands on his knees, and closed his eyes.

He'd thought it would be hard, that his mind was racing too much, but he slipped into the meditative state easily, between one breath and the next. Breathing became all-encompassing. Positive energy entered him with each inhalation, and negative energy was expelled each time he exhaled. His body relaxed, and thought was first of breath, then of nothing. He drifted, buoyed by the music, feeling the heat of the candles, the denim beneath his hands, the cotton and flannel covering his torso, the soft weight of hair against his jaw and the back of his neck. Aware, yet unaware, he floated.
The flutes and drums faded from his consciousness, became his heartbeat and the song of his blood. The blue of his eyes seeped into his mind, the blue of smoke and water, pooling, swirling, drowning the darkness, filling him with blue. He opened his eyes to azure leaves and indigo earth, midnight trunks and branches tapering to slender twigs of cobalt. He couldn't see the sky, but the air itself was visible, cornflower mist surrounding him. He put out his hand to touch it, and saw his skin tinged pale cyan, like someone who was frozen, or drowned.

Blair felt eyes on him. He got to his feet and turned, peering into the trees and bushes, trying to see who it was. A patch of darkness caught his eye, and he stared at a weaving of branches and a camouflage of leaves. As he stared, a spark of sapphire resolved itself into an eye; shadows coalesced to form a long muzzle and one pointed ear. Deeper darkness split, and ice-blue teeth grinned.

The wolf turned and trotted away. Blair followed, shoving branches aside, pushing through undergrowth, the wolf always just visible, a glimpse of pale fur or a back-glancing eye. The wolf increased its pace, loping through the trees, and he ran after it, arms raised to shield his face from branches. His feet made no sound, nor his breathing, and the drumming of his heart was a thrum he could not hear. He crashed through the forest in the silence of deep water, following.
The wolf vanished. He ran on, determined to find it, to know where it had gone and why. He burst out of the trees, and stopped.

Stone steps rose before him, ancient and cracked, festooned with jungle growth. High on the stairs, the wolf sat, tongue lolling, grinning down at him. He knew the stairs, and the structure at the top: the Temple of Light, spiritual home of the sentinels.

The wolf bounded up the last few steps and disappeared inside the temple. Blair set his foot on the bottom step and began to climb. The temple loomed closer, its open doorway dark, too dark for him to see the wolf or any of the temple's interior. He reached the top, but the darkness remained impenetrable, defying his attempts to see within the sacred place. The wolf had gone in; it must want him to follow, or why lead him here? Blair took a deep breath, and stepped into the darkness.
Falling. He was falling! Fear rushed up, and he flailed wildly, trying to find some surface to cling to, to stop his fall, but there was nothing, only darkness and terror and thick air shrieking past without sound, and he knew that he would die.

Blair slammed into the floor, or his body, or the world. His eyes shot open, saw candles and a blue-striped pot, and the air he held in his lungs rushed out. He leaned forward, put his head in his hands, and concentrated on breathing. In, out, simple, easy, he did it every day, all day, and he could do it now, he just had to remember. He wasn't falling. That hadn't been real, it was a vision, or a dream, or--something. Jim had them all the time. Well, not all the time, but he'd had a few, and now Blair had had two, but this one wasn't quite as cool as the last one had been, though he'd thought it was, right up until the end. Watch that last step, Sandburg, it's a doozy.

Blair raised his head, gazing at the curl of smoke rising from the sage. It was supposed to be a doozy, right? Visions didn't happen just for the hell of it, they were supposed to tell you something, if you paid enough attention, and he had, he just had to calm down enough to realize what the wolf had been trying to say. No. No, he didn't. He knew. He knew what the wolf had meant, and what he had to do now. It was simple. It was obvious.

One by one, Blair pinched the candle flames out, a thread of smoke following his fingers. No sense in waiting. He had to do it now. Jim would understand. Or not.

 


Jim opened the door to the loft and sneezed violently. What the hell? Sage? Naomi couldn't be here, she'd gone to a hotel, and there were no lights on.

"Sandburg!"

No answer. He scanned the dark apartment, saw candles and one of Blair's pots on the coffee table, but no Sandburg, mother or son. He extended his hearing, but found no heartbeat other than his own. Naomi must have been here earlier; she and Blair probably went out somewhere.

Jim shucked his coat and moved into the apartment, trying not to breathe. Turning on lights as he went, he made his way to the balcony doors and opened them. Cold air blasted in, but he didn't care. Anything to get rid of the sage.

It was after midnight; Naomi was keeping her little boy out late. Jim grinned briefly at the image that popped into his head of Blair as a kid: skinny, gap-toothed, all dirty knees and elbows, a tangle of curls tumbling into one eye. He'd seen the pictures. He shook his head, banishing the image from his mind. Blair wasn't a kid anymore, no matter how tempting it was to think of him as one. He probably had a lot to talk to Naomi about. Maybe she could make sense of whatever he'd been babbling about this morning.

Jim frowned at himself. Blair hadn't really been babbling, he knew that. But damn, what was he supposed to say when the k--when his partner started going on about being a shaman instead of concentrating on his chance to become a cop? Blair was just trading one career for another, one he'd be just as good at as he was at anthropology. Sure, there were big differences between the two, but it wasn't like he was quitting the priesthood to be a hitman or something. So why was Blair obsessing over this shaman stuff? What was he so worked up about? He'd still be working with Jim, still be guiding him, still be doing everything he'd been doing for the last three years, except for the school stuff, and he'd always done more complaining about that than anything else. Okay, the complaints had mostly been about time, but now he wouldn't have to worry about that. Not having to juggle police work and school should make things easier for him.

But Blair had never asked for things to be easier. He'd seemed to thrive on the impossible fullness of his days and the three or four hours of sleep he got at night. He'd loved staying up until all hours to write a paper, or correct one, or rearrange his notes on the sentinel thing in some obscure Sandburgian order that made sense only to him. Even when he complained about how lazy or dense the students were, his love of teaching had been clear in the tangle of words tumbling out of his mouth. He'd hated the politicking, but that went on everywhere, even at the PD, and when he triumphed over it the righteous pride just shone out of him. The rest had been cake to him. No, that was wrong. To Blair, the police work had been cake. The academic stuff was his bread. And now it was gone.

Jim rubbed his temples, trying to banish the headache he could feel starting, courtesy of the sage. All right, maybe he could have been a little more--What? Sensitive?--this morning when Blair was talking. Maybe he shouldn't have gotten mad. Blair had a right to be uncertain about this, to wonder if he was moving in the right direction. Kid never had been any good at following a map. Or rules. Or doing what he was told. The academy would be tough for him, in that respect. Hell, it was tough for everyone. It wasn't supposed to be easy. But Blair could handle the physical stuff, and he'd sail through the written tests. He'd make it. If he wanted to.

Maybe he'd have to have a little talk with him, to convince him that he wanted to. Or, knowing him, just sit back and listen while Sandburg talked himself into it. Blair should be a cop, he deserved to be a cop, he'd be a great cop, and a great partner. It was the best thing for him. He had to see that.

Jim expanded the temple rubbing to cover his forehead. He should probably talk to Blair the minute his partner got home, but he was too tired. All he wanted right now was something to eat and his bed. He'd talk to Blair in the morning. The kid wasn't going anywhere.

Holding his breath, Jim grabbed the smudge pot and brought it out onto the balcony. He left it there and came back inside, shutting the doors against the January night. The smell was gone, for the most part. At least he could breathe without sneezing. He looked at the coffee table, decided Blair could clean up his own candles, and headed for the kitchen.

Jim opened the refrigerator door and reached for a Tupperware container that should hold leftover pesto pasta with shrimp and peas. He could eat it cold. His hand encountered paper. Lined paper, torn out of a notebook and folded, with his name scrawled across it in Sandburg's distinctive handwriting. Not that anyone else would be apt to leave a note for him in the refrigerator. Great. Sandburg had probably eaten all but a spoonful of the pasta and left him an apology. He would. Jim sighed and unfolded the paper, reading in the light of the refrigerator.

                            Jim,


Following the wolf.

                                                                                                              Blair

That was it. That was it? What in hell was that supposed to mean? God damn it, Sandburg! Jim crushed the note in his fist, images of blue wolf morphing into dead Blair filling his mind. God damn it.

 


Thumb running up and down the sweating neck of his beer bottle, Blair gazed out at the street, telling himself that he was not keeping an eye out for the occasional stray APC. Arguillo was in prison; Alex Barnes was in a hospital for the criminally insane back in the States; there was nothing to worry about. And Jim wasn't here, which reduced the odds of anyone shooting at him considerably. Before he met Jim, hardly anyone had ever tried to kill him. Now it was a semi-regular event. If he became a cop--Man, he wouldn't be able to walk the street. But at least he'd be able to defend himself. He'd have a gun, just like Jim. And he might have to use it. No, if he were Jim's partner, he would have to use it. And he wouldn't be able to get away with just shooting over people's heads, he'd have to shoot with the intention of hitting something. Someone.

God. God, he couldn't do that. How could he do that? How could anyone? How could Jim?

Blair downed half his beer in one gulp. Jim did it because he had to. Because he believed it was necessary in order to do his job. Because the bad guys had guns, and if a cop wanted to survive, he'd better have one too. Not a lot of really bad guys would put down their guns just because you asked nicely. He knew that. And he was pretty sure that he could shoot someone to save a life. But that was a far cry from packing a gun virtually 24/7, knowing all the time that you might have to use it. Knowing that your partner, other cops, every citizen of Cascade depended on you to know when to use it and to do it without hesitation, because if you didn't, someone--your partner, another cop, a citizen of Cascade--could die, and it was your job to prevent that. And if you lost a piece of yourself, a little bit of your humanity along the way, well, that was a hazard of the job and you knew that going in, so don't blame anyone else, Sandburg, just keep your weapon and your shoots clean and get on with it.

Blair signaled the waiter for another beer. He did not need to be thinking about this now. Too many hours and too little sleep in a series of planes that had gotten progressively smaller and less comfortable, followed by a hassle at customs and a jouncing, interminable bus ride from Sierra Verde's only airport, had left him exhausted, but too wired to sleep. He wanted to sleep--he really, really wanted to--but half an hour of staring at the grimy ceiling of his hotel room had convinced him that it wasn't going to happen. So here he was, sitting in the same café where Jim had dragged him and Megan to meet Simon last time they were here, wearing the same Hawaiian print shirt, drinking the same kind of beer, and feeling just as crappy as he had then. Maybe he should eat. The food actually smelled pretty good, and it had to be better than what he'd gotten on the planes. If Jim were here, he'd order the weirdest thing on the menu, just to watch his partner try not to watch him eat it. But Jim wasn't here. And shouldn't be. He had to do this alone. Which meant he could stick to some conservative dish without risking his reputation as a grossout gourmand.

"You're the anthropologist?"

Twin shadows fell across the table. Blair looked up, shielding his eyes against the strong afternoon sun. Two men looked down at him. Both were slightly under six feet, in their late 30's or early 40's. One was blond, blue-eyed, unshaven, his clothes dirty and sweat-stained: worn chinos and a Hawaiian shirt ten times brighter than his own, despite its age. The other was dark, black-haired, brown-eyed, probably a native of Sierra Verde. He was stockier than the blond, his khakis and linen shirt clean.

"How'd you know that?" Blair asked.

The darker one smiled. "You told the desk clerk at the hotel."

Had he? Yeah, he probably had. Force of habit. He'd have to watch that. Wouldn't want people accusing him of fraud. He held out his hand. "Blair Sandburg."

The dark guy shook it, then the blond. "Ed Bryce," the blond said. "This is Tony Carreno."

"What can I do for you?"

They sat down, one on either side of him, neither facing him directly.

"You're cautious," Carreno said. "That's good."

Cautious? What did that have to do with--Oh, no. Oh, man. This couldn't be good. "Uh, yeah. Thanks."

"Let's get down to business," Bryce said. "We've got some very nice stuff, and we're prepared to be reasonable about the price."

Stuff? Not drugs. Please let it not be drugs. Or guns. Or nerve gas. Especially not nerve gas. "Great. That's great. But I'm not--"

"Of course," Carreno interrupted, "we understand that you will need to inspect the merchandise."

"Uh...." Get out of this, Blair. Get out of it now. "Yeah. Of course. Um, what have you got, exactly?"

"You weren't told?"

Are you out of your mind? What are you doing? You are not undercover. You are not a cop. Jim isn't even here. You have no backup. You can't do this on your own. Shut your big mouth and get out. "I want to hear it from you."

"We have too many to list, but as Ed told you, there are some very fine pieces. Bowls, cups, jewelry, weapons. Our prize is an obsidian dagger with a gold jaguar hilt. Magnificent. All Mayan or Olmec, or other local tribes, of course."

Artifacts. He should have known. No wonder they were expecting an anthropologist. No way this was legal. No way. Bastards. Blair forced himself to nod. "Sounds good. If they're authentic."

Carreno nodded at Bryce, who pulled a lump wrapped in filthy cloth from his pants pocket and handed it to Blair. Blair unwrapped the cloth gingerly, to reveal an armband carved from a single piece of turquoise. Unable to resist, he inspected it closely. It was definitely old, definitely real turquoise, and the pattern was Mayan. It looked authentic.

"Nice."

Bryce plucked the armband out of Blair's hands. "Yeah, isn't it?"

"The rest are equally good," Carreno said. "Would you like to see them now?"

"Now?" Oh, God. Stall, Blair, stall. You can't go off with these guys alone. "Uh, let's make it tomorrow. It's been a long trip."

"Fine. We'll meet you here at, say, 8 A.M?"

"Great."

The two men stood up and started to walk away. Blair's anger got the better of him. "Can I ask you something, Senor Carreno?"

The dark-haired man turned back.

"No esta usted averganzado de vender su cultura?" [Aren’t you ashamed to sell your culture?]

Bryce's eyes narrowed, but Carreno met his gaze straight on, his expression unchanged. "I would be more ashamed to live in a shack and eat only corn and beans."

"There are other ways to make a living."

"But few so profitable. This is a pot and kettle situation, isn't it, Mr. Sandburg?"

"I guess it is. Sorry. I was just curious."

"I understand. Tomorrow."

They left the café, not without a few backward glances from Bryce. Blair put his head down on his arms. Wonderful, Sandburg. Just wonderful. You came here to get yourself straightened out spiritually, not to get involved with artifact smugglers. You can't handle these guys by yourself. Hell, you don't even know if these two are it. There could be a dozen more somewhere. Probably not--it would cut down on the profits--but there could be.

So just what are you going to do now? Meet them, and probably get yourself killed? No, thanks. Once was enough. Call Jim? He'd love to hear what you've gotten yourself into. And he's got no jurisdiction down here anyway. He'd have to set something up with the local cops, assuming they'd cooperate. They might, though. After all, they did know the guy in charge down here. What was his name? Ortega. Captain Ortega. He hadn't exactly been ramrod straight--okay, he'd almost gotten them killed--but he'd come around when Simon explained the danger presented by the nerve gas. Ortega was the best bet. But you can't wait for Jim. Even if you manage to reach him, Jim couldn't possibly be here by tomorrow. You've got to handle this yourself.

Blair left the café, abandoning his beer. If he wanted Ortega to listen to him, he had to be clear-headed, not a drunken American tourist. Ortega might not even remember him; most of the Sierra Verdean's contact had been with Simon and Jim. Keeping an eye out for Bryce and Carreno, he made his way to the police station, trying to be inconspicuous about it, and slipped inside.

Cool, grey-blue walls--newly painted--offered visual relief from the yellow heat outdoors, and fans did their best to stir the heavy air. The uniforms reflected the tone of the walls; the men, accustomed to the heat, showed no sign of being affected by it. Sizing him up with one glance, the young officer at the front desk spoke to Blair in badly-accented English. His nametag read "Ribera".

"Your business, senor?"

Blair replied in Spanish. "Quisiera ver a Capitan Ortega."

"One moment."

Officer Ribera disappeared into an office, and emerged less than a minute later with another man who quickly moved ahead of him. For a second, Blair thought it was Ortega; he was the same size and slight build. But this man's hair was straight where Ortega's had been curly. His nose was longer, his face wider and there was grey peppered in his hair and moustache.

"I am Capitan Sedillo," he said in English. "How may I help you?"

"Actually, I was hoping to see Captain Ortega."

"Come into my office, please."

Sedillo led him to an office devoid of personal touches. What papers there were lay in precise stacks on the desk. Pens were lined up in neat rows. When he first met Jim, his desk had looked like that.

"Please, sit down."

The wooden chair creaked when Blair settled onto it. Sedillo folded his hands.

"I'm afraid Captain Ortega is no longer with us."

"He got transferred?"

"No. He was killed four months ago. Shot to death here, in front of the station."

"Arguillo?"

"You are familiar with Arguillo?"

Blair explained about Alex, and the nerve gas, and Arguillo's attempt to steal it, leaving out any hint of the sentinel thing and skirting around the events at the Temple of Light by referring to it as some nondescript ruins. Sedillo listened attentively, taking occasional notes, until Blair launched into a description of Bryce and Carreno and their conversation earlier. That, he seemed to be writing down almost word for word. His calm demeanor disappeared. He scribbled furiously, brows knit, jaw set in anger. When Blair finished, Sedillo stared at his notes, flipping through a page or two before he looked up at Blair.

"Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Senor Sandburg. This is most unfortunate. I will look into it immediately."

"Great. You know, Captain Sedillo, I've already got an in with these guys. They think I'm this anthropologist they were supposed to meet. If you want, I can stick with it, get them to lead me to their stash. With your office backing me up, we can nail these lowlifes."

"A generous offer, Senor Sandburg, but that won't be necessary. Whatever business you are on for your American police should be your first priority."

"I'm not here in an official capacity."

"No?"

"No. Like I said, I am an anthropologist. I was intrigued by the ruins we found last time, and I wanted to get a closer look. I took some vacation time, and here I am. So, if you need me to help out on this--"

"No." Sedillo rubbed his nose, and stroked a finger over his moustache. "I shouldn't tell you this. But you are a fellow officer--almost--so I will trust you. The men you met today--Bryce and Carreno--work for us."

"I thought Bryce was American."

"He is. This is a cooperative operation between your country and mine. We are trying to halt the smuggling of artifacts."

"So, this is a sting?"

"Yes. Exactly."

"What about the anthropologist?"

"He is one of the men we are after. Bryce and Carreno--those are not their real names, of course--mistook you for him."

Blair grinned. "Oh, man. That could have caused some embarrassment with the brass."
"Yes. You see how grateful I really am that you came to me. The entire operation might have been--how would you put it?"

"Blown," Blair supplied.

"Yes. Blown. As it is, Bryce and Carreno's superiors will have some words for them."

"I'll bet. I know what Simon--Captain Banks would say if Jim and I screwed up like that."

Sedillo smiled. He stood up, prompting Blair to do the same, and held out his hand. "Thank you again, Senor Sandburg. I don't mean to rush you, but I have to make some phone calls right away."

Blair shook his hand. "No problem, Captain. I understand."

"Enjoy the rest of your visit to Sierra Verde."

"Thanks. I will."

Relieved on one count, Blair left Sedillo's office. Might as well go back to the café. He should be safe from any more smugglers. At least, the ones Captain Sedillo knew about. Besides, smugglers or not, he was starving.

 

Captain Sedillo watched the long-haired American leave the building. As soon as the outer door closed, he picked up the phone and punched in the number of a cell phone known only to him and three others. It rang five times before Bryce answered.

"Yeah?"

"Idiot!" he exploded, as quietly as he could. He couldn't afford to let his men hear, especially young Ribera. "You contacted the wrong man!"

"What are you talking about?" Bryce demanded. "He's the anthropologist."

"He's an American police consultant! The moment you left him, he came here to report you to Ortega."

English curses flooded the line. Sedillo waited until they died down, and said, "You and Carreno take care of it. Tonight."

"Us? Why don't you--"

"You made this mess, Bryce. You clean it up."

Sedillo hung up without waiting for Bryce's answer.

 

"He did what?"

Simon took the unlit cigar out of his mouth, glaring up from his wheelchair. Watery sunlight filtered through the blinds in Simon's living room, striping Jim Ellison's face with bands of light and shadow. Jim stood in front of him, a piece of folded notebook paper in his hand. His expression was carefully neutral, his voice quiet.

"He took off, Simon. Sometime yesterday."

"Just like that? Without telling you first?" Simon wheeled himself toward the couch, gesturing for Jim to sit. Ellison ignored him. "His mother's still in town, isn't she? Maybe--"

"She was the first one I called," Jim supplied. "Naomi said he called her, told her not to worry, he knew what he had to do."

Simon frowned. "I don't like the sound of that. Especially coming from Sandburg. Do you have any idea where he went?"

"He left me this."

Jim handed Simon the paper. It was neatly folded, but showed signs of having been wadded up into a ball. Simon unfolded it and read the five words written there. Oh, damn. "'Following the wolf'? What the hell does that mean? What wolf?"

Jim took the note back, staring at the paper so hard that Simon couldn't tell whether he was seeing its individual molecules or nothing at all. "When Blair-- When he-- At the fountain, when I--brought him back, Blair and I shared a vision."

"A vision...."

Jim nodded. "The jaguar--my jaguar, the black one--and a wolf jumped into each other. They--merged. I'd seen the wolf before, but this was Blair's first time. He thinks it's his spirit animal."

"What do you think?"

"I don't know. Maybe it is. When I dreamed about it before, I killed it and it turned into Blair."

"You killed his spirit animal?"

"It was a dream, Simon. Just a dream."

"Uh-huh." Simon fixed his gaze on Jim, trying to read the set, expressionless face. "So, you think Blair's following a vision now?"

"Yeah, I do. He was meditating yesterday. He must have had some kind of weird experience."

Simon grimaced. "With Sandburg, life is a weird experience. Jim, maybe you should back off, let him do whatever it is he thinks he has to do."

Jim's response was immediate. "I can't do that, Simon."

"Why not? You're not the kid's father, Jim. He's an adult; he can take care of himself."

Jim shook his head. "He's gone to Sierra Verde. I checked the airlines, he was on the only flight out yesterday."

Sierra Verde? "Why would he go there?" As soon as he said it, he knew. "Oh, no. Not back to that temple of yours?"

"I'm afraid so, Simon. But it's not my temple."

"Whatever. Is he out of his mind?"

"I dunno. Could be. I was." Jim stared at nothing. Simon could only imagine what he was thinking. He hadn't reached the Temple of Light until the excitement was over, but Jim had told him some of what had happened there. Jim shook himself, snapping back to the present. "I'm going after him."

Oh, God. Simon put on his patented "reasonable superior officer" tone. "Jim--"

Jim held up a hand. "Don't start, Simon. I'm already booked on today's flight."

"So that's it?"

"That's it. I thought you should know. I told Taggert a couple of hours ago."

Nice of him to give a few hours' notice. At least he was together enough to think of it. That was a hopeful sign "Do you need any help?"

Jim very deliberately did not look at the wheelchair. "No. Blair and I need to work this out alone."

"You sure? God only knows what the kid's getting himself into down there."

"We can handle it."

I hope so, Jim. But he didn’t say it. He went gruff instead. "Go on, then. Get out of here and get Sandburg out of whatever convoluted mess he's no doubt gotten himself into this time."

Jim stuffed the note into his back pocket and opened the apartment door. Simon looked up. "Jim?"

Ellison waited.

"If you do run into trouble, I expect to hear from you. I'll be out of this chair in a couple of days."

Jim gave him a strained smile. "Thanks, Simon."

 

Blair let himself into his room and dropped down on the bed. He was too tired to move, too tired even to undress and pull the covers down. Maybe he'd just sleep as he was, fully dressed and sitting up. But it was too hot for that. A faint breeze came through the open window, but without a fan to distribute the cooler air, it didn't help much. He shouldn't complain. He was always bitching about the cold back in Cascade, always telling Jim about his expeditions to tropical countries and how much he liked the heat. Not that Jim listened, half the time. But that was okay, he didn't mind, really, sometimes he just talked to fill the silence. He knew that he did it, and he'd stopped expecting people who weren't his mother to listen a long time ago. As long as Jim listened when he talked about sentinel stuff, they were good.

Not that he'd had much to say about that lately. The last significant thing they'd learned about Jim's abilities was that he could sense ghosts. He hadn't been any help with that. He'd tried. He'd borrowed the equipment, tried to measure, to record, to scientifically quantify, but none of that had worked. He'd tried to convince Jim to be open to the experience, but all Jim had gotten out of that was embarrassment when Simon and Joel overheard. Jim hadn't really been fighting it anyway. His senses had told him Molly was there, and he'd gone with it. Nothing anyone said had made the slightest difference one way or the other. Jim knew what he saw and what he felt, and nothing else mattered.

Okay, that was significant progress from where Jim had been three years ago, and Blair knew he was partially responsible for that. He'd done his best to help Jim get to where he was now. But that was farther than he'd ever expected. Jim was beyond anything he knew, beyond anything he could contribute. Jim didn't really need him anymore.

There was nothing personal about it. Jim was still his friend. But, in order to progress from where he was now, Jim needed someone who knew what should come next. Someone who would have known all about a sentinel's ability to communicate with the spirits of the dead, who would have been able to reassure Jim that it was all perfectly normal for a man with heightened senses. And who wouldn't have been even the slightest bit jealous that Jim-the-sentinel could see ghosts and Blair-the-supposed-shaman-who-had-died-already couldn't. He didn't go around dwelling on it or anything. But he'd felt it all the same--if only for a second--and he knew he shouldn't. He knew that was wrong, for a shaman or a friend.

Blair pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. He had to get over this dying thing. Okay, he'd died, but he was back, he'd been back, and it was time to move on. Jim wouldn't obsess over it. Well, Jim would probably repress it; Jim repressed everything. But he wasn't Jim Ellison, he was Blair Sandburg, and Blair Sandburg didn't repress, Blair Sandburg dealt. That was what he did and that was what he needed to do now, here, in Sierra Verde, because he couldn't go back to Cascade unless he did, he couldn't just pretend everything was fine when it wasn't, he couldn't go home until he knew that it was home, the place where he lived and belonged and wanted to be.

It wasn't a question of whether he was wanted. Jim and Simon wanted him there, and so did the rest of the guys in Major Crime. They'd gotten him a job to prove it, and that was a very cool thing, just very--well, nice. It was a rush to know that these people didn't just have an "abiding tolerance" for him, that they actively wanted him around. Between Major Crime and Rainier University, it was a no-brainer where his true friends were. It hurt, some, that no one at the U had stuck up for him. He'd thought he had some friends there. But not one had come up to him to express sympathy; no one had even called. He knew why: They were afraid. They had their own careers to think about, which would not be helped by associating with a known fraud. So he understood. But right now, if he were asked to choose between hanging with a bunch of academics and a bunch of cops, he'd just laugh, because there wouldn't be any choice involved. They didn't have PhD's, and most of them couldn't write a paper if their lives depended on it, but the guys in Major Crime wouldn't desert one of their own, and he was fortunate enough to be considered just that. It was nice. Some of his former academic "colleagues" would scoff, but he liked nice. Blair Sandburg, defender of niceness everywhere. Hadn't there been an old TV show like that, with that guy who was the voice of the car in Knight Rider?

Oh, man. Blair forced himself to his feet and started to unbutton his shirt. He was losing it. He'd better get to bed before he lost all ability to think coherently. Besides, he wanted to get an early start tomorrow. The sooner he got his head straightened out, the better.

Blair tossed his clothes onto the room's lone chair and crawled into bed wearing only his boxers. There was a time when he'd slept nude in heat like this, but 3 AM wake-up alarms in Cascade had broken that habit in a hurry. His head hit the pillow, rose up again long enough for him to yank the band out of his hair--taking a few strands with it--and dropped. Insects chirred outside his window. Outside. Good place for 'em. 'S funny. He had no problem with bugs outside. They belonged there, it was cool. But inside? Uh-uh. He really...really...hated....

Blue again. Not the calm, soothing blue of a placid lake. Vein blue; corpse blue; water in your lungs blue. Sapphire eyes glittered. Cobalt tongue lolled in laughter, and the wolf ran away, cerulean coat dappled by bits of moonlight that dripped through the leaves. He followed. What else could he do? To remain stationary was to learn nothing, to stagnate; he'd known that since childhood.

Around him, the rainforest grew. He ducked under branches he'd been pushing aside, slipped through narrow gaps in the undergrowth that reached now to his waist and not his knees. His pants were ripped, and the toe of his right sneaker was patched with a bright yellow smiley-face. His arms were full of something heavy, with sharp corners--a book. He sneaked a glimpse at the title: The New World Encyclopedia, Volume W-Z. Oh, no.

"We're gonna get you, Snotburg!"

Not them. It couldn't be them. Blair tossed a glance over his shoulder. It was them. John and Billy Dyer. John was twelve and Billy was ten, which meant that he was eight, and they were all in the 4th grade at Etonsville Elementary School, in Etonsville, Wisconsin.

"I'm gonna pound you, you little sissy Mama's boy!" John shouted. "You made me look stupid in front of Miss Redding!"

"You did that yourself," he'd wanted to say, and still did, but he hadn't, didn't, because it took too much breath, breath he needed to run, to keep ahead of the two bigger boys. If they caught him, they'd beat him up, and he really, really didn't want that to happen. Billy wasn't much, but John could hit really hard and it hurt, and the best thing was to keep out of reach, to keep his mouth shut and keep running and hope the Dyers got tired before he did. He wanted to scream for his mother, but a guy just didn't do that, not if he wanted to keep his self-respect, and besides, she was too far away to hear him anyway. He hated Wisconsin, hated it, hated it, and he didn't care how nice Stewart was, he couldn't wait until Mom dumped him and they moved someplace else. Someplace warm, where he could go swimming. Or maybe back to Cascade. He liked it there, something was always happening. They hadn't been back since he was six, and weren't John and Billy ever going to get tired? They were still behind him, he could hear them yelling, but it sounded more like growling now, and one of them gave this weird, howly-coughing laugh, and he couldn't help it, he had to look, had to see which one of them it was.

Oh no! Oh shoot! It wasn't John and Billy at all. John and Billy were gone, it was animals chasing him. They looked like dogs, but meaner, and they had dark muzzles and spotted coats, and he knew what they were called, he'd read it in the encyclopedia, they were--they were--

Hyenas! God, he was being chased by hyenas! What kind of weird crap was this? And where was the wolf? What was he supposed to do here, just let them chase him? Maybe he should stop, confront them, find out what they wanted. Then again, they didn’t look much like they wanted to talk. They looked like they wanted to eat. Weren't hyenas scavengers? Was he supposed to remember something he'd read when he was eight?

Blair ran, crashing through undergrowth, shoving some branches aside, missing others so they slapped his chest or scratched his face or caught at his hair. A stitch tore at his ribs, and he couldn't get enough air, couldn't run fast enough to escape. The hyenas closed in, and he could hear their breathing, panting, see their tongues and the saliva dripping from their mouths, and their teeth, sharp enough to tear flesh living or dead and don't look, don't look! just run, run, damn it!

Azure bulk burst out of the darkness in front of him, arcing toward his head. Blair threw himself back, landed hard, and the wolf sailed over him. He scrambled to his feet to see the wolf facing down the hyenas, all three growling, fur bristling. Two against one, and the hyenas didn't back down, they paced back and forth, crossing each other's paths, trying to get around the wolf, to get to their prey, to get to him.

He wasn't going to stand here and let the wolf defend him. Blair searched the ground for weapons, found a rock and a half-rotten branch, picked them both up. He pitched the rock at one of the hyenas, striking it in the ribs. It yelped and shied, surprised that its prey could fight. Blair stepped forward, brandishing the stick, shouting. The hyenas ran.

Within seconds, the hyenas had vanished into the thick undergrowth. Blair heaved a relieved sigh, and dropped the branch. "It's okay," he told the wolf. "They're gone."

The wolf looked at him. Moonlight made glowing orbs of its eyes. Its hackles were still raised, its tail up. Snarling, it stalked toward him. Blair backed away, one hand raised between them.

"Whoa. Hey. You're my spirit animal, remember? You're supposed to be on my side. Hey. Hey!"

The wolf leaped at him. Blair threw his arms up to shield himself, knowing it wouldn't do any good. Paws slammed into his chest, knocking him over, bearing him down. White fire seared his eyes, and his ears exploded.

Blair opened his eyes, expecting to be blind and deaf. Moonlight illuminated the bed. The insects still sang outside. Blair sat up, and put his head in his hands, trying to slow his breathing and the wild pounding of his heart.

 

The moon had dropped below the trees, leaving the town in darkness unrelieved by anything so costly as streetlights. Moving in near-silence, two figures crept up the short flight of stairs to the verandah of the Hotel Santa Cruz. Boards occasionally creaked under their feet, but no one woke or stirred. The staff was asleep, and the hotel had only one guest.

The figures stopped outside the door to Room 24. A hand reached out, inserted a key in the lock, and turned it with a soft click. The door swung open. In one smooth motion, the figures brought their weapons up and opened fire. Bullets splintered wood, woven grass, cloth, and glass. Most slammed into the narrow bed. Feathers and bits of fabric danced in the air. Riddled, the frame collapsed, sending the bed and everything on it crashing to the floor in a horrific ruin.

The figures ceased firing. No sound came from the decimated room, no cry or gasping breath, or scrabbling twitch of finger. Without word or gesture, the figures returned the way they had come. If the gunfire had disturbed any of the town's residents, they did not show themselves to make it known.


Jim parked his rented jeep outside the Hotel Santa Cruz and surveyed the town. He'd been almost afraid to come here, afraid that the pull would seize him again, force him to go to the temple or to do something else, something worse. Though there wasn't much worse he could do than mate with the woman who had killed his partner. Thank God it had never gotten that far, that first Blair and then Alex's insanity had stopped the overwhelming desire, the need.

He didn't understand why Blair had come here. He'd told Blair as much as he could of his experience in the Temple of Light, of what he'd seen. Only days ago, too much of it had come true. He was just grateful that no one had died. If what he'd foreseen had meant Simon and Megan's deaths, he didn't think he could have handled it. He'd be a basket case somewhere, instead of following Blair around on some spiritual wild goose chase.

What did Blair expect to find here? Did he want the kind of visions Jim had experienced? Why would anyone in his right mind want something like that? Did he think visions would give him answers? If he did, he was wrong. Visions only gave you more questions, and confused what you thought you already knew. Blair was confused enough already; he didn't need to make it worse.

Besides, the Temple of Light was no place for him. It had been built for sentinels, and only for sentinels. No one else could use the pools safely, not even a shaman, and definitely not some neo-hippie witchdoctor punk kid whose major claim to shamanism was that he thought he should be one. Incacha would never have tried it. Incacha would have known better. But not Blair Sandburg. No, he took it into his head that he should go there to get revelations and off he went without ever thinking about what could happen to him in Sierra Verde, never mind in the Temple of Light. Foolhardy. One of his father's words, but that's what Blair was. With emphasis, Jim hoped, on the "hardy" part.

Jim registered at the desk, saw Blair's name and room number just above his, and had the clerk put him in the next room. It was still early; with luck, Blair was sleeping in and hadn't started off into the jungle yet. Jim hefted his bedroll--the only luggage he had--and left the lobby, deciding it wasn't worth it to move the jeep closer to the rooms. He started up the stairs to the porch, and stopped, frozen.

One of the guestroom doors was open. Blair's room; it had to be. Nothing moved inside. He focused through the doorway, and saw destruction. Oh, God.

Jim dropped his bedroll and ran. He paused for a second outside the door, but there was nothing alive in that room, no heartbeat, no sigh of breath. "Sandburg!" he shouted, uselessly, picking his way through chunks of wood and shards of glass, across the room to the tangle of shredded cloth and splinters that had been the bed. He dropped to his knees, "Sandburg!", clawed the ruined bedclothes aside, the stink of cordite in his nostrils, mixed with dust and the heavy sweetness of flowers. But not blood. Not blood.

Jim sat back on his heels and ran one hand over his face. Thank God.

"No se mueva."

"What?"

Jim turned his head. A local cop stood in the doorway, gun drawn. He didn't look familiar, but that didn't mean much.

"Don't move," he said, in English this time.

"It's okay," Jim told him. "I'm a cop. Jim Ellison, Cascade, Washington. This is my partner's room."

"And what is your partner's name, Senor Ellison?"

"Blair Sandburg."

"Where is Senor Sandburg?"

"I don't know. Someone shot up the room."

"So I see." He gestured with the gun. "On your feet, please."

Jim stood slowly. "My badge is in my pocket."

"Leave it there." The local advanced into the room. "You say Senor Sandburg is your partner?"

"That's right."

"Yet he told the desk clerk at this hotel that he was an anthropologist. Which is it, Senor Ellison?"

"Both. Sandburg's not a cop, he's an observer. He rides with me."

"Where is he?"

"I don't know. He may have been kidnapped."

"Whoever did this," the local cop gestured wide with the gun, "was not interested in kidnapping."

"Probably not."

"I ask you again, Senor Ellison: Where is Blair Sandburg?"

"I don't know."

"I think you do. I think you killed him."

"He's not dead. Look around: no personal belongings. He took off before this happened." Local looked around as directed, but the gun didn't waver. "Look, I'm a cop, just like you. Sandburg's my partner. We've been here before. Ask your captain--what's his name--Ortega. He knows us both."

"I am Capitan here," the local said. "My name is Sedillo. You had better come with me, Senor Ellison."

Jim shook his head. "This is ridiculous--"

"There is nothing ridiculous about murder," Sedillo snapped. "Move! Or I'll shoot you here and save my government the expense of a trial."

Jim clenched his jaw against the words he wanted to say. This idiot wouldn't listen. Better humor him for a while. "Fine. Let's go."

Sedillo marched him to the police station. A kid who looked about twelve patted him down--he wasn't carrying; he wasn't here in an official capacity--and relieved him of his wallet, badge, and watch. Sedillo inspected the badge carefully, then ordered the kid to lock Jim up. The kid hesitated, then took his arm, trying to lead him out back, but Jim didn't budge.

"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded. "You know I'm a cop."

"Yes," Sedillo replied. "But that doesn't make the rest of your story true."

"Call my captain, Simon Banks. He'll confirm--"

"What can he confirm? That you're here? I can see that. For the rest, my men and I will investigate."

"Oh, for--" Jim fixed his gaze on the floor, fighting to keep his temper in check. "Listen. My partner's out there somewhere. Whoever shot up his room will probably try again."

"We'll find him," Sedillo said. "If he's alive."

"You don't know where he is."

Sharply, "Do you?"

Jim opened his mouth to answer. A distant growl sounded in his ear. He looked around, seeing nothing. "You got a dog around here?"

"A dog?" Sedillo echoed. "No. No dog. Answer my question, Detective Ellison. Do you know where Senor Sandburg is?"

"No." The growling stopped. "I have no idea."

Sedillo waved two more cops over, both bigger and older than the kid. "Escort Detective Ellison to a cell."

He didn't fight. He could have tried, might even have made it, but the odds were not good, and risking himself was risking Sandburg, too, so he let them take him to a cell and lock the door on him. He paid no attention to them as they walked away. His hearing was focused on Sedillo, who was in his office now, seated on what sounded like a leather desk chair. Sedillo picked up the phone and punched in a string of numbers. Jim filed the tones away in his memory for future reference; Blair had taught him that, taught him to retrieve them anyway, knowing they were already in his head somewhere, though how he'd known was a mystery. Blair knew a lot of weird stuff like that.

Someone answered. "Yeah?" A man, American by the accent.

"You failed," Sedillo said.

"What?"

"Sandburg is alive."

"No way in hell. There was nothing left of that room."

"So you killed the room. Sandburg wasn't there. He said something about ruins. Find them. Find him. And this time, make sure he's dead."

"What about you?"

"I have another problem to deal with. You and Carreno take care of Sandburg."

Sedillo hung up. Jim gripped the bars of the cell. He had to get out. He had to find Blair before Sedillo's men did, or Blair would die. He wouldn't let that happen. Not again.

 

The sun would be setting soon. Not that he could see it through the trees, but the light filtering down through the foliage was getting dimmer. Just as well. Sleep was sounding really good right now. He still wasn't sure why he'd felt compelled to set out in the middle of the night, but something about his nightmare had said "go", so he'd gone. When you were trying to get the cosmos to communicate with you, it wasn't a good idea to ignore what could be a message just so you could catch a few more hours sleep.

Unfortunately, following spiritual directions meant he hadn't had a chance to buy supplies. He had water, but no food other than a couple of granola bars he always kept in his backpack for emergencies. They were pretty old, but better than nothing. What he was really missing was coffee. Or, to be honest, caffeine. But he probably shouldn't indulge in stimulants when he was on a spiritual quest anyway. He didn't think The Powers That Be would accept caffeine as a substitute for ayahuasca. Though it might be worth a try.

Blair stepped over a creeper and shoved some arm-length leaves out of his way. He was doing pretty well, considering. Because of his early start, he'd covered a lot of ground; he hadn't fallen into any pits or rivers, or down any ravines; and he hadn't run into anything big enough to eat him. He had no map or compass, but he wasn't lost. He knew exactly where he was going. At least, he thought he did. The day had been half gone before it had even occurred to him to wonder just how he knew. He'd stopped then, and rested while he thought about it. The entire time, something had been pulling at him, urging him on, almost as though the wolf were tugging on his arm or nudging his back to get him moving. Thinking about it hadn't done any good. There was no logical explanation for it; it was a feeling and it didn't want to be analyzed. So he'd stopped thinking and gone with it, just like he'd told Jim to do. What was good advice for the sentinel should be just as good for the shaman.

So, here he was. He was getting close now, he could feel that, too, and it was impossibly cool that he did feel it, that he had some of the same instincts Jim had, because he sure as hell hadn't had them last time they were here. All he'd done was follow Jim and try to keep him from mating with Alex Barnes instead of arresting her. He still didn't like to think about that. She'd been ready to kill him again out on that beach, and Jim--Jim hadn't reacted at all for several eternal seconds, during any one of which Alex could have pulled the trigger on Jim's gun. And when he had reacted, all he'd done was pull Alex's arm down and tell her "No," quietly, calmly, for God's sake, as though she'd been about to shoot something that didn't really matter and Jim didn't really object, but he thought there was no point in wasting the bullet. Man, it was a good thing--it was a damn good thing--he believed Jim hadn't really been in control of himself then, that the sentinel mating instinct or whatever the hell it was had made him crazy, because otherwise, otherwise-- There was no otherwise. Jim would never willingly allow him to be hurt. He believed that absolutely. He had to. Or he couldn't believe in anything.

Blair glimpsed stone ahead, and increased his pace. Yes! The jaguars! He'd found them. He knew he'd been going the right way. He continued on, past the statues, which had somehow escaped being engulfed by the fast-growing plant life that covered everything else. As he went by, he touched one of the jaguars, thinking maybe he'd feel something different, but there was nothing, only stone. He reached the arch, and passed underneath. It seemed wrong to go around, though he didn’t know why.

The Temple of Light loomed before him, the last rays of the sun turning its pale stone walls to gold. Blair approached the broken, plant-draped steps. Nothing had changed. There was no sign that they had ever been here, no sign that anyone had been here in a thousand years. For a moment, he stood at the base of the stairs, gazing up at the open doorway of the antechamber. He could see nothing inside, but he knew what he would find. His stomach knotted; he ignored it and set his foot on the first step. He didn't run up, or take some slow, formal pace; he walked as he would up any flight of stairs, though most didn't require dodging fallen stelae or clumps of greenery.

As he climbed, the light faded around him. The walls of the temple glowed orange, then shadowed to grey. The last of the light shone through the open door, and he took that as a sign. He reached the top of the stairs, and entered the antechamber.

The carved eye faced him, the inner door closed. He wondered how. Jim hadn't closed it, and the cops who'd taken Alex out on a stretcher couldn't have known how. It might close on its own, but it hadn't while they were there. Blair shrugged, and reached out to press on the iris of the Great Eye.

A snarling black jaguar leaped through the door. Crying out, Blair fell back. He landed hard on the stone floor, tried to brace himself for the jaguar's weight, expecting to feel teeth and claws tearing his flesh. The jaguar vanished.

Blair scrambled to his feet, shaking, staring at the air where the jaguar had been. Okay. Okay, that had definitely been a message. "Sentinels only, no shamans need apply"; "No admittance"; "No trespassing"; "No way, Sandburg". He got it. No obscurity there. Go away, Blair, go away now, and what the hell are you doing here anyway? This isn't your place; you don't belong here. Get out.

So, fine, he'd go. Where, he had no idea, but if he wasn't wanted here, he wasn't stupid enough to hang around. It wasn't that he was afraid; he wasn't. Majorly embarrassed, maybe, but not afraid. The cat wasn't real in a physical sense, he knew that. It was Jim's spirit animal. Of course, Jim wasn't here, so that meant the jaguar was probably a hallucination caused by something in his own subconscious, some part of him that didn't want to go into the Temple of Light. Could be entirely psychological, could be some kind of instinctual shamanic thing. Or it could be an actual manifestation of Jim's actual spirit animal in the actual physical plane. It didn't really matter what it was, the message was the same. He only had one question: Why the hell had whatever it was brought him here if it wasn't going to let him in?

Whoa. Blair paused in the doorway of the antechamber. It was dark outside. Really dark. So dark that he couldn't see the stairs. He'd never make it down without breaking his neck. He turned around, addressing the air, laughing a little because he felt like such an idiot.

"Uh, look, I'm not a sentinel. I mean, you know that, I know you know that, but I'm not sure you know what that means as far as my physical limitations are concerned. Basically, I can't see in the dark. So, if it's okay with you, I'm just gonna spend the night here in the antechamber. I won't try to get into the temple--I know I don't belong there--so just chill, okay? Once daylight hits, I'm gone. I promise."

He waited, but no black cats jumped him, and he didn't hear any snarls, growls, or disgusted snorts. "Guess that means I can stay." Working by feel, he untied the knots holding his blanket to his backpack and spread it out on the floor. He was hungry, but the granola bar could wait until morning, when he could see to eat it. Using his backpack as a pillow, he lay down and folded the blanket over himself. The stone floor wasn't exactly a featherbed, but he'd slept on worse. Before closing his eyes, he lifted his head, peering into the darkness.

"Uh, wherever you are--thanks."

 


Jim's hands slid across the wall for the hundredth time. He had to get out of here. He had to get to Blair before Sedillo's men found him. He was not going to be trapped in this third-rate holding cell while his partner was murdered. There had to be a way out. There was always a way out. He was just missing it.

Choking back a roar of frustration, Jim shoved himself away from the wall and sat down on the cot. He wasn't missing anything. The building was relatively new. There was nothing sophisticated about the holding cell, but it wasn't shoddy either. The bars were solid and immovably set; he had nothing with which to pick the lock; there was no window and no weakness in the walls. He was stuck here. And Blair was out there in the jungle, alone and unarmed. He hoped to God that Blair knew these guys were after him. If he did, he'd at least be careful, maybe even find someplace to hide. Blair wasn't stupid, he wouldn't try to take these guys on alone. He'd damn well better not.

Jim was on his feet before the door to the lockup opened. He gripped the bars, and waited, his body so tense that he felt like he might shatter. Quick steps; light; young. The kid approached his cell, carrying a plate of food. The nametag above his pocket said "Ribera". He wasn't much taller than Sandburg, but he was younger by a few years. Curly hair was cut close to his head, and his face was all angles and sharp points, punctuated by acne scars. Eyes downcast, the kid shoved the plate through the slot in the bars. When Jim didn't take it, brown eyes rose to meet his.

"Do you speak English, Officer Ribera?" Jim asked.

"Yes."

"What's your first name?"

"Aurelio."

"Jim Ellison. I'm a cop, like you."

"Not like me. You killed your friend."

"He's not dead. Even if he were, I couldn't have killed him. I just got here this morning. Besides, he's my partner."

The kid looked away. "A man can kill his partner."

"I wouldn't. No good cop could. You're a good cop, right, Aurelio?"

The kid stiffened. "Better than you."

"Maybe so. How about your capitan, Aurelio? Is Sedillo a good cop, too?"

"What do you mean?"

"I think you know. You're not blind, Aurelio. You see what goes on. Sedillo's gone bad, hasn't he? He's corrupt."

"You don't know that."

"Yeah, I do. And so do you. Who's Carreno?"

"Carreno? He's a smuggler. Artifacts, cultural things. He works with an American, Bryce. How do you know him?"

"Sedillo's working with him." The kid’s glance slid away again, his heart pounding. "You already know that, don’t you? Sedillo's one of the bad guys, Aurelio. He's got to be stopped."

"He's my capitan. What can I do?"

"You can start by letting me out."

"I can't do that."

"You have to. Sedillo and this Cerrano are after my partner. If they catch him, they'll kill him. I can't let that happen. You can't let that happen. Let me out, Aurelio. Then contact Sedillo's superiors, tell them what's going on, get some help."

"I don't think--"

"Do it, Aurelio. If you don't, you'll be as guilty as Sedillo. My partner's a good man. He's never hurt anyone in his life. Don't let him die."

The kid stared, unmoving, while duty battled fear. Spanish curses erupted from his mouth. Still cursing, he snatched the keys from his belt and unlocked the cell door. Jim laid a hand on his shoulder.

"You did the right thing, Aurelio."

The kid ran a hand through his short curls. "There's a back door. Only Valdez and I are on duty now."

"Can you trust him?"

He thought for a moment. "No."

"Then don't make your call from here. Find a phone someplace safe."

"What about you?"

"I'm going to find my partner."

"Good luck, Senor Ellison."

Jim nodded his thanks. Grabbing his bedroll, he followed the kid out of the holding area, then split off and headed for the back door.

 


Cold. Wet. Touching him. Touching his face. He raised a hand to brush whatever it was away, and touched fur. Warm, short fur.

Blair opened his eyes, and stared at the muzzle of a wolf less than an inch from his face. Panic flashed through him, but he knew better, he didn't try to scrabble away. He lowered his hand, slowly.

"Uh, hi."

The wolf dipped its head and nudged him under the chin. Blair tried to slow his hammering heart. Take it easy, Sandburg. The wolf is your spirit animal, it doesn't want to hurt you. Probably. The wolf nudged him again, its nose cold, the short hairs on its muzzle scraping his neck. He eased back away from it, and sat up. The wolf didn't object, so he got to his feet, moving carefully. Spirit animal or not, he really did not want to startle it.

"Okay, I'm up. Is that what you wanted?"

The wolf snorted. Since when did wolves snort?

"Y'know, this would be a lot easier if you'd morph into a person, like Jim's spirit animal does."

The wolf began to growl. It stalked toward him, stiff-legged, teeth bared. Blair backed away.
"Hey, it was just a suggestion."

The wolf circled him. Blair tried to turn with it, to keep it in front of him, but it moved too fast and he lost it in shadows. A push on the back of his thigh sent him lurching forward, toward the antechamber door. Great. The wolf was kicking him out. He moved on his own, but apparently, that wasn't fast enough. The wolf nudged him again.

"Okay, okay, I'm going."

Talk about a bum's rush. A guy could get a complex from all the warm fuzziness around here. The least the wolf could do was let him get his stuff, but no, he had to be out right now. He reached the door, and started to go down the stairs, but before his foot touched the top step, the wolf's teeth closed on his khakis, pulling him back.

"Hey! Make up your mind, will you?"

The wolf let go and moved up beside him in the doorway, gazing out over the jungle. It lifted its head, and howled.

"What? What is it? Come on, give me a clue here."

Blair followed the wolf's gaze. He couldn't see anything but jungle, and even that wasn't clear. It was barely even light yet: everything looked blue.

Blue. Oh, man. That meant that this was--

Blair turned to the wolf and crouched down. The wolf looked at him. You weren't supposed to look wolves in the eye, they'd take it as a challenge, but this wasn't a real wolf, this was his wolf, sort of an extension of himself, right? Even if it wasn't, it was definitely something more than real. So he looked straight into the wolf's blue eyes.

"Look, I know you're trying to tell me something, but I'm not getting it. You've got to help me out."

The wolf sighed--Blair refrained from comment--and shoved its nose under his hand, just like a dog asking to be petted. Not knowing what else to do, Blair obliged, running his hand from the wolf's muzzle up over its head to its back. Its fur felt incredible: soft and so thick he could lose his fingers in it. The wolf watched him for a minute, then returned its gaze to the jungle. Blair glanced out the door, and froze, his fingers buried in blue-silver fur.

He could see. Not just the trees, but the animals in them, the birds and monkeys and snakes. He could see rodents on the ground, and insects--God, he could see insects! It was amazing. This must be what it was like for Jim, to be able to see all this every day. He couldn't hear any more than usual, but that didn't matter. He reveled in the seeing, drinking in all that he could.

In the distance, something large moved. For a moment, he thought "jaguar" and a thrill passed through him, but it wasn't the jaguar or any kind of cat at all. It was a man--two men--walking through the jungle. One was light, the other dark. Blair strained, trying to see details. Abruptly, their faces came into focus: Bryce and Carreno. Both men carried guns. And they were on a path that would lead them directly to the Temple of Light.

But--that was okay, wasn't it? Bryce and Carreno were cops or feds or whatever. Coming here shouldn't be a problem. Unless....

Blair looked at the wolf. "Sedillo lied to me, didn't he? They really are smugglers. And they're coming here. Oh, shi--"

Blair opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling. Oh, man. This was not good, not good at all. He sat up, half-expecting to see the wolf, but he was alone. And Bryce and Carreno were on their way, he was sure of it. No, this was not good at all.

He had to do something. He couldn't let those two find the Temple of Light, they'd loot it of anything they thought they could sell, up to and including the paintings on the walls. But what could he do? He was pretty sure they wouldn't turn around and go away if he asked politely. He could try leading them away, but that would only work if 1) they were after him, and 2) they wanted him more than a new source of artifacts. Besides, he had no illusions about his skills in the jungle. He could survive for a while, but he'd never been an Army Ranger, or even a Boy Scout. On most of his expeditions, there'd been a guide leading the way. Here, he was as apt to go in circles as to actually lead Bryce and Carreno away.

So, what? They had guns; he didn't. Even if he had, what was he supposed to do? Kill them? Or make an observer-from-another-country's arrest and expect Sedillo to lock them up if he managed to get them back to town? Sedillo was probably a business partner. Had to be, if he'd lied about Bryce and Carreno being undercover. Which meant he was on his own. Great. Just great.

Worrying about what to do with them afterward could wait. Bryce and Carreno had to be stopped now.

Okay, so what did he have that he could use? Blair dragged his backpack to him and rummaged through it, pulling its contents out one by one. His Swiss Army knife; comb; razor; notebook and pens; granola bar (Oh, that would be useful.); change of underwear and socks; three bottles of water; cigarette lighter, more reliable than matches, but burning the jungle down was not an option, and Bryce and Carreno weren't likely to be afraid of a flaming stick; soap. That was it.

Blair surveyed all the stuff he'd laid out. All right, Sandburg, this is what you've got: go with it.

 

Blair wiped sweat from his face, smearing the dirt around. Couldn't hurt. The last thing he wanted was light skin giving him away. After some inner debate, he'd taken his shirt off, too, counting on a coating of dirt for camouflage. The shirt now hung in some bushes about fifty feet away, the red flowers on it bright enough to catch the eye and serve as a decoy. As far as he could tell, it was about noon. For the last couple of hours, he'd crept around while he worked, expecting Bryce and Carreno at any minute, but they hadn't shown yet. Which was good, because he hadn't been ready. Now he was.

He crouched in a thick patch of undergrowth, peering out at his own trail, made yesterday and widened this morning to ensure that Bryce and Carreno would take the same path he had. If they didn't, he was in trouble.

Beside him were six rocks, as close to baseball size and weight as he could find. Too many, probably. Either a couple would do the job, or it wouldn't matter. He had more, in other places, assuming Bryce and Carreno got past here and he could still move.

They might kill him. He knew that. He was trying not to think about it, not to let negativity in, but he knew it. If it happened--Well, it was nothing new, but it would still suck big time. He hadn't come here to die. And he wasn't going to make it easy, if he could help it. But just in case it happened, he'd come out here, about a mile away from the temple, to set everything up. Hoping that Bryce and Carreno were after him, that they didn't know about the Temple of Light, and that once they got him, they'd leave. Maybe he was being egotistical, and they didn't care about him at all. But he didn't think so.

Two water bottles stood to his left, one a squeeze bottle, one not. He picked up the second, took a drink, and set it down. Blair wiped his sweating palms on his khakis. God, it was hot. Yeah, right. Hot. That was the problem. Not fear. Nope. Uh-uh. None of that here.

Blair dropped to his knees. They weren't coming yet; all crouching would do was wear out his legs. He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath, letting it out through his mouth. Again. That's it. Calm down, Blair. Again. You're okay. Again. You're fine. Again. Those guys will never know what--

A rough hand clamped over his mouth, yanked him back against a rock-hard body. An arm snaked across his chest, steel band holding him still. He fought, but he couldn't break free, couldn't do anything. Oh, God, not like this. Not like this!

 

No, dammit! He was not going down like this. Blair flailed blindly. His fingers connected with plastic. He snatched it up, bent his arm at the elbow and squeezed.

The guy who had him screamed and let go, falling back. Blair lunged away from him, still clutching the squeeze bottle. He swiveled to see which one had attacked him, Bryce or Carreno.

Jim Ellison writhed on the ground, hands covering his eyes.

"Jim! Oh my God, Jim!" Blair dropped the squeeze bottle and grabbed the other one, scrambled to Jim's side and tried to pull his hands away from his eyes. "Dial it down, Jim. It's okay, it’s only soap, you'll be okay. Come on, man, put your hands down so I can wash your eyes out. Do it, Jim, come on!"

Jim flung his hands down. His fingers dug into whatever they came into contact with first--the ground on one side, Blair's leg on the other--and hung on. Tears streamed from his tightly shut eyes.

"Ow! Take it easy, Jim. Now come on, dial it down and open your eyes. You can do it."

Slowly, Jim forced his eyes open, visibly fighting the urge to shut them again.

"Good. Now hold still, man."

Blair held Jim's head with one hand and poured water into his eyes with the other, flushing out the worst of the soap's sting. Whether it was the water or the dialing down, Blair couldn't tell, but Jim sighed and lay still, his grip relaxing. His eyes were red, the lids swollen almost shut.

"I'm sorry, man," Blair said quietly. "I thought you were someone else."

"They're coming," Jim said, struggling to sit up. "They'll be here any second. Get out of here, Chief."

"No way, Jim. You can't take these guys on, you can't even see."

"I can see just fine."

"Oh, yeah?" Blair crossed his arms. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

"I'll give you a finger," Jim muttered. "Three."

"Wrong. I'm staying."

"Sandburg, these guys are armed."

"Don't worry about it, Jim, I've got it covered."

"You what?"

"Shh! Get down, man, they're coming."

Miraculously, Jim did as he was told. Blair got back into position and picked up one of the rocks he'd stashed. A minute later, he heard them. It would have been hard not to, they weren't even trying to be quiet. Bryce was complaining about all the trouble they were having to go through to get rid of one puny anthropologist, and Carreno was trying to persuade the American to think of it as a hunting trip with unusual quarry. Great. These guys thought he was Bambi.

Bryce and Carreno came into view. Bryce was wearing the same dayglo clothes he'd had on two days ago, but Carreno had changed to an open-weave white shirt. Bryce was filthy; Carreno didn't even seem to sweat. But both were definitely armed, and their idea of hunting appeared to be spraying as many bullets over as wide an area as possible, then seeing what fell down.

Bryce walked a few steps ahead of Carreno. His eyes darted around, but didn't see Blair or Jim. They did, however, spot Blair's shirt in the bush. Bryce opened fire. The shirt danced and jerked, and Bryce advanced, still firing. Blair shifted his gaze to Bryce's feet. Come on, man, just a little farther. A few steps, and--

Bryce tripped. As he fell, a branch sprang free and slammed into his stomach. He screamed and collapsed, taking the branch with him. The gun flew from his hands to land somewhere in the undergrowth.

Carreno froze. He didn't go to his partner's aid; he just stood, looking around wildly. Blair stood up.

"Over here."

Carreno whirled, swinging the gun toward Blair. At the same time, Blair threw the first rock. His fastball was as good as ever: the rock beaned Carreno in the forehead. But not before Carreno pulled the trigger.

The Ellison freight train hurtled into Blair, tackling him. Bullets whistled over their heads, shredding trees and plants indiscriminately. Jim lay on top of Blair, keeping him down, and wouldn't let him up until a full ten seconds after the last bullet was fired.

Rock in one hand, squeeze bottle in the other, Blair approached Carreno. The man was unconscious, a huge, bloody gash in his forehead. Blair set the rock and bottle down, and unwound a length of vine from around his waist. He removed the gun from Carreno's lax grasp and turned the Sierra Verdean onto his stomach. A few twists of the vine around Carreno's wrists, and Blair began to knot it.

"Sandburg!"

At Jim's shout, Blair automatically twisted and rolled. Gripped in Bryce's bloody hands, the broken branch whizzed through the space where his head had just been. Blair had rolled onto the bottle. He groped for it, brought it up in both hands, and squeezed. A stream of soapy water flooded Bryce's eyes. He shrieked and dropped the branch; clutched his eyes and staggered back still screaming.

"You little bastard! I'll--"

A tiny, feathered dart sprouted from Bryce's neck, cutting him off in mid-threat. He toppled to the ground and lay unmoving. Jim lowered the blowgun to his side. His eyes were open a little more, and weren't quite as red.

"Some guys just don't know when they're beaten."

Blair grinned at him. "Where'd you get that?"

"I went to the temple first. I thought you'd be there."

"Curare?"

"Something like that. He'll be out for a while, but you should tie him up anyway."

Blair treated Bryce as he had Carreno, then turned him onto his back. "Hey, Jim? Now that we've got them, what do we do with them?"

"We wait."

Alarm shivered through him. "I hope you didn't tell the new captain what you were doing, man. I think he's in this with them."

"I know he is. Don't worry, Chief, the cavalry's coming."

"You sure, Jim?"

"Pretty sure."

Jim crouched beside Carreno, made sure he was alive, then did the same with Bryce. The dayglo shirt was covered with blood.

Blair swallowed nausea. "They gonna be okay?"

"They’ll be fine."

"Good."

Jim lifted the shirt to expose three neat holes in Bryce's abdomen. "What the hell?"

"It was this." Blair grabbed the broken branch and held it up for Jim's inspection. Three ballpoint pens were lodged in the wood, points out and bloody. Jim stared, and shook his head.

"Only you, Chief."

"Hey, you know what they say, Jim: The pen is mightier than the AK-47."

 

 

"What did you say this was again, Senor Sandburg?"

Aurelio held out the length of wire that had tripped up Bryce. Blair gave him a quick grin.

"That's the spiral binding from my notebook."

"And this?" A piece of white elastic, narrowly striped with red and blue.

"Uh." Blair actually blushed. "That's the--uh--it's from the waistband of my boxers."

"And Bryce's wounds were made by pens?"

"Yeah."

Jim clapped a hand to Blair's shoulder. "Just call him MacGyver."

The kid looked puzzled for a moment; then a smile broke across his face. "From the American television."

"Right."

Aurelio's new capitan called him, and he went running. Both Bryce and Carreno had regained consciousness, though neither was exactly steady on his feet. The Sierra Verdean cops started to lead them away. Jim looked around for his partner, and found him stuffing what he hadn't destroyed into his backpack.

"Let's go, Chief."

Blair stood up and shouldered his backpack. "You go ahead, Jim. I'm not ready."

"What are you talking about?"

Blue eyes met his. "Jim, why do you think I came here?"

"You tell me, Chief."

Blair shook his head. "I thought you'd understand."

"I'm trying to."

"No, you're not. You think this was some kind of stunt, that I just wanted you to come after me."

"I don't think that."

"Then why are you here?"

"I thought you might need me."

"For what?"

Jim shrugged. "Just to be here."

Blair sighed. "I appreciate that, Jim, I really do. But I have to do this alone."

"Do what?"

"Don’t be deliberately obtuse, man."

"I'm not, Sandburg. I'm asking why you came. What did you think you'd find here? The Temple of Light is a place for sentinels."

"And I'm not a sentinel. I know that, Jim."

"Then why are you here?"

"To find my own place! A place for shamans. There is one, Jim. There has to be."

So that was it. Blair was looking for a place to belong. He should have known. Hell, maybe he had known and just hadn’t wanted to admit it. That wouldn’t be anything new. Fine, then. Blair wanted to find this place for shamans. He could live with that, as long as there was some chance of actually finding it. If there wasn’t, he was going to have to talk Blair out of this. Somehow.

"Do you feel it?"

Blair's gaze was suspicious, as if he thought Jim might be making fun of him. But he answered. "I don't know. I think so. I thought I was being drawn to the temple, but that wasn't it. Now I feel--I think it's here somewhere. Close to the Temple of Light, but not a part of it."

Blair did feel it. He couldn’t argue; he’d acted on his own feelings too many times. "Then we'll find it."

"Not we, Jim: me. I'll find it." Blair charged on before he could protest. "You remember when you were looking for the Temple of Light? Incacha told you that you had to find it alone. It's the same for me. You can't do this for me, man."

"You followed me. I can follow you."

"I don't know if that's a good idea."

"Why don't we try it and see? If we don't hear from Incacha, we'll figure we're on the right track. Okay?"

Blair studied him closely, still looking for mockery. "You're serious."

"Yeah. I am."

"What about your leg?"

"I'm fine."

"You sure?"

"I'm fine, Sandburg."

Blair nodded. "Okay, man. Let's go."

They reached the temple in about fifteen minutes. Blair had led the way in complete silence, glancing back once in a while to confirm Jim's presence, but never speaking to him. Now he stood at the bottom of the stairs, gazing up, making no move to climb. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, almost meditating on his feet. Jim hung back and kept quiet. He was in no position to question anything Blair did here; not after Alex.

Blair opened his eyes and turned his head to the left. Without hesitation, he set off into the trees. Jim followed about fifty feet behind. The backpack slipped from Blair's shoulders and thumped to the ground, forgotten. Jim picked it up without comment.

Blair's path led them around the temple. The walls of the pyramid were visible through the trees, but Blair never once looked at them or gave any indication that he realized the temple was so close. He threaded his way through trees and undergrowth without ever slowing his pace, and he had stopped looking back to check on Jim. Jim doubted that Blair even remembered he was there.

Gradually, Blair veered farther left, away from the temple. He continued on, never slowing or looking around, intent on his eventual goal. Jim dialed down the persistent ache in his knee and kept following, trying not to limp. Not that Blair would have noticed.

A faint rushing reached Jim's ears. He tuned in on it, trying to identify the sound: running water. Blair was headed directly toward it. In minutes, Blair stopped. The ground before him sloped down to a pond fed by a small waterfall. A profusion of blossoming trees and bushes perfumed the air. Hidden among them were statues, each about three feet high, carved in the shapes of different animals and birds. Blair's voice was hushed.

"This is it, Jim. This is where I'm supposed to be."

Thank God. "That's great, Chief."

A quick smile, and Blair started down the slope. He paused, looking back. "Wait for me here, okay? I might--be a while."

"I'll wait."

Jim watched his descent. When Blair reached the bottom, he turned away and set about making camp. That done, he took up sentry position on the perimeter, watching and listening for any possible intruders. He didn't think about what he was doing, or why. He just knew it had to be done. The shaman was in the place of his choosing. It was the sentinel's task to stand guard, to be watchman for his shaman's peace.

 

This was the right place. It had to be. There was a peace here, a quietness unlike the rest of the jungle. It didn't look any different, except for all the statues. But he could feel it. He could feel the calm seeping into him, helping him to prepare for what he hoped would come. Maybe it was wrong to go after it like this, to want it so badly. Maybe he was supposed to wait for it to come to him. But he'd never gotten anything by waiting for it. He'd always had to go out and get whatever he wanted. He hadn't just waited for Jim to show up at his office three years ago; he'd gone to the hospital and told Jim to come. If he hadn't done that, his life would be completely different now. He sure as hell wouldn't be here, in the middle of the Sierra Verde rainforest, hoping for a defining shamanic vision.

This couldn't be wrong. A lot of shamans sought visions deliberately. And a lot of people who weren't shamans went on vision quests. Of course, they usually prepared for them with purification rituals, like bathing and fasting. He hadn't eaten much in the last few days, but he wasn't fasting either. And he was filthy. On top of that, shamans went through years of training. He'd had no training at all, unless you counted on-the-job experience. So maybe he wasn't supposed to be here.

No, that made no sense. Obviously, he was here. He'd found the place. If he wasn't meant to be here, he wouldn't be. Simple as that. So quit doubting yourself, Sandburg, and get on with what you came here to do. But a bath probably wouldn't hurt. Especially since all the dirt he'd smeared on his skin was starting to itch.

Might as well do this right. Blair removed his clothing--everything, including his boxers. It was always better to approach the spirits as humbly as possible, and you couldn't get much more humble than naked. He pulled the band from his hair--they were a bitch to get out when they got wet--and approached the water. Though the pond was small, its water was deep blue and inviting. He stuck a tentative toe in: cool, but not cold. Just the way it should be.

Blair waded into the water. He thought only briefly of drowning. There was no real fear of it in this place. Within a few steps, the water level had risen to his waist; a few more, and he was swimming, pulling toward the waterfall. It was usually best to purify yourself with running water. Besides, it would be fun.

Clear water foamed white when it struck the pond's surface. Around the fall, plants and vines hung, almost all of them flowering in tropical hues of scarlet, fuchsia, canary, and purple, their scents so strong that they seemed to perfume the water. Blair ducked under the cascade, his feet finding a ledge on which he could stand. He straightened into the flow. Water pounded on his skull, made his hair into curving snakes that clung to his face and neck, and sluiced the last of the dirt from his skin. Eyes closed, he stood under the clear flood until he knew himself cleansed.

Using the ledge as a diving platform, he plunged back into the blue water of the pond and made his way slowly to shore. It seemed forever since he'd felt so calm, and he didn't want to leave the water's influence. He floated for a while, gazing at patches of blue sky through the foliage of overarching trees, but he couldn't stay there all day. At last, he forced himself back to the land.

He had no clean clothes. For a minute, he debated the possible embarrassment of being caught naked, but he knew that wouldn't happen. No one would come here. If anyone did, the sentinel would stop them. Leaving his discarded clothes where they were, he sat down on the ground and arranged his body in half-lotus position. He touched thumbs to fingertips, laid his hands on his knees, and closed his eyes.

Deep breath. Hold it. Let it out through your mouth. Deep breath. Hold it. Let it out through your mouth. Blair felt his body settling, centering, finding its place with the earth. He let go of conscious thought, of conscious breath, and sank into himself. There was no urgency, no time, no world. There was....

"Hi."

Blair opened his eyes and saw himself. But not himself as he was now. This was himself as he'd been three years ago, the day Jim had first come to his office: white shirt, Guatemalan patchwork vest--Whatever happened to that?--torn jeans and all. With the addition of a gold star glowing in the center of his forehead.

"Funny," he said, nodding at the star.

"Hey, man, you asked for it," younger Blair replied.

"I was kidding."

His younger self just grinned. "You ready?"

"For what?"

"To go, man. Come on!"

His younger self took off through the trees. Blair scrambled to his feet and ran after him, keeping the bright patchwork in sight. He wanted to yell at himself to slow down, but he didn't waste his breath. Visions almost never did what you wanted them to. So he ran, following himself, trying to consider all the implications of what that might mean, and trying not to think about how much this was killing his bare feet or how much easier it would be if he were the wolf, which would not only be completely cool, but would also be more practical.

Thought/was and he ran now on four feet, his vision sharper, his hearing more acute. His younger self was gone, but he ran on, leaping fallen trees, dodging obstacles without ever slowing, curbed by no thoughts or fears, running for the joy and the rightness of it, needing no goal and no end.

TREE loomed, bigger than sequoia, its bark mottled grey and brown, massive branches spread far, farther than he could see, bearing leaves of many shapes and sizes. He lurched to a stop. Wolf split into three and was gone, leaving Blair facing his younger self, facing the TREE. His younger self was still grinning, the star still glowing on his forehead.

"Come on, man, what are you waiting for? Climb it!"

"You climb it."

Younger Blair laughed. "Are you kidding me? I am not in the mood to have my skull ventilated by some pissed-off magpie. "

"Neither am I."

Blair craned his neck. The TREE vanished into the night sky. He knew what it was: some sort of representation of the World Tree, the Tree of Life. It was a fixture in a lot of cultures, so it was no real surprise that it had shown up in his vision. But how far was he supposed to climb? And what was he supposed to do when he got there?

"Blair, man, not everything can be analyzed," his younger self said. "Just go with it."

He sighed. "Yeah, okay, you're--gone."

His younger self had disappeared. Blair shrugged. He had a feeling he'd see himself again later. Stepping closer to the TREE, he laid his hand against the smooth, grey-brown bark. It was warm to the touch, almost like skin. There was a rushing beneath the surface, and he knew that it was the TREE's lifeblood coursing from the roots to nourish the tips of the slenderest twigs.

Branches grew low to the ground. Blair hoisted himself onto the nearest, and began to climb. The ground soon became lost in darkness and he was grateful for that. He climbed, trying to keep his eyes fixed upward, not wanting to look down or even to the sides. The TREE bore fruit he didn't want to see. Sacs of pomegranate red hung like water balloons, seeming almost comical until whatever was inside moved, pushing at the elastic walls with what might be elbows or knees or talons. He didn't want to know. He'd read tales of what was in the sacs: shamans or their souls, demons, animals--they varied, but he didn't like the idea of any of them, didn't like thinking of the possibility of any part of him--body or soul--being imprisoned in one of those sacs. The sacs weren't prisons, really. Their contents were growing there as in a womb, but as far as he was concerned, one womb was enough for any lifetime and he wouldn't go back without a fight. So he climbed and didn't look and tried not to see, because he had the most godawful, irrational fear that if he looked too closely, he'd be able to see through the pomegranate walls and what he would see would be himself. And he couldn't--absolutely could not--deal with that.

Minutes, hours, days. He didn't know how long he climbed. Like the beanstalk, the TREE went up and up, but it had no end in a giant's castle, it had no end at all, unless it were the end of the world, and he didn't want to find that, so he climbed. Eventually, his fear faded, and the sacs became just one more part of the TREE, even when they moved, even when he glimpsed the outline of a face stretching one rubbery wall. It was, there was no point in fearing it.

"Hey, man. About time you got here."

His younger self stood off to the right, waving at him, surrounded by light so bright that Blair had to squint just to look at him. In contrast, the star on his forehead seemed subdued. He'd added a pair of sunglasses with rectangular frames and reddish lenses, but other than that, he looked exactly the same.

Blair walked a branch to its end. He could see no floor or ground to support him, just light, but his younger self showed no signs of falling, so he took it on faith and stepped off the branch. He didn't fall. He couldn't have said what it was he stood on, only that it was like nothing he'd ever touched before. His younger self waved an arm around.

"Pretty cool, huh?"

"It's kind of bright."

"Oh, right. Here." His younger self took off the sunglasses and handed them to Blair. "I don't really need them anyway."

Blair gazed at the lenses in mild disgust. "Rose-colored glasses?"

Younger Blair clapped him on the shoulder. "It's your head, my brother. You have no one to blame but yourself."

"I thought I was past this stuff."

"Is anyone?" Younger Blair grinned again. "That was profound, by the way. You might want to put it in your notes."

"Profound, my ass."

His younger self laughed. "Come on, man, they're waiting for you."

"Who?"

"Uh-uh. That would ruin the surprise."

Blair put the sunglasses on, and the world changed. It was still bright--the sky was yellow--but there was soft grass beneath his feet, and trees grew here and there, their leaves so green they seemed to glow with a light of their own. Water flowed nearby; he could hear the music of it. Flowers dotted the grass, sprouting in clumps between the roots of trees. Birds sang in branches and soared overhead. If he looked, he was afraid he'd see little woodland creatures gathering around him expecting a song, so he didn't look. Disney-cliché or not, he had to admit it was nice. He could spend some time here.

"Let's go, man!"

His younger self morphed into the wolf and trotted off, not too fast for once, so he didn't have to run. He followed along, enjoying the warmth, and the feel of the grass, and the light breeze that played across his skin. The wolf headed for a grove of trees, all different: oak, willow, elm, maple, pine, and others he couldn't identify. He caught glimpses of something colorful between the trunks, but couldn't tell what it was until they entered the grove.

A tent had been erected in the center of the clearing, its design native to no people he knew, walls and roof constructed of skins painted with various designs. Scarlet, blue, and viridian feathers fluttered from the tent poles. Garlands of flowers draped the walls. A square of embroidered silk hung in the doorway; above it, a polar bear's head looked down, its white-furred skin embracing the roof. Though the disparate elements made no sense to him at all, he knew it was right.

The wolf passed through the silk without disturbing it. Blair hesitated. He was supposed to go in, he knew that. This was what he'd wanted, what he'd come here for. So why was he afraid?

"Dammit, Sandburg, quit being such a wuss and get in there."

A few more deep breaths, and Blair pushed the silk aside, ducking into the tent.

Seven people awaited him, seated in a semi-circle on the other side of a fire. His younger self was first, on the far left, grinning at him as usual. Incacha sat beside him, dressed in his kilt and paint, red feathers dangling from his braids. Next to him, an old woman in skins sewn with metal plates and charms scowled at the world. Feathers and tufts of fur encircled her neck, and a rough cap covered her grey hair. Blair recognized the ceremonial costume as that of a Siberian shaman. Beside her was a Native American from one of the plains tribes--Cheyenne, maybe. His black hair trailed loose to the ground. Eagle feathers hung on one side of his head. He wore a hairpipe breastplate, leggings, and moccasins covered with beadwork. On his right was a brown-skinned woman of about forty. A yellow scarf covered her head, decorated with beads and mirrors. Others draped her body, and voluminous skirts in many colors spread out around her. Next was an Aboriginal man, as naked as Blair himself, his thin body painted with concentric circles and lizards made of tiny white dots. Last, to the extreme right, was a Chinese woman robed in silks the color of sky and sunset, her hair carefully dressed. His younger self kept the grin pasted on his face. The rest gazed at him impassively, except for the Siberian woman, who openly sneered. Okay, she didn't like him. One out of seven wasn't bad. Did he stand, to show respect? Or did he sit, so he wouldn't be above them? Or maybe he was supposed to turn around three times and then lie down.

His younger self laughed. Scarf-woman and Incacha smiled, but the expressions of the others didn't change. Okay, Sandburg, watch what you're thinking. The Siberian woman snorted.

"This one thinks well of himself. Wolf," she spat. "Wolf is weak, not worthy of our gathering."

"He is here," Incacha said.

"That proves nothing."

The Cheyenne turned his head to look at her, his expression unchanged. Behind him, on the wall of the tent, his shadow grew, nose and mouth lengthening to snarling muzzle. "Wolf is the brother of my spirit, as you well know," he said. "Do you call me weak? Not worthy to be here?"

Bear-shadow hunched behind the Siberian. "Mistakes can be made."

"We have discussed this," the Chinese woman said quietly. "It does you no credit to argue in the presence of the initiate."

Both shadows subsided, shrinking back to those of a man and a woman. Scarf-woman smiled at Blair. "You may sit."

Blair folded himself into a half-lotus, and waited to see what they'd do next, trying not to think or to be too aware of his nudity. They didn't keep him waiting long.

"Who are you?" his younger self asked.

"That's what I'm here to find out," Blair answered.

Younger self cocked his head and repeated his question slowly, as though he thought Blair might not have understood the first time. "Who...Are...You?"

"I don't know."

Younger self shook his head and sighed. He drew his knees up and put his head down on them, locking his hands around his ankles. Well, that was obviously the wrong answer. But he didn't have any others.

"What do you want?" Incacha asked.

Blair took a moment to gather his thoughts before answering. There didn't seem to be any hurry. "I want to know where I belong."

"The Great City no longer has need of you?"

"I'm not sure it ever did."

"And Enqueri? He no longer has need of you?"

"He needs someone. I just don't know if it's me."

"Why are you here?" the Siberian demanded.

"You tell me," Blair shot back.

She didn't ask again. She just waited, glaring at him, staring him down, staring into his soul.

"To find answers," he said.

"Go home, boy," she growled. "Wolf, go home. There are no answers for you here."

"I can't just go home. I need to know. Am I a shaman? Am I Jim's shaman?"

"What is your choice?" the Cheyenne asked.

Blair met dark eyes, but found no answers there. "I don't understand."

The Cheyenne smiled at him. "Wolf-brother. Must the teacher be taught?"

"Please."

"Spirits guide; they do not command. Choose your own path."

"How?"

"Where is your heart?" Scarf-woman asked gently.

Blair turned to her. Her brown eyes were kind, but there was a spark of humor in their depths that appealed to him. He had never seen her before, but there was something familiar about her, something he couldn't name. When she rested her gaze on him, he felt both more and less naked than he already had.

"I think it's lost," he said.

"No." She shook her head. The beads on her yellow scarf sparkled in the firelight, and the mirrors scattered reflections on the walls. "Oshun's love is with you. Son and brother, your heart can never be lost. Blair," she breathed, and he understood then why people had once guarded their names for fear of enchantment. "Where is your heart?"

"With you," he wanted to say, but he knew that wasn't true. Or at least, it wouldn't be when he was back in the real world. She knew, though, and smiled her understanding and her power. He tried to be honest, but his knowledge of himself was imperfect, and he could only tell her what he thought was true. "It's not--in one place. Some of it's with my mother, some with my friends. Some of it went with Maya. A lot of it used to be with my work. But that's gone now. There's--an empty place. Like there was when Maya left, but--bigger. Different, anyway."

"And the rest?" she prompted.

"The rest is with Jim." He smiled briefly. "I knew that. But, see, it's not what I want that matters here, it's what Jim needs. If I'm not the right shaman for him, I can't stay."

"He is here," she said.

"He's my friend."

"What do you dream?" the Aborigine asked.

"I used to dream all the time," Blair replied. "But my old dreams are gone. They couldn't come true without hurting--a lot of other people."

The lined face was unreadable. "What do you dream?"

"Of helping people. I guess that's not new. Of helping Jim, the way I used to. Of being a shaman. A real shaman. That last one's kind of selfish, but I dream it a lot. I just don't know what it means, exactly. I don't know how to make it real."

"The dream is real," the Aborigine said. "The dream is the making."

"But how--"

"What do you see?" the Chinese woman asked.

Blair glanced around the tent. "Only this."

"Close your eyes." Blair obeyed. "What do you see?"

"Nothing. Only--"

Jim shoved him up against his office wall, fear and rage warring in icy blue eyes. Jim snatched the phone out of his hand, angry because he was thinking of going to Borneo, of leaving. He handed Blair a gun, "I'm glad you came," then turned and vanished into the jungle. Slick fingers slipped from his grasp, and Jim sank into the vat of oil. Jim clapped his hands, and the Golden Fire People slunk away, back into the darkness.

Incacha grabbed his arm and wouldn't let go, gripped him hard and spoke words he couldn't understand, words Jim translated haltingly, words that didn't make sense. He was scared, and he wanted Incacha to let go. Incacha's grip tightened; then the shaman was dead. His hand fell away, leaving a bloody print on Blair's arm, a print he could still see.

He fought with Jim, forced him to listen, to take back his sentinel abilities. There was no more after that, no more of shaman, but there was fighting, fighting over the diss, and fear, and betrayal, always betrayal. Jim didn't trust him. Jim packed his belongings in boxes and told him to get out; Jim told him he needed a partner he could trust. Alex came to his office, and she had a gun and couldn't let him live. Wolf, he ran in the forest, until the black jaguar called him back. He leaped, the jaguar leaped, and there was light and warmth and rightness. And then it was gone, and there was cold, wet grass and a mask over his face, and he lay in a hospital bed while Jim said, "I'm not ready to take that trip with you, Chief."

Not ready. But Alex was ready, and Jim was ready for Alex. He followed her, wanted her, kissed her on the beach, but he stopped her, he took the canister of nerve gas from her and held her while she fell into the abyss of her senses.

Everything was wrong, everything. Jim accused him of betrayal, of being in collusion with Sid Graham; Jim wouldn't talk to him, wouldn't work with him, wouldn't look at him, wouldn't believe him. He kept his eyes on his written statement while he told the world he was a fraud, kept his eyes on the floor while he told Jim it was only a book, and Jim said, "It was your life," as though that mattered to him, but he still couldn't look at him. Jim tossed him a badge, and he didn't know what to say, what to think. Jim slung an arm around his neck, and everyone was laughing, everything was all right, but it wasn't, was it? Because as much as he wanted to work with Jim, as much as he wanted to stay with him, he could still see Incacha's bloody handprint on his arm.

"Tell me something I don't know," he murmured.

Blood ran from the handprint down his arm, dripped onto his leg and spread, soaking his pants, pooling on the ground beneath him. Jim pinned him down and pressed a cloth over his mouth and nose, choking him, suffocating him. Jim apologized, over and over, but he couldn't breathe, and the world fell away.

Blood. There was blood everywhere. A young black woman, a bloody cross carved into her chest. A man with arms stretched as though crucified; another arranged with hands folded, a bunch of flowers placed on his chest. Blair shook his head, eyes squeezed tightly shut. No! No more blood!

Jim's fingers flew, talking to him in sign; he answered the same way. Dice tumbled across the green felt of a craps table. Jim aimed a crossbow and fired. Jim was dead weight in his arms, head lolling back as Blair struggled to drag him over the ground. Jim was gone. Jim was dead, and Simon put an arm around his shoulders, trying to comfort him, but he threw Simon's arm off and stood, shouting his denial. Jim wasn't dead, he couldn't be dead,

"Jim!"

Blair opened his eyes, saw fire, and seven shamans. He started to shake, but none of them moved, they only gazed at him as though from far above.

"How does this help me?" he demanded. "What are you telling me? Jim is not going to die."

"All men die," the Siberian said.

"Your visions are your own," the Chinese woman said. "We do not send them."

"But what does it mean? Jim can't die."

"Perhaps you see what you fear," Incacha offered. "Enqueri saw much darkness in his visions, yet what he feared did not come to pass."

"You mean I can stop it? I can keep Jim from dying?"

His younger self raised his head. "Not if you're not there, man."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"Are you certain?" Scarf-woman asked.

"Yes. I know where my heart is."

"Prove it," the Siberian barked.

She threw something onto the fire. Smoke engulfed him, and Blair felt himself rising from the ground. Carried on the smoke, he passed through the tent roof and floated up, higher, higher, until he could no longer see the tent.

His feet touched solid ground, and the smoke dissipated. Blair swore, and jerked back. He stood on the edge of a cliff. To his right, a waterfall roared. Far below, dark water waited, jagged rocks thrusting up through the surface. Before him, a rope bridge stretched across the gap, so narrow that a crosser would have to set one foot in front of the other. The guide rope looked no thicker than twine and just as apt to break. On the other side, six of the seven shamans waited. His younger self was--

"Right here, man."

Blair jumped, and tried not to think murder. Or would it be suicide? "Don't do that!"

"Sorry. You know what's going on here, right?"

"Yeah. This is a test." Blair inched a little closer to the edge. "What if I can't do it?"

"No big deal. You'll just be back where you were before Incacha passed the way to you."

"Will I still be able to help Jim?"

"This isn't about Jim, my brother. It's not about friendship, either. It's about you. Who are you?"

His younger self disappeared. Blair peered over the edge again. Oh, God. It was a long way down. But, hey, at least he knew this was a vision and nothing could really happen to him. Right?

He tore his gaze from the rocks below. Okay, Blair, you can do this. You have to do this. No matter what his other self said, there was no real choice. He needed to be a shaman. He needed to help Jim. How much of that was his own need and not Jim's, he could think about later. Right now, he had a string to cross.

Blair took a deep breath, and slid one foot onto the rope. It prickled his bare skin, but felt strong enough. He grabbed the guide rope, squeezed his eyes shut for a second, and hauled himself onto the bridge. The bridge swayed. He clutched the guide rope with both hands, surprised that it didn't snap from the tension. Sweat was already beading on his face.

"Oh God oh God oh God oh God. I don't think I can do this. I don't--"

Blair shut his mouth. He was going to do this. He was on the bridge; it was holding him. All he had to do was move. Straight line. One foot in front of the other. Easy. Anyone could do it. Jim would do it without a second thought, and Jim was a lot heavier than he was. He could do this. If he could just get his foot to work again. Right now, it seemed to be paralyzed, along with the rest of his body. Dammit, move!

Slowly, Blair lifted his right foot and placed it ahead of his left. Okay, good. He did the same with his left foot, and slid his hands along the guide rope, making sure one always had a good grip. Great. He was moving. He wasn't looking down; that would be bad. He wasn't trying to look back, to see how far away from the cliff he was. He wasn't looking forward, either. His gaze was locked on the guide rope, where it was staying, no matter what. He liked the guide rope. The guide rope was his friend.

Oh, swell, now hysteria was setting in. He did not need that. Calm down, Blair, there's no reason for panic. You're doing this. You're fine. Everything's cool. Really. A little rope-burn is a good thing.

Right foot, left foot, slide. Right foot, left foot, slide. Great. Great. You've got the rhythm now, you've got all the moves, baby. This is cool. This is good. Right foot, left foot, slide. Just don't get cocky. Cocky's bad. Cocky leads to trouble. Right foot, left foot, slide. Right foot, left foot--

Something snapped. Blair's head jerked up, and he froze in place. What the hell was that? He ran his eyes along the guide rope. Was that a strand of fiber hanging loose at the other end? No, couldn't be. Couldn't be. He was supposed to get across. That was the test, right? Right?

Right foot. Left foot. Slide. Right foot. Left foot. Slide. Right foo--

Another strand snapped. The guide rope felt wrong now; there was too much give. Blair raised his eyes to the shamans on the other side. They watched without expression. Except, of course, for his younger self. That bastard was grinning, as always. He had never been like that.

Blair returned his gaze to the rope. The shamans were not going to help him. But he was more than halfway across. He could do this. He just had to move a little faster, a little smoother, try not to jar the guide rope so no more strands would--

A third strand broke. A fourth. Oh, God. Oh, God. He was going to die again. Real or not, it was still going to suck. But he wasn't going to stand here. He wasn't just going to wait for it. He was going to cross this damn bridge.

Right, left, right, left, and another strand broke, but he didn't stop, he didn't even slow down. Right, left, right, left, right, left--

Gunshots--one-two-three! The last strands snapped, and the guide rope plummeted. He dropped it and kept going, but the loss of the guide rope set the bridge swaying wildly and he was no tightrope walker. Blair pitched over, grabbed for the bridge, missed. Falling! Oh God, he was falling! The water churned, the rocks rushing up to rip him apart, and he closed his eyes, couldn't look, didn't want to see.

"Progress report, man. How am I doing? Do I make a good you?"

Blair's eyes flew open. Oh my God, this wasn't happening, this could not be happening, but it was Lash, in that crummy wig and his old coat with the patch on the sleeve where Kincaid's men had almost shot him, and he was chained in the dentist's chair, but there was no warehouse, no candles, everything was dark around them and only Lash was illuminated, a psychotic beacon.

"You suck!" Blair spat. "You think you can be me? When's my birthday? Huh? What was the name of my first girlfriend? How old was I when I broke my arm falling out of Mrs. Danbush's tree? Huh? Come on, you freak, answer me!"

Lash just stared at him. Something snapped inside, and he wasn't afraid anymore, he was angry, angry that he was going through this again, angry that they were making him, angry that he'd ever had to go through it in the first place.

"You can't be me! Only I think what I think, feel what I feel!"

"I can be you," Lash declared.

"No! Only I can be me!"

"Who are you?"

"I'm Blair Sandburg, dammit!"

"Exactly." Younger self patted his shoulder. "Man, I thought you'd never get it."

He wanted to punch the grin off his face. But he had the sneaking suspicion that if he did, he'd be the one to end up with the bruises. Seething, he glared from shaman to shaman. They were unimpressed.

"What the hell kind of test was that? You rigged it against me!"

"It's not about winning, man," his younger self said. "It's about commitment."

"To what?"

Younger Blair shrugged. "Whatever."

"Okay, so I passed, right? I'm committed. Or I should be. Are we done now?"

"Chill," his younger self said. "You asked for this, remember?"

"Yeah." Blair sighed, and the tension drained from his body. "I did. This is good. It's all good. I hope."

The shamans again formed a semi-circle, assuming their former places. Blair faced them, trying not to wonder what could possibly be next. The Chinese woman approached him, silk robes rustling. From her sleeve, she took something small and green, which she handed to Blair. It was a piece of jade, less than two inches across, carved in the shape of a lotus flower.

"It is a shaman's duty to see," she said. "Open your eyes, initiate."

She returned to her place, and the Aboriginal man stepped forward, leaning on a staff taller than he was. He showed Blair a double-pointed quartz crystal about two inches long, but didn't give it to him. Instead, he reached up and patted the top of Blair's head. Blair smiled at him. The old man smiled back, and slammed his hand down on Blair's head, driving the crystal into his skull.

"Ow!" Blair ducked away from him, frantically feeling for blood. He didn't find any. He didn't even find a wound. He glared at the old man, to no effect.

"It is a shaman's duty to dream," the Aborigine said. "Dream wonders, maker."

Scarf-woman swayed, smiling. She took the yellow scarf from her head and draped it around Blair's neck.

"It is a shaman's duty to love." She stroked his cheek. "Know your heart, sweet Blair."

He blushed. She laughed, and kissed him lightly on the mouth before returning to the others. Struggling to keep a straight face, the Cheyenne moved forward. He pressed a tiny leather pouch into Blair's hand: a medicine bag.

"It is a shaman's duty to choose. Choose wisely, wolf-brother."

The Siberian clanked and clanged, halted inches away. Shorter than Blair, she still managed to look down her nose at him. She yanked a piece of metal from her costume and held it out to him. Blair took it from her. It was a charm, roughly fashioned in the shape of a wolf.

"It is a shaman's duty to know," she rasped. "Learn well, wolfcub. If you can."

She turned her back on him. Incacha waited politely for her to resume her place. He clasped Blair's left arm, as he had just before he died. This time, Blair didn't try to pull away. This time, he wasn't afraid. Incacha smiled. He tugged a slender, curling red feather from one of his braids and laid it across Blair's palm.

"It is a shaman's duty to guide," he said softly. "Show your sentinel the way, shaman."

"I'll try," Blair said, the only answer he had felt compelled to give.

Incacha went back to the semi-circle. Blair's younger self bounded over, rolling his eyes.

"Forget all that duty stuff. Just be you, man." He leaned close, and whispered, "Nothing's written in stone."

"That's profound," Blair said. "I'll add it to my notes."

His younger self laughed. He reached up, plucked the gold star from his forehead, and pressed it to Blair's. Grinning, he stepped forward. Blair braced for a collision, but his younger self had become insubstantial. Their bodies merged, and Blair was left with six other shamans. He looked from one to the other, and smiled.

"Thank you."

Blair opened his eyes. Sunlight sparkled on the blue water before him. He stretched his upper body and straightened his legs, letting out a groan. Man, he was stiff. Must be getting old if he couldn't meditate for a few hours without getting sore. But God, he felt good. Better than he had in a long time.

A flash of red caught his eye, and he turned his head, expecting to see a flower. Caught on a twig, a red feather fluttered, though there was no wind. Blair took the feather into his hand, stroked it gently. This couldn't be a coincidence. The feather had to be Incacha's gift to him.

Time to go. Jim was waiting. Blair pulled on his clothes. He put the feather in his pocket, took a last look around, and climbed back up the slope. Jim met him at the top.

"Everything okay, Chief?"

He smiled. "Everything's good, Jim."

"I was getting ready to go haul you out of there."

"Why?"

"Why?" Jim echoed. "Three days, Chief."

"Three days?" Blair shook his head. Well, that explained the stiffness.

"Did you get what you needed?" Jim asked.

"Yeah. Yeah, I did."

"Anything you want to talk about?"

"Not yet, man, I've gotta process first. Let's just go home."

Blair watched while Jim packed up his meager camp and extinguished the fire. He didn't offer to help, and Jim didn't seem to expect it of him. There was too much in his head, too much to think about, to consider, to--he laughed softly at himself--analyze. When Jim was done, they set off into the jungle, back toward the town, the airport, and home.

"Hey, Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"This is gonna sound strange, but there isn't by any chance a gold star on my forehead, is there?"

 

"Man, it feels good to be home."

Blair dumped his backpack on the floor and shrugged out of his coat. Jim grabbed it from him before it hit the floor too, and hung it on one of the hooks. Blair never even paused. He just staggered on, into the living room, where he flopped onto the couch. Laying his head back on the cushions, he closed his eyes and just breathed.

Jim sat down beside him, watching him. Blair still hadn't talked about whatever he'd experienced, but something had definitely changed. He was smiling a lot more, which could only be good. But when he wasn't sleeping, he usually had a dreamy, thoughtful look in his eyes that Jim wasn't sure he liked.

Blair must have felt his gaze. He opened his eyes and smiled. "What's up, Jim?"

"You tell me, Chief."

"It was amazing, man." His eyes sparkled, for God's sake. "Transcendent."

"All your problems solved?"

"No. Picked up a few more, actually. But it's okay. It'll work out." Blair ran a hand through his hair. "I've decided to go to the academy."

Jim tried not to sound triumphant. "Good."

"Yeah, well, I can't be an observer anymore, and someone's gotta keep an eye on you."

"That's your job, huh?"

"You got that right, man."

"Does this mean you know who you are now?"

"Yeah." Blair sat up straight and stuck out his hand. "How ya doin'? I'm Blair Sandburg."

Jim shook his hand, matching Blair's grin with one of his own. "Jim Ellison. And I'm doing great."

Blair yanked him into a hug. Jim froze for a second, then put his arms around his partner and patted his back awkwardly. He didn't let go. This was long overdue.

"So am I, my brother," Blair said. "So am I."

 

The End