No More Shadows
Note: This story is a sequel to Will You Remember Me?
I wish to thank Starfox for hosting my stories, and StarWatcher for her wonderful beta support over any number of stories!
Special thanks to Vicky Orman who shared with me several folktales about the jaguar, tales that provided the mystical history at the core of this story…
...and to Quietwolf, my expert on snakes.
"Oh, man," Blair yawned, stretching and shivering as he climbed out of Ellison's truck an hour after dawn on the chilly gray October day. "Am I glad that stakeout is over!"
Jim smiled indulgently as he shook his head. The stakeout had paid off and the bust had gone down with no complications…one more meth lab out of operation, at least until some other 'entrepreneur' set up operations to fill the demand from the streets. "If you got some sleep instead of trying to redefine community policing during your off hours, you wouldn't be so tired, Chief."
Sniffing against the early morning chill as they strode into the building, Sandburg shrugged and grinned. "Yeah, well, all the overtime has been worth it, in more ways than one," he observed. "I've got enough accumulated compensatory leave to ask Simon for a couple of weeks off."
"Uh huh," Jim grunted as he punched the button for the elevator and was pleasantly surprised when it opened immediately. Seemed it was working again.
Sandburg cut his partner a sharp look as he led the way inside and pressed for the third floor. As the doors clanked closed, he said neutrally, "You don't have to go with me."
"I said I'd go," Ellison replied, but his expression was less than enthusiastic. "But-do we really need two weeks? What could possibly take that much time?"
"Are you kidding?" Sandburg exclaimed in disbelief, his voice rising with his hands as he turned to face his partner. "This is a new find, Jim. No one else has spent any time on the site yet. From what Simon, Megan and you have told me, there're enough hieroglyphics and symbolism in those ruins, and man, the size of it alone, that it could take months, if not years, to decipher and understand it all. And, then, on top of that, there's the need to interview the locals about the myths, legends, you know, oral history, that could give us important information that's probably never been captured before. Believe me, two weeks is nothing for a project this size."
Nodding in resignation at the excitement in his best friend's voice, avoiding Sandburg's eyes, Ellison sighed as the doors opened and they headed down the hall toward their respective apartments. "Yeah, well, it's not like you're making this your life's work. You just want to look around, get a feel for the place, right?"
Blair paused by his door, keys in his hand as he looked up at Jim. "Uh, Jim, actually, this is my life's work. This temple is about sentinels, right? This is the best opportunity we've ever had to learn more about the traditional roles and rituals, to maybe find out amazing things about how your senses could be used, controlled…" he replied, his voice low but intense.
"How much are we likely to really learn?" Jim cut in defensively. But he caught the look of exasperation on his partner's face, and hastened to explain, "All I'm saying is, you've done a great job helping me to figure out these senses, and things are going great, so…"
"You really don't want to go, do you?" Blair sighed, turning toward his doorway and inserting the key. "Fine, whatever, like I said, you don't have to come."
"Sandburg," Jim exclaimed, frustrated. "I said I'd go. What do you want from me, here?"
"What do I want?" Blair replied, turning to face his best friend, his own voice tight as he squinted a little with weary aggravation, but he looked away, shaking his head at the look of trepidation in Ellison's eyes. Swallowing, he blew out a long breath and then said, "I guess I'd like you to care as much about understanding your senses as I do. But it's not the same for you, is it? I mean, you live with them-they aren't special to you, they're just useful and sometimes irritating. I'm the one who's always struggling to be sure we're not missing something here, something important." Pushing his fingers through his unkempt curls, he shrugged as he looked back up at Jim. "I mean it. You don't have to come if you don't want to. I know the place doesn't hold the best of memories-but I have to go. I have to see if there's anything more there to be learned."
"I know," Jim muttered. "And, well, I appreciate that you never stop looking for more ways to help me. I said I'd go and I meant it. This is important to both of us." When Sandburg relaxed marginally, Jim continued, "I'll talk to Simon about getting the time off. Our case load is in pretty good shape and there aren't any court dates on the docket for the next month."
"Thanks, Jim," Blair acknowledged with the trace of a weary smile on his lips. "So, uh, what time do you want to head back downtown?"
Yawning, Ellison rolled his shoulders. "I told Simon we'd be in after lunch. Get some sleep, Chief," he replied, patting Sandburg's shoulder as he moved to his own doorway. "Want to eat before we head in or get something on the way?"
"My turn to make breakfast, or lunch, or whatever we call it," Sandburg offered. "See you around, what? Noon?"
When Jim nodded as he opened his own door, Blair moved into his apartment. "Great, we get a whole five hours of sleep," he mumbled as he closed the door and slid the deadbolt home.
Simon wasn't exactly delighted by the request from his best team for leave, but he couldn't deny it. They'd earned the time, and they needed the break. Truthfully, he wasn't concerned so much about not having them around-but he was very concerned about what they planned to do with the time off. He couldn't explain it to himself, let alone to them, so he didn't try. He just told them to be careful.
But he couldn't deny the hollow feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach that quickly rose to fill his chest making him feel a little breathless when they'd told him they were heading to Sierra Verde to look for answers to explain what had happened there. Watching them leave the office, he was conscious that his mouth and throat were dry and he wanted desperately to call them back.
They had to go, had to do this, though from the haunted look in Jim's eyes, it was quite clearly not his idea nor his desire to probe those wounds and reopen the pain and the confusion of the detective's visceral attraction to the woman who had killed his partner. Grimacing with the memories of the morning at the fountain, the subsequent chase after Alex Barnes, and of all that had happened in Mexico and then finding Sandburg at death's door when they returned, Simon sighed. He could well understand Ellison's aversion to the place and what likely just about the worst time in the detective's life. Hadn't been any joy for Sandburg, either, the Captain thought. Heading to Sierra Verde had to be like digging at a raw, still sore scar that had only just begun to heal.
Simon found himself thinking of Pandora's box and of how it should never have been opened…and he wondered if the secrets and mysteries of that damned Temple shouldn't also be eternally sealed. Shivering, he clenched his jaw as he closed his eyes and willed himself to be calm and rational. It was just a heap of old stones. What could possibly be dangerous there now?
Blowing out a sigh, he shook his head. Rubbing long, lean fingers over his mouth, he swallowed against the irrational fear that had captured him. He didn't put a lot of stock in parapsychological nonsense and sure didn't believe he was psychic-but he'd learned to trust his gut.
And his gut was telling him this trip could mean trouble.
Lifting off his glasses, he pinched the bridge of his nose and wondered if he had the right to interfere-or if he had the responsibility to ensure his friends were safe. His fingers beat a nervous tattoo on his desk as he considered going with them but, finally, he shook his head. This was a sentinel/guide thing, right? He had no business intruding, no part to play. Maybe Sandburg was right-maybe there were things there that they needed to learn. Maybe it would help Jim banish the shadows that still lurked in his eyes whenever he thought of how he'd behaved during that terrible time.
Reluctantly, he pushed aside his misgivings, resettled his glasses on his face and turned his attention to the files on his desk. When his gut responded with a churn of nausea, he told himself he was being ridiculous. They were grown men, capable of taking care of themselves. What could happen?
Feeling a fool, he reached for his phone and punched in Ellison's home number to leave a message.
"Jim, it's Simon. Look…uh, call me when you get to Sierra Verde to let me know where you'll be staying. And, keep me posted, okay?"
After the call, he sighed heavily as he again briefly pulled off his glasses to rub his eyes. Tightening his jaw, fighting the irrational panic fluttering in his chest, he resolutely turned his attention back to the heap of files on his desk.
"So that's where…" Blair murmured as he stared at the empty stretch of beach, the wind rushing in with the breakers blowing his sweat-dampened curls back from his face.
"Yeah," Jim muttered with a shrug, unable to look at his partner. They'd only just arrived in Sierra Verde and dropped their bags in their air-conditioned room before Blair had asked him to show him around the small village-and the beach. Jim felt unsettled, itchy and a headache was simmering behind his eyes. His gut was knotted, his muscles tensed against the memories. "I'm sorry," he grated, shaking his head, still unable to understand what had driven him to behave so bizarrely. His actions with Alex, the irresistible need to be with her, had overwhelmed and even frightened him-and had left him feeling sick with self-loathing.
Blair waved off the apology, his mind elsewhere as his narrowed eyes studied the beach and then his gaze shifted to the tropical rain forest that encroached upon the shore and surrounded the village. Wordlessly, he strode off toward the thick growth of jungle, Ellison plodding along behind him. Pausing just before he plunged into the shadowed forest, he told Jim, "We're looking for old markers, statuary, stone plinths…"
"Markers of what?" Ellison asked, frowning, not sure what they were doing there.
"You'll know when you see it," Sandburg replied, cryptically.
Taking their time, they quartered the thick, overgrown forest floor, gradually moving back from the beach. The air was suffocating, the thick foliage cutting off the refreshing ocean breeze, and they sweated profusely in the hot humidity, perspiration dripping from their faces and their clothing clung damply to their bodies. Finally, Jim spotted a glint of stone or marble, covered in vines and green with age. "I think I found something," Jim called to his best friend, who was searching a little ways off to his left.
Blair loped over, a look of speculation on his face and curiousity alight in his eyes. It only took them a few minutes to clear off the three foot tall ancient stone sculpture, Blair nodding as its form came clear, Jim feeling confused, not sure what it meant.
It was a stylized jaguar that faced out toward the ocean.
"What's this all about, Sandburg?" Jim asked, a hollow feeling of expectation in his chest.
"It's a boundary marker, Jim," Blair explained, looking up from where he was kneeling by the marker and then laying a hand on the stone to push himself up to stand as he continued. "I think that stretch of beach had ceremonial significance to sentinels. It may have been a place of traditional mating rituals."
"Mating?" Jim exclaimed, backing up a step. His hands came up, as if warding off an attack and he shook his head. "You think what happened was…was some irresistible, atavistic urge…like, like I was some kind of animal in heat?" he protested, his voice tight with aversion.
"Maybe," Sandburg nodded thoughtfully, lifting his own hands in a calming gesture as he continued, "Jim, it makes a weird kind of sense, man. You said you had a dream or vision or something that drew you to the beach, and that you had no control over your feelings or behaviours, that you didn't understand any of what happened about how you reacted to her…"
His jaw rigid, Ellison shook his head again as he glared at the stone jaguar. Gut roiling with nausea, almost gasping for breath as he turned away, Jim thought he might be physically, violently, sick. "I'm a man," he ground out, cutting off his partner's flow of speculation, "I should have been able to control…"
"Easy, Jim," Blair soothed, his voice low and steady as he moved close enough to lay a hand on his friend's rigid, sweat-slicked arm. "Just breathe and listen to me for a minute here. Think about it-sentinels were essential to the survival of their clans, their tribes, but each village would only have one, just one. It would be important to keep the line of sentinels going, to ensure new ones were born with each successive generation. But sentinels were by nature territorial; they were most likely enemies to one another. There would have to be a time and place for them to gather safely, without conflict. The relative proximity of the temple, and this marker, indicate this may have been that place…"
"You're talking about stuff that happened centuries, maybe thousands of years ago," Jim argued. "How could anything that happened that long ago affect me now?"
"I don't know," Blair replied as he pushed his fingers through his hair in frustration at his lack of answers. "We're way beyond my limited expertise here, man. But I really think that might be part of what was happening to you."
"She…she murdered you!" Ellison grated hoarsely, his eyes dark with the memories of all that had happened and his appalling behaviour. "How could I want to touch her? I wanted to kill her!"
Blair looked away, trying to deal with his own feelings of hurt and even betrayal at Jim's actions, but there was no misunderstanding how disgusted Jim was with himself, or how much he regretted what had happened out on that beach, and later in the jungle. "I know," he finally acknowledged quietly, looking back up at Ellison. "It wasn't anything as simple as pheromones, or you'd have been attracted to her when you first met her. But a primal urge linked to the survival of the species can override just about anything, Jim. I'm sorry, man-I can't begin to imagine how scary it must be to think you couldn't control it, especially with her…"
Ellison blew out a long breath as his shoulders slumped and he looked away into the jungle. He hadn't missed the fact that Blair couldn't say her name, at least not in the context of the mating imperative that had overridden everything else back on the beach. Closing his eyes, feeling suddenly very weary, Jim nodded briefly. Sandburg was right, it had been frightening to be so out of control; more, in the circumstances, it had been horrifying. Like a nightmare that had become only too real. "You seen enough here?" he asked, his voice rough with emotion, unable to hide his almost desperate desire to be somewhere else.
"Yeah," Blair acquiesced, turning to lead the way back toward what passed for civilization in the village of Sierra Verde. "I spotted a Taberna near the beach. Let's get a beer before we head back to the hotel."
"Fine," Jim grunted as he followed after his Guide.
The heat and heavy humidity surrounded them like a wet blanket, suffocating and oppressive, exacerbating his headache and leaving Jim feeling as if he was trapped in a bad dream. But the brisk, sea-scented wind cooled them once they'd plodded out of the jungle. Jim looked out over the rolling sea, squinting a little as he studied the horizon. Though he could see no distant clouds in the azure sky, it was the season for tropical storms and the brisk wind blowing in told him one could blow in quickly; the thought made him feel uneasy. Silently, each lost in his own thoughts, they ambled back along the top of the beach to the small, disreputable adobe bar that looked like it had seen better days. The old, weather-stained sign over the curved entry-way was a representation of fiery flames, with the taverna's name imprinted in black over the faded red and orange, 'Botoque and the Jaguar.'
After the blistering glare outside, the taverna was dark, and blessedly cool. Inside, the air was redolent with the succulent and enticing fragrances of roasting meats from the brazier behind the bar, peppers, and spices mingling with the slightly sour, rich scent of beer and the sweeter overlay of liquor. Hitching up onto stools by the scarred wooden bar, Sandburg tapped an unconscious tattoo of energy as he gazed around, from the fly-spattered mirror, dark with age and smoke, to the round tables fully occupied by casually dressed locals who likely lived in the narrow lanes nearby. People were chatting in Spanish with easy good humour, some laughing as they visited with the ease of long acquaintance. The bartender waved at them with cheerful nonchalance as he delivered up dishes of simple finger foods and cervasas with lime, tequila and margaritas in frosted glasses to the customers grouped around the tables.
"Buenas Tardes, Señores!" he greeted them finally as he moved back around the bar, addressing them in English having correctly surmised from their clothing and demeanor that they were most likely tourists. "Me llamo José! How may I serve you?"
"Dos Cervezas, por favor," Blair replied with an easy smile in the local lingo. José smiled at the courtesy of his customer's attempt at Spanish as he nodded and turned to open the bottles and fill two tall chilled glasses. When he placed the foaming glasses, wet with droplets of condensation, onto the bar in front of them, the anthropologist continued, "Gracias. Uh, your place has an unusual name-I'll bet there's a story behind it."
Smiling broadly, the bartender nodded. With a quick look around his small establishment to ensure no one was awaiting service, he leaned forward, elbows on the bar as he replied in heavily accented, musical English, "Si, it's a good story about how Botoque, a young Indian boy, brought fire to his people."
"Yeah?" Blair encouraged as he took a sip and cut a quick, sparkling look of anticipation at Jim before turning back to the bartender. "I'm an anthropologist, and if you've got the time, I'd love to hear it."
"Well, Señor," the middle-aged, swarthy man began as he opened a beer for himself and took a swig, and then wiped the back of his hand across his lips, "I'm glad to share it with you."
For the next hour, occasionally taking time off to serve other customers who themselves became caught up in the story and first offered details as he went along, and then joined in wholeheartedly to assume parts in the familiar, local folktale, the amiable man shared the story of Botoque and the Jaguar.
"One day, an Indian went out to hunt for baby parrots with one of the youths of his tribe named Botoque. After a long walk, the Indian noticed a macaw nest on top of a tall and narrow cliff. When the Indian saw two red-billed macaw parents fly off to find food for their nestlings, he convinced Botoque that he should attempt to capture the young birds left behind in the nest. The Indian leaned a long pole against a rock so the youth could climb up to the nest. Once Botoque reached the nest, he saw not only several baby birds but two eggs as well."
Blair and Jim exchanged amused looks as they sipped their beers and remembered fondly one of the earliest moments in their friendship when Sandburg had climbed a tree to retrieve the magpie's nest. But their attention was quickly drawn back to the story, as José, the barman, continued, "Botoque tossed the first egg to the Indian, but as it fell through the air, it changed into a stone. Neither noticed that the egg had become a stone until it reached the ground. The Indian stared at the stone at his feet and looked up at the startled youth."
"'Throw the other egg down,' the Indian ordered," called out one of the helpful customers at a nearby table who had overheard the beginning of the tale, proud to show he knew the details of the old legend. Their attention caught by the exchange, other customers turned to listen in as well.
José saluted the middle-aged man and continued, "This time, Botoque carefully tossed the second egg, but again it transformed into a white stone in front of his eyes. This stone wounded the hand of the surprised Indian below and he angrily blamed Botoque for his injury. Furious because he believed he had been fooled, the Indian broke the pole and left Botoque atop the rocky cliff. Botoque screamed after him in fear and held up the baby birds from the nest. He called out…"
"Here are the little ones! Come back! This must be an enchanted nest! Those stones were eggs," another, more youthful, customer called out with exaggerated tones signifying Botoque's fear at being abandoned. Jim rolled his eyes as he relaxed with the whimsical story, leaning comfortably on the bar and willing to let the show play out in its own good time. He glanced at his partner and grinned to see that Blair was right into it, leaning forward, eager to hear more.
José laughed at the antics of his local customers, pleased that they were joining in to bring the story to life. But, in the spirit of the tale, he sobered as he leaned confidentially toward Blair and carried on with a sombre tone and a woeful shake of his head. "The Indian," he recounted, "did not turn back to see what happened next, but if he had, he would have seen the pair of adult red-billed macaws return. When the parents discovered what Botoque had done to their nest, they screamed fiercely. With this, the nestlings suddenly turned into mature birds. They flew up to meet their parents, and all four birds disappeared into the flaming sunset."
Sighing, his tone bleak, befitting the mood of the story at that point, José confided to his Americano customers, "Botoque remained abandoned on top of the huge rock for several days. He saw no one and spoke not at all. The poor, abandoned boy became so hungry and thirsty that he ate what was left of the nest." Blair wrinkled up his nose at that idea and Jim couldn't completely choke back his chuckle of amusement at his partner's reaction.
José cut Jim a look of shared good humour at the younger man's obvious engagement in the story, but then continued, his tone rising in something like awe as he said, "Finally, a spotted jaguar passed by, carrying a bow and arrow and all sorts of fresh raw game. The Jaguar wore finely woven vines coloured with red dye from annatto seeds, and he stood upright. His bearing and manners were more civilized than any creature Botoque had ever met. Botoque almost cried out, but he stopped himself in fear of the unfamiliar creature. The Jaguar, walking along the edge of the sheer granite cliff, saw the boy's shadow on the ground. Playfully, he pretended to try to catch the shadow, but it kept moving as Botoque tried to stay out of sight. The Jaguar looked up suddenly and caught a glimpse of the creature high upon the cliff to which the shadow belonged. In a pleasant tone, the Jaguar asked Botoque his name."
"I am Botoque. My tribesman talked me into capturing some birds for him, but then he left me stranded," the helpful young Mexican chimed in on cue, having taken Botoque's role as his own.
"The Jaguar laughed," José continued quickly, jealous of his role as narrator, "as he was very accustomed to the macaws' enchanted ways. But he felt pity for the hapless boy and helpfully offered to cut footholds in the stone so the boy could climb down. The Jaguar was older and grandfatherly, so when he encouraged Botoque to come down, the youth started to do so. However, as Botoque drew closer to the Jaguar, he saw how big the creature was, and he became afraid. The Jaguar understood Botoque's hesitation, and he coaxed the youth in a friendly way, promising him assistance."
Blair had turned to Jim and mouthed, "Old, huh?" and gave his friend a cheeky grin, before turning his attention back to José. Jim just shook his head and kept listening. So far, the Jaguar sounded like the hero of this story and that suited him just fine. Neither of them had missed the references to the Jaguar's skills as a hunter or his unusually keen sight.
"Come down and climb onto my back," yet another customer called out eagerly, an old, wizened man with lanky white hair, who was gratified that this story was still so well remembered. "I will take you to my dwelling where there will be lots of grilled meats."
"The youth asked what grilled meat was," José told them then, "since in his tribe he had only eaten meat raw or dried from the sun."
"You have a delicacy awaiting you at my home," the old man growled, in a low and friendly way, getting into his assumed role as the Jaguar. "An entire boar roasted by the fire from a burning jatobá tree."
José nodded in acknowledgement, and continued, his voice light as he picked up the pace now that they were in happier territory. "Eagerly the boy completed his descent and when they approached the Jaguar's cave, he saw fire for the first time. An enormous tree trunk was aflame and smoking and everywhere small gatherings of rocks the size of coconuts bordered pieces of tree trunk bursting with flames."
"What are the plumes of orange dancing light near your cave?" called out the young man who had taken on the role of Botoque in this impromptu recital.
The old man got up and ambled with a grace that belied his years toward the youth, mimicking the Jaguar as he held out a piece of the sausage from his dinner plate, offering the succulent meat with an air of generous good humour, "Taste this roast boar, my young son. It has a tenderness you're not acquainted with and a smokiness from the fire that cooks it."
The young man, well into his part by now, took the sausage delicately and nibbled at it, his face coming alight with surprised delight as he then quickly shoved the whole piece into his mouth and chewed on it blissfully before swallowing with a dramatic flair. "That's the best thing I've ever tasted!" he exclaimed.
José resumed the story as he revealed, his voice dropping to convey distaste, "Off to the side of the dancing flames stood an Indian woman whom the Jaguar introduced as his wife. Botoque knew that she took an immediate dislike to him because of the suspicious look in her eyes." The young man recoiled from the woman at his table, who glared playfully at him, feigning disgust as she snapped, "Me-on-bra-tum."
"Which means 'abandoned one'" José clarified. "His wife indicated to the Jaguar that the boy should not be trusted. But, despite his wife's protests, the Jaguar wanted to adopt Botoque because he liked the boy very much and the boy had already grown fond of the elderly Jaguar."
The old man who'd taken on the part of the Jaguar turned to his 'wife' and growled, "I have no children of my own, and, especially because he is abandoned, I want to share my home with Botoque." She sniffed in haughty disdain and turned away.
Jim was aware that Blair had gone still, and the detective suspected his friend was thinking about how Ellison had taken the younger man into the loft and ended up giving him a home for more than three years. Jim took another sip of his beer, his eyes narrowing as he began to wonder where this story was going.
While José narrated the action, the young man and his date, now playing the 'wife', pantomimed the action, occasionally adding their own vocabulary. "Botoque was young and starving with hunger and didn't know enough to eat and drink sparingly. So, after Botoque had eaten his fill, he drank until he became sick. At the Jaguar's behest, his wife tended to him during the night, but when the old Jaguar slept late the next morning, and she was alone with the boy the next day, she tried to scare him. She picked lice out of his hair and told him the lice would crawl all over his body if he stayed in the cave. She opened her mouth wide and bared her teeth, telling him stories of wild animals in the Jaguar's cave."
The young man screamed out in terror, making both Blair and Jim jump in surprise, and the old man mimicked the motions of waking from a deep sleep, and then growled, "Stop tormenting the boy!"
José continued, his voice now taking on an edge as he recounted the terrors of Botoque's life when he was left to the mercy of the Jaguar's wife while his 'actors' carried on their pantomime. "Every day, the Jaguar went hunting, leaving his stepson with his wife. Her hatred for Botoque grew and grew. When the boy asked for something to eat, the old woman gave him tough, bad-tasting meat. She scratched his face and eyebrows, pretending she was searching for lice. Things became so unpleasant for Botoque that every day he would leave the cave in terror and flee into the woods to hide from her until the Jaguar returned home."
Shaking his head, José paused to deal out more cervasas, his customers helping as they passed them around, everyone eager for the story to continue. Blair cut a quick glance at Jim to see how his friend was taking the story and their unusual evening's entertainment. His tongue firmly planted in his cheek, Jim quirked a brow and shrugged. But he couldn't help but wonder how Carolyn would have reacted if they'd still been married and he'd brought Sandburg and his ape, Larry, home to stay in the spare room.
Once everyone was served, José carried on, "The good Jaguar scolded his wife but since she still continued to mistreat Botoque, the Jaguar made a new bow and arrow and gave them to his stepson. The Jaguar taught Botoque how to use the weapon because he feared that his wife might harm the boy. The boy had never seen a bow and arrow before the day the old Jaguar rescued him because the Indians hunted only with spears. And, although he did not want his stepmother to continue tormenting him, Botoque was uncomfortable with the new weapon."
When the barkeeper paused to take a sip of his own beer to moisten his dry throat, Jim studied his best friend, thinking about how he'd recently taught Blair how to use his weapon-and how Blair had almost grimly persevered until he was a crack shot, but had not yet, and might never, become comfortable with the idea of 'carrying'.
"Finally, Botoque became so homesick for his village that he went to his stepfather and asked to return home." José sighed, shaking his head. "The old Jaguar felt saddened, but he understood. The Jaguar collected a feast of grilled meats and put them in a basket the boy could wear astride his back. He warned Botoque not to tell any of the Indians about the existence of fire, and then the Jaguar sent Botoque on his way."
Blair blew out a breath and leaned back from the bar, crossing his arms in an unconsciously defensive stance. His move into his own apartment, and the party Jim had thrown him, had taken place just over a month before. And the need to keep the Jaguar's secret resonated uncomfortably with both partners.
"Darkness lay over Botoque's old village like a mat of dense hemp," José continued, his voice low and furtive. "Botoque had to feel his way along the walls of the communal house to his mother's hammock. When he found her, he had a hard time convincing her that he was alive. She had missed her son so very much, and was so afraid that he'd been lost to her, that she had fallen into a deep grief. Now she was stunned and overjoyed to have him back. At the sound of her glad cries, all the people of the village awakened and gathered together, to listen as Botoque told his tale. He distributed the grilled meats for all to taste. The village was astonished as they shared the delicious cooked meats the youth had brought to them from his stepfather, the Jaguar."
Blair couldn't look at Jim. This was just too eerie. A mother afraid her son was drifting away from her, overjoyed to think he might be returning to the world he'd known. A crowd of people, excited, eager for details. Closing his eyes, he shook his head, thinking of how the Jaguar had unconsciously, out of his generous desire to help, had unwittingly revealed evidence of his secret and swallowed as he thought of how often Jim had done the same at a crime scene. The sharing of the cooked meats a tantalizing sample of unknown wonders, too exotic and amazing to ignore, like excerpts of a paper that fuelled the avid imagination and speculation of the news media. Feeling a sudden chill, Blair wasn't sure he wanted to hear any more of this story. Jim's eyes had dropped to study the bar, his jaw tight.
"When the villagers questioned Botoque about the roasted meats, he resisted revealing the Jaguar's secret of fire," José was saying, oblivious to his customers' increasing discomfort and unease. Blair cut Jim a look and knew Jim's thoughts were paralleling his own from the frown on his friend's face and the wary look in the Sentinel's eyes. José's voice carried on, relentless, as he explained, "Instead, he tried to distract them by demonstrating the bow and arrow. Although the Indians were intrigued, they returned to the subject of the delicious cooked meats. Finally the pressure from his family and the village elders was too much for Botoque. He told them about fire, about its magical light and great warmth. The villagers grouped together in the shaman's meetinghouse and after much discussion they agreed to steal the fire from the Jaguar. They devised a plan to bring the fire back with as little danger as possible."
"The next day, two of the Indians accompanied Botoque to the Jaguar's cave. Other Indians followed and took up stations at various locations along the way in order to relay the fire back to the village. When the three Indians arrived at the cave, the Jaguar, as predicted, had already gone out hunting. They found no trace of the stepmother, and Botoque explained that the Jaguar probably had exiled her for her cruelty towards Botoque. The Indians marvelled at the beauty and power of the dancing plumes Botoque told them was the fire."
Blair closed his eyes, moaning low in his throat, so softly that no one but Jim could hear him. Concerned, Ellison reached out to grip his shoulder. What had happened over the dissertation hadn't been Blair's fault. He had never told the secret-but Jim knew Sandburg still carried a load of guilt over ever having written the paper in the first place.
Oblivious, José continued, "But more powerful than the beauty of the fire was its warmth. The villagers had never experienced this feeling from anything on earth. Until that moment, they had believed that only the magnificent sun in the skies could provide such a sensation."
All of the locals were now caught up in acting out the story as José recounted it, playing the parts of the villagers who had raided the Jaguar's lair as the bartender carried on with his narrative, "They found the game of the hunt from the day before and Botoque saw that it was raw. He was certain that his mean stepmother had been sent away; otherwise she would have roasted the meats. The Indians were so excited, they immediately cooked the raw meat and ate it. Once all the roasted meat was eaten, the two Indians wanted to start taking the fire back to the village. Botoque resisted again, however, he was not strong enough to withstand the arguments of the two older Indians with him. How could he deny his mother and all the villagers warmth, cooked meats, and light to protect against the danger of darkness?"
Blair shifted and turned his wide gaze up to Jim's, asking for forgiveness that Ellison didn't feel he could give-how could you forgive someone for something they hadn't done? Sandburg hadn't expected his mother to invade his privacy, especially after having refused her request to read the paper. He couldn't know that she'd send it to an editor in New York. He hadn't been the one who had over-reacted when the secret had become public, who had betrayed their friendship with cold behaviours and rejection. To the contrary, Blair had done all he could to clean up the disaster others had made, had done more than Jim would have ever asked or expected. Shaking his head, hoping Sandburg understood there was nothing to forgive, Jim turned his gaze back to José.
"Once Botoque and the other Indians set about collecting all the burning tree trunks at each hearth, they then relayed the burning trunks, even the embers, to the Indians posted at their stations along the way back to the village. The Indians were so thorough, not a single ember was left behind."
Sandburg hung his head as José told them with solemn sorrow, "Nothing was left for the Jaguar."
The old man mimicked the actions of one heading home, light-hearted, until he reached the mouth of his cave, while the others carried on as joyous villagers.
"That evening, Botoque's village celebrated the end of cold darkness at night. They grilled fresh meat to share with all the villagers, and danced and slept by the warmth of the fire."
The old man stopped ambling around the fringes of the bar, moving back to centre stage as he played out the reactions of The Jaguar as the unhappy tale continued to unfold.
"When the Jaguar returned home, his sweetness and generosity were twisted into anger. He felt betrayed by his stepson. He had openly shared with Botoque the secret of the bow and arrow, and he assumed the boy would tell the villagers. Yet the trusting Jaguar never suspected that his adopted son would steal the fire. The old Jaguar was so incensed by the ingratitude of Botoque, he suddenly transformed from the civilized creature he had always been into a ferocious animal. The vine he tied around his waist when he went hunting sprouted into a tail. Fur grew all over his body, and he could only walk on all fours."
The old man, limber for his age, dropped to his knees and began to stalk around the bar, his demeanour stealthy and threatening as he glared at 'Botoque' and the 'villagers'…
"As night wore on, the Jaguar began to feel the cold. Without the fire, he would need his new fur to keep warm. His anger escalated. He raged up and exclaimed…" José was saying only to be cut off when the old man roared, "If this is the way the Indians want it to be, from now on I will devour them. I will hunt in the dark. I will feel the cold, and when I encounter the Indians, I will eat them raw."
Sighing dramatically, José finished the sad story of kindness betrayed, "All that remained of the fire for the Jaguar is his remembrance of it and to this day, that memory shines in his eyes. Once so civilized, the Jaguar now hunts with his fangs and eats only raw meat. The Jaguar's good and civilized spirit was corrupted by Botoque's betrayal, and the mighty Jaguar has trusted no one since."
"Jesus," Blair sighed as he swallowed hard.
"You see, Señors," José explained then, "The story of Botoque and the Jaguar has come down to us from our ancestors and is told throughout this area. Way back at the beginning of time, the Jaguar was more civilized in his ways than the Indian. He had possession of fire, knew about eating cooked meat, and was able to hunt for his prey with ease by using the bow and arrow. He stood erect, his body was not covered with fur, and he could talk. The Indians at that time knew only darkness and cold at night, ate their meat raw, and hunted with spears and rocks." Shaking his head as he gathered up their empty beer glasses, he concluded, "The Indians' ancient acceptance of animals as equal or better than themselves is shown by the Jaguar's relationship with Botoque. He saved Botoque, adopted him as a son, and showed the boy a new weapon and the existence of fire. But, when his fire was stolen, the Jaguar abandoned his civilized ways in order to retaliate against the human race that had betrayed him. The jaguar is now the most feared animal of the rain forest, and the Indians use this myth to explain the origin of the jaguar's ferocity, which sets him apart from the other animals. So, now you know the tale behind the name of my taverna…"
The other customers clapped enthusiastically and ordered another round, a distraction both Jim and Blair welcomed as they pulled out their wallets to pay for their beers. The taking in of a young stranger in need of help, the betrayal of the secret, Jim's reluctance to trust, Alex's ferocity and murderous nature, her spotted jaguar spirit guide-there were too many echoes in the old folktale that resonated uncomfortably with their own experiences.
"It's just a story, Chief," Jim said quietly.
"Yeah," Blair grunted as he bit his lip and pushed his hair back behind his ears. When José came back to them with their change, Sandburg thanked the man for having shared the old tale. "It was really… interesting. Uh, do you know other stories, or could you maybe suggest someone we might talk with to hear more tales of the Jaguar?"
José beamed with pleasure, grateful as well for the generous tip. Not many Americanos were interested in the old stories. "My old mother told me the story of Botoque and the Jaguar. There're other stories, sure, and I think she'd be glad to tell them to you…"
Summoning up his enthusiasm, honestly interested in learning more-after all, that's why they'd come-Blair eagerly asked how they might best approach José's mother. Smiling, the man waved at them to wait while he went to the old black phone with a rotary dial on the wall and called to make the arrangements. Coming back to them, he gave them the directions to his mother's cottage, and told them she would expect them the next afternoon.
As they ambled back to their hotel, Jim asked quietly, "Did you find that story as odd as I did, Chief?"
Shaking his head, Blair replied with a slight tone of exasperation, "I can't believe how unprofessional I was back there, listening like some guy caught up in a ghost story or something, as if it was personal. To be honest, I've seen some similar stories in the oral history records of South American tribes. This is exactly why I wanted to come down here, Jim. Local tales like that one, featuring the jaguar, which might well be a metaphor for the watchman, or guardian, or sentinel of the tribe, provide substantial evidence that sentinels once existed here…"
"Oh, come on," Jim argued, more to pull Sandburg's chain than in real doubt, "isn't that a bit far-fetched? The story was about acquiring fire…"
"No, it wasn't, not really," Blair replied, turning to look up at his friend with earnest conviction. "The jaguar is the symbol of the sentinels-we know that, or at least can surmise it, from the stone plinth we found in the jungle near the beach, and from the statuary you told me about at the Temple. I mean, as if we didn't already know it from the fact that your spirit guide is a jaguar, as was…hers." Turning back toward the hotel, continuing to pace along the dark, narrow street, he continued, "The Jaguar in the story was an accomplished hunter who lived apart from the tribe, as sentinels lived apart. The Jaguar was helpful, and demonstrated his protective instinct by rescuing the kid and taking him home. And, the Jaguar had talents, skills, knowledge the rest of the tribe didn't have, as represented by the bows and arrows and the fire. Ultimately, his skills, the sharing of his knowledge, helped keep the tribe well fed, safe and warm."
"Like anyone needs a fire to keep warm in this heat," Jim snorted, swiping at the sweat on his brow.
"I don't know, Jim," Blair reflected. "This area could be hit by hurricanes, and the cold rain and dampness would present a danger-they might well value fire in such circumstances."
"If they could keep it going in such a storm," Jim mumbled.
"Whatever," Blair grunted, waving off the distraction. "The point is, the Jaguar, or the sentinel, lived apart and was protective by nature. But his trust was betrayed, and when he was betrayed, he reacted with understandable fury. Instead of protector, he became a predator. Now, that might be a simple caution to show respect to your local sentinel, or it might be a warning that sentinels from other tribes could be very dangerous, even deadly."
"Well, it's all very interesting, Chief, but I'm not sure what it means for us now, today," Jim sighed.
"As a minimum, it tells us that sentinels existed in this area, might still exist for all we know," Blair retorted, cutting a hard look up at Jim. "And it confirms that sentinels in traditional settings played a role not all that much different from the role you play. Special skills as a hunter, protective, living privately but willing to share his home with someone in need, safeguarding some secrets for safety reasons and not easily given to trust, furious when his trust was betrayed… sure sounds like someone I know."
Jim snorted, but laid a hand on Sandburg's shoulder as he said, "Yeah, maybe. But the guy I took in never betrayed me…"
"Not deliberately, anyway," Blair replied quietly, his head bowed by old regrets. "Never deliberately, Jim."
The next morning, Jim woke sharply with a muted grunt of protest. Nightmares, vague and disturbing images he hadn't been able to hold onto in the light of day, had been plaguing him ever since the details of the trip had been finalized. But this time, he remembered the distorted, kaleidoscope of fragmented dreams, and the memories nauseated him, leaving him gasping for air. Willing himself to take deep breaths, telling himself they were only dreams, he swallowed hard and rubbed his hand over his face. As he came more awake, he found his headache wasn't any better. He felt uncomfortable in his skin, a little too 'touchy-feely' as Sandburg would so indelicately put it, and the heightened awareness combined with a gut-deep sense of anticipation was more than a little distracting-it was downright disturbing. It didn't help that Sandburg was watching him closely from the other bed, apparently having been awakened by Ellison's nightmare. Concerned, Blair wanted to know how Jim was feeling, if the peculiar ambiance of Sierra Verde and whatever it meant to sentinels of old was affecting him on this trip as it had on the last. Sighing, Ellison gritted his jaw and shook his head, uncertain of how to describe his feelings, let alone the hideous nightmares, so he opted for silence until he had a better handle on what was going on with his senses.
Exasperated, perfectly aware that Jim was being less than forthcoming, Blair gave him a couple of Tylenol and suggested he just take it easy. And then the younger man headed out with his camera to take snaps of the ancient stone jaguar in the forest, the beach and the sign over the taverna, to go with the notes he'd made in his journal the night before when they'd gotten back from the bar. A professional observer of other people, the anthropologist paid little heed to his own sense of heightened sensitivity, and put his feelings of anticipation down to the excitement of learning more about sentinels. The combination of Jim's experiences here, Alex's visions, what had happened between them on the beach and in the Temple, the Temple itself, the stone statue and the folktales all combined to convince him that this had been a sacred place of ritual and power, central to the reality of sentinels in years long past.
As he wandered the small town, watching for any other references to watchmen, guardians or sentinels, Sandburg wasn't surprised to see the remains of more stone plinths of stylized jaguars; most of them around what would have been the old boundaries of the beach. Nor were the various signs that sported jaguars over businesses, like an old inn, another bar, and a couple of restaurants, unexpected. He finished a roll of film and stopped by a pharmacy to buy a goodly supply, knowing he'd be taking lots more pictures once he finally got to the ancient temple. By the time he was making his way back to the hotel to meet Jim for lunch, he was struggling to understand what it was about the area, what quality of air or scent, or maybe vibrations from the earth itself, that triggered a sentinel's responses-or if it was some kind of genetic memory-or some other mystical element that was beyond the normal realm of modern science.
But even as open and accepting as Sandburg was, it was disconcerting to reflect on the parallels between the folktale they'd heard the night before and their own experiences. Were they caught in some kind of repeating pattern? Were the stories cautionary tales they needed to pay attention to and learn from? Folktales, fables, myth and legend often held kernels of truth, core messages about life and the foibles of man-one ignored them at one's peril. It made sense to him that sentinels shared a heritage of experience, driven as they were to protect, even to serve, but also essentially wary as they had to face unknown and often life-threatening dangers. Trust and betrayal would be huge issues for sentinels, an ingrained and instinctive suspicion central to their survival. Jim's wariness, his suspicious nature and his tendency to react immediately to any potential threat of betrayal could well be hard-wired into his psyche, as much a part of his genetic heritage as the senses themselves. Blair had always suspected as much, and the folktale about Botoque and the Jaguar reinforced his intuitive analysis that had long helped him to not take some of Jim's often unconsciously hurtful behaviours too personally.
Running his fingers through his hair in impatience, wishing he knew more, understood more, Blair was only too well aware that what had happened to Jim with Alex the last time he'd been in Sierra Verde might well be some kind of mystical experience. Anyone who saw spirit guides, a dead shaman, saw visions and could bring someone back from death was operating on a mystical plane, however much Jim didn't want to talk about it or even acknowledge it. Sighing, Blair had to admit he'd had his own experiences with the mysterious, having also seen his spirit guide in a jungle that existed nowhere on this earth, not to mention talking with archangels and being the guy who had literally been brought back from the dead. Curious by nature, and very open and accepting of transcendental experiences that went well beyond the realm of reason, Blair wasn't uncomfortable with the idea that the mysterious was at work here-only frustrated that he didn't understand it better and couldn't help Jim find some measure of acceptance that this was beyond any man's normal control.
As much as any of us can control anything, he thought sardonically as he entered the hotel and headed toward the coffee shop where he'd agreed to meet Jim for lunch.
"Come in, come in!" the old woman encouraged them with warm hospitality. She was tiny-not quite reaching Blair's shoulder-and wizened by age. The lines of a life well-lived made her brown face a map of wrinkles, and her grey hair was tied in a prim knot on the back of her head. But, despite her great age, her eyes were bright with life and intelligence as she peered up at them through old spectacles.
"Señora Alvarez," Blair replied with a bright smile. "Thank you for agreeing to see us. I'm Blair Sandburg and this is my friend, Jim Ellison."
"Ah, I'm glad to meet the both of you," she returned with a warm smile of her own, waving off his thanks as she turned to lead the way from the door to her small, cluttered living room. "José told me you are interested in hearing the old stories about the Jaguar. Not many people are today, so I'm pleased to share them with you."
She gestured them toward an old but comfortable sofa, fashioned in wood and covered with thick pillows decorated by a faded print of the jungle. Colourful wall hangings of knotted strands of red, yellow and orange wool gave life and warmth to the plain, whitewashed adobe walls and an old braided oval rug in shades of brown and beige decorated the hardwood floor. Easing herself down into a rocker, she reached for a teapot on the sturdy table beside her to pour three cups. She passed the beverage to them and then handed them a small brightly coloured ceramic plate of cookies that were obviously homemade and still warm from the oven. Both men were touched by the careful preparations she'd made to welcome them, especially as it was clear from the worn furnishings and her own faded, simple house dress that she likely didn't have a lot of money for entertaining strangers.
"So, you want to hear about the Jaguar," she began, looking at both of them with a sharp, perceptive gaze. "Do you mind telling me why?" Though she spoke with the musical Mexican accent, like her son she was obviously very fluent in English.
"Not at all," Blair replied easily as he set his glazed pottery mug on the coffee table. "I'm an anthropologist and I've long been interested in the old myths of the watchmen or guardians of the tribes. Sometimes they are called sentinels. Anyway, in my experience, folktales are a form of oral history that can reveal otherwise lost information about peoples and their cultures from long ago…"
"I see," she nodded sagely as her gaze shifted to Jim, studying him curiously as if she felt she should know him. "And are you an anthropologist as well?"
"No, uh, I'm a detective," Jim replied, shifting a little to drape one arm across the back of the couch. "Blair and I work together. He's a special consultant to the police department in Cascade, Washington-a forensic anthropologist."
Something flickered in her eyes as she gazed from one to the other, and then she nodded a little to herself, as if that brief and inadequate explanation made sense more than it raised other questions. Blair relaxed, as she seemed unperturbed by the idea that a forensic anthropologist would be interested in ancient stories of long ago myths.
"Well, let's see," she murmured to herself as she gazed from one man to the other, "I thought I might tell you two stories this afternoon." Leaning back in her chair, rocking slightly, she added, "The Jaguar has been important to my people throughout the ages, as have the sentinels you spoke of. This was once a very sacred place, a gathering place…but then, I suspect you already know that…"
When both men dropped their gaze, she smiled softly and nodded again as if unsurprised. Leaning forward a little, recapturing their attention, she warned them, "These are not happy stories, but they hold lessons for those who will listen and learn."
Satisfied that they were an attentive audience, she began, "The first story is about the Jaguar and the Deer."
Blair pulled his notebook out of his backpack to take notes as she spoke, while Jim settled back to listen.
"One day, a Deer went to look for a place to build himself a house," she told them, her voice low and melodious. "And, as it happened, there was also a Jaguar who was out looking for a place to set up a house. He came to the same place the Deer had chosen, not knowing the Deer had chosen it already, and thought he would build there. The next day the Deer came and thoroughly cleared the ground with his antlers. Later, after the Deer had left, the Jaguar came and said, ‘It seems somebody is helping me.' Then he stuck some big poles in the ground and set up the framework. The next day, the Deer came back and when he saw the work that had been done, he said, 'It seems somebody is helping me.' Then he covered the house with branches and made two rooms, one for him and the other one for whomever was helping him."
She paused to sip at her tea, watching them to see what they thought of the story so far. Jim looked a little bemused as he commented wryly, "I wouldn't peg a jaguar and a deer for roommates."
Chuckling softly, she continued, "When the Jaguar saw that the house was finished, he went into one room and fell asleep. The Deer came later and went to sleep in the other room. Neither had any idea of who was sharing the small home with him. Until, one day the two came home at the same time. When they saw each other, the Jaguar asked the Deer, 'Was it you who was helping me?' The Deer answered, 'Yes, it was me.' Then the Jaguar said, 'Let's live together.' 'Yes, let's live together in the same house,' said the Deer. They went to sleep and the following morning the Jaguar said, 'I'm going hunting, so sweep the floor, prepare wood and water, because I'll be hungry when I come back.'"
"Man, does that sound familiar," Blair teased and ducked as Jim playfully clipped him on the back of the head. So far, this story sounded more cheerful than the one they'd heard the previous evening, and since it didn't sound as if the Jag was going to eat Bambi, they both figured the story couldn't end too badly.
When Señora Alvarez looked at them in confused, if amused, tolerance at their antics, Jim explained, "We, uh, used to share an apartment."
"Really," she mused, her smile broadening. Pinning Ellison with a straight look, she ventured, "I wouldn't peg the two of you as roommates."
Both men laughed, well used to the fact that people were often surprised by a friendship between two such visibly disparate men, and encouraged her to go on with her story. She did, but her own smile faded away as she related what happened next.
"The Jaguar went to the woods to hunt and got a very large deer. He brought it home and said to his companion, 'Let's eat what I have caught.'"
"Ouch," Blair murmured. "That was a little insensitive."
"Hmm," she murmured, nodding in agreement, watching them closely as she carried on. "But the Deer didn't want to eat; he was very much afraid. He couldn't sleep all night long on account of fear. Early the next morning he went to the woods and met a very large jaguar. Later he met a large bull and said to him, 'I met a jaguar who was bad-mouthing you.'"
"I can see where this is going," Jim muttered, grimacing when Blair shushed him.
"The bull went looking for the jaguar and found him resting," she continued. "The bull came up to him slowly, leaped on top of him and gored him. The Deer returned after the bull had wandered off, and dragged away the carcass of the dead jaguar. When he got home, he said to his companion, 'Let's eat what I have caught.'"
"Oh, now that was nice," Jim observed sarcastically.
"Tit for tat," Blair intervened, impatient to hear the end.
Sighing, Señora Alvarez told them the last of it. "The Jaguar looked at the dead animal, and he didn't want to eat; he was very frightened. That night he couldn't sleep thinking about the Deer killing jaguars; and the Deer couldn't sleep thinking about the Jaguar killing deer. Both were very frightened. At midnight, as the Deer moved his head, his antlers struck the wooden walls of the house. The Jaguar and the Deer were frightened by the noise, and both of them ran out of the house without stopping. And so the Deer and the Jaguar each went his separate way." Finished with her first tale, she sat back to see if they had any comment.
Blair was frowning into the distance, his gaze troubled. Jim was watching Blair, and thinking about how Sandburg had wanted, even needed, to move out-because he hadn't felt 'respected'. A saddened look deep in his eyes, he dropped his gaze.
"Well, I guess that story is mostly about the importance of learning to communicate," Sandburg said quietly, turning his gaze back to the old woman.
"I think it's about showing one another respect," Jim muttered, earning a startled look from his partner.
"I think you're both right," the Señora offered. "Two very different beings can, perhaps, live compatibly, but it does require respect and communication to understand one another. Sadly, in this story, neither the Jaguar nor the Deer won-they both lost their home and possibly the opportunity for friendship."
"At least they didn't eat one another," Jim observed. "They each came out of the story whole."
"Did they?" she challenged. "Or were they both somehow less for having parted in fear? Worse, in a failure to communicate, to understand and respect one another, might their fear be not only for one another but also for all of their respective kind? Will their parting lead to prejudice? Might they even hunt one another one day?"
Jim's gaze narrowed, and pinched the bridge of his nose, wishing his headache would let up. Relationships at the best of times weren't his strong suit, and he found these metaphorical stories disturbing, even irritating. Why couldn't people just come out and say what they meant? Like I'm a master of expressing my thoughts and feelings, he thought with sudden sarcastic self-abasement.
Blair was thinking that though the Jaguar might have acted insensitively, it was the Deer that had acted out of malicious forethought and spite. Somehow, the observation made him feel uncomfortable. "Maybe," he ventured uncertainly, "if the story is a metaphor for sentinel relationships, it's about trying to understand that the sentinel, while perhaps brusque and even thoughtless at times, means no harm. And even though he is a ferocious hunter, he can be vulnerable, even to such an apparently harmless creature as a deer. Or, in other words, the people he helps to shelter and feed can be dangerous to him if he's not careful."
She smiled at him, well pleased by his perceptive understanding. Nodding, she reflected, "I've often wondered if that was part of the meaning. Sentinels were, by necessity, lone wolves. But, they could not survive in isolation. Alone, completely alone, they were vulnerable. So, the legends tell us that they usually had a dear and trusted companion with them…" She noticed that Señor Ellison unconsciously looked at the younger man, just as Señor Sandburg's gaze lifted to look at his friend.
Looking away discreetly, she rose, saying, "I'll just go make us a fresh pot of tea before I tell you another story."
"Can I help?" Blair asked, rising to his feet. But she waved him back down with a soft, "Gracias, but no, I can manage," as she left them alone.
Sinking back down, Sandburg swallowed and then asked, "Do you think I was wrong to move out?"
Shaking his head, Jim replied quietly, "No, Chief. You had good reasons, lots of them. But, to be honest, the way it's worked out, I don't think of you moving out so much as I think of it as expanding the loft to give us both more space."
Blowing out a breath, Blair confided, "I'm glad you arranged that, Jim. I don't think I would have been happy if I'd found a place on the other side of town."
"Me, either, Chief," Jim sighed, then, shrugging, his eyes narrowed as he reflected, "You know, I'm trying hard not to personalize these stories, but don't they seem a little too close to home?"
"Well, maybe. Yeah, I guess," Blair allowed, but then added quietly to ensure he wasn't overheard by the elderly woman in the next room, "But they're stories that give us insight into sentinel behaviour and experience, right? So, it makes sense that they seem to apply to our circumstances. I was hoping we'd hear stuff like this, to give us some idea about the old ways and practices, the ancient lessons. Like all fables, these stories are about human behaviour and apply as well today as when they were first told."
Jim scratched his cheek and nodded thoughtfully, looking up as Señora Alvarez came back into the room. Standing, he took both his mug and Sandburg's for a refill of the tea, murmuring, "Gracias," as he turned back to hand a cup to Blair.
"De nada," she replied with a gentle smile. "Now, are you ready for the next story? It's about the Jaguar and the Skunk…"
"The skunk?" Blair exclaimed, a little surprised at the innocuous animal that would feature in the next tale. So far in the stories they'd heard, the Jaguar's companions had ranged from a fairly useless and ultimately untrustworthy boy, a frightened but malicious and devious deer, and now a smelly, little scavenger. Didn't say much for the sentinel's 'companion' of old, if that's what they supposedly represented. He shifted and grimaced, uncomfortably aware of how the parallels could all too well apply to his own behaviour, not that he was malicious, but he could be devious…and he had moved out.
"Sounds interesting," Jim encouraged, reading Blair's expression like an open book and casting his partner a teasing glance as he wrinkled his nose to lighten his mood, because if he was the jaguar, well then, that meant Sandburg was the little stinker. Blair snorted softly but didn't say anything in reply to the wordless jibe about his socks, his candles and incense and Jim's olfactory opinion of some of the exotic foods he used to bring into the loft.
"Once there was a Gentleman Jaguar and a Lady Skunk," their hostess began, her tones altering as she took on the voices of the characters in the story. "Señora Skunk had a son, who was baptized by Señor Jaguar, so Señora Skunk became his comadre. And as Señor Jaguar had baptized the little skunk, he was Señora Skunk's compadre. One day, Señor Jaguar decided to go looking for food and came to Señora Skunk's house. As he was unexpected, the Lady Skunk was surprised to see him. 'Well, compadre, what are you looking for?' she asked the Jaguar. 'What have you come here for?'
"'Comadre, our stores of meat are running low, so I need to go hunting for more food,' said Señor Jaguar. 'I want my godson to come with me so that he can learn to hunt.'
"'Oh, I don't think your godson ought to go,' Señora Skunk protested, frowning with worry. ‘He's still very small and something could happen to him. He better not go, compadre.'
"But the little skunk argued," the old woman continued. "'No, mother, I had better go. What my godfather says is true. I need to get some practice, if I'm going to learn to hunt.'
"'But if you go, you'll be so far away,' protested Señora Skunk.
"But the little one was adamant, and even excited, to have such an honour as to go hunting with his godfather, the great Jaguar. And so the two, the Jaguar and the little skunk, set off on a long walk. As they traveled, Señor Jaguar explained to the little skunk, his godson, that they were going to the river. All the way, the little one badgered with questions, wanting to know what they'd do when they got there. But the Jaguar just shook his head patiently, cautioning the little skunk to follow him so that he wouldn't get lost-and finally they came to the river.
"'This is where we're going to eat,' said Señor Jaguar to the little skunk. 'Come on over here. I'm going to sharpen my knife,' said Señor Jaguar. Fascinated, the little skunk watched closely, as his godfather sharpened his claws.
"'I sharpened my knife. Now you're going to be on guard, because I am going to sleep. When you see them come, wake me up,' said Señor Jaguar. 'All right,' said the little skunk, eager to help and to please, 'all right, godfather.' But then Señor Jaguar cautioned him, 'Don't wake me up if just any little old animals without antlers come along, only when the one with big antlers gets here. That's when you'll wake me up-and don't shout. Just be very quiet and scratch my belly when they come. Scratch my belly, so I won't alarm them.'
"The little one nodded, his eyes wide with excitement. Bravely, he stood watch while the Jaguar slept and then the one with the big antlers came, and the skunk awakened Señor Jaguar. He scratched his belly, and pointed out the deer to Señor Jaguar, who attacked the animal with big antlers."
"Sounds like Señor Jaguar hasn't forgiven Señor Deer," Blair observed wryly, though he knew the stories were not necessarily related to one another. Still, he was having difficulty not smirking at the idea of scratching Jim's belly to rouse him. Maybe he'd have to try that the next time his Sentinel zoned-yeah, and then run for the hills. Amusement aside, Blair hadn't missed that the little skunk was playing a kind of lookout or back up role, allowing the Jaguar to rest while he kept watch. Damn, he just knew Jim was going to be treating him to skunk jokes for the next few days-he could only hope that his partner refrained from sharing this story with their friends back home or he'd never hear the end of it.
Ellison, for his part, contented himself with raising one brow and cutting his partner a mock look of mingled threat and promise, as much as to say that he knew exactly what Sandburg was thinking. But, truth be told, Jim had been a little afraid the Jag might snap up the little stinker, sort of as an appetizer, and was relieved the hunter was after bigger game.
Señora Alvarez refrained from any comment, simply continuing on with her story. "'All right, my godson, let's eat. We're going to eat meat,' said the Jaguar. And so they ate and ate. 'Now, since we are full, we're going to take whatever leftovers there are to your mother, so that she will have meat to eat, just as we did.' When they came back to the mother's house, he told Señora Skunk, 'Look, we've brought you some food, the food that we hunted. Eat your fill of the meat, comadre.'
"'All right,' said the Lady Skunk, and she ate some of the meat. 'I'm full,' she said.
"'It's good that you're satisfied. I've seen that you are, so I'll be leaving now,' said Señor Jaguar to Señora Skunk. And so he left while the little skunk stayed with his mother."
"Hmm," Blair murmured. "If this is an allegory of a sentinel's behaviour, it sounds like he was fulfilling his role of providing for his tribe."
The old woman nodded to him, but again she refrained from making any comment. Intent upon concluding this story, she carried on, mimicking the voices of the Lady Skunk and her son. "When they ran out of meat, Señora Skunk said to her son, 'Dear, our meat is all gone.'
"'Yes, I see. I better go and get us some more food,' said the little skunk.
"'How can you, son? Do you think you're big enough? You're very small. Don't you think you'll be killed?' asked Señora Skunk.
Jim stiffened, a scowl darkening his features. He didn't like where he thought this story was going and, unconsciously, he reached out to grip Sandburg's shoulder. Blair could hold his own, but he invariably got into trouble when he went after big game alone, whether intentionally like Ventriss, or unintentionally, like Lash…and Alex.
"'No, mother, I already know how to hunt, my godfather taught me how,' replied the little skunk. And so, feeling very grown up, he left not noticing that his mother was still very worried. Her son came once more to the river, the place to which he had come with his godfather to get the meat. ‘This is how my godfather did it. Why shouldn't I be able to do the same thing?' said the little skunk. ‘This is how you sharpen a knife. I'm not going to hunt the little animals. I'm just going to hunt the one with the great big antlers just like the one I ate with my godfather. I have my knife here and I'm going to sleep for a little while.'
"The little skunk lay down to sleep, but then he awakened. He was waiting for the one with the big antlers, and when he came, he attacked him, thinking he was as strong as his godfather. But even though he dug his claws in as deeply as he could, he just barely penetrated the tough hide and hung from the neck of the one with big antlers. The one with the antlers didn't even notice him, and he was carried far away until he grew too tired to hang on any longer and fell on his back. It was a long way down to the hard rocky ground and he was left lying on his back with his mouth wide open."
Ellison flinched as his gut twisted, his mind flooded with unbidden and unwelcome memories of his Guide lying on his back on the wet morning grass, unmoving, not breathing. Biting his lip, he dropped his gaze from the old woman's too perceptive eyes, wishing he didn't have to listen to any more of the story.
But Blair couldn't seem to tear his eyes away from her, and he felt as if his chest was suddenly too tight to breathe. She'd warned them that these were not happy stories, but surely-surely the little skunk-the little guide-wasn't dead! He'd be winded sure, but how could you learn a lesson if you were dead?
The Señora watched them both closely as she continued, sensing their tension, and believing she understood at least some of the reason for it. "Since he had not come home to his mother, Señora Skunk wondered, 'What could have happened to my son? Why hasn't he come back yet? Something must have happened to him. I better go and look for him.' And so Señora Skunk went as far as the bank of the river. She was looking everywhere for her son, but couldn't find him. She began to cry when she found the tracks where the one with the big antlers had come running by.
"'They must have come by here,' said Señora Skunk, and began to follow the tracks. She came to the place where her son had been left lying on his back. When the mother caught sight of him, she noticed that his teeth were showing and shouted at him, 'Son, what are you laughing at?' But he didn't answer. Annoyed, she told him sharply when she got closer, 'Give me your hand. I've come to get you, but you're just laughing in my face.' She put her hand on him, to shake him, but then she began to cry. The little skunk was cold and dead."
Blair stiffened, wincing when the final words were uttered, and Jim cursed softly under his breath.
"I'm sorry if the story has upset you," Señora Alvarez told them, a worried look on her face.
Blinking to drag his attention back from cold memories of the fountain, Blair hastened to reassure her. "Oh, no, please-we wanted to hear your stories and you've been very kind to spend time with us today. It's just that, well, I'm surprised. I hadn't expected that ending. I thought the little skunk would learn that he couldn't be the Jaguar, couldn't play that role," he explained, cutting a quick look at Jim. "I mean, I understood the allegory when the skunk was keeping watch, so the Jaguar could rest, like a companion keeping watch for a sentinel. But…"
"But it's tough to think that hanging around with the Jaguar meant that the little skunk would be killed," Jim muttered, his jaw tight.
"It's not an inevitable conclusion," Blair insisted sharply, pretty certain that he knew what Jim was thinking.
"Isn't it?" Ellison asked wearily, rubbing his forehead; his headache was back with a vengeance. "What other conclusion could you get from that?"
Her gaze shifting from one to the other, Señora Alvarez knew she did not fully understand the sudden tension in the room. Cutting into the conversation, she offered, "These stories can have many meanings, and as Señor Sandburg has just said, one is that others try to play the role of the sentinel at their peril. It is, indeed, dangerous for the companion to believe he can be the hunter or the guardian on his own. While the companion has many skills, necessary skills, he is not a sentinel."
"That's true enough," Blair sighed and found a wan smile for her. "So it's a cautionary tale."
But she did not answer, her mind on other matters. Focusing her gaze on Jim, she asked, "You've been here before, haven't you? You were one of the people who found the Temple in the jungle a few months ago."
"I, uh, yeah," Jim acknowledged with a shrug.
Nodding, she continued, "I thought I recognized you from the pictures in the newspaper at the time." Looking at Blair, she observed, "But you were not here then, were you? Why did your friend come here alone?"
Looking away, Sandburg told her, "I was, uh, not well at the time-in hospital."
"I see," she mused. "And now the two of you have come together, to learn-to visit the Temple, si?"
"Yes, well, Jim said it was a pretty interesting place, and as I said, I'm an anthropologist, so I was curious…" Blair obfuscated.
"More than just curious, I think," she cut in, having little time for half-truths. For a moment, she simply gazed at them, her thoughts turned inward as she debated saying more. Finally, nodding a little to herself, she turned her attention back to them. "My grandfather was a shaman," she told them then. "I learned these stories, and the myths about sentinels and their companions from him. The old ways have gotten lost, forgotten by most, but that does not mean that sentinels never existed. Indeed, I believe they still exist, though few hear of them any more. The two of you-you are sentinel and companion, are you not?"
"Well, I, that is…" Sandburg stammered, but she waved off his attempt to explain.
"You do not need to tell me your secrets or your purpose here," she said matter-of-factly. "I believe it is time for you to go to the Temple. Perhaps you will find the answers you seek there. But-be careful, my sons. This is not a game. There is danger."
"What kind of danger?" Ellison demanded, straightening as his muscles tensed.
"Long years ago, this area around the Temple was a meeting place where the tribes came every two or three years," she said then, avoiding a direct response. "It was the one place that was sacred to all, respected by all, where sentinels could come together in safety, even in respect for one another. Here, the companions and sentinels were trained for their roles. And it was here that sentinels chose their companions from the best that the tribes had to offer-young men who might have become shaman, but who chose instead to follow a more rigorous and much more dangerous path and so offered themselves as potential companions."
Frowning, Blair asked, "Were all the sentinels and guides, er, companions, male?"
"No, sentinels might be either male or female, and very rarely, very rarely, girls might become companions. But the companion's way is hard, even for a man. It requires endurance and a peculiar empathy, wisdom and physical strength. A girl's role was to marry, and have many children-something impossible to do while traveling with and safeguarding a sentinel. And, the companions, like the little skunk, faced dangers they were often not physically able to discern or avert-they did not have the magical senses, you see? So the tribes were reluctant to risk their women…" she explained.
Jim studied the old woman intently, certain that they weren't getting the whole story. "You haven't told us what dangers may lurk at the Temple," he said bluntly.
"No," she replied with a tired sigh as she stood to lead them to the door, her time with them now over. "You must go and find the answers for yourselves. You must make your own choices. I will pray for you. I will pray that you will find your way and make the choices that are right for you."
Jim led the way through the narrow, busy streets back to the hotel, striding quickly. His headache was hammering viciously, and he sincerely wished there might have been a way to avoid ever coming back here. Blair followed after him, skipping a little to keep up with his best friend's longer gait.
"Jim, hey, where's the fire, man?" he called out, pulling on Ellison's arm to slow him down.
Fighting his impulse to shake Sandburg off, Ellison took a breath and slowed, but not by much.
"She knew, didn't she?" Blair asked, and Jim understood that his partner was referring to his heightened perceptions in reading other people.
Nodding tightly, Ellison confirmed, "Yeah, it's pretty clear she saw right through us, Chief."
Blowing out a breath, Blair said, "Well, I guess she's right. It's time to head out to the Temple. We'll leave first thing in the morning."
Pausing on the street, Jim turned to face his partner. "I'm not sure that's a great idea, Sandburg. If there're dangers out in that jungle…"
"I don't think she meant the usual sort of thing, Jim," Blair replied. "We're not up against bad guys here. There are things we need to learn…"
"Why?" Jim cut in, his voice rising. "Why do we have to learn anything? We've been doing fine, right? I don't see any reason to take risks…"
"What risks?" Blair retorted. "She said we'd face choices, man, that's all-just choices! We've faced lots of choices. For all we know, there may be greater risks if we don't go out there! That would be a choice, too, dammit!"
"What do you hope to learn? Why do you think this is so necessary?" Ellison demanded, more afraid than he wanted to admit because there was no basis for his fear. He'd been to the Temple-it was just a heap of old stone that housed very strange pools that Jim intended to steer well away from. But his gut was knotted and he knew the old woman was right…there were dangers of some kind out there. Dangers he couldn't predict or prepare for…maybe dangers to his Guide and best friend.
Blair looked at him askance for a long moment, and then his gaze broke away as if he was searching the air around them for answers. Finally, turning his attention back to Jim, his hands raised to emphasize his words, he said, "We keep making mistakes, Jim, both of us. Maybe it's because we don't have any idea of what we're doing, not really. Back on the night when I moved into my own place, I said it was time to banish the shadows. Don't you see? We have to do this. We need to do this."
Jim glared at Blair for a long moment, his jaw tight and a hollow feeling in his gut. Danger. What could the danger be? Dammit, he couldn't just blindly go into something that might risk…might risk Sandburg's life again. Shattered imagery from his nightmares rose in his mind and he felt a frisson of fear ripple through his body.
But nor could he ignore the plea in the wide blue eyes that held his own. Licking his lips, forcing himself to breathe deeply, he ran his fingers through his short, cropped hair and then massaged the back of his neck. Finally, his rigid posture gave way as he sagged a little in defeat. He knew if he didn't go, Blair would go out there without him. He'd made a promise to see this through.
The little skunk had died because he'd set out without the Jaguar, alone and unprotected.
"Fine," he grated. "We'll go in the morning."
Knowing that they'd be heading into the rainforest to spend a week or more at the site of the Temple and unsure of what they could rent in the village of Sierra Verde, they'd brought some of their camping gear from Cascade, a tent large enough for two, four canteens, some basic cooking utensils, a small kit of medical supplies and their sleeping bags. In the morning, feeling wasted after another night of fractured sleep and frightening visions, Jim rented an SUV to take them as far as they could go into the jungle before they'd have to proceed on foot, while Blair did the shopping for food. Meeting back at the hotel, Jim dutifully called his boss to let him know that they were leaving the hotel for a week or so, and then they loaded their packs with the supplies. After placing their unnecessary baggage in the hotel storage, they checked out, had a quick lunch and were on the road just after noon.
The roads just outside of the village were paved, if cracked and in serious need of repair, but before long, Jim had turned onto a side road that was little more than a heavily rutted track. In less than an hour, even that track had petered out to nothing more than an uneven trail, rocky in places and so heavily grassed or thick with mud in others that they had to proceed slowly, only the all-wheel-drive traction and the weight of the vehicle allowing them to continue at all.
It took three hours to go scarcely more than thirty miles, and much of that was out of their way, but the route avoided bogs and marshes, areas of quicksand that would have sucked them in without warning. Nevertheless, Jim seriously wondered if they wouldn't have been better to walk all the way from the village rather than try to manage with the truck. The air was heavy, thick with humidity and the odours of the jungle were a jumbled mix of sour pungency and sweetness-all of it combining to aggravate his continuing headache. With each passing day since their arrival, his sense of physical discomfort had grown. Sometimes it felt as if something was crawling under his skin, irritating and itchy, and the hollowness in his gut had become a dull ache. His mouth and throat were dry, as if he was in a perpetual state of excitement though what he most felt was dread.
But, as bad as the physical discomfort of being in the vicinity of the Temple was, it was also almost a relief. On his last trip, Jim had attributed it all to his inexplicable reaction to Alex Barnes, thinking her the cause of his bizarre emotions and behaviour. Now he knew it was the place itself that played havoc with his senses and left him ever-poised on the edge of arousal. Alex had been part of it, and they'd both no doubt been caught up in sensations and visions they didn't understand, but at least now Jim knew she wasn't the whole of it. He'd been dreaming of the Temple-dreaming of the Eye of God. A few of the dreams were wonderful, but most often they were horror shows of pain and terror.
He did NOT want to go to the damned Temple.
"Talk to me, Jim," Blair said quietly. "You look like you're ready to chew nails."
Snorting softly, Ellison shook his head. "I just don't have a good feeling about this, Chief. I'm sorry, I know this trip is important to you-but I think I'd rather be just about anywhere else but here."
"Why?" Sandburg asked. "What is it that's bothering you so much?"
Sighing, Jim wished he were better with putting what he felt into words, better at conveying what worried him. Shrugging, he muttered, "There's something about the place, the air, the smells, I don't know, but it's driving me nuts. It's like-like being on the edge of an abyss, or falling in love. Uncomfortable. Unpredictable. Out of control. My skin itches and my senses feel off. I can't sleep without seeing… things."
"What things?" Blair pushed, thinking of Alex's visions, and Jim's too, for that matter. "The Temple?"
"Sometimes," Jim nodded. "But…" he struggled to find words, shaking his head helplessly, gritting his jaw against the memories.
"Death," Ellison blurted, his tone harsh with impatience and irritation-and fear, as his hands gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles were white as he fought the continuous lurching of the vehicle along the uneven earth. "I see death, all right? You satisfied now? And devastation. Terrible, horrible images of things I can't stop or control. Like when I was in the damned grotto, in the pool in the Temple. Flashing, fractured images that don't make any sense but that scare the shit out of me."
One arm braced on the dash, Blair had turned in the seat until he was facing Jim, studying him intently, a solemn expression on his face. "I'm sorry this is so hard for you," he said quietly. "Maybe I should have done this alone."
"NO!" Ellison exclaimed, the very idea sending signals as real as flashing red warning signs along his nerve endings. "No," he repeated, soberly. "Whatever this is about, I don't want you out there on your own."
Nodding, Blair looked out at the jungle that surrounded them, the long fronds reaching out as if to capture them as the SUV brushed by. The thick growth formed a canopy overhead that virtually blocked out direct sunlight, leaving everything shadowed and somehow mysterious. He chewed on his lip briefly, then asked, "What kind of devastation? Whose death do you see?"
The muscle along Ellison's jaw rippled as he clenched his teeth and fought back the sour bile that rose in his throat at the memories of those dreams. He shook his head, not wanting to put the images into words.
"Jim," Blair prodded, again turning his earnest, wide gaze upon his friend, though he kept one hand solidly braced on the dash to counter the jerky motion of the truck, "we agreed that we had to talk about this stuff-that keeping your visions and dreams secret just gets us into more trouble. You have to tell me, man, or I can't help you."
For a long moment, it seemed Ellison might guard his silence, but then he swallowed hard and gave a single, sharp nod of acquiescence. "The, uh, devastation is just broken images, mostly. Wild, thrashing wind, tumbling stones and collapsing rooms, trees blown over, none of it making any sense." He paused to cut Sandburg a quick look, and in that moment Blair saw raw pain in his partner's eyes. Looking away, taking a breath, Jim muttered, "I see…I'm holding…"
But his throat closed, and he couldn't say it, didn't ever want to see it again-didn't ever want to go there, didn't want to think about it or believe it could ever be real.
Sandburg sat back against the seat and turned to stare out at the jungle. "You see me…"
"Yeah," Jim grated, his voice hoarse. "Not-not at the fountain. Here, in this damned jungle." Reaching the end of the trail so far as the SUV was concerned, Ellison stopped fighting the ruts and rocks and brought the truck to a stop. Turning to Blair, he said with tight control, "You want to help me with these visions? These nightmares? Then just stay alive, okay? Just…just don't let them come true."
"Trust me, Jim," Blair said, a ghost of a smile playing about his lips, "I didn't come here to die, man." When Jim just stared at him, finding nothing amusing in the situation, Sandburg sighed as he reached out to grip his best friend's arm. "It'll be okay. The dreams…they're manifestations of your anxieties, an expression of what could be possible, not what is inevitable. If I was here alone, well, maybe then I'd be worried. But with you here? Man, I know I'll be fine."
Ellison searched his friend's eyes and saw only perfect trust and confidence shining back at him. Slowly, he nodded, wishing he could be as confident as Sandburg was that there was nothing to worry about.
They made short work of loading up their gear and heading into the jungle, wanting to get as close to the Temple as they could before night fell. Jim led the way, not needing any compass or map, as he pushed through and past the thick growth of long-leafed ferns. It was disconcerting, this sense of knowing where they were and where they needed to go, to feel as if he'd walked this path before, when he knew the last time he had approached the Temple from a different direction. Fragments of visions, of memories he knew he couldn't possibly have flitted before his eyes and he recognized some of what he'd seen in his dreams.
The heat was overpowering, the humidity oppressive, made worse by the veil of tiny insects that hovered around them in clouds, irritating their eyes and nostrils, making them both feel itchy. Few birds called out to break the silence of the jungle. Their packs chafed against their backs, feeling heavy and unwieldy, and both felt tired from lack of sleep. After an hour, they called it quits for the night and set up a simple camp in a tiny clearing near a rushing stream. Stripping off their sweat-soaked clothing, both sighed with blissful relief at the feel of the cool water they splashed on their skin. By the time they'd finished a cold meal consisting of sandwiches, fruit and a litre of water each to restore energy and fluids to their bodies, dusk had begun to fall and they decided to make an early night of it, both hoping for a dreamless sleep.
Despite their hopes, neither found it easy to succumb to sleep. Blair kept wondering what exactly Jim had seen in his nightmares but it was clear that Ellison had told him as much as he was going to about the visions, if that's what they were. Finally, knowing his partner was as awake as he was, Blair murmured quietly, "Jim, if, uh, if it turns out I was wrong to insist on coming here, well…remember this was all my idea."
Ellison sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, knowing full well what Sandburg was trying to say. "I won't let anything happen to you, Sandburg," he replied as quietly, though his voice was rough with the vehemence of his commitment. "Maybe they're just nightmares, no more than that."
"Jim, I…" Blair began again.
"Let it go, Chief," Jim replied wearily. "Just try to get some sleep, okay?"
"Yeah, sure," Blair mumbled, unsatisfied but accepting that Jim wasn't prepared to talk any more that night. And his partner was right; they both needed whatever rest they could get. Rolling over onto his side, he whispered, "You try to sleep, too. 'Night, Jim."
But Ellison was afraid that sleep would only bring the nightmares back one more time…so he fought it off and maintained a silent vigil while his partner slept, until his exhaustion over-powered his desire to remain awake and he, too, drifted off.
Toward dawn, the Sentinel jerked awake, cursing silently about dreams that had been haunted again by scenes of devastation. Swallowing, he noticed that his headache was worsening and that the air around him felt different. Looking around, alert to his environment, he blinked to focus his sight as he noticed that a wind had begun to rustle through the jungle. High above, through the small breaks in the leaves, he could see dark clouds scudding across the sky. Frowning, he rolled over and shook Sandburg's shoulder, waking him. He'd heard on the news the day before that a storm was rolling in from the ocean, and had even hoped for one to break the relentless heat and humidity, but his senses told him the air pressure was falling too fast, and that this 'storm' might be more than the relatively tame phenomena they were used to back in Cascade.
"We need to get going, Junior," he said abruptly, fighting off an eerie sense of déjà vu as dim memories of the images of a very bad storm in his nightmares surfaced, a wild, thrashing wind and cutting rain. "There's a storm heading our way, maybe a big one. Let's try to get to the Temple before it hits."
In minutes, they had the tent folded and packed away, their gear stowed and they were loping through the jungle toward the Temple of the Sentinels.
The wind picked up as they traveled, and though much of its force was blocked by the thick vegetation, the canopy of branches and leaves high above them was thrashing wildly, and it was dim, almost dark, the sun evidently blocked by heavy clouds. Jim had to dial down his hearing a notch, the dry, clacking clatter of palm fronds whipped by the wind, and the creak of tree trunks swaying and resisting the onslaught of the storm, were irritating and distracting. The rain, when it came, was cold and hard, quickly drenching them to the skin and obscuring the details of their environment, as if a curtain had been pulled to close the world in around them. Thunder rumbled and crashed, rolling toward them, growing louder and more threatening, until Jim had to adjust his hearing again before the sudden, shattering sounds brought him to his knees.
"Pick it up, Chief!" he called over the tumult of the storm to the man loping close behind his shoulder. "We need to get under some shelter!"
There was a horrendous crack and crash, like an explosion, very close by, and both men flinched unconsciously, looking up and around to see where the lightning had hit. Jim saw the upper half of a tall palm tilt toward them, gathering speed as it fell even as he grabbed Sandburg and threw him forward, out of the way of the destroyed tree. They both landed heavily in the mud as the thick trunk smashed through other vegetation, flattening all in its path as it ploughed into the ground where Sandburg had been standing only moments before.
"Whoa! Thanks, man," Blair blurted as he dragged in air, trying to still the sudden burst of fear at the near miss before it swamped him.
But Jim was already up and had grabbed his arm, dragging him forward toward the only shelter the jungle offered. Ellison knew the Temple couldn't be far now, and he wanted them both out of the weather before it got any worse. They slipped and slogged through the mud and the torrential rain, half loping, half staggering through the thrashing forest. Palms fronds whipped out at them, thin leaves like razors slicing shallow cuts into their faces, arms and hands, until runnels of blood mingled with the rain that soaked their clothing and chilled their bodies. Ellison kept a tight grip on Sandburg, pushing him forward ahead of him, desperate to get them to safety.
When they finally stumbled out into the small clearing between the massive stone pillars topped by two snarling jaguars in front of the Temple, Blair stopped and gaped in astonishment at the size and magnificence of the ruin. But Jim allowed him no time to enjoy his first glimpse of the ancient and mysterious edifice, hauling him forward to scramble up the uneven, eroded stone steps made slick by moss and rain. Thunder crashed as lightning flashed, a long threatening flickering fork of bright power piercing the thick clouds visible over the Temple. Wind howled and shrieked like a banshee around them, a physical force that battered them as rain that felt like thousands of sharp pellets lashed their faces and bodies. The air, so hot and heavy for days had become a frenzied, screaming fury rampaging through the jungle.
Ellison shoved Sandburg through the portal, the sudden shelter from the wind and rain almost a shock as they stumbled across the chill stone of the floor.
"Oh, man," Blair muttered, breathing hard as he wiped the water from his face and shook his head, shedding droplets in a fine spray. "I didn't hear anything about any hurricanes passing this way!"
"That's not a hurricane, Junior," Jim gasped shivering a bit in the shadowed portal as he turned to look back out at the raging storm. "That's just a little tropical storm," he added sarcastically, thinking the weather reports had badly underestimated the force of the gale raging around them.
"Little?" Sandburg protested. "I've been in 'little' tropical storms before, Jim. That sucker's got to be almost hurricane class. I could hardly stay on my feet."
"I noticed," Jim replied, looking back over his shoulder with a sardonic grin. He felt almost giddy from having survived the journey through the waking nightmare that was resonating too closely with the terrors of his dreams. They'd made it to shelter intact, and the Temple would protect them from the worst the weather had to offer. They had plenty of supplies and could outlast whatever Mother Nature threw at them-they were safe. Turning to move farther into the Temple's antechamber, he pulled his pack from his shoulder and knelt to rummage through it. "First order of business is to get into some dry clothes. And then we need to look around and see if there's any dry wood stockpiled anywhere inside for torches and a fire."
He might have been talking to the ancient stone itself for all the attention he got. Sandburg had lifted his eyes to look around the large entry hall, noting corridors heading off in different directions around the circumference of the rounded chamber. His mouth was a little agape, and even in the dimness, Jim could see his eyes sparkling with avid curiosity. His pack had slid unheeded down one arm and he was clutching it absently, his mind fully occupied with the wonder of actually being inside the Temple of the Sentinels.
Inside a myth.
Inside a sacred place most in his world had given up believing had ever existed.
His pack slipped to the floor and he began to move forward, slowly, squinting in the uncertain light as he tried to make out the hieroglyphics and carvings high on the walls around them.
"Sandburg!" Jim called out sharply to break into his friend's concentration.
"Huh?" Blair mumbled, turning finally to gaze with an air of abstraction at Jim. "What?"
Ellison threw a towel, dry jeans and a sweatshirt at his friend as he replied, his voice echoing hollowly against the stonewalls, "Get dry first, Stinky…and then you can look around to your heart's content."
"Stinky?" Sandburg groaned as he caught the bits of cloth his partner had tossed to him. "Oh, man, I knew you wouldn't let that go…"
Jim chuckled as he towelled off his hair and then began to strip out of his own equally sodden clothing. The falling, lightning-struck tree hadn't crushed Sandburg, as it had in one of the nightmare visions that haunted him. The rain-washed smears of blood and splatters of mud on his best friend's face looked messy but Jim knew the damage was superficial at worst, a far cry from the mask of death he'd imagined seeing in his dreams. His little skunk was going to make it home in one piece, he thought with decidedly cheerful relief.
While Jim prowled around looking for a store of wood and set up their camp to one side of the entrance in the round entry chamber, Blair grabbed a flashlight from his kit and began his first, if necessarily cursory, examination of the Temple's treasure of knowledge and artefacts. Though Ellison was wary of the sudden crashes of thunder from outside, he dialled up his hearing enough to keep track of his friend when he spotted Blair heading out of the hall and disappearing down one of the dark, side corridors. Sandburg's sense of direction was challenged at the best of times, let alone in the twisting, dark passageways that Jim remembered from the last time he'd been within these walls. Though he knew he could look up and easily see the small side chamber with the twin pools where Alex had drugged him and he'd seen those hair-raising visions, he chose not to look in that direction. The memories of what had occurred there were too sharp to need freshening.
Ellison found a store of long ago gathered sticks and logs of wood in a niche in the wall, some of it crumbling with age, but much of it useable, so he built a small fire and then held a pot outside to gather rainwater, to set on to boil. He could use a coffee and he was pretty certain that Sandburg would be grateful for a mug of tea once he came down off cloud nine long enough to notice the chill from the damp, mould-shrouded walls. He cleared the floor around the fire of animal and bird droppings, small bones and other residue of the local wildlife and then spread out their sleeping bags so that they wouldn't have to sit on the cold stone. Moments after setting another pot, this one of a nourishing soup, over the fire, he heard a soft, muffled, and embarrassed sounding, "Uh? Jim?" echoing from somewhere in the Temple interior under the rumble of the thunder that still rolled overhead.
Shaking his head with fond indulgence, the Sentinel stood with a smile to set off to find his evidently already lost Guide.
But his amusement died stillborn when he caught the sharp, if slightly breathless words. "Snakes, Jim. The place is crawling with snakes!"
Grabbing up a long stick that was forked at one end, and one of the burning brands from the fire, Jim launched into a run as he headed into the dark corridor.
Jim raced through dark, dank corridors of stone, splashing through puddles of rain that had leaked in through crumbling stone, skidding a little on the slick granite as he lunged around corners and up or down what seemed like endless steep steps carved from the rock. Thunder continued to rumble and crack overhead, so he didn't dare turn his hearing up to listen for his partner's heart beat to determine if Sandburg was all right-he couldn't risk being incapacitated if his Guide was in danger and needed him. Ellison had not ventured this far into the Temple on his last trip, all of the action of that misadventure taking place near the entrance and he cursed the maze of passages that wouldn't allow him a direct path to his friend. Memories warred with his rising fear, fragments of truncated visions in his nightmares of Blair writhing helplessly in the clutches of a massive snake, a python or anaconda…like some bad horror movie.
Only this wasn't a movie or some nightmare vision. This was real.
Finally, breathing hard, Ellison found himself at the top of a broad staircase of broken stone that led down into an internal grotto with a waterfall that splashed from out of the stone high above into a pool below. A large section of the rim of stone that had given partial shelter to this ancient garden, and part of the exterior wall, had long since fallen into uneven heaps of broken rocks around the far side of the pool. Huge squared-off boulders that individually would have weighed tons were tumbled like broken blocks, giving way to the jungle beyond. Rain poured down from the turbulent skies, a solid wall of water that pelted the pool and drenched the surrounding trees and shrubs.
At the bottom of the staircase, just within the shelter of the remaining stone ledge looming overhead, close enough to be splashed with the storm's spray, a writhing mass of snakes of all sizes swarmed as they tried to escape the deluge. And just a few steps above them, directly under the overhanging ledge, Blair seemed to be wrestling with a long golden brown serpent that was tightly entwined around his body and apparently distinctly disinclined to let go.
Recognizing the breed of snake from his time in Peru, Jim slowed his frightened rush as he loped down the long flight of steps while eying the snakes further below. "Find a new lady friend, Chief?" he drawled.
"Very funny, Jim," Blair giggled, as he turned his face up to his friend, and Jim was amazed to see that, far from being afraid, Sandburg's eyes were sparkling with amusement. "Give me a hand here, big guy. He's found a warm pole to wind around and he really doesn't want to let go. But, he hugs kinda hard, if you know what I mean, and my ribs are beginning to protest such unabashed affection."
"Chief, when you called me, I thought you were in trouble," Ellison chided as he sauntered down the steps.
"Nah, I knew it's just a boa, but man, he is tenacious!" Blair snickered. "But, he's got some friends down there that I thought you should check out. I'm pretty sure some of them are of a more poisonous nature. We may need to keep an eye out for their relatives inside the Temple, in case any have already started to hunt up rodents for dinner."
Continuing his descent down the long staircase of cracked and broken stone, slippery with moss, now that he knew Sandburg was in no immediate danger, Jim's attention shifted back to the squirming mass of multi-coloured snakes of widely varying length and girth, his eyes narrowing as he sorted them out. When he spotted deadly serpents in the writhing muddle on the broken stones only a few steps below, he picked up his pace.
Shifting to face Jim as he continued gently trying to unwrap his most recent admirer, Blair admitted ruefully, "I don't know where this baby came from. I was just standing here, looking at the snakes down there and about to beat a strategic retreat when it was, like, all over me, man."
"It probably snaked down from the ledge above your head and thought you'd make a nice warm pole to cling to, Sandburg," Jim replied with a gesture at the lip of stone above them. "I'm pretty sure he didn't have you confused with his next meal."
"No, I'd doubt it. This guy is too small to swallow a man, so unless he has delusions of grandeur, I figure I'm safe," Blair quipped back. "I've seen lots of his kind during some of the digs I've been on, and they can be pretty affectionate, uh, for snakes." He chuckled a little as the serpent proved his point by continuing to cling to him with relentless devotion. "C'mon, Jim, give me a hand here." He called again, increasingly amused as he laughed out loud at the snake's antics.
"Yeah, yeah," Jim muttered as he used the fork-shaped stick to push some of Sandburg's other approaching admirers further back down the steps and then set it and the torch down to grab hold of the dry, thick but supple body that snaked around his friend's torso. "You know, I think this guy is seriously in love with you, Chief."
Snickering when the serpent transferred its attentions to Jim, trying to wrap itself snugly around the new source of warmth, Blair sighed dramatically, "Just like all my former loves…fickle and with questionable taste, especially in terms with the speed with which they abandon me for a new man. I guess tall, strong, silent types really do hold an innate attraction."
Jim just snorted, and between the two of them, they finally managed to set the boa on the ground, Ellison hastily grabbing up his forked stick to urge the attentive fellow further down the steps.
His attention now on the mass of snakes, Blair mused, "I've never seen snakes do that-swarm like that and get all tangled up. Why do you think they're behaving that way?" Blair asked, warily watching the multihued snakes of varying lengths writhing below them with clear agitation in their attempts to get to higher, dryer ground. Some were tiny, while others looked like they were four or five feet long, and he spotted a couple of other boas of greater length and girth.
"The rain," Jim muttered as he, too, eyed the swarming snakes warily while he pushed the boa out of reach. "Normally, they'd be in the jungle, but they've swarmed in here to keep from drowning in the downpour. When the storm's over, they'll disappear again."
"Easy, don't hurt them," Blair cautioned as Jim finished pushing the boa down the steps. Sandburg nervously stepped up and away from other potential 'admirers'. He didn't know for sure if any of them were poisonous, but there were some he suspected would be deadly and lots of breeds in the swarming mass that he didn't recognize at all. In the circumstances, he didn't think it hurt to be cautious. "Do you think they'll all try to make it up into the Temple?" he asked uncertainly.
"Oh, like you said, some have probably already found their way inside, hunting for rodents, but I don't think they are any real danger to our camp over on the far side," Jim replied as he followed Blair up the steps. "We'll just have to keep an eye out for them when we're exploring areas on this side, at least until the storm passes."
"So do you recognise any of them? Are any of them are poisonous?" Sandburg asked as he paused to look back down at the muddle of snakes.
Nodding as he watched the squirming mass of tubular muscle, Jim replied dryly as he pointed out a number of deadly snakes, "Oh, yeah, big time. Some of the smaller ones are pit vipers, and there are a variety of rattlesnakes down there-the cascabel rattlesnakes are the ones that are about four feet long, and there're some lance-headed rattlesnakes. They all pack a powerful venom, but the most dangerous are down closer to the pool-Fer-de-Lance-see the pretty ones with the arrow-shaped markings along their backs? Trust me, Chief, you don't want to be bitten by one of them."
Blair's head jerked around as he squinted, trying to spot the snakes Jim had recognized in the dim light. His breath caught as his eyes widened, having made out a few local variety deadly serpents and realizing how much danger he'd been in by having wandered too close, his curiousity when he first saw them overwhelming his sense of caution. Swallowing, he nodded and eased up another couple of steps. "Let's, ah, let's get back to the fire," he suggested, shivering with a sudden chill.
"Good idea," Ellison grunted, abandoning his torch but keeping hold of the 'snake hook' as he looped an arm around his best friend's shoulders and they set off, back up the staircase. Blair's flashlight illuminated the deep gloom inside, the beam bouncing off grey stone green with moss and reflecting back from the shallow puddles as they ambled back toward the entrance.
As the light played over faded frescos and carvings on the walls, Blair's attention was diverted from his possible brush with sudden death back to his enthusiasm over what he'd seen in his aimless ramble through the long corridors and some of the side chambers.
"This place is a treasure house of knowledge, Jim," he enthused eagerly. "It'll take a lot more time than we have to do it justice, but I've already seen some stuff that I can't wait to decipher in detail. I think some of it referred to the 'mating rituals' on the beach at Sierra Verde…and other stuff seemed to be about the ritual selection of companions. And, there were hieroglyphics on the walls around the pools near the entrance that referred to the Eye of God…"
"Breathe, Sandburg," Jim chuckled, ruffling his friend's still damp curls, ignoring the clutching of his gut at the references to 'mating rituals' and 'the Eye of God'. "You've got more than a week to explore and study the place."
"I could use a year," Sandburg sighed, but he was smiling, evidently thrilled with what he hoped to learn.
"Let's see what you think when it's time to go," Ellison consoled him, beginning to hope that this trip wouldn't prove to be a complete disaster after all. "Maybe you'll learn enough, or maybe we'll need to come back. Right now…you're shivering from the chill and there's a mug of soup back at the fire with your name on it."
"Sounds good, man," Blair replied with a flashing grin up at his partner. "I'm starving."
After they'd eaten, Blair resumed his study of the Temple's treasures beginning with the hall they were in. He took photos of the hieroglyphics, faded frescoes and the images that had been painstakingly carved into the walls long centuries before. After about two hours, he dropped down by the fire and rummaged in his pack for a notebook and pen, as he mumbled, "I think the images and writing in here describe the coming together of the tribes for the rituals and practices concerning sentinels and their companions."
"Yeah?" Jim murmured, turning his attention from the storm that continued to rage outside and focusing his sight to study the dim murals and carvings.
Looking up from where he was kneeling on the floor, glad of Jim's interest, Blair stood to point out some of the more obvious of the stylized graphics. "Uh huh," he replied, pointing upward. "See, there? The tribes approaching from different directions. And there? The young would-be companions being lined up in front of jaguars-likely the ceremony for choosing companions. And, uh, over here," he continued, moving across the floor, "two jaguars entwined on a beach near the water…" Sensing Jim's discomfort, he continued along quickly to another carving above the entrance to the chamber containing the pools. "And, here," he said thoughtfully, "it looks like both the jaguar and the companion are together in the water under the Eye of God. Man, I think you were really lucky to have gotten through that experience alone."
Jim frowned at his friend's words. "I wasn't exactly alone, Chief," he said quietly. "I told you that."
"Oh, yeah, I know, she was there but…" Sandburg began diffidently, hating the thought of Alex Barnes in this place.
"I wasn't talking about Alex, Sandburg," Jim cut in, more sharply than he'd intended. When Blair turned to look at him, surprised at the tone, Jim looked away, searching inside of himself for what had made him so suddenly angry. Turning his gaze back upon Sandburg, he demanded, "Why do you always diminish the role you play, the role of guide or companion or whatever the hell you call it?" Waving at the imagery around them, recalling Señora Alvarez's words, he continued, "This place isn't just about sentinels, Chief. It's pretty clear to me that companions have a pretty significant role-both from these images and from what José's mother told us that a good part of what happened here was the choosing of the companions-who, she pointed out, were very gifted people."
Blair's gaze dropped and he shrugged self-consciously. Sighing, he lifted his head and his hands unconsciously rose into the air as well as he struggled to explain his feelings. "I don't know, Jim. I guess because I feel like I'm just guessing most of the time, even now after all these years. I mean-you were born a sentinel, it's genetic and yeah, you have to choose to use your talents, but they're real, man. Me? I've studied all I could get my hands on, but that doesn't make me a 'companion', just someone who's doing the best he can, like a blind man stumbling where others could, should, see more clearly." Pushing his fingers through his hair, he added bleakly, "And as for what Señora Alvarez told us, and José as well, hey, their stories were about guides or companions who failed, Jim. Frankly, that scares the hell out of me…that one day I'll fail. In those stories, it was usually the Jaguar who paid the price. And, well, you saw the similarities in those stories as clearly as I did. I wrote down the words that let your secret out. I moved out. And, well, I died when I went up against…against someone I couldn't handle. And I should have been able to handle her! Because I screwed up, she could have killed thousands of people-she could have killed you! If I was a real guide, a real companion, I should have known, somehow, instinctively, I don't know-but I should have known how to handle her and I didn't. I'm doing my best, Jim, I really am…but I don't think my best is good enough, man."
"Whoa, slow down, Darwin," Ellison exclaimed, his hands up to stop the torrent of words as he moved across the stone floor to stand in front of Sandburg. Laying his hands on Blair's shoulders as he looked down into the shadowed eyes of his best friend, Jim said, "For a start, I don't think you give yourself nearly enough credit. I also think that you take way too much responsibility for things, when I messed up as badly as you did. We've been over all of that, Chief-we both made mistakes. We've learned from them, right?"
"Yeah," Blair replied quietly, but his eyes remained clouded with worry. "But that's why I had to come here, Jim. Whether I'm a real 'companion' or 'guide' or not, I'm all you've got-I have to learn all I can."
Nodding, Jim patted his friend on the shoulder as he turned back toward the fire. Waving up at the wealth of information carved and painted onto the walls, he said with a note of resignation in his voice, "Well, go to it, kid. If you run out of time on this trip, like I said earlier, we can come back again, as often as necessary, until you're satisfied that you've learned all there is to know about sentinels and their companions."
Blair swallowed and blew out a breath. "Thanks, Jim-I appreciate that," he said sincerely, sensitive to how much Jim hadn't wanted to come in the first place, let alone repeatedly, and then he turned his attention back to the symbols on the walls.
Ellison wandered back to the entryway to lean on the cold stone wall, shoulders tight as he crossed his arms over his chest and gazed apparently impassively out at the raging storm. But he wasn't seeing the wind-slashed trees or hearing the heavy rumbling of thunder. Fragments of memories and visions, of real moments in time blending with scenes from his nightmares danced ghoulishly in his mind, making his chest tight and his gut roil. Many of the visions he'd had in the damned pool behind him had come true, and they mocked him with his inability to stop terrible things from happening, even when forewarned. Some of his more recent nightmares now had counterpart experiences in reality, but they'd turned out better. Sandburg hadn't been crushed by that falling tree, hadn't gasped out his last breath in Jim's arms. Was he learning? Finally? Paying better attention or something that allowed him to act in time to avert tragedy? Could he keep the rest of his nightmares from coming true?
The heavy, ravaging rains continued to pelt out of the heavens for the next two days. Driven by the harsh, powerful winds, the cutting, relentless fall of water loosened the earth and shredded the fronds of the jungle growth, leaving them in tatters, the mighty trees themselves leaning awkwardly as if trying to escape the endless abuse, some of them giving up and falling in exhaustion. Moisture worked its way in through the eroded mortar between the massive stones of the Temple, loosening some, causing others to succumb to gravity as they crashed loudly, the sounds reverberating throughout the ancient edifice as they landed, stone caving onto stone, or tumbled heavily to the ground outside, clattering down the steps, loosening and chipping them into further disrepair. Dampness oozed like a miasma around them, chilling and comfortless so that the only place that was even halfway dry and warm was right next to the small fire that Jim kept feeding to drive back the cold.
Blair clothed himself in layers, wryly thinking that he'd thought he'd be warmer in the jungle, go figure. But most of the time, he wasn't consciously aware of the discomforts, his mind too wrapped up in the old, long lost knowledge etched in stone that surrounded him. He was oddly silent, in Jim's view, as the older man was used to a more loquacious partner. Oh, sure, he mumbled and exclaimed softly to himself as he studied the walls, deciphering their secrets as he scribbled in his notebook, but not since the first afternoon had he pointed out anything in particular. Patient, Jim figured the kid was 'processing' what he was learning, and would share it all when he was ready.
They both slept restlessly. Blair's busy mind was filled with dreams that featured long dead tribes and their rituals, as it catalogued, assimilated and synthesized information, storing it away for ready access when it was needed. Jim continued to be haunted by nightmares in which a distant, somehow menacing, rumbling roar, like a runaway train somewhere, drew ever closer, and the earth itself seemed to fight him. He could see Sandburg, his eyes wide with alarm, his face too white-and he could hear Señora Alvarez's words echo in endless repetition: There is danger…make your own choices. He'd awaken sharply, startled and shaking with a sense of confusion and helplessness, needing to slow down his breathing and search for calm. In the dark and silence of the pre-dawn hours, he found himself wondering why he wasn't dreaming of Incacha, why the wily old shaman wasn't giving him any clues about what he needed to be doing to be ready for whatever still threatened.
Their fourth morning at the Temple, the sun rose in a crystal clear sky, its warmth quickly evaporating the surface moisture left by the storm and causing stone to contract. It grew hot again outside, stifling, and both men were then glad of the relief from the heat offered by dim coolness of the Temple. Jim, growing weary of the bland packaged foods, decided to go hunting and he truly felt like one of those sentinels of old, as he had during those months years ago in Peru, when a few hours later he brought back enough meat to last them a week. During his hunt, he also happened by a nearby stream where he cleaned himself up after carving up the carcass of the stag, and filled all their canteens so that they had water enough for at least two days. Providing for my 'tribe', he thought with the hint of a grin as he carried his haul, carefully wrapped in large leaves to preserve it, into the entry hall.
Sandburg was sitting cross-legged by the fire, sipping a mug of tea and scribbling in his notebook, when Jim strode in through the portal. Looking up, Blair grinned at the transformation of his friend, from civilized man to timeless hunter, as he took in the cloth tied tightly over Jim's head, the streaks of mud on his face and arms that he used for camouflage, his cross-bow, quiver and canteens over one shoulder and the heavy leaf-wrapped package of meat in his arms.
"Well, if it's not Jungle Jim, home from the hunt," Blair teased. "I see you got lucky."
"Luck had nothing to do with it, Einstein," Ellison growled back menacingly with a mock scowl as he approached the campfire and laid his burden down at the feet of his 'tribe'. "This is the result of finely honed skills."
"Yeah, I know," Blair snickered, though his nose wrinkled a bit reflexively at the sight of the blood on the leaves. "So, what's for dinner?"
"About a mile from here, I picked up the tracks of a deer…" Jim began.
"A deer?" Sandburg interjected with feigned dismay. "Man, you Jaguars sure know how to carry a grudge!"
"Watch it, Stinky," Ellison snapped back, "or you'll be eating more of Señor Lipton's boring soup while I feast like a king."
"Peace, man," Blair chuckled as he shifted onto his knees and pulled a frying pan out of their pack of supplies. "I've had enough of that soup to last me for a while, but," he added, pulling out one of the ubiquitous small packages, "it makes a fine seasoning when sprinkled over fresh meat!"
Blair left Jim to prepare the meat while he roamed outside to find edible tubers and fresh fruits to add to their feast. A little more than an hour later, they were chowing down with gusto, savouring the fresh, rich flavours, comfortable and at ease in one another's company.
Later, while Jim cleaned up the remains of their meal, Blair wandered out of the hall intent upon studying the walls in another fairly large chamber that seemed to have been where sentinels had chosen their companions. He'd begun work there earlier that morning, and if he understood what he was deciphering, he was finding it fascinating to learn that sentinels apparently didn't choose companions from their own tribe, but that something else was at play-a natural affinity of some kind maybe? But it reinforced the messages of the folk tales they'd heard days before. A sentinel choosing a companion from a tribe that might well be an enemy, or certainly foreign to his own tribe's customs, would naturally be wary, and trust issues would be paramount. Sandburg had also been wondering if the practice of choosing strangers had another purpose. A 'companion' who had no allies in the village, no friends of his own, would be very much dependent upon the sentinel he accompanied for just about everything-not just physical protection, but emotional and psychological support as well. It was one way of ensuring the companion stuck with the sentinel, even when dangers threatened-there was nowhere and no one for him to run away to, to find another source of safety.
Somehow, though, Sandburg felt that his last thought was too cynical as he studied the hieroglyphics, frescos and carvings in the walls. The potential companions volunteered for their role, feeling it worthy, the most worthy thing they could do with their lives. And it was clear from what he was seeing that the bond between sentinel and guide was a lifelong commitment, which reinforced what he'd read from the brief references to the relationship in Burton's manuscript. His eyes widened as he began to understand what he was seeing and his heart sank a little with that understanding. They'd gone about things backwards, or at least hadn't finished what had begun when Blair first found Jim and offered to help him. He stood silently for a long time, thinking about what that meant about true sentinel and companion/guide bonding, shaking his head. No wonder he and Jim weren't a 'matched set'. Moving out, both when Jim had pushed him away over Alex, and more recently of his own volition, even for so short a distance, putting distance and walls between them, was symbolically the absolutely wrong thing to have done.
Moving along finally, he frowned when he reached some panels that detailed the price of betrayal. As the meaning sank in, he unconsciously blurted out, "Oh, shit! No wonder she…damn it all! I didn't understand!"
Jim, who had been monitoring his friend with steady if somewhat unconscious conscientiousness, lifted his head at the distant words and the tone of pained awareness. 'She'? Quietly, he rose from the fire and loped into the dim corridor, in search of his partner.
"Chief?" he called out softly, padding into the dark chamber, concerned to find Blair sitting on the chilled stone floor, his arms wrapped around his drawn up knees and his head bowed down upon them. "What's wrong?"
Sandburg lifted his head and gave his best friend a haunted look. "I just…I think I've figured out what happened with…with Alex, and with a lot of the other problems we've had," he replied, his voice strained. "Oh, man, I'm sorry-I didn't realize…."
When Sandburg stammered into silence, Ellison reached down to help Sandburg rise to his feet and then briefly scanned the walls, wondering what had upset Blair. He saw frescos of jaguars and men he assumed were their companions. In one, the standing jaguar was reaching out to lay a paw upon the shoulder of one man in a crowd, but when he followed Blair's glance to a particular scene, he froze. There was no mistaking that the picture depicted a jaguar killing a man. But, for Jim, they were just old paintings and carvings. He didn't understand the hieroglyphics that lent more comprehensive explanations and cautionary warnings.
"Maybe it's time you started to clue me in on what you're learning here, Chief," he said, turning Sandburg around to head back to their fire.
"Yeah, I guess it is," Blair murmured, wondering how Jim was going to react and making a bet with himself that his best friend would be impatient and irritated with the subtleties of it all.
Ellison followed Sandburg back along the dark, curving corridor to the hall, and then dropped down to sit across the fire from his friend. Not one given to a lot of words, Jim was nevertheless skilled in non-verbal communication, and the attentive, expectant look he fixed upon his partner was eloquence itself. He was ready to listen and he wanted to hear it all.
Swallowing, Blair crossed his legs and pushed nervous hands through his hair. "Where do I start?" he muttered more to himself than Ellison, looking around the hall as if for inspiration. His eyes alighting on the Eye of God grotto, as he'd come to think of it, he took a breath, nodded to himself and began.
"Okay, well, it's pretty obvious that this was the main reception hall, where the sentinel and companion pairs, the unmatched companions and sentinels, shaman of the tribes and the holy men of the Temple met, while the tribes themselves camped all around the area-I've wondered at how far Sierra Verde was from here, but I'm guessing that each tribe wanted and maybe even needed a certain degree of space from every other tribe. They were normally not particularly good neighbours." Waving up to the frescos over the entryway, he continued, "By the time the sentinels and companion pairs had arrived here, they were already, uh, sated, I guess you'd call it, from having spent time down on the beach. From what I can make out, there were two beaches actually, one for sentinels to mate and one for companions to do the same, both driven to pass along whatever genetic elements that had made them what they were."
Jim grimaced and shifted uncomfortably, unhappy with the memories of his experience out on that beach. "You're telling me that these people didn't 'mate' except here, every two or three years or so?" he ground out sceptically.
"Basically, yeah," Blair continued. "From what I can figure out, though there may have been cursory relationships with tribe members, they were rare because the sentinels were wary of treating any tribe member in a favoured way. However, since there weren't many female companions, the pictures show the tribes pushing forward their best young maidens for ritual mating with confirmed companions. From what I've figured out, while the companions might have been respected as wise men by their sentinels' tribes, they were normally originally from another tribe, and were strangers with no history or family links with their sentinel's village. So, they, uh, seem to have stuck pretty close to their sentinel, most of the time."
Ellison scratched his cheek as he reflected, "And you're telling me that guys actually volunteered to be companions?" The mute shaking of his head as he rolled his eyes with a grimace of disbelief pretty much summed up what he thought about that interpretation.
"Well, it was an honour, a great honour to be chosen as a companion, a kind of 'calling' to serve their gods and their collective peoples," Blair explained with a shrug. In his experience, hanging around with a sentinel didn't leave a whole lot of time for gentler pursuits, anyway. Swallowing, he reflected silently that his own romantic activities had dwindled to virtually nothing in the past year especially. But being Jim's guide, remaining available to him, was still what he'd chosen to do and he had no regrets about what he might be missing.
"Anyway," he continued, "the rituals began here with everyone's arrival and ended here with the immersion in the Eye of God pool. Existing sentinel and guide pairs simply confirmed their bond by entering the pool and receiving new messages through the visions and then they left again." Waving his arm toward the various exits from the hall, he added, "All the rest of what's in the back are various chambers for the selection, preparation and training of new companion and sentinel pairs. Above us, the chambers on higher floors were most likely dormitories and private rooms for the high priests."
"So, there are two pools over there," Jim surmised as he waved toward the Eye of God grotto, "because they moved through two pairs at a time?"
"Uh, no, not exactly," Blair replied with a frown of concentration as he explained. "As I told you the other day, sentinels and companions would enter a pool together so that the companion or guide could keep the sentinel 'grounded' during his or her visions. This was a very private ritual, normally, a reaffirmation of the spiritual depths of their bonding. But, from what I can make out, the pools were also used to help heal sentinels or guides who were ill or injured. The second pool is there for emergencies, in case one is needed while a visioning ritual is being conducted."
"This is a lot of mumbo-jumbo, Chief," Jim sighed as he dragged a hand down over his face.
"Hey, man, don't pull a Simon on me here, okay?" Blair protested. "You've been in one of those pools-you've experienced the visions, but they could have destroyed you, like they destroyed Alex if Incacha…"
"I told you that you were the one who kept me grounded in there, Sandburg," Jim cut in impatiently. "Not Incacha, though, I admit, he did appear…"
"Yeah, well, anyway," Blair went on, unconvinced, "the pool in the back where we saw all the snakes is where potential companions or guides prepared for the selection ritual, cleansing themselves in the sacred waters. And there are other chambers where it looks like the selected companions were trained in the ways of the shaman, the arts of healing, and communing with spirit animals, and stuff like that." Frustrated, Sandburg's lips thinned as he noted, "Lots and lots of pictures showing them being taught this stuff, but nothing, not even in the hieroglyphics, about how they were taught. It must have all been passed along orally to ensure only the select knew the secrets."
Jim frowned as he bowed his head at that and bit his lip in sympathy with the kid's very obvious disappointment and frustration. The biggest reason Sandburg had had for coming here was to learn how to be a better guide or companion or whatever the role was called, only to learn that the knowledge was still hidden from him. Shaking his head, he cut a quick look up at his friend as he murmured, "I'm sorry, Chief. I know you'd hoped…"
"Yeah," Blair sighed as he raked slightly trembling fingers through his long curls, pushing his loose hair impatiently behind his ears. "Well, maybe it's all moot anyway," he muttered.
Catching the tone of discouragement, not understanding Sandburg's comment, Jim frowned as he asked, "What are you talking about?"
Blair's jaw was tight as he rubbed his hands together as if he were cold, while the flickering light of their fire accentuated his pallor but did nothing to lighten the shadows in his eyes. His gaze lifting from the flames to meet Jim's eyes, he said quietly, "I'm not a companion, Jim, just a guide-wannabe."
Impatient confusion flickered across Ellison's face as his eyes narrowed, and his voice was tight, as he demanded sharply, "What the hell are you talking about? What do you mean you're not a guide?"
His voice heavy with discouragement, Blair explained, "The process is clearly outlined in the 'glyphs and the other graphic representations, Jim. Wannabe guides offer themselves for selection, but it's the sentinel who ultimately chooses his or her companion."
"So?" Jim pushed, not seeing the problem.
"So-you never 'chose', Jim," Blair spelled it out patiently, though he couldn't seem to make eye contact with his friend. "I found you, right? I offered to help you understand your senses. I pushed to spend every minute I could with you. I badgered you with tests and moved into your home. And, ultimately, I guess inevitably, I finally moved out again. YOU never chose me…I chose you. And it doesn't work that way."
Impatient, restless, Ellison found himself on his feet, pacing back and forth in front of the fire. Waving his hand irritably, he exclaimed, "Do you know that that makes no sense? Who else was going to be my guide? Who else had a clue what was going on or the foggiest idea on what to do about my senses?"
Striving for calm, Sandburg dragged in a breath and then said quietly, "Not having a choice isn't the same thing as making an active, conscious choice, man, and you know it."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Ellison challenged right back. "What was I supposed to do? Figure it all out on my own? Like that was a hope."
"That's just it, Jim-that's always been your hope," Blair sighed. "Well, hasn't it? Haven't you always wished you could manage them on your own? Given an honest choice, would you really want me backing you up? I don't think so. You worked alone before and preferred it that way. It's always been a struggle for you to accept me, let alone want me riding with you…"
"Because it's dangerous for you!" Jim shouted, clenching his fists to fight off the desire to give Sandburg a good shake.
"Yeah, partly, because your instincts are to protect the vulnerable," Blair agreed. "But that's not the same thing as really wanting me with you, is it? You're just proving my thesis here, Jim. You'd leave me behind, in the truck or the station, or hell, you wouldn't even have me on staff there, if you had a real choice. In your heart, your soul, you know you have me around because you need me, not because you wholeheartedly want me there."
"Look, I let you live with me for more than three years, Sandburg, and when you decided to move out, I found a place right next door," Jim seethed. "Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
"Of course it does," Blair exclaimed, looking stricken, wishing he could somehow explain this better than he was obviously doing. "I'll always be grateful to you for giving me a home when I was essentially homeless, but wasn't that what the story of Botoque was about? The Jaguar, the Sentinel, safeguards the lost and vulnerable."
Jim threw up his hands as he turned in a tight circle, struggling to find a way to end this ridiculous conversation as he snorted disgustedly, "Botoque!"
"You let me stay because, well, in part because you needed my help and I like to think it's also because we became friends. And that means everything to me, man," Blair said in a rush, his voice cracking with emotion. "But none of that was a conscious choice-it just all kinda happened. And the fact that you never made that choice, that commitment, was-is-fundamentally important."
His teeth clenched so tightly that the muscles along his jaw rippled with the strain of control, breathing shallowly, Jim stopped his pacing to glare down at Blair. "I think you're blowing smoke, here, Chief," he seethed. "This is a bunch of mystical crap about people who have been dead for hundreds of years. It has absolutely nothing to do with us."
"I think it has everything to do with us," Sandburg replied, his voice raspy with his own struggle for control. "Think about it, Jim. When…when Alex Barnes came into our lives, your instinct was to kick me out-you didn't trust me, didn't want me around. Same thing over the diss, man. You felt I couldn't be trusted to act with integrity. You were ready to call it quits. You didn't fight me on moving out, on the contrary, you said it made perfect sense, and you helped me find a place that was as convenient as it could be, given we still work together and we are best friends. Not choosing me as your guide doesn't mean that I'm saying we aren't friends, Jim-don't hear me saying that, 'cause I'm not."
Ellison's gaze flickered away to roam the depths of the hall and the corridors beyond. His expression had flattened out to one of cold impassivity as he struggled with the emotions roiling in his gut. He felt angry and frustrated that a few damned words that had never been spoken and his own arbitrary, uncontrollable reactions had led Sandburg to believing this crap. Frowning, he recalled the pained words he'd overheard earlier, that had led him to search out his best friend. "What does all this have to do with Alex Barnes?" he asked, his voice low, tightly controlled.
Blair's shoulders sagged as he turned his face away from Jim's hard, challenging glare. Softly, he explained, "The frescos in the other room show very clearly that a sentinel who feels betrayed by his or her companion kills them in retribution. If you had 'chosen' me, if that had been a real commitment in your mind that had been betrayed, well, it might not have been Alex who put me in that fountain."
"Now wait just a minute, Sandburg!" Jim roared in furious insult. "Don't you dare suggest I would have acted like that viscous, psychotic bitch or that I would ever wilfully harm you!"
Shaking his head, holding up his hands, Blair almost begged, "Just hear me out, okay? You hadn't made the commitment, so you just kicked me out when you sensed I was a threat. Remember, you even had a vision about killing the wolf that morphed into me. She knew you were a sentinel, but she also knew you'd rejected me." Swallowing at the memory of Alex's come-ons, Blair again looked away as he explained, "She wanted to-to bond with me and I refused her. Rejected her and she knew it was because of you. So, she instinctively and quite rightly felt threatened by me. I knew things about her that she'd entrusted me with; I knew how to hurt her. So-in retaliation for what she perceived as a betrayal, she killed me. It was instinctive."
"She was a cold-blooded, conscienceless murderer," Jim growled.
"Yes, she was, and likely still would be, if her circuits were working," Blair conceded. "But she was also a dysfunctional sentinel who had turned into a predator, who had finally found and chosen a guide only to be rejected when, after I'd offered my help to her initially, she had every right to expect I would accept being chosen. In her mind, I had set her up and then betrayed her to you, an enemy sentinel. That betrayal led to her irresistible and instinctive need to kill me."
Ellison closed his eyes against the memories of that horrific dawn, wishing he could blot them out, but the breath tightened in his chest as he again saw Blair floating face under the sparkling spray of the fountain, and then later, so cold and still, grey upon the wet grass. Swallowing hard against the bile in his throat, he scrubbed his face with his hands, shaking his head as he let them fall to his sides. "I brought you back," he choked out. "I needed you back."
"I know," Blair whispered. "I know you never wanted me dead, Jim. But-as soon as you could, you left me again to head out after her alone. If I'd been your chosen guide, your lifelong companion, you wouldn't have abandoned me like that-you wouldn't have been able to go, not while I was still vulnerable in the hospital. If you chose anyone at all, unconsciously or not, you chose Simon to go with you when you needed back up you could trust-not me."
"Simon is NOT my guide," Jim ground out as he crossed his arms and stood rigidly looking down at Sandburg. "Chief-what do you want from me here? It's not like I've got a crowd of potential 'companions' standing around waiting for me to make some big choice. Frankly, I think this is a load of garbage and you're creating problems that don't need to exist."
Shrugging, Blair sighed, "Maybe you're right, Jim. For now, I am the only game in town, at least that we know of. And we're managing, sure. But what happens if another sentinel comes along, like Alex did? What happens if that sentinel wants to choose me to be their companion?"
"You'd go? Just like that?" Ellison exclaimed, clearly shocked by the idea.
"No, of course I wouldn't," Blair protested. "But we could end up in a similar mess. I'm an unclaimed, unchosen guide, Jim. Potentially, that means I might even be a risk to you by drawing other sentinels who are seeking companions. Maybe-maybe we should start trying to find you a real guide."
"You ARE a real guide, dammit!" Ellison grated. "You're my Guide."
"Only because you don't have any other choice," Blair asserted again, convinced of his judgment no matter how much the truth of it tore something deep inside. "Only because you can't manage completely on your own."
Ellison rolled his eyes and shook his head, unable to believe the way the conversation was going. It made absolutely no sense to him.
"You know that's true, Jim," Sandburg pressed. "You KNOW, given a choice, you wouldn't have me out on the streets with you."
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Ellison thought about the dead little skunk as he sighed, "Because I hate putting you in danger, Chief…"
"Yeah, I understand," Blair murmured, his head bowing in sorrow in the belief that a sentinel who instinctively recognized his companion, picking him out from a crowd as the one to walk the forest with, wouldn't let the potential danger stop him. He'd have confidence in the one he'd chosen and know that they were meant to walk together.
When the silence stretched between them until it was unbearable, Sandburg said quietly, "Look, this doesn't really change anything, I guess. I'm still your partner and I'll always do the best I can to help you and back you up. But we both have to be open to the fact that, someday, the right guide will come along and you'll recognize him when he does."
"Oh, yeah, and how will I recognize him, Einstein?" Jim challenged, angry, feeling hurt that Blair evidently didn't understand him at all.
"You'll feel the need to bond," Blair whispered.
"Bond?" Ellison echoed sarcastically. "And just exactly what does this bonding entail? Becoming blood brothers? Swearing an oath?"
"Something like that," Sandburg murmured wearily. "I know you think this is silly or some kind of bad joke, Jim, but the principle is that the Sentinel chooses a companion or guide to whom to make a lifelong commitment, without regret or hesitation. It's that simple, man-and that complex."
"You make it sound like a marriage, Chief," Jim muttered, also tired of the verbal sparring and the circles they were going in.
"That's pretty much what it is, Jim," Blair affirmed as he stared into the fire. He was pretty sure all the arguments about how Jim had chosen him, however de facto the process, would now be well and truly over.
Ellison gaped at Sandburg, his eyes narrowing as if he wasn't sure he'd heard quite right. "You're kidding me, right?" he breathed. "I gotta tell you it's not funny, Chief."
Steeling himself to look directly up into Jim's eyes, Blair affirmed as unemotionally as he could, "I'm not kidding, Jim."
"Now I've heard everything," Jim muttered, rubbing the back of his neck as he turned away.
"Yep, pretty much," Sandburg confirmed bleakly as he poked a stick into the fire. "Still think I'm your chosen companion, Jim?"
Ellison's mouth gaped open, made momentarily speechless by the question, but then his rage flared. "You're determined to set up a situation we can't win, aren't you? Why are you doing this, dammit?"
"I'm just telling you what I've learned," Blair muttered, unsurprised by the rage, but still caught somewhere between being offended and hurt by it. "But clearly you don't accept this any more than you've ever readily accepted anything else about being a sentinel, except the protect and serve part, which you were doing anyway."
"Oh, great, so now it's my fault this isn't working the way you want or think it should!" Jim snarled and then sarcastically sneered, "What am I supposed to do? Get down on one knee and ask you to marry me? Is that what you expect? Get real, Chief-you're talking about behaviours and practices in a culture that has nothing to do with us or what goes on between us."
Blair's head snapped up at the heavy denigration in Ellison's voice, his own temper beginning to flare. "I don't expect anything from you, Jim. Much as I would like you to take my academic credentials and knowledge seriously, or as much as I wish you could trust my judgment or respect my analysis of just about anything, I don't expect it any more. You don't agree with what I'm telling you, so therefore, I'm obviously wrong. And that's the core of the problem, man. It always has been, and regardless of how often we hash it out, it seems it always will be."
Standing, his posture rigid, Sandburg continued his rant, his voice scathing, "And as far as this being an irrelevant 'cultural' issue, let me tell you that any number of societies from the dawn of time go a lot farther with relationships and rituals that transcend your evidently prosaic and prurient view of a transcendental experience that can actually happen between two people who genuinely love each other in every respect, regardless of narrow-minded and discriminatory gender considerations. But, in this case, you can relax, okay? This isn't about sex, Jim. It's about making a commitment, a lifetime commitment. And you know what pisses me off most, here? You not even bothering to ask me how I feel about making a lifetime commitment to you while also assuming I was talking about a sexual liaison. You obviously think the very idea is an offensive joke, and yet you also pretty clearly think I'd welcome being that offensive joke in your life. Well, screw you, man. I really don't need that kind of contempt, not from the guy who's supposed to be my best friend."
Sandburg turned and stalked angrily from the hall, disappearing down one of the long, dark corridors, leaving Ellison wondering just where in hell all that left them.
Dammit, he'd known coming here was a big mistake.
When dusk began to fall and Sandburg hadn't yet returned, Ellison went in search of his friend, hoping he'd cooled off enough for them to talk rationally. In the hours since Blair had strode away so angrily, Jim had done a lot of serious thinking, but he didn't see a way around the core problem; he simply couldn't wilfully choose to put Sandburg into the line of fire without any regrets or hesitation. Oh, sure, it happened anyway, because Jim hadn't been able to master his own senses enough to keep Blair safely away from trouble. But Sandburg was right-not having a choice wasn't the same thing as making a choice. Still, he couldn't help wonder that if there was no choice, then why did a choice have to be made? It didn't really make sense to him. Sighing in frustration, he picked up Sandburg's flashlight and went in search of his partner.
Having paid attention to where Sandburg had gone when he'd taken off, Jim knew his best friend had headed up through the Temple to a higher level from the sounds of the clipped steps of his hiking boots on the stone stairways. So it didn't take him long to follow the general direction until he picked up on the heartbeat that allowed him to home in on his partner's exact location.
Coming into a small, upper chamber, likely part of the living quarters for the long dead priests of the Temple, Ellison found Sandburg standing on a ledge that overhung the entrance below, leaning with one shoulder against the stone lintel of the portal, his hands shoved into the front pockets of his jeans. Blair's silhouette was dark against the blazing sunset sky beyond the darkening greens of the jungle that surrounded the Temple, the dying light creating a golden aura through his unbound hair.
"You ready to eat?" Ellison asked diffidently.
Not bothering to turn around, Sandburg shook his head. "No, I'm really not up to munching on what's left of Bambi, Jim," he grated. "You go ahead without me."
"Bambi?" Ellison echoed, irritated by the imagery of guilt that the remark was only too evidently supposed to create. "Meat is meat, Junior."
Nodding stiffly, Blair replied distantly, "Yeah, you're right. The remark was out of line. I'm just not hungry, okay?"
"Fine," Jim snapped back as he turned to retrace his steps back down to the hall below. But he left the flashlight behind him; Blair would need it to find his way back through night-darkened corridors.
But Ellison found he wasn't particularly hungry, either, and ended up holding up his own stone wall as he stared out into the night.
When more hours went by, Jim sighed and gave up waiting for Blair's return. He gathered up Blair's jacket and sleeping bag, carting them through the now completely dark corridors and up the narrow flights of uneven steps. He found Blair sitting just inside the portal, his knees pulled up within the circle of his arms, as he continued to stare sightlessly into the night.
"You gonna come back to the fire?" Ellison asked quietly.
"No, I don't think so, not tonight," Blair murmured, his voice low but no longer angry.
"Look, Chief, I'm sorry if…" Jim began but Blair lifted a hand to stem his words.
"No need to apologize, Jim," the younger man cut in wearily. "I know it was a lot to take in and that it really doesn't make a lot of sense to you. Look-I just need to process everything, okay? Nothing here changes the way I see our friendship or partnership. You don't have to worry about that. So long as you need me, I won't let you down, man."
"I know that," Jim murmured as he carried the sleeping bag and jacket over to his best friend. Shaking out the jacket, he draped it around Sandburg's shoulders. "Chief, for what it's worth, I wouldn't want any partner but you."
Sandburg tilted his head to look up and back at Jim, wishing he could see in the dark. "Thanks," he murmured. "That's worth a lot."
Ellison kept a lonely vigil beside his small fire in the massive hall. He ached with a kind of grief, a sorrow he couldn't name but felt deeply. Unbidden, the folktales surfaced in his mind and he found himself reflecting on the fate of the Jaguar in each one, as well as the fate of the failed companions. Botoque had returned to his tribe, a hero of sorts, but Jim wondered if the kid had ever again been happy or if he'd always felt a loss and a deep, abiding guilt. The Jaguar had lost everything, but most of all, he'd lost his faith and had turned away from all men except when he was stalking them. Jim thought of Alex as the ultimate sentinel turned predator and shuddered to think he could ever end up like her. But, as honest with himself as he could be, he acknowledged that he'd been one cold, lonely bastard for one hell of a lot of years, and he'd had a rough time trusting anyone completely, including Carolyn, until he finally learned to trust Sandburg.
In the tale of the Jaguar and the Deer, well, both had been driven by fear and both had ended up alone, homeless in the jungle, at least for a while. Sighing, Jim rubbed his tired eyes. Maybe he'd failed to create the kind of environment that Sandburg had needed in a home, but at least they hadn't parted in fear or anger. They might own separate properties, but it was still almost the same as living together, right? They'd done better than the Jag and Bambi. Still, Sandburg felt strongly that Jim didn't honestly respect him-his words late that afternoon pretty much proved that he still believed that. And he'd had good reason. Shaking his head, Jim castigated himself silently for having once again reacted without thought, putting his mouth in action before his brain had been in gear. Was it really that he feared so deeply for Sandburg's welfare, or was it in all honesty his fear of making the kind of commitment, openly and consciously, that the kid seemed to feel so strongly was needed?
As for the story of the Jaguar and the little Skunk, the outcome still made Jim shudder. Maybe it was only a cautionary tale, after all. But its meaning was still pretty clear. Companions were at risk if they wandered into dangerous territory without their sentinels. Jim wondered how Señor Jaguar had felt when he learned of his godson's death, knowing the kid had only been emulating someone he admired and wanted to be like. Did he feel regret, that he hadn't taught the young one better? Or guilt, for not having kept the little skunk with him? Did he ache with denial and grief to know the young one was lost and could never be found again?
Jim's throat tightened, and he clamped his jaw tight against the emotion that threatened to overwhelm him as he remembered those moments by the fountain when he'd thought Blair lost forever. His eyes pricked and burned with tears as the magnitude of that near loss filled his chest until he could scarcely draw breath. Swiping at his eyes with impatient fingers, he heaved in a deep breath and then another. What would happen to Sandburg if he didn't choose the kid, wilfully, with no regrets, as his guide and lifelong companion? Would Blair return to his old world in academia one day? Would he just disappear from Jim's life? Surely, he'd at least be safe-he wouldn't be at risk of getting himself killed.
Sandburg's a survivor, Jim told himself, in the silence of his mind. He's always been a survivor. He'd be fine without me in his life.
"Would he?" a voice intoned from the darkness, responding to the unspoken assumption, echoing his thoughts. "Can you be certain of that?"
Jim started at the sound and turned to see the form of Incacha emerge from the shadows. Scrambling to his feet to face the spirit of the dead Shaman, Jim felt anxiety flutter in his gut. Incacha never showed up to just pass the time-oh no, he always had some dire message or a whole bunch of confusing questions.
"Incacha," Jim acknowledged his old teacher, inclining his head with respect. "Why are you here?"
"Why are you here, Enqueri?" the small Shaman asked in return, his expression stern and the look in his dark eyes uncompromising, as cold and hard as flint.
Shit, Jim thought impatiently. Here we go again. Straightening, his throat dry, Ellison replied, "I came with my Guide, to watch over him while he studied the knowledge in this place."
"Your Guide?" Incacha scorned, weary of Enqueri's refusal to make his choice known to his companion. "By whose determination? Yours or his?"
"Both," Jim snapped, tired of the stupidity of this word game. He'd said he wouldn't want another partner, and he was here, dammit. Why wasn't that enough?
"Why do you not simply tell him, if that is your choice, Enqueri?" Incacha demanded, anger making his words sharp and brittle. "Why do you accept his commitment to you, even expect it, and yet offer no commitment of your own in return? Why do you leave him to feel uncertain and vulnerable?"
"Look, I don't want him hurt, all right?" Jim growled. "Sure, I'd like to believe that some damned day, I'll be able to manage without him so that I can protect him better. Why is that so wrong?"
Incacha studied the man standing before him and saw through his angry pain to the truth in his heart. Now, as always, it was the fear that held him back. Fear that he would not be good enough. Fear that he would fail the one he loved best. The anger faded from the wise Shaman's eyes and he shook his head. "You would rather coddle your fear, and hold it tight in your heart, closing it from him, a wall between you. You refuse to see that you cannot move forward with this fear keeping you apart. I am sorry for you, Enqueri, and I am sorry for your companion. For you leave him in darkness…"
"I wanted him to come to the fire!" Jim shouted defensively, wilfully misunderstanding Incacha's meaning.
"Is he here?" Incacha asked rhetorically as he held out his hands, palms up. "I do not see him, Enqueri."
"He chose to remain in the chamber above," Ellison mumbled, looking away, hurt by Blair's decision and need to 'process' alone.
"Why?" Incacha demanded, his tone once again sharp. He had little time for those who built their own walls and then regretted their loneliness.
Jim flinched at the tone of censure. "Because…" but his voice died off, his throat too tight to speak.
"Because you are not willing to make the same commitment to him that you know in your heart he is prepared to make to you," Incacha intoned. "Because he needs time to gather his strength to once again live with your fear. Beware, Enqueri, this is a dangerous game you are playing. Beware of leaving your companion in doubt."
"He knows I need and want him beside me," Ellison argued.
"Is that enough?" Incacha demanded. "You have rejected him before despite your need. More than once, Enqueri, you have threatened him with rejection." When Jim looked away, unable to deny it, however much he might wish it weren't true, Incacha sighed. "Your fear and your pride have almost cost you his presence in your life more than once. If you do not soon make your choice, to choose him as your companion for life or to let him go, you may yet destroy him and yourself as well. Think on that, Enqueri. Think on that."
The words struck a chill that gripped Jim's heart, and he looked up, wanting to demand to know how he could possibly harm Sandburg when all he wanted to do was protect him? But Incacha was gone, leaving only the empty shadows and the small flicker of the fire's flames.
"Damn it," Jim cursed as he sank down beside the fire, his head in his hands. He was so tired of it all, so tired of fighting himself. The nightmares had kept him from sleeping well for almost a week, and he couldn't stop seeing Sandburg's face, eyes wide with startled fear, or hearing that rumble of unnamed danger coming closer and closer. Nor could he forget the pain in his friend's eyes that afternoon, the anger and then the weary acceptance, as if Blair really believed that Jim didn't respect him-or wasn't every bit as committed to Sandburg as Sandburg was to him. Yeah, he'd chosen. Of course he had. In his heart, he couldn't deny it. Trying to imagine his life without Sandburg in it was more than he could bear-he'd realized that at the fountain and hadn't been able to deny it to himself since, especially not after having returned from Mexico to find Blair once again at death's door and then, a virtual stranger when Sandburg did wake up. God, he'd never forget the relief he'd felt to get Sandburg back, both in terms of life itself and in terms of their friendship and partnership. It was why the dissertation mess had hurt so much. He'd been afraid that it had meant that Sandburg was no longer committed to him and their partnership.
He'd been a fool, and he knew it. Had told himself often enough. Had even told Sandburg.
Why did he make such a big deal of needing, wanting, the kid to be there without the words of his own commitment to their partnership being spoken aloud? He'd tried so hard to show it in his actions and behaviours, but Blair needed the words. And it seemed Incacha agreed with Sandburg that the words were necessary. So why the hell couldn't he just tell Sandburg that he'd made his choice, had made it long ago?
Fear. The damnable fear. Not of Sandburg. He didn't doubt Blair in any way. He knew Sandburg had made his choice-dear God, how much proof did any man need that he had a friend and partner for life if he wanted that? He trusted Blair completely. Respected him wholeheartedly. Loved the guy and knew Blair loved him in return. Jim feared himself. Feared his capacity to live up to the commitment given his abysmal track record, worried that he'd inevitably screw up again. Feared his capacity to keep Sandburg safe. Shit. He just kept going around in circles that took him nowhere.
Exhausted, Jim lay down by the fire and finally succumbed to a restless sleep.
On the ledge outside the dark chamber above, Blair wrestled with his own thoughts and doubts. Though the night was warm, he felt chilled and had rolled himself into his sleeping bag. Staring up at the night sky, at the infinite stars that glittered with a distant cold and eternal fire, he pondered his friendship with Jim, the folktales they'd been told, what he'd learned in the Temple over the past few days-and he reflected upon the nature of the man he had willingly bonded himself to for as long as Jim needed him, for life if Jim needed him that long.
Over the years, Blair had come to know and understand Jim well, maybe better than Ellison understood himself. Oh, not the Sentinel-the man. A man Sandburg respected above all others, trusted with his life without question and loved more than anyone, even his mother. Jim was the best friend he'd ever have and Blair felt honestly lucky to have gotten the chance to be part of Ellison's life.
Thinking about their conversation, the fight they'd had before he'd stormed up here to be alone, Blair shook his head, regretting his overly dramatic behaviour and rash words. Jim had asked him what he wanted from Ellison, what more Jim could do and had been honestly angry to feel that his actions hadn't been enough of a commitment for Blair.
And, therein, Blair realized he had finally grasped the problem, and it was his problem, not Jim's. Sandburg knew better than anyone that Jim put little faith in words. Action was his way of communicating who he was, how he felt, and what he stood for. Chagrined, ashamed, Sandburg acknowledged finally to himself that communication, language, was not just about words, however much he wished and wanted, maybe even needed, to hear them.
As the night wore on, Sandburg thought about Jim's actions over the years, most especially since those fateful moments at the fountain. Jim hadn't let him go-had called on some deep power within him to bring Blair back from death. That had been a choice. And after that, when Blair had lost his memories and had no idea who Jim was, Ellison had taken him home, and had told him the loft was his home, too, and always would be, whether Blair ever recovered or remembered him or not.
Jim had said he'd remember for both of them that Blair was his best friend, and always would be.
And, as hard as it had been for Jim Ellison, he'd bared his soul about what had happened before and after the fountain, had put it all into words, so that Blair would know and understand why and how he'd been hurt so badly. And how very sorry Jim had been-still was, as Blair could clearly see in his eyes, hear in his voice and feel in the tension of his best friend's body whenever any of that time was actively recalled to memory.
And then, after Blair had moved out because he thought he wasn't respected enough, Jim had taken him back in when he'd been wounded, to care for him-and had invested his own money to ensure Blair could, if he chose, live right next door. If that wasn't enough, Jim had paid for knocking down the intervening wall between their two apartments and had designed the only door between them to be a symbol of their union as sentinel and guide.
Jim hadn't wanted to come back to Sierra Verde or this Temple. He hated what had happened here.
But he came anyway, so that Blair wouldn't have to come alone.
If all that wasn't a clear and unequivocal proclamation of a lifetime commitment, what was?
Blinking back tears, finally accepting in his own heart that all of those actions told him over and over again everything he could ever want or need to hear, Blair watched the sky lighten, and whispered, wondering if Jim was awake and would hear him, "I'm sorry, Jim. I wasn't listening, was I? I'm so sorry."
Jim woke with a start, his heart hammering in his chest. He felt a frisson of unease, something indefinable, a distant danger coming closer, but he didn't have a clue what it was-and that scared him. Listening intently, all of his senses suddenly on full alert, he heard the muted, sorrowful whisper.
"I'm sorry, Jim. I wasn't listening, was I? I'm so sorry."
Sandburg! He needed to get to Sandburg immediately. Something was wrong, very wrong, and he had to make sure Blair was safe.
Rolling to his feet, Ellison lunged into a run, racing from the hall through the corridors and up the crumbling staircase. He could hear it now, whatever it was. A distant rumbling, like a runaway train, coming closer…
Having heard Jim's heavy, fast footfalls pounding along the stone of the corridor, Blair had extricated himself from his sleeping bag and was standing on the ledge when Ellison raced into the upper chamber. Without pausing, Jim lunged toward his best friend, the roaring rumble so loud now that it was a physical pain in his head and he'd finally figured out what it was.
Just as he reached his partner's side, Blair heard it, too, and looked back over his shoulder at the jungle, seeing the rolling thrash of greenery as the threat sped toward them, and he turned back to Jim, his face pale and his eyes wide with fear.
There was no time for words.
Jim shoved Blair hard, practically throwing him back into the Temple, hoping desperately that the ancient structure would hold, even as the quake struck, pitching him off-balance and back, closer to the edge. As Ellison shifted to leap toward safety, he found his feet had become entangled in the sleeping bag and he couldn't get the traction he needed. Still, he threw himself toward the portal, just as he heard the snap of cracking masonry, a higher, sharper sound than the low groan of the earth as it writhed around them-and the world fell away, taking him with it-crashing down toward the stone paving in front of the portal to the hall more than thirty feet below.
Falling, he floundered for some purchase and glimpsed Sandburg's dive toward him as Blair reached out to grab his arm, but the earth was heaving, making Blair stumble as he lunged forward and down, skidding on his stomach-and there wasn't time, not enough time-as he dropped, he heard Blair scream, "JIMMM!!! NOOOOOO!!!"
But even as he fell, Jim still fought to help himself, reaching out to grab the stone that he was tumbling past, twisting to try to land in a roll, to soften the impact. His fingers dragged along the rough façade, shredding skin but gaining no purchase, and he grunted against the sharp, sudden pain as he crashed into the shallow lintel of the Temple's entrance before falling further to the stone below.
He felt something snap, heard it, as he hit the ground and agony seared in a raging fire burning up his leg, and then he was trying to roll. Another snap, his left arm, but he thought he might just survive…
He landed hard on the broken masonry of the ledge that had given way beneath him-and another block of stone, smaller, from somewhere higher above, crashed into him, crushing his chest between the broken rocks and driving all breath from his body as his mind clouded with darkness…
Above, utterly horrified, Blair looked down over the rim of the fractured portal upon his best friend's crumpled body. "Dear God, no!" Sandburg begged in desperate prayer. "Don't do this!"
Masonry crumbled and crashed around him, and the floor heaved, the earth screaming now in low guttural protest, but Blair was oblivious to everything but the fact that Jim needed him.
Scrambling to his feet, struggling for balance like a man on the deck of a ship trapped in surging seas, he stumbled into a run, lurching out of the chamber and back along the hallway beyond to the stairwell. Bracing his hands on the walls to keep his footing, he leapt down the steps, uncaring of the way they heaved or of the danger of falling, except in so far that he knew if he didn't keep going, if he fell, he wouldn't be of any use to Jim.
By the time he raced into the entry hall, the initial quake had passed. Blair loped around the scattered blocks of rock that had fallen from the ceiling as he raced toward the entrance. He could see Jim in the light of the early morning sun-lying there on the stone pavement, broken and so still.
Appalled by the rubble he found half covering his partner, Blair tossed the rocks off and away. Driven by adrenaline and terror, Sandburg was unaware of the almost inhuman strength that allowed him to move the heavy boulders as if they were mere pebbles. Dropping to his knees, for a moment he felt stunned, uncertain of what to do, of how to help. He could see blood bubbling on Jim's lips with each panting, pain-filled breath and knew his partner was broken inside.
"Oh, Jesus, Jim," he moaned, his hands racing lightly over his best friend's body, trying to determine the extent and severity of the damage, sickened by the shattered feeling of his friend's ribs, like a bunch of broken twigs under his hand. "JIM! Can you hear me? Oh, please God, don't you give up! You hear me?" he rambled, incoherent with fear. "Don't you die on me, Jim- don't you die!"
Ellison heard the fear in Sandburg's voice and it pulled at him, dragging him back up through the fire of agony toward consciousness. Blair. Blair needed him. Swallowing, choking on the blood that bubbled in his throat, he blinked heavy lids and tried to focus.
"Easy, Jim," Blair called out as he stroked Ellison's brow. "Just breathe, man. Just keep breathing."
"Ch-Chief?" Jim sighed, a stammering, half-strangled whisper.
"I'm here, Jim," Sandburg murmured back as he strove for the calm necessary to be of help.
Jim blinked again and slowly focused on his best friend's face. Blair looked terrified, his eyes wide and dark with fear, but though he was covered with fine grey dust, his pale face smudged with dirt, he didn't look physically hurt. Relief surged through the Sentinel as, fumbling with weakness, Ellison struggled to lift his right hand, to touch his partner's cheek and reassure him. But he felt so weak, nothing seemed to work and everything hurt so badly. He only stopped struggling when Blair seemed to understand and grasped his hand, holding it tight.
"You're going to be okay, Jim-you hear me?" Blair told him, though his voice quaked and tears stained his cheeks. "You can't die…God, you can't…"
"S'okay," Ellison mumbled, wanting to give what comfort he could. He knew he'd been hurt very badly, his ribs crushed, and they were a long way from help. As the darkness flickered again on the edges of his vision, and the pain clenched in his chest, blinding, burning agony with every shallow breath, he realized he was dying.
Dying. And Blair didn't know, would never know, that he'd made his choice…
Struggling to draw in breath, gasping with the effort, Jim locked his gaze with Blair's as he sighed, "I choose…you…"
"Oh, God, Jim," Blair stammered through trembling lips, oblivious to the tears that slipped down his face as he gripped his partner's hand. "I know, man…just…just don't quit on me now. Please, Jim…hold on."
"S-sorry, Chief," Ellison gasped, losing his battle with the darkness as his eyelids flickered and drooped. The earth rippled again with the secondary shock, and Jim cried out as his body was jerked against the rock, stiffening against the agony-and then his muscles relaxed into complete stillness as he lost consciousness.
"NO!" Blair cried out. "Damn it, NO! I will not give you up!"
In a frenzy of desperation, Sandburg wracked his brain for a means, any means, to save his partner's life, anything to give some hope.
And then he remembered the pools in the chamber of the Eye of God. "Help me," he whispered to the supreme force of the universe, praying that he'd be heard. "I don't know how to heal him. Please, help me!"
When Jim had fallen, the sleeping bag had dropped with him and he was sprawled limply across its crumpled cloth. Fearful of doing more damage, but knowing he had no choice, Blair tugged at the heavy material and rolled Jim more securely upon it, quickly making an improvised litter.
And then, grunting with effort, he dragged Jim into the Temple and across the stone-flagged floor to the small chamber beyond.
As soon as the backs of his legs banged up against the stone edge of the pool, Blair stepped over and into the silky warm water, bending forward to slip his arms under Jim's and lock his fingers together over Ellison's ruined chest. With a mighty heave as he pulled his own body back, he lifted Jim and dragged his body over the foot-wide lip of the ledge and into the water, being as gentle as he could, but knowing if Jim's back was broken, he was likely only making matters worse.
Easing down to his knees, he cradled his friend's head on his thighs, leaving only Jim's face out of the water. Placing his palms on either side of Ellison's head, unaware of mirroring his partner's actions at the fountain, he closed his eyes and fought to steady his own breathing. Within the depths of his mind, with all the love in his heart and power of his spirit, he sought the strength to heal…
Blair saw the jungle, hazy at first, then more clearly. In desperation, he looked around for the jaguar, panicking when he couldn't find him, until the wolf's sorrowful howl caught his attention and he saw the big cat. Lying silent in the long grass, and still but for his heaving sides as he fought for breath, James Joseph Ellison's spirit guide was giving everything he had to give to help his human cling to the last vestiges of life.
The wolf lay beside the jaguar, whining piteously as it turned its dark blue eyes up toward Blair.
Sandburg had no sense of personal substance, just an awareness that he was there, moving closer to the stricken jaguar until he could feel its fading energy.
"It's all right," Blair whispered to the wolf, his voice but the breath of a breeze in this strange place. "I won't let him go…"
Reaching out with his soul, he could feel the wolf's head as if it were beneath one hand, and the jaguar's head beneath the other. "Take our strength," he whispered as he poured himself into the contact, drawing upon the energy of his spirit guide as well as giving his own, channelling the combined power through the jaguar to Jim. Surely if Jim had been able to bring him back from the dead, he could at least heal his friend who was mortally wounded, but had not yet died. "Take all we have to give, be healed and live, my brother."
Jim had brought Blair back to life in a burst of power that restarted a heart in a healthy body, a single, simple act, but healing Jim's crushed and broken body required a steady flow of incredible energy for a prolonged period of time. But Sandburg was unaware of the minutes and then the hours of the day spinning past, his whole being focused only upon Jim. The sun rose high and crested in the middle of the sky, but its journey went unheeded in the dim shadows of the grotto. All was silent but for Sandburg's soft murmurs, unconscious whispers that grew hoarse as the day passed. "Come back, Jim," he sighed, over and over, his voice growing weaker. "Come back to me…"
The day was waning with the Guide's strength, the sun's light muted into dusk, when Jim moaned softly as he stirred weakly within the pool even as the jaguar's eyes flickered open in the jungle and the wolf yelped in joy.
Blair's eyes blinked open and he felt dizzy with weakness, disoriented until he looked down into his best friend's face. When Jim's eyes flickered and then focused on him, Sandburg glowed with happiness as he smiled softly. "Hey, big guy, welcome back," he murmured.
"Blair?" Jim rasped, his voice sounding rusty. "So…tired…"
"I know," Sandburg whispered soothingly. "It's all right. Just rest now. Sleep."
Ellison's lips curved in a faint smile as he relaxed against his Guide, and he slipped into a natural sleep.
Blair felt a bubbling sob of joy rise in his chest, and he blinked hard at the burning in his eyes, but he couldn't hold back his tears of relief and gratitude. Looking up at the carved and painted symbol of the Eye of God, he choked the words past the lump in his throat, "Thank you. Thank you for not taking him from me."
And then he bent forward to kiss Jim's brow.
Despite his own physical exhaustion, scarcely aware of it, so focused was he upon caring for his Sentinel, Sandburg continued to support Ellison in the pool throughout the whole of the night. When the thin, rosy light of dawn began to filter in through the entryway across the hall, he knew he hadn't the strength for much more and that his own body craved rest, as a parched man craves water. Shifting his aching muscles, he called out softly to rouse his friend.
"Hey, man, you with me here?" he murmured.
When Jim shifted and blinked, his eyes glazed with confusion, Blair reassured him with a warm smile. "You're okay, Jim. I just need you to help me get you out of this water and those clothes. Once you're dried off again, I promise, I'll let you sleep some more. Okay?"
Nodding trustingly, with no idea of why he was in the water, not yet remembering what had happened the dawn before, Ellison shifted and pushed himself up, taking Blair's hand as Sandburg stepped out of the pool and then helped Jim rise and step out.
"Just sit down on the ledge for a minute while I get these clothes off you," Sandburg instructed as he tugged at Jim's sodden shirt and lifted it up over his head. Pulling off Jim's boots and socks, and then loosening his friend's belt and the metal snap on Ellison's jeans, Blair zipped down the fly. "Okay, just sit here a minute while I get a towel and some socks for your feet. I don't want you walking barefoot over the rubble."
Moving as quickly as his own stiff muscles would allow, Blair half-jogged across the hall to grab the towel and socks from Jim's pack, and he took a moment to open and smooth out Ellison's sleeping bag before loping back to his friend's side. He tenderly towelled off Jim's hair, arms and torso, and then helped Jim stand to slide off the soaking wet jeans and boxers. Briskly but gently rubbing his partner's body dry, he eased Jim down to sit again while he pulled on the older man's socks.
"Okay, just lean on me and we'll get you to your sleeping bag. Easy does it," Blair murmured, his voice low and reassuring as he pulled Jim's right arm up and around his shoulder before slipping an arm around Jim's waist, and then he supported Ellison's weight as they made their way slowly across the hall, taking their time as they skirted around the fallen rocks from the damaged ceiling above. Finally, panting with the effort, Blair eased Jim down and onto his sleeping bag, zipping it up around the older man and bunching clothing and towels under his head as a pillow.
Kneeling beside Jim, Blair softly stroked Ellison's brow until his best friend's breathing deepened and evened out as he again slipped into deep, healing sleep.
He looked around for a canteen, and after shaking it to ensure it was full, he placed it near Jim's head where his partner would easily see it when he woke, and then Blair struggled to his feet. Staggering now with exhaustion, Blair again crossed the hall to retrieve his own sleeping bag. Hauling it back to Jim's side, uncaring of the dried bloodstains on it, he stripped off his own sodden clothing and then curled into its warmth. His own reserves of energy completely exhausted, Sandburg finally allowed the darkness to claim him.
When Jim woke again it was to a sense of profound well being that was soon replaced by an overwhelming thirst. Blinking, he sniffed and stretched as he looked around for the canteen, and saw it lying close beside him. After drinking his fill, his gaze lifted and in the rosy glow of the early dawn light, he turned his head and saw Sandburg lying next to him, rolled in his sleeping bag with only his glossy curls visible.
It was only when he absorbed the sight of the tumbled stones that littered the hall's floor that he remembered the earthquake-and falling, being crushed. Startled, he lifted his hands to his chest and realized he was nude. Squinting with the effort to remember, he found a dim recollection of having been wet, soaking wet. His lips parting slightly, he swivelled to gaze with awed wonder toward the pools deep in the shadows of the Eye of God grotto, and he remembered Sandburg telling him that the pools healed as well as enabled visions.
Swallowing hard, he wondered briefly if he really was awake or if this was some last illusion of life as his gaze shifted to the hall's portal and he remembered that he'd been in agony and had known only too well that he was dying. But it was all so real. He could smell the chalky dust of the limestone blocks of stone, and the musky scent of the jungle outside. Hell, he was starving and he seriously doubted dying men felt such hunger. Shaking his head as he again turned to look down at Sandburg, he marvelled that his partner had worked a miracle to save his life.
Deciding to let Blair sleep a little longer, that explanations could wait, he got up to stoke the embers of the dying fire, added more wood and then brewed a pot of coffee while he chewed on some cold, cooked meat. If he knew his best friend, the heady scent of fresh caffeine would soon rouse Sandburg.
But when he'd sipped half of his mug of the strong, rich coffee and Blair still hadn't stirred, Jim called out cheerfully "Hey, Chief! Up and at 'em, Sandburg-I want to know what happened."
When Blair still didn't stir, Jim frowned, feeling the first tendrils of anxiety curl in his gut. Setting down his cup, he moved to kneel by his partner and push the mane of wild curls back from his face. "Blair?" he called again as he lifted the edge of the sleeping bag-and froze, his gut clenching when he saw Sandburg lying curled on his side, naked, like he'd been in Jim's vision dream months ago. Shaking, he eased Sandburg out of his curled position over onto his back-and swallowed hard at the sight of porcelain skin bleached to a shade of translucent ivory that contrasted sharply with the two day growth of beard and the dark smudges under Blair's eyes. Brushing his fingertips lightly over his best friend's face, Jim was shocked at how cold Sandburg's skin was and he focused his hearing in a panicked need to hear the necessary heartbeat. It was there, but far too slow and not quite steady.
Frightened now, wondering if Blair had also been hurt by the earthquake or aftershocks, Jim hurriedly checked his partner's body for injuries-and found none. But Sandburg's body was deeply chilled.
"God, Chief, what have you done?" Jim whispered hoarsely as his gaze lifted again to the pool in the grotto. He gripped Blair's shoulders and shook him, trying to wake him as he called out sharply, "Blair! Wake up!"
But Sandburg was either very deeply asleep or comatose. "Dammit," Jim cursed softly as he reached to pull his own sleeping bag closer, and then piled it over Sandburg's. Tugging his best friend as close to the fire as was safe, and hastily building it up until it was blazing, he then crawled under the coverings to wrap his body around his smaller friend, shivering at the chill of the waxen skin as he pulled Blair close. Sharing body heat was the fastest way the Sentinel had to warm his companion.
Jim wracked his brain, trying to remember what had happened after the earthquake had hit. He remembered the fall, and the pain…but after that, nothing. From the growth of beard on his face and Sandburg's, he figured he'd lost a couple of days. As he rubbed Sandburg's arms and back, trying to work warmth and life back into his partner's body, he tried to think if Blair had ever said how healing was done in the pool, but Ellison could only remember that the kid had said it had been used to heal injured or sick sentinels and companions. What had happened made no sense, he knew that. He'd been dying, injured too badly for a full medical team to have saved him, let alone one man in the jungle. But one man had saved him…somehow Blair had held life in his body and healed his wounds.
'Okay, think!' Jim cursed himself, trying to figure out what had happened, hoping that would give him a clue as to how to help Sandburg now. When he'd brought Blair back at the fountain, he'd used the power of the spirit guides to help him win that single, sharp burst of energy that had recalled Blair's spirit or life force or whatever to his body. Afterward, Jim vaguely remembered he'd been exhausted, so weak he could barely stand, wouldn't have been able to stand if Simon and H hadn't pulled him up and supported him. And that had been a single moment of lending force or power or spirit or whatever he'd done. Frowning, again thinking about the two days he'd spent unconscious, Jim wondered how long Sandburg had had to pour energy into his body to heal such dreadful injuries.
Should he put Sandburg back into the pool? Would it work on its own? Damn, the water, though tepid, wasn't warm enough to drive the chill from Sandburg's body. No, Jim had to believe he was doing the right thing now, holding his best friend close, trying to pour his own warmth into the younger man's body. Skin to skin.
But Blair didn't wake, didn't move, didn't respond no matter how often Jim called his name. And Ellison began to fear that his best friend might never wake up. NO! That couldn't be the outcome, not after they'd gone through so much. Not after Jim had finally admitted to himself how much Blair meant to him, how essential Sandburg was in his life. Blair had died and Jim had brought him back. Jim had almost died and Blair had brought him back. Surely there was a purpose or message in that? Surely it meant they were meant to be together?
Where the hell was Incacha? Why wasn't he here, offering some answers, or even questions that would help Jim find the answers? The memories of the dead shaman's voice, of his words, echoed in Jim's mind, chilling him more than did the feel of Sandburg's icy skin. Incacha had warned him that he was risking losing Blair, risking hurting both of them by not confronting his fears, by allowing his fears to dictate his actions instead of giving what he knew was needed. Incacha had accused him of leaving Sandburg alone in the darkness…did Blair think he was alone now in the darkness? Was that why he wasn't responding?
"Please, Chief," Jim whispered, his voice hoarse with fear. "Please, you gotta wake up."
Holding his Guide, his companion, in his arms, his legs wrapped around Blair's legs, feeling their skin touching all along their bodies, Jim swallowed hard as he closed his eyes and felt the pain, the aching fear, in his heart, that Sandburg might never wake up. God, he loved this kid. Loved Blair more than he'd thought it possible to love anyone or anything. He'd die for Sandburg…and couldn't bear to think about losing him.
"I swear," Jim grated, blinking his eyes against tears of despair he would not let fall, "I swear, I won't turn from you again. I swear I will be your Sentinel. I will be everything you need. Dammit, Blair, give me the chance…please, Chief, just wake up."
Finally, very gradually, Jim felt Blair's skin warming against his own and he closed his eyes as he listened to Sandburg's heartbeat grow steadily stronger. "That's it," he murmured into his partner's curls as he rubbed his hands over Blair's back to generate even more heat through the friction of his touch. "C'mon, buddy, I need you to wake up…"
The sun was well up in the sky before Blair finally stirred in Jim's arms. "Chief? You with me?" Jim called softly as he shifted to push away the extra covering of his sleeping bag, and sat up to lift Blair's head and shoulders against his chest. "Blair?" he called again as he brushed the curls back from Sandburg's face and was relieved to see the chilled, stark pallor had given way to more natural hues and warmth.
Blair's long lashes flickered and then blinked open, revealing sapphire blue eyes dark with confusion. Sandburg blinked again, and his gaze gradually focused on Jim's face. A soft smile bloomed as he whispered, his voice dry and raspy, "Hey…"
Wordlessly, Jim shook his head as he stroked Blair's cheek, and then he reached for the canteen. Once Sandburg had swallowed enough to ease his throat, Jim pulled the canteen away, wary of giving him too much, too fast. "How're you feeling?" Jim asked once he was certain his voice would be steady and not trembling with the residual fear that had filled him for hours.
"Okay…tired," Blair murmured as he tried to stifle a yawn. "You?"
"Me? I'm in perfect shape," Jim replied a tad sharply. "What the hell did you do?"
Shifting a little to be more comfortable in his Sentinel's arms, as it seemed pretty clear that Jim had no intention of letting him go for a while yet, Blair grinned proudly as he replied, "Dragged you into the pool. You were a mess, man-scared the shit out of me, to tell you the truth."
"That's it? You just dragged me into the pool?" Jim challenged.
Shrugging a little as his gaze dropped away, Blair murmured, "Well, I had to get in with you-it's the companion's job, right? To keep the Sentinel grounded. And, uh, well, I found your spirit guide in the jungle and together, the Wolf, the Jag and I sorta shared energy with you, I guess…"
"You guess? You damned near killed yourself!" Ellison roared.
Flinching, Blair scrunched up his face as he looked up and said a trifle diffidently, "Yeah, well, you were in pretty bad shape…"
"I was dying."
"Yeah, you were," Blair said, his voice suddenly hollow and his eyes wide with his remembered terror. "I almost lost you, Jim. I almost…" But his voice cracked as he began to tremble. "Don't you ever scare me like that again!" he finally managed to blurt out as he curled to bury his face against Jim's chest and reach his arms around to hug him hard.
Ellison tightened his grip around Sandburg and pulled him close, bowing his head to lay his cheek on Blair's hair as he blinked back the hot sting of tears in his eyes. "Dammit, Chief," he rasped, "I don't want you giving your life to save mine-do you hear me? How could I live with that? I'm not worth it."
"Yeah, Jim, you are," Sandburg replied quietly, but firmly, his voice tight with emotion. "To me, you are worth it. I'd do it again in a heartbeat-I…I don't ever want to lose you, man."
Jim had to grit his teeth and swallow hard to beat back the emotion that threatened to overwhelm him at Blair's words. Wondering what he'd ever done to deserve such love, he finally managed to mutter gruffly, "Guess that makes us even, Chief. I don't ever want to lose you either…"
"No more shadows, Jim," Blair whispered. "All gone…"
Ellison nodded, a single tear etching its way down his cheek as he admitted to himself that Blair had been right to insist they come to the Temple. Together, they had, indeed, banished the last of the shadows that had haunted them, and had come out into the light.
Jim insisted that Blair rest for the whole of the day while he rambled around the Temple, checking out the earthquake damage and gathering up Sandburg's belongings-his jacket and flashlight from the chamber above and his camera, miraculously still in one piece, in the room where Blair had figured out, and been stunned by, the implications of the sentinel's right and responsibility to choose his companion.
The earthquake, following so swiftly on the heels of the violent tropical storm, had done a fair amount of damage, but the core of the ancient ruin was still largely intact, most of the 'glyphs, paintings and sculpted walls undamaged. Back in the main hall, Jim packed up the gear they wouldn't need any further while Blair slept, and then the Sentinel sat by the fire, one hand resting lightly on his companion's shoulder as he gazed at the pools in the grotto.
When Blair woke just before dusk, feeling refreshed and strong, they ate what was left of the meat along with tubers and fruit Jim had gathered earlier in the day. Once the remains of the meal had been cleared away, Jim nodded toward the grotto as he said, "I think you should mix up a potion, Chief. I assume you found the recipe on the wall?"
Blair looked across the fire at Jim, his eyes wide with surprise as the Sentinel's meaning sank in. "You mean it? You'll try the visioning again, with me?"
"Yeah, well," Jim replied, a little surprised at himself given his suspicion about native herbal potions and their hallucinatory effects; but the effects had been transitory the last time, so he figured it was safe enough. The deciding point for him, though, was his belief that it was important for the both of them, most especially for Sandburg, to undertake this ritual together. "I'd like to do it right this time."
An hour later, Jim grimaced a little as he drank the bitter potion and then climbed into the pool where Sandburg was already waiting for him. Lying down, his head resting on Blair's thighs to keep his face out of the water, and Blair's hands on his shoulders to keep him 'grounded', he let himself drift in the silky warmth of the water, giving no sign of how very nervous he was.
He sure didn't want a repeat of the horrors he'd seen the last time.
As he sank deeper into a kind of trance, he remained aware of Blair's soft murmurs of reassurance, and the in the security of his Guide's strong grip on his shoulders, he let the anxiety go. The visions, when they came, were not sharp and shocking, but flowed like a river of sparkling images over the surface of his mind. He heard the sound of distant, irrepressible laughter as he glimpsed fragments of their future-but some of the visions did cause him to react with sharp alarm. When he stiffened, he heard Blair's voice rise a little in volume, claiming his attention, soothing him, and he was again able to let the fear go, allowing other, happier images to emerge and fade…until he felt filled with peace and it all, finally, made sense….
When Jim blinked and roused from his trance-like state, he looked up into sparkling blue eyes and smiled. "Did you see it, too?" he asked, hopefully.
"No," Blair murmured as he stroked Jim's brow with his fingertips. Smiling brightly, he added, "But I could feel it…I can still feel it."
Jim reached up to grab his companion's wrist as a smile ghosted over his own lips. "I'm glad, Chief," he said quietly, "really glad I shared this with you."
They left the Temple just after dawn the next morning. While the air was hot, it was no longer heavy with humidity, and what had seemed such an arduous trek on the way in became an easy ramble and an almost pleasant drive out. Though the earthquake had badly shaken their world, it seemed there had been little serious physical damage done to the local infrastructure. As soon as they arrived back in Sierra Verde late that afternoon, Jim called Simon from the hotel.
Banks had been frantic, though, what with the unexpected violence of the tropical storm that had hit the coast and then the earthquake. Too many days had gone past without any word and the week that Jim had said they might well spend at the Temple had just about expired with no word from them. He told Ellison in no uncertain terms that he'd been getting ready to fly down to Mexico to search for them when he received their call. Jim couldn't help but smile at the evident relief in Simon's voice, as he assured their boss that they were fine and flying back the next day.
When Jim and Blair finally made it back to the loft, though tired, they were both still filled with a sense of inner peace and contentment that neither had ever known before.
Until they left the elevator on the third floor and ambled to separate doors.
Suddenly feeling awkward as he watched Blair slip the key into the lock of his apartment, Jim told himself he was being stupid. So they had their own places-it might as well be the same apartment, joined as the two lofts were by the stained glass doors, even if those doors were usually closed.
But…it wasn't one apartment, it was two-and it was two because Sandburg had wanted his own place, his own space and privacy with the hope that Jim would see him as an equal. With a twinge of sorrow, Jim wondered if he'd ever really feel 'equal' to Blair, or if he'd always be awed by the younger man's brilliance, energy, compassion and generosity. But as he turned to his own door, he simply said, "Welcome home, Chief."
"Uh huh," Blair mumbled as he slipped inside without a backward glance and closed his door, leaving Jim feeling even more awkward and oddly bereft as he heard the dull thunk of the deadbolt locking into place.
Shrugging sadly, Ellison opened the door to his own apartment, but had barely set down his luggage when he heard the snick of the lock on the glass doors. Looking up at the sound, he saw Sandburg push them wide open.
"Hey, Señor Jaguar," Blair called out with a broad grin and an exaggerated Mexican accent. "Mi casa es su casa, man!"
A radiant smile blossomed on Jim's face as he absorbed the many meanings of Blair's simple act and words. "Right back at ya, Bambi," he replied with a wink, and laughed out loud when his best friend snickered with irrepressible delight.
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