Disclaimer: The Characters of The Sentinel belong to Pet Fly, The SciFi channel and others. No copyright infringement is intended.
Blair Sandburg took a deep breath and leaned back in the lounge chair, a small smile of contentment on his face, and closed his eyes.
The end of the semester.
It had been an exceptionally long term, even by Sandburgian standards. Although he had been an official member of the faculty for over four years now - part-time, at least - along with his duties as a consultant to the Cascade PD, Dr. Blair Sandburg put in more hours on campus than many full-time professors. He felt a deep obligation to his students. To give them anything less than his best would be unthinkable.
Yet, he had to admit, the thought of a full summer looming ahead with no obligations to Rainier was invigorating. Nothing but time for himself for once in his life. Time to read, to write, to think. Not entirely for himself, of course. There would also be plenty of time to be Jim Ellison's partner, guide, and best friend...jobs that too often seemed to be crunched in between committee and faculty meetings, marathon paper grading sessions, and late night research.
Blair sighed happily and took a long drink of cold beer from the bottle in his hand. An entire summer stretched out before him, full of promise and hope. Life was definitely good.
"Hey, Chief!" The familiar greeting rang through the loft, and Blair listened as Jim Ellison opened the door to the balcony and stepped out into the sunlight.
His eyes still closed, Blair grinned. "Hey yourself. You're home early, man. What happened? Crime in Cascade taking a holiday and Simon send you packing?" He stretched contentedly in the warm sunshine. This was definitely the life.
Blair felt the beer bottle eased from his hand and peered through half-closed eyes as Jim took a long swallow. "Hey, man!" he griped in mock irritation. "Get your own. There's more in the fridge, y'know." Despite his tone, Blair couldn't completely disguise a small grin. He was in too good a mood to keep up the pretense of irritation for long. Once again, he let his eyelids drift closed and basked in the warmth of the sun.
Maybe it was the shadow of the passing cloud that suddenly blocked the sunlight or perhaps he actually had begun to 'feel' the subtle shifts in energy that signaled a change in his partner's mood. Whatever the reason, Blair sensed something was up and opened his eyes to stare up at Jim Ellison. Jim's face was set in what Blair secretively thought of as his 'marble statue' look. Only the minute twitching of his jaw muscle revealed the pent-up emotions hidden beneath his chiseled exterior.
Something was definitely going on.
"What is it?" he asked quietly. "Talk to me, Jim."
The tall man sighed deeply and leaned back against the balcony railing as his stone-faced coun-tenance relaxed slightly, but he didn't answer Blair's question. That was when Blair noticed the envelope clasped in his hand.
A sudden feeling of dread flooded Blair's heart, driving out with a vengeance the sense of warm contentment of only moments before. The sunlight seemed dimmer somehow, shaded behind a heavy cloud.
"What's wrong?" he prodded. "Jim, man, talk to me. You're scaring me here."
Ellison shook his head. "Don't worry, Chief. It's nothing to get upset about. I'm...sorry...if I seemed like it was. This...." He lifted the hand with the envelope slightly, then let it fall loosely to his side. "Just took me by surprise, that's all."
Blair was more than a little confused. "I'm a little lost here, man. You want to clue me in?"
Jim tossed the envelope onto Blair's lap. "Read it for yourself. I'm going in to change. Be back in a few minutes."
Blair watched as his friend disappeared into the loft then stared at the plain white envelope in his hands. An array of colorful, exotic stamps adorned the uppermost right corner, and the bold, unfamiliar script filled up most of the central area. His eyes froze on the return address.
Hurriedly, Blair removed the single sheet of paper from within and began to read.
Jim Ellison couldn't help extending his hearing toward the balcony as he slipped into his soft, faded jeans and tucked in his favorite denim shirt. Since the arrival of the letter at the station this morning, he'd thought of little else than how his partner would receive the unusual request.
Blair had been looking forward to this summer for months. Jim hadn't missed the X'ed off days on their work calendar at the station or Blair's frequent references to his plans for the long, summer break. In the frequent moments of honest introspection he'd experienced that day, Jim wasn't sure he had the right to ask his friend to sacrifice even part of his long awaited sabbatical.
Finished upstairs, Jim jogged down the steps, risking a glance out to the balcony on his way to the kitchen.
Grabbing a beer from the fridge with one hand, Jim scooped a bag of chips from the cabinet with the other. It was close to dinnertime, true, but at the moment, he felt the need for some quality junk food. Hell, if they ended up going through with this, it might be quite a while before he could indulge his taste for less than healthy treats. That much should please Sandburg at least. With a wry grin, Jim returned to the balcony to join his guide.
Jim stepped out onto the balcony, pulling the door closed behind him. Sandburg looked up from the letter and gazed at Jim with wide eyes. The sentinel pulled a chair close to the lounge Blair occupied. Quizzically, Ellison cocked his head at the younger man and shrugged.
It was one of those rare occasions when even the erudite Dr. Blair Sandburg was at a loss for words. Spreading out the hand not holding the letter, Blair gestured toward the page. "Man! When did this arrive, Jim?"
"This morning. I'm amazed it got here at all. With an address like that-" Jim indicated the envelope.
Both men looked at the address and smiled.
*Detective James Ellison Enquiri Cascade United States of America*
Blair chuckled. "Kinda like a message in a bottle, wasn't it? It got here, though. Guess there's something working right in the system after all. When did you get it?"
Ellison took a long swallow of his beer and leaned back in his chair. "It came to the station this morning. I almost called you, but then I figured this was one piece of news that deserved to be shared in person. Things got hectic, and I wasn't able to meet you for lunch, so..." Jim hesitated, then added, "I'll understand if you don't want to do this. You had your summer plans and all...."
There was absolutely no hesitation in Blair's response. "Forget it. I'm going. Have you told Simon?"
Shaking his head, Jim chuckled, feeling almost weak with relief. "Does it look like I've told him, Chief? I'm still in one piece, aren't I?" The amused grin faded as Jim rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. "Not yet. I was kind of hoping that you'd be there when I do. Help me explain some of this. You know I'm still not too comfortable with this spiritual side of this sentinel thing."
"No joke! I hadn't noticed, Jim." For a moment, Blair grinned broadly, then the smile faded and his serious blue eyes locked with Jim's. "You believe it all, though, don't you? You do trust in all the... unusual...things that have happened to us over the years?"
Jim's emphatic answer left no room for doubt. "Of course I do, Chief. How could I not believe? If not before my chopper crashed in Peru three years ago, then certainly after what we experienced there."
Ellison took a deep breath, his expression absolutely serious. "The connection's real between us, Blair. I believe in that, and I know the ceremony in Peru had a lot to do with it. A lot of the things you're studying in those shaman books of yours, I'm not sure about, but what happened to us...." A smile turned up the corners of his mouth. "That's real. That much I'm sure of."
Jim could see the relief written clearly on Blair's face, and it warmed his heart. It was important that Blair understand that he wasn't doubting the ceremony they'd gone through in the Chopec temple nearly three years before. It was just as important that he acknowledge to his guide the strengthened bond between them that had been the result of their last visit to Peru. The ability to sense each other's strongest emotions had faded within the first year, but the powerful emotional connection between them had only grown stronger. Jim didn't know how to explain these concepts to Simon, even though their captain had also been a close friend for many years.
Who could blame him? Jim thought. Shamans and sacred pools...sentinels and guides...living each other's memories...visions and hidden messages... mystical jaguars and wolves. It would have to seem crazy to any one on the outside, and face it, Ellison, everyone else is on the outside. Everyone but you and Sandburg.
Jim voiced his thoughts aloud. "It's tough for Simon to understand it all, you know. I guess unless you've lived it, there is no way to understand. Not really." His eyes searched Blair's seeking the con-firmation he needed.
Blair's bright grin was all the reassurance he could require. "Yeah, Simon and the mystical side of life...never the twain shall meet." Reaching over to snag a handful of chips from the bag in Jim's lap, he added, "I'll be with you, man. No one should have to face an irate Simon Banks alone."
Two hours later, as Simon climbed the flight of steps leading to the loft, he could feel his stomach already tightening in anticipation. Jim Ellison might see himself as inscrutable, but Simon definitely had a different opinion. He'd known Ellison too long, spent too much time analyzing the man not to be able to read him pretty damn well, and the tone of Jim's voice when he'd called to ask Simon to drop by the loft on his way home had him worried.
Something was definitely going on.
That knowledge made Simon nervous. For three reasons.
First, he prided himself on being on top of everything happening in his small corner of the world. The fact that Jim obviously had something to spring on him tonight meant that somehow he was in the dark about what was going on, and that definitely wasn't good. Not good at all.
Second, there had been something about the way Jim had sounded on the phone that set the hair on the back of Simon's neck to tingling, and now he had a small, niggling feeling that something mystical and incomprehensible was at work here. If there was one thing Captain Simon Banks hated, it was the unknown and, even worse, the unknowable.
Third, Sandburg was involved here. There's something we need to talk with you about, Simon. That's what Jim had said. We. That meant Sandburg, and when Sandburg was involved, trouble couldn't be far behind. Simon might never admit it, but he'd grown quite fond of the quirky anthropologist. Still, God help him, Blair Sandburg could find trouble in the midst of Utopia.
Taken together, the signs were definitely not good. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves, wishing he could light a cigar, and knocked on the door.
Simon leaned back against the soft, stuffed back of the couch and stared at Jim. "So this letter is from the missionary who taught Acana to speak English?"
Jim nodded. "Sister Angelina. She's working with a nearby tribe. When Acana decided that having a member of the tribe who was able to speak English could be a good thing for the Chopec, he went to her."
"I take it his lessons didn't include writing," Simon commented dryly.
"Guess he didn't figure he'd have a need to write," Jim replied, an almost imperceptible tone of defensiveness in his voice. The sentinel could be extremely protective when it came to his adopted tribe. Simon changed the subject immediately.
"Let me see if I have this straight." Standing up, Simon paced to the window and looked out for a moment, then turned back to Jim and Blair. "Sister Angelina writes that Acana needs the two of you to return to the Chopec because your son - Irami - is having trouble finding a guide."
Blair broke in. Stretched out on the rug in front of the fire, the younger man looked totally at ease as he explained. "Irami has a guide, Simon. The little girl I told you about. Remember? Her name's Aramika. Problem is, she doesn't want to be his guide."
"So? What's the problem, Sandburg? This kid doesn't want to guide Irami? He finds another guide. Problem solved. What do they need you two for?"
"It's not that easy," Blair explained patiently. "Sentinel/guide partnerships aren't a matter of choice. At least, that's my theory. Look at what happened when I tried to befriend Alex. All hell broke loose, both with Jim and with her. I wasn't able to help her the way I could help Jim. I wasn't meant to be her guide."
Sandburg stole a look at his partner. He didn't miss the flash of pain in the light blue eyes or the haunted shadow that darkened Jim's face at the mention of that time in their lives. Years might pass, Blair reflected, but old hurts never completely healed.
"Anyway," he went on. "Irami ultimately has no choice. If Aramika is his guide...." Not able to find words to convey what he knew as well as he knew his own destiny, he shrugged helplessly. "That's it. End of story. Getting her to accept that, now that could be different. She's young. The Chopec haven't had a sentinel since Jim left the tribe, before she was born. She hasn't had a model of a sentinel/guide partnership to observe, to emulate. Yet, here are the leaders of her tribe telling her that this is her path, and she has no choice in the matter. No wonder she's confused."
"So you want to go save the day, is that it, Sandburg?" Simon snapped.
Jim Ellison immediately jumped to his partner's defense, his voice rising in irritation. "Hey, Simon, that's not fair, and you know it. Blair didn't ask for this. You saw the letter. Acana asked for our help. Both of us."
Blair smiled softly at his partner's words. My Blessed Protector strikes again, he thought. You should know by now, Simon. Don't pick on the guide, man.
"You're right, Jim. Sorry." Running his hands across his short hair, Simon sighed heavily. "It's been a long day, that's all. Hell, it's been a long month. Jim, you know the stress we've all be under lately. Things have been crazy at the station. Now, you want me to let you run off to Peru again for.... How long will it be this time anyway?"
Jim leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he regarded his commanding officer. "I can't say for sure. I'm guessing ten days, maybe two weeks. Then again, you know Sandburg's gift for persuasion. We could be in and out of there in an hour. Maybe less." Jim grinned as Blair reached out to swat his leg.
"Smart ass," Sandburg muttered as his hand connected with Jim's denim-clad calf.
Shaking his head at the good-natured horseplay, Simon slumped back onto the couch. "I'm not gonna win this, am I? Might as well okay your time off and get it over with. Go. Do your shaman thing or your professor thing...whatever the hell's necessary, Sandburg, but get your butts back here ASAP. Understood?"
With a wide smile, Blair nodded eagerly. "You got it, man. Thanks, Simon. Really. Thanks. I mean, this is great! The chance to watch the interaction between two genetically connected sentinels! Not to mention the beginnings of a sentinel/guide relationship at this young an age, when both are so...."
Laughing, Jim reached down and pulled Blair closer to him while sliding a firm hand over his mouth to stop the rampage of words. "Down, Chief! I don't intend to listen to you ramble on about tests and field studies all the way to South America. Got it?" The warm affection in his eyes removed any sting from the words.
Eyes wide above Jim's hand, Blair nodded silently.
Grinning at Simon, Jim congratulated him. "That's it, Chief. A little self-control's all I ask." Releasing Blair's mouth, he stood up, glancing up at the clock. "Simon, I hate to run you off, but we've got packing to do."
Blair blurted out, "Yeah, our flight...." Catching the warning look from his friend, he abruptly fell silent.
Simon looked from one to the other suspiciously. "Your flight? I just gave clearance for this little adventure, and you've already got a flight? Probably leaves tonight, if I'm figuring this right." His steely brown gaze locked onto the guilty blue eyes of his best detective. "You were feeling pretty confident about this whole thing, weren't you?"
Swatting Blair on the head, Jim muttered, "Should have kept you quiet while I had the upper hand, Junior." To Simon, he added, "Sorry, Simon. I knew you'd understand, though, and I...."
Standing up, Simon headed for the door, waving an impatient hand at Ellison. "Save the bull, Jim. Just get down there, do whatever it is you need to do, and get back to Cascade. Fast." Before pulling the door closed behind him, Banks turned back toward the apartment and added, "And be careful for once, damn it. I need you back in one piece. Both of you.
And he was gone.
Sentinel and guide stared at each other for a long moment then broke into simultaneous grins.
"Why that old softie!" Blair chuckled. "And the word around the station is that Simon Banks has no heart."
Cuffing him gently, Jim laughed. "Just don't let the word get out, Chief. The man has a reputation as a tyrant to protect, you know. Go start packing. We've got a midnight flight to catch."
The drone of the jet engines had lulled Sandburg to sleep within an hour after take-off, along with more than half the other passengers on board. Jim felt slightly envious. He had always found sleeping on planes difficult. The seats in coach cramped his long legs, and even with his senses dialed back, the crowded conditions, odors, and sounds kept him from relaxing completely. No such problems with his partner.
Ellison looked at his watch. More than halfway there. He shifted once more in his seat, searching in vain for a more comfortable position. Giving up, he turned his head to study his friend, soundly sleeping in the seat next to the window.
Blair looked totally relaxed, as only he could in such cramped quarters. Curled on one side facing Jim, he had the tiny airline pillow tucked beneath his head. Long curls fanned out to drape his face with a chestnut curtain. Asleep, Jim realized, the small laugh lines disappeared from Blair's face, and he looked as young as he had when they'd first met, so many years before.
Reaching out, Jim gently smoothed back a stray lock of hair. He let his hand linger for a moment alongside Blair's face, brushing the warm skin lightly with his fingertips before letting his hand fall back to his side. There were a few strands of white interspersed in that riotous mane now, though Sandburg hated to admit it. Yet, it seemed only yesterday that the young, energetic graduate student had whirled into Jim's life, saving his life and his sanity with his insights and patience.
As Jim contemplated all they'd been through in the years since, he shook his head in amazement. You never signed on for all this, did you, Chief? If you'd realized everything that would happen to us...to you...would you have stayed? Or, would you have run screaming from that hospital exam room, tossing that 'borrowed' name badge as far as you could throw it?
But Blair hadn't run. Back in the early days or later, even when the worst of Jim's nightmares came true. The kid had been tougher than he'd ever thought possible, and now, Jim Ellison couldn't image ever having another partner, ever needing a more loyal friend.
Jim closed his eyes. Even if he couldn't sleep, he should try to rest. They would land soon, spend one night in a small, local hotel, then depart on the long, difficult journey to the rainforest and Chopec territory. It hadn't been that long ago that such a trek wouldn't have tired him at all. That was before the forties arrived, he thought wryly. Jim dialed back all his senses even further and hoped that sleep would eventually come.
Returning to the jungle summoned a wealth of memories for them both. They had left the rented Jeep behind hours before. The only way to venture deep enough into the rainforest to encounter the Chopec was on foot. They had fallen silent after the first couple of hours. Jim had always been a man who let his actions speak volumes for him, and over time, Blair had learned to be at peace in their silences. Even though they exchanged few words as they hiked through the hot, humid jungle, Blair never doubted Jim's attentiveness to his safety. He was certain Jim constantly monitored his progress behind him, and the taller man would glance behind frequently to make sure his companion was keeping up comfortably. After exchanging a quick smile, Jim would return his attention to the trail.
Not that Blair was altogether certain there was a trail.
He had never developed a sense of direction in the jungle. Although the understory vegetation wasn't overly dense, it all seemed to meld together in a confusing maze of leaves and branches. Blair knew that without Jim, he'd never find his way out. With that thought, he picked up his pace and moved closer to his sentinel.
Overhead and underfoot, the rainforest was a masterpiece of life. An unbelievably vivid palette of colors painted their surroundings with infinite shades of greens and golds, browns and blues, mixed with violet and crimson and indigo. It was no still life, nature's painting. There was movement all around them. Insects buzzed and whirled and crawled below and above. Unseen shapes vanished into shadows as the two men passed. Up in the canopy, monkeys danced, sloths crept, and the brilliant quetzal soared in its splendid majesty beneath a tent of green.
Blair was aware of the beauty around them, but Jim's pace left him little time to contemplate its glory. Time for that later, he thought with a tolerant smile. Once Jim sets his mind on a goal, there's no point trying to slow him down. Let him find the Chopec. Then, we can begin to relax.
Without warning, Jim stopped dead in his tracks. His right arm shot out, blocking Blair's progress beside him.
"Wha-?" Startled, Blair quickly looked around, but he could see nothing amiss. "Shhhh!"
Jim's command was too forceful to ignore. Sandburg froze, his only movement his eyes darting from Jim's face to the thick jungle around them.
Suddenly, Jim called out something in Chopec, but the words came too quickly for Blair to understand. A few seconds later, a lone figure emerged from the forest.
"Acana!" Delighted to see their Chopec friend, Blair held out his hand and hurried toward the smaller man.
Remembering the strange way these people chose to greet each other, Acana grinned and pumped Blair's hand enthusiastically. "Ankaree! Enquiri! You came!" As he greeted Jim in the same manner, the Chopec marveled, "Your writing is powerful magic! It reached you all the way in the Great City and brought you to us!"
Jim laughed in appreciation of the younger man's amazement. "Writing is very powerful magic, isn't it, Chief? It's good to see you, my friend."
Still smiling, Acana nodded. "It is good you are here. Come! We will go to find the others. Imaru will be pleased."
Jim and Blair were greeted in the Chopec settlement with a warm welcome befitting the return of a tribal sentinel. People they had met during their visit three years previous hurried to greet them, and tribal members Jim had known when he first joined the Chopec welcomed him as a returning member of their extended family.
In some ways, it was all a blur to Blair. So many faces, most met only once, melded together in a collage of smiles. It was good to lock eyes with Acana and to see wizened old Imaru standing at the edge of the camp, waiting.
After all the greetings were exchanged and new introductions made, Jim and Blair wandered over to the old man. Acana slipped in beside them, as always, ready to serve as translator.
Imaru smiled broadly, his dark eyes disappearing in a maze of wrinkles. He spoke quickly, gesturing broadly with his powerful, dark hands. After he stopped speaking, Acana translated his words for the visitors. "Imaru welcomes you back to the Chopec people. We are honored to have Enquiri and Ankaree walk among us once again. We are grateful that you have chosen to travel from the Great City so far away to help us."
Jim smiled and answered in Chopec. Then, he turned to Blair. "I told him that we are honored to have been asked to return here, and we hope we will be able to help in some way."
Blair nodded his agreement and smiled at the old man. "Please tell Imaru that we look forward to our time among your people."
After these greetings were complete, Imaru gestured for Jim and Blair to follow him away from the camp. He stopped in a clearing not too far away and settled down onto a fallen tree. Acana dropped gracefully to the log beside him, and Jim and Blair made themselves comfortable on the soft moss covering the ground beside a sparkling stream. The old shaman spoke in his rapid Chopec for a time as Acana listened carefully. When the elder had finished, he began the translation.
"Irami has grown strong, and his senses are more powerful than when you were here last, Enquiri. He will be a good watchman for his people, a worthy protector for the Chopec. It is good that we have a new sentinel at last, and we are grateful to Enquiri for the gift of his son."
At those words, Jim dropped his head in acknowledgment. Acana continued.
"The day you left the Chopec last, Ankaree named the girl, Aramika, as guide to Irami. He was correct. Irami knows Aramika as his true guide, and he wishes them to undergo the joining, as Enquiri and Ankaree did many seasons ago." The Chopec warrior hesitated.
Blair urged him on. "But...there's a problem with Aramika?"
Acana briefly translated the question for Imaru, and the old shaman's reply was equally brief. His brown eyes filled with a blend of sadness and confusion as he spoke.
"Aramika refuses to accept her place in Irami's life," Acana explained. "When Imaru explained that she had been chosen for the honor of being anamari - the 'guide,' in your words - she became very angry. Since that night, the girl has refused to talk of this matter again." Acana looked puzzled. "She will not talk even to Irami. How is it that an anamari can turn away the watchman?"
Jim and Blair exchanged glances, then the older man shrugged, obviously leaving the matter of Acana's answer to Blair.
"The way of the anamari can be...difficult," Blair began carefully. "Maybe Aramika is just afraid."
When Acana translated these words, Imaru erupted in a flurry of Chopec.
"He says that the girl must accept her destiny," Acana said at last. "Her role is to protect and be anamari. Irami needs his guide now that his senses are becoming so strong. She cannot refuse."
This time, it was Jim Ellison who spoke. "She cannot refuse or....?"
Acana did not need Imaru's words to answer. "Irami will not survive." He paused as he studied the blue eyes of the Cascade sentinel. "Enquiri surely understands this."
Laying his hand on Blair's shoulder and squeezing gently, Jim nodded. "Yes. I do." Turning his gaze to the ancient shaman, he asked, "What can we do to help?"
Imaru's solemn brown eyes regarded Blair Sandburg, and several moments passed before he spoke. When Acana explained his words, Blair's heart skipped a beat in realization of the importance of the role he'd been brought so far to play.
"It is Ankaree who must speak with Aramika, Enquiri. Perhaps another anamari will be able to help her understand her own destiny."
Jim didn't give him time to respond. To him, the words made perfect sense. "He'll help her, Imaru. Blair's words are...strong magic...just like the writing you sent to us. It will be all right. I'm sure of it."
When Jim looked at him in absolute confidence, Blair managed to smile back. Inside, he felt his heart tighten with trepidation. He'd known all along that he would be expected to help Aramika, but now that he was here, now that he'd seen the hopeful look in the eyes of the Chopec, he wasn't so sure he was up to this particular challenge.
What if he couldn't convince this girl? More importantly, did he even have the right to try? It was her life, after all, a life he knew very little about. What about her hopes? Her dreams?
Yet, it was Jim's son's life at stake. Blair Sandburg knew very well that a sentinel, especially a young, untried sentinel whose control of his senses was still unpredictable, could not survive without a guide. Hell, Alex was a textbook example of that.
They began the walk back to the camp, but Blair was barely aware of their passage. His thoughts swirled around, tumbling as wildly as leaves caught up in a whirlwind. A step at a time, Sandburg, he thought, trying to settle his mind. Just try to take this thing one step at a time. What do you need to do first?
Pushing back his doubts and uncertainties, Blair made up his mind. He would talk with Aramika. Try to find out why she was fighting this. Maybe, if he was lucky, it would be a simple problem, something he could discuss with her and ease her fears enough so she would welcome her role. Maybe, this time, things would be simple.
As darkness fell, they had yet to encounter either Irami or Aramika. When Blair questioned Acana, the Chopec warrior merely smiled. "When the time is right, Ankaree. When the time is right. You are tired from your journey. Words do not come easily when the mind is not rested."
Looking up at Jim and seeing the lines of fatigue deepening around the sentinel's eyes, Blair nodded his agreement. "You may have a point there, Acana. Tonight we'll rest. Maybe tomorrow I can talk with Aramika."
Unspoken, but plainly heard, were the words ....and Jim can meet Irami.
Their sleeping mats were arranged in an isolated corner of the camp. The Chopec were sensitive to the individual's need for privacy even within a small, closed society such as theirs. As Blair explained this to Jim, he suddenly felt slightly foolish for trying to explain anything about these people to the man who had lived among them for eighteen months.
If Ellison noticed his faux pas, he showed no sign. Jim had already slipped into his accustomed role of tribal sentinel, even down to the clothes he wore. He'd explained that in the jungle's heat he felt better shirtless, wearing only his worn army fatigues and boots.
Secretly, Blair believed there was more to it. Jim had moved from Sentinel of the Great City to once more serving as Sentinel of the Chopec, and the change of attire was an integral part of the transition. A symbol for the shift in roles. Jim Ellison, Enquiri, was once again the Chopec Sentinel. At least for the time being, until his son was able to take that title for himself.
For any sentinel, the safety of the tribe was paramount. To his guide, who had spent years becoming familiar with the slightest nuances of Jim's behavior, it was obvious that the sentinel was scanning the perimeter of the camp with his senses. Even as he appeared to listen to Sandburg, his nos-trils flared, his head cocked in the familiar listening pose, and his eyes skimmed the surrounding jungle to search for signs that anything was amiss.
The anthropologist in Blair was fascinated. The last time they'd been here, Jim had been operating on pure instinct after he'd been injured in the Army helicopter crash. He had been rendered unable to communicate with his guide until shortly before they headed home. On top of everything else that had happened, there had been the surprise of discovery to contend with at the time - the news that while in Peru the first time, he had sired a son.
Not just any son. The child of sentinel and shaman, born with untapped powers Blair felt inadequate even to speculate about, so little did he know about the genetics involved. Yet, instinctively and professionally, he knew the potential was there for the child, Irami, to develop into a sentinel unlike any that preceded him. A sentinel not only with highly developed senses but a strong connection to the spiritual realm as well. One thing Blair was certain of, however, was that the child-sentinel would need his guide. Would need a strong guide to center him, to protect him, and to be at his side as he learned the limits of his powers, if indeed there were to be any, and to bring him the control he would so desperately require.
The responsibilities would be enormous, as Blair knew full well, and like the sentinel, this guide would be a child.
As he gazed into the small fire provided for their comfort and to keep away any unwelcome nocturnal visitors, Blair was shaken from his musings by the realization that Jim was watching him, an amused glint in his blue eyes.
"Deep thoughts, Chief?" Jim asked in a voice warm with affection.
Sandburg shrugged and took another bite of the savory fruit he'd been eating. "Yeah, I guess."
"You've got a major responsibility here. I realize that. Don't worry. You can handle it." Jim took another mango from the basket and held it out for his friend.
Grateful for more than the fruit, Sandburg flashed a brilliant smile. Jim Ellison, Blessed Protector and mind reader. He took a bite of the mango and wiped the sweet juice from his lips with his arm. One thing about life in the jungle - table manners definitely went by the wayside.
"Thanks, man. It's just kinda overwhelming, y'know? I mean, the safety of this entire tribe depends on Irami becoming its sentinel, and his effectiveness in that role depends on Aramika accepting her place at his side." He laughed and leaned back against the trunk of an old tree behind him. "Ironic, isn't it? When I made sentinel research my focus, I dreamed of finding a present day sentinel to study. I found you, and I thought that was it, man, the ultimate discovery. Holy Grail time at last! Then, here comes Alex, then Irami. Now, I'm counselor to future guides and living a life I never even dreamed existed."
Jim's expression grew serious. "Is it more than you counted on, Chief? Do you ever wish you could...I don't know...simplify your life again?"
Blair shook his head vigorously. "Okay, truthfully, Alex, I could have done without. Then again, we learned a lot from that whole nightmare." Looking around, he gestured broadly. "This? Irami and Aramika? Hell, no! It's a researcher's dream come true, but more importantly...." Blair's voice softened. "It's your family, Jim. That I can play a role in protecting that...." He looked straight into his friend's eyes. "I'm honored to be able to help. At least I hope I can help. It's a little daunting, y'know. Humbling. I've told you more than once - a lot of this stuff I'm just making up as I go along."
Jim disagreed. "I think you're wrong there." He stretched out on his sleeping mat and turned on his side, his head propped on his hand as he looked at Blair. "You're too good, Chief." He stopped the beginnings of a protest with a stern look. "Let me finish before you spout off, okay? I know you think I don't pay much attention to what you do and how you do it, but I do. I have to. My life depends on it. You're right too often, Blair, for it all to be guess-work. Granted, maybe you don't know how you know it, and that's why you call it guessing, but I think there's more to it than that. I know sometimes my use of my senses is instinctual, and I think that your knowing how to help me is somehow in-stinctive for you. I know you spend hours pouring over every book you can find even vaguely related to the subject, but I think the secret to what you do for me is more here...." Jim tapped his heart. "Than here...." He tapped his temple.
Jim shrugged. "I'm no researcher, and I'll be the first to admit I'm not in your league intellectually, but it makes sense to me." Lying back, Jim shut his eyes and breathed deeply. "Night, Chief. Sleep well."
Lying down on his own mat across the fire from Jim, Blair was silent for long moments as he studied the features of his best friend. Then, he whispered in a voice only a sentinel could hear, "Don't sell your-self short, man. I think you're a pretty smart guy. Thanks. For everything."
There was no reply from the other side of their small campsite, but Blair could see Jim's smile in the flickering light. Blair watched him for a long time. He was too keyed up to relax and let sleep claim him. Jim fell asleep quickly, but Blair knew the sentinel was never completely off-duty. Occa-sionally, a sound or drifting scent would catch his attention, and Blair could see Jim almost awaken. Somehow, Blair thought, the watchman dwelling within must have sensed there was no danger, and in a few moments, Jim would be breathing deeply again.
A feeling close to awe swept through Blair, warming his soul with wonder. He was truly blessed. How many anthropologists spend their entire careers studying their chosen subjects only in the pages of cold, emotionless journals, perhaps with an occasional field study to enliven their hearts and imaginations? Yet, here he was, deep in the Peruvian jungles, with his sentinel beside him, guarding him even as he slept. Somewhere close by, another sentinel slept, this one little more than a child, his future a bright path ahead of him, and somewhere, his young guide, confused and uncertain about her future role in the life of the sentinel who was already her closest friend.
Most wondrous of all, he was an integral part of it all. Not merely as an outsider taking careful, detailed notes, but as shaman, as guide, and as friend and chosen brother of the man sleeping so close to him. I've definitely 'gone native', Blair thought with a wry smile. Maybe my research will never be as unbiased as it should, at least as far as sentinels are concerned, and for sure I've broken the cardinal rule for any scientist about becoming emotionally involved with his subject, but frankly, I no longer give a damn about rules.
Sandburg stared at Jim, the flickering light illuminating the chiseled planes of the sentinel's face as he slept. Blair drank in the sight of him, so strong and fearless, so gifted, and so...vulnerable. Behind the closed lids, Jim's eyes moved rapidly in his deep sleep, and his right hand twitched as he dreamed. The world might view Jim Ellison as a no-nonsense cop with a tough attitude, capable of driving even the most hardened criminal to his knees, but Blair Sandburg knew better. He'd seen the gentle side of the man too often to believe that the rock-solid exterior was a reflection of the true heart of James Ellison. For Blair had seen the tears shed for a child who died needlessly in the cold night, had felt the tender strength of Jim's arms as he held his frightened partner after pulling him back from the pit of a madman's nightmare, and he had heard through a golden-edged fog of delusion the loving words whispered in his ear on the hard concrete of a police garage.
As the stars traced their eternal paths above, Blair reflected upon the wonder of being there...in this ageless place...with this amazing man...this sentinel. He shivered involuntarily as the realization swept over him that in that moment, he had within arm's reach all he'd ever wanted, all he'd ever dreamed of both in his career and in his personal life. It really was all about friendship, although by now, it went so much deeper than that. Now that Blair had grasped that illusive gold ring and gripped it tightly with both hands, he never intended to let go.
The fatigue of the weary traveler suddenly overwhelmed him, and Blair yawned broadly but silently, careful not to make a sound and disturb his sleeping friend. He rolled onto his back and closed his eyes as he tucked his blanket more closely about him. The heat from the fire and the drone of the multitude of night insects singing in the jungle lulled him past the point of awareness. His body warm and his heart glowing in the knowledge that his sentinel, his best friend, was there to protect him through the night, Blair drifted into a dreamless sleep.
Gradually the morning sounds of the Chopec going about their daily tasks filtered through the sweet haze wrapped around Blair's mind, and he slowly came awake. He groaned slightly as he turned over to his side, his back stiff from sleeping all night in one position on the solid earth. As his bleary eyes opened slowly, he found he was alone. Across the fire circle, Jim Ellison's sleeping mat was empty.
That discovery wasn't too surprising. Jim was definitely more of a morning person. He usually turned in at the same time each night - unless a case interfered with his normal routine - then arose the next morning refreshed and ready to meet the day. In contrast, Blair's natural inclination was to stay up late then sleep in the next morning. Unfortunately, he all too often indulged in the late night portion of the formula but was unable to follow through with the extra morning sleep because of his obligations at Rainier and Cascade PD.
As he stumbled to his feet, peering through half-closed lids at the bustle of the Chopec camp, Blair caught sight of his friend across the clearing. Jim was sitting with Imaru and Acana. As if he'd been monitoring Blair the entire time, Jim turned and waved just as his friend looked in his direction. Sandburg rubbed his heavy eyes and waved back. Jim looked utterly refreshed. How did the man do it? Must be all that Army discipline, he thought sourly. Under his breath, he muttered, "Man, how the hell can you be so cheery this early in the morning? Without coffee, no less." He couldn't hear if Jim replied, but Blair could see the grin he flashed all the way across the camp.
A few stretches later, Blair looked up to see Jim approaching. The guide grinned at the sight of his sentinel. Jim was still dressed in what they had laughingly come to call his 'jungle best,' the worn khakis, no shirt, bandana tied about his head to catch the sweat. His heavily muscled body glistened as sun speckled shadows played against his skin. Jim walked smoothly, tall and graceful, like some jungle cat stepping out from the foliage.
He's 100% sentinel, Blair thought with a powerful surge of pride. As much at home here as in Cascade. Maybe even a little more so. Here, he's accepted for what he is, for everything he is, not just his talents as a cop. As he had the night before, the young anthropologist sent up a quick prayer of thanks for the life and the rare friendship he had somehow been granted.
"Hope you're hungry, Chief," Jim greeted him. "I brought breakfast."
After a breakfast of fresh fruit and a crisp, flat bread made using a brown flour the Chopec created from plants they foraged in the jungle, Blair felt more like taking on the challenges the day was bound to offer. Even so, he yawned broadly as he finished off the last of his papaya.
"You awake there, Chief?" Jim teased good-naturedly. "I was beginning to wonder if we'd get you stirring by noon."
Swatting his friend lightly on his bicep, Blair groused, "We had a long day yesterday, all right? It's a scientific fact that the human body's internal clock can be thrown off by changes in routine, light conditions, and...." He stopped his mini-lecture when he saw the amused glint in the sentinel's eyes. "What?" he questioned, regarding Jim cautiously.
"I never know when you're spouting off some obscure information like that if you really know what you're talking about or if you're just jerking my chain, Sandburg. Not that it isn't entertaining, but I always wonder if I should take it all with a grain of salt." As a wide grin covered his face, Jim reached out and playfully pulled his guide's long ponytail.
"I'm insulted, man!" Blair protested indignantly. "How could you think that I....?"
He was interrupted by the sight of Acana and Imaru standing behind Jim, watching the scene with a look of stunned disbelief in their eyes. Motioning with his eyes, Blair clued Jim in on their presence. Realizing he'd been distracted by their verbal horseplay and missed their arrival, Jim turned around to greet the two Chopec.
Acana spoke first. Obviously worried, the warrior asked, "Ankaree and Enquiri are angry with each other? This is not right." He threw a confused look at Imaru. "Watchman and anamari should not argue. They must remain...one...for the good of the tribe and of each other."
Exchanging guilty looks, Jim and Blair smiled reassuringly at the old shaman and his interpreter. "It's all right. Honestly," Blair hastened to explain. "Everything's cool. We weren't really arguing. We were just...." At a loss for words to explain their verbal jousts, he looked up at Jim for help.
Ellison cleared his throat and placed one hand on Sandburg's shoulder, unconsciously reaffirming their connection in the physical way he often chose to feel closer to his guide. For a few moments, he wasn't certain how to explain. The Chopec were a blunt, straightforward people. Now that Jim thought about it, he couldn't remember a time when he'd heard them teasing in the manner so comfortable to Westerners. No wonder they had misunderstood.
"Acana, please explain to Imaru that Blair... Ankaree ... and I were not angry with each other. In our country, it's common for friends to ... pretend ... to tease each other. As long as both understand that it's all in fun, no one gets hurt." He smiled at Sandburg. "We do it all the time, right, Chief?" When Blair nodded his agreement, Jim asked, "Understand? Nothing's wrong. Really."
The two Chopec conversed briefly, then Acana looked back at Jim in obvious relief. "When the storm winds blow hard between anamari and sentinel, no good can come to the tribe. It is right that only harmony exist with them."
Jim's expression turned solemn as he remembered far too many times when the winds between them had been stormy. As if sensing his discomfort, Blair moved closer and laid a comforting hand along the small of Jim's back. "There is harmony between us, Imaru. Don't worry."
His deep brown eyes glowing in satisfaction, the old shaman spoke in rapid Chopec. After listening intently, Acana translated his words.
"It is time. We will take you to Irami and Aramika."
They soon found out that meeting the two young people was to take place separately. Following Acana and Imaru, they ventured from the clearing into the jungle. Before they had gone far, Acana stopped and explained.
"Enquiri will go with Imaru to meet Irami. Enquiri speaks enough Chopec to speak with the boy alone. I will take Ankaree to meet Aramika and give you her words."
The sentinel followed Imaru through the rainforest, but he monitored his guide's progress as he went. Blair seemed comfortable in Acana's care, and soon Jim turned his complete attention to the meeting to come with his son.
"Imaru?" he questioned. The old man stopped and turned to face Jim.
Jim spoke in halting Chopec, hoping he recalled the language well enough to be understood.
"Imaru, you are wise and respected among your people. When I first became a sentinel - as an adult - I was here. I had Incacha to help me. He was not my guide; that I understand well. Later, when my senses appeared in the Great City, I nearly went mad. If Ankaree had not found me, I would not have survived. But Irami has grown up under-standing about his senses. He already controls them far better than I did when they first appeared to me. Are you certain that the same thing will happen to Irami if Aramika does not choose to guide him?"
The question that had been burning inside Jim at last had been asked. He waited for the answer with an expression that betrayed his concern.
The old Chopec didn't respond for several moments, and when he spoke at last, his expression was solemn, his eyes sad.
"Enquiri, there can be no long life for a watchman without his anamari. One cannot thrive without the other. It is also true that Aramika will not live a beautiful life, if she refuses to walk her path." He gestured to a twisting vine, wrapping its way around the trunk of a huge tree. "Like the vine and tree, both need each other to survive."
"But, ancient one, doesn't the vine choke the life from the tree?" Jim regarded the aged shaman curiously.
Imaru's laugh was cackling and delighted. "You have no such vines in the Great City? The vine uses the tree to reach the light. It does not draw life from the tree, yet it must rely on the tree's strength to survive. The tree gains support from the vine. Even in the strongest of rains, this tree will stand because it has the vine to give it strength." His expression grew serious once more. "Is that not the way of sentinels and their anamari?"
Swallowing hard against the tightness in his throat, Jim nodded. "Truly it is so, Wise One. Forgive me my ignorance."
Accepting his words with the merest of nods, Imaru led the father to the son.
Three years before, Irami had been a mere child. When Jim Ellison first saw him again, he was amazed at the differences in the young man before him.
Irami had grown taller, already approaching the height of the tallest Chopec, and his body no longer had the plumpness of a child. The beginnings of the musculature yet to fully develop were evident. His wide, dark blue eyes contrasted vividly against his chocolate-toned skin, and his long, light brown hair skimmed his shoulders. It was obvious that Irami was maturing into a tall, exotically handsome man.
"Enquiri!" he greeted Jim as he and Imaru approached the stream where the boy crouched down to fish. Irami laid down his spear and stood before his father. "Welcome! I am pleased you have returned to us."
Jim was impressed. "You're speaking English now?" He glanced over at Imaru. "I thought you said I'd need to speak Chopec," he remarked in their native language.
Irami laughed. "It is my fault. I asked Acana and Imaru to let me surprise you. Acana has been teaching me. I wanted to learn English as he did. Perhaps one day it will help the Chopec if their watchman is able to speak with those from far away."
"You have learned well," Jim said in approval. "Acana is a good teacher."
Imaru spoke rapidly in Chopec then slipped back into the forest, leaving the two alone for the first time.
Jim sat down at the edge of the stream. The crystal clear water flowed freely, and the sentinel allowed himself the luxury of listening for a few moments to the relaxing music it created as it bubbled and sang over the rocks. Taking a deep breath of the clean, fragrant air, he smiled. "I'd almost forgotten how beautiful it all is."
Gracefully easing down beside him, Irami regarded him with frank curiosity. "There is no water in the Great City?"
Jim dangled a stick into the flowing stream. "There is water nearby. In the ocean and up in the mountain streams. I don't get there often enough, I'm afraid. My work...." Looking around at the expanse of nature surrounding him, Jim recalled the months spent in this place, months in which he lived totally isolated from civilization. Even though those had been some of the hardest months of his life as he struggled to fulfill his mission without his men, without support from outside, he realized now that they had also been some of the best times of his life. "My work is very demanding, Irami. I don't get to spend much time in places like this."
He could tell that the boy didn't understand. How could he be expected to comprehend the pressures of Jim's career? His entire life had been spent within the sanctuary of the Peruvian rainforest. Jim changed the subject, suddenly realizing that there were some things he could never hope to explain.
"We didn't get a chance to talk much the last time I was here. I...I'm sorry I never knew about you, Irami. I would have done...I don't know...something more." Jim felt uncertain of how to proceed. How should he carry on a conversation with this boy? His son, yet not his at all.
Irami was the child of the Chopec, born to be their sentinel and destined to protect the tribe. Imaru had explained that it was traditional that young sentinels be raised not by their parents, but by the shaman of the tribe. In this way, they belonged to the entire tribe, not merely to one family. It was a good way, Blair seemed to agree, to ensure that the sentinel developed a deep, inbred sense of obligation to his people. Jim understood intellectually, but that didn't make it any easier for him to relate to Irami. There were no roadmaps for how to proceed with a son who didn't understand the concept of a traditional, Western family, especially for a sentinel who had no examples in his own life to follow. He reverted to what he did know, to the one thing they truly had in common.
"Tell me about your senses."
Irami dipped his bare feet into the water. "They have strengthened since you were last here. Imaru promises that once I have undergone the ceremony which joins sentinel to anamari, they will become even stronger." Tilting his head slightly, he looked at Jim curiously. "When you received your senses, were they as strong as now?"
Jim smiled as he remembered. "I have had a very different experience, Irami. My senses first came to me as a child, about the age you were when I was first here. No one understood what was hap-pening to me, and I was ashamed. I thought there was something wrong, and in time, my senses just shut down. When the Chopec took me in, they emerged again. That time, they were very powerful, but I had no control. Incacha helped me then, but back in Cascade - the Great City - I was alone again. The next time my senses came to me, I almost didn't survive it."
Irami looked fascinated. "Where was your anamari? Your shaman? Does no one in the Great City understand what it is to be a watchman?"
Chuckling, Jim shook his head. "I hadn't met Sandburg - Ankaree - yet. When I did, he helped me. He understood me." The smile fled, and Jim turned pensive. "No, there was no shaman for me then. No anamari until he found me. I...owe him my life."
If Jim's statement surprised the child, he gave no sign. Tossing a small stone into the flowing waters, he nodded. "That is why I need Aramika. Imaru has much to teach me, but he is a shaman, not my anamari. I have been certain from the time I first knew my path that she was meant to walk it with me. It is with her that I feel most a watchman; it is in her presence that my senses are most powerful. Why is it Aramika cannot understand?"
In that moment, the distance between them no longer felt so vast.
The feelings the boy described were those he felt for his own guide. Irami apparently had found his true anamari. "I don't know why she is fighting this," Jim replied hesitantly. "There's one thing I'm sure of, though, and that is that Ankaree is exactly the right person to talk with her. He understands what it means to be an anamari, and I think he'll be able to help her." He laid a firm hand on the boy's slim shoulder. "Don't worry. You can trust Sand-burg to do this. Okay?"
Slowly, the cloud lifted in Irami's eyes. "Those are the words of Imaru as well. If you both believe, then it must be so." He nodded firmly, as if the decision had just been made. "I will trust your anamari to help, Enquiri." His mood lightened, Irami stood up and grabbed his spear. Grinning mischievously, he jerked his head toward the water. "Do you like to fish?"
A broad grin covered Jim's face as he rose to stand beside his son. "Those are the magic words, my boy. Got another spear?"
Aramika waited beside the waterfall. She had been there for hours, strangely anxious about her meeting with the light-skinned stranger who had come so far just to talk with her. When she heard the sounds of approaching footsteps, she turned away from the plunging water and stared up into the kind, blue eyes of Enquiri's anamari
Blair could read the fear written in the girl's brown eyes, yet her gaze never faltered. She had courage. He felt a touch of relief at that realization. A good dose of bravery was a vital possession for the guide of a sentinel.
Aramika had grown so much since their last visit to Peru. Traces of the child remained, but she had grown taller, and her face had lost most of its baby fat. Her long, black hair hung past her shoulders now, and her slender fingers gave her hands grace and beauty. Her eyes spoke volumes, and it was clear that she was a sensitive girl.
Acana motioned for Blair to sit on a rock across from Aramika, then the Chopec warrior sat beside them on the leaf covered ground to translate their words.
"Hello, Aramika," Blair began softly. "My name is Blair. My spirit name is Ankaree, and you may call me that, if you wish."
Aramika's voice was soft, as gentle as the wind that teased the leaves on the trees high above. Acana spoke her words in English, keeping his own voice soft to match the mood of the speaker.
"Greetings, Ankaree. You are welcome here among my people. I am sorry that you came so far because of me." The girl's brown eyes dropped to study the veins of a leaf held clutched in her hands as Acana spoke. She seemed ashamed that she was the cause of trouble in her tribe.
Gently, Blair reassured her. "It's all right, Aramika. Really. I'm honored to be the one asked to come speak with you. You have been asked to be Irami's guide?"
Nodding, the girl spoke softly. "Imaru believes it is my place. Irami believes I am his anamari."
Remembering that he, too, had sensed that this girl was meant to become the guide of the Chopec's boy-sentinel, Blair hesitated. How could they all have assumed so much? His voice low and calm, he asked, "What do you believe, Aramika?"
Large brown eyes welled with tears. "I do not know! There has never been a girl anamari before. I do not know if I am strong enough. I do not know if I want to be an anamari."
Trying to read her inflection as well as her expressions, Blair probed carefully. "What worries you most?"
Obviously searching her soul, the young girl revealed her deepest fears. "I fear that I will never marry, that I shall not see my own children play in the forest. I fear I will not be good enough. I...." Her frightened eyes gripped Blair's desperately. "I fear I might be the cause of Irami's death!"
Blair's own heart tightened with emotions all too familiar to him. Was this fear of letting the sentinel down something biological, something programmed genetically into the DNA of guides? How many sleepless nights had he spent worrying that he wouldn't be fast enough or strong enough - hell, just plain enough - to keep Jim from getting killed? Those feelings had lessened after their experiences in the temple here three years ago, but Blair couldn't honestly say they had been banished completely.
As he struggled to find words to reassure her, words he still needed at times to reassure himself, Aramika whispered something else.
"I do not know if it would be worth the pain."
Those soft words from the child cut through Blair Sandburg like a knife. Without warning, the truth roared over him in a gigantic tsunami, drowning him with its absolute power and certainty.
When he could speak, Blair took Aramika's small hands in his and squeezed them gently. "Trust me, Aramika. It is worth the pain." His voice in the lowest register, his blue eyes moist with the tears of remembrances, Blair gave her the gift of his innermost emotions. "Yes, there will be sacrifices. You may not have the children you wanted, then again, you might, perhaps with Irami. I cannot tell you that. I can tell you that if you join him, you will find the most incredible closeness, the greatest bond you could ever have with anyone on the face of this planet. He will give you the greatest joy...and the greatest pain...but there will be much more joy than pain. You will know him as you will never know another, and in return, he will know your every mood, your every emotion. He will know your heart. He will be your heart."
A slow tear trickled down Aramika's cheek, matched by the one sliding from Blair's eye. "You'll never know if you will always be able to keep him safe, and that will be your greatest fear for as long as he lives. You have to know, however, that his greatest fear will always be losing you. That knowledge will keep you and warm your soul forever. Believe me."
A soft smile touched Blair's lips and spread to warm his eyes with tenderness. "Your love for him will be greater than you can dream of right now, and his love for you will know no boundaries. It will be a life unlike the lives any others in your tribe have known or can understand, but for you, it will be the only path you know. You will know that it was the only choice you could have made. Only you can search your heart and know the truth, Aramika. If you believe that the connection is there, then it is your destiny. It is all right to be afraid, but don't let that fear keep you from following the path that is yours by right. Trust me, Aramika, the life of an anamari isn't the simplest or the easiest life, but... Oh, God, it is worth the pain! That kind of joy is always worth the pain." His blue eyes glowed with the deep emotion he felt, and his smile quivered just a little as he watched the young girl sitting before him.
Her cheeks were wet with tears, and the small hands resting within Blair's trembled. "I...."
"Shhhh...." Blair stopped her with a quick shake of his head. "You don't have to decide right now. Stay here. Think over what I've said and what's in your heart. The truth is there, and I think you realize that. Don't let anyone push you into this, Aramika. It has to be your decision, and you have to be absolutely certain that you really are meant to be his anamari. If not, then it will be too dangerous for you both. If you love Irami, and I believe that you do, then you owe him that much."
At the girl's silent nod, he slipped away with Acana.
A few hours after returning to the camp, Jim motioned to Blair and they slipped away into the forest. No one had questioned them about their morning or what had transpired, but both friends needed to share what they had experienced with the other. The depths of the rainforest offered the privacy they needed.
Without talking they walked deep into the jungle. Even in the absence of a plan, they both knew instinctively where they were heading. Just as the moon always returns to its rightful home in the night sky, the two friends were drawn back to the sacred spot where their own fates were sealed together forever. Soon the magnificence of the Temple of Sentinels and Anamari rose from the lushness of the jungle. Around them, the calls of the birds and the colors of the blooming flowers were in vivid contrast to the starkness of the rough, weathered gray stone.
They stood for a moment in awe at the image carved upon its face, that of the ancient sentinel and guide. They had seen it before, on their last trip to Peru, but the wonder it inspired was no less powerful than it had been three years before. The figure of the tall sentinel stood directly behind his guide with his hands resting protectively upon the shoulders of the smaller man. Around their necks hung the traditional pendants worn by sentinels and guides throughout the ages, matching the pendants that now hung about the necks of Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg. The ancient carving might have been their own portrait.
It was not necessary that they enter, and so they sat down on the stone steps of the entryway, Jim perched on the step above Blair.
After several minutes of comfortable silence, Blair began to describe his meeting with Aramika, understanding exactly what his friend needed to know. "She's frightened more than anything, Jim. I still believe that she's the one to become Irami's guide, and deep down, I think she knows it, too." He fingered the pendant that rested on his chest, feeling the image of the wolf that Incacha had carved there for him so long ago.
Although Blair couldn't see Jim's face behind him, he could hear the confusion clearly in the older man's voice. "Then what's the problem, Sandburg? I thought you told me that guide's felt this...I don't know...this instinctive pull toward their sentinel?"
Blair watched a pair of ring-tailed lemurs chasing each other through the treetops and smiled at their antics. Even with the stress of trying to resolve the situation between Aramika and Irami, his heart soared. This was Peru. This was the ancient, mystical home for sentinels throughout the ages, and he...Blair Sandburg...was really here, sitting so close to his own sentinel that his bare shoulder rested against Jim's calf. Somehow, he felt at home here, perhaps even more so than Jim. Why, he couldn't have explained, yet he could no more deny the strength of the feeling of rightness than he could have denied his own role as guide to the man sitting behind him.
Shaking himself back to the present, he glanced back and up at Jim for a moment and saw that Jim was cupping his own pendant, etched on the back with the image of the jaguar, in his palm. He grinned in apology. "Sorry, man. Got distracted there for a second." Returning his gaze to the treetops, he answered his friend's question at last. "She does feel the pull, Jim. You have to remember, though, that this is the rest of her life she's committing here. Plus the fact that neither Irami nor Aramika have any role models to emulate. They have no clue what to expect. She's bound to be hesitant." He paused, then added softly, "It's not an easy decision to give your life over to someone else."
A warm hand descended to cover his shoulder. "I know it's not, Chief," Jim said softly, with a depth of understanding in his voice that sent a shiver through his guide. Blair felt his muscles begin to relax under the sentinel's skillful, sensitive touch.
As he relaxed, Ellison continued, "They seem so young to have to make these choices, y'know? I mean, I had my senses as a child, but no responsibility came along with them. It wasn't until I was an adult that I felt driven to use them to help others. Why do they have to go through all this right now? Can't it wait a few years?"
The confusion in his friend's voice touched Blair deeply. Jim Ellison had a much softer heart than most people would suspect, especially for children. Lowering his head, Blair let his neck relax under Jim's skillful fingers. His soft sigh of appreciation brought Jim's other hand into play, and Blair could almost feel the tenseness slip away as the warm, strong fingers massaged his back and shoulders.
"Nice," he murmured, his eyes closed in pleasure. "You gotta remember, Jim, that this cul-ture is totally different from ours. The Western world's extended childhood longer than any other society in history, man. Some researchers feel that this prolonged childhood - a falsely created adole-scence, you might say - could explain some of the violence we're seeing now among the young."
Jim's deep voice drifted down to him on the warm breeze. "You're saying that we should let our kids grow up faster? That when their bodies change, they're ready for adult responsibilities?"
Blair started to shrug, but he didn't want to drive away the relaxing hands from his shoulders. "Maybe. I'm not an expert in the field, but there are theories that put forth hypotheses similar to that. Anyway, the point is that here, in this culture, there's nothing at all abnormal in expecting Irami and Aramika to take over these responsibilities."
Jim's hands stilled, resting heavily on Blair's back, the pressure a welcome weight. For the many times Blair had leaned on Jim, had needed his strength and protection, he was more than happy to be able to provide the support his friend sought whenever he might need it.
Time slowed to the speed of the sun as it roamed across the azure sky. "Thanks, Chief," Jim whis-pered softly.
Leaning back, Blair rested his head against Jim's knees and closed his eyes. The blessedly cooler twilight found them still there, greeting the night together on the steps of the temple that bore their images.
In the gathering darkness a few miles away, two men sat around a rickety card table set up in the middle of a well-worn tent. The glow lent a sickly yellow pallor to their complexions and highlighted the long, jagged scar cutting viciously across the taller man's right cheek. Even though they were alone in the tent, they spoke in voices little louder than a whisper.
"Ya think those savages were on the level, Blade?" The smaller man chugged a long swallow of lukewarm beer from the brown bottle clutched in his dirty hand.
His companion shrugged and skillfully flipped the large knife held expertly in his hand into the air. It whirled twice before its point landed in the exact center of the crudely drawn target traced into the dirt floor of the hut. No emotion registered on the broken features of the man known in the dark recesses of the drug world as 'Blade'.
"Don't know. What reason would they have to lie?" Blade's cold voice lacked any emotion as he bent to retrieve his knife.
Lenny licked his cracked lips repeatedly, his hands trembling slightly. "They're betraying their own people! Why would they do that, if it wasn't true?"
The merest glint of exasperation shone in Blade's black eyes. "What makes any man do what he does? Money. They know we have the means to buy whatever weapons they believe necessary to protect their tribe from the evils of the outside world. First, however, I must be convinced that what they say is true."
"And that's tomorrow, right? Right, Blade?"
The whiny tone of his partner's voice raised the hackles of irritation along Blade's neck. If what those Chopec savages claimed was true, it wouldn't long before Lenny's services would no longer be required. Not long before this irritating, ignorant man could disappear forever within the protective seclusion of the jungle. In retrospect, Blade could no longer remember why he had tolerated him this long.
His thin lips curled slightly in pleasurable anticipation, but he kept his voice characteristically flat. "Tomorrow. Tomorrow they will arrange for a...demonstration...of what the boy can do." Tracing the sharp blade with a fingertip, he smiled coldly. "We will see."
Lenny grinned. "That kid could alert us to anybody coming within five miles of our lab, couldn't he, Blade? If he's all they say he is, we will pay them for him, won't we?"
Turning to the smaller man with a pitying look in his dark eyes, Blade stated coldly, "Why pay for what we can take, Lenny? If the Chopec boy is a...what did they call him?...a watchman, then he's to be our watchman. For that, we have no need of two Benedict Arnolds."
After a few moments, Lenny laughed loudly in appreciation. The silver blade danced in the air as it twirled once more to the ground.
She slipped up behind him on the trail outside of camp.
Hearing the light padding footsteps long before she approached, the sentinel waited patiently. He had hoped she would come to him, and now, she had.
"Hello, Aramika," he called softly as he turned around.
A tiny flicker of surprise was the only change in the girl's expression. No matter how strongly one believed in the powers of the watchmen, such a simple demonstration of their abilities never failed to surprise. The girl recovered quickly, her composure restored within seconds.
"Hello," she replied softly.
It was the watchman's turn to be surprised. Jim's head cocked and his eyebrows lifted slightly. "You speak English?"
A guilty smile crept onto Aramika's lips. "Irami teaches me. It...I...am slowly learning."
Jim smiled encouragingly. "It sounds to me like you are doing well. Irami must be a good teacher." He didn't miss the flush of pleasure his words brushed across the girl's lovely face.
Aramika nodded. "Yes. He teaches me...." She halted, struggling for the words she needed. "Irami teaches me everything."
Motioning toward a clearing beside the path, Jim agreed. "That's how it is with sentinels and their guides, Aramika. With a watchman and an anamari. They teach each other."
The girl's wide brown eyes were intent. It was obvious she was searching for answers, trying to decide which path she should choose. "Irami says that without an anamari, he...." She bit her lip, frustration evident on her pretty face.
Jim reached out and patted her shoulder. "Take your time. You're doing fine. Your English is very good." He sat down on the soft leaves, and she dropped to the ground beside him.
After a moment, she struggled on. "Without an anamari, he would be lost. That he could not be the watchman for the Chopec." Puzzled brown eyes met blue, probing, searching, beseeching. "Is that so, Enquiri? You are already a strong watchman. Much powerful. Would you be...lost...without Ankaree?"
Jim looked away from those pleading eyes. The child's innocent question had stirred up a whirlpool of emotions within him. He waited for the tightness in his throat to ease, then turned toward Aramika, grasping her hands firmly. He chose his words carefully, deliberately. That she understand was vital.
"Yes. I would be lost without him, Aramika. In so many ways." Jim forced himself to speak slowly, using simple language he hoped she could comprehend. "A watchman has powerful senses. That is true. But it is his very strengths which can destroy him. When Ankaree found me, I could not control my senses. They were stronger than I was. Without him, I would not have survived."
A flash of emotion brightened her brown eyes. "But Irami can control his senses. He has no need of an anamari."
Jim shook his head in denial of her words. "No. He does need an anamari. Yes, his senses are controlled right now, but he is still young. Irami does not yet have his full powers, Aramika. He has much to learn, and as he learns, his senses will grow stronger. Sometimes they will be unpredictable, and he will need help. Without his anamari - without you - they will become too powerful for him to handle alone."
This time, it was the young girl who looked away. Pulling her hands from Jim's, Aramika picked up a leaf and began shredding it with anxious hands. Long minutes ticked by slowly in silence.
"Must I be the one?" The question was little more than a whisper, yet it chimed as clearly as a bell in the heavy, humid rainforest air.
Knowing there could be no hesitation, Jim's reply was firm. "What does your heart tell you, Aramika?"
Slowly, she raised her eyes to his, brown pools swimming in doubt and uncertainty. "I am afraid."
Jim smiled in sympathy. "I was, too. At first."
Her eyebrows arched in disbelief. Enquiri? Legendary watchman of the Chopec? Afraid?
Chuckling at her reaction, Jim nodded in confirmation. "Yep. Totally terrified. Until Ankaree found me. He was so sure he could help me, but I was too stubborn to admit that I needed anyone's help. Especially a kid like Sandburg's. Then...." Jim shrugged helplessly and added, "In time, I realized that he was right, and everything would be okay."
Patting the girl's hand, Jim smiled. "Look, Aramika. I'd be lying if I told you that it's simple. It's not. Far from it. You and Irami are lucky. You live in a place where watchmen and their anamari are understood. Honored. You have Imaru and Acana to help you."
His tone grew lower and more serious. "There's one important thing you must understand. If you commit to Irami, if you become his anamari, you will never be alone. He will protect you...take care of you...laugh with you and cry with you. He will be your best friend...your brother...the other half of your heart. He will hold you when you are hurt...comfort you when you are sad...love you unconditionally. He will do this not only for you, because he loves you, but because his own life, his own happiness, will depend upon you." A smile warmed his eyes. "I can tell you what your sentinel will do, Aramika, because I, too, am a sentinel. This is the way of sentinels and their anamari. Do you trust me when I tell you this?" Jim waited, his eyes unwavering as they held hers.
Slowly, the girl's lips curved in a shy smile and she nodded. "I trust you, Enquiri, and now I know what I must do." She stood up, squaring her shoul-ders firmly. Suddenly, Aramika seemed no longer a child, no longer a young girl. In the space of a few decisive moments, she had become a strong, determined woman. "I am Irami's anamari."
High in the canopy, tucked among the shadows of countless leaves and vines, they waited. A huge tree had fallen here not too many days before. Its absence left a clearing in the otherwise life-carpeted jungle. It was through this clearing that they watched, the protective foliage of their own tree masking their presence. Sweat poured down their faces, tracing rivulets in the layers of dirt and grime. Lenny swiped at the annoying beads with great regularity, while his companion ignored them completely. Blade's intense black eyes remained focused on the ground below.
"Hey, Blade! How long we gonna wait...?" His complaining whine was abruptly silenced by a vicious jab in the ribs from Blade's sharp elbow.
"Shut up, you fool!" Blade hissed softly. "They'll be along any time now. If this kid can hear everything those two savages say he can, he'll hear you." Shooting a withering glare at Lenny, he added in a forceful whisper. "Quiet!"
For another half hour, the only sounds were the buzzing of the insect army sharing their airspace, and the raucous screams of the howler monkeys passing by. Lenny kept throwing glances at his watch, wishing more with each passing second that he'd never come to this hot, buggy place. Not even the allure of a drug-created fortune was worth the discomfort.
Then, again.... His share of the money would set him up for life, and if this kid worked out, the dangers would be cut in half. Maybe even eliminated completely. Lenny smiled at the thought of the thousands upon thousands of dollars soon to be his.
Blade had other thoughts on his mind. He wanted the Chopec kid. Wanted him badly. If this little demonstration played out, he intended to have him by nightfall. Everything was ready. All that remained was the proof that the child truly was as amazing as the two Chopec traitors claimed.
Just a little longer and....
The sound of voices drifted up into the air. At the height where they crouched, it was impossible to understand the words, but by peering down through the area cleared by the falling tree, they could see the figures so far below.
An old man, a warrior in the prime of his life, and a boy stood in the clearing below. The boy held a blowgun, the old man a small wooden disk.
Blade watched in fascination. The warrior took the disk from the old man and disappeared into the jungle as the boy covered his eyes. As the old man spoke, the boy uncovered his eyes and waited.
Time slowed to a crawl. The insects buzzed in countless numbers as the oppressive heat seemed to increase twofold by the minute. Suddenly, the blowgun was at the boy's lips and an unseen dart whistled almost silently through the air. As the boy lowered his weapon, the old man walked to the edge of the clearing. He returned with a broad smile, holding the small wooden disk in his hand, its center neatly pierced by the dart from the boy's blowgun.
Lenny turned to Blade with wide eyes, his mouth open in amazement. Silently gesturing for him to remain quiet, Blade looked back down at the figures below. They repeated the exercise again and again. The warrior would disappear into the jungle with the wooden disk as the boy stood patiently with closed eyes. Then, from out of nowhere, the disk would sail into the clearing. The boy's eyes would flash open and in one graceful, fluid gesture, the blowgun would meet his lips and the dart would fly straight to its target. Each time, his speed and accuracy increased.
At last, after over an hour of practice, the trio vanished into the jungle as silently as they had come. Blade and Lenny waited another hour, then crept from their hiding place and returned to their camp. They did not speak until they were far from their observation point. Then, Blade turned to Lenny, a malevolent smile darkening his face. "He's ours. With a watch dog like that, this shipment's money in the bank. You go meet our Chopec friends at the site. Tell 'em we want delivery tonight."
Lenny nodded enthusiastically. "Then what, Blade?"
"Then, you get to do what you enjoy most, Lenny. You can see to it that those traitors never make it back to their tribe."
Cackling in anticipation, Lenny hurried to the prearranged meeting place.
After returning to the Chopec camp from his unexpected meeting with Aramika, Jim immediately sought out his guide. He found the younger man crouched down beside a group of Chopec women who were kneeling by their cooking fire. As he approached, Jim could hear Blair's broken Chopec, followed by a flurry of laughter from the women. Blair looked confused for a moment, then joined the women in their mirth, his blue eyes dancing with good-natured humor.
Smiling at his friend's ability to fit in wherever he found himself, Jim called out to him. "Hey, Chief? Are you giving instructions on how to prepare vegetarian lasagna, or can I borrow you for a few minutes?"
Blair grinned and stood up, dusting his hands against his worn jeans. The humid, hot air had led him to abandon his own shirt, and his sweat ran in rivulets down his back, tickling his warm skin. Blair pushed his hair back from his face with both hands, then reached in his pocket for a band. Deftly, he twisted the long curls into a ponytail. "Man, it's hot! What's going on?"
Jerking his head toward the jungle, Jim replied, "Let's walk."
They wandered down one of the barely discernable trails leading away from the Chopec camp. "Aramika found me today."
Grabbing Jim's arm, Blair pulled him to a halt. "What did she say? Is she...?"
Jim gripped his guide's shoulders with both hands. The wide blue eyes staring up into his own were filled with concern. "She was still uncertain, Chief. I think she realized that becoming Irami's guide is what she's meant to do, but she was still scared. She came to me wondering what might happen if Irami didn't have a guide at all."
Without hesitation, Blair asked, "And you told her. Everything."
"I did." The sentinel took a deep breath. "I was honest, Chief. No one knows better than I what kind of hell Irami would go through. The same hell I went through before you came into my life." Looking down into the waiting face of his own guide, Jim added seriously, "She was scared, but she understood." Blue eyes held blue as a trace of a smile appeared at the corners of Jim Ellison's lips. "She's accepted it, Blair. Aramika is ready to become Irami's guide."
A warm smile began in Blair's eyes and quickly spread to his entire face. "That's great, Jim! Really. Hey, maybe we can witness their bonding ceremony! I mean, yeah, we went through it ourselves, but that was just a little too intense, y'know? I'd love to see it again, but with a touch less personal involvement. When do you think...?"
Jim Ellison chuckled, then pulled Sandburg around, wrapping one arm across his bare shoulders to lead him down the path. "Slow down, Chief, slow down. It's too hot out here to get so worked up. I don't know the answers yet, but we'll find out from Imaru what happens next."
Looking down at his partner's sweaty face and feeling the heat radiating from the body beneath his arm, he felt a touch of concern. As a thought occurred to him, Jim suggested, "Why don't we go down to the waterfall for a swim and cool off? After that, we'll head back to camp and talk to Imaru." Grinning down at his friend, he teased, "As an anthropologist, you should know better than worry about missing anything important back at the camp. If there's one thing I know for sure about the Chopec, Darwin, it's the fact that they take things in their own time. Nothing will happen in a hurry. There are rituals and preparations to make. It really is hot. We won't miss a thing if we relax and cool off for an hour or so."
Blair agreed immediately with his partner's suggestion. "Cool water? That sounds like the best idea I've heard all day. Lead on, James!"
The water was cool and clear. Blair took a deep breath and dove beneath the thundering falls. Torrents of water surrounded him, washing him clean. After long days of humidity and heat, it was a refreshing change. He surfaced inside the falls, savoring the coolness of the rocks and water. Flipping to his back, he floated, allowing his body the luxury of complete weightlessness and utter relaxation.
Jim had already taken a plunge into the cool depths and was resting on the banks of the pool, also enjoying the cooler air surrounding the falls. Checking once more on Sandburg and finding his friend peacefully floating behind the falls, Jim reclined onto the soft leaves. Above him, the canopy pulsed with life. Through sentinel eyes, Jim watched the changing facial expressions on a spider monkey, and followed the painfully slow movements of an algae-covered mother sloth, her baby clinging to her belly. His sharp ears probed beyond the crashing of the falls to listen to the movement of tens of millions of leaf cutter ants as they carried their carefully trimmed burdens across the forest floor. Breathing deeply, Jim inhaled a cornucopia of scents - both flora and fauna - and lazily tried to identify each one. His eyelids grew heavy, and in only a few minutes, the sentinel dozed.
From the dense foliage surrounding the peaceful glade, a pair of blue eyes watched sentinel and guide. Irami was fairly certain neither man knew he was there, although he wasn't quite sure why it would matter. Enquiri and Ankaree had been nothing but accepting of him and his growing abilities as Chopec sentinel.
The boy regarded Enquiri thoughtfully. His father. He understood the relationship, of course. Except for those children destined to lead the tribe, most Chopec grew up with their own mothers and fathers. He was not one of those children. From birth, it had been Irami's destiny to be special, set apart.
For he was the son of a sentinel and the son of a shaman's daughter. Even in the tales of the ancestors, never had such a child been born. Had his mother lived, Irami would not have been raised as her son. Even if his father had not returned to the Great City long before his birth, he would not have been merely the son of Enquiri.
Irami belonged to the Chopec. He was raised by the old shaman, Imaru, to be the child of the tribe. He recalled the powerful feeling of protectiveness for his people even as a young child. Now, as a youth, that urge was so instinctive that Irami could not conceive of being anything other than what he was, what he had been bred to become.
The sentinel of the Chopec.
All his training, all the teachings of Imaru had not truly prepared him for the onslaught of these senses, for the enormity of the responsibilities he faced. A small part of him wondered if Enquiri might have been able to provide some of the reassurance he craved.
For how could one not born a watchman understand what it was like to be a watchman? As wise and experienced as Imaru was, he did not possess the heightened senses, the inbred instincts of a sentinel.
Enquiri did, and there was something within Irami that longed to talk with him - with his father - about what it meant to live as the rarest of men, the sentinel of a people.
As he watched Enquiri sleep, Irami's attention was drawn to Ankaree.
Irami felt a twinge of envy, scarcely recognizing the emotion. They were so close, these two. It was obvious to all who saw them that this was a friendship, a relationship, that could never be broken. He watched as Ankaree dove out from behind the waterfall and immediately searched out Enquiri as he surfaced.
His powerful vision easily caught the tenderness in Ankaree's eyes as he watched his sleeping sentinel. That is what I should have, Irami thought with a stab of pain. I want Aramika to care for me, to love me, that much. She is my anamari! How can she not understand?
He knew that Ankaree had spoken to Aramika. Perhaps Enquiri's guide could help him as well. Irami wanted to know what Aramika had told him. He deserved to know.
Standing up, Irami quietly moved from his hiding place and padded silently toward the pool. The sounds of the pounding waters masked his approach, but his movement caught Ankaree's eye, and Enquiri's guide and shaman turned toward him with a welcoming smile.
Suddenly, there was a flash of motion from the edge of the forest. Blair let out a cry of warning. The boy whirled around, but strong arms pinned him to the ground, forcing the air from his lungs in a painful blow.
Jim Ellison was awake immediately. He sprang to his feet, focusing first on Blair's startled cry. "Sandburg!" he called. "Are you...?"
The sharp sting in his right shoulder caught him unaware. His fingers groped to find the dart, lodged just below his shoulder blade.
The poison was fast acting and terribly cruel, attacking the sentinel's strongest senses first. Jim's hearing and sight were the first senses to be affected. Sounds seemed to come to him from deep in a well, echoing and ringing until no words, no syllables, were clear enough to be understood. The blackness descended almost immediately, shutting off the light of the tropical sun and plunging him into a void of shadows.
As the last bit of consciousness fled, Jim dimly heard the sounds of the struggle, heard Blair's voice screaming his name over and over. He fought to stay awake, to pull himself from the downward spiral into the darkness. Jim's hands clawed at the ground as he struggled to pull himself toward where he perceived Blair to be, but the drug was working its way too quickly through his bloodstream.
Blair watched in horror as Jim fell to his knees, then tumbled face down on the ground. His frozen muscles sprang to life, and he charged through the water toward his sentinel. "Jim!! Oh, God, no! Jim!!" As he set foot on the bank, he was gripped by powerful arms that stopped him in his tracks. Blair struggled violently against the man behind him, kicking in vain and desperately trying to wrench free. "Let me go! I've gotta get to him! You don't understand!!"
As Blair watched in horror, Jim's clawing fingers flexed stiffly, spread open, then fell limply to the earth.
One of the men walked over to the still body and kicked it viciously. No reaction. "This one's bought it," he remarked casually.
"NO!!" Blair's anguished cry echoed through the forest, sending scores of rainbow-hued birds fleeing to the sky. He cried out once more, nearly sobbing this time. "Jim! I'm sorry!" A painful crack on the back of his head, and all was silent.
When he awakened, it was to find his hands bound behind him, and his toes barely skimming the earth as he was dragged by two tall, muscular men through the jungle. A blinding pain stabbed through his head, and Blair groaned in misery. Blinking rapidly to clear his sight, he spotted Irami up ahead, his hands also tied behind him, being shoved roughly along by a tall, thin man. Every few steps, the young sentinel tried to glance behind him. When Blair was able to catch his eye, he forced what he hoped was a reassuring smile.
When his two escorts realized he was awake, they shoved him onto his own feet, obviously expecting him to walk the rest of the way to wherever it was they were headed under his own power. From the size of the small arsenal each man carried, Blair made the choice to do his best to comply.
His own situation wasn't even the worst of it all. Every step carried him farther from Jim, a realization far more painful than his injuries or the fear of the unknown fate awaiting them.
Blair swallowed hard against the bile that rose in his throat at the memory of the last time he'd seen his friend. The poison tipped dart dangling malevolently from Jim's muscular shoulder...the pale dampness of his skin as the poison roared through his system...Jim's broken body writhing on the ground, his fingers blindly reaching for his guide, then...nothing.
Jim...jim...jim.... His name beat in Blair's skull in time with the pounding of his headache. Jim had to be alive. He couldn't be dead. He just couldn't. Not like that. Shot like an animal in the jungle, dying a pain-filled death, alone with no one to comfort him.
Memories flashed unbidden in his mind. Jim...reacting to a simple cough medicine...Jim...his senses set afire by common herbs...Jim...nearly dying when a careless doctor forgot to follow the instructions written in red on his permanent chart not to administer pain relievers without first discussing his drug allergies with Blair Sandburg. The poison on that arrow had been put there to kill an ordinary man. What hope had Jim had to survive it? Tears flowed unchecked down Blair's dirty cheeks. I'm sorry, Jim. I should have been there with you. Oh, God, I wanted to be there with you at the end. I hope you knew that. Please, Jim, please...forgive me.
The tears running down Blair Sandburg's face blurred the path ahead of him. He didn't care. If he stumbled...fine. If Jim's murderers grew angry at his clumsiness and shot him...so be it. Nothing mattered. Not if Jim Ellison no longer lived.
At that moment, Blair caught a glimpse of hauntingly familiar blue eyes staring back at him in fear. Pleading with him to help. His heart lurched in a painful spasm of emotion.
Irami was alive, and as long as that was true, Blair Sandburg knew his own job was not yet finished. Resolution rose strong within him. He would protect Irami. The sentinel's legacy would not end so tragically.
Gaining strength from his resolve, Blair blinked away his tears and straightened his back. He was Ankaree, anamari to the great Enquiri. He owed it to the man he had loved so deeply to keep his son alive.
I let you down back there, Jim, and I'll grieve for you with my last breath. But I swear to you that I will do everything in my power to keep Irami safe. I'll get him back to his people, my friend, back to Aramika and Imaru. The Chopec will have their sentinel. I swear it. Blair smiled bitterly, knowing that when that day came, he would be free to follow his own sentinel at last.
Blade looked up from the package he was inspecting. This shipment was almost ready, and the quality was high. He sniffed a touch of the white powder dusting his fingertips and smiled. Very high quality.
He never made the mistake of using drugs himself. Vainly proud of his physical appearance, Blade wouldn't think of polluting his body with such substances. However, he had no qualms about selling the valuable white powder to others.
Blade chuckled deep in his throat. Only a few more days, and production would be complete. The best part was that he no longer had to worry about the riskiest part of any major deal - the shipment itself. With the Chopec kid, they could monitor their surroundings from the time they left the camp until the plane departed. Hell, he would even know if his buyers were making the fatal error of trying to deceive him, if what those savages claimed was true. His smile grew broader. With an ace in the hole like that, there were no limits.
Hearing noises from outside, Blade parted the flap of the storage tent and stepped outside. Lenny and several of the other men were escorting a boy into camp. The Chopec kid. Blade nodded his approval, then he caught sight of the second newcomer with his hands bound behind him, and Blade's smile disappeared.
Stalking over to Lenny, his black eyes skewered the shorter man. "Who the hell is this?"
Lenny held out his hands as if to block a blow. "Let me explain, Blade!" When his boss didn't answer, he hurried on. "This guy's what they call an 'anamari' - a 'guide.' We were about to waste him with a dart, too, but then those Indians wouldn't let us. They say this kid here needs a guide. Something about helping keep those senses of his under control." He added, "Claims that he could be useless to us without him."
Blair gazed without fear at the man before him. Obviously this was the leader of whatever group of thugs he'd managed to run into in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. He couldn't help staring at the wide, ugly scar cutting across the man's face. Blade. The name certainly fit. And what Indians was he talking about? How the hell had he found out about Irami's abilities?
Blade took two steps closer to Sandburg, and spoke in an unmistakably dangerous tone. "That true, punk? Does this kid need you to use those senses of his?"
Blair had no doubt that his life depended on his answer. Even if that life eventually proved too painful to face alone, for now at least, it was vital that he remain alive. For Irami. Glancing quickly at Jim's son, he nodded. His voice was cold, emotionless. "Yes. A watchman must have a guide or his senses will take over. He'd be totally useless." Blair squelched the momentary guilt he felt at confirming Irami's gifts. Obviously, these men already knew. The most he could hope for now was damage control.
Blade turned again to his second in command. "What about the Chopec? Did you take care of that loose end?
Lenny was obviously uncomfortable. "Not yet, boss. They got away into the jungle on the way back here." At the look of displeasure on Blade's face, he added quickly, "We'll find 'em though, Blade. They'll be coming for their payoff, then we'll take care of them. Don't you worry about that!"
The taller man stared at him coldly. "Of course you will," he replied cynically. "What about the other American? The big one?" Blade's emotionless voice cut through Blair's heart like a knife.
Carelessly, Lenny replied, "Dead. Chopecs got him with one of those darts of theirs. Took him a minute or so to die, but he never knew what hit him."
Blair's face contorted in rage as a stabbing pain in his gut nearly doubled him over. How dare they speak so easily of Jim's death? Didn't they understand what they had taken from him? The man they had killed had been Blair's very soul. The void left in Blair's heart where Jim had once dwelled was a gaping black hole, consuming his every emotion into its spinning vacuum. All he felt was the aching pain, the yawning emptiness, and the nearly mad determination to get Jim's son back to his people alive.
Clenching his fists so tightly that his nails cut into the skin, Blair asked coldly, "What do you want with us?"
Blade stared at him for a long minute before replying. When he spoke, his voice held no trace of warmth. "Your talents, Guide. Your talents, and...." His black eyes turned to Irami. "His senses."
It was so peaceful in the white glow of the Light.
Colors he had never before seen streamed from the Light, beckoning him forward, onward toward its warmth and peace.
Nothing was asked of him in this place, and after a lifetime of service, of duty, the absence of expectations was pure delight.
He was here. That was enough.
Reaching out lazily, he touched a raindrop. An entire universe contained within a single molecule of water. A rainbow with a variety of colors that would require an eternity to count.
How ironic! An eternity was exactly what he had.
He laughed with sheer joy of it as his soul bubbled within him.
Freedom. Peace. Joy.
He wanted to reach the Light.
He began striving forward, reaching toward that welcoming glow. He was almost there, nearly home at last.
Ignoring the voice calling to him, he reached again, fingertips straining toward the Light. He didn't want to stop, didn't want to hear what the voice would say to him.
But that voice would not be ignored.
"It is not your time, Enquiri. Have you forgotten your light?"
Despair washed over him.
"I see the Light! What is wrong?" he cried to the rainbow. "Why is it not my time? Have I not earned the rest? Do I not deserve the peace? Let me go!" The Chopec standing before him glowed bright with an icy, blue aura. Incacha's kind eyes smiled warmly at his old friend. "Enquiri, why do you seek this Light before your time?"
He took a deep, calming breath, marveling at the refreshing coolness filling his soul. "I seek peace, Incacha. I am tired." Reaching out, he embraced the beauty surrounding him with his arms. "This place...is peace. Here, I can rest."
The wise shaman nodded. "It is true, Enquiri. I, too, have found peace here. You may choose to stay, if that is your wish."
He could stay. Once again, his heart sang.
Until his old friend asked, "Have you forgotten the light you left behind?"
For an instant only was he puzzled. The light he had left...?
Memories came flooding back, memories of another temple, deep in the rainforests of Mexico. The pool where Alex Barnes had left him, the visions he had experienced, and the memories forced upon him there.
He had seen nothing but death...horrible, terrifying death over and over and over....
Until...the face of Blair had appeared, and the bright aura surrounding him had driven away the images of death.
The realization slammed into him with its undeniable truth. Blair was his light, had been since the moment they had met, and he had left him behind.
His eyes lifted slowly, and the newly awakened truth and pain in their blue depths called out to the Chopec's spirit. Incacha nodded in approval. "Go to him, Enquiri. Sentinel, claim your true Guide." With those words, Incacha was gone.
The light began to swirl and twist around him in a wild spectrum of color and sound. He felt himself falling, faster and faster, until the colors faded and the blackness enveloped him completely.
Blade stared at the two prisoners standing before him. The boy would be no problem. He was too young and too small to put up much resistance. If he refused to do as Blade wished....
It would be a waste, but one body more would do nothing to disturb his peaceful dreams.
The other one. That was a different story.
He decided to test the so-called guide's loyalty.
"Boy!" Blade's black eyes stared at Irami. "My men are waiting outside. They are talking. Tell me their words."
Irami glared up at the tall man. Then, calmly, he spat on his shoes.
Blade's anger rose hot within him. He reached his hand back to strike the child, but before the blow could fall, the long-haired man pounced.
Blair hit Blade with all his might, driving his shoulder into his side. With his hands bound behind him, he immediately lost his balance, toppling onto the floor and landing with a grunt.
Laughing, Blade drew back his foot and savagely kicked Sandburg in the stomach. Blair groaned with the pain as one blow landed, then another. To the belly...the face...the back.
"Stop!" Irami screamed, kicking at Blade in protest, his hands also uselessly tied behind his back. "Leave him alone!"
At last, the blows subsided. Blade stared down at his victim. "Just a small demonstration of what is to come, if you decide not to cooperate. How do you think the boy would hold up under such a demonstration? I hope you do not choose to make it necessary for us to find out."
Turning to Irami, Blade said coldly. "Tell me their words."
The young sentinel looked uncertain. His eyes darted to Blair, then back to the tall, scarred man before him. He spoke slowly and deliberately. "A watchman's duty is to protect his tribe from those who would do it harm. I will not help you."
Anger flashed in Blade's black eyes. "You will learn it is not wise to defy me, boy!" He moved toward Irami, his knife held threateningly in front of him. Irami's deep blue eyes never wavered as Blade drew closer.
"Hey! What's the matter, huh? You don't know any other way of getting what you want than hurting children?" Blair's voice dripped disdain, even as it trembled from pain. "Yeah, you're a real tough guy, aren't you? Takes a real man to cut a kid."
Blade stopped in his tracks and turned away from Irami. He could feel the red flush of rage color the back of his neck as it spread slowly to heat his entire face.
In an instant, he was kneeling beside Sandburg, knife in hand. "Hold him," he commanded the two men standing guard at the door. They knelt beside the injured man, pinning his legs to the ground, his bound arms lying painfully beneath him. Sandburg put what little energy reserves he had left into squirming to get away, but his stamina quickly faded. The cruel beating had left him too weak for any real resistance.
When Blair lay still at last, Blade began his work with a delighted smile. With a precision born of long practice, the knife did its work, flicking across Blair's exposed skin like a scalpel. He began with Blair's legs, inflicting dozens of cuts before moving on to his torso, chest, and arms. When he reached Blair's face, his smile grew wider. "Do not worry. This will leave no scars. That will come later, if the young one has not learned his lesson."
Before he was finished over a hundred slices had been carved into Blair's skin. None of the cuts were deep, but the pain was intense. Blair endured the long minutes under Blade's steady hand without uttering a sound. His blue eyes remained tightly closed, masking the face of his torturer.
Irami tried to turn away, but one nod from Blade and a third man immediately appeared to hold his shoulders firmly to prevent him from looking anywhere else than at what was happening to Blair.
After what seemed like an eternity, Blade stood up, delivering one more sharp kick to Sandburg's exposed belly. Blair groaned in agony. Walking slowly over to Irami, Blade looked at the boy and smiled coldly. "See what happens to those who defy me, child. You will do as I say. Tomorrow, the lesson begins again."
As Blair lay moaning on the floor, Blade left the tent without another word.
The guards who dragged Sandburg painfully to the tent that was to become their prison quickly cut his bonds, then shoved him inside to the ground without a second glance. A canteen of warm water was tossed carelessly in after them, along with some packs of beef jerky. Blair landed on the hard ground with a moan of pain.
When the flap to the tent was closed and zipped, Blair and Irami were left alone in the sweltering darkness. With no windows, the only light that entered filtered through the canvas. Irami sank to the dirt floor and stared morosely at the closed flap.
"What do they want with me?" he asked softly. "I do not understand."
Blair crawled over to lie beside the boy. Every inch of his body hurt. Certainly, there were broken ribs; each breath was torture. He could only hope that there was no internal bleeding. Each and every cut burned like hot needles carved into his skin. Blair closed his eyes as he curled up on his side. Through the red haze of his pain, he could hear the guards talking outside, but their conversation was focused around that night's poker game and provided no useful information. He soon gave up the effort of listening. Blair reached for the canteen and removed the top, gratefully sipping the tepid water.
The water helped sooth his dry throat. He considered using some of it to cleanse his wounds but immediately discarded the idea. He would have to preserve it for Irami to drink; it could be days before they were given more. "They're drug dealers, Irami," he replied at last, capping the canteen again and laying it carefully beside them.
The boy looked uncertain. "Drugs? What does this mean?"
Once again, Blair was struck by the differences between cultures. The Chopec used the plants of the rainforest as medicinal tools and for certain ceremonial reasons. They had no concept of illegal narcotics. Cautiously rolling to his back, resolutely ignoring the stabs of pain that resulted from the movement, Blair looked up at the boy and tried to explain. "These men use the plants here to make... strong potions. These are not used to heal, and they make many people in our land sick. It is against our...tribal laws...to have these potions. Those who make them and sell them to our people can make much money. Do you understand?"
After long consideration, Irami nodded. "Do they want me to make these potions?"
Blair smiled briefly, then winced at the pain that stung his cut lip. "No. Our...tribal elders...will punish these men if they are caught. They want you to listen...to watch...to use your senses to warn them if anyone is coming. They want you to be their watchman so they can sell their potions for money."
The dark blue eyes flashed with anger. "I will not do this! A watchman helps his people, not strangers who do wrong." His voice became quieter. "They cannot make me, can they, Ankaree?"
Blair felt an overwhelming helplessness. How could he keep these men from forcing Irami to do their dirty work? He had no doubt that their leader, the man with the ugly scar, would kill the boy if he refused. His own beating left little room for doubt.
Before Blair could answer, Irami spoke up quietly. "It is all right, Ankaree. I think I understand. They will kill us both if I refuse?"
For one so young, he understood perfectly, Blair thought bitterly. "I'm afraid so."
"Then I would rather die!" the young sentinel declared in a loud voice. He glared at the door as though challenging anyone on the outside to argue with his decision.
"No," Blair disagreed quietly. "You are too important, Irami. The Chopec need you; Aramika needs you." Not to mention the fact that you're Jim's legacy.
At his words, Irami fell silent, and Blair could tell the boy accepted his answer.
"Then we will wait for Enquiri and the Chopec warriors to come for us," Irami answered firmly.
Blair closed his eyes wearily. His head hurt, every breath was an ordeal, and his heart might as well have ceased beating hours before for all the emotion he felt now. All that was left was a gaping emptiness, an aching, gnawing hole in his gut. Too weary to open his eyes, he just shook his head and said quietly, "Enquiri won't be coming for us. That dart they used was tipped with poison. He has terrible reactions. He couldn't have survived. Maybe the Chopec will come for us, but Enquiri is...." The words were stuck behind the huge lump in Blair's throat. Swallowing hard, he ignored the tear falling down his cheek. "Jim is gone."
Blair didn't open his eyes when he felt the young sentinel move closer to him, but he was grateful for the smaller hand that crept over to cover his.
"I am sorry, Ankaree," the boy whispered. "I am sorry."
"Enquiri?" The voice called again through the mist, this time a bit louder. "Enquiri!"
It hurt. Everything hurt. Yet he couldn't ignore that persistent voice summoning him. Slowly, deliberately, Jim Ellison opened his eyes.
All that was revealed was a blur. The swimming, swirling images immediately brought on a severe attack of nausea, and Jim leaned over to empty his stomach. Lying back, panting and dripping with perspiration, he once more tried to focus his vision. Dial it back. Slowly take down everything but sight...concentrate on seeing who the hell is calling your name. Everything else can wait. Finally, the blurriness cleared enough for a form to take shape, and then another, standing directly behind it. Imaru and Acana. Their faces lined with fatigue, their dark eyes filled with concern, the two Chopec watched Jim struggle for awareness.
Imaru spoke rapidly in Chopec, but Jim couldn't understand more than a word or two. What the hell's going on? Why can't I understand?
When Acana's lips moved, but no sound emerged, Jim realized his hearing was so far below normal levels that he couldn't hear a sound. Slowly, cautiously, he dialed it back up.
"....the poison in your body." Acana stopped watching Ellison curiously. "Enquiri? Did you hear me?"
Jim rubbed his head and winced at the stabbing pain the movement caused. Once more, he fought back the nausea. "What happened? Why...?" Even those words took too much effort, and he fell silent, staring up at the Chopec and waiting.
Imaru nodded and Acana began again.
"You were shot with a poison dart. A Chopec dart. The poison attacked you quickly. It might have killed you, Enquiri, but Imaru was close by. He gave you powerful medicine to stop the poison in your body."
His mind was too muddled. None of that made sense. Why would a Chopec attack him? He had been at the waterfall, hadn't he? Alone? No. There had been others. Sandburg, and just before everything went black, Irami.
Forcing the words past his thick tongue, Jim murmured, "Sandburg...?"
The two men exchanged glances. Watching their faces, Jim felt his heart constrict. He managed to ask hoarsely, "Where is he?"
Acana looked again at the old shaman. Imaru spoke a few short phrases, then the younger Chopec translated.
"The bad men have taken Ankaree away. They have also taken Irami. We are ashamed to speak of this, Enquiri, but two Chopec led them to Irami, and they hurt you." Acana looked at the floor, ashamed. "It was my brother, Incana, and one of his friends. The same two who betrayed you when you were last here."
It all began to make sense. It had been Acana's brother and his friend who had told General Kershaw where to find him in the Temple when Blair had found him after the second helicopter crash in Peru three years before. The Chopec had punished the two men with banishment from the tribe. Obviously, their greed had been more powerful than their fear of further punishment. So powerful they had even betrayed their own sentinel.
Seeing the distress in the eyes of the weak man lying on the makeshift bed of soft leaves, Acana added softly, "They will never betray their people again, Enquiri."
Jim did not have to ask for an explanation. The last time, three years before, it had been Jim that Incana and his cohorts had betrayed. This time, it had been his own people. In Chopec society, to betray the tribe was an act leading to certain death. He really didn't want Acana to have to explain how his brother had been executed.
Jim rasped, "Sandburg...? Irami...? Alive...?"
"The men took them through the jungle. Our warriors have tracked them to a camp. It is a place of the bad medicines, Enquiri. Drugs...? Is this the word?"
Feeling the anger rising within him, Jim nodded silently. Drug runners. The rest wasn't difficult to piece together. Two traitors. A boy with heightened senses, easily overwhelmed by force. It was a smuggler's dream. And Blair? Maybe the Chopec had told them of a sentinel's need for a guide. Or perhaps, they'd just taken Sandburg along as a second hostage. The reason really was of no importance.
All that mattered was finding them and getting them out safely.
He tried to sit up, making it less than halfway before the pain in his head and a severe cramping in his abdomen drove him back to the green leaf mat. Cursing under his breath, Jim curled up on his side in an attempt to ease the spasms in his midsection, his eyes clinched tight against the pain. "Imaru...make...it stop."
One warm, gnarled hand rested gently on his brow. A flow of Chopec was followed by Acana's translation. "The poison is working its way out of your body. Imaru has given you herbs to help speed the cleansing, but this will take time." His voice grew softer. "That poison was enough to have killed you easily, Enquiri. Do not rush the healing." Opening his eyes enough to see their faces, Jim managed to rasp a few more words. "Someone...watching?
It was enough for his meaning to be clear. Acana nodded. "We have found where they hide. Three warriors watch their camp. Ankaree and Irami still live." Glancing at the old shaman, he asked a question in Chopec, then waited for the answer. He smiled at Imaru's words. "Perhaps by tomorrow you will be well enough to get up. Until then, rest, Enquiri. We will watch your anamari for you."
In the meantime, Sandburg was held captive by drug dealers who thought nothing of taking a life to further their own interests. Moaning in frustration, Jim weakly pounded his fist against the earth. As he drifted into oblivion once more, he sent a mental message to his guide. Hang in there, Chief. I'll get you out, I promise. Don't you give up on me.
Amazing how cold nights can get in a tropical rainforest. Blair shivered on the hard ground, drawing himself tighter into a small ball, resolutely ignoring the pain the movement caused. He glanced at Irami, lying on the opposite side of the tent. The boy, apparently more used to the chilly nights, slept comfortably.
Blair flipped to his back in frustration. It wasn't only the cold and the hurt in his body keeping him awake. Time after time, the images played through his mind like a bad movie. Jim...the poison-tipped dart dangling from his shoulder...his hands clenching in spasms of pain...his unmoving body being cruelly kicked.
It would be dawn soon.
They would come for Irami, expecting the boy to demonstrate his abilities. Had he convinced the young sentinel to play along, to humor these men until help could arrive? Could he keep their captor's wrath focused on him rather than Irami until the warriors found a way to rescue them? He had no doubt that the Chopec would try. They were too proud a people not to try. These men had stolen one of their own, a prized member of their tribe. Of course, they would attempt a rescue. The only question was...how the hell could they succeed?
Blair had seen the arsenal of weapons in the camp, and he knew with a frightening certainty that there were scores more not in direct view. While the Chopec were mighty warriors, how could their arrows and darts compete with automatic weapons? They had no experience dealing with men like these.
All in all, the future looked too damn dim for comfort. Breathing a shuddering sigh, Blair carefully turned back on his side and waited with dread for the dawn.
Jim was awake long before the first rays of the sun found their way through the myriad of branches and leaves sheltering the Chopec tribe's camp. He sat up slowly, cautiously waiting to see if the vicious headache and nauseating dizziness would return. Except for a deep fatigue, he felt fine. He took a few steps, then was stopped by a hand on his arm.
"You are feeling stronger, Enquiri?"
Jim turned slowly to face Acana. The Chopec looked concerned as he studied Jim for any sign of weakness. Checking himself to be certain his game face was firmly in place, Jim replied, "I'm fine. Can you take me to see the camp where Sandburg and Irami are being held?" His steady blue eyes held neither fatigue nor uncertainty.
There was not a single crack in the sentinel's facade of strength. Reluctantly, Acana agreed. "I can take you there. Our warriors have been watching it all night." Gesturing toward the jungle, Acana added, "It is a long walk, Enquiri. Are you certain you are strong enough?"
Without hesitation, Jim Ellison turned and headed in the direction Acana had indicated. "I'm sure. We're wasting time. Let's move."
They slipped in beside the three Chopec warriors who had watched the drug-runners' camp all night long. Acana spoke quickly to the older of the four men, then turned to Jim. "He says that it has been quiet. No one has left and no new faces were seen."
Cold blue eyes moved slowly, taking in every feature of the small clearing and its tents. "Where are they holding Sandburg and Irami?" He waited as Acana talked to the Chopec. While he could have understood their conversation if he had paid close attention, it was a more important use of his time to evaluate the enemy's stronghold.
Acana finished discussing the situation and nodded toward the camp. "They are in the tent on the far right side of the clearing. The guard walks around the tent to make certain they have not escaped."
Jim didn't answer. Automatically, he had slipped into his covert-ops mindset. There was a mission at hand, a vital mission, and he was its leader. There was no time for pleasantries, no room for any thoughts other than those necessary to plan and carry out his mission. All else was superfluous.
His calculating gaze scoured the camp. One guard outside Sandburg's tent. Two more patrolling the perimeter. At least seven other men coming and going from the largest of the five tents. Perhaps the lab? Jim's sentinel sight focused on the weapons carried by each man. Definitely well armed. Automatic weapons and plenty of ammo, and those were only the weapons he could see. There was no way to predict how much firepower was stashed in those tents.
Jim stretched out his hearing, trying to pick up on the sound of Blair's voice. There was a loud buzzing as a sharp pain shot through his head, and he immediately dialed back his sense of hearing. Must be a leftover effect from the chemicals used on the poisonous dart. He'd had similar reactions to medicines before. He could only hope his hearing would return to normal soon. Normal for a sentinel anyway.
A tall, dark haired man strolled slowly across the compound accompanied by a shorter man who was gesturing with animated excitement. Jim's eyes narrowed as he looked closely at the face of the taller of the two.
His analytical mind flipped back through the pages of wanted bulletins Major Crimes regularly received from law enforcement agencies across the country. Mentally, he searched each page until he found the face before him now.
The son of a wealthy Brazilian businessman and his beautiful American wife. Abandoned the family business to go into a far more lucrative and risky venture of his own. Salazar was one of the most active drug suppliers operating out of South America. He was rumored to have labs set up throughout the jungles of Peru and Bolivia, peppering the pristine forests with his tents and hired guns.
Jim searched his memory for more. The scar....
Salazar had received his scar in a knife fight with his father. The elder Salazar had sliced open his son's face just before Ramon stuck his knife into his father's abdomen, leaving Roberto Salazar to bleed to death on his own kitchen floor, stuck like a pig at the slaughter. Hence the nickname appearing on his Wanted poster.
Salazar had fled the U.S. that very evening, slipping onto his private jet and taking off only seconds ahead of the police.
Despite the humidity of the jungle, Jim felt a chill creep up his spine.
Ramon Salazar was ruthless, and it was that stone-cold killer who had Blair and Irami.
But why was the man out here in the middle of the steaming jungle? Not the sort of duty most drug lords chose for themselves, not with these primitive living conditions. Why the hell was Salazar himself here?
There was only one answer. Jim realized without a doubt that his first instincts had been correct. Salazar had found out about Irami, and perhaps Jim as well, and he was here to capture what he must perceive as the ultimate detection weapon. With a sentinel to guard his shipments, there might be no limits to the heights his business could attain. He had ordered Jim killed to protect himself from pursuit by the older, more powerful sentinel. Of the two of them, Irami was definitely the wiser choice.
And Sandburg? Why had he been spared in the attack?
If the Chopecs who had betrayed Irami had told Salazar enough about sentinels, he might have taken the opportunity to capture a guide as well. Jim smiled a little as he thought that Salazar just might have captured a hell of a lot more than he bargained for when he took Blair Sandburg along.
Jim turned toward Acana, realizing that the younger man had asked him a question.
"What will we do?"
There was a long silence as the sentinel stared into Acana's dark brown eyes. When he answered, Jim's voice was as cold and determined as his steely eyes. "We're going to go in there and get them out. Are you and the others with me?" He waited for the Chopec's response.
Jim watched as Acana looked back at the camp. Ellison knew that the shaman had seen the guns, and he realized that Acana understood the damage the weapons could do. The Chopec had never been able to defeat the strangers with guns before. Yet Jim knew the power of his own position among these people. In their eyes, he was both a sentinel and a legend. Jim knew that he would have the unwavering support of both the Chopec and their shaman. He could only hope he would be worthy of their trust.
"We will be with you, Enquiri." Acana's face was calm and certain. "You tell us what to do, and we will do it. Irami and Ankaree belong back with their people."
Turning his gaze back to the lone tent at the edge of the drug lord's camp, Jim said softly, "Yes, they do, Acana. Yes, they do."
Ideas rolled through his mind in waves. Jim calmly evaluated first one, then the next, abandoning some immediately, keeping others to work with. Eventually, he nodded in satisfaction and smiled. Turning his eyes from the tents, Jim looked at Acana. "Go back to your camp. Bring Aramika to me."
Blair and Irami had dozed fitfully throughout the long, hot day. There was little else to do. Blade had not sent for them again. Perhaps he was trying to wear down their resistance through isolation.
Through the fog of sleep, Blair heard small moans of pain from across the tent. Immediately, his eyes flew open. "Irami? Are you all right?"
Blair called again, but when no response was heard, he began to crawl painfully across the tent, collapsing next to the young sentinel.
The boy's eyes were screwed up in pain, and his fists were clenched tightly. It was a familiar sight for the guide.
"Irami? Is it your senses?" Blair kept his voice soft and low.
There was a quick nod from the boy. "Yes...too...much...noise." His voice was weak from fear and pain.
"It's all right," Blair hastened to reassure him. "I know what's happening to you. Your senses are still developing, Irami, and sometimes they get out of control. I can help you, if you'll let me."
Whispering, the young sentinel asked desperately, "Did you...help...Enquiri...?"
Smiling at the memories, Blair nodded. "Yes. He had problems just like this. I learned to help him. Will you listen and do as I say?"
There was no hesitation. "Yes...please...help me."
Blair Sandburg settled himself beside the boy, resting a gentle hand on his back and began rubbing soothing circles. He closed his eyes, and let himself slip into the familiar tones of the guide. "You have to let go now...let go of the pain...of the sounds all around you. Focus only on my voice. That's it. Filter out all other sounds until you hear only me." The soft murmurings continued as the sun slipped across the sky.
Gradually, the lines of pain on Irami's face eased and he slipped into the restful arms of sleep.
"That's it, Jim," Blair whispered, close to exhaustion now, emotionally and physically. "Trust me...." Collapsing to the dirt floor, Blair lost consciousness at last.
The Chopec girl knelt beside Jim. Her wide brown eyes turned up to him uncertainly. "Enquiri?" she softly asked. "You asked for me?"
Jim tested his hearing once more before answering Aramika and smiled at the result. He could hear the sounds of the individual insects as they swept through the surrounding air. The sounds of the leaves waving in the slight breeze were as clear to him as his name whispered in his own ear. His senses were fully back on line.
He called out toward the camp, "Irami? Irami? It is Enquiri. Do you hear me?"
Jim waited for a response, his head cocked slightly to one side. Only the sounds of the forest blended with those from the drug runners' camp. He could hear Sandburg and Irami talking quietly in their tent, but there was no indication that the young sentinel had heard his voice. For a few moments, he listened to the comforting sound of Blair's voice. At least Sandburg was alive. Now, if he could just get him out safely.
Telling Irami about basketball. Jim smiled as he listened to his friend's detailed explanation of a three point shot. I don't know how much of this Irami's understanding, but at least you're keeping him focused, Chief. Hang in there, kiddo. I'll be there soon.
Dialing back his hearing, Jim sat back and wrapped his arms around his knees as he studied the face of the young girl before him. She looked serious, concerned and worried. Why shouldn't she be? Aramika had only accepted her role as Irami's guide in the last day, and now, her sentinel had been captured. Still a child, she must have no idea how to go about her new role as protector and guide.
"Aramika," Jim said steadily. "I need your help to reach Irami."
Her brown nose wrinkled in confusion. "My help?"
"I've tried calling to Irami. I know his senses are powerful enough for him to be able to hear me, but I haven't heard him answer me." Seeing the worry flash in her eyes, Jim hastened to reassure her. "They're both all right, Aramika. I can hear both Irami and Sandb...Ankaree...in that tent. See the last one over there?" He pointed to the tent where they were being held. "They're fine. Irami's abilities must not be controlled enough yet for him to pick out my voice above all the ones he's hearing in the camp. That's where you come in."
"What can I do?" The girl looked from the tent back to Jim.
Jim leaned forward and stared intently into Aramika's dark eyes. "Call to him. He may be able to distinguish your voice. You are Irami's guide, Aramika. The one closest to his heart. He will always hear your voice no matter how far away he goes. I know what I'm talking about." Jim's blue eyes softened. "Trust me on this one, okay?"
The experience in Jim's blue eyes held hers. For several long moments, Aramika did not speak as she looked into those eyes. Then, she reached out and covered Jim's hand with her own. "Do not worry, Enquiri," she said softly. "Irami will hear me. We will get them out. Together."
They had awakened an hour earlier, both feeling slightly refreshed from their sleep. Irami's senses were back under his control, but Blair could tell the boy remained frightened of their situation.
"You'd love the Jags," Sandburg explained to the boy, trying to distract him. "They're tall, man. I mean really tall." He gestured to the highest point of the tent. "Up to there and more." Blair smiled at the disbelief in the boy's eyes. The Chopec weren't known for reaching the heights of basketball players.
"This cannot be," Irami argued. "Men do not reach the height of..."
Suddenly, the boy fell silent, staring at the wall of the tent as if he could see through it to the jungle beyond. His dark, blue eyes were wide, and his head tilted slightly to one side.
Immediately recognizing the familiar stance, Blair fell silent. He'd asked Irami several times what he could hear in the camp around them, but the boy normally just shrugged. The usual, he'd explain, with little elaboration. Plans were being made to move a shipment within a day or two. Talk of home, of money to be made. Talk of guns and drugs.
This was different. Something had caught Irami's complete attention, and he listened raptly. After a few minutes, the boy nodded, and a wide smile brightened his face. He turned to Blair excitedly.
"I can hear Aramika!"
In spite of the deep sorrow still gripping his heart at the loss of Jim, Blair smiled. "She is your guide," he said simply. "You will always hear her." He swallowed past the huge lump in his throat. There was no sentinel to hear his voice now; no one to follow him back from the abyss of a zone out. The interlude with Irami had merely been illusion. He was not Irami's guide. His own sentinel was gone.
Forcing himself to think beyond his personal loss, Blair asked, "What did she say?"
Deep blue eyes shone with hope. "They are coming for us! Aramika said that tonight, long after the darkness has arrived, we are to be ready. When we hear the third whistle, it will be safe to leave this place. We are to run into the forest, then back to the Chopec. The warriors will protect us."
How? Blair wondered. How can their weapons compete against the guns these guys have? For a moment, he considered questioning the boy in more depth, arguing against the wisdom of trusting such a plan. The Chopec couldn't know what they were up against. They'd had no experience against this kind of armed resistance.
But he remained silent. If the Chopec managed to create any kind of diversion at all, Blair knew he could get Irami into the protection of the jungle's sheltering arms. From there, the boy could easily find his way back to the safety of his people. With any luck, there'd be just enough time before a bullet found its mark and cut him down. They wouldn't risk harming Irami, of that he was certain. Not as long as there was still a chance the boy could prove useful for them. As for himself, it no longer mattered.
Blair smiled bitterly. It was an amazingly free feeling, no longer caring about one's own future, one's own survival. It made the task at hand so much easier. It had been only yesterday when the thought of such a dangerous undertaking would have sent cold chills of fear through his body, a time when his own life had been important. A time when he actually cared if he lived or died.
All that had changed with the death of his sentinel. When Jim's hand had clinched so violently, then slowly released, in that final, desperate spasm, Blair's universe had imploded. In a few short hours, his final obligation to his friend would be complete. Irami would be safe. Aramika would stand at his side at last as his chosen guide. Whether Blair Sandburg lived to see it or not was inconsequential.
He would get Irami out safely, even if his own life was forfeited in the attempt.
It was a small price to pay, and Blair would pay it willingly and without fear.
Seeing the question in the concerned blue eyes, so like his father's, Blair smiled. A real smile, with no trace of doubt or fear. "You're going home, Irami. I promise. In a few hours, you'll be back home."
Night was quickly falling. Jim went through his mental checklist for the hundredth time, meticulously ticking off each item in exact order of occurrence and necessity.
All warriors briefed...plenty of arrows, blowguns, darts, and spears - all tipped with deadly poison...camouflage paint carefully applied...signals for 'attack' and 'withdraw' arranged and clearly understood...Acana assigned to find Irami and escort him quickly away...Amarika safely back in the camp, awaiting the return of her sentinel.
The plan was brilliant in its simplicity. The Chopec were outgunned, but they were definitely not outmanned. They were in their own territory, and they had the element of surprise on their side. Jim had no doubt that this scheme would work. The fact that he was in Peru was the biggest advantage he had in planning his strategy.
It didn't matter that not one of the drug runners would come out of this alive. There was no need to try to ensure that lives were not lost unless absolutely necessary. Here, in the jungle, he could plan the mission with only one iron-clad rule in mind - Sandburg and Irami must not be hurt.
It was time to move into position.
Every warrior in the Chopec camp carried his carefully constructed weapon. Each bore the paint of warfare proudly, ready to die to defend his people, to reclaim what had been taken from them.
Jim Ellison looked every inch the soldier, and at the same time, a pure tribal sentinel. Shirtless, his bare skin bore the dark paint designed to make him invisible in the jungle. His face was nearly black, only the blue of his eyes marking him as an outsider to this wild land. His dark green camouflage pants were tucked into his worn boots, and a bandana was tied around his forehead. He never smiled, and his eyes were hard, cold, and calculating.
Jim was in his element. The aura that surrounded the big man was one of confidence, of power. This was what he had been trained to do, what the government of the United States had invested years and thousands of dollars teaching him to be. A professional soldier, a trained and proficient killer. A man loyal to the core to what he believed in and to those he loved.
Swung across his back was a quiver of poisoned-tipped arrows. Tied to his hip with a leather thong, a knife. He carried his crossbow, as deadly a weapon in Jim's hands as his police issue revolver.
The sentinel was ready.
Taking one final look around the Chopec camp, Jim nodded to the warriors, and they slipped into the night.
By three in the morning, they already had been in position for hours. Nearly thirty men, all Chopec and one, lone American, waited in absolute silence in the thick of the jungle surrounding the camp of their enemy.
They had waited patiently for the middle of the night to arrive. This was the time when most of the camp would be soundly asleep, oblivious to the threat awaiting them in the rainforest.
Not a single warrior slept. Their black eyes pierced the darkness, watching, as they listened for the single, long whistle that would signal the beginning of their attack.
When it came, there was no great charge into battle.
Instead, one by one, the warriors crept silently closer to the camp, until they were only steps away from its perimeter.
The five guards on duty heard nothing.
Another whistle, indistinguishable to the untrained ear from the cacophony of animal sounds that filled the night air. As if shot from a single blowgun, five darts sang through the air to find their targets, imbedding themselves into soft skin with ease.
The guards fell to the ground silently, dropping like flies hit with a potent insecticide. The poison Imaru had delivered worked efficiently. They didn't have time to scream before the paralysis immobilized them and death began to claim their souls.
While the guards were attacked and died, other Chopec slipped into the tents where the rest of the men were sleeping. Spears and arrows found their marks, and more hearts ceased beating.
The sentinel stalked his prey. He had claimed the final target for himself.
Salazar's tent was in the middle of the camp, and he was its lone occupant. Jim slipped through the flap, crossbow drawn and ready.
Outside, he heard the third whistle and smiled. Only a few moments and Blair and Irami would be safe. It was now time for him to carry out his personal mission.
Blade Salazar slept peacefully. The Chopec had done their jobs well. He had never heard a sound as all around him, his men perished one by one.
Salazar's startled eyes flew open, and the man half rose on his cot, staring at the intruder before him. "How did you...?"
Jim's cold voice brought the movement to a sudden halt. "Go ahead. Give me a reason." Ellison's unwavering eyes held Salazar's, daring him to move. The crossbow was steady, trained on its target. For long moments, neither man moved.
"You should have died, my friend. Instead, here you are." Salazar smiled broadly. "It is just as well. One word from me, and my guards will be upon you in an instant. Then, you can witness the death I have planned for that hippie, the one they say is your friend. I grow tired of his insolence."
Jim's eyes blazed with hatred, and his hand drew back on the bow.
If Salazar noticed, he gave no sign. He spoke casually, almost lazily. "I think a slow death would suit him, don't you think? Very slow, and very painful. You will enjoy the show, I am sure." Salazar smiled tolerantly. "I've had time to do a little research in the last twenty-four hours or so. My people back in the states have uncovered some very interesting information about you. Amazing what you can come up with based only upon the name on an airline ticket."
Salazar chuckled in appreciation of his own deviousness. "I understand you are a cop, Mr. Ellison. I am no immediate threat to you." He spread his hands wide. "You will not shoot me, not in cold blood. I will whistle. My men will come. You will watch your friend die."
Jim had his reason.
Salazar's piercing whistle echoed through the silent camp. He looked first curious, then alarmed as no one entered the tent. His puzzled eyes turned back to Jim, then grew wide with horror as he saw the arrow release to speed toward him. Its sharp point sank into soft, pliant flesh, and Blade Salazar collapsed backwards on the cot, already dead. The cocked gun fell to the ground from his limp fingers.
Jim moved to stand over the body. He picked up the gun, stared at it for a moment, then stuck it into his waistband. I should have heard him take that damn thing out and cock it, Jim thought absently. Maybe an aftereffect of that poison in my system. Gotta remember to talk to Sandburg about that. The sentinel left the tent without a second thought and disappeared into the darkness.
When they heard the second whistle, Irami and Blair turned to look at each other. "Almost time to move," Sandburg said softly. "You ready?"
The boy nodded calmly.
"Good. As soon as we clear the tent, run toward the forest. No matter what happens, don't stop. Do you understand me?" Piercing blue eyes bored into blue. "Do not stop. No matter what you see or hear. Got that?"
Irami's voice was certain. "I understand, Ankaree. You will be right behind me?"
The third whistle cut through the night air.
Blair nodded, hoping the doubt he felt about his making it to the protection of the jungle wasn't showing in his eyes. "Right behind you. Let's go!"
They tore out of the tent like rabbits from hounds. As they ran, Blair listened for the sounds of gunfire. Nothing.
What the hell...?
Blair fought to ignore the searing pain radiating throughout his body. There would be time enough to collapse when Irami had reached the safety of the jungle. For now, the violent spasms in his gut, and the pounding of his head would have to wait.
They reached the perimeter of the camp and almost dove into the undergrowth. Blair shouted to Irami, "Keep going! Get to the camp!"
He kept running blindly until he was sure the boy was safely on his way, then Blair slowed to a staggering walk. He ducked behind a huge tree and waited, struggling to control his labored breathing. He expected to hear someone pursuing them, their abductors searching the forest for their escaped prisoners.
He leaned hard against the tree, grimacing at the hot fire burning in his chest. Damned ribs! he cursed inwardly.
After a few minutes, Blair crept slowly from his hiding place. He knew Jim would probably kill him for what he was about to do, but then, Jim wasn't there.
He walked cautiously back toward the drug lab.
Still, he heard no sounds of life. What the hell had just happened?
Something touched him on the shoulder, and his heart pounded desperately in fear.
"No!" he cried, jerking away violently. Even seeing the vine dangling beside his shoulder and swaying from his own terrified response didn't ease his fear. Not stopping to think which way he should go, Blair tore off through the jungle, running at full speed. He threw frightened glances back over his shoulder, straining to see if he was being pursued.
He never saw the puzzled face of the Chopec warrior behind him.
As he glanced back for the third time, he bumped hard into something blocking his path.
Something strong...and unmoving...and warm... and...
Blair's frightened eyes darted upward and his mouth opened to scream. As his eyes took in the face smiling down at him, the scream turned into a half-sob.
"Jim!" Blair's voice caught in his throat at the sudden shock of seeing his friend alive.
Gentle hands caught his shoulders, supporting him as his knees threatened to give way. Even in the darkness and through the dark camouflage paint, Jim's smile and warm, blue eyes tore at his heart.
"Hey, Chief. Slow down, kiddo. Don't you know you could get hurt running through the jungle in the dark like that?"
"Jim?" Wide, wild eyes stared upward in disbelief. "Oh, man... I thought..." Panting a little from his terrified run, Blair's voice broke. "I thought you were dead." Suddenly, realization swept over him, and Blair threw himself forward and into Jim's arms. "Oh, God, Jim! I saw that dart hit you, and you fell, and he kicked you, and you didn't move... and..."
The tears of relief were falling now, almost as fast as the words. "Your hands...they were clutching at the ground...then...they...stopped...and I thought... you were...dead."
As soon as Blair reached for him, Jim's strong arms wrapped around his friend, anchoring his shaking body close to his own. Bending down to whisper through the disheveled curls covering Blair's ear, Jim whispered, "Shhhhh....Blair, it's okay. I'm right here. Easy...easy." One of Jim's hands found its way into the thick curls, at first gently stroking, then burying itself there in the tangled mass to press Blair's head tightly against his neck.
The sentinel could feel Blair's galloping heart pounding against his own chest. The kid had been terrified, in shock and grieving, then suddenly, he ran smack into the partner he'd thought was dead. Blair hadn't realized that he had survived. No wonder he was nearly hysterical.
Jim felt the arms around him tighten spasmodically, as if Sandburg was afraid Jim might vanish right before his eyes. "It's okay, Chief," he reassured him softly. "I'm not going anywhere. It's all over. Shhhh...." Jim brushed his lips against the side of Blair's face once, then again, feeling the coarseness of his prickly beard and tasting the salty flavor of sweat mingled with the musky tang of fear. Even as he comforted his guide, Jim's heart swelled with relief. It had been far too close this time, for both of them. He gathered the younger man even closer and rested his cheek against the top of his tangled hair, nuzzling him gently as he murmured reassurances again and again.
At last, the shock seemed to subside, and Blair grew calmer in Jim's arms. Ellison made no move to disengage himself from his friend's embrace. He stood patiently, more than willing to hold his partner as long as Blair needed the physical reassurance that Jim really was alive and that the nightmare was over.
From the undergrowth surrounding them peered several sets of concerned, dark eyes. They watched only long enough to reassure themselves that all was well with watchman and anamari, then they slipped silently through the dark jungle toward their kinsmen.
The sentinel heard their approach, but he recognized them immediately by scent and sound. He did not acknowledge them when they arrived. When they departed a few moments later, the sentinel spoke not a word. His cheek still resting atop his guide's head, he only smiled at the loyalty of these friends and their show of silent concern.
Finally, long after the last Chopec had vanished into the night, Blair pulled back a little, just enough to look up into Jim's face. "You're really okay?"
Jim felt his breath catch at the sight of the dark bruises and cuts on his friend's face. What the hell did that bastard do to him? Releasing Blair with one hand, Jim wiped away the blood trickling down from a cut on the younger man's forehead. Not a bad cut, compared to the rest of damage done; probably ran into a branch as he was fleeing the camp. Yet at the moment, the sight of that fresh blood running over Blair's bruised face nearly broke Jim's heart. If Salazar hadn't already been dead, Jim would have certainly killed him now.
He forced a smile at the obvious concern in Sandburg's eyes. "I'm fine, Chief." He wrapped his arm back around Blair's shoulders and pulled him gently into his embrace again, wincing at the heat from the deep bruises against his sensitive skin. "I was out of it for a while, but thanks to Imaru and his medicine, I pulled through." After a moment he breathed, "I'm sorry."
Against his chest, Blair's voice was muffled as he shook his head in denial. "For what? Scaring me half to death? That's really okay, man. I mean, it was so not cool thinking you were dead, and then, there you were, and..."
Ellison cut him off. "Not that, Darwin." He patted Blair's back gently. "Would you shut up and listen for a second?"
Jim waited until Blair nodded and was once again still in his arms, then he continued. "I had Aramika talk to Irami and explain our plan. I never asked her to let you know I was alive. I guess I just assumed you'd know." His voice grew rough with emotion. "I'm sorry I let you go so long, thinking..." Jim stopped for a moment and swallowed hard, as vivid images of the pain his guide must have been feeling suddenly made speech impossible. "I'm so sorry, Blair," he murmured helplessly.
"It's okay, man. Really." Blair chuckled, the sound soft and his breath warm on Jim's skin. "You had a lot on your mind at the time. Besides, I'm your guide. I'm supposed to know these things, right?"
Ellison laughed softly. "You're good, Sandburg, but you're not that good. You had your hands full trying to protect Irami. I think I know what you did - drawing Salazar's attention and anger away from him and toward you." Jim's voice grew serious, and he hugged Blair hard for a long moment. "You kept him alive, Chief. Thank you for that. I'm just grateful you didn't get yourself killed doing it."
Blair didn't answer. He only nodded and returned the tight embrace.
Both men stood in silence, thankful for their reunion.
It was dawn in the jungle. One by one, the night predators retreated, and the creatures of the light appeared. Slowly, the sounds changed, modulating from the cries and howls of the nocturnal to the more subdued squawks and calls of the diurnal. The smells were altered as well, as the dusky, dark odors of night were replaced with the brighter, crisper scents that daylight brings. Within minutes, the temperature began to rise along with the sun, and soon the forest's familiar humidity returned.
With the heat of the day, sentinel and guide felt exhaustion quickly catching up with them. Taking a step back from his friend, Blair took a long breath, releasing it slowly. A wince of pain contorted his face as he exhaled. "Jim? Can we start back? I really think I could sleep now."
Tenderly, the sentinel led his exhausted guide through the jungle, one protective arm wrapped over his shoulders to hold him close and keep him safe. Around them, the jungle was slowly coming alive in the heat of the day. Behind them lay death. Before them was the safety of the tribe and home.
By the time they made it to the temple, it was obvious to Jim that Sandburg was past the point of exhaustion. When they reached the steep, gray stone walls rising from the jungle floor, Blair sighed, the longing in his face unmistakable.
Jim shifted his arm on his guide's shoulders, wary of the ugly purple bruises and the glaring cuts. "What's wrong, Chief? Are you in more pain?" His concerned blue eyes tried to read his friend's facial expression.
As tired as he was, Blair forced a smile. "No. Still hurts, but no worse. I was just thinking how cool it would be in the temple. How quiet. Do you think...?"
Jim finished the sentence. "...that we could stay there for a while?" He considered for a moment. "I don't see why not. You need to rest and having a roof over our heads for a few nights might be a good thing. When Acana and Imaru come looking for us, I'm sure they'd check here." Seeing the relief in Blair's eyes, he smiled. "C'mon, Chief. Let's go inside and check out our accommodations for the evening."
Outside, the rainforest air hung hot and humid. A nearly constant cacophony of noise pierced the heavy air.
Inside, the temple was dark and cool. A peaceful silence reigned.
Jim had left Blair inside for a short time while he went to gather leaves and grasses with which to construct comfortable bedding. He applied his sentinel eyesight and knowledge of the jungle to select only the softest and freshest foliage. Once this pile was waiting outside the temple, Jim turned his attention to gathering fruit and berries to provide them with nourishment. The bounty of the rainforest yielded a veritable smorgasbord. Jim gathered what he could carry, then took the food and bedding inside the temple.
His eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness, and when he could see clearly once more, his heart constricted almost painfully at the sight before him.
Sandburg lay curled beside the pool where they had experienced their visions three years before. One hand lay tucked beneath his head, the other curled up beside his face, the fist loosely open. His hair, wild and disheveled, draped over his shoulders and back in a protective cocoon. Even in the dark temple, Jim could see too clearly the bruises and cuts that marred Blair's skin, covering his face, back, and sides in a cruel patchwork design.
Moving silently so as not to awaken the sleeping man, Jim knelt beside him. The trained medic merged with the concerned sentinel, and he slowly began his inspection of the damage inflicted upon his guide.
Sandburg's respiratory system had been an eternal concern ever since the nightmare of the fountain. Jim let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding when he determined that Blair's lungs sounded strong and clear.
Thank God for small favors.
Next, he let his eyes scan the skin for cuts that might show signs of infection. Jim's eyes darkened with rage as his vivid imagination summoned up images of Ramon Salazar - Blade - calmly slicing open Blair's flesh. He had to stop for a moment, clenching his fists in anger. Jim lowered his head and closed his eyes against the vision. He took several deep breaths, reminding himself that it was over. Salazar was dead; Blair was alive. Nothing else mattered. Opening his eyes, Jim resumed his deliberate examination of the cuts. Fortunately, they all appeared to have scabbed over cleanly.
Another bullet dodged.
Jim's hands as they skimmed over Blair's body were unbelievably gentle, barely touching the surface as he searched for the tell-tale heat which would signal the danger of a broken bone or more serious internal injury. He didn't remember when he had realized he had this ability to give an injured person at least a cursory, and fairly accurate, evaluation. He only knew that it had come in handy on too many occasions with his partner.
Sensitive fingers glided over chest, abdomen, sides and back, searching, testing, and probing so gently that the sleeping man never stirred. Two broken ribs. There was not much he could do about those. The younger man was deeply bruised, and the cuts would be painful for several more days. The damaged ribs he couldn't help. Blair would have to tolerate that pain until they healed.
Satisfied that Blair had sustained no major injuries, Jim left his friend's side and began preparing a more comfortable place for them to rest.
By the time he had finished, Blair was moaning softly in his sleep, shifting restlessly on the hard stone floor. Jim knelt beside him, laying a gentle hand on his bare shoulder.
"Chief? Wake up, buddy." He squeezed firmly and shook the shoulder a little. "Blair? C'mon, kiddo. Wake up for me, okay?"
Eyelids fluttered open to reveal deep blue eyes, slightly confused at having awakened in a strange place. "Jim?" Sandburg's gaze locked onto Jim's face. "Where...?"
Reaching a supportive hand behind Sandburg's back, Jim eased him to a sitting position. "We're in the temple, Chief. You thought it would be good to rest here for a while. Remember?"
His blue eyes squinted slightly in confusion. "Honestly? No." Blair looked around at their darkened surroundings. Jim had lighted two torches, and they cast a warm glow to the gray stone walls. The air was still cool, however, compared to the muggy forest outside, but not too cool for comfort. He nodded in approval. "It's nice. Cool and dark." He patted the hard, stone floor beside him. "Not the most comfortable bed I've ever had, though."
Jim grinned at him and motioned toward the back wall of the temple at two piles of soft leaves and grasses. "Some things I can fix, Darwin. Don't you know that by now?" Lending his friend a hand, he hoisted Blair to his feet, frowning at the grimace of pain the motion caused. "You okay, Chief?"
Holding his ribs, Blair managed an encouraging half smile. "Been worse, man. Most definitely been worse."
After a light meal of fruit and sweet berries, Jim slept fitfully, awakening frequently to monitor Blair's breathing and lay a sensitive hand on his forehead. The third time Jim checked, the younger man seemed to be running a low-grade fever. "Sandburg," he muttered fondly. "What am I going to do with you?" Removing the bandana from around his head, Jim dipped it into a bowl of water he'd brought from the nearby stream. He began to lightly wipe his guide's face and neck.
Nearly an hour later, Jim was satisfied that the fever had been reduced to near normal, and he laid down again to try to rest. He must have dozed for a time, because when he awakened, it was already dusk. Then he realized what had awakened him. In the distance, Jim heard the softly padding footsteps as they approached the temple. Two sets. Definitely coming closer. Quietly, without awakening Blair, he left his bed and crept silently out the door
He stared through the leaves of the understory surrounding the ancient temple, combining sight with hearing to get a fix on the intruders' location. He found them almost immediately...
...and broke into a wide smile.
Imaru and Acana stepped into the temple clearing.
"Enquiri!" Acana called his greeting, running forward to meet the sentinel.
Jim jogged down the temple steps. "It didn't take long for you two to locate us."
Acana grinned sheepishly. "We have known where you are all day. Imaru thought it best to allow you to rest. We wanted only to see if you needed anything before the night comes."
Jim glanced back at the temple door, his eyes darkening with concern. "Imaru, Ankaree is injured. His ribs...here... He was beaten pretty badly, and the man cut him all over." Jim gestured to his own ribs to indicate the area of the most serious injury.
Acana translated, and the reply from the ancient shaman was quick. "Imaru says that he can help." The Chopec's voice was respectful as he asked, "May we enter the Temple of Watchmen and Anamari?"
Jim realized that the asking of permission was a necessary formality. While a sentinel used the temple, it was considered off limits to other Chopec, Imaru had explained on their last visit. Granting his immediate consent, Jim led the way inside.
The old man knelt easily on the stone floor beside Sandburg's leafy bed. Jim crouched beside him, one hand resting lightly on Blair's leg. The younger man stirred as Imaru touched his ribs, and his eyes slowly opened. Blair gazed around until he found Jim's face and immediately calmed.
"It's okay, Chief," Ellison reassured him with a smile. "Imaru thinks he can help the pain from those cracked ribs. I think you should let him try."
Jim hoped that a lifetime of experience with alternative medicine and Blair's experiences living among other cultures would help his friend to trust Imaru. It was enough. Blair nodded his assent.
From the soft leather pouch worn on a soft leather thong at Imaru's waist came a variety of powders. Each one was wrapped in leather and tied with a small strip of tanned leather. Imaru talked constantly as he worked with Acana translating.
"These are the gifts of the ancestors. Only the shaman can know how to make such powerful medicine. I was taught by my father who was taught by his father before him. I have no son to teach the magic of the plants, but Acana is learning in place of my son. He will one day become shaman of our people."
"It is good that you have chosen this place to rest. It is your right. This is the part of the ceremony of joining that you missed many seasons ago. The newly-joined watchman and his anamari stay within the temple for five days and five nights. During this time, words that must be said are spoken, and the joining is complete. On the sixth day, they emerge to take their place once more among the tribe. Because of the evil men, you were denied this opportunity. It is right that you do this now."
Holding out a mixture of the powders in a small cup carved from a coconut, Imaru smiled. He nodded at Acana, who produced water from a tanned leather pouch and mixed it with the powders, then handed the cup to Jim.
"Sentinel, heal thy guide."
The light from the torches flickered against the carvings in the ancient stone walls, casting dancing shadows over the four men. Jim held Imaru's eyes for a long moment, reading in their dark depths the importance of this symbolic gesture. As in most things the Chopec did, there was a deeper meaning here. Instinctively, the sentinel knew that more might be healed through this ritual than Sandburg's physical pains.
He took the cup from Acana, his face set in stone. Turning away from shaman and protégé, Jim faced his guide.
Blair watched him with wide eyes, filled with curiosity and wonder in spite of the pain he was in. For an instant, Jim could imagine him quipping, "You sure you know what you're doing here, man?", but the younger man remained silent. Like his sentinel, Blair seemed caught up in the solemnity of the moment. He was perfectly still as he waited for Jim, his complete trust shining from his eyes.
Jim Ellison held the cup before Blair's face, yet he did not move it closer for him to drink. Suddenly, he felt the weight of his responsibility for the younger man crash down on him all at once, and with it, the stunning power that came from knowing that here was the one person on the face of the earth destined to be beside him for the rest of his life. There was something more to be done here, something left to heal between them. But what was it?
As he gazed into Sandburg's patient eyes, a memory fluttered across Jim's mind.
*"NO...Jim! I'm sorry!"*
The shadowy memory refused to offer more. *You cried out those words as I lay on the banks of the pond, slowly losing consciousness, didn't you, Chief? But why? What were you sorry for?*
Blair's eyes never wandered, remaining locked with Jim's as the sentinel searched his heart for understanding.
*You make the world think you're the most confident guy in the world, don't you? All lighthearted banter and a smile that can make the worst day a whole lot better. But I know you have doubts. Still. Even after everything you saw here three years ago, even after all we've been through, you're still afraid of letting me down, aren't you, Chief?*
Jim's powerful eyes stared harder into Sandburg's, probing each of the dozen shades of blue, gazing into the twin mirrors of his best friend's soul. Without warning, the truth of his revelation swept home to him, washing over him in a powerful tide.
*That's it, isn't it? The same old fear. That you won't be everything I need, that you'll somehow let me down. That one day, you'll make the fatal mistake that will take my life. Well, Sandburg, you're wrong. This ends. Here. Now.*
Jim clasped the cup between both his hands, looking down into its liquid depths. Somehow, it seemed too simple to hope that this simple act would heal the old, festering wounds Sandburg had been plagued with for so very long. Yet, he trusted the wisdom of the old shaman implicitly. He had witnessed too much in this jungle not to trust.
He carefully set the cup on the floor beside him. Looking up, Jim captured the trusting blue eyes once more. Then, he laid claim to what had always been his as he took Blair's face in his hands. "Chief. When you get right down to it, we're both a couple of stubborn fools. I've doubted you so many times, and it has nearly destroyed us both more than once. But that ended here three years ago, and you know that. I could no more doubt you now than I could doubt that the sun will rise in the morning. I thought you'd put your doubts aside, too, Chief, but that hasn't completely happened, has it?"
For the first time, Blair looked down, breaking the powerful visual connection between them. With a near growl, Jim gently forced his head upward until their eyes were once again locked. Then, Jim grinned affectionately and patted Blair's cheek as he shook his head.
"You're amazing, Sandburg. You can talk for hours about my insecurities, my fears, but when it comes to your own..." The broad smile slowly faded. "I heard you. You said that you were sorry. Those were the last words I heard before I lost consciousness. What if they had been the last words I ever heard you say? Not exactly my idea of a memorable goodbye, Chief." He grinned a little at the image, in spite of himself, then once more grew serious.
"You didn't do anything wrong. Not one damned thing. There was absolutely nothing you could have done that would have stopped what happened at that river. Nothing. Got that?"
When no answer came, Jim shrugged. "I don't know what the future will bring. I may catch a bullet next month, or I could die in one of my infamous car crashes. I don't have a clue. But I do know one thing, as surely as I know my own name, and that is that you would have nothing at all to do with it. You'd die for me, Blair, just as I would for you. That's all we can do, and it's more than I have a right to ask or expect. Whether or not we are given the chance to make that sacrifice isn't in our hands. I just know you can't keep blaming yourself whenever anything happens to me."
Still cupping Blair's face, Jim could see the almost desperate need to believe his words reflected clearly in the wide blue eyes. "Chief, you've gotta let go of this fear that one day you're not going to be enough, that eventually you're gonna screw up, and I'm going to die because of it." Jim chuckled softly. "Yeah, I know. I'm a fine one to give that kind of advice - Blessed Protector that I am - but it's true...for me as well as for you."
He looked around the temple, shaking his head in genuine amazement. "Who we are...what we've become together...you know I can't even begin to comprehend it all." His gaze returned to Blair's face. "Then again, sometimes it seems the simplest, most natural thing in the world. I think part of what we're here to learn this time is to let go. To let go of the fear. I think you've got to do that, Blair, in order for us to keep growing stronger."
After a moment, Jim let his hands fall. Picking up the coconut cup, Jim held the healing liquid to his guide's lips and nodded in approval as the younger man drank.
When Blair had finished, Jim passed the cup to Acana. Leaning forward, he bent to rest his forehead lightly against Blair's and whispered, "You're all I need. It's true, Chief. Believe it, okay? Let go of that fear you've carried around since the first day we met. Release it. For me, but mostly for yourself. Please."
He felt the slight nod, then Blair's arms came around his shoulders. Slowly, carefully, Jim drew Blair to him. Freed of the burden he had carried so long, the younger man relaxed against his friend, cradled in his powerful arms. Within minutes, he was asleep.
His cheek resting on Blair's head, Jim turned slightly to gaze solemnly at Imaru. "Thank you," he said as the old man smiled knowingly.
Acana helped the shaman rise to his feet and together they left the temple.
Gently, Jim eased Sandburg down to lie on the soft leaf bed. For the first time since Jim had found him, the younger man appeared almost free of pain, both physically and spiritually.
The healing was nearly complete at last.
As the darkness lay over the rainforest, the guide slept. At his side, the sentinel stood watch.
As tradition dictated, for five days sentinel and guide remained apart and alone in the temple. It was a time of rest, both for tired bodies and exhausted spirits, a time of healing, both physically and emotionally. Food was brought and left near the doorway - fresh water and fruit and berries and nuts.
Blair slept much of the time, his healing body granted at last the rest that it craved.
Knowing the Chopec warriors were nearby, just out of sight, watching and guarding, Jim Ellison was able to relax. The effects of the dart's powerful medicine lingered still. He found himself weaker than he would have liked to admit, and the time in the temple gave his body the chance to heal. He also slept, heavily at times, without dreams of either Cascade or the jungle. Deep, dreamless sleeps that rested his mind as much as his body.
When they were both awake, they talked, not of the events of the past few days or of the painful events in their past, but of the watchmen and anamari of old. Surrounded as they were by the mute stone testimony to the Chopec's ancient culture, it would have been nearly impossible not to speak of the ancient traditions of the past.
As the dim light from the temple's doorway cast its soft light on the carvings and pictographs, sentinel and guide reflected on those who had come before. Instinctively, Jim knew they had one last healing to complete, one final demon to put to rest. He waited for his friend to find the right moment for that healing to take place.
On their final night in the temple, the time finally arrived.
Blair gazed up at the wall before him. Reaching out, he traced the symbol he recognized well as that of the anamari. His fingertips skimmed lightly over every etched line as his blue eyes grew thoughtful. "I wish...." he said wistfully.
From his seat beside their small fire, Jim Ellison waited, knowing from that moment on, he must proceed cautiously. When his partner didn't continue, he prompted gently, "Wish what, Chief?" He leaned back against the cold temple wall, automatically dialing back his sense of touch so that the chill never reached him at all.
Blair sighed, then pressed his left hand flat over the etched symbol. "I've got the fact that I may not always be able to protect you, Jim. That it just isn't possible for me to give more than I'm already willing to give. I understand that, man. But...." He ran the fingers of his right hand through his hair. "I just wish that...that I understood all that they must have. The anamari...the shamans...who came before me. All Incacha did...all Imaru does. I've tried, man, you know that. I just haven't had the training...the background that a shaman needs, and...."
Jim's firm voice interrupted him. "I don't need you to be my shaman, Chief."
The younger man turned around slowly, the firelight casting flickering flames across his face. "But that's who I'm supposed to be, Jim. Incacha said that...."
"I know what he said. He was wrong." Jim was pleased at his own demeanor. Calm. Certain. Controlled.
Blair's eyes widened in surprise. "Wrong? Incacha was a powerful shaman, Jim. He knew more about sentinels than I'll ever know, and he...."
"Was wrong." Jim calmly finished. His light blue eyes glistened in the warm light of the fire as he waited patiently for the question he knew would follow.
Blair eased carefully down to the floor across the fire from his friend. "Would you care to explain that conclusion, Jim?"
"Sure." Ellison crossed his feet in front of him and gestured around the temple walls. "This was Incacha's world. All the mysticism...the rituals...the shaman thing...it was right for him. It worked for him here...in this place."
Jim paused for a few moments, letting his words sink in. The final healing Blair needed was almost complete. Physically and emotionally, his friend was much better. The echoes of the haunting apology screamed at the river had nearly faded away. Only one shadow remained. That damned shaman role thrust upon Sandburg by the dying Incacha so long ago. Somehow, Blair remained convinced that he should have all the answers, be the font of understanding and knowledge for every question, every problem, his sentinel faced.
Jim Ellison wanted to banish that shadow of doubt as well. Forever.
"We're not of this place, Chief. Being here in the temple, sure, it's been healing for us, but we don't belong here. We're of a different world, a world as foreign and alien to Imaru as the planet Mars would be to us. We have to live in our world, and Imaru has to live in his. What works for him here doesn't necessarily work for us back in Cascade."
Jim studied Blair carefully. He was listening, weighing Jim's words seriously. Taking advantage of Blair's apparent openness to what he was saying, Jim continued. "We have to find our own way, Blair. I think the truths revealed to you on your vision quest were much closer to our reality. I do need you to help interpret the visions I sometimes have." He shrugged. "If that's being a shaman... fine...you're my shaman. I just don't need all the other stuff...all the rituals and mysticism that go along with the role of shaman here in Peru."
Jim nodded toward the intricate carvings behind Blair's head. "We're not them, Chief. Maybe that's part of what we're supposed to figure out during this five day thing. What our own path is. Where it's leading us." Jim paused as an idea occurred to him. "Who's in this partnership anyway?"
Serious blue eyes locked with his across the fire. For long moments, there was only silence. "You. Me." Sandburg answered softly at last.
Jim was patient, leading Blair as he might a child, guiding him toward the conclusion he wanted him to reach. "Anyone else? Incacha? Imaru? Irami?"
Blair shook his head, understanding slowly dawning in his eyes. "No. Just ... us."
Jim smiled gently. "That's right, kiddo. You and me. Us. No one else. Sure, it's important to learn about other sentinels...and other guides. That's your job, and I know the things you learn help me, even in ways I don't always understand. I respect your knowledge. But everything that worked for them just won't work for us. It can't. Different worlds...different people."
Jim tossed a small stick into the fire and watched it smolder, then catch fire and burn. "The way I see it, we have to learn what we can from them, use what works for us, and leave the rest alone. There are no rules here. None except the ones we create for ourselves."
Blair smiled at last. "Rules? We have rules?"
"Yeah. Lots of them. House rules. Cop rules. Friendship rules. Sentinel and guide rules."
Blair's voice was only half-teasing as he said, "The house rules, I definitely know. The cop rules, too. What are the friendship rules?"
Serious now, Jim asked, "What do you think they are?"
Blair kicked at a piece of wood lying beside the fire pit. He didn't answer for a long time. At last, still staring at the fire, he answered, "I can only think of one. Trust each other. Is that it?"
Nodding, Jim still didn't smile. "Right. And the sentinel/guide rules?"
Blair looked up, meeting Jim's eyes. "Same one, right? Trust." He cocked his head slightly to the side as Jim nodded his agreement. "Do you trust me, Jim?" His voice was weighted with emotion, heavy with the fear that the answer wouldn't be the one he needed to hear or that he would hear...something...in Jim's voice that would keep his doubt alive.
*Even after all this time, Sandburg still doubts me. Maybe some ghosts never disappear completely. All right, Chief. If it takes a lifetime, I'll prove it to you.*
"Do I trust you? Yes. Unwaveringly. Absolutely. Unconditionally." He stared hard into Sandburg's eyes. "With my senses...and my life, Chief. With all that I am." His gaze never wavered. "And you? Didn't Imaru speak of our destiny to you? Do you remember the words you told me he spoke?"
Quietly, Jim repeated the shaman's words as Blair had repeated them to him. "You have been all Enquiri needs from the instant you were born. You were destined to be together from the moment you each drew first breath. Do not doubt your role, Ankaree. It is simple. Without you, the sentinel would not survive. Without him, you would die. This is the way of sentinels and guides. Accept your place in his life, and his in yours. You are all he needs, all he will ever need. Is he not all that you require as well?"
Slowly, a smile teased at Blair's lips. "I remember, and I trust you, man. After all, who am I to argue with destiny?"
The next morning, they returned to the Chopec camp.
Blair hadn't known exactly what to expect upon their arrival. With the Chopec, each major event had its accompanying ritual, its rites to be followed. He and Jim had at last completed the final stage of their joining ceremony, more than three years in the making. It had not been an easy bond to forge. First, even before the formal ceremony had begun, there had come the realization that one could never be complete without the other, that in order to thrive, they must learn to exist together as one. Next, had been born a deep empathy and understanding. Finally, in this stage of the process, there came absolute trust.
After such a monumental achievement, it made sense that there would be some formalized ritual to welcome them back to the tribe.
As the two friends made their way into the camp, few of the Chopec acknowledged their arrival. Some of the women looked up from the daily tasks and smiled; a few of the old men nodded in greeting, and the children waved from across the camp where they were engrossed in a game of hide and seek.
Jim poked him good-naturedly in the ribs. "What's the matter, Sandburg? Expecting a ticker tape parade?"
Realizing that his dismay had been evident, Blair grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, man. I just figured there'd be some kind of greeting, y'know? I mean, we just completed a pretty important ritual, and...."
He was interrupted by the approach of Acana and Imaru. The two Chopec greeted them with wide smiles. Leading Jim and Blair over to one side of the camp, Acana informed them of all that had transpired in the five days of their isolation.
Acana had made a trip to the neighboring tribe and the missionary, Sister Angelina. Through her contacts, a message was sent to law enforcement officials describing where to find the drug lab and the bodies. They had arrived the next day, seizing everything in the blood-soaked clearing as evidence and taking away the dead.
As Acana spoke, Blair was secretly relieved not to have to be brought into the situation. Acana and Imaru had thought it best to leave it as a Chopec matter. One of their own had been taken, not to mention two visiting friends of the tribe. The men responsible had been eliminated. Simple. Those in authority were used to the law of the jungle. No questions had been asked.
And none would be in the future.
That particular nightmare was over.
Acana's face grew brighter as he described the plans for the coming days. Aramika had officially accepted Irami's invitation to become his anamari. The joining ceremonies would commence the next day.
Blair grinned with pleasure at the news. Apparently Irami's close call with the drug dealers had not changed Aramika's mind. Jim's son would have his chosen guide. Blair's smile faded, however, with Jim's words.
"Then it's time for us to go, Chief."
"What?" Blair's surprise was obvious. "What do you mean it's time for us to go? This is an important event, Jim. It's not every day a new sentinel and guide are joined."
"Exactly my point." Both men gazed across the camp to where Irami and Aramika stood together, apart from the other young people at play. Already, their roles had set them apart from others their age. Blair had a feeling that the boy was listening to each word they spoke, and from the look on Jim's face as he watched his son, the sentinel knew it, too.
"This is Irami's time, Chief. I don't belong here tomorrow. Irami needs to go through this transition without the shadow of...Enquiri...falling over him. I'm not their sentinel anymore. It's time for me...for us...to go home and allow Irami to take his place as the sentinel of the Chopec." Jim turned toward Blair. "Does that make sense?"
Looking into those blue eyes, he understood completely. Blair smiled softly. "Yeah, man, it makes perfect sense. You're a pretty sensitive guy after all, Ellison."
Jim cuffed the back of his head. "Just don't let that get around, Sandburg. I've got a reputation to uphold, you know."
As the dawn's first glow filtered through the dense leaves of the canopy, Jim and Blair were ready to leave. Their goodbyes had all been said the night before, although Sandburg had disappeared with Acana and Imaru for much of the evening. When he'd returned to his mat beside the fire, Blair had been strangely quiet, a small, secretive smile teasing his lips. No amount of prying from his persistent partner had been able to coax any information out of him.
As they stood for the last time at the edge of the Chopec camp, Jim felt a stab of regret. He was leaving behind so much here. A tribe that understood and respected him for his abilities...the memories of a woman loved and lost...a son he would never truly know. Yet, as much as this place held for him, it was not his home. That waited far away to the north...in Cascade.
Blair pressed his hand to the small of Jim's back. He didn't speak, but his closeness delivered clearly the silent message. I'm here, Jim.
From across the clearing, Irami and Aramika approached. Irami stood straight and tall, a proud young man ready to accept his destiny, Aramika close at his side. Her eyes were calm, dark pools; she seemed completely at ease in her new role as anamari.
Acana slipped from the jungle, old Imaru close behind. The four Chopec stopped in front of Jim and Blair, waiting.
Imaru spoke a few words as Acana translated.
"What tokens do you leave to the new watchman and anamari?"
Jim looked down at Blair, confused. His uncertainty grew as his partner reached into the pocket of his khakis and withdrew a small leather pouch. "We offer these as tokens of our respect and as acceptance of Irami and Aramika as the new watchman and anamari of the Chopec tribe."
Jim whispered, "What's going on here, Chief?"
Smiling, Blair shook his head. "Just follow my lead, Jim."
Opening the soft leather drawstrings, Blair reached into the pouch and withdrew its contents, concealing them in his fist. As he spoke, Acana translated his words in Chopec for the gathering crowd that had appeared around them.
Blair turned to face the tribe. "Several years ago, the powerful shaman, Incacha, came to our city. He came to right a great wrong, to bring to Chopec justice the evil men who tried to destroy this land. Unfortunately, Incacha met his death in the Great City. Before he died, he left with Enquiri a gift, the pendants of sentinel and anamari. These pendants had been worn by the watchmen of your tribe and their guides for many generations." He clasped the pendant worn around his neck. "Incacha gave these pendants to Enquiri, to the sentinel he had taught and brought into your tribe."
Turning, Blair looked up at Jim Ellison and reached out to touch the pendant lying against his friend's chest. "We have worn these gifts proudly. They remind us of the magnitude of the charge we have been given - to protect our own tribe. To protect each other. They remind us of the bond we share, of the wonder of our friendship." He moved his hand from the pendant to Jim's bicep and squeezed it firmly before turning once more to face the Chopec.
"I spoke last night to Imaru. I told him that I didn't believe it was right for us to take the pendants and their great significance away from the Chopec on the eve of their receiving a new sentinel. I wanted to give Incacha's gift back to the Chopec."
There was a low hum among the people. Once a gift was given, it was considered an insult to return it. Could Enquiri and his anamari insult the Chopec in such a way?
Blair hurried on. "Acana pointed out that Incacha had carved upon the pendants our spirit animals. These pendants could no longer be worn by others. They were now and forever ours. And he was right."
Holding out his fist, Blair slowly uncurled his fingers. Dangling from his hand were two freshly carved pendants on their new leather thongs. "We worked late into the evening last night carving new pendants for a new sentinel and guide." Blair held one of the pendants out to Jim.
Following his guide's lead, Jim took the leather thong and approached Irami. He glanced down at the stone in his hand as his friend continued.
"Carved upon their surface are the images from the ancient temple - the images of the sentinel..." he nodded toward Jim's pendant, "...and guide." Blair held up his own pendant. "The backs are empty right now. One day, perhaps Irami and Aramika will recognize their own spirit animals and wish to carve their likenesses there. Or maybe they'll find a new image, one that is meaningful to them, for that place."
Reaching out, Blair placed the pendant around Aramika's slim neck. "I give you your pendant, Aramika. It is the visible symbol of what you were born to be. I've already spoken to you of the great rewards of this path you have chosen, and of the great sacrifices it may require. I have no great words of wisdom to leave with you. Only my wish that the joys will always outweigh the sacrifices, as they have with me." Blair lightly kissed the top of the girl's head. "Be happy, Aramika."
Jim gazed into the dark blue eyes of his son. The young man bent his head as Jim placed the leather thong around his neck. Jim rested his hands upon the already muscular shoulders. "Once, I was Enquiri, the sentinel of the Chopec. I stood alone here. If not for Incacha, I would have had no control over my senses. I would have been useless to the tribe."
Jim looked over to Aramika and smiled before turning his eyes back to Irami. "The image on your pendants is not of a single figure standing alone. It is not of either sentinel or guide. It is of both. Re-member that, Irami. You cannot do this alone. You need your anamari. You need Aramika in order to become the sentinel you are destined to be. Ankaree would tell you that I am a man of few words, and today is no exception. I have no great words to leave with you. Only this. Trust each other. Always and completely."
Their eyes locked for a long minute before Jim's hands dropped from his son's shoulders. The young sentinel nodded slowly. "I understand, Enquiri." He grasped the pendant in one fist. "Thank you, my father."
For another moment, Jim stared down into Irami's eyes, then he straightened his shoulders as his jaw clenched almost imperceptibly. Without another word, he turned toward the jungle and gathered Sandburg to his side with a single glance.
Sentinel and guide looked back toward the gathered tribe as they stepped into the shadows of the rainforest. Aramika's hand was raised in farewell, and her smile trembled a little. Irami stood straight and tall, so much like Jim, only his eyes revealing the emotion in his heart. As one, Jim and Blair turned away from the Chopec and toward the jungle. A few strides more, and they were gone.
The first leg of the flight back to Cascade was spent mainly in silence. It wasn't that either Blair or Jim felt uncomfortable discussing the events of their journey. It was more that each man felt the need to internalize what he had experienced.
Blair felt a strange sense of displacement and wondered if Jim felt the same way. Only a few hours before, they had been in the rainforest among the Chopec, a tribe whose members still considered writing a letter 'powerful magic'. Now they were aboard a 747, racing across the night sky at hundreds of miles per hour, heading home. The man across the aisle busily typed on his laptop. A teenager in the row ahead wearing headphones bounced slightly to the rhythm of the music on his portable CD player. Probably, the huge jet was flying on autopilot, allowing its pilots a bit of rest on their long flight.
He had experienced it all dozens of times. Tonight, however, it all seemed a bit unreal, like a moment misplaced and out of time.
Blair glanced over at his companion. Jim looked majorly uncomfortable, his long legs cramped in the small space between his seat and the back of the seat in front of him.
Ellison caught his look and smiled at him. Despite his discomfort, Jim looked more relaxed than Blair had seen him in months. Being back among the Chopec seemed to center the sentinel somehow. Blair knew it wouldn't be long after they resumed their nonstop Cascade lives that the lines of worry would reappear, etched onto Jim's chiseled features like the ancient petroglyphs in back in the temple. The mantle of responsibility for protecting the tribe that was Cascade lay heavy upon those broad shoulders.
"Seems kinda strange, doesn't it, Chief?"
Not surprised really that Jim Ellison had experienced the same reaction to their return to civilization, Blair nodded. "Sometimes I wonder who is really the more civilized. Us, with our high tech contraptions and the stress, heart attacks, and ulcers that go along with life in the 21st century, or the Chopec, living as one with nature, free and unburdened with the responsibilities that weigh us down every day." Blair stared out the window at the darkness beyond.
"I don't know, Chief. I don't guess there's an answer to that. Do you think you'd want to give up your world for theirs? You could, you know."
Blair turned back to stare at his partner. "What? Live with the Chopec?"
Now that the words were out, Jim was unsure how to call them back. Damn it. When would he learn to keep his mouth shut? The sentinel shrugged. Might as well finish what he'd started. "Sure. Why not? I know you could get a grant or something. Go down there to study. Write a few papers. You'd be welcomed, you know. The Cho-pec consider you as much a part of the tribe now as I am." He hesitated, then added, "Is that something you'd want to do?"
In spite of his efforts to mask it, Jim was certain that at least some of his concern was obvious. Blair had sacrificed so much of his career in order to remain with him. He'd always been a free spirit, always been fascinated by the exotic and faraway. Maybe he really would like to chuck it all and live for a time in the remote Peruvian rainforest among the Chopec. Jim didn't really want to consider that possibility, but Blair's earlier observation now had him worried.
Sandburg rested his head against the back of his seat and looked thoughtful as he stared straight ahead at the seat back in front of him. "There was a time when that would have been a no-brainer. I would have jumped at the chance."
"And now?" Jim prompted, ambivalent about hearing his reply.
Blair's eyes closed and a smile tugged the corners of his mouth upward. "That was then. This is now. I've got a whole other life, man. Other responsibilities, an entirely new focus. And that's cool. Really."
Jim leaned back and shut his eyes, taking a long, deep breath in relief. As he slowly relaxed, Blair's whispered words rang clearly in his sentinel's ears.
"Hey, Jim. When are you going to accept the fact that I'm not going anywhere, huh? Face it, man. You're stuck with me."
Jim didn't open his eyes, and the words he wanted to say couldn't seem to find their way past the tightness in his throat. He settled for reaching over and giving Sandburg's hand a gentle squeeze.
"It's okay, man," Sandburg said softly, his voice drowsy. "It's okay."
Resting at last, they both dozed as the jet thundered on into the night.
The plane touched down for its layover at the small airport outside Oaxaca, Mexico. Jim reached over and shook his companion's shoulder. "Chief. Wake up." There was only an annoyed groan, and Blair jerked his shoulder away only to curl up again, this time facing the window to his left.
Grinning, Jim grasped the shoulder again, shaking harder this time. "Sandburg, wake up. We're here."
Sleep-laden blue eyes slowly blinked open in confusion. Glancing out the window, he saw the golden red light of dawn as the jet taxied to the tiny terminal. "Here? Where's here? I may be a little muddled, Jim, but those palm trees tell me this definitely is not Washington state." The plane slowed to a halt, and the fasten seat belts sign blinked off. Along with most of the other passengers, Jim Ellison stood up and began gathering his duffel from the overhead compartment. "Brilliant detective work, Darwin. This is Mexico. Grab your stuff and let's move out."
Awake now, but no less confused, Blair unbuckled his seat belt and joined Jim in the aisle. "Mind letting me in on the mystery, Jim? What the hell are we doing in Mexico?"
Jim's mouth curled upward in a full-fledged, blinding grin. "A little vacation, Chief. We told Simon this could take...what...a couple of weeks? We were done in a few days. So, I figure even if we take four or five more days, we're still back early. I've got the time built up, so...." If possible, Jim's grin grew broader at the delight slowing dawning in Sandburg's eyes. Tugging gently on one long curl, he pulled Blair's duffel down with his other hand. "We're officially on vacation, kid. Let's move."
Over the next few days, the hot sun combined with the constant music of the waves to lull sentinel and guide into a state of absolute relaxation. Jim had tucked his wristwatch into a side pocket of his duffel as soon as they checked into their hotel and vowed never to look at it again the entire trip. For five full days, he intended to do nothing more than walk on the beach, eat fresh seafood, and spend time with Sandburg.
He kept his promise.
Even Blair, normally filled with energy and stamina, found himself affected by their tropical environs. With each passing hour, he grew calmer, more relaxed and mellow, as if by abandoning the street clothes he'd donned for their landing in Cascade, he'd also left behind all thoughts of Rainier, Major Crimes, his research, and the myriad of other thoughts normally swirling around in his agile mind. Dressed only in a pair of cut off jeans and old Nikes, his hair tumbling wildly around his shoulders, Blair Sandburg looked and acted like a man totally relaxed and at peace after only two days in the Mexican sun. Even his cuts and bruises were disappearing rapidly into his tanned, brown skin.
At peace. That was the perfect description for Sandburg at that moment, Jim realized as he studied his friend from the corner of his eye. Blair's heart rate was slow and steady, his breathing calm and relaxed. Remembering how stressed he had been at the close of the semester, Jim smiled in satisfaction. He might have interfered with Blair's plans for the first couple of weeks of his vacation, but at least he'd made a wise decision in stopping off here on their way home. A few days of R&R; exactly what they had both needed.
The moon rose round and full over the ocean. It painted the swells with touches of sparkling silver, and cast a thousand diamonds at their feet as it reflected off tiny flakes of mica in the sand. A sea breeze cooled the tropical air, and palm fronds swayed rhythmically to the wind's cadence. Some moments you wished could be captured forever, Jim reflected, and this was one of those magical, perfect moments.
They were sitting beneath a palm tree, watching the moonrise. It had been hours since they'd spoken, neither man feeling the need for words. Jim smiled softly as he thought about how they had each taken on some of the attributes of the other during their long, close friendship. There had been a time when Blair would have chafed under such an extended silence, needing to fill the emptiness with chatter. Years at Jim Ellison's side had taught the younger man the value of quietness, given him an appreciation of a friendship comfortable in its silences. Just as he's taught me to open up, to express my feelings, Jim reflected.
The sentinel became aware of his friend's eyes upon him. Without turning his gaze from the dazzling moonbeams dancing on the water, he said quietly, "Penny for your thoughts, Chief."
Sandburg waited a long minute before answering. "I was just wondering.... Nah, never mind. None of my business anyway."
Patiently, Jim pointed out, "We agreed a long time ago not to keep secrets, didn't we? Anything you want to know...ask."
No more secrets. That had been their agreement so many years before, right after the nearly back-to-back fiascoes of the fountain and dissertation. If their partnership was to survive, they had agreed, there had to be openness between them, complete trust and understanding. Trust. Hadn't that been the whole point of the time in the temple?
"Yeah. I know. You're right, man. I just...." Blair ran a hand through his wind-blown hair and kicked at the sand with his bare toes. "I wondered if you have any regrets, that's all. About Irami. I mean, you've got a son, man. Don't you...I don't know...wish you could be with him? Watch him grow?"
Jim sat in silence, staring out at the sea. Finally, he said softly, "You told me that was impossible, Chief. That Irami belongs to the Chopec, that he would never be at home in Cascade, could never adjust to life there. I believe that. I know it's true. How can I regret something that could never be?"
Blair nodded slowly...sadly. "Guess we just weren't meant for families, were we, Jim? I mean, Naomi's always half a world away, and my track record with the ladies...." He chuckled almost bitterly. "Let's just say I don't have a very good batting average in that department."
For the first time, Jim turned to look at his friend. Blair's blue eyes were misty with a soul-deep sadness. Jim reminded him, "You're young, Sandburg. You've got plenty of time to meet the right lady and settle down." Smiling tightly he added, "As for me, I've tried marriage once. I just don't think I'm cut out for it." Elbowing Blair gently in the ribs, he teased, "Besides, I've just managed to housebreak you, Chief. Barely. I don't think I'd have the patience to start all over with a wife." Turning serious again, he asked, "Do you want to get married one day? Start a family?"
Blair shrugged. "I used to think so. For sure. But I'm almost thirty-five now. Most of my friends are married with a couple of kids. I don't know. Somehow, it just doesn't seem as important anymore. I'm not ruling it out, of course, but...." His voice trailed off.
They sat again in silence, staring out at the moonlight streaming over the ocean waves. Over-head, the stars twinkled and danced in slow, well-rehearsed patterns across the midnight blue sky.
"What did Burton's research say about the lives of sentinels and guides, Chief?" Jim asked unex-pectedly.
"What? About marriage you mean?" When Jim nodded his affirmation, he cocked his head thoughtfully. "Nothing, really. He didn't write about the personal relationships, except of course to say that every watchman had a partner, his guide, to watch his back, to protect him and help him control his senses. Other than that, no mention of a sentinel's family."
"So Burton was the kind to leave out important facts about a subject important to him?" Jim waited, hoping the younger man would follow where he was leading him. He wasn't disappointed.
"Of course not!" Blair replied indignantly. "Burton's notes and observations were meticulous. He documented all his hypotheses as thoroughly as possible at the time. He just...didn't mention sentinels' families, that's all." Blair ended his tirade slightly less forcefully, the look on his face suddenly thoughtful.
"What does that tell you, Darwin?" Jim asked gently, reaching over to tap Blair on the temple.
Sandburg sat quietly for a long time before answering. "He devotes full paragraphs to describing how a watchman's partner...his anamari... is the most important person in his life. He doesn't even mention families." Blair turned to look up at Jim. "You think Burton's implying that for a sentinel, his guide is his family?"
"And vice versa," Jim agreed. "We are a family, Blair. Just not a traditional one." He looked into the blue eyes gazing into his own, eyes turned as deep blue as the midnight sky and sparkling now with glimmers of moonlight. "Of course, I'm no anthropologist or scientist. I could be wrong." The corners of Jim's mouth twitched with a barely restrained smile as he waited for his friend's response.
Blair's face remained serious, and his words were laden with emotion. "You're ... not wrong, Jim. Us family. Yeah, that works." His face broke into a wide grin and he added, "After all, who am I to argue with the great Richard Burton? Or the great Jim Ellison?"
Shaking his head, Jim chuckled, "'The great Jim Ellison'. I like the sound of that. Just don't you forget it, kid."
They stood up, Blair still moving cautiously to protect his tender ribs. Jim watched him in concern. "You okay?"
"Fine. Just a bit sore still. Whatever it was Imaru gave you for me to drink, it really helped." They began walking slowly toward the water. "Man, if there was just more research money to discover all the healing properties of the plants of the rainforest. There's no telling what cures are just waiting there for us to find. Instead, the logging companies cut hundreds of acres every day, destroying countless species and...."
"Shut up, Chief," Jim said kindly as they reached the water's edge. "Look...out there. Right off where the moonlight hits the water." He leaned down close to Blair, wrapping one arm around his shoulders as he pointed toward a spot in the ocean. "Watch now, Blair."
Suddenly, a giant, gray shape lunged out of the water, looming high above the moon-touched sea. It arched in the air, suspended for what seemed an eternity before gravity claimed it, and the whale returned to the sea with a mighty splash. The sound broke the night's silence for an instant, then, just as quickly, the quiet returned, leaving only the sound of the wind and the waves.
Beneath his arm, Jim felt Blair shudder as the whale impacted the sea. Concerned, he quickly checked his partner's breathing and heart rate, only to find both elevated beyond normal limits. Jim opened his mouth, but the gentle pressure of Blair's fingers on his lips stopped his words.
His friend shook his head. Blair's blue eyes were filled with a glowing awe at what they had witnessed, and Jim read their silent message clearly. This was another of those times when words were superfluous. The shared moment was enough.
Catching some nearly silent signal from deep within the sea, Jim gently turned Blair back toward the water, pointing with one hand to a spot halfway between land and the horizon. The other arm re-mained firmly around Blair's shoulder, anchoring him to Jim's side.
Another whale rose from the dark depths...then another...and another. On the shore, a silent sentinel and guide stood close together and watched in wonder. Jim's arm tightened around Sandburg, and he felt Blair's arm find its way around his waist with a gentle squeeze. As the fourth whale rose into the night sky, Blair rested his head on Jim's shoulder and laughed softly in delight.
Some occurrences in life defy explanation, be it an intensely deep friendship or the frolicking of great whales in the silvery moonlight of a balmy night. At those times, the wise man ceases to seek a reason for the miracle and is content merely to accept it with gratitude and joy, knowing that it may be his only for a heartbeat.
Or a lifetime.
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