Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

Genre: Gen, Crossover (Supernatural)

Rating: PG-13

Warnings (artwork): Blood and gore.

Warnings (story): Mild horror, violence.

Wordcount: 23,300

Author's Note: My thanks to Sara, whose wonderful artwork and vision inspired this story. And to Morgan and PattRose, for coordinating the 2012 Reverse Bang. And, as always, to StarWatcher for her beta.

Summary: Toward the end of season three, after Crossroads but before Night Shift, Blair's having nightmares and a recently excavated ancient artifact of the god of Death is more than it seems.

Digging Up Death

by Arianna

Art by SCH

Story by Arianna

********************

Prologue: Cholula, Mexico, under the Great Pyramid, 300 BCE - 23 May 1998:

I fought what seems eons ago, when the Xelhua first cast me into this pit and cursed me, so that I was imprisoned within this cold stone. I raged against the darkness, the empty, endless silence. For years, forever it seemed, I raged, but my lonely prison remained firm. No one can imagine the horror of it, of being trapped in the boundless darkness behind closed eyelids, bereft of all light and warmth, with no touch or sound, no sense of time passing, caught in an eternal moment between one breath and the next. And why had they cursed me? For what reason was I condemned to this hideous punishment? What was my crime?

I screamed at their perfidy, ranted at their jealousy, but of course, there was no sound, not in the stone in which I now dwelled. My crime? Only that I served the gods, as was my duty. And I was immortal, as I was created so that my service would know no end. The priests hated me for how well I served, and the shamans conjured a way to turn my immortality into a weapon of torture and eternal torment, here in this well of cold, silent, stone.

I might have gone insane. In truth, perhaps I did for uncountable centuries. How could I not? For untold years, I imagined being back in the sphere of the spirits, a place of incomparable peace and beauty, and forgot for a time that I had been cast out. I felt myself walking in the clean, clear air, spiced with the scent of chocolate and flowers, my toes digging into the hot dust. I felt rich, pulsing blood gush over my hand, my fingers wrapped around a still-beating heart. I could see the spray of blood, smell its singular metallic essence, feel the muscles in my arm contract as I ripped the heart free and raised it with a cry of praise to the gods I was there to serve...

Eventually, even the madness passed, leaving only emptiness and the weight of darkness. I realized the truth then, and that truth gave me the strength to learn the skill and art of patience. I need only wait. The truth was and is and ever shall be that I am immortal. Eventually, I will again see the light of day, feel the warmth of the sun, smell the richness of the earth, and walk in the company of humans. I will have both my revenge and my triumph, for the gods will not be denied. Humans - despite their pride and wicked independence - are created only to serve the gods, to be fodder for their divine will.

Eventually, I will, once again, be their instrument.

... ... ... waiting ... ... ... waiting ....

A tremble in the earth? Vibrations, rhythmic, growing stronger, sand trickling through rocks. Light! Blinding brilliance and seductive warmth. And, finally, after untold eons, the long-awaited touch of a human hand. I AM FREE TO SERVE!

Cascade, Washington

Blair jerked awake, the cacophony and horror that woke him still thrumming through his bones: cats yowling, roaring, screaming, wolves growling, yipping, howling, bears bellowing, elephants trumpeting, thousands upon thousands of wings cracking and snapping, whirring as birds hit the air with high, sharp cries, hooves thundering upon dry earth, agonizing human shrieks abruptly silenced. Familiar faces frozen in a frenzy of fear. Trembling with raw panic, he inhaled deeply to calm himself, but gagged at the all-pervasive sickly-sweet metallic scent of blood. Terrified now, he rolled upright and turned on the bedside lamp, only to find nothing wrong. Heart pounding, he struggled to remember and understand the nightmare that woke him, even as its blue shadows and sounds faded from his mind, leaving only nameless dread twisting in his gut.

ACT: I June 18, 1998

Blair was hitching a ride with Jim from the PD to Hargrove Hall; he'd be going on a stakeout with Jim later, and it was easier to ride together. The air was heavy with humidity and, though it was summer and only late afternoon, the clouds and light drizzle created an early twilight. His body also felt heavy and sluggish, weariness weighing him down, wearing him down like water over stone. Whenever he slept, the nightmares returned. Every damned time. So now, he tried not to sleep until exhaustion dragged him into muffled darkness. But the strategy wasn't working for him; he felt drugged, and his body ached with the need for sleep. As he stared out the window, wondering if he should go to the clinic and get some pills that would just knock him out, he was scarcely aware that the truck had stopped and that Jim was talking to him.

"You're sure you'll be ready to go when I come back in two hours?" Jim demanded as they turned into the entrance and the long drive to the Hall. "You couldn't just put this off until tomorrow? Sandburg? You hear me?"

"Yeah, yeah," Blair muttered, reaching for the lever to open the door. "I do have a day job," he snapped defensively. "I told you I'd be ready and I will be. And I've already told you I have to unpack these artifacts ASAP. We have to inventory them tomorrow and then get a quick analysis and research done because there's no time to lose. According to the original research agreement with Mexico, whatever objects the exploration team found were only ever supposed to be on loan for a few months, so they could be studied before being returned to the local authorities. Now, with the team gone, it's going to take even more work to sort out everything. We're lucky the crates were mostly already packed and labeled, or their findings might never have been shipped at all." Vaguely aware that he was rambling, knowing that Jim really didn't care about the details about his work at Rainier, Blair stopped talking and shoved the door open.

"Mexico? Dig? Why isn't the project team, or whatever you call them, doing their own unpacking?" Jim asked, exasperated. He knew Blair had a point about his responsibilities to his work at Rainier, but unpacking dusty, grubby bits of stone and pottery or whatever didn't have a high priority with him. Blair had been run off his feet lately, and it didn't seem either reasonable or fair that he should also have to do someone else's grunt work.

Blair stiffened and looked away. "They can't," he said, his tone low and tight as he fought back the nearly ever-present dream fragments of those hideous shrieks and frozen masks of horror. "They're dead."

"What?" Jim exclaimed as Blair climbed out of the truck. "All of them? What the hell happened?"

Blair sighed and shrugged, shaking his head. "Nobody's really sure. Looks like they were attacked by a pack of wolves. They were, uh, torn apart." He shuddered. The dim interior light played over the planes of his face, emphasizing his pallor and the dark shadows smudged under his eyes; rain glistened on his face. "Look, Jim, I knew all of them and really don't want to talk about it. I'll be out here waiting for you in two hours." With that, he slammed the door shut and hustled through the light rain to the entrance to Hargrove Hall, where he took the steps two at a time and disappeared inside.

Unsettled by what Blair had just told him about the deaths of his colleagues, and concerned about how bone-tired he seemed to be, Jim wished he hadn't griped about the time Sandburg was giving to the university. Watching the kid disappear inside, Jim had to admit that the big reason his partner was run ragged and on the edge of exhaustion was the amount of time Blair spent helping him with his senses and providing unpaid backup on the job. But, he had a hard time feeling any guilt about that. For one thing, Blair had opted-in years ago, chasing the credentials he'd eventually get out of working with him. And for another, Sandburg had made it clear months ago that he already had enough information to write his dissertation; he'd said he was only putting it off because he didn't want to give up 'the rollercoaster'. It wasn't like Jim was forcing Blair to keep up with him at the PD. Still, Jim thought as he put the truck into gear, it had to be hard on the kid, doing work for friends who had been so suddenly and shockingly killed.

Jim was turning back onto the main drive when a flicker of motion on the edge of his vision caught his attention. He looked quickly, but whatever it was, was now gone. Or at least out of sight. Frowning, Jim rubbed his eyes and told himself that Sandburg wasn't the only one who was tired. He could have sworn he'd just seen a wolf. But what would a wild creature be doing prowling the university grounds? They were a long way from the mountains, a wolf's usual domain. Was probably just a dog, a big shepherd, maybe. He didn't notice the black jaguar that was also prowling the shadows along the side of Hargrove Hall.

********************

Inside the building, Blair spotted Kristen. The other teaching fellow was, like him, all but dissertation. She was waiting for him near the stairwell, leaning on the wall, her long, dark hair cascading to her shoulders and the snug t-shirt and jeans delineating her curvaceous figure. Her wide smile at his arrival lit her pretty face, and Blair couldn't help but smile back. "I really appreciate you agreeing to help with this," Blair gusted, raking his damp hair back and giving himself a shake that sent droplets flying into the air as he hurried toward her.

"After what happened to the team, well, it's the least any of us could do," she replied, her smile fading into sorrow and vague irritation. "You'd think more would have volunteered. I can't believe what everyone is saying. Honestly, scientists should know better, you know? But, oh, no, it's all about curses and -"

"Yeah, I know," Blair cut in as he led the way into the stairwell and down to the basement storage rooms. "It's horrible. God, they must've been so ecstatic about having made such an amazing find. Ancient artifacts found in Cholula, Mexico under the largest pyramid - in fact, the largest manmade monument - ever made? I heard the findings probably date back to three hundred BCE, when the first stones were laid down," he said as they clattered down the stairs, focusing on the details of the find to shut out the visions that had begun to haunt him. "And, instead, they're...."

Blair paused at the bottom of the stairwell, his shoulder against the closed fire door. Sighing, he reflected slowly, "After what happened, I guess it's only natural that some people are talking." He gave her a wan smile. "Any artifacts worth anything seem to come with some kind of curse, right? Even if we all know better, even when we know that any deaths can usually be explained by ancient diseases or poisons that the explorers were exposed to and didn't know about."

"People love to terrify themselves," Kristen observed. "But, well, I have to admit that this was, well, awful."

Shoving open the door, Blair nodded in agreement. He murmured, "I can't believe they're all gone, you know? Professor Anglesey was so amazing, so vibrant, interested in everything, always willing to share his knowledge and to listen to another's ideas. Mariana, his E.A. ...." He bit his lip, his eyes downcast, as he struggled to master his emotions. "She was really something special. Brilliant. I like - liked her a lot. And I taught each one of the four student interns at one time or another. This was their first project, and they were all so excited and enthusiastic the last time I saw them." Blair paused again, in sorrow, but he consciously tried to put his emotions aside so he could focus on the work at hand. They didn't have a lot of time if he was going to meet Jim in less than two hours.

"Mmm," Kristin murmured, subdued, evidently lost in her own thoughts about the tragedy. "I heard their throats were ripped out ... and their hearts; that there were claw marks..."

Blair winced at her words, which conjured fearsome fragments of the devastating nightmares. His gut twisted as gory images flashed in his mind. "Makes me sick to imagine them massacred like that," he stated. "And it makes me furious that some of the reports are even suggesting that they killed one another, or that - so crazy, I can't believe anyone would think it - that Mariana killed them all. With those kinds of injuries, it had to be some kind of animal."

"But, Blair ... what kind of animal rips out throats and takes a heart - six hearts - but doesn't maul or mangle or, well, eat anything else? It's no wonder it's got everyone spooked," Kristin retorted, evidently more caught up in the rumors than she wanted to admit.

Blair grimaced as he realized that, maybe, like so many other people, she got some kind of vicarious thrill out of horrors too far away to touch her or even seem 'real'. She sure wasn't picking up on his signals that he'd prefer not to talk about the details. Irritated, he retorted, "Oh, come on, give me a break. Don't you start suggesting there's any basis for thinking there's a real curse happening here. There's no such thing. For all we know, it could have been some local group that thought of them as grave robbers, or some damned thing, and decided to make sure nobody ever went back there. You know how reports get distorted. Who said there were no other injuries? Huh?"

Sickened by the whole discussion, he tossed his hands in the air and turned away to stalk down the concrete hall. "I really don't want to talk about it, okay? I sure in hell don't want to imagine how they died. What I do know is that I don't believe anything supernatural happened to them. I'm a scientist, and while I might believe in ghosts or spiritual energy in a cosmic sense, I most definitely do not believe they can hurt us."

If he'd been able to perceive the wolf pacing by his side, fangs bared and ruff bristling, he might have been less sure the supernatural had played no role in the demise of his friends.

But he didn't see the wolf, or the black jaguar that materialized nearby when he stopped to unlock the door to the storage room next to his old office. Inside, he flicked on the lights and looked around at the stack of wooden crates awaiting their attention. They smelled musty ... and underneath the usual scents, he caught the rusty scent of old blood. Peering at the crates, his stomach flipped when he spotted some dark blotches on one. Turning away, determined to not think about what he was seeing and smelling, he took a crowbar from one of the dusty shelves. "I'll open them all and then help you with the unpacking," he said over his shoulder to Kristin, who had followed him into the room.

Moments later, Kristin was digging into the crate splattered by old blood, removing packaging material and stuffing it into one of the garbage bags she'd found on the shelf. "Oh, wow," she murmured, pulling out the last bits of straw. "Look at this."

"What?" Blair asked, curious and, despite the deaths of his friends, very eager to see what they'd discovered at the ancient site in Mexico. He looked over her shoulder and nearly recoiled from the ugly skull carving, positioned in the center of radiating spikes made of solid stone. Shuddering, he thrust away the memory of a similar shield in his nightmares - similar, but the one that haunted him was drenched in blood. Then he noticed the traces of dark stains in the fissures of the stonework, and couldn't help but imagine how they'd gotten there. Swallowing hard, he grated, "That looks like a traditional Aztec god of death mask, except it's carved out of stone, not fashioned from gold."

Frowning, his aversion giving way to academic analysis, he studied the large circular carving. "This could be a really exciting find. It could be evidence that the death god/skull imagery goes back more than two and a half millennia. Would make sense, I guess. Death has been an enduring mystery throughout history and prehistory. Amazing, though, to have such an exact style replicated for more than two thousand years. Or maybe not. The imagery of the cross hasn't changed in two thousand years, either. Still ..." he reflected, his fingers lightly tracing the stone rays that circled the skull, "it's fascinating. Could be the one of oldest examples of this specific symbolism ever found."

"They must have been excited when they found it," Kristin mused. "Hopefully, their field notes are in here somewhere and will document their findings." She reached into the crate to lift the shield out, grunting unconsciously when she felt its weight.

"Hey, let me help," Blair exclaimed, quickly moving beside her to grasp the solid stone artifact. It felt cold and clammy to his touch, unclean. But he told himself he was being ridiculous, and remained silent as he helped her lift the heavy object onto a shelf. Blair was glad to put it aside. Though he knew it was unscientific and totally fanciful - no doubt nothing more than residual emotions from the nightmares that had been tormenting him for weeks - he couldn't help feeling that there was something dangerous about the shield, something inexplicable. The dark splotches of old stains of what he suspected was ancient sacrificial blood left him feeling queasy.

Stepping back, he deliberately turned his back to it and surveyed the remaining eleven crates stacked around the room. "There's more here than I expected," he said to Kristin. "I'll do what I can, but I'm sorry, I have to be somewhere else in two hours."

She shrugged. "No problem. Whatever we can't get done tonight, it'll be easy to finish in the morning when we're doing the official inventory."

The wolf whined fretfully as it paced beside Blair. The jaguar stared unblinkingly at the shield. Oblivious to them, Blair and Kristen worked steadily until all the crates of pottery, whole and in pieces, and metal, and other carved stone artifacts were extricated from their packing and carefully placed upon the empty shelves.

"Okay, I guess that's all of it," Blair said as he dusted his hands on his jeans and then checked his watch. "Oh, man, I've got to run! Let's just stack the crates in the corner and toss these garbage bags on the way out."

"I'm in no hurry," Kristin said, holding out her hand. "Give me the key and I'll lock up after I take care of the crates and the sacks. I'll give it back to you when we meet to do the inventory in the morning."

Normally, Blair wouldn't give up a key he'd been entrusted with, especially with all the valuable pieces in the room. But he'd found most of the artifacts so fascinating - partly in an effort to block out the nightmares and any thought about the deaths of his friends - that he'd let the time get away from him. Jim would be waiting impatiently outside, and Brown and Rafe were expecting to be relieved; he just didn't have the time to spend another fifteen or twenty minutes on cleaning up the detritus. Besides, Kristin was his equal in status at the school and every bit as responsible and capable as he was. "Okay, thanks," he agreed with a relieved smile as he fished the key out of his pocket and handed it to her. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Turning away, he dashed out the door and raced down the hall, up the steps and outside into the now heavily-falling rain. As he'd expected, Jim's truck was at the curb, engine running. Slightly out of breath, he climbed inside and buckled up. "Sorry, man, sorry. Took a little longer than I expected. Hope you haven't been waiting long."

"Just since we agreed to meet - fifteen minutes ago," Jim replied, sounding irritated. But then he relented and gestured toward the seat between them. "Brought you a sandwich, two apples, a bottle of milk and one of water. Thought you'd be pretty hungry by now."

"Fantastic!" Blair exclaimed as he reached for the bag. He'd been too busy for lunch that day, and was starving. "Thanks, man. I really appreciate this," he said, digging out the sandwich and the bottle of milk.

Jim just glanced at him and nodded. The cab was so dark that Blair didn't see the shadows of concern in Jim's eyes. "Yeah, well, you won't be much good to me if you faint from hunger later," he teased.

"Faint?" Blair echoed, laughing as he unwrapped the cellophane. "Like that would ever happen," he retorted before taking a huge bite of the turkey, tomato and cheese on lettuce and whole wheat. "God, this is good," he mumbled, and relaxed back against his seat.

********************

Kristin pushed the last bag of packing materials between the wall and the crates she'd stacked in a corner. Straightening, she heard a low growl and, alarmed, she turned swiftly, her hands raised and her body crouched in an instinctive posture of self-defense. But she paused, startled but no longer afraid and the tension eased from her body. "What are you doing here?" she asked, a smile beginning. "I thought you were -" The smile froze into a rictus of confusion and fear. Her eyes widened with horror and she backed up, banging against the crates behind her. "No, don't!" she cried, cringing away, and then she screamed.

********************

Blair wanted to stay awake. He was there to help Jim, to be his backup, to make sure his friend didn't zone. But he hadn't slept well for weeks. The first nightmare had been filled with a roar of chaotic noise, wild animals snarling, howling, screeching in ... he wasn't sure what. Alarm? Fury? Horror? He'd felt all three when he'd jerked into wakefulness; had felt more than a little panic because, in addition to the noise, he'd seen fountains gushing crimson, hot and sticky. Blood. Seen the faces of his friends distorted by terror and death. And then he'd smelled fresh blood all around him; could still smell it even when he awoke. He'd thought in those first few seconds that carnage surrounded him in the dark, only to discover everything was normal. But, heart hammering, he'd found it impossible to get back to sleep that night.

The horror-filled dreams had been haunting him ever since, waking him every night, so that he'd grown anxious about even going to sleep. For nights now he'd tried to stay awake, and had avoided sleep by working on various projects for school, as well as helping Jim with the research on the suspects of the human smuggling and slavery ring they were investigating. They were staking out one of the warehouses on the docks, hoping they'd find where the kidnapped people were held on their way in or out of the country. Jim was focused on trying to hear beyond the walls but, so far, hadn't picked up any voices or other sounds that would indicate there were people locked inside. It was dark and nothing was happening. The night was heavy with humidity, and the steady patter of rain on the roof of the cab was hypnotic.

Blair slipped into sleep between one breath and the next, tumbling down into the darkness where the horrors dwelt.

********************

Jim immediately noted the shift in Sandburg's breathing that signaled the kid had fallen asleep. He reached over to jostle Blair awake, but then stayed his hand. Studying the face that usually looked so young in sleep, he frowned at the dark shadows under Blair's eyes and the unnatural pallor of exhaustion in every line of the kid's face. Settling back into his seat and drawing his sight and hearing back to their normal ranges, Jim decided to let Blair rest while he could; it didn't look like anything was going to happen that night, anyway. If he was wrong and one of their suspects showed up, well, he could wake Sandburg then.

Minutes trickled by until nearly an hour had passed. Blair mumbled something and twitched in his sleep. His whole body tightened, and he even raised an arm, as if staving off some threat. "NO!" he cried out and was instantly awake, panting for breath. Staring wide-eyed out the windshield and then looking all around, he didn't seem to know where he was. When he turned to Jim, he flinched to find Jim already reaching out to calm and reassure him.

"Hey, hey, relax," Jim soothed, taking in the pupils dilated with fear, the heightened heart beat and the short, panicked respirations. "Must've been a hell of a dream, Chief."

Blair stared at him then flopped back against the seat. Swallowing hard, he raked his hair away from his face and took a few deep, slow breaths. "Oh, man," he gusted. "I hate these dreams. They're ...." He stopped, not wanting to put the fractured images into words; they were already fading, and he shook his head in unconscious denial of what he'd 'seen'.

"What?" Jim asked, the concern he felt written all over his face. Was the work they did finally catching up with the kid? Was Sandburg beginning to have nightmares about everything that had happened, all the trauma and injury and near-death experiences he'd suffered over the past few years? Jim dreaded the day when Sandburg would declare that enough was more than enough. "What dreams? How long have you been having them?"

"I ..." Blair began, then paused, one hand waving a little in front of his face, as if he was trying to reclaim the images - or maybe drive them away. "There's a wolf. Big, very scary." He swallowed, licked his dry lips. "Growling and snarling and howling. S-s-sometimes I see blood dripping from his fangs. And, and other animals. Like a zoo on crack, man. All of them on a bad trip." Blowing a long breath, he shook his head and closed his eyes, only to have them pop open again. "Sometimes," he added, his voice low and tremulous, nearly breaking, "I ... I see people. People I know. The project team. Being torn apart. There's ... there's blood everywhere."

"Whoa, hold on," Jim interrupted. "That's not something you want to think about. It's probably, I don't know, the grief you're feeling about what happened to them. Your mind trying to make sense of it, only to get trapped in how horrible it was. Let it go, Chief. Torturing yourself with those kinds of thoughts ... you don't deserve that."

Blair gazed at Jim and nodded slowly. A slight smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "You know, that makes a lot of sense. And it's really, you know, supportive; sensitive, even."

Jim snorted and turned away. "Yeah, well, even a caveman can have his moments," he drawled.

Blair's smile widened but there were sad shadows in his eyes. "I'm sorry, man," he murmured. "You know I never wanted to make you feel like a lab rat."

Startled, Jim turned back. "Where did that come from? I thought we were past all that stuff from last month. I just needed a break, that's all."

"I know," Blair sighed, his gaze dropping away.

"Is that what's been bothering you?" Jim demanded, thinking back, wondering if that's when the nightmares had started. Blair had thought he was going to die in that damned tent. Had that fear gotten mixed up with his feelings about the friends who had died in Mexico?

"Nooo ... or at least, I don't think so," Blair replied, still evading eye contact. His fingers twisted together, parted, twisted again. He gnawed on his lip.

Jim waited, wondering what was going on with his partner, but realizing he had to give Blair space. For all that the kid could talk a blue-streak, it was rarely about anything other than his studies, past work or travel experiences or stream of consciousness bullshit. When it came to stuff that really bothered him, Blair was practically mute; Jim knew that if he pushed, Sandburg would just clam up.

Finally, as if making up his mind to take a leap of faith, Blair took a deep breath and looked up at him. But his eyes were in shadow, not giving anything away. "You're right. The nightmares are about the massacre in Mexico." He paused and looked away. "Only ... only I had the first nightmare and, and smelled the blood, before I knew what had happened." His hands fisted. "And it's not the first time I've dreamt stuff before it happened. This is just the worst. It's been happening ... well," he went on, straightening now to face Jim, his manner and tone becoming almost defiant, as if he expected ridicule, "it's been happening ever since Incacha passed me the way of the shaman."

Jim gaped at him. "You're putting me on," he finally breathed, wishing that were true but knowing it wasn't. What the hell had Incacha done to Sandburg? He wanted to believe that there was nothing to this kind of supernatural bullshit, but he'd seen too much in Peru, experienced too much. Hell, he saw spirit animals. "Why didn't you tell me before now?"

Blair grimaced. "Because I didn't know what was happening and wanted time to figure it out. And then, after a while, I was pretty sure you wouldn't believe me."

"Why wouldn't I believe you?" Jim demanded, both surprised and hurt to learn that Sandburg didn't trust him enough to confide in him, especially after all they'd been through in the past three years.

Blair gave him a crooked smile that looked more sad than amused. "Because you hate this stuff, Jim. When it happened, you didn't even want to discuss it. I figured you'd think I was either crazy or exaggerating or ... I don't know," he sighed. "Besides, there's nothing you can do about it. Nothing I seem to be able to do about it." His jaw tightened and when he turned to Jim, he looked haggard. "This last dream? I ... I saw Kristen, the woman who was helping me earlier at Rainier." For a moment, he couldn't seem to get the words out. "She, I heard her screaming. I saw blood. But she's fine - she has to be fine." Tossing up his hands, he grated, "Maybe you're right. Maybe it's all about the massacre and unpacking those artifacts with her just made me associate it with her in my dream." He rubbed his forehead. "And this headache just won't quit!" he snapped in frustration.

"Look, maybe you just need a break, you know? Things have been pretty intense," Jim soothed. But he didn't like the sound of the precognition, and he could see Sandburg was stretched thin, like a piano wire about to snap. "Why don't you call this Kristin and reassure yourself that she's alright, huh?"

"Yeah," Blair agreed, nodding. "That's a good idea. It's not too late, right?" he asked, fumbling in his jacket pocket for his cellphone. "I wasn't asleep all that long, was I?"

"No, only for an hour. It's not even ten yet," Jim told him, and watched while Blair punched in the number. "You remember her number, just like that?" he asked, wondering if the girl was more than just a colleague.

Waving at his head, Blair muttered, "Once something's up here, man, I don't forget it." A frown grew as he listened to the distant ringing with no response. Jim could see and hear the anxiety building in Sandburg's tighter, faster respirations and increasingly tense posture.

"Maybe she just left the phone somewhere," Jim offered, but concern was contagious and was now growing in the pit of his stomach. "Where was she in your dream?" he asked.

Blair disconnected the call, gave a short shake of his head. "It's not clear. Just impressions, sounds. I just don't know." He rubbed his hand over his face. "I ... I get the feeling that I should go back to Rainier."

"Okay, as soon as our shift is done, we'll do that," Jim replied.

"Really? You'd go check just based on a disjointed dream and a feeling?" Blair asked, sounding and looking astonished.

"Yeah, sure. If it will help you sleep, why not?" Jim replied, as if it was no big deal. Returning his attention to the warehouse and the streets surrounding them, he sincerely hoped that's exactly what it would turn out to be: no big deal.

********************

ACT II

Hargrove Hall was dark and silent when Jim pulled up in front of the building, but they could both see light spilling out of a basement window on the side.

"Maybe she just forgot to turn off the light," Blair murmured as he quickly unsnapped the seatbelt and jumped out of the truck.

"Not so fast," Jim called quietly, as he too climbed out. "I want you to stay behind me, just in case there is trouble."

Blair looked like he might argue but subsided and nodded. As they strode toward the double doors, he pulled a key to the building out of his pocket.

"Doesn't security do rounds at night?" Jim demanded as they slipped inside.

"When there're no classes and most of the buildings are practically empty for the holidays, they usually just patrol outside," Blair replied, his voice low.

In less than two minutes, they were coming out of the stairwell, and Jim knew they were going to find something bad. He could smell the blood, so strong it was like an abattoir. Stopping, he put out an arm, to hold Blair back. "Stay here. And call in backup."

"What? What are you sensing?" Blair demanded, eyes wide, voice rising.

"Just do it," Jim ordered, leaving him to swiftly lope down the hall, weapon drawn and held ready. He slowed as he neared the room with the light spilling into the hallway; stopped with his back against the wall. He took a quick look inside and his stomach flipped at the carnage. There was blood everywhere. The walls were painted with it, and there was a large pool of it where it had flowed from the broken and torn body of the naked young woman lying on the floor. He could see her throat had been ripped out, her body ripped open, as if by a wild animal. Jim could also see the paw-prints of a large dog in the puddle of blood.

"Oh my God, Kristen!" Blair gasped, staggering back from the doorway, a hand covering his mouth. Jim had been so preoccupied with noting the details of the scene, he'd not heard Blair approach.

"Damn it," he growled, helpless now to spare his friend the shock and horror of what had happened to his colleague. "I said to stay back!"

"I ... what ..." Blair stammered, incoherent with shock as he stared at the door, though he couldn't see inside from where Jim had pushed him along the hallway. "She's dead, isn't she?"

"Yeah, yeah, sorry, Chief," Jim sighed, and he squeezed Blair's shoulder in silent sympathy. "Look," he went on, wanting to prepare Blair for what was coming, "you might've been the last person to see her alive - other than the killer. I need to you to remember everything that happened, anything you noticed, anything that's different now in the room. Can you do that? From out here? We can't go in yet; it's a crime scene now."

Mutely, Blair nodded, and slowly edged back toward the door. As he neared the threshold, Jim saw a wolf materialize in front of Sandburg, barring his entrance into the room. "Watch out!" Jim yelled, thinking the large animal must've gotten into the building and killed the young woman. Belatedly, he remembered thinking he'd seen such an animal earlier. Leveling his pistol, he wondered if the beast was rabid, but dismissed the idea based on the wolf's behavior. It was looking into the room, growling with fangs bared, but not posing an immediate threat to his partner.

Blair jumped and looked around. "What?" he gasped. When Jim didn't answer, he yelled again, "What?! Did you see something?"

Only then did Jim realize that Sandburg couldn't see the wolf.

Or the panther that was now prowling toward them from the end of the corridor.

What the hell was going on here?

Not knowing what to say, and definitely not wanting to admit to seeing animals that weren't there, Jim shook his head. "No, I ... I just don't want you going inside."

Blair held up his hands. "Oh, don't worry, man. I definitely don't want to go in there." Steeling himself, he returned his attention to the room. His hands were fisted and his head down, his gaze narrowed, as if it was taking all he had to examine the room, to not run screaming from the horror. His lips parted and he frowned. "The stone shield," he said softly. "It's hanging on the wall." He had to close his eyes and look away from the rivulets of blood dripping down the wall from where it had splashed on the surface of the death mask. "We, uh, we put it on a shelf. It was too heavy for Kristin to hang up on the wall without help. No reason why she would even try."

Jim stared at the skull, hoping there'd be fingerprints. Thinking that if an animal had killed the girl, then who had hung it there? The wolf keeping Blair out of the room growled again at something Jim couldn't see, and the ruff rose on the animal's back as he crouched, as if readying for an attack. Something ... something was definitely wrong; something beyond the girl's death and the mystery of how she'd died. He could almost feel evil wafting at them from out of the room, and he was aware that the black jaguar was now between him and the doorway, as if guarding him.

"We need to get out of here," Jim grated, reaching to grip Blair's arm and draw him back from the doorway. "C'mon. We'll wait for backup and the crime techs upstairs."

Nodding, Blair didn't fight him, even led the way back down the hall. Jim figured the kid was glad to get as far as he could from the blood and the ravaged body.

"I don't understand," Blair was muttering, more to himself than to Jim, his voice cracking with grief. "It's what happened to the others. But, but what - how could it happen here, too? And why?"

"Good questions," Jim grunted. He hastened Blair up the stairwell even as he looked back over his shoulder. He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rising, as if something was following them, something he couldn't see or hear. But, he thought he might be able to smell it - something musty mingled with earth, mold, and old blood.

********************

Simon stood in the doorway, scowling as he surveyed the grisly scene. Behind him, the Dean of Anthropology was blustering about the artifacts, how important they were, and how urgent it was that staff be able to retrieve and inventory them immediately, to inspect the pieces for damage -

The endless demands were wearing on his patience. The old junk seemed to matter a whole lot more to the man than the destruction of the young woman, still lying in her congealing blood. Holding up a hand to stay the harangue, Simon turned to face the man. "Look, Doctor ...?"

"Oldham, Sidney Oldham," the man told him again with evident irritation at having to repeat himself.

"Doctor Oldham, this room will remain sealed until the technicians and detectives are finished with it," Simon went on, and then continued talking to forestall the man's interruptions. "I understand your concerns, but the investigation into this young woman's murder takes precedence over the valuables on the shelves. You'll be advised immediately when the room can be cleaned and your objects retrieved. They're safe for now; nobody is going to get past the police to steal anything. We'll clear the area as quickly as we can."

The Dean glared at him, then wheeled away to point a finger at Blair, who was standing a few feet away beside Jim. "You! I understand these precious objects were entrusted to you for unpacking and cataloguing. You had the key to this room. Why weren't you here? If you'd been doing your job, this might not have happened!"

Blair, despair written on his face, arms hanging by his side, offered no defense. "You're right," he agreed, bowing his head. "If I'd been here -"

"You would have been killed, too," Jim interjected, his tone fierce, livid with the jerk for attacking Sandburg. Stepping between Blair and the administrator, Jim continued, "Mr. Sandburg was providing assistance to the police on another matter last evening and is in no way responsible for what happened here."

"Jim, don't," Blair murmured, stepping up beside him. "Sidney is legitimately upset; who wouldn't be? This is terrible. But, Sid, Captain Banks is right. There's nothing you can do here right now; nothing any of us can do. I'll ... I'll stay with the police and when they're finished, I promise I'll take care of the artifacts. I'll keep you posted on what's going on."

"We'll discuss this later. Be advised, your excuse for disregarding your duties here in favor of hanging around with the police to do 'research' is fast wearing very thin." Oldham glared at him, but seemed to have run out of things to say. With a curt nod, he pushed past and disappeared into the stairwell.

Simon studied Blair for a moment, then drew Jim aside. Reluctantly, but having no choice, he said, "You know Sandburg can't be a part of this investigation. He's the last person to have seen her alive."

"Except for the murderer," Jim stated unequivocally, clearly offended on his partner's behalf. "Blair didn't do this, Captain, you know that."

"How do I know that?" Simon argued, though he kept his voice low. "Tell me, why did you come here tonight?"

Jim looked away, uncomfortable with the question. "Okay," he finally replied. "I know what it looks like - last person to see her alive, person who discovered her body with no apparent reason to return to the scene except to do so. But, Simon, he was with me the whole time."

"Except for when he was here, with her," Simon countered.

Tossing out a hand toward the murder scene, Jim snapped, "If he'd done that, he would have been covered with blood, not wearing the same clothes as when I dropped him off, with not a drop of blood on him. He did not do this!"

"Then, why ...?" Simon pressed.

Jim, feeling as he was being pressed into a corner, searched for a way to avoid mentioning his senses, but couldn't see it. "You're not going to like this," he grated. "It's ... I can sense something else, something ... I need time to figure out what went down here."

"Fine, but I need a reason for why you and Sandburg returned here, other than to discover a mutilated body," Simon retorted with grudging patience. Lord, how he hated this sentinel stuff and the need to pretend he didn't know a thing about it.

Jim pressed his lips together as he considered how best to rationalize their presence at the crime scene. The truth was always best, even if it wasn't the whole truth. "Sandburg had entrusted her with the key to the room, and was worried about the artifacts.

Apparently, they're 'priceless', and he was responsible for them. He'd had to rush out to meet me so we could relieve Brown and Rafe, and he left her to finish up. But he couldn't relax until he came back to make sure everything was alright."

"Because he's such a responsible person," Simon said, with just a trace of sarcasm.

"Exactly," Jim confirmed with a decisive nod, not giving way. Sandburg was responsible and dependable, most of the time. "And that's why we came back."

Simon grimaced and looked away, at Blair, who was watching them. "Fine, but you better make sure he knows why the two of you came back here before he gives his official statement." Relenting, he looked back at Jim. "I trust the kid, too, but we need to do this by the book. What was done to her ... well, the press are going to have a field day. People, especially folks here at Rainier, will be panicking, wondering who's going to be next. Given the circumstances, Sandburg's a natural suspect, and you know it."

Jim nodded in resigned agreement.

"He's lucky he was with you and that you're, more or less, his alibi. But be careful, Jim - some will say you're in it with him. She was all that stood between him and those 'priceless' artifacts. Now, if any are missing, who'd know? He unpacked them and he's going to inventory them. And if he did 'discover' some were gone, the theft could be laid at the door of the murderer, whoever or -" Simon looked back at the room and couldn't help an internal shudder, "- whatever that killer is."

Jim looked away. "There's something else," he said.

Simon narrowed his eyes, wondering if he wanted to hear it. "What?" he demanded, steeling himself for bad news.

"The team who discovered all the stuff on the shelves," Jim said, meeting Simon's eyes, "were all murdered in the same way, in Mexico. Whoever killed them, killed this girl, and I'm pretty sure it has something to do with the artifacts."

Dread now heavy in his gut, Simon studied Jim. "Well, that lets Sandburg out. He sure in hell hasn't been in Mexico recently. Solve this, Jim. Solve it quickly. Before more people are slaughtered."

With a weary half-smile, Jim nodded. "I'll do my best, sir."

Simon snorted and shook his head. He clapped Jim on the shoulder as he moved past. "Good luck. Let me know if you need help."

As Simon strode down the hall, Blair sidled closer to Jim. "I'm a suspect, aren't I?"

"Not a serious one," Jim replied, lifting a hand to Blair's shoulder and meeting his despondent gaze. "All there is on you is circumstantial, and you've been with me the whole evening. You had no blood on your clothing when you left Rainier earlier. We came back because you wanted to be sure everything was locked up and secure, because the stuff in there is your responsibility. Besides, this killing mirrors those in Mexico, and you sure didn't do those."

Blair held Jim's gaze, evidently processing what he was being told and why, and then nodded his understanding. Jim couldn't help but look down at the wolf at Blair's side and then at the jaguar lying at his own feet. Needing to ignore the spirit animals, at least for the time being, he returned his gaze to Blair. "You up for helping me examine the victim and the murder scene?"

Blair swallowed heavily; his nod was uncertain, but he said, "Sure, man. Let's uh, let's get it done."

"Okay," Jim said, moving toward the doorway. "Let me know if it gets to be too much."

Blair followed him inside. They both took care to not step into the blood on the floor. Dan Wolf was hunkered down by the body. Her throat had been torn away and there were what looked like deep claw marks across her abdomen and diaphragm under her ribs. Dan looked up at Jim, his expression inscrutable. "Looks like an animal did this," he said as he stood up and gestured at the paw marks. "Doesn't make any sense. There's no sign of the animal leaving the room, but it's sure not hiding in here. I'd say it's a very clever murderer, using claw-like implements."

Jim nodded his agreement. "Let me know if the autopsy gives us any clues," he said, moving aside as the EMTs moved in to bag the body and take it away. Turning to Blair, he asked, "Can you tell if any of the artifacts have been taken?"

Frowning in concentration, Blair moved to the shelves. After a moment, he shook his head. "I don't think so - there are no gaps between the pieces we placed here and the dust on the shelves doesn't seem to be otherwise disturbed. It's just the stone shield," he said, waving at the large skull dripping with blood on the wall. "Like I said earlier, we put it on this shelf here."

Jim watched the spirit animals position themselves between the shield and himself and Blair. The wolf's fangs were bared and it was growling. The jaguar was crouched as if ready to pounce on something Jim couldn't see. But he felt a frisson of something emanating from the ugly thing, something that chilled him to the bone. Turning to the technicians, he asked, "You done with this?"

One replied, "Yes, for now. We've taken samples of the blood, dusted for prints, photographed it. We'll be taking it with us. When we're done with it, we'll send it to the Evidence lockup and let you know."

Jim nodded. He knew it was dangerous, but he didn't know why or what to do about it, at least not yet. Stepping away, he studied the rest of the room. Shutting out the overwhelming scents of blood and carnage, he tried to sense if the killer had left a trace of himself behind. He smelled that odd mustiness but thought it was probably just clinging to the old artifacts that had so recently been buried in the earth. There was no trace of the murderer. Nothing beyond the claw marks and paw-prints. Nothing human.

Finally, he sighed in defeat. Gesturing toward the door, he said to Blair, "C'mon, let's get out of here. There's nothing more we can do."

"Um, the key?" Blair asked, pointing at the glint of metal in the blood by Kristin's hand. "The room needs to be locked up when everyone's finished in here."

Jim looked to the lead technician, who nodded. "I'll take care of it," she said. "And send the key to you, Detective."

"Thanks," he acknowledged, as he herded Blair from the room, unconsciously remaining between Sandburg and the shield on the wall. Jim wasn't surprised that the spirit animals remained behind, still watching the shield. Whatever was going on here, he instinctively knew it was something he hadn't encountered before. Something deadly. Something maybe not of the world as he knew it.

What he didn't know was what to do about it or how to stop it.

Blair didn't say anything until they were back outside, well away from anyone who might overhear them. The rain had stopped, but the clouds blocked the night sky. Though it was early summer, Blair shivered. When they got to the truck, he grabbed Jim's arm, to stop him. Leaning close, he demanded, "What's going on here, man? What aren't you telling me?"

"What?" Jim asked, his expression carefully blank.

"That," Blair retorted, gesturing at his face. "You're being very careful not to give anything away. What did you see in there, or sense? Why won't you tell me?"

Jim looked away, unsure of what to say. He hated everything to do with the supernatural. He didn't understand it; didn't even want to admit it existed. Except for when they'd gone after Simon and Darryl two years ago, he hadn't ever admitted that he saw animals that weren't really there. At the time, Blair had had a variety of possible explanations, most of which said it was all about his subconscious; he hadn't suggested that what he was seeing actually existed. He'd never told Sandburg about any of the rest of it. Wasn't sure he'd ever be ready to tell him, or anyone.

The silence stretched between them. Finally, too tired to play games, Blair snapped, "Fine, don't tell me." He went to the truck and climbed inside.

Jim opened his mouth but didn't know what to say, where to begin. "What the hell," he rasped and walked around to his side of the truck. It was late and they were both beyond tired. Once he started explaining what he was seeing, he knew the 'discussion' would go on a long time before Sandburg would give it a rest. Better to wait until the morning and tell him then.

********************

Blair felt chilled and sick. His whole body ached, simply because he needed sleep in the worst way. Hunched against the truck's passenger door, he avoided looking at Jim, not wanting to put any more pressure on his friend than Simon - or the whole damned mess - already had. Nor did he really want to know what Jim had sensed in the storage room, because he was pretty sure that it was only more evidence against him. Any idiot would know he was the best suspect around, and he was no idiot. Jim knew he hadn't done it, but the circumstances and all the evidence of him being in that room with Kristen told a different, pretty compelling story.

Only ... Blair flinched at the memory of what had been done to his friend. His gut twisted with the realization that this atrocity was exactly what had happened to his friends in Mexico. What the hell was going on? Who was doing this, and why? Where the hell did they even begin? With airline passenger manifests? He nodded to himself. Yeah, yeah, that might put them on the trail of who had come with the artifacts from Mexico. Frowning, he wondered if he could get started on the search that night, or if they'd need a warrant to access the information.

When they got back home, he climbed out of the truck and headed inside, Jim on his heels. Once in the loft, Blair went to the kitchen, to put on a pot of coffee.

"What are you doing?" Jim asked.

"I need something to help me stay awake," Blair muttered, and was disconcerted when Jim took the pot of water from him. "What are you doing?"

"That was my question," Jim said, studying him with concern. "Chief, you're dead on your feet. You have to get some sleep before you fall on your face."

Fear of what sleep would bring bubbled inside. Blair's hands were trembling as he shoved them through his hair. "I ... I can't," he said, hating the desperation he heard in his voice. "You don't understand. The nightmares ... I dream about people dying, and they die. I don't want to...."

"Shhh," Jim soothed, looping an arm around his shoulders and guiding him down the short hall to the doors of his room. "What's happening isn't your fault, Sandburg."

"But -"

"I mean it, Chief. You need to sleep. And so far, your dreams may be our only lead on what's going on. Maybe you'll 'see' something that will help us figure out what's happening here," Jim suggested in a tone that sounded very much like he was humoring Blair.

Blair gaped at him like he had two heads. Despite whatever he'd seen in the Peru jungles while searching for Simon and Daryl, Jim didn't believe in the supernatural. Nobody knew that better than Blair, and he resented being patronized. On top of that, the idea sounded crazy ... but maybe it wasn't. The dreams were evidently precognitive, which scared the hell out of him, and he didn't have a clue how that could be happening. Nevertheless, if he could see the future, or even action as it was happening, maybe he would 'see' who was doing the killing.

Just thinking about it made Blair feel dizzy. God, he was so damned tired he could barely stand. Jim was definitely right about one thing: he needed to sleep. People who didn't sleep went crazy in very short order, and then they died. Slowly, feeling as if his thoughts were congealing in amber, he nodded. If the idea that the dreams had value got him through the nightmares, well, so be it. "Okay," he said, his gaze dropping away as he shrugged off Jim's arm and went into his room. Too tired to completely undress, he only kicked off his shoes and pulled off his shirt, and then climbed into bed.

********************

The lab technicians, two women and a man, carried their gear and cases of samples into the brightly-lit, soundproofed laboratory in the basement of the PD. The dark hallway beyond turned the wall of windows into opaque mirrors, reflecting their brisk movements as they sorted and catalogued. Two of them lifted the heavy stone shield onto a wide, metal table and began the tests to analyze the blood spattered upon it, while a third left to get supplies from the storeroom down the hall.

Inside the lab, the technicians chatted and laughed as they got on with their work. One saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye and turned, surprised but smiling in welcome. "We don't have any results yet," she began, only to stagger back. The scream rising in her throat died with her in a gush of hot red blood. The male technician tried to escape but couldn't move fast enough to outrun the fangs and claws.

Minutes later, the third technician was returning to the lab when she saw a familiar person disappearing into the stairwell. Unconcerned, she looked into the lab, at first not understanding what she was seeing. She was puzzled by the splatter of red liquid running down the other side of the glass and the crimson spray on the far wall. But then her gaze drifted downward.

Her screams echoed off the barren walls, and then she ran for help.

********************

ACT III

An hour after they'd gone to bed, the loft was quiet and dark. Blair twitched in his sleep when garish visions began invading his dreams. Fragments, fractured images of gore-splattered counters and walls, mangled bodies. He heard a wolf's vicious snarl. Then he saw the reflection in the glass: a man, covered in blood, looking back from the doorway. Crying out in horrified denial, he thrashed, fighting the dream, waking even as screams ripped through his mind.

"No, no! God, no!" Blair yelled, shattering the silence of the night and bringing Jim into instant wakefulness.

Rolling off the bed and onto his feet, Jim grabbed his spare revolver from the bedside table and ghosted down the stairs. He'd just turned toward Blair's room when Sandburg appeared in the doorway, hair in wild disarray, eyes wild and dark with fear. The phone began ringing, sharp and jangling, seeming unusually loud in the silence.

"Damn it," Jim cursed, turning from Blair, who seemed unhurt although frightened, to hurry through the kitchen. Grabbing the phone from the wall, he snapped, "Ellison."

"Jim, you'd better get downtown right away," Simon said, his voice laden with barely-leashed anger. "Two of the techs from the crime scene were murdered in the lab."

Simon's words tore Jim's attention from Blair, who had followed him into the kitchen. "What the hell happened?"

"Whatever happened to that woman at Rainier," Simon grated. "And your partner has something to do with it. More than he's admitting. Looks like he's ..." he stopped and his voice was deeper as he ordered, "You can't keep protecting him, Jim. One of the techs saw him leaving the lab and going into the stairwell; he was wearing the same clothes as earlier, and he was covered in blood."

"What? When?" Jim exclaimed staring open-mouthed at Blair.

"No more than five minutes ago. The night shift is searching the building for him now."

"Simon, that's impossible."

"I don't want to believe it either -"

"Captain, listen to me!" Jim cut in. "Whoever they saw, it wasn't Sandburg. He's standing right here in front of me. He was in bed, asleep, five minutes ago, having a nightmare. His yells woke me up."

For a moment, Simon didn't say anything. Then, "What the hell is going on here?"

Jim's blood ran cold when the wolf materialized to pace near Blair, and the jaguar crouched above him at the top of the stairs.

"I don't know," he admitted.

Well, you'd better figure it out, and fast. I'll meet you downtown."

Jim hung up the phone. Behind him, sounding sick, Blair rasped, "The lab techs. They're dead, aren't they? And ... and I was there. Someone else saw me."

Scowling, Jim nodded. "Someone else?" he echoed.

"I saw - in the dream - my reflection." Blair's gaze dropped and he crossed his arms as if he was cold.

"Sandburg, you didn't do this."

Blair lifted his head to meet Jim's gaze. His face looked gaunt in the gray shadows cast by the streetlight sifting through the living room windows, and his eyes were dark pools. "Are you sure?" he countered, sounding scared. "Someone saw me there, right?" he continued, his voice rising in barely controlled panic. He threw his arms out, gesturing wildly as he said, "Maybe I'm sleep-walking or, or maybe some part of me is, is astral traveling to, to k-k-kill -"

In two paces, Jim had crossed the room. Gripping Blair's upper arms, Jim shook him to get his attention. "You did not do this," he said, each word loud and clipped. Blair stared up at him, uncertainly chasing despair across his face. "You hear me, Chief? You didn't do this. You haven't hurt anyone."

"But I saw ..."

"Whatever you saw in your nightmare, you were here when they were murdered, minutes ago," Jim insisted. "And you were with me on the stakeout when, whatshername, Kristen, was killed. Whatever happened in Mexico, you sure in hell weren't there. Whatever is going on here, you're not doing it." Slowly, color returned to Blair's cheeks and his eyes looked less haunted, less like he was on the edge of hysteria. After swallowing hard, he took a breath and nodded.

Jim released him. "Wear the clothes you had on last night, especially the plaid shirt and the brown suede jacket," he directed. "So everyone can see there's no blood on those clothes."

Blair gave him a wan smile as he gestured at his jeans. "Won't be hard. I'm still wearing most of them. Was too tired to get undressed. I'll just go put the shirt and my shoes back on and grab the jacket on the way out."

Jim watched him return to his room; watched the wolf pace silently behind him until they both disappeared through the doorway. Then, as he mounted the stairs to get his own clothes, he looked up at the jaguar, which was staring at him intently as if daring him to deny its reality.

********************

Half an hour later, they parked in the underground garage and were crossing the pavement toward the fire door when two cops burst out, weapons leveled at Blair. "Blair Sandburg, you're under arrest!" one shouted.

"Whoa," Jim interjected, holding up his hands in a non-threatening manner, but deliberately moving to stand between the guns and Sandburg. "Calm down," he said. "The man you've been looking for is an imposter. Sandburg's been with me since we left the earlier crime scene. Put down your weapons."

Uncertain, the officers lifted their pistols, pointing the barrels toward the ceiling. When neither Jim nor Blair made any threatening moves, they slowly holstered the guns. "We have him on tape," one reported, watching Blair with a wary eye. "If it's not Sandburg, then it must be his evil twin."

"Must be," Jim replied laconically, lowering his hands. "Or just someone trying damned hard to frame my partner," he went on as he continued toward the door, gesturing to Blair to follow him. "We want to see the security tapes."

The cops stood aside, one of them opening the door and waving Jim and Blair in ahead of them but Blair hesitated. Hands up, he started to back away. "Nobody wants me here, man," he said, trembling in an effort to control his muddled emotions. "I gotta say it's just a little scary to have the good guys waving guns in my face. I don't know if I can stand to see any more bodies tonight."

The cops stiffened, and one reached again for his weapon. Neither of them were about to allow Sandburg to leave, and Jim knew it. "Hey, c'mon," he cajoled, lightly taking Blair's arm, only to have his partner pull away. Annoyed, not needing any more problems to deal with, Jim gripped him more tightly and held on. Voice low, he grated, "Look, you can't leave; they won't let you. You're still the principal suspect here, Chief. Now, c'mon; get a grip. This isn't about you; it's about getting justice for the people being killed by this creep. I need you to help me go over the crime scene."

Rigid with tension, Blair stood very still, listening to him, and then the energy to resist any further seemed to drain out of him. "Fine," he huffed, and moved past Jim and the uniforms to enter the building. Nobody but Jim knew the wolf and the jaguar trailed them all inside.

Before going upstairs to MCU, Jim led them down the hall and round the corner to the lab, to see the scene of the crime for himself. The stench of blood and gore was nearly suffocating, forcing him to dial down his sense of smell. Pausing to look over his shoulder, beginning to think forcing Blair to witness more atrocity might push him over the edge, he said to Blair, "It's okay; you really don't have to see this."

"Yeah, man, I think I do," Blair murmured. "I need to see if," he glanced back at the two uniformed cops, "well, you know."

Lips thin, Jim nodded. They turned the corner and he glanced up at the security camera above them. Ahead, all along the left-hand side of the corridor, the glass walls of the lab were vividly splattered and streaked with dried and drying blood. Past the doorway, a few steps further on, was the entry to the stairwell. Jim concentrated on the floor and walls between the lab and the stairwell, looking for bloody hand-, finger- and foot-prints.

"My god," Blair breathed behind him, not needing sentinel vision to see the paw-prints on the linoleum flooring.

Both the wolf and the jaguar rumbled with low growls as they slinked past to crouch staring at the door to the stairwell. Jim blew a long breath, knowing he was going to have to tell Sandburg - and probably Banks - about the animals, but he dreaded doing so; dreaded having to admit he saw them. Jim was worried that, just maybe, they weren't really there and he was losing his mind. And he was pretty sure that Simon was more likely to believe he was going crazy than that spirit animals were prowling the corridors of the Cascade Police Department.

********************

"You're seeing WHAT?" Banks demanded, astonishment lending volume so his question rattled the windows in his office. Wincing, Jim rubbed his ears. With a thunderous scowl, Banks growled around the unlit cigar in his mouth, "You can't be serious."

Blair was staring at Jim, blinking rapidly as if not believing what he was either seeing or hearing. "Spirit animals?" he finally echoed, his gaze flashing around the room. "Are they here now?"

Reluctantly, Jim nodded. "I wish I was kidding," he said to Simon. His gaze slid toward Blair and the windows. "They're over there. Both of them."

"And one is a wolf?" Blair asked, staring hard at the empty space.

"Not the wolf doing the killing. This one doesn't have any blood on its paws or fur."

"Oh, don't get started," Simon whined in complaint. "You know I hate this stuff. What am I supposed to tell the Commissioner and the Mayor? That invisible ghost animals are running around tearing hearts out of people?" He raised a hand when Jim opened his mouth. "No, don't answer that."

But Jim persevered. "These animals aren't doing the killing."

"Of course they're not. They're not real!" Simon snapped. Pressing his lips together, he shook his head. "I'm not saying you don't see them or that they aren't 'there'. But something a whole lot more tangible is running amok; we have to figure out who, and how to stop the killing. I can hold the jackals off for a while, but if we don't get any better answers soon, Sandburg here is looking like the best suspect we've got. At least people can see him."

For a moment, Blair's wide eyes made him look like a deer in the headlights, but then he shook it off and turned back to Jim. "You said the wolf is hanging around me. And you've seen it growling, snarling."

Jim ignored Simon's roll of the eyes. "Yeah. I think it's your spirit animal. The jag is the one I saw in Peru a couple years ago." And since, he thought, but didn't admit it. "I think the animals might be trying to protect us, or warn us of danger."

Blair frowned and chewed on his lip. "Maybe," he allowed, but unconsciously shook his head, disagreeing with the idea. "But I've been seeing a snarling wolf in the nightmares. And the victims look like they've been ripped apart by a wolf's fangs and claws." His shoulders slumping, he recalled, "It's a dog or wolf's prints we've been finding in the blood." Swallowing heavily, he lifted his eyes to meet Jim's gaze and added, "I'm the one having the nightmares. Maybe ... maybe my spirit animal has gone berserk and is somehow killing people in this world."

"This world?" Simon groaned and turned away to fill a cup of coffee from the pot behind him, as if turning his back on the whole conversation would make it, them, and the invisible spirit animals all disappear and leave him in peace. Turning back, he glared at them. "You two do realize that if anyone heard this conversation, we'd all be tossed in the loony bin, right?"

With a sigh and reluctant smile, Jim nodded and stood to pace. "There's got to be something more here that we're not seeing?"

Glancing at the empty space in front of the window, Simon muttered with no little bitterness, "No kidding."

Jim followed his gaze. The wolf and the jaguar stared unblinkingly at him. "You really can't see them?" he verified, looking from Sandburg to Banks and back again. Both men shook their heads. Jim scrubbed his face with his palms. "I'm certain your wolf isn't killing people," he said to Blair. "The killer has to have something to do with the stuff from the dig. That's when the killings started: in Mexico."

"Mexico?" Simon echoed, putting his cup down on the desk and leaning forward. "You said something about other people being killed in Mexico last evening at Rainier, but do you really think that has something to do with this?"

Surprised to realize they hadn't told Simon much about the original deaths, Jim and Blair exchanged quizzical looks and Blair replied, "There was a six-person project team from Rainier in Mexico, working on a new dig in the foundations of the world's largest and most ancient pyramid." When Simon frowned and made 'moving on' motions with his hand, Blair cut to the chase. "They were all killed near the end of May. They all died the same way as the victims here, with ripped-out throats, and hearts torn from their bodies. The deaths were attributed to wolves."

"And the artifacts you and that woman were unpacking..."

"Were what the team found. All the stuff had already been packed, or nearly all of it, when they were killed. The authorities honored the original academic agreement and sent the stuff here for cleaning, analysis, and research purposes."

"Huh," Simon grunted, sitting back and drumming his fingers on the desk. "Okay, this is more like it. You think the murderer or murderers are headcases who followed the artifacts to Cascade and are killing anyone associated with them. Maybe taking revenge for digging them up in the first place. They use implements designed to make the killings look like the work of wolves, probably to raise the fear factor."

"Uh, something like that," Jim agreed. "They seem particularly interested in that stone skull shield - it's the only artifact that's been present at all the killings, at least so far."

Simon nodded decisively and reached for his phone. "Finally, a reasonable theory for what's been happening. I'll let the Commissioner and the Mayor know you're working this angle." Unceremoniously, he waved them toward the door. "Go, find the killer."

"Yes, sir," Jim replied sardonically. Blair looked like he was trying hard not to roll his eyes as he got up to follow Jim back into the bullpen.

When they got to Jim's desk, Blair tied back his hair while leaning in close to ask softly, "Do you really think this killer is flesh and blood?"

Jim pondered the question and slowly nodded. "Yeah, yeah, I do. Something very solid did a lot of damage to those people. And something or someone was impersonating you when they were spotted leaving the lab."

"Something or someone?" Blair echoed, eyebrows raised.

Jim grimaced. His eyes narrowed as he watched the spirit animals watch them. "We've confronted a lot of weird stuff and dangerous perps in the past, but this is different. There's got to be a reason they're here," he finally said tilting his h ead toward the wolf and the jaguar, forgetting that Sandburg couldn't see them. "There's also got to be some reason you've been dreaming it all as it happens." He hesitated, glanced at Simon's office, where Banks was busy reassuring one of the politicians that work was progressing on the case, and then met Blair's gaze. "I just don't know, Chief. You got any ideas?"

"Well, if it's not astral travel and not my spirit animal, then, no, I'm fresh out of ideas," he replied, fatigue and discouragement heavy in his voice. "Man, I'm so tired I can't think straight."

"C'mon," Jim said, heading toward the door.

"Where're we going?" Blair asked, trailing behind.

"I want to take a closer look at that shield. And we still need to look at the security footage."

Blair hesitated. "Uh ... do I really need to go back in there?" he asked, one hand covering his stomach and his face going a slight shade of green at the memory of what he'd last seen in the lab.

Jim turned back and looped an arm around his shoulders, and leaned down to say softly, "Whoever or whatever is doing this is on the loose in this building. I'm not letting you out of my sight." Glancing back, seeing their spirit companions, he added, "And apparently, neither are they."

As he let Jim guide him toward the door, Blair looked back and frowned. "Man," he whined, so tired he felt drunk and not a little dizzy. "Why can't I see them? I want to see them. Don't you think I should be able to see my own spirit guide?"

"Life's full of disappointments, Chief," Jim commiserated.

"Tell me about it," Blair sighed with a last wistful look at the empty space before he followed Jim into the stairwell.

The vision hit without warning, slamming into him, spinning away his sense of reality. Disoriented, he threw out his hands, stumbled, cried out, "Jim!" His world spun around, upside down. He saw her, the third technician. She was below them somewhere, also in the stairwell. He saw her look up, her expression wary, uncertain. She turned to run back the way she'd come. Too late.

Blair saw himself block her way; saw the mad glee in 'his' eyes.

"NO!" he yelled. "NO!" The vision wavered, shimmered. Her scream ripped up from below, abruptly silenced. Just before the mirage vanished, he saw a snarling wolf with crimson eyes and blood dripping from its fangs.

"Nooo," Blair sobbed, knowing what it meant. Knowing she, too, was now dead.

"Chief! Sandburg!" Jim called, shaking him, bringing him back to the world around him. The wolf and the jaguar, both snarling, had slid past and down the steps ahead of them. The sickening sweet scent of fresh, hot blood filled the air.

Blair gripped Jim's arms. "She's gone. He got her, too!" He couldn't stop the tears of helpless rage, and of devastation. "She thought it was me," he rasped, trembling, sick to his soul with what he'd just 'seen'; with the horror of what was being done to his friends and colleagues. "They all thought that I ... that I'm the monster that killed them." He looked up at Jim. "I saw him," he gasped. "It was me, Jim. It was me."

"No, dammit, it wasn't!" Jim insisted, still holding him even as Blair slipped down to his knees, overwhelmed by the mingled rage, horror and hopeless, helpless despair. "Stop it, Sandburg. You have to get a grip here! Chief, c'mon! You can't let it beat you."

Shaking, Blair struggled with his warring emotions. "Why?" he husked. "Why did it choose me? My form? Is it Lash, Jim? He wanted to be me, too. Has he come back from ... from -"

"Lash is dead and gone. You know that," Jim retorted, though his own voice shook with emotion. He could sense something in the stairwell below them - something dark and icy cold. "It's not Lash," he insisted, whether to convince Blair or himself, he didn't really know. "But I think it might be the same kind of evil."

Something in Jim's tone, a kind of desperation - or maybe fear - caught Blair's attention, pulling him out of the near-hysteria that had gripped him in the aftermath of the vision. "Can we stop it?" he asked, voice low, scared.

Jim looked at him, held his eyes, and then looked away. "I don't know," he said with hollow uncertainty. "I don't know how to fight this thing." He stood, drawing Blair up with him. "It has to be human. Someone out for revenge for raiding ancient sites."

"You don't believe that," Blair charged.

"Right now, Sandburg, I'm not sure it matters what I believe," Jim replied as he turned to head down the steps toward the body he knew was waiting for them. He'd heard her die. Smelled it. But he hadn't heard the killer; nothing except for a blood-curdling snarl that had reverberated up through the stairwell. He would have charged down those steps if there'd been a chance to save her, but she'd already been dead before they'd quite realized the threat. God, he hated this. Hated the uncertainty. Hated the feeling that this was something beyond all human understanding.

Hated that he didn't have a clue about how he was going to stop it.

********************

They found her ravaged corpse - her clothes, like the others, ripped from her body - on the landing between the second and third floors. For a long moment, they both just stared down at her, filled with profound sorrow that they'd been unable to save her. Jim slammed the side of his fist against the wall in frustration. There was nothing here to help him find the killer; nothing but the now ubiquitous paw-prints in the congealing blood.

"What's he doing with the hearts?" Blair asked, his emotions numb with horror. "Why's he doing this? I mean, not just killing, but this ritualized mutilation and the taking of the hearts. It's like some ancient ceremony of human sacrifice."

Jim stiffened, and then turned to look at Blair. Slowly, he began to nod. "You're right," he mused, a finger rubbing over his lips as he grappled with the new idea. "I hadn't thought about it, but maybe he is engaging in human sacrifice. Maybe that can help us figure out ..." His voice fell away as he thought about it. "Which ancient societies in that part of the world practiced human sacrifice?" he asked.

"Which ones didn't?" Blair returned with morose irony. "But whoever's doing this must have some knowledge of the ancient cultures, to be following what looks like a really old ritual of death to please the gods. Man, I gotta tell you, this dude is seriously nuts."

"Yeah, batshit crazy," Jim agreed with a shiver of dread.

Blair sniffed and scrubbed the tears from his face while Jim called Simon on his cell, to tell him about the most recent killing. Gripping Jim's arm, he said, "We have to warn people that the ... the killer really does look like me."

Jim didn't disagree, but he didn't want any terrified, trigger-happy cops taking pot-shots at his partner, either. "Simon, just a minute," he said, to buy time to think. Covering the mouthpiece, he asked, "You sure about that, Sandburg? We might have to put you in protective custody - but I don't want to let you out of my sight."

Blair's eyes were wide, turbulent with emotion, but he nodded. "We have to give fair warning, man. If they see me and I'm not with you, they need to exercise extreme caution."

Not liking it, but having to agree, Jim nodded. "Simon, we've caught our own glimpse of the killer. He ... well, he's a ringer for Sandburg. If anyone sees Blair and he's not with me, then it's probably not the real deal and they need to know they're in extreme danger." He listened, then said, "We're on our way to the lab now. This has something to do with that stone skull shield. Sandburg thinks the killer may be very familiar with ancient ritual killing practices and is conducting a form of human sacrifice." He winced and held the phone away from his ear. Concluding the call, he said, "We'll keep you posted." Shoving the phone back into his pocket, he led the way down the stairs to the basement.

Dan Wolf and his team had removed the bodies by the time they returned to the lab, but blood still spattered and streaked the walls and counters. Dark red pools congealed on the floor where the bodies had been lying. Trying not to gag, Blair looked away and dragged in deep breaths through his mouth to quell his stomach's queasy revolt.

Carefully watching where he stepped, keeping to the perimeter on the outside of the counters in the center of the large multimillion dollar lab, Jim made his way toward the shield. It was no longer lying on the steel specimen table where the technicians had put it. Instead, it was propped on top of a counter, leaning against the wall. Blood speckled the skull and dribbled down the encircling rays. Leaning close, he noticed that soft, dark earth was clogging what looked like symbols etched in the stone façade. Curious, he reached out to brush and scrape away the dirt.

He'd no sooner touched the shield when Blair exclaimed, "He's here!"

Wheeling around, his hand automatically drawing his pistol from the holster in the small of his back, he blinked to clear his vision. But he still saw two identical Blair Sandburgs on the other side of the room. "Kill him!" one shouted, pointing at the other. The second one had his hands up defensively and, between flicking anxious glances at Jim, was silently backing away. "What are you waiting for?" the first shouted again. "Shoot him before he kills us."

Between one second and the next, the spirit animals appeared in the room. The wolf positioned himself between the two Sandburgs, fangs bared and growling at the one doing the shouting. The panther crouched between Jim and the apparition, its tail flicking silently back and forth. Turning his weapon on the one he knew to be the imposter, Jim growled, "Stand very still or I will shoot you."

"You can tell it's him?" the defensive Blair squeaked, relief flooding his eyes.

His gaze locked on the deadly Blair Sandburg, Jim nodded. "No heartbeat. And the animals don't much like him ... or it."

Their adversary laughed, a wild, cold rattle that raised Jim's hackles. Crimson fire sparked in the dead eyes that gloated at them. "You pathetic creatures can't stop me," he crowed with low, almost hoarse assurance. "I am the gods' servant and cannot be killed."

"That so?" Jim challenged, dry and ironic, taking one step and then another to the side, away from the shield and closer to the killer. "Sandburg, what do you think it is?"

Blair hesitated, shook his head, but then said, "It's impossible. Doesn't exist. But I think it's a nahual."

"A what?"

"A shapeshifter. They're an ancient legend common to a lot of pre-civilized cultures, including ancient Mayan and Aztec mythology. Man, this ... it can't be real."

The nahual smirked, cold and superior, its expression blood-chilling.

"Looks real enough to me," Jim grated, circling closer despite the warning flick of the jaguar's tail. "How do we kill it?"

Blair cast him a 'get real' look and, holding up his hands, shrugged in a helpless gesture. "How am I supposed to know?"

Footsteps sounded from the hallway, coming toward them from the morgue around the corner. Jim saw Dan Wolf out of the corner of his eye. Dan jolted to a stop in the doorway and stared at one Blair and then the other. The nahual used the momentary distraction to dart with superhuman speed toward Jim, morphing as he moved into a skeletally-thin painted warrior, feathers and beads woven into his long dark hair. His outstretched hands gripped weapons formed from wolf claws.

Even as Jim pulled the trigger, firing repeatedly, the creature's eyes flamed and it morphed again, shrinking downward into a fearsome wolf that was charging toward Jim. The bullets, missing their target, smashed through the glass into the hallway beyond. Blair's wolf tore after it and the jaguar leapt to grapple with it. But the nahual 'wolf' angled away and leapt high onto and over the counters, flying headfirst into the skull shield, disappearing into it as if into the mouth of a cave.

The men stood, panting in the rush of adrenaline that flooded their beings, staring at the blood-streaked shield. The spirit animals hurled themselves forward, the jaguar leaping onto a nearby counter, the wolf skidding around behind it, both focused on the shield. Like ancient guardians, they took positions between the shield and the humans they watched over, protecting them from the evil Jim could still feel emanating from the stone.

"I've heard of such creatures," Dan said into the silence, "in the old legends. I never thought I would actually see one," he added with dry humor. "So this is the killer you hunt."

"Yeah," Jim grunted, reluctantly holstering his weapon while keeping his eyes on the shield.

"Oh shit, what do we do now?" Blair asked.

Jim snorted. "You're asking me? You're the expert on myth and legend, not me. How do the heroes in the legends kill them?"

Blair frowned, caught by the intellectual challenge. "Uh, I'm not sure. I'll have to do some research."

Gesturing at the shield, Jim said, "There're some old symbols carved into the stone; might give you a place to start." Stepping back and away from the shield, he moved to stand beside the pathologist. When Blair moved cautiously toward it, peering at it to make out the inscription, Jim warned, "Don't get too close. We don't know if that thing can just spring out and grab you."

Blair jerked back and gulped. "Thanks so much for that image," he muttered, shaking his head.

"We cannot be sure it's even still here," Dan said. "A shapeshifter could become an ant or a fly or even masquerade as one of the droplets of blood on the wall. But it won't get too far from the shield."

"Why not?" Jim asked.

Dan shrugged. "I don't know, but it looks like the shield is its safe haven."

Jim thought about that. The spirit animals were watching the stone carving, so he figured the shapeshifter was still somewhere inside of it. What Dan said made a weird kind of sense. This thing had shown up after the shield had been dug out of the earth. The murders were all of people who ... realization struck him. "It kills people who have touched the shield." Turning to Blair, he demanded, "Right? And if that is right, why?"

Blair spread his hands. "Man, I just don't know. This is way outside my field of study. I've got to do some research."

"And maybe speak to someone wise, who has studied these things," Dan suggested.

"You mean, like a shaman?" Blair asked, then nodded. "Makes sense."

Dan studied him. "Perhaps the time has come for you to follow your own path of wisdom. You need to learn to use the power within you."

"What?" Blair asked, gaping at him. "What power?"

Dan tilted his head, considering him and then looked toward Jim. "You do not see it? The aura that surrounds him? It's been there for nearly a year now, since the Chopec warriors came from Peru."

Jim shook his head. "I don't see anything like that."

Dan looked askance at him. "But you see the animals." Frowning, he said sternly to both of them, "This is not a game. These powers you both have carry responsibilities to learn to use them effectively. There's great risk in ignoring them."

"I have powers?" Blair queried, incredulous.

Dan just snorted and turned away. "I do not have the abilities to help you with this monster, or with the other challenges you face. I hope you find the right path soon. Seek out those with knowledge, quickly."

Jim watched him disappear down the hallway to the garage beyond. "Great," he sighed, dragging his hand over the back of his head. Casting a dyspeptic look at the shield, he said, "We can't leave that thing here. Unless I miss my guess, we're the only ones left who have touched it, so others shouldn't be in immediate danger. But we have to put it somewhere safe, to make sure that no one else touches it." Grimacing, he shook his head. "If I'm wrong, well, I guess we'll find out."

Blair looked like he wanted to protest but didn't. Jim could see the resignation in his face and in the slump of his shoulders. "Okay," Blair agreed, subdued. Regarding the shield with aversion, he went on, "I guess we take the thing home. You'd better tell Simon though, that if we end up dead, nobody should ever touch that thing. You know this means that we don't dare fall asleep until we've figured out how to ... to deal with it."

Jim gave him a wan grin. "Well, you haven't been sleeping much anyway, so no problem, right?"

Blair huffed a laugh, but then quickly sobered. "You're right, we can't leave it alone. Maybe Simon could have someone bring us a supply cart or dolly or something, to move it to the truck." Looking around the lab, he gestured to a shelf holding plastic gloves. "You know, I really don't think even we should touch it more than absolutely necessary. Since we don't know if or why touching it makes anyone vulnerable, putting those on couldn't hurt."

Jim moved to one of the lab phones and called Banks.

********************

Simon brought the dolly himself. Jim and Blair resolutely forbid him to help with the actual repositioning of the shield, despite its heavy weight and how much Simon's strength would have helped, especially in levering it up into the bed of Jim's truck.

"I'm not sure I should be allowing one of the prime suspects to take off with evidence," Banks growled as he watched them pull off the latex gloves. "But then, nothing in this case makes any kind of sense."

Jim gave him a look of disgust at the statement of the obvious, but didn't help out with any further explanation than he'd already given in the lab. Uncharacteristically silent, Blair was already climbing into the passenger seat. "I'm really not sure I can explain letting him go," Simon muttered, tilting his head in Sandburg's direction. "A lot of people aren't buying the identical double theory and think he's good for the murders."

"I know," Jim replied, looking impatient. "But I'm telling you, I've seen them both, side by side. And so has Dan Wolf, so if you won't take my word for it, ask him."

Simon lifted a hand. "I'm not saying I don't believe you, or that I think Sandburg's guilty. But it's not all that easy to sell a theory about some psycho using an ancient religious ritual running around killing people who have dared to touch that stone monstrosity by clawing them to death with implements made from the feet of wolves."

Jim shrugged. Selling theories, or interceding with the higher ups and the media wasn't his job or problem. Given what he knew to be the truth, he thought the story they'd concocted to explain who was committing the murders hung together fairly well. "Look," he finally said, relenting in the face of Simon's exasperation, "we're pretty sure that Sandburg and I are the only remaining targets, and we want to keep it that way. If we can get the killer to come after us, in an environment we can control, then we hope we can, uh, contain him."

"Dammit, Jim," Simon protested. "You need the proper backup!"

Fed up with the arguments that were going nowhere and not helping, Jim threw up his hands. "If you don't trust me, just say so."

"This isn't about trust and you damned well know it. I'm worried about you and Sandburg, too," Simon retorted, then sighed heavily. He didn't like it, but he stopped arguing. "Okay, well, if things start to get dicey, call me."

Jim hesitated before turning away. "There's one thing: if the killer gets to us, you have to make damned sure nobody touches this stone." When Simon looked like he was going to insist on backing them up, Jim held up his hands and kept talking. "Find a way to shift it and bury it under concrete somewhere, where it'll never be dug up again."

"And you think that will stop it?"

"I don't know, but it's the best I've got right now," Jim returned. He briefly gripped Simon's shoulder, and Simon nodded with grim understanding. A world of meaning passed between them though not a word was said. Then Jim turned away to climb behind the wheel. "We'll bring the dolly back when this thing is over, if we can," he called before pulling the door shut.

Simon was still standing in the garage, watching them go, when he drove up the ramp and turned onto the side street.

********************

ACT IV

Staring into space, Blair remained silent all the way back to the loft. Jim wasn't sure what the kid was thinking about, but he was hoping Sandburg was coming up with some kind of plan or strategy. If not, Jim was beginning to think their best bet would be to rebury the thing or dump it in the bay. He parked on Prospect, outside their building, and Blair helped him manhandle the artifact inside.

"May as well leave it on the dolly," Jim said, when they got inside and wheeled it over by the windows. Peeling off the gloves for the second time, he asked, "So, you coming up with any great ideas about how to, I don't know, neutralize this thing?"

Blair shook his head. "But I might know someone who will know what to do, or at least who to call," he said, heading to his room. A minute so later, he was back, searching through a small, very worn, address book. "There's this guy ... Mom and his wife were old friends and we lived with them for awhile; I used to babysit these little kids," he rambled as he thumbed through the book. Pausing, he frowned. "Dean and Sammy were their names. Their father was Bobby's best friend."

"Bobby?" Jim prompted.

"Bobby Singer," Blair murmured, distracted by memories. "He was a good guy. I remember he got really angry with Mom one day when she was playing with some tarot cards. Said he wouldn't have anything like that in the house. He literally grabbed them up and threw them on the fire. Said she was crazy to play around with powers she didn't understand. Made her promise to stay away from any kind of witchcraft." He smiled a little. "He was good to me, as much of a father figure as anyone, I guess. Haven't seen or heard from him in a long time. His wife died suddenly and he, well, I'm not sure he ever got over it. Like Dean's dad never got over losing his wife in a fire."

"So you think he'll know something about this, uh, shapeshifter thing?"

"Yeah, I think so. He said there were things that most of us thought were only legend, but they were very real and we had to be careful, you know?" Blair shrugged. "Honestly, when I got a little older, I thought he was nuts. Harmless, but who really believes in this kind of shit?" He laughed mirthlessly as he went to the phone. "Shows how much I knew about what really goes on in the world." As he punched in the number, he asked over his shoulder, "Are the animals here?"

Jim looked toward the balcony and nodded. "Yep, crouched in front of the shield, staring at it. Both of them are growling." He didn't tell Blair that they also seemed restless, dividing their attention between the artifact and the rest of the loft. Jim wasn't sure what that meant, if anything, but they were making him nervous.

Blair turned to look at him as he raised the phone to his ear. "It's really amazing, man, that you can see them."

Jim wasn't sure it was amazing. He didn't know what it was; just wished that it wasn't always happening to him.

"Hello, Bobby? Hey, man, it's so good to hear your voice. I don't know if you'll remember me," he began but a relieved smile lit his face as he listened. "Yeah, yeah, it's me. Can't believe you recognize my voice. Uh, Bobby, I've got a problem and I don't know anyone else who can help. It's ..." he glanced at Jim and took a deep breath and blurted, "a shapeshifter. Thing thinks it's a servant of the ancient South American gods and is going around ripping out throats and tearing out hearts. It's slaughtered ten people that we know of."

Blair went on to explain that the monster appeared to be attached to an ancient stone artifact of a god of death that had ancient writing carved into it, but he hadn't had time to decipher it. He also shared the theory that, so far as they could figure out, it only attacked anyone who touched the artifact. He described the confrontation in the lab, and the presence of the animal spirits. Jim had to give the kid credit; Blair was relaying all the information as if he was describing something as normal as sunshine. But his voice was tight, and Jim could tell he was afraid that this Bobby would think he was out of his mind.

As soon as Blair stopped talking, Bobby jumped in with clarifying questions, like where was the thing now and who else had touched it. Once he had all the information, Bobby started in on what they needed to do. Listening to the crusty voice on the other end of the phone, Jim went to the kitchen and pulled out a box of salt. Returning to the dolly, he poured a ring around it, even though he thought the idea was nuts. But what really blew him away was that the guy hadn't even blinked at the idea of a shapeshifter; had just started right in with how to contain it. Still talking, Bobby was going on about channeling the energy, to keep it from shifting, so that it could be killed.

"But how do we focus the energy to stop it from shifting, Bobby?" Blair asked, clearly as much at a loss as Jim was by the arcane instructions. "Uh, any chance you could come out here and help us? We're way out of our league here, you know?"

Jim was surprised by the surge of relief he felt when he heard Bobby agree to fly out immediately. Seemed he'd be bringing someone with him: Dean Winchester. "Hey, I remember Dean," Blair laughed. "Well, I remember the child. Not sure I'd recognize him now." When Jim held up a credit card, Blair went on, "Look, we'll book your tickets at this end. Don't want you stuck with the cost."

Jim pulled out his cellphone, called the airline Bobby had just recommended, and made the reservations. Blair relayed the information and the deal was done. They couldn't leave the artifact, so Bobby took Jim's address and said they'd get a cab at the airport and be there in about four hours. Blair hung up with a gust of relief.

"Now we just need to stay alive until they get here," Jim said sardonically. "What was all that about getting centered?"

"Oh, you heard him," Blair replied, scraping his face as if he could wear away the weariness that was dragging at him. "Of course you did. Well, Bobby knows that Mom taught me how to meditate almost before I could walk. Not sure why, but he wants me to find that inner balance before he and Dean get here." Looking nervous, Blair met Jim's steady gaze. "I think he's going to want me to do something to help, uh, kill the thing, or at least contain it."

"Yeah, I got that impression, too," Jim agreed, not at all happy about the idea of Blair being the one to 'channel the energy to stop the monster from shifting into another shape'. For one thing, he wasn't sure Blair could do it. For another, he didn't know, even if he could, what it would cost the kid; how close would he have to get to the creature? For how long?

The thing killed in the blink of an eye.

They couldn't afford to make any mistakes.

When Blair started toward his room, to meditate, Jim stopped him. "Meditate in here, Chief, where I can see you. I don't want that thing slipping up on either of us."

"Good point," Blair agreed. He got a few white candles from a lower kitchen cupboard beside the fridge, and set them in a semicircle on the living room floor. "You mind if I put on some rhythmic music?" Jim shook his head and went to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. In minutes, Blair had assumed the position on the floor. By the time Jim returned with a cup of coffee, it looked like he was deep in a trance.

Jim sat where he could see the stone, but could also see most of the rest of the apartment. He didn't like the wolf's restlessness and low worried whine. The jaguar was just as unsettled. Its ears and tail kept twitching, and it regularly swiveled its head to check out the whole loft, nostrils flaring. The shapeshifter had no heartbeat, and the scent Jim associated with it also clung to the ancient, earth-engrained and blood-spattered stone, so he couldn't set one or more of his senses to register the shifter's presence. Frustrated, he rubbed his mouth and then settled back in his chair to keep watch and wait for whatever happened next.

There was no question the shapeshifter had leapt into the artifact.

But whether it was still in there was anybody's guess.

********************

Dimly, Jim became aware of distant knocking but only fully awakened when the spirit animals snarled and howled as they scurried across the loft. By the time he jumped to his feet, Blair was already more than halfway to the door, reaching to open it.

"Stop!" Jim yelled. "Don't open the door!"

Ignoring him, Blair said, "It's probably Bobby and Dean." He gripped the doorknob and was turning it when Jim grabbed him and thrust him out of the way of the opening door. The spirit animals leapt to the threshold and stood their ground, barring the entry of Blair's double. Jim found his weapon in his hand and leveled it at the creature.

"Oh, my God," Blair exclaimed, gaping at the shifter from behind Jim's shoulder. "How did you know?"

"No heartbeat," he said, glaring at the apparition. "Get the salt."

"I'll just find another way in," it said, with an irritated glance at the spirit animals that held it at bay. Then it lifted its gaze to Jim's. The eyes, so like Blair's in shape and color, were empty but for a burning hunger that was terrifying to behold. "The gods must be served."

"Yeah, yeah," Jim muttered, shifting slightly sideways to allow Blair to pour a narrow stream of salt in a half circle from one side of the door to the other.

"We can't close the door now, not without breaking the salt line," Blair murmured to him when he stepped back and behind Jim to stare at the creature.

"Maybe just as well," Jim said. "You have a cellphone number for Bobby? To warn him about what's waiting out there?"

"Yeah, he gave it to me before he hung up," Blair replied, retreating to find his phone book. But before he did, he dribbled lines of salt in front of the balcony doors, the back door, the window in his room and the door in Jim's room that led out to a fire escape. Coming back down the steps, he shook the box. "We're out of salt."

"It'll have to be enough," Jim said, not having thought of salting all the entries himself. Fleetingly, he glanced up at the skylights and wondered what the odds were of the thing turning into an eagle and crashing through. When he looked back, all he knew was that the shapeshifter was no longer standing in the doorway.

Behind him, he heard Blair leaving a message for Bobby. Glancing at the clock, Jim figured they'd be landing soon. Returning to the living room, he rubbed his eyes. "Sorry," he said. "Guess I fell asleep."

"Not surprised," Blair replied. "What with no sleep last night and the repetitive rhythms on the CD, it would be hard to stay awake. I won't do any more meditation until they get here; too hard for just one of us to stand watch. We're too tired."

"The meditation," Jim began, gesturing at the burned down candles. "Did it, uh, help? With getting centered?" Even after all the years of watching Blair meditate, asking the question still sounded awkward to his ears. Grounded. Centered. What did it all really mean? Was it similar to how he slowed everything down and focused just before going into battle, excluding all thought and emotion but the objective?

"I guess, maybe," Blair replied, raking his fingers through his hair and not sounding at all confident. "I don't really know." He paused as he paced around the living room, finally coming to a stop in front of Jim. "What do you think Dan meant about my 'power'? Do you think it's something to do with what Incacha passed to me? Just before he died?"

Jim grimaced and looked away. He hated all this metaphysical stuff; didn't understand it. "I don't know, Chief. Your guess is as good as mine."

"You don't believe I have any power," Blair said quietly, discouraged.

Sighing, Jim shook his head. "I don't even know what kind of 'power' you're talking about," he said, knowing he sounded irritated, wishing the whole thing didn't make him so uncomfortable. With a glance at the spirit animals prowling the loft, he knew he should be a whole lot more open to the subject, but even seeing didn't make it easy to believe.

Blair stared at him, didn't say anything more, and then turned away to flop down on the sofa. "I hope they come soon. I feel like we're trapped in here and it's only a matter of time before that thing gets us."

********************

Jim heard the clomp of heavy feet on the stairwell about half an hour after Bobby had called to say they'd landed. Rising, he was waiting at the open door when they came into the hallway, Blair at his shoulder. Both newcomers were dressed in casual, well-worn clothing and they each carried a bedroll and a battered overnight bag. Bobby looked to be a few years older than Jim, with a grizzled beard, baseball cap and the eyes of an old warrior who had seen far more than too much. Half a step behind him, Dean was a young man in his late teens or early twenties. Jim catalogued leather jacket, boots, unshaven cheeks and eyes that were way too hard and tired for a kid his age combined with a cocky half-grin and stance that said he didn't back down, ever. He looked like trouble, like every kid Jim had ever seen leading a gang or being the muscle for powerful men.

Jim shook Bobby's hand when he came in the door. "You got a leash for that one?" he asked, with a head nod toward Dean, not entirely joking.

"Hey, Jim, c'mon, man, what kind of welcome's that?" Blair chastised as, with a big smile he hugged Bobby and held his arms out to Dean. Jim was surprised when the big tough kid's face lit up and he moved into Blair's embrace as if he was coming home from the wars.

"Ah, man, it's so damned good to see you again," Dean gusted, hugging tight.

Blair laughed and stepped back with a slap on the kid's back. "You've grown a bit."

Grinning like a fool, Dean nodded agreement. "You should see Sammy. Dude is a giant; six foot six, or almost."

"Whoa!" Blair exclaimed, waving them all into the loft and going to the fridge to haul out bottles of icy cold beer. "Where is Sam? I thought he'd be with you. Used to be, you never let him out of your sight," he teased.

Surprisingly, Dean's expression closed and his gaze dropped away. "Sammy's ... Sam's at university." Rallying, pride slipping into his eyes, he added, "He's gonna be a lawyer." Clearing his throat, Dean turned to Jim. "You look like a cop," he said, eyes once again hard, giving nothing away.

"That a problem, kid?" Jim challenged, but Blair moved between them, laying a hand lightly on Jim's arm as he interceded. "That's 'cause he is," Blair affirmed. "Jim Ellison, these are my friends Bobby Singer and Dean Winchester. Guys, Jim's my best friend and, yeah, he's a detective with Cascade PD's Major Crime Unit. We're both grateful you came, and so fast. A nahual, well, we've never seen anything like it before."

Bobby swatted Dean for the challenging way he'd spoken to Jim, making the kid jump but also igniting a small, teasing grin. "Just testing the waters, Bobby," Dean explained, hands up and expression as innocent as a baby. "Cops don't always, ah, appreciate our line of work."

"And what line of work would that be?" Jim asked, eyes narrowing suspiciously.

Blair muttered, "Alpha males," and Bobby snorted. "Boys, we don't have time for this dance." Turning to Jim, he said, "We hunt monsters like this nahual. We protect people, so that most folks like you don't ever have to know they even exist. If you've got a problem with that, then we've wasted a trip." Moving right into Jim's space, he added, "And yeah, Dean here looks like a punk, but he's been killing monsters and saving lives since he was about seven years old. So have a little respect for a warrior who has earned his stripes and then some."

Feeling as if he'd just been dressed down by a master sergeant, Jim straightened and nodded. "No problem. Like Sandburg says, we're both glad to have your help. How do we handle this thing?"

"Well, for starters," Dean drawled, "I doubt the salt is gonna do much good; doesn't work all that well on things that are still alive, not like demons and ghosts, but it was worth trying. Be surprised if it isn't in here somewhere."

Bobby looked around. "Probably the spirit animals keeping it civil," he said.

Dean nodded, thumbs hitched in his jean pockets. "That would do it. There're probably the reason for the nightmares, too. Trying to communicate with you. You guys must have some powerful mojo to rate your own spirit protectors; they're pretty uncommon, at least in my experience."

"Yeah, that's true," Bobby agreed, peering at Jim and then Blair. "What's going on half-pint? What makes you two so special?" he asked Blair, who nearly choked at the old nickname, and poked Jim when he barked a laugh.

"Ahhh, well," Blair stammered, looking up at Jim. "I can't see them, so I just have to take Jim's word for the fact they're there. Jim, well, he worked with the Chopec for nearly two years and, and, uh, the shaman, Incacha taught him about spirit animals. Neither of us know, really, why we have them."

"If you're gonna lie to me, I'll box your ears just like I used to," Bobby warned, but softened the threat with a fond smile. "You never did know you were special, kid. Seems like you still don't, but you're gonna have to learn. I can't teach you everything you need to know, but I can show you a trick or two to help trap the shifter." He looked around. "Would be easier, though, if you could see the critters."

Frowning, Blair shook his head. "Honestly, Bobby, there's nothing special about me. I don't know why anyone thinks there is."

Bobby studied him. Shrugged. "Well, sometimes it takes time for folks to wake up to their own abilities, to accept them. Most don't notice 'em 'cause they don't know any different; it's just the way they are." Dismissing the discussion, he heaved his bag onto the table. "We brought what we'll need," he said, rummaging inside. "It's a hassle flying with our gear. Usually we'd rather drive. But this was an emergency, so we checked the one bag and hoped security'd give it a miss. Seems to have worked." He drew out a thick, worn book with a leather cover. "Dean's got the weapons. This has the spells."

"Weapons? Spells?" Jim croaked.

"You're not going to be a problem, are you, son?" Bobby asked, sounding tired. "We don't have a lot of time here. If what we do bothers you so much, maybe you should leave for a little while."

"He can't," Blair said flatly. "He touched the stone, so he's a target, too."

"Why does touching it make any difference?" Jim asked, having been wondering if they were right about that assumption.

"Probably the curse or charm that was worked when the thing was originally put in the rock and buried in the ground, to control and contain it," Bobby replied, wandering over to squint at the worn carving on the stone. Nodding to himself. "Not unusual. Way it works is the thing is confined by a curse or charm like the one etched here. It can only interact with those who touch it, giving it the energy and freedom for limited action."

"Why did they bury it - instead of throwing it into a lake or," he gestured out to the bay, "the ocean?"

"Earth is inert and stable, doesn't move, or at least not much, and mostly only at the particle level," Dean explained. "Water flows continuously. So, trapped in stone and buried in earth, the shifter can't escape. If the stone was tossed in water, something alive would've touched it in a matter of minutes and the thing'd be free to go just about anywhere."

Jim nodded, figuring that made about as much sense as anything else did. "So what do we do?" he asked, cutting to the chase.

"We enthrall it - or Blair, here, will, drawing on the power of the animal spirits. Then, when it can't shift from one form to another, we'll stick it with the silver knife Dean brought, an' that'll kill it." Dean dipped into his bag and hauled out a mean-looking blade that had to be at least a foot long, and then a pistol. "Silver bullets," he said with a wicked grin.

Jim whistled as he eyed the weapons, and Blair gulped. "Enthrall it? How?" he asked nervously, looking away from the knife and back to Bobby.

"And why Sandburg?" Jim added, worried that the role would entail considerable danger.

"Because he's the one who can do it," Bobby said simply. "You been keeping up your meditation, like your Momma taught you?" he demanded. When Blair nodded, he gave a nod of approval. Looking around the living room, he said, "Okay, then, let's get this show on the road."

********************

Bobby directed Blair to sit in the middle of the loveseat. "I need you to be meditating, going so deep that you're oblivious to everything that's going on around you. Can you do that?"

"Well, I'm generally aware on some level," Blair replied. "But it's like the world's distractions are a long way away and I can let them drift by, you know?"

"That'll work fine," Bobby agreed. "You go on, get started. Go deep."

Meanwhile, Dean drew a long, thin branch of sage from his pack. Sparking the tip with a lighter, he wafted the smoke around the room. "Purifies the air. It's good for the spirit animals."

When the jaguar chuffed a sneeze, Jim grimaced in shared misery. "Maybe for some of them," he muttered. "What do you need me to do?"

"You're the one who can see the animals, right?" Bobby confirmed. When Jim nodded, he said, "Then you need to tell me when they jump up on the sofa, beside Blair. Then you need to guide me in placing his hands on their heads."

"I could do that," Jim asserted. "Put his hands on them."

"Not and chant the necessary charm of protection at the same time," Bobby replied. Turning to look at Blair, judging he'd already slipped deeply into the meditative state, he asked, "Are they beside him yet?"

Amazed, Jim watched both animals climb onto the sofa on either side of Blair, laying their heads across his thighs. "Yeah," he said, guiding Bobby's hands even as Bobby chanted in an arcane language. The sage smoke was thick in the air now and Jim's eyes were beginning to water.

"Won't the shapeshifter know we're setting a trap for it? And stay away?" he asked, wondering how all the esoteric stuff could possibly work. The monster hadn't seemed stupid, and must have an idea of what made it vulnerable.

Still waving the damned sage, now right over Blair's head, Dean replied, "The nahual is arrogant and doesn't think anything can ever stop it - because mostly, it really is unstoppable. Plus, it doesn't acknowledge the presence of anyone but its targets. To it, Bobby and I are irrelevant and inconsequential. When the spirit animals aren't blocking it anymore and the sacrificial victim is just sitting there, waiting for it, it can't resist. It has a compulsion to slit the sacrifice's throat, to release the spirit or soul to the gods with the victim's last breath. On top of that, after what sounds like might be a couple millennia without feeding regularly, it's literally starving. It has to eat the heart for its own survival. In my experience, starving creatures are pretty single-minded about getting to their food."

"You're setting Sandburg up as the target?" Jim growled. "He didn't agree to that! And neither do I," he continued aggressively, moving to place himself in front of Blair, protecting him from the other men. "This isn't going to work," he insisted, only to inhale a cloud of sage smoke, which set him to coughing and sneezing violently. He was so overcome by the fumes that he couldn't resist when Bobby moved him out of the way and shoved him, more or less gently, toward the bathroom.

"Rinse the smoke off your face," Bobby directed. "And moisten a cloth to hold over your nose if need be. NOW! Move, man. We don't have time to fool around here. Blair's life is at stake."

Nearly blind, Jim stumbled to the bathroom, where he hunched over the sink, splashing water onto his face and into his eyes.

He heard a startled yell behind him, out in the main room. Hurriedly, he snagged a towel and, blinking hard to clear his vision, he staggered out of the bathroom...

Only to see himself throw Dean over the dining room table and kitchen counter, to slam into the cupboards as if the man was nothing more than a rag doll. The silver knife in Dean's hand went flying, landing by the pillar. Bobby whirled away from Blair and ran for the blade, crossing the shapeshifter's path. Singer was unceremoniously tossed across the room, where he landed hard, sprawling across the shield on the dolly. Relentlessly, laughing with insane glee, the nahual continued stalking across the floor toward Blair. His deadly implements, the wolf claws that he used as blades, materialized in his hands.

********************

The animals growled and stiffened in threat, but they remained under Blair's hands. Jim didn't understand why they didn't move. Terrified Blair was about to be murdered, he yelled at the jaguar and the wolf to stop the beast, cursing them for not moving as he dove for the knife. Dean was pulling himself up from the kitchen floor, using the counter for leverage. Swearing like a sailor, he used both hands to catapult himself over the counter toward the nahual, making a flying leap and reaching out to grab hold of one of the creature's arms, to stop it from slashing Blair's throat.

The shapeshifter used his other hand to brush Dean off as if he were no more than a fly, slashing through his jacket and shirt, cutting his left arm all the way to bone. With a yelp of pain, Dean floundered, lost his grip and rolled away, even as Bobby and Jim were both moving toward the beast. Bobby caught the arm that was slashing down toward Blair's throat, pulling it slightly off target, but deep claw marks gouged Blair's neck, streaming blood.

Dean and Bobby had delayed the nahual just long enough for Jim to come up behind it. Using an uphanded motion, Jim drove the long blade through the shapeshifter's back, up through where its heart would have been and out its chest. The shapeshifter screamed, a hideous undulating wail, and glowed with inner fire even as it shifted for the last time to its original form, the man-like, skeletally-thin, painted warrior with feathers woven in its long black hair. Jim felt it vibrating under his hand, felt the slime of the changing shape and grimaced, but he held the knife deep in the creature's body until the wail silenced. Just as he was withdrawing the silver blade, the nahual crumpled to his feet. In a split second, maybe less, the corpse morphed into a pile of gray dust.

Jim surged forward, dropping to his knees in front of Blair, pressing the pristine towel he still carried against the deep wounds in his friend's throat. "Dammit," he breathed, one hand cupping Blair's face. "Chief? You hear me?" he husked.

Blair seemed frozen in his trance state, pallid and lifeless, unaware that he was bleeding out. The jaguar rumbled warningly, and the wolf whined, but still they remained in position, heads on Blair's legs, his hands draped on their skulls.

"Easy," Bobby said, resting calming hands on Jim's shoulders before moving away. "Don't disturb them, not yet."

"What are you talking about?" Jim yelled with a glare of fury over his shoulder at Bobby, who was now trying to staunch the blood pulsing from the long wound in Dean's arm. "Sandburg could bleed to death over here!"

"Ah, he'll be fine," Bobby retorted. "Not so sure about young Dean here."

"What?" Dean demanded, looking up at Bobby with surprise and no little fear in his eyes.

But Bobby just grinned and winked, cuffed him gently and helped him out of the jacket and shirt so that he could get better access to the wound. "Don't worry, son, you'll be okay, too," Bobby assured him. Casting a quick glance at Jim, he instructed, "Check the wounds under that towel."

Frowning, sure it was a bad idea to remove the pressure he was putting on the deep, hemorrhaging cuts, he took only a quick look - only to gape in astonishment.

The claw marks were gone, the skin unmarked and healthy.

"Wh-what?" he stuttered, looking from Blair's neck back to Bobby.

"Don't know how it works, but the spirit animals have the power to heal the chosen," Bobby said with a negligent shrug. "Blair'd never admit it, probably doesn't even really realize it, but he's been chosen by the spirits for some purpose."

"What purpose?" Jim asked, shifting away from Blair to sit on the floor at his feet, all the while staring at the animals only he could see.

"Hard to say," Dean answered, wincing as Bobby pressed down hard to stop the bleeding. "And usually, whatever it is, is no fun. I'm real sorry Blair has to, well, deal with the spirit world and all that it entails. It'll probably kill him one day."

Alarmed then, Jim looked at the animals. "But, if he's so special ... won't they save him from that?"

"Don't know if they can. They can heal but I've never heard of any bringing a person back from the dead," Bobby told him. He checked the wound. Guiding Dean toward the bathroom, he directed over his shoulder, "You can bring him out of the trance now. He'll be okay; probably won't have any idea of what happened."

Watching the animals warily, Jim rose to one knee and lightly patted Blair's cheeks. "Earth to Sandburg. Time to wake up, Chief."

A slight tremor shivered through Blair's frame. A small frown puckered his brow, then his eyes opened. He blinked, seemed disoriented. Jim watched awareness come back into the impossibly blue eyes. "Hey, there," he said. "Welcome back."

Blair smiled uncertainly. "Is it over? Did we win?" he asked, looking around and then down - at which point he went absolutely still. "I can see them," he breathed, awed. Swallowing convulsively, he blinked at the tears that had suddenly blinded him. "Oh, man," he whispered in reverence, flicking a tremulous look at Jim and back down again even as he gently stroked their heads. "Hey, there, guys. Wow, you're beautiful. So beautiful."

Jim felt his own throat thicken at Blair's palpable joy at being able to see the spirit animals. Blowing a breath to settle his rattled emotions, Jim rose to his feet, and reflected that he'd never felt anything but annoyance and anxiety when the things showed up. "Yeah, we won," he said dryly. Clearly, Blair had more affinity for them than he ever would. But, listening to the other men in the bathroom, Dean whining like a kid that it hurt and Bobby telling him to suck it up, he thought about what they'd said. That Blair was somehow chosen, and that it could cost him his life. Bobby'd also said Blair probably didn't even know he was something special.

Watching the animals, thinking about what being 'special' could cost, Jim decided then and there to never tell Sandburg what Singer and Winchester had said. What would be the good of Sandburg knowing? He'd only rush off to study everything he could find on spirit animals and shamanism and start trying to be whatever he thought it was he should be - and it could kill him. No, better than he never go down that path. Better to just be who he was now and not immerse himself in all this supernatural shit. Much, much better any way you looked at it.

Or so Jim told himself.

Because he never wanted to see Sandburg's death; he'd far rather die himself. Given the difference in their ages and their respective careers, he figured that was the way it would be. And that was just fine with him.

The animals wriggled out from under Blair's hands. The wolf licked his face and then jumped to the floor where it sniffed at the dust and barked sharply, as if in victory. The jaguar's moves were more sinuous as it silently slid off the loveseat. Not even deigning to glance at the dust of their enemy, it met Jim's eyes for a long, disconcerting moment and then vanished, taking the wolf with it.

Blair gasped at their sudden disappearance. "Wow, they don't mess around, do they?" He looked at Jim, a wide grin lighting his face. "I saw them. I really saw them!"

"Yeah, I know," Jim replied, moving toward the bathroom to see if the other two needed anything.

But Bobby was already leading Dean out, the wounded arm washed and wrapped in yet another clean towel. Dean sat on the edge of the table, while Bobby dug around in his bag and pulled out his first aid kit. Unceremoniously, he set about stitching up the long gash. Dean gritted his teeth and looked away, but didn't make a sound. Jim had to give him credit for fortitude, if nothing else. He was angry with both of them. They'd set up the entire confrontation and then had nearly blown it. Blair could so easily have been killed.

"So, uh, it's gone, right?" Blair asked, pushing himself up off the loveseat. "For good."

"Yep," Bobby said. "It's gone. For good."

"I hope the evil bastard went straight to hell," Jim growled, thinking about the gashes on Blair's neck and how close it had come. Too damned close.

"S'not evil," Dean grated through his clenched teeth as Bobby continued making small neat stitches in his skin. "Doesn't work that way. Demons, now, they're evil bastards, no question. But most of these things, they're just ... doing what's natural to them. To the nahual, we're nothing but meat, like a cow or a chicken is to us. To live, it has to kill us for food; so, to live, we have to kill it before it gets us. It's nothing personal."

Jim was a bit nonplussed by Dean's philosophical perspective; it seemed so out of keeping with the young, tough-guy image. Nor had he given much thought himself to whether monsters - human or otherwise - were evil or just doing what came naturally. He wasn't all that sure he cared; his job was to stop them, as quickly as possible. But, gazing at Bobby and Dean, he had to admit that it was their job, too. And the 'bad guys' they hunted made most of his look like Sunday school teachers.

Dean looked past him to Blair, patently distracting himself from what Bobby was doing. "You taught me that, remember? Getting me to read the Lord of the Rings when I was ten, and talking to me about what it all meant. What things in it were evil, acting out of evil intent for pure self-interest, and what things really had no choice of being other than what they were. You and that story taught me what it means to stand for something that matters; to make the world a better place to be; to do what is right and good with what life and time present as challenges or problems ... to be brave in the face of impossible odds. You showed me what it means to be a hero."

"Oh, hey, thanks," Blair replied, embarrassed. "But all that was in the story. I was just another kid, and certainly not any kind of hero." He laughed without a lot of humor. "Mostly, I was a source of amusement for all the bullies in town."

"That's not true," Dean argued. "You ... you never let the bullies win. Oh, I saw them hurt you, the bastards. But you never backed down. They couldn't intimidate you. Not ever." Realizing they were all staring at him, Dean blushed, looked away. "Dad taught me how to survive. Bobby here taught me how to be smart about it; to not take crazy risks, to be prepared. But you taught me how to be the best man I can be. I can't ever pay you back for that, Blair," he said. Meeting Blair's eyes, he vowed, "And I won't ever forget it."

Blair gave him a gentle smile. "I think with what you did here, we can call it more than even," he insisted. "You don't owe me anything, Dean. I'm just glad to see both of you again. Those years with you guys, well, it was the best time of my childhood."

"Best time of mine, too," Dean replied with a slow smile. "Or," he added, with a wink at Bobby, "the most fun time. Bobby here works me like a dog."

"Only way I know to keep you out of trouble," Bobby countered with pretended sternness, but his eyes twinkled as, having finished bandaging Dean's arm, he stood to clear away the mess of bloody towels.

Blair laughed and went to the fridge and pulled out four bottles of beer. "Don't know about the rest of you, but I'd say we deserve a small celebration here," he said, handing them around.

Jim watched them, all three of them, and wondered about the years they'd spent together, when Sandburg had been young and Dean no more than a kid. So far as he'd learned from Blair, they'd all had broken lives of one sort or another. Somehow, they'd evidently helped each other survive. He wished he'd been part of their lives back then; he could have used friends like these.

Looking at Blair, he couldn't help but smile as he clinked their bottles together.

It had been close, but they'd won. Bottom line, that was all that mattered.

That, and figuring out what to tell Simon and put in their reports, to wrap up the case.

********************

Epilogue:

Blair hugged both Bobby and Dean before they left, sending them off with a big smile, promises to keep in touch, and effusive thanks for coming to their rescue.

"Any time, man, you know that. Love you, dude," Dean rumbled, giving Blair another quick hug and back slap, blushing for having been 'mushy'. Head bowed, he twisted away and hauled his bag over his shoulder. On the way past, he briskly shook Jim's hand, man to man, and then ducked out the door.

Bobby had been watching with fond indulgence. "He's a good kid," he told Jim, as he also shook hands. "Just a little rough around the edges, is all. Hasn't had an easy life."

"So I gathered," Jim allowed. "Thanks. We couldn't've stopped that thing without you guys."

"Yeah, well, it's what we do," Bobby drawled. Turning away, he gripped Blair's shoulder. "You've grown up good, half pint. Real glad to see you again. Don't be a stranger, y'hear?"

"I promise, Bobby, I'll stay in touch. You do the same. And, uh, well, look after Dean, okay?" Blair looked at the open doorway as if he could still see Dean standing there. "I worry about him."

"You an' me both, son," Bobby said with a sad smile. "I'll do my best, I can promise you that." Looking at Jim as he headed out the door, he added gruffly, "And you take good care of Blair. They don't make ones like him very often."

Jim gave him a crooked smile. "I will."

Bobby nodded and disappeared down the hall. Jim closed the door behind their visitors, and was glad to see the last of them. He couldn't deny they were good men, or that they'd been of invaluable help. But their world was a far cry from his, and it made him uncomfortable. Jim would be only too glad to never have to deal with supernatural monsters or spirit animals again, for as long as he lived.

When he turned, he found Blair watching him, a quizzical look on his face. "You didn't like them, did you?"

Shrugging, Jim moved past. "I liked them fine," he said, getting a bottle of water out of the fridge. Twisting off the cap, he added, "I just don't know them all that well."

Blair smiled at him, slow, and full of understanding. Jim had the impression, as he often did, that Sandburg was reading his mind. Breaking eye contact, Blair moved into the living room and sat in his usual spot on the sofa. After a moment, he asked with a carefully neutral tone, "What did you think about all that? Dan Wolf and Bobby saying I need training, that I have something ... special. Something I don't understand."

Jim took a long swallow from the bottle and capped it. "I don't know what to think about it, Chief. Seems a lot of mumbo jumbo to me. Guess you have to do what you think is right." He paused, then couldn't resist adding, "But, it's not like you've got a ton of spare time to spend doing more research or whatever. Not like there's any hurry, anyway, right?"

Blair regarded him uncertainly, and Jim couldn't help but feel that he'd somehow come up short. But Blair simply nodded. "I guess," he said quietly, then picked up one of his school texts and a notebook from the coffee table. In minutes, he was lost in his work.

Moving into the living room to drop into his favorite chair, Jim picked up the remote and clicked on the TV, channel surfing until he found a game. But even as he watched, he could hear Blair's voice in his mind, the look on his face, when he'd asked, "You don't think I have any power, do you?" He didn't know if Sandburg did or didn't; he did know he didn't want to think about it. But Bobby and Dean's words - even Dan's words - with their prediction of hard, dangerous times to come and what those times might cost Sandburg, haunted him.

Thinking about it made Jim's blood run cold.

Finis

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