Synopsis: After the events of Blind Man's Bluff, Jim and Blair go on a vacation in the Northern Cascades; only, as usual, the vacation doesn't go as planned and Blair suddenly finds himself the only person able to save Jim's life…and soul.
By Sue Pokorny and Anne Roquemore
Northern Washington vistas sped by in an autumn blur as the blue Ford Expedition wound along State Route 20. Trees, already touched with burnished gold and crimson, waved in the late October breeze, the Cascades jutting along the horizon, dark blue against the early afternoon sky. It would have been a peaceful drive, if it weren't for the cold front actually inside the vehicle.
Blair Sandburg shifted slightly in the passenger side of the vehicle, forcing his gaze from the speeding terrain to his stiff and silent companion. Jaw clenched - that wasn't a good sign - eyes narrowed and studying the road, Jim Ellison remained coldly uncommunicative. After the harsh words already spoken between the two, Blair was actually grateful for the silence.
It had been a long month, with one case after another not only stealing Jim's attention, but also hounding Blair's schedule. Riding with the detective of the Cascade Police Department while keeping up with his classes at Rainier University - both as a graduate student and a Teaching Fellow - Blair found himself dragging in at two in the morning, only to be trailing after Jim a few hours later. After the recent case involving Golden, where the drug had temporarily blinded Jim, and Blair had been dosed and nearly killed, well, enough was enough. They both needed to get away. Blair needed to get away, but going without Jim hadn't even been an option.
Unfortunately, his partner hadn't agreed.
Returning his gaze to the view, Blair cringed as he recalled Jim's reaction to his suggestion of a vacation. Outburst number one.
"I've got too much going at work right now, Chief!"
Too much. That was an understatement. Ever since the Golden incident, Jim had literally buried himself in cases, not even giving himself time to recuperate. He had become irritable and snapped easily. The strain was becoming apparent to anyone who dealt with him even on a surface level. Which was why, when Blair brought up to Simon Banks the thought of a week's vacation, the captain of Major Crimes had readily agreed.
Outburst number two.
"How dare you go over my head like this, Sandburg? You had no right!"
But it had worked - partly. When Blair cautiously reminded his friend of the incident in the PD garage and the days Blair spent in the hospital on a respirator fighting for his life, Jim had finally relented. Not happily, not even kindly, but he had agreed. It was underhanded, but Jim would never have taken time off only for himself
After Professor Reagor had offered the use of his cabin up near the Canadian border, Blair packed up their bags and loaded Jim's Expedition himself, planning the entire adventure, including navigating them there.
The problem: Blair was no navigator. After turning onto SR 20 heading east, he had become so entranced with the natural beauty speeding by them that he didn't realize they had gone fifty miles too far east of the turn-off. Chagrined, Blair had to admit his mistake.
Outburst number three - and the last time Jim had uttered a word.
A wooden totem pole with a painted eagle on the top appeared on Blair's side of the road as the Expedition rounded a bend. Sitting up at attention, Blair scanned his hastily written directions then looked back at the totem.
"That's it, Jim," he announced. "The road before the totem…er," he paused.
"You mean the road after the totem, Einstein," Jim retorted, slowing the vehicle as they passed the wooden landmark.
Blair shook his head. If he had known a blizzard would move in, he would have brought his parka. Glaring at Jim, he settled back into his seat and watched as the smooth pavement of SR 20 was replaced with a rockier path leading up and around a rolling hill covered with gold, red and burgundy.
The bumpy two-lane road actually lulled Blair into a trance, his body relaxing. It had been too long since he had had a good night's rest. After being heavily dosed with Golden, nightmares of people on fire had been a recurring event. The doctor had said he would probably experience flashbacks of some kind, but nightly visitations of the fire people were not what Blair had expected - or wanted. He hoped that a relaxing week away from the city, in an atmosphere where he could meditate without the constant bother of a hectice schedule, would be the catlyst to finally rid him of the nightmares.
Even if Jim wasn't happy about it, fishing, hiking, and fresh natural air was what the doctor ordered. At least, that's what an anthropologist-PhD-wanna-be ordered. And maybe it would put the two friends back on track; give them both a chance to not only recuperate from their injuries, but rebuild the partnership Blair thought had finally begun to form.
It had taken a bit longer than expected, but by the time they pulled into the driveway of Professor Reagor's cabin, the afternoon sun still promised a few more hours of autumn warmth. Tall treest stretched along the driveway, clasping branches over the dirt path to act as a tunnel of gold, the only sound that of the crinkle of leaves beneath the Expedition's tires. Blair couldn't help the calm smile that came to his lips. Glancing at Jim, he noticed that the clenched jaw had begun to relax as well. That was a good sign.
After exiting the tunnel of trees, both men sighed at the same time. Professor Reagor's cabin stood next to a smooth lake, allowing a clear view of the jagged Cascades beyond the surrounding forest. The cabin itself had been made out of logs, probably cleared from the site. A veranda of sorts led around the ranch-style building, a swing and two wicker chairs set on the lake side of the house, a wicker table between the chairs. Leaves blew across the dirt driveway, scurrying over the veranda as the wind propelled them in an autumn dance.
Blair could almost hear the earth relaxing in this calm place.
After parking the truck, they wordlessly slid out. As Jim began unloading the truck, Blair leaned against the front fender, drinking in the sights and sounds, the smells.
"Man, this is perfect," he muttered. Drawing in a deep breath, he smiled. "Can you smell that?" He turned to Jim, suddenly excited. "Man, if my limited senses are enjoying this, you must be loving it!"
Rounding the front of the truck, Blair watched as Jim continued to pull out their bags and fishing equipment, his gaze intent on what he was doing, completely ignoring Blair's statement. When Blair bent to pick up one of the bags, Jim took it from him and started in the direction of the cabin. Annoyed, Blair watched as Jim took the steps to the veranda and stopped.
"Are you going to unlock the door, Darwin?" he asked, his voice steely. "Or did you forget the keys, too?"
Suddenly irritated, Blair pulled the keys from his jeans pocket and tramped past Jim to the door. He unlocked it, and pushed it open. The scent of stale air wafted from inside. Jim breezed past him, dropped the first load, then walked out again for the second.
Not wanting to deal with a pissed-off sentinel, Blair entered the cabin, taking off his jacket. The layout of the cabin seemed simple enough: living room and dining nook off the front entrance, kitchen directly in front of him with a sliding door to a back porch. On the right was the bathroom, to the left a single bedroom with two twin beds, and a den with a desk and storage area. No television - ouch - but he could probably survive that. Paintings and carvings with a taste of South America adorned the walls and bookshelves. Though Professor Reagor had a Master's degree in psychology, his taste for anything South American had driven several papers on the rites and passages of Brazilian and Guatemalan cultures. Which was how Blair had met the man.
Tossing his keys onto an oak coffee table situated in front of the couch, Blair took a deep breath…and coughed. Professor Reagor said he hadn't used the cabin in nearly a year. It smelled like it. Letting Jim release his anger by dragging their stuff into the spacious living room, Blair went around the cabin and opened the windows, allowing thin curtains to swell with the breeze.
By the time Blair had gone through the entire cabin, noting with satisfaction that each room had been kept as neat as possible - even the bathroom was tolerable - Jim had brought in all of their gear. Immediately, Blair grabbed the cooler and began transferring the sandwiches and sodas he had packed earlier to the refrigerator. They'd have to go into town tomorrow for more supplies.
"The closest town is about ten miles up the road," Blair commented as he finished with his task and shut the refrigerator door. "Treceviva. Interesting name. Professor Reagor said it was settled by members of a tribe that came up from Guatemala a century ago and they've kept some of their traditions."
"I'm certain that's all very interesting, Chief," Jim interrupted, standing as he hefted one large bag. "But we have a lot to do before nightfall, and it's going to get kind of chilly. Maybe you should go get some wood?"
That was it. Glaring at his friend, Blair crossed his arms. "Look, man, I know you're not so glad to be here and that you're pissed at me. That's fine. But we're here, and it's a good place if you just give it a chance, okay?"
Outburst number four on its way; he cringed as Jim threw the bag to the floor, jaw clenching once again. Steely blue eyes glared at him from a granite face of red. If it were possible, Blair wouldn't have been surprised to see steam bursting from Jim's ears.
Heaving a huge breath, Jim turned and grabbed his coat from the arm of a couch. "I'm going to take a walk." Jerking on the jacket, he charged out the door. "You do what you want," echoed behind him.
Blair let out the breath he'd been holding, hoping he had hidden the fear that clenched his empty stomach. "Damn."
"Damn." Jim kicked at a small pebble, sending it flying into the dense underbrush. This was not the way he wanted things to be. He had been walking for nearly an hour, his path taking him on an ever-widening circle around the cabin.
He was still pissed about the way Sandburg had manipulated him into this little vacation, but, to be perfectly honest, he was more pissed at Detective James Ellison for allowing himself to be manipulated. After all, Sandburg was just being Sandburg, right? The kid never did know when to back off and leave things the hell alone. Why would this time be any different?
Jim sighed and thrust his hands deeper into the pockets of his jacket. Sandburg had only been trying to help when he arranged this week of relaxation without Jim's consent. Even after the nightmare of eating the Golden-laced pizza and fighting off imaginary fire people, Blair still put Jim's welfare ahead of his own. And how did Jim repay that kind of selfless consideration? By giving him the silent treatment. By making sure he knew that his efforts were unappreciated. By going off at him about taking the initiative to plan a vacation they both so obviously needed.
Jim had to admit he actually did feel better, more relaxed. The sights, sounds and smells of the forest were having a calming effect on his senses, an effect Blair had no doubt counted on to quell the storm that had been quickly escalating into Hurricane Ellison. The fact that Blair would actually brave the wrath of a pissed off sentinel just to get them both where they obviously needed to be was a testament to his courage and tenacity. Not to mention his friendship.
A low chuckle escaped as Jim focused his hearing on the cabin he had unconsciously been circling, and the ranting of its sole occupant. Blair had spent the last hour "sentinel-izing" the cabin, as he put it, all the while keeping up a running monologue about demanding partners and unappreciative Neanderthal cavemen.
Jim had no doubt that Blair had kept the litany up in part to let off steam, but more importantly, it gave the roaming sentinel an anchor as he attempted to regain some much-needed equilibrium. The combination of Sandburg's voice and Mother Nature's magic was helping Jim do just that.
Jim couldn't help tensing as Blair's voice paused abruptly, his heart rate and respiration increasing slightly. The episode only lasted a few moments, but it served to remind Jim that he wasn't the only one who needed some time off. The doctors had assured him that Sandburg was all right, but because Golden was so new to the scene, they could not be sure what to expect in the way of aftereffects. The helpless feeling he had experienced as Sandburg collapsed in his arms in the police garage, his body betraying him as the drug worked its way through his system, invaded Jim's mind.
Jim rubbed a hand over his face. He had not been able to see Blair as he lay so still in the hospital, but the sound of the respirator as it breathed life into his friend's lungs was not a sound Jim would soon forget.
A tender smile touched his face as Sandburg's monologue began anew. Blair may have manipulated him into coming on this vacation, but maybe it was simply the price he had to pay for having a walking, talking, breathing, very-much-alive Sandburg.
The smile broke on his face in earnest. A live Sandburg was something he could live with -- obfuscations and all.
Deciding to take advantage of the serenity of the forest, Jim closed his eyes and let his hearing roam. The symphony of nature greeted him as he focused on a pattern moving out from the cabin. The small insects, buzzing and chirping in the foliage; birds trilling, beating their small wings against the air in flight; small animals scurrying along as they foraged. He even made out the sounds of a few deer grazing near a small bubbling stream.
Jim frowned as his hearing drifted to a small area where there were no sounds of life. It was like a dead zone in the center of the bustle of nature. Following his hearing, Jim quickly made his way to the area. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled as he stood at the edge of a small clearing. The foliage of the forest floor was patchy within the circular clearing, the surrounding trees void of leaves on the side facing into the circle. The center of the clearing was occupied by a strange weaving of vines and leaves, almost resembling a mat one would expect to see on the porch of a rustic cabin such as the one Sandburg now occupied.
The place literally gave him the creeps. He could see nothing within the small area that would have such an effect on him, but he couldn't deny the feeling. It simply felt…dead.
The hairs on his arms stood up. He felt eyes upon him, but he could see no one. He took a step back, unconsciously wanting to put distance between himself and the clearing. Thoughts of telling Sandburg about this place and its strange effect on him were quickly squelched as goosebumps appeared on his skin. He couldn't explain why, but something inside told him not to let the anthropologist anywhere near this place.
Jim focused his hearing on the cabin, sighing in relief as he picked up the continuing litany. Sandburg's voice was becoming a bit hoarse and Jim could tell he was getting tired. Without another look at the clearing, Jim turned and hastened back.
The thin man stepped into the clearing; his dark eyes narrowed as the tall man disappeared into the trees. The life force of this one was strong, maybe the strongest he had ever felt. The tall man had sensed the power of the clearing, he was certain. A smile touched his lips as he tracked the path the stranger had taken into the forest.
"Soon," he whispered, his soft voice filling the ceremonial site. "Soon we shall taste the soul of the chosen one."
By the time Jim returned to the cabin, the eerie shivers in his spine had ceased; and so had Sandburg's ramblings. Apprehensive at the uncharacteristic silence, Jim focused his hearing on the cabin, relieved by the calm heartbeat and the steady breathing of someone sound asleep. The sun had only begun its slow decline to the horizon, casting a burnished glow upon the lake and across the forest tips, but from the sounds coming from the cabin, Blair was probably out until morning. Casting another glance behind him, extending his vision through the growing shadows of the trees, Jim tried again to locate the eyes he had felt on him earlier. He shuddered at the memory of the almost sinister feeling. Seeing no one, he continued down the way he had come, grateful when the cabin came into sight.
He shook his head in disgust. He must be more out of it than even he admitted to himself. Former Ranger and covert-ops, now a cop in Major Crimes and he was spooked by something weird that probably had a perfectly scientific explanation. Blair had mentioned more than once that Jim tended to be a little paranoid--okay, a lot paranoid--but he had followed up the comment with something about it being a Sentinel instinct. Which, of course, Jim had merely nodded at. Admittedly, Sandburg knew more about this Sentinel thing than Jim ever would. Sometimes, though, he wondered if the kid used it as an excuse to run him through weird tests out of some insatiable curiosity. Jim was still trying to figure out how Sandburg's brain worked.
But one thing was certain: Sandburg had figured Jim out. Even though he had refused to admit it, Jim had needed to get away. The whole ordeal with Golden had knocked him off his game. After temporarily losing his sight to the new designer drug, he had tried to convince both himself and Simon that he could still handle the undercover bust of the drug dealers. Even though Sandburg had had his doubts because of the danger, he had sacrificed his time at school in order to remain at Jim's side. And because of it, he had almost been killed.
Most of Jim's anger lay with himself for letting it happen. He had been unable to protect Blair. In the police station, of all places. Well, it wouldn't happen again. Sandburg might be a trouble magnet, but in his safe academic world he never would have been faced with death. Riding with Jim had put Blair's life in danger more times than he cared to admit.
He came to a decision as he passed the Expedition. Just as Sandburg would never know about the clearing, he also would never know his Sentinel was looking over his shoulder at ghosts. Sandburg would probably insist on investigating both, and Jim would be damned if he'd let anything happen to Sandburg again. Besides, he had no desire to end up on the wrong end of a weird test this week.
Suddenly tired, Jim slowly climbed the steps of the cabin. Instead of entering, however, he folded his long body into one of the wicker chairs, removed his shoes and rested white-socked feet on the wicker table. The late autumn breeze swayed in the trees and combined with the comforting breathing of his friend inside to loosen tense muscles in Jim's shoulders, neck and back. It still amazed him how Sandburg's presence could cause irritation one moment and calm the next.
Scooting lower in the chair, resting his hands on his stomach, Jim opened his senses as he had done earlier, soaking in the tranquil moment, allowing the strain of that lifeless clearing to be fully chased away by the sounds of life surrounding him. Hurricane Ellison had blown over, without too much damage, he hoped.
Somewhere in the distance an owl awakened for its nightly jaunt; off to the left fish jumped and played in the lake. His hearing perked. Maybe after they went into town tomorrow to get more supplies, he and Sandburg could do some fishing. A smile touched his lips. Maybe that's what Sandburg had in mind all along. What was it that Blair had said once? The minutes a man spent fishing cannot be deducted from his life?
Yeah, Jim liked that.
When his eyelids slowly began to close, Jim decided it would be best for his neck if he made his way to bed. Waking up with a crick didn't sound too appealing; waking up with a crick and damp with morning dew would be even worse.
Entering the cabin, Jim noticed a stack of firewood on the stone hearth and several logs arranged in the fireplace. Their supplies had been packed away, the living room cleared of any clutter. Even the musty smell had been replaced with the fresh scent of nature. With a cockeyed grin, Jim wondered what he had to do to get Sandburg to clean up like this at the loft.
One lamp had been left on in the corner of the living room, which made Jim smile. Blair had to know how unnecessary that light would be, but he had left it on anyway. For Jim.
With an affectionate chuckle, and a promise to make it up to Blair for the way he'd been treating him, Jim turned out the light and went to bed.
Early morning sunlight spilled through the windows of the bedroom, caressing Blair's face with its touch. Turning onto his side in the direction of that inviting warmth, blue eyes blinking open as he slowly came awake, he noticed the sensual dance of the golden light as a breeze fluttered though the flimsy curtains. The light seemed almost alive, tauntingly erotic in its fiery movements.
Blair froze, his chest tightening. Through the filmy golden light he thought he could see hands reaching out to him, parting the curtains, nearing his face - hands alight with flame. Unable to blink, he held his breath, repeating to himself that it was only his mind playing tricks, that the hands weren't really there, weren't really on fire. They weren't reaching for him, the fingers nearly to his face. He tried to swallow, tried to move, tried to breathe--
"Sandburg, you okay?"
The sleepy voice of his friend brought Blair's frozen mind back to the present. The hands disappeared, shifting into the shadows of the trees that danced in front of the golden sunrise. He let out a shaky breath, as quiet as possible, knowing Jim would hear it anyway. Closing his eyes, only then noticing that they were wet with tears, he forced the erratic beating of his heart back to some normalcy by taking slow, deep breaths. By the time he found his voice, he was fairly certain he could answer Jim without giving away his fear.
"Yeah, fine," he muttered. "I'll take first shower. You go back to sleep."
He moved from the bed, shivering at the coolness of the room. The chill of the hard wood floor even seeped through the wool socks he had worn to bed. Careful not to look at Jim, Blair gathered up his things and left the room. Once in the bathroom, he closed and locked the door, letting out a deep sigh.
That apparition had been even worse than the one the night before. While Jim had been out cooling down, Blair had gathered wood from the pile in a wood shack at the back of the cabin. A nice fire had sounded really good. When he struck the match, Blair's mind had caught onto the flame, his heart jerking noticeably, the golden light pulling him into another induced hallucination. That had squelched the idea of a fire.
He'd been able to break free of that one, like all the others, but this time…this time it had taken Jim's voice to bring him back.
Blair shuddered. He turned to the mirror, amazed at the face staring back at him. Black circles beneath blue eyes, shoulder-length curly hair unruly about a weary face, full lips pulled down into a frown. Well, this week would change all of that. Jim's voice sounded a lot more relaxed than it had in a while. Maybe that walk yesterday had done more good than either he or Blair had thought. Once they were well settled into the cabin, cut off from the outside world, they could get some good ole' lake fishing in. Professor Reagor had mentioned trout swam in this lake, so many you could walk across the lake without getting your feet wet.
Blair smirked at that. Did all fishermen tell tall stories like that? If so, then Blair was meant to be a fisherman; he could obfuscate with the best of them.
Turning on the shower, letting the bathroom steam up before he stripped and stepped into the stall, Blair felt the tremors from the earlier hallucination peel from his skin. This would be a good week. Peace, quiet, maybe a few sensory tests once Jim was re-focused. One thing was for certain: he wouldn't bother Jim with these flashes. This was Jim's week. A tired, angry, irritating - or irritated - Sentinel was not good company. Nothing would keep them from enjoying this time away from the most violent city in America.
Yeah, a good week.
"Whoa, man, check this place out!"
Jim glanced at Blair, a quiet laugh escaping as he noted the unabashed wonder on his face. He sometimes likened his partner to a little kid at Christmas, the excitement at times contagious.
Sandburg was leaning forward, straining against the seatbelt, his eyes wide as he took in the little town and the ornaments hanging from street lamps and doorways. His mouth broke into a grin as they passed a row of small buildings containing a barbershop, an antique store and a library all decked out with colorful decorations that looked vaguely South American in style.
"This is so cool!" He pointed to an elaborate mask hanging from the window of the barbershop. "That's a shaman's mask from a tribe that lived in the wilds of Guatemala over a century ago." He looked at Jim, his eyes shining. "That must be where the original settlers of this town came from." He quickly diverted his gaze back to the festive street, watching the people as they moved about in their daily rituals.
Jim shook his head at the dichotomy that was Sandburg. The man was probably one of the smartest people he had ever met, with a mind whirling at speeds unable to be recorded. Yet his innocent, childlike awe never ceased to amaze Jim. Even after everything he'd been through and everything he'd seen, Blair still held on to his wonder for life and his mysterious ability to see the good in people.
Frowning slightly, Jim split his gaze between the two-lane road running through the center of the town and his gaping friend. He hadn't broached the subject of Blair's little episode this morning. Blair's accelerated heartbeat and respiration had instantly awakened Jim from the first peaceful night's sleep he'd had in a while. Convinced that Blair was having some kind of flashback, which the doctors said might happen, he had listened for only a moment before saying anything. If it had been a flashback, Blair had shrugged it off as nothing. After silently vowing to make a real effort to keep this vacation positive for Blair's sake, Jim had let the subject drop. That didn't mean he would stop monitoring his friend for any signs of a problem, though. If Blair wanted to pretend it was nothing, then it was nothing. For now.
Jim parked in front of what looked like the town's only grocery store. After cutting off the engine, he stepped out of the vehicle, joining Blair on the sidewalk in front of the SUV. Blair had literally leapt out of the passenger seat, his gaze taking in the colorful décor along the sidewalks and streets. His smile was infectious and Jim couldn't help but return it. "What did you say the name of this town was, Chief?"
"Treceviva," Blair answered, still studying items hanging from street lamps. "The direct Spanish translation means something about life, but I bet there's a Guatemalan dialect that gives it another meaning. Professor Martinez in the Languages Department would probably know. Or maybe Jasmica Rodriguez." Blair's eyes twinkled at the name and Jim had to suppress a groan. Another train wreck ready to happen in the world of Sandburg. Jim chuckled as Blair pushed a stray curl behind an ear and launched into lecture mode. "According to Professor Reagor, members of a tribe in the Guatemalan jungle were brought here by an explorer named Simmons around the turn of the century. They eventually founded this town and thrived, managing to keep some of their culture alive." He swung around, taking a panoramic view of the town. "This place is great!"
Amazed again at Blair's boundless energy, Jim scanned the small town. It looked like they had parked in the town's center. A fountain stood in the center of a cobbled foundation, water spurting from a ceramic bowl etched and painted with dazzling symbols Jim didn't recognize. He was about to point the fountain out to Sandburg when his gaze fell upon a building just up the street.
A small stucco building that could only be a church, the windows glowed slightly as the sun shown through the stain glass, the framing and door painted a hideous dark red. He suppressed a shudder as that same feeling from yesterday overcame his senses - the feeling that someone was watching him.
A gentle touch brought his gaze back to Blair's concerned expression. "Jim? You okay, man?" Blair's brow furrowed as his eyes darted around the small town.
Jim nodded, trying to shake the odd feeling. What was it about this place that set his hair on end?
"Good." Blair patted his arm, his festive mood quickly returning. "I thought I lost ya there for a minute, man."
Grateful for the chance to lighten the suddenly darkened mood, Jim gave his partner a look of exasperation. "In your dreams, Sandburg." He placed a hand on Blair's shoulder, something inside telling him to stick close to him while they were in town. "Why don't we get the things we came for and get back to the cabin?"
Blair looked at him like he had grown a third eye. "What? And miss all this? Come on, Jim. You can't tell me you aren't just a little intrigued by all this." He waved a hand to indicate the myriad of colors festively strewn about the main street. "Live a little, man. This is your chance to go native." His eyebrows rose mischievously as he issued the challenge.
Jim wasn't buying. "Uh-uh, Junior. That's your bag, not mine." He tightened his hold on the smaller man's shoulder and steered him toward the door of the general store. "I'm just here to do some fishing."
Blair shrugged, obviously willing to take what he could get. "Spoilsport," he muttered under his breath.
"I heard that, Chief."
"I heard that, Chief," Blair mimicked as he trudged up the steps to the store. "Duh, Jim."
Ellison swatted the back of his head, stifling a laugh as he followed Blair into the store, casting one last anxious glance back at the church. The sooner they were out of here, the better.
Jim loaded the last bag into the back of the Expedition, wedging it in between the two twelve- packs of beer. "I think we've got enough to last a few days."
Blair scoffed. "Are you kidding? We've got enough to feed the entire Major Crimes department, including Joel."
Jim had to nod in agreement. "So we won't need to come back for anything, right?"
The statement was met by a look of concern. "Jim, are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Sandburg." That's it, answer with indifference. Cut off Blair's natural curiosity and then get out of town. Cooperate, Sandburg.
Blair eyed him suspiciously, then shrugged. "You've been acting a little weird since we got into town, man."
It was Jim's turn to shrug. "What's so weird? I thought the whole reason you orchestrated this little trip was to give us some time to unwind." He hated resorting to guilt, but he really did feel something strange in this place and the sooner he got Sandburg away from here and back to the relative safety of the cabin, the better he would feel.
Before Blair could respond, a small girl of about eight or nine approached them with a shy smile. Jim watched as Blair shifted into instant kid-mode.
"Well, hello there." Blair squatted down so he was eye to eye with the girl. "What's your name?"
"Anya," came the soft reply. The girl was of obvious Hispanic descent with shoulder length brown hair and big brown eyes.
"Hello, Anya. My name is Blair and this is my friend Jim."
Anya craned her neck to look up at the tall detective before returning her attention to Blair. "He's big."
Blair chuckled at her astute observation. "Yes, he is. But don't let that fool ya." He leaned in close and pitched his voice to a loud stage whisper. "He's a big teddy bear."
Anya smiled up at the detective, who couldn't resist returning the grin. "You don't live here, do you?"
"That's right," Blair replied, surprised at the boldness of the statement. "My friend and I are staying near the lake."
Tilting her head to one side, Anya seemed to size up the two men. Then, with a smile that lit the brown eyes, she asked, "Are you staying for the lot-ree?"
Jim looked at Blair, who laughed and shrugged in confusion. "You mean a lottery? Like a drawing or something?"
Anya nodded excitedly. "Yeah." She held out two tickets, handing one to Blair and holding the other out to Jim. "They're only a dollar. You could win a bunch of stuff."
Jim rolled his eyes as Blair looked up at him, his blue eyes almost as pleading as Anya's brown ones. "Fine." He dug two dollars from his pocket and handed them to the little girl, taking the ticket from her outstretched hand.
Without another word, Anya turned and hurried back down the street, disappearing around the corner of the barbershop. "Thanks a lot!" Blair called after her. He rose to his feet and looked at Jim in amusement.
Blair scratched his head, trying to hide a grin and failing miserably. "You are such a sucker, man."
Returning the grin, he playfully slapped Blair's cheek. "Of course I am. Why do you think you're still here?" Jim's smile suddenly fell and he stiffened as the ominous feeling from earlier returned; the hairs on the back of his neck stood up as if coming to attention.
"Ah, I see someone has already gotten to you."
Confusion knit Blair's eyebrows and he took a step back as Jim turned, unconsciously moving to cover his partner. The man in front of them was dressed in black, the white collar in stark contrast to his tanned skin. A smile lifted the corners of his mouth, but didn't quite reach his dark eyes. He held out a hand and spoke with a lilting, almost mesmerizing, soft voice. "I'm Father Vasquez. I don't believe we've met."
Jim froze, his gaze held by the priest's dark eyes.
"Um, pleased to meet you, Father." Blair skirted around the silent sentinel and took the man's hand. "I'm Blair Sandburg and this is my friend, Jim Ellison."
When it became apparent Jim had no intention of shaking the man's hand, the priest let it drop back to his side, ignoring the slight. He nodded toward the ticket Blair held in his hand, holding up the collection of similar colored ones in his own. "I see you've already contributed to the cause."
"Oh, yeah. Cute little girl caught us a few minutes ago. Good marketing strategy, Father."
Vasquez nodded congenially. "We've learned a thing or two over the years." His eyes flickered to Jim before returning to Blair. "The drawing is going to be held over at the churchyard in just a few moments. If you hurry, I think you can still make it." With a nod to both men, the priest turned and continued past them down the street.
Jim didn't bother to watch the retreating cleric. Instead, he tried to shake off the feeling of dread that had come over him at the priest's arrival and moved to the driver's side of the Expedition. His head felt like it was stuffed with cotton.
"Come on, Chief, let's head back. I bet the fish are just waiting to bite."
Blair stood for a moment, watching the sentinel closely, then, quite purposely, followed him around to the other side of the SUV and pushed the driver's door closed before Jim could climb in. "Come on, Jim. You heard the man. The drawing is in just few minutes." He smiled and raised his eyebrows a couple times. "Who knows, man? It could be your lucky day."
Jim contemplated simply throwing Blair into the Expedition and following his instincts. Something inside told him there was danger here, but he couldn't explain it. And the last thing Blair needed right now was to start worrying about Jim's sanity. He studied Blair's hopeful face for a moment before sighing and nodding reluctantly.
"Cool!" When Blair's face lit up, Jim knew he had made the right decision. But he was going to stick close. And as soon as the drawing was over, they were out of here.
Following the other townspeople walking down the main street, Jim and Blair made their way around the fountain to the spacious yard behind the church building. Blair almost stopped at the fountain, suddenly aware of the remarkable symbols along the lip and base of the giant bowl from which the water surged. Reaching for his glasses inside the chest pocket of his flannel overshirt, he peered at Jim excitedly, then stopped. The taller man stood with his arms crossed, a kind of abiding tolerance expressed across his face.
Giving a half-hearted smile and throwing one last longing glance at the fountain, Blair put his glasses back and turned to trudge along behind Jim. Maybe he could stop at the fountain before they headed back to the cabin. Those markings were unfamiliar, but with the South American theme running throughout the town, there was no telling if he'd find something about Sentinels somewhere. Even if not, studying the fountain's markings would be fun.
They crossed the street and rounded the stucco church building to emerge into a group of townspeople behind the church. The surrounding trees and poles were gaily decorated with vibrant headdresses and colorful balloons. It appeared the festivity had been underway for only a little while, since a majority of families, adults, and children were still filtering through the other streets to the churchyard. Blair was delighted to find the children dressed in traditional outfits: colorfully embroidered, square-cut blouses on the girls, and white tunics with the same colorful wool slacks on the boys, while their parents and other adults wore more modern slacks, jeans and dresses.
"I wonder if the children play a role in this celebration," he muttered to Jim, pointing out the colorful outfits. "Most of those outfits look remarkably like the traditional traje worn by people in the Guatemalan tribes of South America. Each traje denotes what village they're from. It would be great to do some research on the origins of this town, man."
Before Jim could answer a band struck up a lively tune that drew the people toward the back wall of the church. There a platform had been erected, decorated as the rest of the town and the churchyard. Sitting dead center on the platform was a black box. Blair coughed in amazement.
"Oh, man," he moaned in surprise, "this totally reminds me of a short story I read once. It was about this town that had an annual lottery." His voice dropped as he followed Jim's steady pace to the platform, the townspeople flocking around them. Several of them eyed the two strange men almost anxiously, but Blair's brilliant smile seemed to set them at ease. "Anyway," he whispered, leaning in closer to Jim as they found a spot near the platform and stopped, "the people of this town would get together and draw papers out of this little black box. Whoever ended up with the dot on their paper was the one sacrificed."
"Sacrificed?" Jim asked, cocking an amused eyebrow at his friend.
"Yeah, man. The townspeople would gather together and stone the chosen guy. It was supposed to be some kind of harvest rite." Blair shrugged, his mind already on something else as he scanned the gathered throng.
"Yeah. Fun story, though. Had a really great discussion with an English major about it."
"What was her name?"
Blair looked up at his friend, a familiar glint touching his eyes. Sometimes Jim knew him too well. "Ashley."
Jim nodded once, as though Blair had just affirmed what he already knew, then shifted his gaze to the platform. "That's why you read it, right?"
"Sort of. But you have to admit, a town that continued a tradition of death like that despite modern advances around them certainly is worth an anthropologist's attention."
"Uh-huh. Leave it to you, Sandburg."
Just then a stout man climbed the two steps of the platform, followed closely by Father Vasquez. Blair felt Jim stiffen beside him and he glanced at his friend. Jim's gaze was locked on the two new arrivals, however, the blue eyes narrowed. When Blair touched Jim's arm in concern, Jim almost jumped.
"What's wrong?" Blair whispered.
Jim didn't respond verbally, just shook his head with a quick thrust. Wondering if he'd done something to piss Jim off again, Blair dropped his hand and returned his attention to the platform. Sometimes he just didn't know how to read Jim's reactions. One moment Jim could be smiling and playfully batting Blair upside the head. The next, eyes of cold steel would be on him and winter would swoop in early. Right at this moment, it was probably best to let things lie. At least until they got back to the cabin.
"My fellow Vivans," the stout man's deep voice boomed without the aid of any kind of microphone. Like the others in the crowd, this man had definite Hispanic roots: black hair combed back to reveal a high forehead, black beady eyes that scanned the area with ease, dark skin and full lips. He couldn't be any taller than Blair, and the dark suit he wore barely buttoned over his corpulent midsection. The smile that revealed white teeth seemed easy and light, though. The steady buzz of conversation ceased as all eyes riveted to the platform. "Welcome to the first day of our celebrecion de viva!"
The crowd erupted into applause and whistles. Once the clamor had died down, the man continued. "As mayor of Treceviva I welcome you on this auspicious occasion. And especially our two guests." He gestured toward Blair and Jim.
Blair managed a smile and wave as hundreds of eyes shifted to look at him. When Jim returned their gazes grimly, Blair elbowed him. "Lighten up, man," he spoke through his smile, lips barely moving.
Either unaware of or not caring about Jim's slight, the crowd returned Blair's smile even as they began whispering back and forth. Children looked expectantly up at their parents. Several of them managed a quick wave to the men.
"Father Vasquez," the mayor introduced, then stepped back, the platform squeaking under his weight.
The tall father stepped forward, broad shoulders square, back straight. He peered down his hawk nose at the crowd, a smile coming to his lips that didn't quite meet his eyes. Jim suddenly stepped in front of Blair as he had done earlier. Blair recognized the protective stance, but before he could question Jim about it, the pastor began to speak.
"My children," he said with an easy, almost lulling voice. "Please pull out your lottery tickets."
Blair barely caught the questioning gazes of the townspeople as he pulled out his own ticket. When Jim didn't move, Blair reached forward and snatched the lottery ticket out of his friend's hand. Jim glared at him over his shoulder, Blair answering that glare with one of feigned innocence.
"The winning ticket is thirteen," the father announced, forcing the attention of both men back to the platform. No one in the crowd moved. Blair looked down at the tickets in his hands.
"Jim, you won, man," Blair crowed excitedly, shoving the ticket back into Jim's hand. "Way to go!"
Father Vasquez moved only slightly at the cheering of the young, pale-skinned man. At first, seeing the life blazing in the youthful eyes, he had wondered if he had chosen incorrectly. But catching the steely blue glaze of the taller man and holding it, he felt again the life force throbbing through the well-muscled form. A life force unlike any he had before encountered. This one was special. This celebrecion would be one of the finest.
He could almost feel the collective sigh of relief emanating from his people and he barely hid a smile as they began to cheer. At the behest of their parents, several of the children surrounded the tall man, guiding him away from his companion, leading him up to the platform. For an instant the chosen one broke eye contact, peering down at his friend, who grinned back up at him. When Father Vasquez willed the gaze to return, the chosen one responded.
The father smiled then, announcing to the crowd what the man had won. Faces filled with confusion and relief peered up at him, hanging on his every word, anxious for fear that the outcome would be different. They didn't know. They didn't understand.
Their children were safe.
The chosen one had been selected.
The mayor thrust a goblet of liquid at the young man still cheering for his friend, waited until the juice had been swallowed. Father Vasquez handed a similar goblet to the chosen one, pleased when it was accepted and gulped down. Instantly he could see the blue eyes dull. The Father smiled.
Tonight, it began.
Blair moaned, which caused him to cringe even more at the pain pounding in his head. Man, he'd had hangovers in his life, but this one took the prize. Burying his face into the pillows, willing his waking world to quit spinning, he tried to die. When that didn't work, he pulled the blankets over his head, blocking out the filtered sunlight. In his muted world beneath the covers, he slowly opened one eye, wincing. Once that pain was under control, he opened the other.
Okay, both eyes open. That was a step in the right direction. Preparing himself for the onslaught, Blair lowered the blankets, and moaned again. Once the world quit spinning he slowly sat up, both hands to his head to make certain the pounding between his temples didn't cause an eruption. Drawing up his knees, he rested his forehead on them.
What happened? He tried to think back before the pain, recalling his last memory.
Oh, that's right. The first night of celebration - celebrecion de viva.
And man, did he celebrate.
Daring a peek at the supine form in the other bed, Blair stifled a smile. Sprawled across the bed above the blankets in only his plaid boxers, Jim was completely out. Not even Blair's moaning seemed to have disturbed him.
Way to go native, Jim, Blair thought. Not that he could actually remember what had happened. He tried to think back. What was the last thing he remembered? The lottery? Yes, definitely, and Jim winning it. Oh, yeah, the prizes. Free supplies for the entire time they were here and brand new fishing equipment for Jim. There had been some kind of drink, too, sweet and fruity, and plenty of toasts to the winner of the lottery. And then… The mother of all hangovers.
His stomach suddenly made itself known. Holding a hand over his mouth, Blair stood and raced…rather, weaved…his way to the bathroom, making it just in time to hurl last night's…what, dinner? Snacks? Alcohol? All of the above?
He flushed the toilet.
Man, he was miserable. Leaning over the porcelain god, not caring that his curly hair hung down around his face nearly touching the water, he made a promise to himself that he would never, ever go native again.
He snorted at that. Yeah, right. At least until tonight. He remembered something about last night being the first of the celebrecion de viva - celebration of life - and wondered how many nights the celebration lasted.
When his stomach finally decided to be nice, Blair slowly stood, stumbled to the basin and splashed cold water over his face. He didn't dare look at his reflection in the mirror. Might scare him.
He smiled at the joke, grabbing a band and pulling his hair back into a ponytail. He'd deal with a shower later. Right now he needed coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
Dragging his aching body into the kitchen, he quietly moved about preparing the coffee maker. Thank goodness Professor Reagor believed in automatic coffee makers, even in the midst of nature.
Blair had just begun his second cup when Jim staggered from the bedroom into the living room. Glancing up from the couch where he had settled, feet pulled under him in lotus style, Blair grinned.
"Man, you look as good as I feel," he said by way of greeting.
Jim acknowledged him with a grunt and staggered into the bathroom. After a long, hot shower, Jim emerged, vapors following after him. He didn't look too much better - his eyes still red and puffy, his chin covered with a day's growth of hair - but at least he smelled better. Probably better than Blair.
After pouring a cup of coffee, Jim settled on the couch beside Blair.
"Ahhh," he mumbled after taking the first sip, "nectar of the gods."
For several minutes they remained quiet, the sounds of nature awakening filtering in through the open windows. When Jim moved his left hand to scrub down his face, a gesture he always used when trying to wake up, Blair noticed an ugly red welt on his wrist.
"What happened there?" he asked, pointing to the wound.
Jim looked where Blair pointed, his brows creasing, lips pulled down in a puzzled frown. Finally he shrugged.
"Don't know. Must have cut it last night." Suddenly energized, Jim stood. "Come on. The fish have been calling to me and it's time I answered."
"With a new fishing rod," Blair replied with a grin.
Hesitating only a moment as though trying to remember something, Jim finally nodded. "Oh, yeah, a new fishing rod." His voice seemed distant and Blair almost asked him if something was the matter. Jim shrugged. "Come on, Chief. Trout sounds good for breakfast."
With that, his friend disappeared into the bedroom. Taking one final gulp of coffee, Blair followed.
Captain Simon Banks stepped out of his office, drawing his overcoat on as he made his way through the bullpen. His full lips twisted into a frown as he noted the still unoccupied desk of Jim Ellison. Raising his left arm, he pushed the sleeve of his coat up, revealing the face of his gold watch.
Placing his hands on his hips, he turned to the rest of the bullpen and cleared his throat. "Excuse me, has anyone heard from Ellison?"
His question was met with a sea of shaking heads and a chorus of "No, sirs".
Captain Joel Taggart wandered into the bullpen and took a seat on the corner of Ellison's desk. "Something wrong, Simon?" He sipped at the strong, dark coffee in his mug as he looked to Banks with concerned eyes.
Simon shook his head and sighed. "I don't know, Joel. Ellison and Sandburg were due back from their week off this morning. Nobody's heard from them."
"Did you try Jim's cell phone?"
Simon gave the portly man a look of exasperation. "Of course I tried Jim's cell phone. Who do you think you're talking to? Some rookie?"
Joel held up his free hand in a gesture of surrender. "Whoa, I was just trying to help, Simon."
Banks sighed again and rubbed a hand against the tense muscles in his neck. "I know, Joel. I'm sorry."
The last week had been a busy one in Major Crimes. The mop up of the Golden case had taken quite a few man hours, and with Ellison out, the paper work had been distributed among the remaining members of the unit in addition to their own cases. Not that he regretted giving in to Sandburg's request for vacation time for Ellison -- he knew the detective had had a hard time with the case. Not only had Jim had to deal with the loss of one of the senses he was just beginning to learn to control, he also had to deal with Sandburg's overdose as well as the guilt that came from allowing a civilian under his protection to be victimized. And it wasn't only Ellison that needed the time to get himself back together. Sandburg needed it, too.
Blair had seemed to bounce right back after being released from the hospital, but Simon wasn't fooled by the act. He could tell the entire ordeal had scared the hell out of the kid. Blair wasn't one to let something like fear stand in his way, especially when it came to doing his job, which he considered to be taking care of his sentinel. But even someone as full of energy as Blair had his limits, and Simon had guessed the kid was very close to the end of his.
When Sandburg had first approached him about giving Jim the week off, Simon had refused, telling him that things were just too hectic right now. He couldn't afford to lose Jim when there were so many cases needing attention. But Blair had eventually worn him down, as usual, spouting ideas and theories about how they needed time for spin control on Jim's senses after the disaster with the Golden and how Jim needed to reconnect with his abilities.
It was all hogwash, Simon suspected, but he had to give the kid points for tenacity. Even when Simon had threatened to physically harm him if he didn't leave the office immediately, Sandburg didn't back down. He didn't even flinch as the big captain pinned him with a look that would have any of his detectives shaking in their boots. Blair just kept pressing his point, hands flying in emphasis for his well-prepared pitch, until Simon relented simply out of self-preservation.
He knew Sandburg would never give up once he had his mind set, and Banks just didn't have the energy to fight. So he had given them the week off, but not before making Blair promise that he would have Ellison back bright and early 8:00 Monday morning. Which was exactly three and a half hours ago.
Joel was studying him carefully over the steam from his coffee mug. "Man, you really are worried, huh?"
Simon glanced at the empty desk and leaned a little closer, lowering his voice. "I can't really explain it, Joel. But something keeps telling me they're in trouble."
Taggart laughed, nearly spitting coffee. "Come on, Simon. Are you serious? Don't tell me you're having some kind of premonition or something. Maybe you've been hanging around Sandburg too long."
Simon frowned, his cheeks flushing at the other man's reaction. "I am not having a premonition, Joel," he said gruffly. "It's called instinct. And most cops tend to listen to it."
Joel nodded, still trying to stifle his amusement. "I know, I know. Look, Simon. I'm sure they're fine. Jim probably just let Blair navigate and they're just now making their way back across the Canadian border."
Simon rolled his eyes but couldn't help but smile his agreement.
"They're big boys, Simon. I'm sure they're fine." Taggart shrugged. "After all, what kind of trouble could they find on a fishing trip?"
Both men raised their eyebrows at the question, their imaginations taking off in silent response to the question.
"Sandburg didn't happen to leave a phone number or anything for that cabin, did he?"
Simon shook his head. "But he told me the name of the professor who owned it. A Dr. Reagor, or something like that."
Joel nodded and downed the rest of his coffee, leaving the mug on Jim's desk. He stood and started around the bigger man. "I was heading out toward the university anyway. Maybe I'll drop by and see if Dr. Reagor is in."
Simon smiled and threw an arm over Taggart's shoulder. "I think I'll tag along. That way, you can buy me lunch."
Blair trudged from the kitchen, sipping the hot mug of coffee. He sighed as the welcome liquid splashed across his tongue, leaving a trail of warmth as it slid down his throat. This brew they had received from the general store as part of Jim's winnings had a unique flavor and Blair had been immediately hooked. He shuffled across the room, sliding carefully down onto the couch. He leaned his head back against the cushion and closed his eyes, a quiet sigh escaping as his tense body relaxed.
It had been a hell of a long week.
They had originally planned to spend the week fishing and hiking - just generally relaxing and using the time to "reconnect." But every time Blair had tried to talk to his friend, Jim had found an excuse to avoid it. Jim was normally a pretty tight-lipped guy - except when it came to his rules and problems with his senses. But this week had left Blair wondering if he had somehow turned invisible.
Jim had taken to going for long hikes by himself, sometimes staying away from the cabin all day. At first, Blair had figured the sentinel just wanted some time to himself. But as the week progressed, Jim had seemed more and more distant and Blair had begun to worry in earnest. He had tried confronting Jim about what was bothering him, but Jim had merely smiled, patted him on the cheek and told him he was fine, dismissing him like an unwelcome pet. It had been enough to almost make Blair miss the surly Ellison he had driven up with. At least that version of Jim seemed real.
This new version was just not Jim. Blair had seen most of Jim's moods and they usually ranged from stoic to downright hostile. But this new Jim was not one he was familiar with. He was too quiet and way too docile. A docile Jim? Not something Blair thought he would ever see.
Added to that was the growing number of cuts on Jim's arms. Blair understood that hiking through the brush could scrape a person up some, but the cuts were too consistent to be random nicks from a natural source. The fact that Jim didn't even seem to know where or how he'd obtained the cuts was even more disconcerting. Blair had tried to talk to him for fear that Jim would get into something that would affect his senses, but Jim had simply shrugged it off, telling him to stop being such a mother hen.
He rubbed at his temple, trying to ward off the headache that seemed to have become a permanent resident in his brain. They were already overdue. He had promised Simon he would have Jim back on duty, well rested and back on track, first thing this morning and he was sure Simon was spitting bullets at the absence of his detective. But Jim had not been inclined to leave and nothing Blair had said had changed his mind. He had simply said he would handle things with Simon and that Blair shouldn't worry about it.
Blair snorted in surrender. Don't worry about it. Right. What was there to worry about? He was stuck in the woods with a zombie Sentinel and about to be put on the Cascade PD's least wanted list. Things were just peachy.
Jim had left early this morning for a walk, and Blair had stayed close enough to the cabin to watch for his return. When the sun had started to set behind the trees, Blair had called it quits on the lake and rowed back into shore. His body was tired, but his soul was exhausted. He didn't know what to do to reach his friend, but he knew he would have to try again… and again… and again, until Jim snapped out of this daze he had gotten himself into.
Blair sighed again, his resolve to get to the bottom of Jim's strange behavior giving him focus. Downing the rest of the aromatic brew in his cup, he relaxed deeper into the cushion, and settled in to wait for his partner.
His heart pounded relentlessly, his breaths coming in quick, frightened gasps. What was happening? Sweat poured down Blair's face, dampening the dark curls, soaking the pillows of the couch. He felt sick.
Blair let out a moan. His stomach twisted, threatening to heave up the simple dinner he had opted to eat the night before. Truth be told, he hadn't eaten much the last several days. Almost every morning he had awakened nauseated, listless. He'd been able to fight down the need to vomit these last couple of times, but it didn't feel like that would work this time. Opening his eyes, preparing to stagger to the bathroom yet again, Blair froze, the blood within his veins ice cold.
Oh no. Not again.
Formless bodies cloaked in white robes milled around the living room, their faces hidden in deep, shadowy cowls. The air seemed to shimmer with a sort of filmy, silver glow; a steady glow that was at once familiar and yet not. A low murmur hung in the air, like voices chanting, and yet it seemed to float in and out of Blair's ears at the same time. The sound was almost familiar, but every time he tried to wrap his mind around it he would cringe away, the fear knotting in his chest. Never had the fire people looked so real…so terrifying…
Curling up in a fetal position with his arms wrapped around his knees, trying his best to hide from the nightmare surrounding him, Blair tightly closed his eyes. This was not real; the bodies were not real, the sound was not real. They couldn't get him, not if he didn't watch. Not if he didn't let them see the terror in his eyes.
The chanting continued, echoing as though through a long tunnel. A tunnel aflame.
Jim. Where was Jim? Blair needed to hear his friend's strong, reassuring voice; he would fix it. Only Jim could fix it. He had stopped the fire people in the garage; his steady voice kept them from coming out of the walls. Jim could fix them again, make them go away. Bring me back, Jim. Call me back.
A sob escaped Blair's lips as the chanting continued. They would get him. The fire people would get him.
His heart nearly stopped as the sound grew louder, a particularly deep voice coming closer. He could run. The fire people couldn't chase him - he was too fast. Come on legs, move! Why don't you move?!
Something firm touched his shoulder then and he almost screamed.
A hand closed over his mouth, several more holding down his struggling body. They had him! No! They couldn't take him. He wouldn't let them take him.
Tears rolled down the sides of his face, but the hands that held him didn't let go. His heart pounded in his chest--too fast, his heart was beating too hard. He couldn't breathe. Dear God, please don't let them kill me. Not like this. Not the fire people!
Something slid into his arm, hands reaching through his veins, setting his blood on fire. He tried to scream, tried to move, but the hands held him firm. Hands that glimmered silver.
Quick, raspy breaths shot through his nose as his breathing tried to keep up with the rapid beating of his heart.
And though he feared death by these glowing hands, he welcomed sweet oblivion when it came and shrouded the glowing figures, doused the frightening chanting, and dragged him into disturbing darkness.
Welcomed hot water pounded against his aching head, cascading down his hair, across his bare chest. Standing beneath the hot shower, Blair tried to let the visions of the night before run off him just as the water did, but the cold chill in his weary bones still remained. He turned the shower knob as far to the left as it would go, jumping at the suddenly searing water. He ignored the pain on his skin, wanting, needing the chill to disappear, the visions to go away.
Last night had been the worst yet. He had never known such terror - not with Kincaid, not with Lash, not even jumping from an airplane. All of those events had been nothing compared to the shuddering fear that had struck him last night when the fire people had laid their hands on him. Blair touched one hand to his aching chest, remembering the pounding there. He thought for sure that he would die from heart failure.
What was sad was that he would have welcomed it.
Jabbing one clenched fist into the vinyl inlay of the shower, Blair cursed silently. This week was supposed to rid him of these nightmares. Yet in a strange way this week had turned into a nightmare itself.
Scratching at the inside of his left arm, Blair wondered again where Jim had been last night. Why hadn't he come out to the living room? Blair had to have been screaming - when he awoke around noon his throat had been raw. And he must have been thrashing, for he woke up face down on the living room floor between the coffee table and the couch. Normally the slightest moan would alert his friend, and yet when Blair went to the bedroom to check on Jim, he lay blissfully unaware on his bed. At that point Blair's fury overwhelmed his fear. Which scared him. He couldn't remember ever being so angry at Jim Ellison as he had been at that moment.
So he opted to take a shower - it was either that or brain the man.
Blair scratched at his arm again, finally looking down to see what caused the irritation. A red welt on the inside of his forearm glared back at him. Great, an insect bite, maybe mosquito or spider. Just what he needed, to catch malaria in the middle of the Cascade National Forest. Scratching again, he leaned his tired body against the cool vinyl of the shower stall.
Now that he had allowed time to cool off, so to speak, he realized he should talk to Jim about the nightmares. No, he needed to talk to him. After last night's experience, he didn't want to face this alone any longer and Jim seemed to be able to pull him from the visions. Besides that, there was something bothering him about last night's vision. Other than the whole ordeal nearly scaring him to death. Maybe between the two of them, they could come up with some kind of answer.
And maybe this would be a good starting point to figure out what the hell was going on with Jim.
Satisfied with his decision, and feeling somewhat better than when he had climbed into the shower, Blair shut off the scorching flow of water and stepped out into a steamy bathroom. Opening the door just a bit to let in some cool air, he heard movement out in the kitchen. Jim was up.
As he quickly toweled off and dressed, low voices found their way to the bathroom. Voices - not just one voice. Groaning, Blair ran his fingers through his wet curls and exited the bathroom. He entered the living room, and his fears were confirmed.
Seated comfortably on the arm of the couch, dressed in a black shirt with a white collar and black corduroys, Father Vasquez was saying something to Jim, who moved around in the kitchen. The dark priest stopped in mid-sentence, flashing a smile at Blair that still didn't manage to reach his eyes.
"Good morning, Señor Sandburg," the priest greeted, standing.
Blair nodded in his direction, but veered slightly to enter the kitchen. Jim stood at one counter, pouring coffee grounds into the coffee maker. Instantly Blair halted, biting at his lower lip in consternation. Yet again he was hit with how un-Jim-like his friend appeared.
A glassy expression in the blue eyes, his face void of anything resembling emotion, Jim seemed distant, sluggish. His normally healthy features were pale; his lips set in a thin line. Even the way Jim stood revealed a slump to the proud shoulders, a stoop to the normally dignified stature. Of course, though the changes seemed dramatic, Blair had to admit that he noticed them only because he knew the man. Maybe no one else would see it - except Simon - but the change was there.
Blair laid a hand on Jim's closest shoulder. "Hey, man," he greeted his friend.
Jim's head slowly turned and he peered at Blair long and hard. For a moment, the apathy disappeared.
Before Blair could say anything further, Father Vasquez stood. "I hope you forgive the intrusion this afternoon, Señor Sandburg. I just dropped by to bring you more coffee."
Blair watched as Jim schooled his expression once more, his gaze moving to Father Vasquez before returning to the coffee maker. Blair shook his head, anger fighting with his concern.
"That's kind of you, Father, but Jim and I really don't need more. We haven't gone through half of the last container you gave us."
"We have found that after a few days in this wet climate, our coffee tends to weaken. This new container will be much fresher." He smiled then, and Blair wondered if there wasn't a slight feral cast to the dark eyes. "And much stronger than the last batch."
"I see." Blair threw a hesitant smile at the priest, his stomach twisting slightly. There was something about Father Vasquez that wasn't quite right, but try as he might, Blair couldn't put his finger on it. He remembered their initial meeting on the street of Treceviva. He had felt something odd, but had dismissed it at that moment as a remnant from his earlier Golden flashback. It was his memory of Jim's reaction that troubled him now. During that first meeting, Jim had not even accepted the man's hand. Yet here was, entertaining him like an old friend.
Vasquez had begun to monopolize Jim's time more and more as the week progressed, leaving Blair fewer opportunities to spend time with him.
At first, Blair had been relieved. The sentinel had seemed to be relaxing and the more time Jim spent away the less he would worry about Blair's recurring flashbacks and resulting anxiety. But now, Blair really needed to talk to him about what was happening. Jim was becoming a little too relaxed and Blair couldn't shake the feeling that something was very wrong with him. Blair was hoping to talk Jim into a few little tests to see if maybe the Golden was having some kind of delayed effect on his senses but, with Father Vasquez always present, he didn't feel it would be prudent to do so. He really couldn't explain why the priest was making him nervous. The people of Treceviva revered him, and now, it seemed, so did Jim.
"So, Jim, I was wondering if we were going to get some fishing in today, man."
Stocking the coffee canister in a cupboard, Jim closed the cupboard door then walked purposefully past Blair. "Father Vasquez is taking me to a stream he found about a mile from here."
"Si. The water is so filled with fish, you could walk from one side--"
"--to the other without getting wet," Blair finished, not returning the priest's insincere smile. He followed Jim into the bedroom, casting one glance back at the father before closing the door softly behind him.
Jim set about stuffing a green backpack with clothes and a few supplies, pulling out his new fishing rod.
"C'mon, Jim," Blair began. He didn't know quite how to do this without sounding like a whiny kid. "Haven't you spent a lot of time with this guy? I thought we were gonna…I don't know…"
"Spit it out, Chief," Jim mumbled. He lifted the bulging backpack and settled it around his shoulders.
"Jim, this was supposed to be our week for relaxing." He scratched at the welt on his arm.
"Green doesn't look good on you, Chief. Besides, I'm relaxed."
Exasperated, Blair tried another tactic. "We were supposed to be back in Cascade yesterday."
"I told you I'd take care of it with Simon. What's eating you?"
Finally snapping, Blair threw up his arms. "Other than that we're overdue, I'll be on Simon's shit list for the next century, you have sores on your arms that you don't seem to care about, you're acting like a zombie, and my sanity is going the way of the dodo bird? Oh, nothing. Nothing at all!" He had started pacing, gesturing wildly with his hands, but quickly turned back when he heard the door open. Disbelieving, he watched Jim exit the room.
"Ready to go?" Jim's voice carried back to the bedroom, finally giving life to Blair's frozen legs. He ran out to the living room just as the priest opened the front door.
"Jim!" Blair's voice shook with emotions - anger, fear, frustration. Something in it must have caught Jim's attention because, yet again, the indifference dissolved and the man looking at him was his friend. Taking advantage of the moment, he continued. "Jim, I really need you to stay here today, man." He swallowed. "Please."
Father Vasquez laid a hand on Jim's shoulder, drawing Jim's gaze away. "The fish will not wait forever, my friend."
That was all it took. The unconcern returned. With a nod, Jim turned and left, not even acknowledging Blair's existence.
Mouth agape, Blair watched as Jim walked away. Father Vasquez shifted slightly and silently scrutinized Blair. Then, with a mocking smile, he followed Jim, closing the door behind him.
Blair had thought about following Jim and the priest in hopes of discovering something - anything - which would help him understand what was going on. The thought of Jim catching him sneaking around, though - and Jim would catch him - made Blair cringe. Besides, what if he was wrong? His nerves weren't exactly at their calmest.
No, he wasn't wrong. And he needed to talk to somebody.
Blair tried his cell phone only to discover the battery completely dead. Knowing there was no phone in the cabin, Blair jumped into the Expedition and headed towards Treceviva. Maybe, if he could get hold of Simon, he could explain his concerns to the captain and get some perspective on the situation.
The colorful decorations still hung from the doors and awnings of the shops along the main street. Blair's anthropological mind took in the sights. The masks were the most prominent items of interest, and Blair could count thirteen of them, the largest and most gruesome being the one hung above the doorway of the small church. Finding the presence of what resembled a ceremonial mask on a church was somewhat strange, and following his curiosity, Blair crossed the main street to the small courtyard where they had stood on their first visit to the town.
"Good morning, señor."
Blair turned, sighing in relief when he recognized the little girl who had sold them the winning lottery ticket. "Why, hello there." Blair squatted down until he was eye to eye with the child. "You're Anya, right?"
The little girl nodded her head, her big brown eyes never leaving Blair's.
Blair smiled, hoping he didn't look as bad as he felt. He didn't want to scare the child, but he was really beginning to feel like his skin was going to crawl right off his bones.
"Um, Anya, maybe you can help me. I'm looking for a phone. A telephone?" He held his fist to his ear as if he was playing a game of charades. "Do you know where I can find a telephone?"
The little girl nodded again and lifted her arm to point at the door of the church. Blair glanced at the church, the bright red door doing nothing to quell the uneasiness in his stomach. "Is there a phone in the church?"
Anya nodded again, her soulful eyes holding what Blair thought was a bit of fear. Blair smiled and stood up, placing a hand on her head in thanks. He took a deep breath, holding it for a few seconds before blowing it out through his mouth in short bursts. "I guess it's time to go to church."
As soon as the heavy door to the church closed behind him, Blair swallowed hard, not liking the eerie feeling that ran up his spine one bit.
"Get a grip, Sandburg." His voice seemed to echo back to him, even though he spoke in little more than a low whisper. The church was dark, despite the mid-morning sun streaming through the stained glass window. The falling light reflected the dark colors of the glass, bathing the front of the small room with a reddish glow. There were wooden benches across the floor, divided down the center by a narrow aisle. At the other end of the room sat an ornate wooden alter, lower than most, covered by a blood-red shroud.
Blair paled, his imagination running rampant at the sight of the altar awash in the unnatural ruby glow. He was so not enjoying this.
A small wooden door stood to the left side of the altar and Blair quickly made his way down the aisle, careful to stay out of the red pool of light. Breathing rapidly through his nose, he pushed the door open, hoping to find an office or vestibule with a telephone. The small room was almost pitch dark and the air was stale. Blair broke into a cold sweat as the very air seemed to close in on him. He licked his lips and squinted into the dimness, sighing in relief as he spotted the dark, aged telephone on a counter along the far wall. It took only a couple of steps to reach the counter, and his shaking hand wrapped around the receiver. He placed the phone to his ear and tapped on the buttons, cursing at the lack of a dial tone.
Slamming the phone back onto its base with more force than intended, he sighed and pushed his hair back from his face, trying to quell his anxiety. "Next time I'll be a little more specific," he said with a short laugh. "I'll ask for a phone that works."
Moving away from the counter, his hand brushed on a small book, knocking it to the ground. Blair jumped as the sound echoed in the small room. Laughing at himself for his unexplainable nervousness, Blair leaned over and picked up the book, a frown forming as he squinted at the gold foiled title.
Soul Eaters: Ancient Rituals of the Mayaxa Tochlan, by Bolton Simmons.
Blair swallowed hard, his eyes growing wide as he recalled a lecture Dr. Reagor had given years ago. The Mayaxa Tochlan was a cult in the Guatemalan jungles that, as rumor had it, had possessed the secret of eternal life. The cult's name itself meant "take soul life" and the small group used fear to keep the jungle tribes under their power. Blair couldn't remember the specifics, but he recalled Professor Reagor mentioning a ritual where the Mayaxa Tochlan members would somehow take the life force of a chosen victim. It had, of course, been nothing but a ritual steeped in traditional symbolic gestures, but the fear the victims had felt was very real, and they had, according to Dr. Reagor, died from fright, giving the Tochlan cult even more power over the simple jungle people.
Blair's heart raced as he drew a few parallels between the ancient cult and the decorations and costumes he had seen on their arrival in the town. He shook his head, his inner voice arguing that he was simply letting his own paranoia run rampant. It was inconceivable to even think that a cult belief such as the Tochlan could have survived into modern civilization. But as implausible as the idea seemed, Blair couldn't shake the nagging feeling that Treceviva was hiding a secret too incredible to imagine.
A sudden need to be somewhere - anywhere - else descended upon him. Blair shoved the thin book into his jacket and quickly left the room, closing the door quietly behind him. He hurried to the front door, not realizing he had been holding his breath until he burst out into the courtyard and felt the tight band across his chest. Gulping in fresh air, he leaned over, his hands on his knees, trying to get his lungs to cooperate while steadfastly ignoring the pounding of his racing heart.
He really needed to talk to Jim.
By the time Blair returned to the cabin, the afternoon sun had slid once again to the horizon. Climbing the steps, he listened for any movement or voices inside, suddenly wishing he had Jim's Sentinel hearing. Still, he couldn't hear anything. Making his way through the living room, he noticed Jim's backpack tossed to one side, his fishing gear tilted against a wall. Passing through the living room to the bedroom, he wasn't surprised to find Jim sprawled out face down on the bed, fully clothed, the jacket he had been wearing earlier tossed negligently to the floor.
Negligently? Man, Jim was so not being Jim right now.
Kneeling by the bedside, Blair patted Jim lightly on the back of one shoulder. When the Sentinel didn't respond, Blair shook him harder. Still no response. Truly alarmed now - usually all it took was barely touching the man and Jim would be suddenly awake and primed - he shook his friend harder.
"Jim!" he shouted.
Slowly Jim shifted, moaning as he turned to one side. Blair sighed with relief as blue eyes blinked drowsily. Gradually Jim focused on Blair.
"Hey, Chief," he mumbled. Tucking both hands beneath a cheek, his eyelids slid shut again.
"Jim, man, c'mon. I need you to wake up."
The urgency in Blair's voice seemed to do the trick and Jim opened his eyes once more. "You 'kay?"
Smiling affectionately, the worry knotting his guts dissipating for a moment, he shook his head. "Actually, no. We need to talk, man." He stood, hooking both his arms underneath one of Jim's and attempted to haul the larger man up. Jim didn't cooperate. "C'mon, Jim, I need you to wake up right now."
"'m tired," Jim mumbled, freeing his arm and turning onto his side, his back to Blair.
Blair scrubbed his face, agitation warring with concern. Something inside of him was sounding alarms and he wished he could interpret them, pinpoint where the danger was coming from.
Sitting on the edge of Jim's bed, he rested his elbows on his knees, face in his hands, mind tumbling with thoughts.
Okay, okay. Think back, he told himself. When did all of this begin?
After reviewing the strained trip up here, Blair's mind settled back on the lottery twelve days earlier. Ever since that day, Jim had been sleeping in later than usual, becoming more and more distant. And the pastor had been spending more and more time with Jim. Strangely, though, Blair never saw when Father Vasquez arrived. He just always seemed to be there, hanging around Jim like he had found his new best friend.
Casting a troubled look over his shoulder at the sleeping sentinel, Blair's apprehension turned to dread. The marks on Jim's left forearm were angry and red. Carefully, Blair reached over Jim's shoulder and touched the wounds, wondering again what could have caused them. They didn't seem to be infected or anything, but Blair couldn't help but wonder if he had gotten into something that was the cause of this apparent draining effect on him. Pulling up his own left sleeve, he stared at the sore he'd been scratching all day. It didn't seem to be the same as Jim's. Well, that was good. At least whatever was happening to Jim was not happening to him.
Damn. If only he could think straight he knew he could figure this out. His head still pounded mercilessly, and after the frightening experience in the chapel he was having a hard time keeping his nerves steady. He could only imagine what types of flashbacks that little excursion would bring on tonight.
Still, there was something he was missing, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. He was certain all the facts were in his brain somewhere; however, feeling as befuddled as he did at the moment it was difficult to concentrate enough to put them together.
One thing was certain, though: Jim needed protection. And though Blair doubted whether he could offer the kind his friend needed, he'd be damned if he'd sit around and let anything else hurt him. If it meant staying up all night to keep the nightmares at bay and watch over Jim, that's what he'd do. Jim would do no less.
The formless figures loomed over him once again, the chanting urgent and dissonant. Glowing hands reached out for him, and Blair batted them away, scrambling away from them until his back hit a wall. His feet tangled in the blankets of his bed, his heart pounding severely in his chest.
"Jim!" he screamed, cringing away from the moaning forms and their shimmering hands. "Jim!"
The chanting grew more intense as the figures turned away. All but one. This was not happening, Blair kept repeating to himself. It was a hallucination, brought on by Golden, or by the trip to the chapel. This was not real.
The solitary figure who remained looming over him shimmered in the haze, a light that was once again familiar and yet not. Blair backed away, pressing as firmly against the wall as he could, cursing the blankets binding his feet and legs. They wouldn't touch him this time. He wouldn't let them.
His head hammered in time with his dangerously thumping heart and he found it hard to breathe.
"Jim," he sobbed. Save me.
"He cannot help you," a deep voice stated firmly, drawing Blair's frightened gaze up to the haunting figure. "And you are too late to help him."
With that, the figure reached out with silver, flaming hands. Blair screamed.
Gulping in fresh air as though it were his lifeline, Blair struggled from the darkness engulfing him. Blinking his tired eyes open, he struggled for more breath, feeling his anxiety rise as he tried to gauge his surroundings. A hospital room? No, no, not white enough. The sun shone in his eyes and he moaned, continuing to take in sweet gulps of air. Clean, natural air.
Once more his eyes blinked open and his surroundings came into view. He recognized this place. The cabin. He was still in the cabin.
Thanking every god he had ever studied, Blair slowly rose from his position on the bed, realizing only then that he had been lying in the corner, pressed up against the wall, knees drawn protectively to his chest.
Flashes of the vision from last night rushed at him, striking him with such force that it made his heart stammer. He pressed a hand to his chest. He didn't know how much longer he could endure these nightmares. Every morning he awoke and his chest hurt even more.
Uncurling his sore body, Blair carefully sat up, part of him waiting for what would happen next, the same thing that had been happening for the last few days. Before the nausea hit, though, he saw Jim lying face down in the bed across the room. Holding one arm across his stomach, hoping to hold off the wave of nausea that would send him flying to the bathroom, Blair crossed the cold, hardwood floor. Settling on the edge of Jim's bed, he tenderly lifted Jim's left arm.
"Oh, man." A new wound. "Dammit." He'd failed. After drinking a cup of coffee to help him stay awake, Blair had still fallen asleep and been unable to protect his Sentinel. "Jim, man, I'm so sorry." Affectionately he rested one hand on Jim's head.
His stomach suddenly leapt. Jerking from the bed, he barely made it to the bathroom before vomiting up what little he had in his stomach. Only the coffee, since he really hadn't eaten anything yesterday. His head pounding in time with his heart once again, Blair remained over the porcelain bowl, holding back his hair with one hand. As dry heaves racked his body, the pain in his head almost causing him to black out, Blair's mind reeled back to a time similar to this.
He didn't remember much from the incident at the PD garage, or the days that followed. Jim had told him that it had been touch and go for a while. The hospital had used a respirator in order to keep Blair him alive long enough for him to breathe on his own. He and Jim had never really talked about the experience, but it had shaken them both deeply.
The days after waking, though, Blair remembered vividly. For a while his vision had been tinged with a slight, hazy gold, but it was the pounding headaches and nausea every time he moved the wrong way that Blair wished he could forget. All the other experiences would remain neatly locked away in some Golden induced mind vault in the back of his brain, never to come forward again, Blair hoped. But the days that followed, he would always remember.
Oh, man, like today and every other day for the past twelve.
Why hadn't he made that connection before?
Tying his hair back from his face, taking only a moment to flush the toilet, Blair raced out of the bathroom to the kitchen. Opening and closing the cupboards until he found the coffee canister, he pulled it out and slammed it onto the kitchen counter by the sink. His mind raced back over the past several days.
It had begun that first night of the lottery. Damn, those drinks had been drugged. And ever since then he and Jim had been drinking laced coffee. It had to be. It only made sense.
As though a filmy filter had been lifted from his brain, events and conversations began to click into place.
"Silver," he mumbled. Not gold.
Staggering back in disbelief until he hit the counter behind him, Blair scrubbed his face with shaking hands. That's what hadn't been making any sense with his hallucinations the past couple of nights. They hadn't been alight with golden flame; the people didn't have fire coming out of their eyes and mouths. The hands that had reached for him, had touched him, were not on fire with golden light.
They had been real. The hands, the people, the chanting--they'd all been real.
And somehow Jim was caught up in it. Caught up in some kind of--What? Ritual? Incantation? The Guatemalan culture was replete with witchcraft and charms, as were many South American customs.
The Mayaxa Tochlan.
Blair scrambled from the kitchen to the bedroom, digging through his pile of stuff until he found the book that had literally fallen into his hands the day before. Casting one furtive glance at his sleeping friend, Blair made his way out of the bedroom. Before exiting, he backtracked and pulled one of the blankets from his bed. Covering Jim, he hesitated only a moment to touch the man's shoulder.
"We're going to get you out of this, buddy," Blair whispered. "I failed you once. I won't do it again."
With that, he rushed into the living room and settled on the couch. For some reason, he knew this book held the key. Slipping on his glasses, he opened the book and began to read.
He was going to figure out what that key was.
Blair rubbed his temples, steadfastly ignoring the thrumming in his head as he absorbed the words of the book. The Mayaxa Tochlan, it seemed, were the object of mind-rotting terror among the jungle-dwelling tribes of Guatemala. Their power stemmed from the legend that they had discovered the secret of eternal life and could not be harmed by mortals, who lived only to serve their wills.
The Mayaxa Tochlan cult consisted of thirteen men, many reported to be hundreds of years old, kept youthful by their alleged ability to draw the life force from ritual victims through a ceremony performed each year. They normally chose children as sacrifices, believing their life force was stronger because of their innocence.
The British anthropologist Bolton Simmons had witnessed the ritual of what the Guatemalans had called "Soul Eating". A chill ran down Blair's spine as he read the eyewitness account of the ceremony. The victim was bound to a mat of woven jungle palms. Blood was drawn by a small cut made on the victim's arm. Blair's breath caught in his throat, the rows of small wounds on Jim's arms flashing through his mind.
The blood of the victim was mixed with the juice of a berry from a jungle bush called the "Tree of Life" and the white-robed members of the cult drank the mixture while chanting, "With your blood, we call forth the blood of your soul."
Blair blinked, his eyes wide as he re-read the last paragraph. "White robes?" he mumbled. "No, no, no." He squeezed his eyes closed, his heart hammering in his chest as the dreams of the last few days flooded his mind.
The white-robed figures, the silver hands reaching for him, the voices….
Taking a deep breath, he held the book in both trembling hands and focused on the words, an iron clamp around his chest tightening as Simmons' narrative gave him an idea of the nightmare he now found himself entangled in.
There was a repeated use of the number thirteen, which Blair recognized as a conception of the belief that all life, like the signs of the zodiac, centered on the number twelve. According to Simmons, the Tochlan believed that adding to it to make thirteen, the cycle of life and death was broken, and one might live forever. Normally the Tochlan chose a child because of the strength of their life force and their faith. But what if they ran across an honest to goodness sentinel? And Blair had delivered him right into their waiting hands.
Blair slammed the book shut, throwing it across the room where it slapped against the wall and fell, face down, onto the wooden floor near the fireplace.
"Okay, Sandburg," he mumbled, running shaking hands through his hair. "Just get a grip. We're talking Jim here."
Simmons claimed that the victims died due to their belief in the ritual and the power of the Tochlan, but Jim didn't believe in this ritual. Hell, Blair had only heard of the Tochlan just now; there was no way Jim had ever heard of them. So, if Jim didn't believe in the ritual then he couldn't be killed, right?
Blair knew the answer to that question. Every day Jim's appearance became more altered, the color of his face more drained. Not to mention his reactions to Father Vasquez - almost as if the priest held some kind of power over him.
No, there was something real going on here. Something evil.
Rubbing his tired eyes, Blair stopped for a moment, his memory focusing on the small town where all this had started. Treceviva: loosely translated, it meant "long life". He closed his eyes, trying to focus his mind on the fountain in the town square. He recalled the markings on the fountain, alarmed to count twelve symbols surrounding one that he recognized as similar to the Mayan symbol for life or soul.
Oh my God.
He opened his eyes, a nagging thought now coming into focus. They had been here thirteen days. Tonight would be the final ceremony. Ignoring the incessant drumming in his head, he ran to the bedroom, grabbed Jim's shirt, and shook him vigorously.
"Dammit, Jim. We have got to get out of here!" His voice held an air of panic and his heart pounded in his ears. There was no response. Blair frantically rolled his friend onto his back and slapped him hard across the face.
"Jim! Listen to me. We have got to go, man. Come on!" He grabbed the larger man's shirt and pulled him up from the bed, his own lack of strength causing him to lose his grip as they both tumbled to the ground.
Screaming in frustration, Blair dragged himself from beneath Jim's limp body, running a trembling hand across Jim's face before pushing himself off the ground. "Hang on, Jim. I'll get us out. I promise."
Stumbling to the door of the cabin, Blair looked out across the clearing, his eyes resting on the familiar dark blue Expedition. Pushing himself off the doorframe, he jumped down the steps, losing his balance as he pitched forward, nearly taking a nosedive into the dirt. Quickly regaining his footing, he ran to the SUV and pulled open the driver's door, relieved to see the keys still in the ignition.
"Thank you," he said, his eyes rolling heavenward. He took a moment to catch his breath before jumping in and turning the key.
"No, no. Come on!" he said between clenched teeth. He pumped the accelerator and turned the key again.
"NO! No! No! NO!" Slamming his fists on the steering wheel, Blair screamed at the top of his lungs, until the ache in his head matched the pain in his hands. He slumped in frustration. Leaning his forehead against the steering wheel he whispered, "I'm sorry, Jim. I am so sorry."
He leaned back against the seat, his breathing and heart rate slowly returning to more acceptable levels.
This was all his fault. If he hadn't been so damn adamant about spending some time away from everything -- if he hadn't gone behind Jim's back and forced Simon into seeing this his way -- Jim would be safe and sound, back in Cascade, chasing murderers and drug dealers like he should be.
Blair laughed, shaking his head at the irony of it all. He had wanted to give Jim time to regain some control and all he'd managed to do was allow someone else to take it all away.
He should have seen the signs the first day after the lottery. Jim had been acting so strange. But Blair had been so wrapped up in trying to deal with his own demons that he had left the Sentinel unprotected. There was no way Jim could have known what was happening to him. Hell, Blair was the one who was supposed to have all the answers when it came to this kind of stuff, right? At least that's what he let everyone think. Jim could track and take a criminal down without breaking a sweat, but it was Blair who had the background to deal with ancient rituals and superstitions. It was his job!
Some anthropologist he was. He hadn't even recognized the clues, even though they had all been laid out in front of him. Well, that wasn't entirely true. He had finally recognized them, and put them all together, but he had added it all up too late. They had no back-up, Jim was under some kind of spell and now they didn't even have a way to escape. Yeah, he had screwed up big time, and it was Jim who would pay the price.
Blair opened his eyes, breathing rapidly through his nose. He let the anger at himself, at the situation - hell, even at Jim - fuel his determination. He was going to get Jim out of this. There was no way he was going to stand by and let them take his sentinel. Not without a fight.
He leaned over and pulled open the glove compartment with a little more force than intended, wincing as the hinges protested the abuse. He pulled Jim's cell phone from the clutter and stared at the "No Service" message, willing it to change. Finally tossing the useless phone onto the seat, he rummaged through the rest of the glove box, his hand coming to rest upon the cold metal of Jim's back-up .38.
He looked at the gun as it rested in his hand, the metal gleaming in the afternoon sun. God, he hated guns. His mind suddenly flashed to the last time he had held this gun in his hands.
"You don't see them? They're coming through… through the walls and the floor, man."
"The Golden Fire People. You don't see 'em, man? They're made out of fire and they're burnt. You think they're ashes, but they're alive, man. And we gotta send them back!"
"Easy, buddy. Easy, buddy. Whoa! Blair, listen to me! Your gun isn't gonna work with the fire people. They're not gonna be afraid of your fire. It's only gonna make them stronger. You gotta use the bat echo trick."
"The one you taught me. Uh, you close your eyes and you clap your hands."
"No, man, that is NOT gonna work here!"
"Blair, come on. Try it. Trust me. You can save the world here. Come on."
"I don't think that's gonna work here, Jim."
"Come on, give me the gun, Blair."
"I just don't think that's gonna work here."
Blair shook himself, dropping the gun onto the floor of the Expedition. He ran his hand across his face, wiping the sweat from his skin, his mouth open, gasping for air.
What the hell was that? Oh, God. He remembered. What happened in the garage. He remembered. He swallowed hard, closing his eyes and rocking back and forth. This was so not the time for this.
"Get a grip, Sandburg," he whispered through clenched teeth. "Jim needs you. This is not the time to freak out. There'll be plenty of time for that once we get our butts the hell out of here!" His voice had risen to a near shout and he opened his eyes and took a deep, shaking breath. "Okay. Better. Now think."
There were at least four or five hours until sunset. He doubted the Tochlan would come after Jim until then. That gave him time to get back to town and get some help. All the people in Treceviva couldn't be in on this, could they? He remembered the looks they had gotten from the townspeople. Some looked upon them with fear, but others looked upon them with sympathy, as if they knew their fate and regretted what they knew was to come. Maybe Blair could find some help. At least someone who would call Cascade and get in touch with Simon.
He grabbed the gun from the floor of the truck and stuffed it into the waistband of his jeans. The cold steel threatened to send another chill up his spine but he fought the urge to toss the gun by telling himself that Jim was counting on him. The sentinel needed him and he was not about to let him down.
Jumping from the open door of the SUV, he took a moment to get his bearings, then, with one last look at the cabin and a silent prayer for Jim to stay safe, he dashed into the tree line.
Blair flew through the forest, cursing as the lower limbs of the trees seemed to reach out and snag his clothes and hair. A few thin, dead branches scratched his face, but Blair merely braced himself and pushed on, his only thoughts finding help for his friend.
He stopped for a moment to catch his breath, leaning forward, his hands on his knees, trying to breathe despite the ever tightening steel band winding around his chest. Maybe Jim was right; he really needed to start working out. A sound of snapping twigs caught his attention and he unconsciously reached for the gun in his waistband, holding it between his trembling hands. He squatted, pressing himself against a large tree trunk, his eyes darting back and forth in the dense foliage of the forest.
Another sound to his right made him jump, and he jerked the gun, leveling it at--
"Anya?" His eyes were wide as he recognized the little girl from the town. Quickly, he lowered the gun, taking a few gulps of air to quell his thundering heart. As soon as he thought he could speak in some semblance of normalcy, he looked at the little girl, who had remained motionless before him.
"Anya. What are you doing here?"
The little girl stepped closer until she could reach across and place a tiny hand on Blair's trembling arm.
"I came to warn you. You must leave this place," she whispered. "The old ones will come for you tonight."
Blair nodded, swallowing hard. "I know. But I have to find help for my friend. Remember my friend?" He held his hand up to indicate Jim's height. "Remember? Jim."
"You cannot save him. He is chosen. You must go or they will kill you, too. Papa says the old ones cannot let you live now that you know our secret."
"Our secret?" Blair crouched to eye level with the little girl. "How does your Papa know these things?"
"He just does. Please. I like you, I want you to be safe." She tugged on his sleeve. "Come with me and you will live."
Blair shook his head. "No. Not without my friend." He looked at the little girl, touched by the concern in her big brown eyes. He leaned forward, taking her hand in his. "Anya. I need your help."
The little girl stared at him but didn't move.
"Will you help me and my friend? I am very worried about him."
Finally, she nodded.
He pulled his wallet from his jeans and thumbed a white business card from the folds. "Here." He handed the card to the girl who took it, her face screwing up into a pout of confusion. "There's a phone number on the card." Blair pointed to the number, then to the name. "It's for my friend, Simon Banks. He's a policeman, like Jim. He can help us." He reached out and took Anya's chin in his hand. "Find a phone and call him. Tell him that Jim is in danger and he needs to send help. Can you do that?"
Anya nodded and Blair sighed in relief. He pulled the little girl close and gave her a kiss on the forehead. "Thank you."
Anya hugged him, then turned and ran silently back through the woods. Blair sat back against the tree trunk, his energy completely drained. His heart was still beating way too fast and he felt a little lightheaded. He was sure it was an after-effect of whatever they had been lacing the coffee with. It's probably what put Jim under the power of the Tochlan in the first place.
He had to get back to Jim.
Blair picked his way through the darkening forest back in the direction he had come. He caught sight of Jim's SUV when the snapping of twigs to his left caught him by surprise and he turned.
The fist caught him just under his jaw, snapping his head back into the unforgiving hardness of a tree. A sudden flash of white replaced the view of the forest before the world went black.
A thrumming filled his ears as Blair slowly regained consciousness. Fire danced before him, forcing his eyes shut. He wouldn't let the vision win again. Not this time. He would beat it this time.
He forced his eyes open, and the fire came into focus, separating into torches placed upon poles in a circle. He tried to move but found himself seated on the ground, trussed up, with his hands bound around the pole behind him. His head and jaw ached.
Glancing around the area, he found with some dismay that he was alone.
Get a grip, Sandburg. He tried breathing evenly, hoping to calm his suddenly racing heart. It didn't work. Trying to concentrate on something other than his situation, he counted the poles.
Thirteen. And he was tied to one of them.
Blair's mouth went dry as his head suddenly cleared and the events of the day rushed back to him with clarity. How long had he been out? He scanned the area once more. He was in some kind of clearing surrounded by trees, the night sky a dull black dome overhead. No stars. No moon. The only light in the clearing came from the torches. The torches were assembled in a full circle around some kind of woven mat situated in the center. Averting his gaze from that, Blair fought a chill settling in his bones - a chill from more than the breeze. There was something about this clearing. Something unearthly.
The trees surrounding the clearing danced eerily in the torchlight and it took a moment to realize that the side facing the clearing was bare of any kind of life, even autumn leaves. Just stark branches. While on the other side, facing away from the clearing, leaves and flourishing brush moved in the breeze. A shudder moved through Blair's shoulders. That's what was bothering him. There was no life in this clearing. He couldn't hear the chirping of insects, the movement of animal life.
The clearing was dead.
He swallowed noisily.
A soft chanting rose into the still night, pulling Blair's attention from his lifeless surroundings to the source of the noise. He waited, barely breathing, as the chanting grew closer, his heart beating wildly, his chest tightening. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead, dropped into his thick eyelashes. He blinked the saltiness away. And waited.
Time seemed to stand still.
On the far side of the clearing movement unsettled the deadly calm. A single form emerged, the torchlight reflecting on a robe of exquisite white. A deep cowl hid the person's features from Blair, but from the build of the body it was a man, maybe as tall as Jim.
Jim. Blair's heart pounded hollowly in his chest at the thought of his friend, and his eyes immediately went to the mat in the center of the clearing.
Bolton Simmons had written that the chosen one would be laid out on a woven mat while the Tochlan performed the ritual.
Damn, where was Jim?
Following the first man, two more emerged, garbed identically to the first. Then two more. The line continued to materialize, the chanting filling the empty clearing, pounding in Blair's already throbbing head, until finally a familiar figure appeared between two more robed men, followed by several more.
Thirteen altogether, surrounding Jim, who walked among them in a trance, his eyes wide open, unseeing, arms resting at his sides. In the glow of the firelight his face was pale, lines deepening around his eyes and mouth, hair askew as the breeze ruffled through the thin layers. This was not Jim Ellison. These monsters had taken his friend.
Dumbstruck by what he was observing, the anthropologist in him curious at the ancient rite, the human part of him sickened by what he couldn't stop, Blair watched as the Tochlan guided Jim to the woven mat. Their soft chanting continued and Blair realized it was a dialect of Spanish, though the words were lost to him. If he concentrated on what they were saying, maybe he could figure it out. But right now, he didn't care. All that mattered was Jim's life. And the fact that Blair could do nothing to save it.
He had failed his friend. After everything Jim had done to protect him, after all the times the man had saved his life, after the shaky beginning of what was becoming a solid friendship, Blair would lose his friend, his sentinel. A knot formed in Blair's throat and he swallowed against it.
The thirteen Tochlan encircled Jim's unresponsive body, the chanting continuing. One of the white-robed men gestured and slowly the group stepped back thirteen times to stand, each of them, near a pole. Blair craned his neck around the Tochlan in front of him to get a good look at Jim.
Jim lay on the mat, blank eyes staring skyward, oblivious to his surroundings, oblivious to Blair. Straining against his bonds, feeling the futility of his sudden desire to fight, but unwilling to give up, Blair peered anxiously around the circle. There had to be something he could do. If only he could get Jim's attention. The Tochlan hadn't bound Jim. If he could only get Jim to break out of the trance, get Jim to listen to him. But how? How could he break through whatever power the Tochlan had on him?
Frantically Blair's mind tumbled with ideas, his breathing quickening even as his mind worked, pain shooting through his arms as the ropes bit into the tender skin around his wrists. There had to be something--something--
And then it came to him. The past couple of days, when Blair had tried to get Jim's attention, there were moments--cherished, few moments when something in Jim's demeanor changed. In that instant, Blair could have sworn there was recognition.
It happened when Blair needed him. Jim was a sentinel, and a sentinel's responsibility was to protect his tribe.
He glanced around the circle. One of the men started forward, a bowl in one hand, a knife that gleamed in the torchlight clenched in the other. They would probably kill Blair if this worked.
But as long as Jim was free. As long as his sentinel was alive…
Taking a deep breath, Blair began to frantically scream Jim's name.
At first, the sound was no more than a low buzzing within the calm. He had only been aware of the chanting, nothing more, no touch, no taste, not even the dark or the light--he simply was. The chant filled his head, leading him. He followed. He could do nothing else. He wanted nothing else.
The buzz grew stronger, pulling him from the soft, dark comfort, urging him back through the thick cloud he had become enveloped within. He tried to ignore it. It was warm, safe here. Nothing could touch him, because nothing existed - only the chanting. He didn't need to think, he didn't need to feel; he just needed to be.
The buzz filled his head, slowly beginning to form sounds… words…. Images flashed through his mind, striking through the nothingness, pushing against the comfort of the shadows. The flashes of light increased, the sounds and images taking on a familiar warmth. He shivered, the cool night air registering momentarily on his skin, and he flinched.
The buzzing became a voice. A voice that called to him. A voice that held trust and caring. The black cloud began to shift, gaps filled with memories of life, love, friendship. His breath began to burn in his throat, the voice warring with the others, blending yet somehow at odds with the song. He focused on the voice, allowing it to grow, allowing it to lead him from the darkness.
"Jim, you need to fight this!" Blair bellowed. Warily he observed the Tochlan, waiting for the moment when they would turn on him to shut him up. But they paid no attention to him, instead continuing in their religious frenzy, their chanting becoming more intense. Tears streamed down Blair's face and for an instant he watched in terror as the man with the knife neared his friend. "Jim! Radar up, man! Please!" Please!
He took a deep breath and coughed as it caught in his dry throat. The chanting rose in timbre, urgency in the eerie music sending chills through Blair's spine. The volume of the chanting was almost enough to drown out the sound of Blair's pleas, but he couldn't stop. He was running out of time. The Tochlan was nearly to Jim.
"C'mon, Jim!" Blair yelled, his voice hoarse. "Follow my voice back!"
Jim blinked and tilted his head to one side, a movement marvelously familiar to Blair. He could hardly keep the smile from crossing his lips. He was getting through! Now, to get Jim out of there.
"Jim, we're in danger!" he yelled again, filling his voice with as much warning as he could, lifting it louder than the level of the chanting. "Jim, listen to me! Our lives are in danger, man! You need to get out of here!" He took another breath, fire in his throat. The Tochlan knelt beside Jim, taking Jim's arm and setting it over the rim of the bowl. The knife glinted in the eerie firelight of the clearing. It was now or never. "Jim, run!"
"Jim, we're in danger!"
The voice pulled him from the fog. The words held meaning, he was sure, but he couldn't force his mind to think. The cloud still hung over him, but the darkness was somehow less intense. There were breaks in the blackness, breaks in the numbness where the cold of the night breeze raised the hair on his skin.
Something deep inside stirred. The voice continued to call, continued to draw him toward the light. He was aware of someone near. He could feel the heat of their breath on his face. Was this the voice his mind was telling him to follow? No! His skin prickled where it was touched, his mind suddenly aware of the evil surrounding him. He tried to focus on the voice, tried to follow it from the darkness. He became aware of shapes dancing around him. The ghosts moved in time with the chanting, their white folds blowing in the slight breeze.
"Jim, listen to me! Our lives are in danger, man! You need to get out of here!"
The voice was filled with emotions -- fear, despair, urgency. A face floated just beyond his vision, the face of trust, innocence, and friendship.
The desperation in the voice finally broke through the fog and Jim found himself obeying its directive. He pulled his arm from the evil touch just as he felt the cold steel of a blade pierce his skin. The light from the torches flickered behind the white ghosts. A primal scream tore from his throat and he pushed at the hands that were attempting to hold him.
"That's it, Jim! Fight them!"
The voice urged him on, and he followed it blindly. He felt his fists connect with one target after another, but he could feel his strength ebbing and soon the chanting had begun to fill his head once more.
"Run, Jim! Go!"
He no longer had the strength to resist the voice. It filled his head, bending him to its will. The voice held a promise of warmth and safety and he could not resist its power. He gathered his remaining strength and in a burst of fury obeyed the voice's plea. He ran.
Blair cheered as Jim broke free of the last Tochlan, tossing the man to one side as easily as he would a discarded dishcloth. In a blur, Jim dove into the safety of the surrounding foliage. Several of the Tochlan took off after him, but Blair knew they would never find him. Jim's ability to survive in the wild was secondary only to his ability to thrive in the jungle of Cascade. From the look on Jim's face as he followed Blair's pleading, his survival instincts were heightened. The Tochlan didn't stand a chance.
"Yes!" Blair laughed, thrilled for his friend's safety. Tears of relief blurred his vision and he blinked them back, his cheeks hurting from smiling so hard. Jim was safe. Thank God, Jim was safe.
Wearily, Blair leaned against the pole, tilting his head back, swallowing loudly. His throat hurt, his eyes hurt--damn, his whole body hurt. It was worth it, though. He had done it. He had saved Jim's life.
Blair opened his eyes in time to catch a meaty fist in the face. His head jerked back, slamming against the pole. Before his bearings could return, that meaty fist seized Blair around the throat, jerking him forward, squeezing. Blair struggled for breath as much as his bonds allowed, black spots appearing before his eyes.
"No one has ever broken through to the victim. No one!"
The hand squeezed harder. Blair felt oblivion press down on him.
"Hermano, please," a familiar voice spoke, soothingly.
The grip around Blair's throat released, and he fell back, gulping in great breaths of cool air.
"We should have shut him up," the angry Tochlan spat.
"How could we know, Hermano, that his voice held more power than ours? This has never been."
Someone knelt beside Blair.
"That was very foolish, Señor Sandburg," another familiar voice said. When Blair didn't answer, strong hands grasped the hair at the back of his head and jerked back. Blair gasped, opening his eyes to meet the steely gaze of Father Vasquez. "You should not have interfered, Señor."
Movement on the other side of the clearing interrupted the priest. The Tochlan who had chased Jim returned, empty-handed. Despite his current situation, Blair couldn't help but smile.
"Looks like you'll have to do without your pin-cushion for tonight, Vasquez," Blair scoffed triumphantly. He cringed when Vasquez raised his other hand, clenched into a fist, the steely eyes suddenly flat with rage.
"The ritual must be concluded before midnight, Vasquez," the voice who had calmed Blair's attacker spoke insistently. When the strike didn't come, Blair opened his eyes, shifting his attention from the priest to the man standing behind him. He gasped as the man lowered the hood of his robe, a smile crossing a very familiar face. "Hello, Blair."
"Professor Reagor?" The slender face of James Reagor glared down at Blair, gray eyes alight with a hunger Blair had seen only on rare occasions, a hunger fed by lust, a fire nourished by ceremonial frenzy.
"I told you, Vasquez, that Sandburg was to be the chosen one," Professor Reagor stated. "It was why I sent him here in the first place. Does this not prove it?"
"Perhaps," the father replied, tightening his grip in Blair's curls. "But I felt something more from the other." He paused, peering into the night. With a regretful sigh, he returned his attention to Blair. "But you are right about this one. His life essence is powerful; freeing the chosen one is more than enough proof of that." Shoving Blair back against the pole, Vasquez stood. "My brothers," he called, gesturing for the others in the clearing to come forward. "The time is drawing nigh. If we do not complete the ritual tonight, we are undone."
"But the chosen one has fled, brother," one of the Tochlan replied, his voice shaking. Blair couldn't decide whether it was with fear or anger.
"Indeed. But he has left us an ideal replacement."
Thirteen pairs of eyes settled on Blair. He gulped.
Vasquez motioned one of the Tochlan forward. The robed man drew near, pulling a flask from beneath his robe. Unscrewing the cap, the man knelt beside Blair.
"No!" Blair shouted, struggling away from the man.
He scooted back, shifting his head from side to side as the Tochlan tried to press the mouth of the flask to his lips. Clamping his mouth shut, excited breaths bursting through his nostrils, Blair kicked out, catching the man in the side. Two other Tochlan came forward, one grasping his head to hold it still, the other lying across his lap.
Blair couldn't call for help, for fear whatever was in the flask would find its way into his mouth. He didn't dare, anyway. The only person within range to help him was running for his life, maybe still under the Tochlan influence. He'd risked a lot to save Jim's life. He wouldn't endanger it again. Not for this.
A strong hand clamped over his face, closing his nose. The need to breathe struggled against the fear of what was in the flask until finally Blair's mouth gaped open, drawing in gasping breaths. Tears fell down the sides of his face as he choked on a cool liquid being forced down his throat. Before he could spit it out, another hand fell over his mouth. Unable to breathe, he swallowed the liquid.
Suddenly he was freed from the hands holding him down. Blair coughed, trying to spit out the bitter taste in his mouth. His world began spinning. The figures dressed in white robes tilted one way and then another; a low humming echoed in his ears, sounding as though it came from far away. His hands were loosed and they dropped lifeless to his side. The heart pounding dangerously fast in his chest abruptly slowed, the blood draining from his face.
"With your blood," a deep voice began.
"We call forth the blood of your soul," others answered.
Blair felt himself lifted, but he didn't care. The humming drew him deeper and deeper, toward the darkness waiting beneath him. An inviting darkness. A darkness he didn't fear, for he felt nothing.
Jim became aware of his surroundings and forced his aching muscles to come to a halt. He leaned against a tree, his breath coming in short, ragged gasps, his heart thundering in his ears. He squeezed his eyes against the pounding in his head and tried to force his jumbled brain to think.
He remembered… a clearing? Yeah, he had been in the clearing. He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs. He couldn't remember how he had gotten there. The last thing he remembered was…. He shook his head again. He couldn't remember. He recalled the little town they had gone to for supplies and some kind of celebration… and a lottery? He had won some kind of drawing. He could remember Sandburg's face grinning in delight, his eyes wide in surprise.
Something inside sounded an alarm. Jim looked around quickly, finding no sign of his friend. He was alone, in the thick of the forest, in the middle of the night. Just what the hell was going on?
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, allowing his hearing to traverse the surrounding area. The chirping and humming of various insects and animals filled his head, until the sounds of nature were broken by a single, desperate word.
Jim's eyes snapped open as memory flooded his mind. The clearing! There had been maybe a dozen of them, covered in flowing white robes, surrounding him, chanting. The chanting had blanketed him, dousing his ability to think or feel. He remembered the numbness that had slowly crept through him, blocking everything else until nothing else seemed to matter. Nothing had been able to touch him through the cloud of swirling darkness until that one voice had broken through.
He focused his attention, alarmed to hear the sounds of a struggle. Blair's heart was racing as he fought against his captors. The struggles ceased and he heard Blair coughing, choking.
The sounds of a low chant began to build in his head and he forced his hearing to remain focused on Blair. The sounds of Blair's distress erased what was left of the numbness in his head, spurring him into action. He pushed himself off the tree trunk that had been supporting his weary body and moved back into the forest. Using his sentinel hearing like sonar, he latched onto his friend's heartbeat, letting it guide him like a beacon through the darkness.
Fear gripped his throat as the familiar rhythm began to slow and he quickened his pace through the gloomy, dense underbrush.
"Fight them, Chief," he whispered through clenched teeth, his anger and concern fueling his reserves. "You can fight them. Just hold on."
Branches and limbs reached out and struck at Jim's exposed flesh as he raced back the way he had come, but he gave the new wounds no heed. All he focused on was the single tremulous heartbeat throbbing in his ears. Desperately he willed that heartbeat to grow stronger, but as was typical with Sandburg, the damn thing defied him.
Cautiously, Jim made his way through the forest, heightening his vision, allowing the glow from the clearing to light his way. Settling behind a brush, Jim scanned the clearing, biting back his fury.
Blair lay on a woven mat in the center of the clearing, his chest barely moving, while thirteen figures dressed in white robes surrounded him. The hoods of their robes had been lowered, their mouths moving in strange contours as the chant continued to float through the air. Most of the robed men were of Hispanic descent - probably townspeople from Treceviva. One of them, however, was Caucasian. He stood beside Father Vasquez, crushing something in a bowl, his mouth moving. In his eyes - in the eyes of those in the circle - Jim found a fiery hunger he had never seen before. They looked at Blair as though they hadn't eaten in years.
The man with the bowl moved forward, the bowl in one hand, a knife glinting in the other. He had no idea what was going on, but he did know one thing: no matter what, he had to stop that man from touching Blair with that bowl and knife. Even if it meant dying in the process.
Weighing his odds, he bunched his muscles, ready to spring, when he noticed something dark on the ground at the base of a pole, nearly buried beneath some bloodstained rope. His back-up .38.
Not caring how the weapon found its way to the clearing, Jim quietly made his way around the edge, his eyes keenly on the figure walking toward Blair. Once close enough to the weapon, he burst from the foliage, scooping the gun up with one hand even as he began to aim.
"You stay the hell away from him!" he bellowed.
The chanting stopped. Thirteen men turned thirteen pairs of hungry eyes on him.
Keeping his hearing focused on Blair's slow, steady heartbeat, Jim leveled the gun at the two men in the center of the circle. The other eleven moved back to the far edge of the clearing, murmuring amongst themselves, looks of confusion and bewilderment on their faces, clearly inclined to let Father Vasquez and the other man handle the situation.
"Get away from him."
Holding the .38 firmly with both hands, Jim motioned for Vasquez and the other to move back, allowing him clear access to his friend. Keeping a wary eye on the white-robed figures, Jim sidled across the clearing and crouched down next to Blair. He reached down, laying a hand on Blair's warm forehead.
A low moan and slight shift of the head beneath his hand encouraged him to continue. "That's it, Chief. Come on back."
The pale man took a step forward, pausing as Jim redirected the muzzle of the .38 directly at him.
"How nice of you to return, Mr. Ellison."
Jim's eyes narrowed and he cocked his head in response to the man's comment. "Who are you?"
The man smiled and spread his hands, the billowing sleeves of the robe fluttering in the cool night breeze. "My name is Bolton Simmons." He laughed softly, his eyes shining with something other than humor. "Of course, Blair knows me as Professor James Reagor."
"Reagor?" Jim stiffened at the name. Blair had told him the professor had offered him the use of the cabin, but, with Sandburg's trusting nature, he had probably never even thought to question the motive behind the offer. He shook his head slowly, recalling Blair's impromptu lecture about the origins of the nearby town. "Blair told me Simmons had brought the people here over one hundred years ago. You couldn't possibly be him."
Reagor sighed, his expression one of patience and calm. "Do not deem impossible that which you do not understand, Detective. I would have thought Blair would have taught you that by now."
"I'm a slow learner."
Blair moaned again, his movement stronger. He moved his head from side to side, trying to fight his way back to consciousness. Reagor turned his eyes to the grad student and Jim shifted closer, made uneasy by the professor's scrutiny.
"I knew Blair would be perfect for our ceremony, so I must admit, Detective, I never expected my colleagues to choose you." His cold, gray eyes moved to Jim, capturing them in their soulless depths.
Jim absently stroked the sweat-laden curls below his hand, keeping constant contact with Blair. "Then why me?"
"Father Vasquez felt something powerful in you, Detective. A connection to the earth unlike any he had come across. Since the success of the ritual relies on the belief of the sacrifice, his choice concerned me. But feeding upon your essence these past twelve days tells me that Vasquez chose right." He turned his eyes again to Blair, and Jim was astonished to see something akin to affection in them. "However, if we cannot complete the ritual in you, we still have Blair. As you may have discovered, he is a very bright, very spiritual soul. His essence will give us the elements we needed."
Jim tightened his grip on the gun. "You aren't getting anything from him, you bastard."
"Señor Ellison." Father Vasquez moved to stand beside Reagor, and Jim noticed the shining dagger held in his hand. "This is a fight you cannot win. I tasted the power of your soul the first time I saw you here, in this sacred place. You were drawn to it, were you not? That is why I chose you instead of your young friend. Even now you still feel the call of your destiny."
The priest's soft, melodic voice threatened to pull Jim back into the numbness that had so recently enveloped him. He remembered the darkness, the swirling gray he floated in, far away from the pain and stimulation of the world.
Blair's voice broke through the confusion and Jim glanced down, relieved to see his eyelids flutter as Blair started to come around. He shook his head, strengthening his resolve, breaking the spell Vasquez was trying to weave. Reagor and Vasquez stared at one another. Their eyes held resolve as they peered down at Blair once more.
"No. You drugged me just like you've drugged Sandburg." Jim's voice was low, his mouth tight with anger. "This has nothing to do with any kind of destiny. It's murder. You think you have the right to use people to achieve your own insidious ends. Now you understand something: It's over. I'm taking Blair out of here."
Reagor's eyes hardened, the patient smile fading from his face. "I'm afraid we cannot allow that, Detective."
In a flash of movement, Father Vasquez raised the dagger and charged forward. Jim quickly shifted the .38 and squeezed the trigger, watching as five rounds struck the priest dead center.
He didn't even slow down.
With incredible force, Vasquez slammed into him, sending them both to the ground. They rolled toward the edge of the clearing, Vasquez gaining the upper hand and landing on top, pinning the weakened sentinel beneath him. He raised his arm, preparing to drive the dagger into Jim's exposed chest. Jim caught the priest's wrist before the dagger could find its target.
The flicker of flames from the torches surrounding the clearing danced in the reflective metal of the knife as Jim strained against Vasquez. The priest was strong. Jim could feel his waning strength beginning to falter in the face of the priest's madness. The drugs they had used on him were still in his system and they were taking their toll.
Sweat poured from his skin, ran into his eyes, yet he refused to give in. A roar of determination rose from his throat. He gritted his teeth and pushed against the hand holding the knife with all the strength he could summon. Vasquez' eyes widened in alarm as Jim pushed the knife back, away from his chest and closer to the priest's own.
Gunshots. Where did the gunshots come from? Blair fought the swimming darkness bogging him down, reaching for something to pull him free. There had been a voice, a gentle, concerned voice so familiar to him, the feeling of a warm hand on his head. These had been welcomed in the terrifying darkness. But they had disappeared, leaving him to fight the gloom alone.
A voice roared then, and in that roar Blair could hear frustration and anger. And Jim.
Jim! The sound of his friend in trouble gave Blair what he needed to finally shed the invisible manacles pulling him back to numbness. Jim needed him.
Opening his eyes, he tried to sit up, to find Jim, but a knee pressed painfully into his chest. Looking up, he met the soulless eyes of a friend.
"Professor Reagor?" Blair choked out, finding it hard to breathe.
"We must finish the ritual, Blair," Reagor explained, grabbing Blair's left arm with one hand, the other producing a thick-bladed dagger from the folds of his robes. "You of all people understand the importance of ceremony in a culture. This is part of our culture."
Mustering as much strength as his weakened body could offer, Blair jerked his arm free before the knife could touch him. Thrown off-balance by the unexpected movement, Reagor fell forward, tumbling off Blair in a mess of robes. Blair tried to get up, but his world tilted, dropping him to his knees. Blinking back the dizziness threatening to topple him altogether, Blair desperately searched the clearing for Jim. A cold chill swept through him as he watched in horror Jim and Vasquez fight for control of a dagger dangerously close to Jim's chest.
Before Blair could move to help, or call out as some sort of distraction, Reagor charged into him, throwing them both to the ground. His world still spinning, Blair pushed the man off and tried to crawl toward the circle of torches, but Reagor was quicker. Landing on top of Blair, the madman began chanting words in another language. Grabbing Blair around the neck with one arm, Reagor hauled him to his feet, pressing Blair's back against his chest. The grip was intense and the more Blair tried to relieve the pressure, the weaker he became. The chanting continued, this time whispered into Blair's ear, melting his will. Blair's arms dropped by his sides, the dizzying world slipping away from his grip as he fell under the spell of those words.
Shaking his head, ridding it of the cobwebs forming there, Blair jerked an elbow it into the gut of the man holding him, Reagor's gut. Reagor The man gasped at the sudden attack, stumbleding backwards, releasing Blair. Survival instinct on overdrive, Blair turned and pushed the man away, watching with intense fascination as the manReagor tumbled against one of the poles. The force of the impact jarred the torch loose from the top of the pole and it toppled directly onto Reagor. Instantly, the man's white robes caught fire. His arms flailed awkwardly as his painful screams echoed through the clearing.
Blair took a hesitant step forward, part of him wanting to help, but he froze. Engulfed in flames, Reagor fell to the ground, screaming, reaching out to Blair. A golden haze engulfed the scene and he watched in terror as hands and arms stretched out from the fire, other forms in unbearable pain crawling from the flames.
"No," Blair whispered, cringing at the images that suddenly sprang before his eyes. The fire people. They had found him again, their screaming called to him, aching to make him part of their flaming world. "No, please," he breathed, falling to his knees, hands pressed to his temples, fingers gripping his hair, hoping to keep his pounding head from exploding.
Unable to move, his mind caught up in a nightmare, Blair's heart beat wildly against his chest. He could only watch as the golden fire people sprang from the torches encircling the clearing, all of them calling his name. Anguished moaning filled his ears, seared through his mind as it reached deep inside and clawed relentlessly at his soul.
"Help me," he whispered, his voice shaking in agony. Tears spilled down his cheeks, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from the soul-twisting vision before him.
Vasquez' head whipped around at the scream from the other side of the clearing, giving Jim an opening. Chopping at the priest's elbow with his right hand, Jim forced the knife down at an angle away from his body. They rolled, back toward the center of the clearing, the knife flashing as the bright flames reflected from its gleaming surface.
They stopped, and two pairs of eyes locked onto one another. Vasquez opened his mouth, but all that escaped was a burst of air. His eyes slid shut. Jim pushed himself off the priest, propping up on one arm as he stared at the still body, the dagger buried to the hilt in the priest's chest. A small amount of blood leaked around the blade. Jim extended his hearing but was not surprised to find no heart beat.
He scanned the clearing, noticing the shocked look on the faces of the other Tochlan. They peered at the dead body by Jim's feet, then looked at Jim. As one they cringed.
A horrendous odor filled his nostrils then and he turned back to the clearing, horrified to see a white-robed figure screaming, awash in flames. He gasped as what had once been Professor Reagor - Bolton Simmons - was engulfed in the inferno.
The soft cry drew Jim's attention to the form huddled only a few yards from where Reagor's burning corpse finally fell. Blair knelt on the ground, huddled in on himself, rocking back and forth, his gaze lost on Reagor's flaming form. Tears traced lines down his dirty face. Jim hurried to his friend, grabbed him and pulled him a safe distance away. Standing between Blair and the flames, Jim shook the frightened man by the shoulders.
"Blair? Sandburg! It's me. It's Jim."
Blair latched on to Jim's arms and pressed his forehead against his chest. "Oh, God, Jim! It's the fire people! The golden fire people! They're back. They're everywhere!"
Jim's heart broke at the despair in his friend's voice. When would the nightmare end? He reached a hand up and stroked the tangled curls. "Shhh. It's okay, Chief. Everything's okay. It's over." He pushed Blair away enough to duck down and look into the frightened, drugged blue eyes. "Do you understand me, Sandburg? There are no fire people. You killed them all. They can't hurt you anymore."
After a few moments, Jim's words seemed to sink in and Blair's frantic grip on his arm relaxed. Jim was sure he would have one hell of a bruise on that arm, but right now, he relished the connection.
Blair blinked slowly. When his eyes found Jim's, they were a little clearer than before. "Jim?"
Jim smiled in relief and patted the kid's cheek. "Welcome back, Chief. You okay?" He looked Blair over carefully, but outside of a few scrapes and bruises, could see no real damage. Of course the drug was still playing havoc, making his muscles lethargic and unwilling to cooperate. His head lolled forward as he tried to bring himself under control, his heavy eyelids drooped and his speech slurred.
"I'm okay," he breathed. "I think I'm gonna throw up, though."
Jim chuckled and patted him on the head. "Just give me a little warning, Junior."
"I thought I just did."
The alarm on Jim's watch beeped. He glanced at the glowing face. Midnight.
The cool breeze that had been blowing through the clearing began to build, whipping the branches of the surrounding trees into a whispering frenzy. The loose twigs and leaves on the ground began to swirl as the wind began to whistle through the forest, drowning out the sounds of the insects from the shadows. The remaining Tochlan peered around the clearing, a look of fear on each of their faces.
Blair's grip on Jim's arm reflexively tightened and he looked around, hair blowing across his face, his eyes wide. "Jim? What the hell is going on?"
Jim shook his head, his eyes darting around the clearing, coming to rest once more on the surviving members of the cult. His jaw dropped as he blinked against the driving wind, squinting as the bizarre scene unfolded before him.
Blair must have felt something change in Jim; he looked up and followed Jim's line of sight, his eyes widening in shock. Both men cringed as the cultists began to scream.
The Tochlan began to age. It was as if the hands of time were running on fast forward. Blair opened his mouth, but no sound emerged. The wind whipped the robes of the Tochlan as their bodies withered and twisted in on themselves. Their hair began to change to gray then white as it grew at a rapid pace, finally falling from their heads to the ground. Their facial muscles tightened, pulling their mouths into gruesome screams of silence. Their eyes glazed and fell from the sockets as their skin seemed to weather and age before finally sinking into their skulls. As their skin and muscles disintegrated into ash, their bones succumbed to the pull of gravity and fell in heaps onto the earth, breaking into pieces and dissolving into flakes of gray ash that were swept away by the driving wind.
The wind calmed and the trees discontinued their bizarre dance above them. The loose debris that had been flying through the clearing settled onto the forest floor as if nothing had happened, leaving the two remaining occupants staring silently at the space where eleven men had only moments ago been standing. Thirteen poles were all the evidence remaining.
Jim and Blair silently stood. Jim's legs barely held him up as the macabre events in the clearing played through his mind. Blair looked barely stable himself. They were both breathing rapidly, their eyes darting around the clearing as they turned in full circles, coming back to face each other.
"Jim?" Blair's voice was hardly more than a whisper as his eyes continued to watch the shadows that fluttered around the edge of the tree line. He was trembling.
"I'd like to go home now."
Jim nodded and swallowed hard. He didn't quite know whether to believe what he had just seen or … or what? How could they possibly explain thirteen men just disintegrating before their eyes? With a final glance around the empty clearing, he placed a hand on Blair's shoulder and nodded once more. "Yeah."
Without another word, Jim's arm protectively around Blair's shoulders, they turned their backs on the now calm clearing and walked away.
They went straight to the cabin and, without a word Blair started packing the Expedition while Jim quickly worked on finding out why it wouldn't start. Simple, though he'd never tell Blair. The distributor wires had been pulled off. After replacing them, Jim helped Blair finish loading the vehicle. Climbing behind the steering wheel, he watched as Blair left the key to the cabin on the porch then walked toward the vehicle, his youthful face pale and drawn, lips pressed in a thin line. Once Blair was situated in the passenger seat, they drove off, not looking back.
It was after one in the morning when they hit State Route 20. For an hour they traveled, Blair speaking non-stop about anything and everything other than the events of the past thirteen days. When they reached a gas station, Jim placed a call to Simon, only to learn that he had notified the state police and he, as well, was on his way to Treceviva.
Apparently, Blair had convinced a little girl - Anya, wasn't it? - to phone for help. And she had come through brilliantly. After hearing Jim's barest explanation of what they would find - or not find - in the clearing, Simon wanted to see it for himself.
"Fine, you do that, sir," Jim said quietly, peering over at the Expedition and noticing the jittery movements of his partner. "Sandburg and I are going home. I suggest you don't come by until much later. We won't be answering the door for a while."
Purposely ignoring the rest of his Captain's questions, Jim said good-bye, climbed back into the Expedition, and headed home, Blair regaling him once more. He didn't mind. Hearing his friend's voice, tired and hoarse as it was, kept him from crawling out of his own skin. And it kept him from thinking about--
The clearing. Over and over again, images of skin melting off the decaying bones of men who had only seconds before appeared young and vital rushed through Jim's mind. He didn't remember much from the events of the past week, and he wished that particular memory would disappear as well.
A shiver shook him.
"Jim?" Blair cut-off in mid-sentence, laying a hand on Jim's arm. "You okay, man?"
Jim smiled. The slight trembling of Blair's hand announced that he hadn't really recovered himself. Despite that, however, the kid's first concern was Jim's well-being. He smiled at that.
"I'm fine, Chief. So what were you saying about Kate?"
A grin crossed Blair's pale lips and he immediately began exactly where he had left off. When the twinkling lights of Cascade finally appeared on the horizon, Blair visibly relaxed. Finally, and without much coaxing, Blair's side of the story came out, including the golden visions brought on by whatever the Tochlan had used on him.
Jim cursed himself as he heard what he had missed. He knew how much his fight with Golden had weakened Blair's system and he couldn't help but wonder how close his friend had come to death as his body was put through that kind of trauma again. Jim hadn't listened to the warning bells going off in his head the moment he met Vasquez. At that moment, despite Blair's puppy-dog pleading, he should have piled him into the Expedition and never looked back. If he had, then maybe Blair wouldn't have come so close to cardiac arrest, once more because of drugs forced on him involuntarily.
If the Tochlan weren't already dead, Jim would have somehow found a way to wreak vengeance on them for that alone. Once again, he had been unable to protect Blair. Added to it, he had fallen captive himself. Filled with self-recrimination, but not wanting to interrupt Blair's subdued monologue, Jim kept his gaze steadfast on the dark road.
They had argued about going straight to the hospital. Jim wanted Blair to get checked out, but he had adamantly refused, just as Jim had adamantly refused when Blair suggested the same thing for him. He was fine, he kept saying, repeating Jim's answer to Blair's own concern. After a discussion that lasted the rest of the way into Cascade, Jim was about to take the street leading to the hospital when Blair's words sufficiently ended the argument.
"Let's just go home, man. Please?"
When they pulled into the parking lot, Jim tried to convince Blair to go on upstairs and hit the sack; Jim could haul in the equipment alone. Naturally, Sandburg disagreed and a half-hour later they both sat exhausted on the couches in the living room, their bags strewn across the floor. It was then Jim finally understood why his partner had remained close by.
Blair didn't want to be alone.
Quite honestly, neither did Jim. Which was why he suggested sleeping on the couches. After gathering their blankets and pillows from their rooms, it took only another moment before Blair was out. Jim moved quietly around the loft, checking windows and doors. Once assured everything was locked and secured, he stretched out on the couch and promptly fell asleep to the steady beat of his partner's thankfully healthy heart.
Late afternoon sunlight filtered around the edges of the drawn shades of the loft's balcony windows, casting a golden glow across the living room. The television played a game on ESPN, the volume down so low only the conscious occupant of the room could hear it. Even if he were in a room of crowded people, he'd still be the only one able to hear the muted calls on the game.
Jim burrowed deeper into the corner of the couch, the television remote resting on his outstretched legs crossed at the ankles on the coffee table. A pillow he had brought down from his loft bedroom provided a comfortable support for his back and head, allowing him to drowse. Peering at the clock on the VCR, he yawned. Six-thirty. He had only awakened barely an hour ago, after nearly fourteen hours of sleep. Much needed sleep, he reminded himself. And he could use some more.
Except for the dreams.
Shaking his head to wipe out the dismal remnants of the darkness in his dreams, he picked up the remote and started switching channels. Naturally there was nothing on. Pay the bucks for cable, and there's nothing to watch. Finally, he turned off the television and tossed the remote to the cushion beside him.
A soft moan escaped from the love seat, and Jim's gaze shifted from the blank television screen to the young man oblivious to the waking world. Blair lay on his stomach, both arms curled beneath two of the pillows he had dragged from his room earlier. His face was hidden beneath a curtain of curly hair, the ends moving slightly around his lips, but Jim knew his friend's face was still pale and gaunt, two reminders of the hellish week they had both experienced. How hellish Jim hadn't really understood until the drive home.
The scent of cigar smoke caught Jim's attention and he quickly picked his way from the couch to the entrance of the loft. Unlocking the bolt and removing the chain, he gently opened the door, looking up at an irritated Simon Banks, whose hand hung in mid-air ready to knock.
"I wish you'd stop that," Simon groused.
"Shhh," Jim retorted, motioning for Simon to enter and quietly closing the door behind the taller man.
Banks peered curiously at Jim, setting a briefcase on the floor near the door, then followed Jim's gesture toward the love seat. The Captain's irritated gaze softened, forcing Jim to hide a smile. In the year since Sandburg had slipped his way into almost every aspect of Jim's life, he had managed to win over a few of the hard-nosed cops at Cascade PD, Captain Simon Banks being one of them. Though the stiff administrator of Major Crimes would never admit to it, the long-haired graduate student had even managed to soften a few of his prickles.
"You want some coffee?" Jim whispered, then cringed. "Actually, how about some tea?"
Brows creased in curiosity, Simon shook his head. "Thanks. I'll pass. Last time I said yes to Sandburg's tea I ended up with pine needles in my cup." Jim chuckled. "By the way, I did as Sandburg asked and called Rainier to let them know he'll be out sick until Monday."
"Thank you, sir. He'll appreciate that." Reaching into the fridge he pulled out a container of orange juice and poured himself a glass. "So?"
"Simon, what did you find?"
"Don't you want to wait until Sandburg wakes up?"
"No," Jim replied sharply, shaking his head. How could he explain to Simon, without sounding overprotective, that Blair had had enough? Hell, he'd had enough, too. He'd love to forget the whole damn thing.
"It's okay, guys," a sleepy voice called from the love seat. A mop of curly hair rose above the back of the love seat, two red-rimmed, puffy eyes peering sleepily at them. "'m awake."
Pouring another glass of orange juice, Jim crossed to his rumpled partner and handed him the glass. "Welcome back to the land of the living."
The glass froze at Blair's lips and he glared up at Jim. "Oh, man, please tell me you didn't really say that."
Jim smiled fondly and batted at the flopping curls, then returned to the kitchen. "So, Simon, tell us what you found."
Scratching his head, Simon's gaze dropped to the floor for a moment. He cleared his throat. "Well, Jim…" He peered over at Blair, who shifted only slightly, brushing knotted curls out of his face. "We didn't find the clearing."
"What?" both men yelped simultaneously.
"We looked everywhere, but we didn't find a clearing with thirteen poles or bone dust or rotted trees." He shrugged.
"Simon, I gave you explicit directions."
"Jim, it's not there."
"Oh, man," Blair gasped, then stood. He wobbled for a moment, waving off Jim when he moved to help. "What about the town. You did find the town, right?"
"Strangest thing," Simon explained, nodding. "By the time I got there, the townspeople and the state police were helping the town's fire department put out a fire at the church. Everything was destroyed, including the back yard. And some others were dismantling a fountain in the middle of the town."
Blair and Jim exchanged glances.
"It makes sense." Blair shrugged.
"What's that, Einstein?"
"Think about it, Jim. You and I just destroyed a ceremonial act last night, something that was as close to religion as that town had. But they feared it. You could tell by the way they looked at me when -- " Blair gestured, some of his old bounce returning. "That's right, you were in la-la land right about then. Just trust me, man, these people feared the Tochlan. The book I found said they mostly chose children. If we hadn't come along -- " He paced the living room, his mind already roaming into what Jim affectionately called the Sandburg Zone. "Anyway, we just effectively destroyed their religious leaders, man. Naturally, the first thing they are going to do is destroy whatever is left that represents everything they fear and hate."
"And the fountain."
"That brings up another question that's been bothering me. In the clearing last night, why didn't the other Tochlan attack us? They left the whole thing up to Reagor and Vasquez. If they had joined in, as weak as we were, they would have won."
"Well, maybe they were afraid. After all, we were their ticket to continued immortality. If we were somehow killed outside of the ritual, they would never have been able to complete the connection." He spread his hands, a smile of irony crossing his pale lips. "And they would have died."
"Which they did anyway." Images from the night before replayed clearly in his mind.
Simon shook his head. "You guys aren't going to put all of this in your report, are you?"
"All of what, sir?" Jim asked innocently. Simon grumbled.
The shrill beeping of the phone broke the lightening mood. All three men jumped. Blair actually chuckled. He answered the phone.
"Hello?" Blair was silent a moment, his head nodding. "Uh-huh." Again he listened. A shudder racked his shoulders. Jim dialed up his hearing, noting Blair's increased heart rate. "Really, Doctor Calavan, I don't know…Yes, sir, if I hear anything I'll let you know…Yes, sir, thank you, sir. I hope I feel better by Monday, too. Thank you for covering my classes...Yes, sir. Goodbye." Pressing the button once more, he held onto the phone for a good minute, then slowly returned it to the kitchen counter.
Blair looked up. "That was Rainier. Apparently Professor Reagor was supposed to report in today after an extended vacation. No one knows where he is." He sighed, leaning a hip against the kitchen counter. "The department secretary knew I had gone up to his cabin for a vacation and Doctor Calavan wondered if Reagor had been with me." A haunted look passed across his features, deepening the circles around his eyes. "What am I supposed to tell them, Jim? Gee, I'm sorry, but Professor Reagor was actually a cultist who was hundreds of years old and drank the blood of innocent victims. This time, when he tried to kill my partner, we disrupted the ceremony and all the cultists turned to dust and he caught on…." The breath left him; his shoulders slumped.
Not knowing what else to do, Jim rested a hand on Blair's shoulder.
"It sounds like a great subject for some kind of book, doesn't it?" Blair whispered. When he looked up, the haunted expression remained. And probably would for a while. "A hundred year old Guatemalan vampire tradition alive and well in the Cascade National Forest. Maybe I could write it?"
"Send it in to Hollywood?" Simon offered, a smile touching his full lips.
"Maybe you could discuss it with that English lit major. What was her name? Ashley, or Annie, or whatever?" Jim offered, returning Blair's weak smile. "Say, what about Anya?" he asked, suddenly remembering the heroic little girl.
"Oh yeah." Blair perked up. "She was pretty damn brave that night. We owe her big time."
"That reminds me." Simon snapped his fingers. He picked up the briefcase and set it on the counter. "She's doing just fine. So are her parents. They seemed pretty grateful; they wanted you to have something to remember them by."
"Like we'd ever forget, man," Blair scoffed.
Simon pulled a tattered, old book from his briefcase and handed it toward Blair. Both Jim and Blair stared at the title. Soul Eaters: Ancient Rituals of the Mayaxa Tochlan, by Bolton Simmons. Tired blue eyes met tired blue eyes in a look of complete astonishment.
When neither man reached for the book, Simon asked, "What? Don't you want it?"
"Uh…" Blair stammered.
"No," Jim finished.
Simon's cell phone rang and he handed the book to Jim as he answered. Jim passed it over to Blair, who quickly deposited the book on the counter between them, unconsciously wiping his hand on his shirt. Both men took an uneasy step away.
"You're kidding," Simon gasped, drawing Jim's and Blair's attention away from the tome. The man's eyes grew wider as he listened. Casting a sidelong glance at Blair, Jim found his bewilderment reflected in Blair's tired face. "Thanks. I'll be sure to pass that on." Simon closed the cell phone, mouth agape as he replaced it in his coat pocket. For a moment he remained speechless.
"Simon?" Jim urged.
"You are not going to believe this." Simon swallowed. "They found the clearing."
"Of course they found the clearing, Simon. I told you exactly where it was."
Simon rested a large hand on Jim's shoulder, effectively silencing him. "Listen to me. The search team found the poles you mentioned. Thirteen of them. They are mostly covered with moss."
"What?" Blair snapped, looking first at Simon, then at Jim. "That's not possible. Simon, we only left the place last night. That's definitely not enough time for moss to grow around thirteen poles, especially in that dead clearing."
"There's more. The reason we didn't find it originally is because the clearing isn't…it isn't a clearing anymore. Trees, shrubbery, grass. If it was a clearing, it's not now."
Jim's gaze slowly moved to Blair's; together their eyes fell upon the book sitting on the counter. After a moment, they moved simultaneously, Jim heading to the living room, Blair grabbing the book and following him.
"It's a little cold in here," Jim said as he passed Simon. "Anybody up for a fire?"
"Sounds good to me," Blair piped up, holding the book by the binding between two fingers. "And I think I have the perfect kindling."
Simon followed Blair as Jim knelt before the woodstove fireplace and opened the glass pane. Grabbing the book from Blair, Jim tossed it in and quickly lit the inside with a fire wand. Closing the glass pane, he rose, standing beside Blair, watching as the binding and pages caught fire.
Sensing Blair's accelerated heart rate, Jim touched him on the shoulder. "Chief?"
"Next time I say something about vacationing in Las Vegas, let's vacation in Las Vegas, okay?"
Blair grinned. "I'm down with that, man." Tapping fists with Jim in agreement, he turned to Simon. "I'm famished. You buying?"
"Ha! I do believe I told you to make certain Ellison's butt was back in his chair by Monday, Sandburg. You renege on a deal and I have to buy you food?"
Jim looked at Blair, who looked at him. A hint of mischief glittered in the wide blue eyes that brought a weary smile to Jim's lips. There was a promise of healing there, for both of them.
As one, they replied, "Yes."
To the sounds of three friends chuckling over deciding what to have for dinner, the fire consumed what was left of the ancient tome written by Bolton Simmons, the timeworn pages succumbing to indomitable, silver-tinged flames.
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