(See Page 1 for Disclaimer and Author's Notes)
Who Shall Guard the Guardians Themselves? (Page 2 of 2)
by K. Ryn
Ellison gestured quickly and Blair dropped to the ground behind him, edging closer to bring himself to the older man's side. They were thirty feet from the edge of a small clearing and through the trees he could see the shape of the small school bus, perched on the far side. He turned to look up at Jim's face, not hardly daring to breathe as he watched the Sentinel at work, scanning ahead with his senses, probing for the signs of life they were so desperate to find.
He swallowed hard and tried not to let his imagination run ahead. tried not to think of what could be waiting for them. The thought of finding more bodies, particularly those of the children sickened him beyond belief. He felt an internal 'push' at his emotions and shook his head, attempting to slam the door on another attack.
Not here, not now! he pleaded desperately with himself.
He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, willing the feelings to subside and after a few moments, the sensation began to ebb away. Taking a deep breath, he focused back on his partner, grateful that the older man had been too absorbed in his search to notice.
"Anything?" he whispered hopefully. The Sentinel didn't answer immediately and Blair reached out to touch him gently on the arm. "Jim?"
The older man's head slowly swiveled in his direction and he watched the almost expressionless face carefully. Jim Ellison was a hard man to read, but Blair had gotten pretty good at it. Now he was looking at the small signs which he'd learned meant trouble. His eyes widened and he felt his body start to tremble. Jim's hand was immediately on his arm, steadying him.
"There's nothing there, Chief. Nothing. No heartbeats, but no bodies, either," the Sentinel said softly.
Blair felt too numb to speak, so he simply nodded. Disappointing as it was not to find the children, the alternative could have been far worse. He stayed silent as Jim contracted the rest of the search teams, ordering them to move forward, but to keep their eyes open. At his partner's gentle urging, he rose to his feet and followed in the older man's footsteps. At the edge of the trees, Ellison stopped and drew his gun, motioning for Blair to remain behind.
Sinking down into a crouch, Blair watched as Jim crossed the clearing to the bus and climbed on board. His heart was pounding even though he knew that the Sentinel had evaluated the scene and determined the absence of danger before they'd arrived. His gaze flickered around the clearing, noting the appearance of the other members of the search teams, watching as they converged on the vehicle. When Jim reappeared, he almost rose to his feet, but just in time he remembered the stern set of orders that he'd agreed to and stayed where he was. He saw the others milling about and nodded absently when he heard Dunn contact the reserve party, ordering them to bring up the vehicles. He chafed at the restrictions Jim had set, wanting to know what the Sentinel had discovered, but he didn't move until Jim waved him over.
"Anders is going to deploy the rest of the teams to search the perimeter of the clearing," Jim informed him when Blair joined his partner at the front door of the bus. "I wanted you to help me take a look inside. They didn't leave us much."
Blair nodded and followed the Sentinel inside the vehicle. "Take a deep breath, Jim and concentrate. Don't filter anything out right now. Just take it all in. We'll sort it out later," he advised.
The walked the length of the bus, two sets of experienced eyes scanning the interior, pausing to search under each bench-like seat, examining the few items left behinda tiny pink compact filled with Polly Pockets; a well worn sweatshirt that looked like it had belonged to at least one older brother before becoming the property of its latest owner; several cartoon-emblazoned backpacks, filled with school books and pencils. Then, with Blair at his back, Jim walked it again, with each of his senses wide open. At the end of fifteen minutes, they still had nothing to go onthe Sentinel hadn't even found a smudged fingerprint. The kidnappers had been very thorough.
With a discouraged gesture, Ellison motioned for Blair to follow him as he exited the bus. Lingering behind for just a moment, the anthropologist turned at the top of the steps and stared at the vacant seats, trying to imagine the seven smiling, innocent faces that the photo had captured. Somehow he couldn't do it. The bus felt so empty, so devoid of any sense of life, that he couldn't envision the children at all.
"I don't get it, Jim," he murmured, scrubbing at his face in tired exasperation when he rejoined his partner outside. "Does this mean that they're still ahead of us? Or did we miss something along the way?"
"We didn't miss anything, Chief. We were led here," the detective answered softly. "Somebody wanted us to find this bus, just like they wanted us to find the driver and the teacher. Maybe these people like playing games, or maybe Anders and his men missed something on the road before we joined them. I don't know."
Blair watched the Sentinel wince as he rubbed his own eyes in weariness.
"You need to rest and eat something, man. That's got to be one killer headache by now," Blair observed, his voice filled with concern.
Jim shot him a bemused look. "This advice coming from the man who exists on granola and four hours sleep during exam week."
"Hey, I'm a grad student. I'm used to it. You're the one who needs three squares a day and wants absolute quiet after 10 pm."
"Guess we could all use a break," Jim responded. "I'll have a word with Anders. If his men haven't found any signs leaving the clearing, we may end up pitching camp here to regroup and determine a new strategy. We've only got an hour or so left to keep looking. Once we start losing daylight we'll be stumbling around in the dark."
"Well, not all of us."
Jim gave him a scowl and a gentle shove which propelled him toward the supply truck. "Go see if there's anything more inviting to eat than what we've got in our packs. I'll join you in a few minutes."
After a less than satisfactory discussion with Anders, Jim went looking for his partner, following the thump of the familiar heartbeat to the south end of the clearing, where Blair was perched atop a small pile of boulders. Easing to the mossy ground at the base of the rocks, the Sentinel leaned back and gratefully took the water bottle that the younger man offered. Sipping from it, he closed his eyes and tried to relax. His body bought into the plan, but his mind was still turning over the puzzle before them and was getting nowhere fast. Grudgingly, he finally realized that the only thing he was doing was aggravating the headache his Guide had nailed him on.
The soft whisper of denim dragging across granite prompted him to open his eyes. Glancing up, he found that Blair had repositioned himself on the boulders, effectively shielding Jim from Anders' and the rest of the search party's view.
"I thought the 'Protector Thing' was my job," he said softly.
The younger man's gaze shifted to him immediately and held there for a moment before he shrugged and looked away.
Ellison's eyes narrowed in concern as he watched his partner. The anthropologist's drawn face and too tense body; the jerky, uncoordinated movements he made as he reached into his pack for a package of trail rations, all spoke volumes about how 'not right' he was with the world. Jim took a quick look around, noting the location of Anders and his men and decided that the time had come for some answers.
"Okay, Chief," Jim said quietly. "This is the best chance we're going to get. Talk to me."
Blair glanced nervously over his shoulder and shook his head. "Jim, I really don't think"
"Okay... jeez, you sound like Naomi when I was six."
"What happened when you were" Jim caught himself before falling into the trap. As usual, Blair was trying to redirect the conversation. "Oh no, not this time. Stick to the subject at hand, Chief. Tell me what you can about these attacks."
Having caught him in the act, Jim half-expected the familiar roll of the eyes and quirky grin as a response. Instead, Blair huddled into himself, his gaze fixed on the ground, his normally active hands clasped tightly together. The intense, strained stillness was so unlike his partner that Jim took a deep breath, preparing himself for the worst.
"I'm not sure I can explain it," Blair finally answered. "It's kind of like getting hit with an emotional sledgehammer. Just... 'wham.'"
"'Wham'? That's it? You, the master of the 'use three hundred words to explain what most people would say in five' routine are giving me 'Wham'?"
"Guess I'm working on brevity, man."
"That'll be the day," Jim muttered, closing his eyes, his fingers rubbing none too gently at his forehead.
"Headache's still pretty intense, huh?" Blair's voice dropped in pitch and volume, taking on a soothing resonance. "Maybe if you"
Jim's eyes opened and he fixed the younger man with a glare. "Don't even think about it, Sandburg. It's not going to happen this time."
"Changing the focus of this conversation from you to me. You know I'm practically programmed to respond to that tone in your voice when you shift into your 'Guide' mode. You use that trick whenever you want to avoid talking to me."
"That's pretty cold, Jim." Blair's eyes reflected a sudden flicker of anger. "I know you're in some major pain here. I was just trying to help. You want to handle it on your own, then fine."
Jim's hand on his knee stopped him before he could get to his feet.
"Blair..." Jim tried to get the younger man to meet his eyes, but the anthropologist dropped his head and sat in sullen silence. Momentarily at a loss for words to repair the damage his comments had caused, the Sentinel reached out with his senses through their physical link. He could feel the tension in the younger man's body and the minute shivering which could be attributed to either exhaustion or anger.
Or both. Apologize, Ellison, or you're never going to get him to open up.
"I didn't mean it that way," Jim murmured. "I'm worried about you. I realized back on the helicopter that something's been wrong for a while and with everything that's happened... I guess I've been aiming these senses of mine in every direction, but you. There's no excuse for that. And no excuse for jumping down your throat, either. I know you don't take being my Guide lightly. I know you were trying to help. I just wish you'd let me return the effort. I want you to know you can count on me when you need help."
The younger man sat quietly, the silence stretching awkwardly between them, his Guide's rapid heartbeat pounding painfully in his ears. When Blair finally began to speak, his voice was whisper soft, and even Jim had to lean in to hear the words.
"I thought at first it was just nerves and exhaustion... you know... with everything going on with the last case. I started getting these little 'pushes', especially after we'd find... find the victims. They weren't bad... just little emotional blips on the curve. Nothing like what happened in Simon's office or on the roof."
"Or when you met Anders?" Jim's interjection was more a statement than a question, but Blair raised his head, meeting the Sentinel's eyes and nodded. "So this started during the Haight case?" Jim pressed gently when Blair seemed reluctant to continue.
"I'm... I'm not sure..."
Blair dropped his eyes again, avoiding Jim's searching stare. He appeared genuinely uncertain, but the Sentinel picked up the skip of the heartbeat and knew differently.
"Tell me about what's been happening today. You said before that it had something to do with my safety. What's that mean exactly?"
"I don't know, Jim. That's what I don't understand. This thing that's happening... it's not words running around in my head, you know, with instructions for interpretation. It's just feelings... sensations..."
"So what's it feel like?" Jim asked, an edge of exasperation creeping into his voice.
"Like the world's just ended."
The stark flatness of his Guide's voice silenced the words the Sentinel was about to utter. He squeezed the younger man's knee gently, in quiet support and entreaty.
"Everything just stops," Blair whispered, obviously caught up in the memory of the feelings and images the attacks brought on. "There's no sound except my voice screaming your name, no movement, no light. Only darkness... and absolute despair..." his voice faltered and he took a ragged breath, unable to continue, apparently unwilling to say the rest of it out loud.
"Okay, just relax, Chief," Jim directed, eyeing his young partner closely and waiting until he'd regained some control before asking his next question. "This feeling... does it have something to do with me as a cop or with me as a Sentinel?"
The younger man's head jerked up sharply and there was a puzzled expression on his face which Jim knew was real.
"I don't know. It's hard to separate you from who you are, especially in relation to me."
Jim's expression must have reflected his own confusion, because Blair shook his head and gave a sheepish grin.
"That sounded pretty esoteric even for me," he muttered. "Look, my relationship with you gets a little confused at the edges because things overlap so much. You're my Sentinel, you're a detective and I'm your observer, so there's that whole partnership thing, then we're friends and roommates, and of course you have to throw in the 'Blessed Protector' contract and my penchant for finding trouble just to muddle things up even more. I'm not altogether sure how to separate each aspect of you and me out to even answer your question."
Jim grinned in spite of the seriousness of their discussion. The younger man's rambling explanation had hit on something that he'd been thinking about for a long time. Their lives had gotten so intricately entwined that it was sometimes difficult to see where one aspect of their association started and another stopped. He'd also considered parts of their relationship Blair hadn't mentionedthe big brother/little brother thing; the father/son connection that arose every so often; and, of course, the fact that Blair was, by virtue of Incacha's granting of the title, his Shaman as well as his Guide.
He thought about adding his two cents into the mix, but one look at the younger man told him that he'd pushed this about as far as he could for the moment. "When you put it that way, I can see the difficulty. I'll withdraw that question... for now."
Jim lifted his head as the sound of voices carried across the clearing. With a glance, he could see that Anders was starting to round everyone up for a final search of the area. He shifted to his feet and handed Blair the water bottle, watching his Guide closely.
"Anything else you want to tell me?"
"I didn't even want to tell you this much," Blair muttered, raising his eyes to meet Jim's. "Look, I'm sure part of this is just stress, man. That last case and now this. I just need some serious downtime, to get my nerves unfrazzled. But... in case I'm wrong, how about you humor me about being careful around these guys. FBI or not, Anders has his own agenda here, trust me."
"Easy enough, Chief," Jim agreed, recognizing the need to put their conversation on hold, his own reactions to the agent making him more than willing to agree to the younger man's request. "I'll be careful, you be careful. We've still got those kids to find."
Blair slid off the boulder, took a swig from the water bottle and handed it back to his partner. "Yeah, I know..." The observer's voice trailed off as he glanced around the clearing once more. When his gaze settled on the empty school bus, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Jim, something's still bugging me. Something's just not right..."
Ellison looked up and saw the expression of puzzled concentration on the younger man's face. A flicker of movement beyond his partner caught his eye and he shifted his focuson the edge of the clearing, Anders was watching them intently. Under the pretense of placing the water bottle in his pack, he scanned the area, noting the location of each of the men from the search party.
The hair on the back of his neck prickled immediately, kicking his "Blessed Protector" reflex into full gear. He reached out and pulled Blair around to face him.
"Hey, man, what's the..."
"Quiet. Just follow my lead," Jim warned. He pretended to adjust Blair's headset while his eyes scouted the clearing.
Blair looked up questioningly. "What is it?" he whispered.
"Either I'm starting to share your paranoia, or you're right and something 'is' wrong here. Anders has his men strung around the edge of the clearing, but they don't seem to be doing much searching. Their attention is focused inward. It's as if they're more interested in keeping tabs on us, than in finding those kids."
"Oh, man. I knew it. Jim, if they suspect what you're doing, what you're capable of... I mean, these guys are the FBIor worse. They get their hands on you and it's good-bye."
Jim stared down into Blair's anxious face. His Guide's genuine concern for his safety touched him. "I know, Chief. I don't understand what's going on here, but we've still got a job to do. The sooner we find those kids, the sooner we can leave Anders in the dust. Just be careful what you say over this." The Sentinel tapped the headset and stepped away, grabbing his own pack and settling it on his shoulders. "I'm going to take another look around the perimeter, see if I can pick up anything."
Blair gathered up his own gear. "I want to check out the bus once more. I've got the feeling that there's something there that we're missing."
Jim nodded and started walking a pattern of widening circles which would eventually take him to the edge of the clearing. While he checked the rocky ground for any sign of the missing children, he opened up his senses to observe Anders' men. The more he saw, the more uneasy he became. There was no questionthese men did not act like any of the search and rescue workers or FBI agents that he'd come into contact with before. They acted more like soldiers. He felt the warning prickle tug at him again, and, although there were no overt signs of danger, he quickly shifted his attention to monitor his partner's progress. Blair was inside the bus now, and Jim could hear muttered comments through the headset as the younger man walked the aisle.
He smiled at the familiar pattern. Blair was fixed on something with his usual bull-dog determination and he was talking himself through it, voicing his rambling thoughts aloud as he sorted through the puzzle. It was the kind of behavior which drove Simon crazy, but Jim had learned not to question his partner's methodology. He trusted Blair's instincts as much as he trusted his own. For all the grief the Sentinel gave the younger man, he respected the sharp, analytical mind of his Guide. As a scientist, Blair was trained to be a good observer. As an anthropologist, he added an appreciation and understanding of the human side of the equation. Blair's unique way of looking at things had often uncovered a clue or direction Jim would have overlooked.
The Sentinel scrubbed at his face in exasperation. Why couldn't he pick up anything on the missing children or whoever had engineered their disappearance? It seemed impossible that they could have left the bus without leaving some kind of trace. Was it his own weariness making his senses unreliable?
With the unsettling, warning sensation still nagging at him, Jim let his gaze drift across the clearing, trying to determine the source. When his eyes locked on Anders, he stiffened. The agent was staring intently at the bus, his face filled with an expression of hungry anticipation.
What the hell is that all about?
Jim's thoughts flashed back to the initial phone call which had started this trip. Anders, or whoever was running this case, had asked for he and Sandburg specifically. Not just the team who might have the most experience. Someone had wanted them here, and not knowing why was starting to make him very nervous. That, and Anders' disturbing interest in his Guide.
It's a good thing that Sandburg can't see Anders watching him, or he'd have another one of those attacks, Jim mused grimly, his mind filling with the image of Blair's distressed face.
A second image was abruptly superimposed over that of his partner'sBlair's frightened blue eyes replaced by calm, ancient brown ones. Jim almost groaned aloud in shocked recognition.
Damn it, Incacha, is this your doing? His worried gaze shifted back to the bus immediately, his vision focusing on his young Guide.
His fledgling Shaman.
Were the episodes Blair had been experiencing more than nerves and exhaustion? Were they a result of some of Incacha's hastily bequeathed powersa legacy which he and Blair had barely even discussed? As hard as it was to believe, if it was true, it would explain a great deal.
Cursing silently, Ellison made himself move again, ostensibly continuing his search pattern while his mind raced for answers. One of Incacha's gifts had been the ability to sense impending danger, even if he couldn't pinpoint the exact source. Whether Jim understood, or even truly bought into the mystical aspects of the Shaman's abilities, he'd seen the results of the older man's persuasions first hand during the time he'd lived with the tribe. If Blair had indeed 'inherited' those talents, then Jim was going to have to take the foreshadowed danger as a serious threat.
But what kind of threat? The Sentinel shook his head in disgust. He tried to recall everything Blair had said earlier about the attacks, seeking a clue which would tell him what he was missing. The obvious terror and sorrow in his Guide's voice echoed in his mind. Even with everything they'd been through together, Jim had never heard that depth of emotional loss in Blair's voice.
It was so intense... as if it had touched himwould touch himpersonally. It's... it's how I would feel if anything happened to him.
Correction. Had felt.
I knew that kind of fear when Lash kidnapped him from the loft. I ached with that kind of despair when his heart stopped beating in the station parking garage.
Jim shivered and shook his head, pushing away the painful memories. If he could feel that depth of loss, then the reverse was probably also true. Blair's terror stemmed from a Guide's fear of something happening to his Sentinel. That was why he had been so paranoid about Jim using his senses in front of Anders and his men; why the observer had demanded that he had to be at the detective's side. His Guide's own protective instincts were operating at full force and Jim knew from past experience that when his young partner was in that mindset, he would do anything to keep his Sentinel from harmincluding putting himself in the line of fire.
If Anders was the source of the danger, that would explain why his Guide had reacted so strongly toward him from the start. And if all of this did somehow involve his being a Sentinel, then it would also explain Anders' interest in Blair.
Jim inhaled sharply through clenched teeth, berating himself for not paying better attention to his friend's intuitive reactions. How could he have forgotten what they'd discussed after Brackett? They'd learned then, that any danger to the Sentinel was also an inherent threat to the Guide. If we didn't need to find those kids, I'd commandeer one of those jeeps and haul Sandburg out of here right now. Maybe I should do it anyway...
The ex-ranger's eyes automatically scanned the clearing, his mind already estimating their chances of escape, if it came down to what he was beginning to suspect. Blair's broken ramblings intruded on his own troubled deliberations and he switched on the transmitter for his headset.
"Sandburg!" There was a moment's silence before his partner's startled voice answered.
"You know that annoying habit you have of letting your mouth run separately from your brain? You're doing it again."
"Oh... sorry, Jim."
"I think we're going to have to make a move soon," Jim continued, hoping Blair would pick up on the meaning of his words. "Are you having any luck?"
"No... nothing yet. Just give me a couple more minutes."
Ellison continued his sweep around the clearing, changing his angle slightly so that his path would bring him closer to the bus. His guardian instincts were at full alert now and he didn't like being separated from the younger man. He wanted his Guide at his back, where he could protect him.
Blair tapped his fingers on one of the bench seats in frustration, his gaze roving over the interior of the bus one more time. There was nothing unusual to catch his eye, no foreign smells; just the remnants of what had been left behindthe kid's backpacks, a few toys, books, a jacket or two. Nothing that he and Jim hadn't gone over already. So what was nagging at him? What was he missing? He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, concentrating on how the air felt as it filled his lungs and then passed back out when he exhaled. Another breath and he felt himself relaxing.
He let his thoughts drift as his energies centered and his head cleared. In his mind's eye he walked up the aisle again, seeing everything in its place. A vision of his own cluttered room flashed in his head and he swallowed hard, his eyes snapping open in startled surprise.
Missing. It should be here, but it's not. Why not? It doesn't make sense. He scrambled through the aisle, searching the floor and the seats. When he reached the back of the bus his heart was thudding in his chest and he wasn't surprised to hear Jim's voice calling to him over the headset.
"Hey, Jim... I'm... I'm still looking..." Blair stammered, searching for a way to communicate his suspicions to his partner without the others picking up on it.
"Things okay in there?" he heard the concern in the older man's voice and knew that Jim was 'listening', picking up on his rapid heartbeat. Okay, maybe he could use that.
"Yeah, I was just thinking. We're due for some downtime after this, right? Maybe we should just kick back and relax. Get some beer, rent a couple of movies."
"Sounds good, Chief," Jim replied. His partner's heart was still pounding, giving the lie to his easy-going banter. Something was up. "So, you have anything in mind? I'm not sure I'm in the mood for one of those foreign flicks with the subtitles."
"Well, actually I was thinking about one we've already seen. You remember that movie with Roy Scheider where he plays a cop and he's got this observer with him. You know, young guyjeez, I can never remember the actor's name. The flick with the helicopter that could go into whisper mode?"
Blair took a deep breath, covered the mouthpiece of his headset and started whispering.
["Jim, just play along here, okay? I think I've got a handle on part of this, and if I'm right, we've got serious trouble, man."]
There was a moment of silence and then Jim's voice came back over the headset. "Yeah, I know what you're talking about."
Blair immediately picked up on the conversation. "I really thought that the way they wrote the dialogue was pretty cool. It was like their conversation was operating on two different levels."
["I want you to try something, Jim. You're going to need to concentrate, so bend down and take a good look at the ground, like maybe you've found something."]
Blair took a quick look out the window and saw Jim take a few more steps before he dropped to one knee.
"I'm surprised you want to rent that one again. I seem to remember that you thought the observer got an awful lot of grief," Jim replied, making a show of picking through the rocks.
Blair allowed himself a small smile. "Yeah, you even got me my own JAFO hat, I remember. I'd still like to see it again. Besides I know you got off on the action stuff. All those explosions and gunfire."
["Remember how you piggy-backed your sight and smell earlier? I want you to try it again. Look to where I am and see yourself on the bus. Then open up your sense of smell."]
"You sure you want to test my patience right now, Chief?"
["There's a test going on here, man. But it's not one of mine. Just try it. Run back through everything you picked up earlier and filter it out. See if there's anything that we haven't already identified."]
"Hey, I'm always testing your patience, Ellison. That's what an observer does, right?" Blair took another peek at Jim and saw the older man casually look his way.
["That's right, Jim. Focus on me, see yourself here, next to me, then concentrate on what you can smell. There should be traces here that only the kids, Amanda and the driver would have left. That's what we missed before."]
With his heart pounding in his chest, Blair scanned the clearing quickly. He stiffened when he saw one of Anders' men watching Jim with just a little too much interest. He was about to say something when his partner's voice broke the silence.
"I don't know about you, Chief, but I'm not finding anything new."
"Shit, I was afraid you'd say that." Blair winced and slapped his hand over the transmitter and shook his head.
["Stupid. Sorry, Jim. This double conversation is hard to keep track of."]
"I'm not coming up with anything either. Sorry about the chatter, man. Maybe if I shut up for a few minutes I won't be such a distraction. I know you'll come up with something."
["Jim, the guy behind you is watching, get up and get moving again. Head toward the edge of the clearing as fast as you can without looking suspicious."]
"No problem, Chief. Sometimes a distraction's the best idea." Jim rose to his feet and began his search pattern again. But instead of heading away from the bus, he continued to angle toward it. "I think getting some movies is a good suggestion. But maybe something a little tamer. A little more introspective. What was the one that Daryl liked? 'Stand by Me?'"
"No way man, that's about some kids going to see a dead body. I get enough of that just hanging around with you."
["Damn it Jim, don't come over here. I don't know exactly what's going on, but one thing's for sure. There were NEVER any children on this bus. It's too clean. Kids make messes, especially kids on a field trip. There should be candy wrappers, half-chewed wads of grape bubble gum, the residual smell of unwashed gym socks that would have lingered in the bottom of at least one of the backpacks... And you're not picking up on Amanda's perfume, or the stale reek of the driver's cigarettes either. If they'd been on the bus for the trip up here, there should be some trace of those odors for you to find. But nada. That's what we're missingthe smelly, everyday debris of living, breathing bodies!"]
Blair looked out and saw Jim rounding the curve in one of his patterns. He was close to the edge of the clearing now, just coming up behind one of Anders' men.
["Jim, listen to me... The reason you can't pick up on anything, is that there's NOTHING to find. This is like a dressed set. Anders or somebody else put this together. They murdered Heckt and Amandaif those are even their real namesto make the whole thing more convincing. To test you. This is a trap, man. You've got to get out of here, now!"]
"I don't know why you complain so much, Chief," Jim murmured, eyeing the man he was drawing even with. "The way you attract trouble, you're not any safer when I leave you behind."
["I'll be all right, man. I'm not sticking around here either. As soon as you make a break for it, I'm going out the back door and straight into the woods. Jim, please, get out of here! If I don't make it past them, I'll stand a lot better chance of surviving this if you're free."]
"Yeah, but I can always count on you getting me out of a jam, can't I?"
Blair's words, both whispered and over the headset stopped Ellison in his tracks. The whole kidnapping case, the murdersit had all been a sham. It was a trap. A clever, well orchestrated plan to snare an unsuspecting Sentinel and his Guide. And they'd walked into it blindly, with no backup. Why they'd been set up took a back seat to getting the two of them out of there fast.
Jim took a quick look around the clearing, estimating their options for escape once again. Blair was right. They'd have a better chance if they split up and divided the efforts of their pursuers. But he didn't like it. All of his Sentinel instincts cried out for him to protect his Guide, not leave him to his own resources, abundant as they might be. Especially since he suspected that Anders was as interested in getting his hands on Blair as he was in capturing a Sentinel. But if they were both taken...
"You know it, partner," Jim said softly, his voice low with emotion. With a fast step to his left, he caught the man standing near him with a hard jab to the jaw, downing him instantly. Pulling his gun from behind his back, the ex-ranger swung around and aimed at the gas tank on one of the jeeps, firing as soon as it was in his sights. The explosion rocked the ground and sent Anders and his men lunging for cover. Jim's attention shifted to the bus and he saw the emergency door at the back fly open with Blair hanging off of it. He waited just long enough to see the younger man scramble into the woods and then he too disappeared into the forest.
Blair kept his head down and ran, forcing his way through the densely packed trees, trying to put as much distance between himself and the clearing as he could before Anders sent his men in pursuit. He allowed himself a satisfied smirk at his partner's distraction. It had definitely caught them off guard. Hell, it even caught me off guard. Trust Jim to come up with something loud and earth shattering.
He ducked under a low-hanging branch and tucked himself against the trunk of a large tree, listening intently. For a few seconds, he heard nothing except the pounding of his own heart. He took several deep breaths, working to fill his aching lungs with the thin air. Blair snapped his head around at a sharp cracking sound from somewhere to his left and frantically scanned the woods, trying to locate the source. The noise repeated and he took off again, angling slightly to his right, but still headed away from the clearing. He wove in and out of the cover of the trees, more concerned about staying hidden than in trying to go in a specific direction, confident that if he could keep moving, he'd be all right. Jim was out there somewhere. The Sentinel was more than equipped to find him, wherever he ended up. All he needed to do was stay out of the hunters' sights.
As he ran, he forced his mind to function at more than just escape mode. He couldn't be stupid about this. He couldn't afford to make a mistake and end up getting caught. He did not want to be the leash which brought Jim to heel. He didn't think that Anders' men would shoot him downnot after all the trouble they'd gone through to set this upbut he wasn't going to take that chance.
Who are these guys? They definitely weren't search and rescue and if they were FBI they were probably rogue agents. Great. And here I thought the CIA had a corner on that market.
Whoever they were, what they wanted was perfectly clear. This whole scenario had been set up to test and reveal Jim's abilities. How had they found out about the Sentinel, anyway? He and Jim had tried to keep a low profile, but it was obvious that they'd succeeded in piquing someone's interest. Maybe it was as simple as having too good an arrest and conviction record. They certainly had that, especially in the last two years. Maybe that was all it had taken.
Or maybe it's that stupid thesis that you wrote. Jeez, it's like a best seller. Who would have known that it would be at the top of the Militant Reader's charts, instead of gathering the dust it deserves? We get out of this Jim, and I promise you, I'm going to hunt down every last copy and burn them. I should have seen this coming. Damn it, I should have listened to my gut instincts and never let either one of us get on that helicopter. Now we're out here in the middle of nowhere with a small army ready to pick us off and lock us away.
Lock them away, or worse.
Winded, Blair pulled to a stop and bent over, struggling to control not only his ragged breathing, but his overactive imagination. He didn't even want to think about what these guys would do to Jim in a lab, what kind of experiments they'd try to see what made him tick. The thought of Jim Ellison as a caged panther made him shudder. It would kill him.
~So what are you going to do to make sure that doesn't happen?~
Whatever I have to do.
"Whatever it takes. I'm the Sentinel's Guide. He's mine to protect." Blair whispered the words defiantly as he started moving again, determined to stay ahead of the hunters.
The clearing looked like a war-zone when Bailey and his men jogged in. Thick black smoke boiled off of the jeep, spiraling into the darkening sky. The overpowering smells of super-heated metal and melted plastic filled the air, while flames still roared over the vehicle's charred framework. A crosswind swept low-lying waves of smoke through the clearing. In the midst of it all stood Anders, barking orders at his scurrying men.
"It's about time you got here," the older man snarled as the tracker approached.
"We were supposed to be an hour away," Bailey answered with a shrug. "I figured you'd want to stick with the plan." The tracker glanced around the clearing and then turned his attention back to his superior. "I take it Ellison finally got wise to the game."
"Everything seemed to be going fine and then something spooked him," Anders grumbled. "He shot out the gas tank on the jeep and in the confusion, he and Sandburg slipped away."
"No. We at least got that break." The older man gestured toward the far side of the clearing where the man Jim had decked was being helped to his feet. "Ellison overpowered Chambers and took off from there. The kid was in the bus. He went out the back and straight into the forest."
Bailey took one more quick look around and nodded. "Okay, they've only got a few minute's head start. I'll have the men in gear and armed in five, and we'll head out after Ellison."
He started to turn away, but Anders grabbed his arm. "Send whoever's expendable out after Ellison. I want you to concentrate on finding Sandburg."
"You've got to be joking," Bailey objected. "That little hippie can barely tell his right from his left. There's no way he's going to make it out of this park. Chances are he's already going in circles."
"Then you won't have a problem finding him, will you?"
"It's a waste of time," Bailey growled in disgust.
"Are you questioning my orders, Lieutenant?"
"No, sir. Just trying to understand them. I thought Ellison was the one you've been itching to get your hands on, yet you're telling me to let him walk and go after some punk kid."
"For a man who prides himself on his observation skills, you're surprisingly blind to the dynamics of what's been happening here today," Anders remarked.
"Meaning that in his own way, the kid's as important, and as unique, as Ellison. Don't worry. Our good detective's not going anywhere. Not without his partner. You bring Sandburg back here and Ellison will follow. He doesn't have any choice."
Bailey eyed the older man skeptically.
"You'll get your chance at Ellison later," Anders promised. "Remember what I said about sending only men you're willing to lose after him. He was one of the best that Covert Ops had and he doesn't appear to have lost his edge. They won't have much luck catching him, but they can keep him busy while you're going after the kid. We'll get this mess cleaned up and set up a temporary camp. Bring Sandburg back... unharmed, Lieutenant. And do it quickly. I want to stay on schedule. If Ellison doesn't cooperate, we'll move the kid to our home base at first light. That'll cut his options even further."
Nodding grudgingly in agreement to Anders' orders, Bailey saluted sharply and spun on his heel, whistling a cadence to bring his men to order.
On his hands and knees, Blair cautiously backed away from the edge of the deadly drop-off he'd nearly tumbled into, rising on shaky legs only after he could no longer see down into the darkened ravine. He continued to retreat until he felt the rough, unyielding shape of a tree at his back. Leaning into the reassuring support for a few moments, he closed his eyes and tried to push the last whirling vestiges of vertigo out of his head, concentrating on simply filling his lungs. Too shaken to name any individual gods or goddesses at that particular moment, he sent up a generic whisper of thanks to whomever or whatever had kept him from taking that headlong plunge.
Still eyeing the darker line of blackness which indicated the edge of the chasm, he pushed away from the tree, moving to his left. Cursing silently, he realized he was going to have to either double back on his previous trail to find a way around the ravine or make an attempt to climb down. Neither option was very attractive. Backtracking meant running the risk of meeting up with some of Anders' men, but the alternative was trying to make the risky descent in the rapidly fading light.
He decided to keep moving along the rim of the drop-off, not quite following the same path which had brought him there, his gaze flickering uneasily from the surrounding forest to the ravine edge and back again. A sudden noise startled him and he halted, straining to identify the source of the sound, hoping desperately that it was Jim. Unshakable as his faith was in his Sentinel, he was starting to worryit had been nearly an hour since they'd escaped from the clearing and he still hadn't seen any sign of his partner.
Nor had he seen any real signs of pursuit. Initially he'd been grateful for that, but now Blair was starting to wonder if Anders had sent all his hounds coursing after Jim. If he had, even the Sentinel with all of his skills, would be hard pressed to evade them.
The thought struck him suddenly that he was still standing like a dazed, frightened rabbit. He shook himself in disgust. Pushing himself to move again, he ducked around a dense stand of brush.
And came face to face with Agent Dunn.
"Stay right where you are," the man warned, his rifle already targeting Blair's chest.
Slowly, Blair raised his hands, hoping it appeared more like an entreaty than surrender.
"Hey, man. Am I glad to see you," he babbled, assuming his most endearingly innocent expression. "I gotta tell you... that explosion scared the shit out of me. I just took off running. Guess I got kind of lost."
A look of confusion filled Dunn's face and Blair started to take a step forward, hoping to get closer to the man and somehow get control of the gun. The bone chilling touch of metal at the back of his neck and a familiar, deadly voice, stopped him cold.
"Good thing we found you then."
Blair remained motionless, barely breathing as Bailey shifted to stand beside him, the rifle barrel now digging into the right side of his neck.
"Where's Ellison?" the tracker asked, prodding him with the gun.
"Jim?" Blair strove to keep the bluff going as long as he could, his mind racing to find a way out of the mess he found himself in. "You mean he took off, too? That's a surprise. He's usually"
Blinding pain shot through Blair's right side as Bailey pivoted the rifle and rammed the hard wooden stock into his ribs. The force of the blow staggered him sideways and he dropped to the ground, gasping for breath. The tracker grabbed him by the hair and yanked backward, keeping him on his knees and forcing his head up. Blair caught a glimpse of something shiny and froze as the razor-sharp blade of a knife touched his throat.
"Don't bother with the games, kid. I've wasted enough time looking for you and I'm out of patience," Bailey hissed. "I want Ellison."
Defiance reared its head and Blair went with the angry sensation, letting it fill him and push the fear away. "So you got stuck with me, huh, Bailey? Count yourself lucky. Jim would eat you for lunch."
He felt a flash of relief when Bailey's grip on his hair released and then he was reeling sideways, crashing to the hard ground, the left side of his face burning from the impact of the blow. The stab of agonizing pain which shot through his injured side made him struggle for breath again as Bailey's booted kick flipped him to his back. Before he could move, the tracker had dropped down next to him, one knee planted in his chest to hold him in place while the knife pressed menacingly against his throat.
"Take it easy, Bailey. The Colonel wants him in one piece," Dunn called out.
Lost in the haze of his throbbing head and the pressure in his ribs, Blair found himself wondering idly who the 'Colonel' was, and if he was a new player in this bizarre contest, or if it was someone he'd already met. Bailey's next words answered that question succinctly.
"Anders may think you're something special, but I don't, punk," the tracker snarled, pressing the blade harder against the skin under Blair's chin. "As far as I'm concerned, you're just a piece of bait to attract Ellison. Now tell me where he is!"
Blair stared up into Bailey's eyes, saw the murderous glare and made a quick decision. He'd promised himself he wouldn't be used to make Jim surrender and that was exactly what this man intended.
"Go to Hell," he whispered.
Blair watched the rage wash over the bigger man's features and then the heel of Bailey's hand thrust against his chin, pushing his head backward. He felt the abrupt absence of the pressure of the knife blade, then felt the sharp tip touch the side of his neck. With a burst of clarity, he knew who had slit the throats of the teacher and the driver. A strange sense of calm settled over him and he started to close his eyes, his mind forming a silent apology to his Sentinel for dying and leaving him alone.
His eyes flashed open at a strangled cry from behind him and he looked up into Bailey's angry face. The tracker started to rise and then he staggered, his expression changing quickly from anger to amazement. In stunned surprise, Blair watched as Bailey's hand went to his chest, wrapping around the hilt of a knife that protruded from his ribs. Then the man was toppling forward, blood spurting from the killing wound.
Blair grunted in pain as Bailey's dead weight crashed onto him. Pinned to the ground, he could feel the handle of the knife digging into his own chest and wondered fleetingly if he'd somehow been stabbed himself. He tried to get his arms free so that he could maneuver the body off, but his dazed mind wasn't sending very clear signals to his aching body.
He felt a growing wetness through his shirt and realized it was Bailey's blood. He took a gasping breath and almost retched at the stench. Revulsion pushed him to try to get free once more. This time he had help. Strong hands slid beneath his shoulders, grasped him under the armpits and eased him backward. Blair barely stifled a moan of relief as the weight of the tracker's body slid aside.
He didn't resist as he was pulled several feet away and then urged to sit up. Nor did he argue when the powerful arms wrapped around him. Instead, he instinctively leaned forward, seeking the warmth and safety of his Sentinel's presence.
At any other time, the thunderous pounding of his Guide's rapidly beating heart would have been cause for alarm. Now, it was a vital reassuranceproof the younger man was still alive and that life was coursing through his veins, not pooling out onto the hard, cold ground. The Sentinel grimaced at the thoughthe'd almost been too late.
Holding Blair in a fiercely protective embrace, Jim eyed the bodies of the two men he had killed. He felt the twinge of sadness which he always experienced whenever he took a life, but he felt no guilt. It had been a choice between his Guide's life and theirs, meaning that there had been no choice at all. He would harbor no regrets about the actions he'd taken. He'd kill again if he had to, if that's what it took to keep the younger man safe.
Lifting his head, the Sentinel opened up his senses, scanning their immediate surroundings. A gentle breeze caressed the hairs on the back of his neck and he sampled it, filtering out the scents that belonged to the forest, finally finding those of the men that pursued them. Not content to rely only on his sense of smell and taste, he let his hearing range outward. In a few moments, he confirmed the hunters' locations. Loosening his grip, he gave Blair's shoulders a gentle squeeze.
"We need to move. There's a spot where we'll be safer. It's not far. Think you can make it?"
Blair gave a brief nod. Jim eased him upright, wincing as his Guide stifled a cry of pain. The Sentinel wrapped an arm around the younger man and began to steer him away when Blair hesitated.
"Wait..." Blair whispered, shifting them toward Bailey's body.
"My pack," the younger man murmured in explanation, straining to reach down for the bag.
With a deft grab, Ellison caught the straps of the backpack and slung it over his own shoulder. That seemed to appease Blair and he leaned into Jim's grip, nodding again for the older man to lead the way. Attuned to the pursuit behind them, the Sentinel led his Guide deeper into the forest, seeking the place of refuge he'd found earlier.
Trusting Jim to keep them safe, Blair told his muddled thoughts to take a break-ordering them not to return until they made more senseand focused on simply staying upright and keeping his feet moving. Surprisingly, after a few minutes of concentration, the little mind game seemed to work, although he felt strangely disconnected to his bodyas if someone else was in control. He ignored the odd sensation because the results were worth it. Breathing past the distracting pain in his side became easier and his pace adjusted to mirror his partner's, moving with the older man instead of dragging against him.
The smooth rhythm they'd established suddenly altered and Blair found himself blinking in dazed confusion as Jim led him into a rock-sheltered thicket. He sank to the ground at the older man's gentle urging, shivering with cold when he leaned back into one of the boulders. Warmth wrapped around him immediately and he tugged Jim's jacket closer around his body, nodding a silent 'thanks' to his partner. The Sentinel knelt beside him, the slightly cocked head and tense posture indicating that Jim was checking things out, making sure there were no unpleasant surprises nearby. With a quick glance Blair saw that the refuge that the older man had found for them was easily defensible, even to his unpracticed eye. He allowed himself to relax a bit, feeling more confident now that he and his partner were together again.
Blair shifted slightly, trying to find a more comfortable position which wouldn't put as much strain on the sore muscles in his side. The movement brought Jim's attention back to him. Even in the gloom, the aching Guide could see the concern in the Sentinel's eyes.
"I'm okay, man. Just cold and majorly tired," Blair said reassuringly.
A tentative smile broke across the older man's face and despite the circumstances, Blair felt an answering grin filling his own. "What? What's so funny?"
"I think you just set some kind of record, Chief. Those are the first words you've said in over 30 minutes."
Blair raised an eyebrow in surprise. If that much time had passedhe'd been further 'out of it' than he'd realized. Given his normal tendency to let his mouth run non-stopespecially when he was nervous or frightenedit was no wonder that Jim was worried. "Brevity, man, remember?" he said with forced lightness.
The Sentinel's reply was a soft grunt and a shake of his head as he pushed his Guide gently backward into the support of the rocks, his hands carefully probing the younger man's injuries. Blair endured the scrutiny without objection, recognizing that his companion needed the tangible confirmation to ease his fears.
"Nothing's broken, Chief," the older man murmured softly, finally satisfied with his examination. He settled on the ground next to Blair, digging the water bottle and some foodstuffs out of his own pack and handing them to the younger man.
"Good to hear," Blair responded, taking the proffered items. "Your timing was excellent, by the way. As usual. Thanks."
Jim's head snapped up, his jaw clenched, his eyes dark with anger and guilt. "I should have been there earlier, but I had to deal with some of Anders' men. I didn't want to take the chance of leading them to you. And then I was almost too late. Bailey would have... I'm sorry Blair... about all of this. You're in danger because of me. I should have seen through this whole thing before it got this far."
"Cut yourself some slack on the guilt front, man," Blair admonished his partner. "We were set up by experts. But we figured it out, right? We're still ahead of the game. All we have to do is find a way to get home free."
"Might be easier said than done, Chief. Like you said, we were set up by someone with a lot of expertise. Whether it was Anders or his superior, doesn't matter. The fact is, they're good. And they've got the advantage in equipment and personnel. We've got minimal firepower and neither one of us is in any shape to handle a fast, cross-country escape. Not in this terrain."
"We've been in tough spots before, Jim," Blair reminded him, hoping to dispel the older man's doubts and get him back on track. "They may have the numbers, but you're the Sentinel. They are way outclassed, man. They may think they know what you can do, but I've seen it first hand. So what's the plan?"
Jim looked out into the forest, falling silent for a few moments. Blair could almost hear the wheels turning in his head. When the Sentinel looked back at him, he saw grim resolution in the older man's face.
"First thing is to stay ahead of them and try to find some help, or at least get a message out that we need assistance," Jim said softly. "We're pretty deep into the park and from what I remember about the area, the closest ranger station is about fifteen miles to the west. Not an easy trek and it's a move Anders will undoubtedly anticipate. We're going to have to assume he has most of the logical escape routes covered. He's going to try to keep us contained in this area."
The Sentinel's gaze shifted to the forest once more, his expression growing even grimmer.
"They've found the bodies," he whispered. "Anders will assume we're together now. He'll concentrate the search efforts, probably spreading his men in a skirmish line in an attempt to surround us. That 'could' work in our favor. If we can get past them, we might be able to make it back to their camp... maybe steal a truck or at least get a signal out using their equipment."
"But won't Anders be expecting us to try that? If you were in his place wouldn't you?" The silent nod from his partner confirmed Blair's query.
"It's risky, but we don't have a whole lot of options, Chief."
"I don't know... getting closer to those guys doesn't seem healthy..." Blair's voice trailed off as his gaze settled on his backpack. His eyes flashed wide open, his mind grasping at a possible solution.
Without thinking, he made a quick move to grab the pack. The burst of pain which radiated from his injured ribs reminded him of how badly he was hurting and he let out a strangled gasp. Jim's hand was on his arm immediately, trying to shift him back toward the rocks, but Blair shrugged off the restraint, gritting his teeth as he leaned forward and grasped the straps, pulling the bag into his lap.
Ignoring his partner's growling reprimand, Blair untied the pack and started digging through it.
"What we need is something unexpected, right? What if instead of trying to get out of the park, we head further in? Say, up into the mountains?" Blair asked, still rummaging through the bag.
"It's unexpected, but it's also not going to do us much good," Jim responded. "We'll be more isolated than we are now and we won't be any closer to finding help. Not unless you plan on using smoke signals."
"It's an idea, but not quite what I had in mind," Blair murmured, pulling a small object out of his pack. "How about using this instead?"
"You brought your cell phone?" asked Jim incredulously.
"Hey, man, I never leave home without it. Not since I started working with you," Blair replied, grinning.
"What else did you pack in that magic bag, Chief?"
"Well I tried for your truck, but it didn't fit," Blair answered. "How about it? Think we can get through if we get enough altitude?"
"It's worth a shot."
"Great. You head out, I'll wait out the cavalry here."
"No way, Sandburg. We go together."
"Jim, listen to me," Blair pleaded, desperate to convince the Sentinel he was right. "You're the one they're after. I'm only going to slow you down. I won't risk that."
"I think you're missing something, partner. Anders wanted both of us here, today. Not just me. He's not just looking to trap a Sentinel. He wants a Guide as well."
Blair hoped that the darkness hid the terror he knew was evident on his face. "He wanted me only to get to you, man. To use me to control you. And that's what will happen if he catches up to us."
"Whatever he wanted, he's not going to get it. That includes taking either one of us," Jim said firmly. "We're in this together, Chief. I'm not leaving you behind."
The Sentinel kept them moving, herding his stumbling, exhausted Guide ahead of him as he watched for signs of pursuit. Darkness closed in with every step, cloaking them from their enemies, but also slowing their progress. With his vision adjusting automatically to the loss of light and his concentration focused behind them, Jim was unaware of just how black their world had become until Blair tripped and fell, sprawling to the rocky ground. He was at the younger man's side instantly. Jim started to lift his partner to his feet when he felt the tremors racking Blair's overtaxed body.
"Stay put," he murmured, pressing his hand on a slim, trembling shoulder. "Take a minute to catch your breath."
"No way, man... I'm... fine..." Blair's ragged gasps put the lie to his words, but he pushed against Jim's hold, struggling to get to his feet again.
"Sandburg, I may cover your butt when you run out of grocery money at the end of the month, but I draw the line at carrying you up that mountain." The uncertainty in the eyes that stared up at him made Ellison soften his tone and drop the teasing banter. "It's okay, Blair. I don't hear anything. We've got a lead on them."
"You sure?" There was an desperate edge to the whispered question.
"Rest, Chief," Jim answered, putting all the reassurance he could into his voice. "Close your eyes for a few minutes if you can."
Jim heard a soft sigh which was a mixture of relief and pain as Blair slumped to the cold ground, wrapping his arms around his body in an attempt to ward off the chill. Shrugging out of his jacket, the Sentinel draped it over the younger man's shivering form.
"Thanks... just a few minutes... that'll... be... good..."
Blair's voice faded as sleep took him. The Sentinel sat in guardianship at his Guide's side, scanning the night for danger. He knew the hunters were out there, searching for them even now. Extending his senses, he could hear soft, irregular sounds which were no natural part of the forest.
A sudden low growl jerked his attention back to his immediate surroundings. A patch of inky blackness came to life, flowing toward them, taking a familiar shape before the Sentinel's sharp eyes.
Another hunter stalked them by moonlight, yellow eyes glowing in the dark.
The panther settled just beyond Blair, his tail slashing back and forth in agitation. As Jim watched, the lithe animal rose to its haunches and then continued to straighten, morphing into the ancient tribesman Jim had first encountered in Peru.
Jim remained seated and silent as his Spirit Guide knelt beside his young friend, hands extended over the anthropologist's body, palms down. The old man's face creased into a scowl and he sat back on his heels, raising his head to fix Jim with an unreadable stare.
"Your young Guide is in danger, Sentinel."
"I know," Jim murmured, his jaw clenching as Anders' image filled his mind.
The Shaman shook his head almost imperceptibly. "The threat to the body is dire, the threat to the soul even graver."
Jim's eyes widened in alarm at his words. "I don't understand."
"The seed of fear has taken root and flourished. It grows stronger now, out of control because he will not accept what he must."
"What is it that he needs to accept?" Jim asked softly, his gaze flickering to his young partner before meeting the old man's eyes again.
"Who he is." The Shaman shifted his gaze to Blair and frowned again. "The Way was not prepared. Both spirits suffer."
"I don't understand... both spirits... Blair... and Incacha?"
The Spirit Guide's form shifted to the panther for just an instant before taking the old man's shape again. He responded with a slight inclination of his head. "The elder remains, the younger resists. The path grows more difficult."
"You're saying that part of Incacha is still here, within him?"
Disbelief warred with a deeply-buried sense of understanding. Vague memories of stories Jim had heard as a child rippled through his mindtales of spirits who stayed chained to this plane of existence, whether due to the violence of their deaths or because their business on earth was unfinished. Added to that was what he remembered of the Chopec death rituals. The Spirit-Shaman was right. Incacha's death had caught them all by surprise. He hadn't had the time to prepare either himself or Blair for the transfer of his powers, whatever they were.
As if reading his thoughts, the tribesman murmured, "The rites were not performed. Your Guide was frightened and now he refuses to listen."
"Can you help him?"
In answer, the Shaman placed his hands over Blair's sleeping body again, lowering them until they hovered bare inches from the younger man's chest. He held them there for a few moments, murmuring in an ancient tongue the Sentinel could hear, but only dimly understood. Jim watched the intent, ancient face anxiously, nearly crying out in frustration when the tribesman removed his hands and shook his head.
"I cannot. He made his choice in fear. Now he must find the courage to choose again."
Blind rage roared through Jim and he surged to his feet. "How dare you speak of choices? Since when did either of us really have a choice in any of this?"
"Do you regret your own decision, Sentinel?"
The soft question abruptly drained away Jim's anger. He stared down at Blair's still form, and shook his head sadly.
"Not for myself... no. Not once I realized that the real choice wasn't whether to keep my senses or lose them, but to accept or deny myself. Before he died, Incacha told me the same thing, 'a Sentinel will always be a Sentinel, if he chooses to be.' But this... whatever this is, was Incacha's decision, not Blair's. Even being my Guide wasn't really his choice. It was mine. I knew I needed his help. I was desperate for it and afraid that he would leave."
"So you bound him to you."
"At first with his own eagerness and later with those things I knew he longed for. Trust, stability, friendship..." Jim shook his head angrily. "I trapped him as surely as Anders sought to trap us."
"Are you that strong, Sentinel?"
The words caught Jim off-guard and he looked down into the Shaman's face in confusion.
"Do you truly believe yourself powerful enough to hold a Guide's spirit against his will?" The older man rose from his crouch, transforming into the panther once more as it leaped across Blair's body, directly toward him.
Jim took a startled step backward as the huge cat landed with only a whisper of sound at his feet. In the blink of an eye, the panther rose, morphing back into the ancient tribesman.
"Do not underestimate your companion, young warrior. His spirit is stronger than you can imagine," the Shaman warned, his eyes fierce. "Sentinel and Guide are destined to be bound together. To protect the tribe. To complete each other in equal partnership. It can be no other way."
The old man's expression softened and the look he turned on Jim was full of compassion. "Your Guide's path is difficult, but not impossible. You know his strengths and his fears. Use that which has held you together from the beginning"
The Shaman broke off suddenly, growing so still and silent that he seemed to become invisible for a moment. Then his eyes shifted to Jim again, filled with a glowing intensity.
"You world is filled with many dangers, Sentinel. Do not fear for your Guide. What holds him will help him to survive the darkness, if he allows it. You will not be unprotected, nor will he." The Shaman's form began to soften, merging into the darkness even as Jim opened his mouth to object.
"Trust to the Guardians who come with the morning..."
And he was gone, only the faintest echo of the panther's low, warning growl giving evidence that he had ever been there.
The silence was suddenly broken by the sounds of other hunters. They had drawn closetoo close. Jim reached forward and shook Blair awake.
"Blair, listen to me, we don't have much time. Do you trust me?"
"Jim... what?" Confused, exhaustion-dulled eyes stared up at him, shifting slightly as the younger man sought to focus on Jim in the darkness.
"Do you trust me?" the Sentinel demanded.
"With my life, man," came the ragged whisper of affirmation.
"Then trust Incacha. Let him help you."
With a groan of anguish, Blair tried to pull away, shaking his head, his blue eyes widening even further in desperate fear.
"Blair, stop it!" Jim hissed, grabbing the younger man's jacket, pinning him in place. Staring down into the grad student's terrified face, the Sentinel immediately softened his tone. "You've got to stop running from this. You've got to stop fighting him."
"No! You're wrong. He's dead!"
The raw terror in his friend's voice tore at Jim's soul. He let loose a string of silent invective against the men who were hunting them and at Anders in particular. He gulped down his own paniche could hear them now, a dozen men, rushing in to corner them from at least three sides. There was no time for this conversation, yet they had to have it, if the panther's promise that Blair would survive the darkness was to come true. Just as Incacha's legacy had been forced upon him without warning, without choice, now Jim was going to have to bludgeon his young Guide into acknowledging at least a portion of the truth.
"I don't understand it, Blair, but I know that it's true. Some part of Incacha's spirit remained with you when he died. You've known it, too, deep inside, since the day he named you my Shaman."
"How can you know that? How can you be so sure?" Blair's voice was a bare whisper, tinged with horror.
"I saw the panther."
Blair froze in his grasp. The stricken expression on his Guide's face made Jim shudder, but he forced himself to continue.
"It shouldn't have happened. When Incacha gave my keeping over to you, his spirit should have gone free. But things went down too fast and neither of you were ready. He knew he was dying and that all his knowledge and power would die with him unless he could pass it on to you. He was so desperate that he used force instead of compassion. And you were so afraid you slammed up a shield to keep what you didn't understand at bay. But you didn't shut it out. You trapped yourself on one side and Incacha on the other"
"You've kept that wall of fear in place, building it higher and higher. But Incacha's spirit is still there, trying to make you listen, trying to help you understand, trying to undo the damage he's done."
"Please... I can't..."
The younger man's agonized plea was almost unbearable, but the Sentinel ignored it, driven by need and his own desperation.
"You have to. Your life depends on it. When your head wouldn't listen, he somehow found a way to touch your heart, using your compassion and love of life to try to break down that shield and reach you. It bared your emotions. Left you vulnerable. That's what caused the attacks. Every death you saw during Haight's murder spree put another crack in the dam you'd built. Every drop of blood that was spilled today brought your spirit and Incacha's closer together."
"And what happens then?" Blair's voice was hoarse, the words wrenched out of him, revealing the true cause of his fear. "What happens if... when I acknowledge him? Who do I become?"
For a moment, time seemed suspended. The tortured questions of his Guide were so like those Jim had asked himself, when he'd made his choice to accept the return of his Sentinel abilities in Peru.
~Accept the truth.~
"You become who you were meant to be."
The repetitive 'whump' of heavy rotor blades and the whine of an overtaxed engine on low-level approach reached the Sentinel's ears, mixing with the furtive sounds of the searching men. He gripped the slender shoulders of his Guide even tighter, staring down into the terrified eyes, feeling every shudder that racked the younger man's body.
"Blair, I know you're scared. I know you'd like nothing better than to have a few weeks to process all this in that multi-tasking head of yours, but there's no time."
The blue eyes meeting his grew even wider.
"I wish I could tell you that nothing will change... but I can't. I don't know what will happen. I only know that you have to do this. Accept the truth. Accept Incacha's presence."
"How?" The question was a breath of sound, filled with the pain of an anguished soul.
What do I tell him? How do I help him? Jim wondered.
~You know his strengths and his fears. Use what has held you together from the beginning... ~ The words of his Spirit Guide echoed in the Sentinel's mind.
And what has held us together? Need? Friendship? No, more than that. Trust.
The Sentinel loosened his hold, no longer fearing his Guide would try to flee.
"You didn't know Incacha, but I did," he murmured. "He was my friend. I trusted him. I know that he never meant to hurt you. He understood how important you are to me. He had to have sensed that the moment the two of you met. I think he took one look deep into your soul and found a kindred spirit. That's why he picked you."
A sharp, derisive laugh burst from the younger man.
"Let's face it Jim," Blair whispered bitterly. "There weren't a whole lot of candidates available when he checked out. He picked me because there was no one else."
The Sentinel cupped Blair's chin in one hand, tipping his Guide's head back, forcing the younger man to meet his gaze.
"I don't believe that. This was too important to him. He would never have tried to give you his powers if he hadn't found you worthy. I think, had he never come to Cascade, that you would have followed his teachings and his path sooner or later, anyway. Incacha was a very powerful Shaman. He saw in a single glance what I see in you every daystrength, compassion, loyalty, and a gentle, generous heart."
"Believe me, Blair. Nothing he could do would change those things. He wouldn't have wanted that. And there's nothing he could do, alive or dead, that would shake the trust I have in you. You are my Guide. My Shaman. No matter what happens that will never change."
The sounds of the hunters rang sharply in the Sentinel's ears.
"Blair, my Spirit Guide promised that you'd be safe, if you allowed Incacha to help you"
"And what about you?" Blair's eyes blazed with fearfear for his Sentinel, not himself. "What about the attacks today? Was Incacha responsible for those, too? Could he see into the future? Am I... am I going to lose you?"
Before Jim could answer, the quiet of the forest was broken by the thundering roar of the helicopter, hovering almost overhead. Blair's eyes jerked up to search the darkness and then slid back to the older man's face.
Jim swung his partner around, shifting the backpack to his Guide's shoulder and pulling out his own gun in one smooth motion.
"North is that way," he hissed, pointing into the darkness. "You were right. Anders isn't expecting us to head toward the mountains. It's the only path he hasn't blocked. I want you to head straight in that direction and don't stop until you find a place to try the cell. Now get going. I'm going to try to buy some time."
He gave his partner a push and the younger man staggered forward a few steps before the words sunk in. Blair spun around and took a step back toward Jim.
"I'm not leaving you here! I can't"
"You have to. One of us has to find help and that phone of yours is our best chance. Maybe our only chance."
"Then you take it! Damn it, Jim, you'd have a better chance of making it into those mountains than I do. Give me your gun and I'll try to hold them off," Blair pleaded.
"Blair, you wouldn't stand a chance against them. Even if you didn't get yourself killed in the process, they'd have you. Remember what you said? That Anders would use you to control me? You're right. I'd do almost anything he wanted in order to guarantee your safety. I'd have no choice. Please, you promised me you'd follow my orders. I want you to run and don't look back, no matter what you see or hear. Now go. GO!"
Blair stood his ground for a moment longer, then with a groan of despair he turned and bolted into the darkness.
Still tracking his Guide's fleeing presence, the Sentinel turned to face their enemies. Seeking a more defensible position, he faded into the trees, merging with the shadows. The urge to attack those who threatened his Guide clashed with the instincts of a cop and former soldier who needed to protect his partner. One cried out for vengeance, the other faced the grim reality of needing to fight a holding battle with no hope of winning the war.
He heard them, all around him now. Closing in. A savage gleam filled his eyes when he caught his first glimpse of them. He still had an edge over his opponents. He was not blind in the dark as they were. He could sense them coming before they could see him. He could attack and still delay.
Both sides of his soul satisfied with the compromise, he dove to his right, prowling silently toward his first target, downing the man before he could make a sound. He claimed the man's weapon and moved toward his next adversary, sliding a knife into the man's ribs with a killing stroke he'd learned in some distant memory. He moved within the shadows, striking without warning, taking down the hunters without remorse. Four of them would never stalk again. Would never threaten his Guide.
The Sentinel shifted to the cover of a jumbled pile of boulders, lying in wait for the man he could sense moving in his direction. He watched as the hunter materialized out of the darkness, only a few feet a way. He flowed to his feet, focused on sight, intent on taking the man out. Suddenly the darkness turned to blinding daylight and screamed with excruciatingly painful soundhe'd forgotten about the danger from above.
Bathed in the chopper's spotlight, the Sentinel froze and his enemy saw him. Out of reflex, Jim fired into the air, hoping to shoot out the light and rolled to his left, scrambling for cover. But they had his position and shots rang out, the deadly missiles forcing him away from the relative safety of the rocks.
He returned fire, filling the air with the explosions of his own discharging weapon. The scream of the chopper and the wash wind from the blades drove him stumbling, out into the open.
He fired again in a desperate attempt to take out the helicopter, but the spotlight swung around, its beam transfixing him. Struggling with senses which suddenly surged out of control, he heard the click of a trigger and knew that they had him. He tried to send his hearing beyond the chaos, seeking the heartbeat of his Guide, desperate to know that he, at least, was still safe. But the sharp burning projectile that buried itself in his chest carried him to oblivion, his ears ringing with the fading echoes of an angry, ebony scream.
Blair heard the sharp retort of gunfire and skidded to a sliding stop, trembling, torn between the need to obey his partner's orders and the instincts which told him he belonged at his Sentinel's side.
Another volley erupted through the darkness and then there were shoutsindecipherable, but filled with elation. With a moan, he dropped to his knees, digging frantically in the backpack for the headset he'd stuffed inside earlier. Pulling it out he switched it on, not caring that its use would pinpoint his location.
There was a burst of static and then he heard the words he'd been dreading.
And the attack struckjust like before, but even more terrifying, because now he knew what it meant. There was only one thing in the world that could hurt this badly.
It was real.
Jim was dead.
The wave of terror and despair hit him so hard it tore the air from his lungs. At that moment everything around him ceased to exist; he could see nothing but blackness, feel nothing except the raging fear and overwhelming sorrow which threatened to engulf him, hear nothing except his own voice screaming Jim's name.
With a sob he threw himself forward, branches whipping his face. Surrounded by blackness, he stepped out into nothingness and fell forward...
... to land on his feet, splashing through a small creek. Ignoring the slippery rocks under foot he ran, driven by the desire to leave the impossible reality of his Sentinel's death far behind. Lungs straining for air, he lost even the ability to scream his anguish to the night.
He turned, following the serpentine windings of the stream as it led south, drenched with the tears streaming down his face and the spray kicked up by his pounding feet. He fled into the darkness, not caring where he was going, hoping to leave the agony which had invaded his heart far behind. Instead, his mind filled with images that made the pain even worse.
Memories of Jimat the station, at the loft, in the truck, sitting by his side in the hospitalflooded through him, tearing a wrenching cry from his throat. He stumbled and fell. Physical pain from his injured ribs burst like a flare, ripping him apart from the inside.
The water washed over him like a ritual cleansing. Sputtering, he lifted his head clear and gazed, mesmerized, at the dancing motes of water which shimmered in suddenly unleashed shafts of moonlight. He forced himself to his knees and then to his feet, the icy bath wiping all thoughts from his mind but one.
He charged out of the stream, headed north once more. Bursting through the trees, he staggered out into a clearing and stared up toward the rocky crags. They beckoned to him, one in particular, shaping itself out of the shadows like an ancient dragon of myth. He headed toward it, fixing his eyes on that destination, his mind dropping its barriers in the face of his driving need.
A burst of dizzying energy exploded through his body as another presenceanother spiritjoined his and fought for recognition. For the space of a heartbeat, he struggled against the invasion, battled against losing himself and he stumbled. Fear of another kind shrieked through his mindif he fell again, he wasn't sure he'd ever get to his feet. And if he didn't, he wouldn't make it up the mountain. He wouldn't be able to call for help. He'd dishonor his Sentinel's last wishes.
No! I've already lost him... I can't fail him in this, too... Please, help me!
With a shudder, he surrendered his soul.
The spirit which had once borne the name Incacha glided through the forest, an almost ethereal figure, dappled in moonlight and shadow. He allowed himself a moment to revel in the sensations which accompanied his return to physical form, before turning his vision upward, staring through the trees at the starry firmament shimmering through wreaths of windswept clouds. That was where his next journey lay, not within the body of the young one whom he was sworn to guard.
He felt a stirring deep within, the object of his thoughts demanding to be heard. Memories and experiences from his own lifeand hundreds of othersawakened to the Guardian's need. The ancient soul brushed the younger one with a reassuring caress, seeking to soothe the raging river of fear into a pool of tranquil stillness.
He met an unbending will that would not be denied. There was a promise to be kepta pledge made by the Guide to his Sentinel. The Guardian resisted. If the Sentinel was dead, as the young one believed, then it was his duty to watch over the untrained Shaman, not place him in further danger. The Guide insisted, anger and grief fueling his desire, and finally the Guardian yielded to the need to honor that obligation.
Satisfied for the moment, the younger man's weary, sorrowful spirit retreated into silence.
The Guardian paused in the cover of the treeline. Before him stretched a rocky slope and beyond that, the mountain. He eyed the steep cliffs, letting himself adjust to the familiar, yet disconcertingly different feel of the younger man's body.
He pushed long, wind blown strands of hair back from his face, the gesture automatic, yet the silky feel of the curling locks was different than the coarseness that he remembered... Stiff leather enclosed feet which were accustomed to the intimate touch of bare sole to earth, or the comfort of sandals... Eyes that had witnessed the moon's endless cycle of birth and death for countless years, stared across the softly illuminated landscape through irises of blue which had once been brown, and before that, black as the night... His skin chafed at the restriction of layers of cold sodden clothing, he who had known the freedom of skin bared to the heat and humidity of the rain forest...
And deep within, untapped potential and strength. There was power there, waiting to be awakened.
If he'd known how much, he would have never attempted his desperate, dying act. What he'd done was dangerousforbidden unless the need was dire. He'd never understood why, until now, inhabiting a strong young body once again, he felt the enticing temptation to remain, to take that power that he sensed and add it to his own.
To live again...
The terrified mental scream staggered the Guardian. He fell to his knees and bowed his head.
"Do not fear, young one," he murmured. "That is not my desire." He raised his eyes to the sky. "My destiny lies there, yours here. I am sorry I frightened you. It will not happen again. I give you my word. What is mine will be yours and a promise as well, for I too, honor Enqueri's soul.
"We will go, flying ahead of the hunters. And when your duty is finished, we will seek justice for our Sentinel.
"That, and my knowledge, are the gifts I make to you..."
Sensory awareness returned first, along with a primal warning of danger. He remained motionless, obeying the message imprinted on his genesthe same instinct all injured or hunted creatures depended on for survivalwait, watch, listen for the enemy. The ice-cold metal fire surrounding his wrists, trapping them behind him; the sandpaper roughness of the coarse canvas tarp under his cheek; and the thundering of each red blood cell racing through his veins convinced the Sentinel to yield to that instinct, even though it warred with anotherthe need to find and protect his Guide.
As the paralyzing, drug-induced haze began to clear, other survival skillsthose honed by years of training and experiencekicked in. They carried their own warnings and behavioral patternings; identify the enemy, determine his objective, and thenwhen you can operate from a position of strength, not weaknesscounter his plans.
Locking his terror over his young friend's safety deep within his heart, Jim forced his muddled thoughts into a more rational, less emotional direction. The painful, magnified input he was receiving from his senses made him vulnerable and until he could regain some degree of control, he would be no use to anyone.
I could use your help, right now, Chief.
He let a comforting memory float to the surface, hearing his Guide's soothing voice in his mind.
"Control, Jim. That's what it's all about. Your senses are a part of you, like the muscles in your body. When you learned to walk as a child, you learned to control those muscles through practice. You can deal with your hyper senses the same way. Now, humor me for a minute, okay? Remember the dials we talked about? Each represents a different sense. It's a matter of turning them up or down to increase or decrease the sensory input. Your head's in control here, man. Get the picture?"
Yeah, Chief, I got it, Jim thought grimly. Understanding's not the problem. It's the damn drug.
A quiet chuckle rippled through his mind and his Guide's voice was back with a gentle reprimand.
"Hey, man, it's not going to happen all at once. You have to work at it a little at a time."
The Sentinel almost smiled, then remembered the danger and hid his amusement to himself.
Even when you're not here, you're 'here', aren't you, Chief? Thanks for the suggestion.
Turning his attention inward, the Sentinel contemplated the dials again. He'd been trying to wrench them down to normal, one at a time. Now he fiddled with each one in sequence, making minor adjustments instead of pushing for total control. At first, they resisted his efforts, but little by little he managed to nudge them all into lineset higher than he wanted, but at least in some kind of balance.
He opened his eyes and reached outward with his senses, sending grasping tendrils into the darkness. Drenched with sweat, he struggled to hold onto the tentative level of control he'd achieved. He managed to explore the boundaries of his environment before the dials shifted out of sync. Almost growling in frustration, he worked to align them again while his mind assessed the details he'd gathered.
His prison was a medium-sized tentlarge enough to stand upright in. The only discernible opening was to his left, the entry masked by a simple flap which obscured his view of the outside. The pallet he lay upon and a small folding wooden camp chair were the only items in the otherwise empty space. Even the ground had been cleared of rocks, leaving nothing for him to use as a weapon.
The Sentinel felt the dials click back into balance and pushed outward again, trying to focus beyond the canvas walls, hoping to scan the encampment for some sign of his Guide. But it was as if an invisible barrier had been strung around the tent. Prod and poke as he might, he couldn't find a way to send his senses past it.
For a few desperate moments he wondered if Anders had come up with something like the white noise generators Lee Brackett had used against him. He pushed harder and felt a 'give' to the restraining field and let himself relax, deciding that the drug was responsible for his failure.
Driven by the need to locate his Guide, the Sentinel continued to struggle against the barrier. He lost track of time. Nothing existed except the continual push outward and the fight to hold his control.
Suddenly the dials spun out of alignment and he recoiled at the painful surge of sensations. With a frustrated hiss, he rolled to his side and levered himself into a sitting position, no longer caring if anyone heard him or not.
He was still struggling to regain his equilibrium when the tent flap was thrust aside. The Sentinel's head snapped up and his eyes flashed with rage when he identified the man who stepped forward.
Anders responded with a sneering smile. "Back with us, Captain Ellison?"
Setting down a small lantern the older man started to move closer, but the force of the Sentinel's angry gaze stopped him. Jim enjoyed a moment's satisfaction at the brief flicker of fear in Anders' eyes and started to flow to his feet. The agent quickly raised a small dart gun and gestured warningly as he retreated a step. Ellison settled back onto the tarp, his eyes never leaving his captor's face.
"Where's my partner?" Jim demanded, his voice cold and hard even to his own ears.
"He'll join us shortly," Anders answered smoothly. "Until then, you and I have some things to discuss."
Jim's eyes narrowed as he studied the older man. Under the intensity of the Sentinel's stare, Anders' eyes shifted away for a fraction of a secondlong enough to tell the detective what he needed to know.
"Unless it has to do with releasing me, or the long list of charges you're going to be facing, you and I have nothing to discuss," Jim said in the same flat tone. "You don't have any leverage, Anders. I know he's not here." The Sentinel let a ghost of a smile lift his own lips. "He got away from you, didn't he?"
One eyebrow lifted in surprise, then Anders' brow furrowed in barely controlled anger. The flash of satisfaction Jim felt was washed away at the man's whispered response.
"One day... soon... you'll tell me exactly how you knew that. It will be interesting to see just how strong the connection the two of you have really is."
Ellison felt a thrust of panic at the threat and struggled to channel the fear into something more useful. Pale blue eyes darkened and glittered in the soft light, locking with cold gray ones in a silent battle of wills. The tension in the tent thickened until it was almost a physical force, shifting back and forth between the two men.
Anders was the first to blink, shrugging his shoulders almost absently. Without taking his eyes off his prisoner, he snagged the chair. Turning it with a deft twist of the wrist, he planted it just out of the Sentinel's reach. Straddling the seat, he draped his crossed arms over the back, the dart gun hanging casually between the two adversaries as a subtle reminder.
"I won't insult your abilities, or your intelligence by lying to you," Anders continued, his quiet, conversational tone a stark departure from the implied menace of the whispered threat. "Your partner did manage to escape during the confusion you created. I was certain we'd have found him by now, but he's managed to elude us. He's quite resourceful, isn't he? It would appear that I underestimated him."
"You're not the first to make that mistake," Jim said quietly. The smug feeling of pride that he felt for his young friend warmed his heart, although it never touched the icy coldness of his eyes.
"It's not an error I plan to repeat, I assure you," Anders promised softly. "It would appear you've trained him well. But he's not quite as clever as you. He made a mistake and used the headset a few minutes after you were taken down. That gave us his position . With only one option open to him, we know which way he was headed. You may have managed to reduce my assets a bit, but I still have more than enough men to track him. He will be joining us soon. I guarantee it. Unless, of course, he manages to break his neck, stumbling around in the dark before we find him."
Recalling the terrain and the course he'd set for his Guide, the Sentinel knew that the fate Anders' described was all too real a possibility. The thought of his exhausted young friend, running for his life from this man's private army was nearly enough to bring him to his feet in attack. Only his overriding need to maintain his control in front of his captor held him motionless. Jim's eyes narrowed even further and he poured every ounce of his hatred into his gaze.
A gaze that once again, made Anders flinch. The Sentinel caught the involuntary shudder and smiled, a feral gleam lighting his eyes.
"Very good, Captain," Anders finally murmured. "Just the way you were trained. Give no quarter. Don't let the enemy see your weakness, eh? You are good... and it might have even worked on me, if I hadn't seen the two of you in action with my own eyes."
Anders leaned into the chair back, looming over Jim, his eyes growing even colder, no evidence of fear in his demeanor.
"But I know. I know how important he is to you. He's your focus, isn't he? Your control."
The hungry anticipation in the man's face and voice was the same look Jim had seen earlier when he'd caught Anders watching Blair back in the clearing. His stomach clenched and he fought back the gut-twisting need to retch and clear the bile that rose in his throat at the threat to his Guide.
"Game's over, Anders. What do you want?"
Eyebrows cocked upward in mock surprise and the older man settled back, his expression thoughtful.
"The truth? Vindication."
Seeing the surprised look on Jim's face, Anders chuckled, shaking his head.
"Oh, of course, I have hopes for more than that. But after all this time, I'd settle for being right. For rubbing their noses in it."
Anders words did nothing to alleviate the confusion in Jim's mind. "You set all of this up, murdered two people... for what? Some bizarre sense of personal satisfaction?" he asked in disbelief.
The amusement washed from the older man's face and he leaned forward again, his body tense. "Revenge can be extremely satisfying, Captain," he hissed.
"Detective," Jim corrected him.
"Yes... of course." Anders' eyes lost some of their focus as he began to speak in a soft murmur. "James Ellison. Ex-ranger. Special Forces and one of the best and brightest Covert Ops ever had. Listed as missing in action for 18 months after that unfortunate mission in Peru. Left the military with an Honorable Discharge shortly after you returned. Graduated from the police academy with glowing commendations. Moved to Major Crimes after a stint in Vice. Lost one partner and operated as a loner until surprisingly, almost three years ago, you suddenly teamed up with a civilian Observer. A graduate student in anthropology. Recently, Officer of the Year, with a reputation for solving the most difficult cases with a bare minimum of evidence. Whispers of something unusual about him... and his partner... but no one's asking questions because the arrest and prosecution record is so impressive."
The gray eyes flashed in amusement and Anders stared down at Jim almost fondly, possessively.
"You see, you've been my own personal research project for nearly eight years." Anders murmured. "I know all about you, 'detective'. Or should I say, Sentinel?"
Jim had known it was coming, so he didn't blink an eye. Despite his enhanced senses, he'd missed the obvious and led both himself and his Guide right into the waiting trap. Blair had foreseen itthe threatas part of his premonition and although they'd managed to escape once, by that time it was too late to do anything other than fight for damage control and try to keep out of this madman's hands. At least he'd succeeded in getting his Guide out of reachfor the time being at any rate.
So Anders knew about Sentinels and he wanted to know more. Was determined to go to any lengths, including kidnapping and murder, to extend that knowledge. The only reassuring point was that he seemed sketchy on the topic of Guidesand Jim was determined to keep it that way. Especially since his Guide was also a Shaman, with some unusual, dangerous issues of his own still unresolved.
Determined not to play into Anders' game, Jim kept his response to a nonchalant shrug, using the casual, insulting movement to mask the rolling of his shoulders as he sought to ease the tension his cramped position had caused.
"Not a flinch. Very good. Still the perfect soldier, eh, Captain?" Anders' tone was sarcastic, his smile a caustic sneer.
"Still not playing, Anders." Ellison shifted his gaze away from his captor, pointedly dismissing him.
"Oh, but you will. You both will."
Jim's eyes flashed back to Anders' face. The threat had been a bare whisper, tuned to a level that only a Sentinel could have heard.
"It's really too bad that Bailey isn't here," the older man laughed softly. "He never did believe half of what I told him about your abilities. And even with the truth staring him in the face, he was convinced that your young friend was just extraneous baggage."
Anders leaned forward again, studying Jim intently.
"But we know better, don't we. He's the reason you've been able to use your enhanced senses for the last few years without going stark raving mad. Blair Sandburg appears to be an amazing young man. I must admit, my file on him is sadly lacking in details. Highly intelligent, articulate and obviously very sensitive, perhaps even empathic. He seems to be quite respected by his colleagues and his students. Most importantly, he seems to be the only living authority on Sentinels. His thesis was quite illuminating. It's a shame he hasn't published anything on the topic recently. I find myself with far too many unanswered questions, particularly regarding the Sentinel's companion. Mr. Sandburg's references to that person and their role in relation to the... what was the other term he used... ah, yes... Watchman... were rather vague at the time he wrote his paper, although I'm sure he has much more to say on the topic now. I'm looking forward to interviewing him at great length about it."
"Leave him out of this, Anders," Jim snapped.
"So. It would appear I've touched a nerve."
Berating himself for rising to the bait, Jim glared back at the older man. "You want to experiment on me, do your worst. My partner's off limits."
"But that's not how it works, Captain. It's only by observing the two of you interacting that I can learn what I need to know."
"If you think we're going to cooperate in any more little tests like today, you're sadly mistaken."
"It's been my experience, that given the right... motivation... that a man can be persuaded to do almost anything. Once we've retrieved your young friend, we'll move to a location that's more conducive to the kind of research I have in mind. "
"It won't happen," Jim responded confidently. "My captain knows where we are and when we don't check in, he's going to come looking. Simon Banks is not a man to let a puzzle like that go."
"I'm not worried about some third-rate police captain. He won't be a problem. There won't be any 'pieces' to find."
"What do you plan to do? Snap your fingers and make us disappear?" Jim barked angrily.
The flat, dead certainty in the man's voice chilled Jim like nothing he had said before. Ellison's eyes narrowed dangerously, all of his instinctsSentinel's, cop's and soldier'sscreaming for him to lunge forward and take the man out before this could go any further. Anders was either insane to think he could get away with abducting them, or he truly believed that he would succeed. And if the latter was true, that meant...
"Who do you work for?" Jim asked softly, already suspecting that he knew the answer.
Anders stared down at him for a few moments, a strange smile playing on his face. "I work for myself, Captain. And for a few select clients who fortunately have more than ample resources to place at my disposal."
"I rather dislike that term. Always have. I prefer to think of myself as an opportunist."
Jim drew in a slow, deep breath, forcing away the cold fear that pulsed through him as the cryptic comments and minute clues Anders had been giving away finally clicked together, forming a picture the Sentinel had seen only in his worst nightmares.
"You were Special Forces. Covert Ops," Jim said tersely.
"The blackest of the black," Anders replied. "I was once the fair-haired boy of the group. But there were some, shall we say, unforseeable mistakes during a few missions." Anders reached up and stroked the scars by his eye absently. "By the time you were returned from Peru, I was low man on the totem pole. They were preparing to force me out, but I'd seen it coming. I was, and am, an expert at ferreting out secrets. I'd learned from the best, after all."
The older man's face hardened and his voice droned on disdainfully.
"They tried to keep you a secret. You and your abilities, but I knew everything about you from the moment the reports started to come back from the search team. I had my own little network they knew nothing about, you see. Insurance. It cost me a bit to maintain and on a Colonel's salary... well, I was fortunate to already have a few things in the works which allowed me to pay top dollar for what I wanted."
"I already knew your superiors were foolish men. Truly unimaginative at best. Still, I couldn't believe it when I learned they were ready to cut you loose... let you take your discharge and just walk out. I'd read all the transcripts of your debriefing... talked to members of the retrieval team. It was obvious that something unusual had happened to you, was perhaps still happening, but they refused to see it. They were blind to the fact that an incredible weapon had been delivered into their hands. I tried to convince them, of course, but that action only assured my censure. They became suspicious and I had to back off, biding my time."
Anders shook his head, frowning at the memory. His gaze locked on Jim's with sudden intensity, eyes glittering with feverish brilliance.
"That's when you became my obsession, Captain. I watched you, or rather my network watched you. I left the service not long after you dida little subterfuge and a fatal 'accident' took care of cutting the cord quite effectivelyand pursued the 'interests' that I had been cultivating on the side. My new clients required a bit more of my time than I'd originally planned to devote to them, but my attention to the details of your life and activities never faltered."
The older man rose from the chair abruptly, and dragged it aside, clearing space as he began to pace. Even with his senses still swinging in and out of control, the Sentinel heard the increased beating of the man's heart; smelled the sour odor of sweat that beaded the mercenary's brow; saw the fanatical gleam in the gaze which never left his prisoner's face.
"You disappointed me at first, returning to your life as if nothing had happened, burying your abilities. But I'd learned patience at the feet of masters. I knew it was only a matter of time before your gifts resurfaced. So I watched and waited, building up a small, very loyal private army of my own in the interim. And then, there was the Switchman case and everything changed. A difficult assignment, very high profile, with you as the main attraction. My sources informed me the second you made the appointment for tests at the hospital and I knew the waiting was over. I was ready to step in then and gather you up, but fate intervened in the form of a certain young anthropologist."
Anders' pacing ceased and the Sentinel stiffened at the excited heat which poured off of the man.
"To think... if I had acted then, before the two of you connected... how much I would have lost. I was impressed by your young friend from the moment he stole that lab coat and brazenly stepped into your exam room, pretending to be a doctor. I had a copy of his records and his thesis on my desk before he made it back to the University. His research, such as it was, was brilliant. I knew that sooner or later you would approach him. After all, he had the answers you needed. You did surprise me, seeking him out as quickly as you did, so I wasn't prepared for a more inventive initial testingthe little incident with the garbage truck was quite frankly an impulsive move, although I was certain that you'd both pass the trial with flying colors."
The Sentinel somehow resisted the impulse to shudder. If, what Anders was saying was true, he and his Guide had been living under a microscope from the very beginning and they'd never known.
"Why now?" Jim asked abruptly. "If you've been watching us all this time, why choose now to make your move?"
"Actually, I've been tempted to acquire you several times in the last two years, but each time, just as I was about to act, you'd intrigue me with yet another tantalizing glimpse of your capabilities. I decided to leave the two of you to your own... 'training'. The controls were in place and I was quite content to watch and wait. As your partner would certainly agree if he were here, there is nothing more exciting than watching an experiment run its courseparticularly when it's achieving the outcome you anticipated."
Anders began to pace again, his forehead creasing with a puzzled frown.
"Mr. Sandburg was another reason for the delay. The more I observed of your partnership, the more puzzled I became. It was apparent that the two of you were mismatchedlong haired flower child and ramrod stiff ex-military type; free-associating scientist and by-the-book cop. Not a conventional pairing by any means. No common ground. Not at first glance at any rate. Yet the two of you bonded together into an extraordinary team from the outset. You even allowed him to move into your home. The more involved Sandburg became in your life, the more it became obvious that he was essential to your well being, even though I couldn't understand exactly what role he was playing. It became clearer when David Lash abducted him."
Rage poured through the Sentinel and he lurched to his feet. Still under the influence of the drug, the violent movement made him stagger dizzily. Anders took a quick step forward and pushed him backward, knocking him to the ground. Shaking his head in an attempt to clear it, Jim stared up at the mercenary in profound disbelief.
"You knew Lash had Blair... you knew what he planned to do... and yet you did nothing to stop him?"
Anders shrugged. "It was risky, letting that... creature... get his hands on him, but it pushed you in the direction I wanted. While you were so desperately searching for him, you were on the verge of losing control. Once you rescued him, your focus returned. The episode convinced me that the connection between the two of you had to exist because of your Sentinel abilities. I realized then, that the young man was decidedly more important than his innocuous appearance had first led me to believe."
"You're more insane than Lash was," Jim snarled, pushing himself into a sitting position once more.
"Not insane, Captain. Just driven. As I admitted before... obsessed. I needed to know I was right about you. That the others were wrong."
"Vindication." The Sentinel spat out the word as if it were poison on his tongue. "You would have let him die, just to prove your own twisted, self-serving theories?"
"For that... and to hone the weapon."
"You still haven't answered my question," Jim hissed, Anders' words only confirming an intent the Sentinel had already calculated. "Why now?"
"Something... unusual happened several months ago when the Chopec Medicine Man died," Anders answered softly, his voice edged in dangerous curiosity. "Whatever happened between the Indian and your young friend, it changed himaltered some of his standing patterns. The old man introduced a new variable and it doesn't play right. Sandburg was becoming even more unpredictable and I realized that until I corrected the aberration, it was only a matter of time before it began to affect your connection with him. I couldn't afford to let that happen."
"Couldn't let the edge on the weapon be ruined?" The Sentinel's disgust and rage cut through the air like the knife he was describing.
"Precisely. You see I have"
One of Anders men thrust his way into the tent and the Sentinel shifted into motion, eager to take advantage of the distraction. The mercenary reacted immediately, raising the dart gun and pointing it directly at Jim's chest, stopping him before he could make it to his feet.
"What is it, Private?" Anders responded in annoyance.
The man hesitated, eyeing both Jim and his superior warily, sensing the palpable hostility in the small space.
"You wanted to be notified when there were any developments, sir."
"We've picked up a signal, Colonel. Electronic. Signature suggests a low frequency pulse consistent with an active cell phone."
Jim saw Anders' eyes flash with a mixture of anger and excitement which mirrored his own response. He tensed, preparing himself for a final desperate act. He and his Guide had just run out of time.
"Clever, but not clever enough," the mercenary murmured, a satisfied smile forming on his face. "You have the location locked?"
"Yes, sir. Teams have been advised and they're awaiting your instructions."
"Tell them to contain the target, but to wait for my arrival before attempting the retrieval. I want no mistakes this time," Anders ordered tersely.
Jim snarled, surging to his feet and launching himself toward his adversary. Slowed by the drugs in his system, he was still fast enough to make contact with the mercenary, his momentum sending both of them crashing to the hard ground. Rolling free of the hands that tried to contain him, the Sentinel managed to raise his throbbing head just before the world exploded in a burst of agonizing pain.
The wind swept across the mountainside, tumbling small pebbles into deep crevices, caressing the few stubborn strands of grass, keening a soft music attuned to the stars which sparkled overhead. It was the time of huntersthose in flight, those who tread the earthseeking prey that hid in the sheltering darkness.
Wings spread wide, a great hawk soared on the currents, sharp eyes watching the shifting shapes of the two-legged predators who had invaded his hunting grounds. The hawk creeled in protest, joining his song to that of the wind and glided on into the darkness, leaving the intruders far behind.
In the false stillness of the predawn day, moonlight glittered off quartz imbedded walls of stone, dancing to a rhythm as old as time itself. The wind rippled through the forest depths, sending soft sighs and scents of pine floating upward.
The harsh beauty of the night was lost on the young man who huddled miserably against the cliff.
~It is time, young one...~
Blair shuddered and wrapped his arms even tighter around his aching body. The pressure helped soothe the throbbing bruises along his side and he found himself wishing that he could relieve the desperate pain in his soul as easily.
"No." The flat denial to the presence in his mind was no more than a whisper of sound passing through chattering teeth.
~You are cold.~
The grief-stricken Guide shivered and hugged himself even tighter
"As cold as my dead Sentinel," he murmured in anguish.
~Yet you still live... your heartbeats, your lungs draw breath, you still feel~
"Feel what?" Blair demanded. "Pain? That's all I can feel. That's all they've left me!"
~There is always a balance, young one. Good and evil. Life and death. Pain and joy.~
"No. Not for me. Not anymore. His death ended everything. There's nothing left."
~There is duty.~
Blair glanced at the cell phone which lay beside him. The low battery light glowed softly in the darkness, mocking him.
"I've failed him even in that," he answered quietly. "There isn't enough power to last for more than a half hour. Besides, even if help did come, it's too late to make any difference now."
Closing his eyes, Blair leaned back into the cliff face, feeling the chill which emanated from the rocks seeping through the thin layers of still damp clothing. He would just sit here, he decided, absorbing the cold until it froze even the pain. But random images flashed against his eyelids, and he shifted uneasily.
He didn't recall exactly how he'd gotten up the mountain. He knew he'd been running blind in the darkness. His wet clothing proved that he'd fallen into water... a stream... and the vision of the towering peaks still lingered in his mind. He remembered the fear of falling and never rising again... screaming desperately for help... the warmth of recognition and trust and then surrender as another spirit joined his... of letting go...
After that, everything was a blur of surreal sensations and visions overlaid with ancient instincts and knowledge. The presence he'd finally acknowledged had brought him safely through the darkness to this ledge, high above the forest.
Blair trembled, remembering the exact moment Incacha's spirit had relinquished control. The pain and sorrow of his own returning memories had knifed through his body, driving him to his knees; the force of the screams which had been torn from his soul scraping his throat raw. It was only the driving need to carry out the orders of his Sentinel that had kept him movingjust long enough to pull out the cell phone and punch in three numbers. The call had gone out, but there was no way of knowing whether anyone was listening.
"My duty is finished," Blair whispered, resting his head on his knees.
~Your duty to your Sentinel, perhaps. Your responsibilities to the tribe remain.~
The specter of Simon's worried face popped into Blair's mind, followed by those of Joel, Daryl, Brown and Rafe.
"I have no tribe. Not without him," he groaned, shaking his head to chase the visions away.
~A Shaman serves the tribe, with or without a Sentinel. If he is indeed gone, they will need the strength of your heart to guide them.~
"The tribe needed its Sentinel!" Blair spat back, eyes flashing open as he struggled to his feet and screamed his anger out into the night. The wind drove his words back at him and he cringed against the boulders, shaking. "The tribe is unprotected because I failed to do what was required. Because I refused to accept what was happening... refused to listen. If I had... if I'd been strong enough to deal with my fears, I would have understood the premonition. Jim would be safe. Alive."
~You are so certain he is not?~
The soft question immobilized the grieving Guide. Hope flared for a moment, but it was no match for his despair.
"I know what I heard," he whispered bitterly. "I know what I felt."
~You heard the voice of the enemy, felt the razor-sharp edge of a sliver of time... but what did you see?~
Blair trembled and long, dark lashes swept down, shuttering the pain and exhaustion-dulled blue eyes, sending rivers of hot tears coursing down his cheeks.
"Nothing. I wasn't there. He sent me away."
~To protect you.~
~And to protect himself.~
~And when you look into your heart, you are certainbeyond life itselfthat he is dead?~
Scrubbing angrily at his face, Blair brushed away the tears. "I've told you how I feel. Why are you asking me this? What more do you want from me?"
~Beyond and before duty, there is honor. If you truly honored your Sentinel, then you must return and see justice done.~
"Justice?" Blair's voice and body shook with rage. "In a just world, it would be Anders laying dead, not Jim."
~Vengeance holds no honor, young one. A Shaman seeks truth above all.~
"I'm not a Shaman. I amI was a Guide. Now... now I have no one to lead. No path to follow."
~Four paths shape the way of the Shaman. Two you have already journeyed. Two remain. That which lies before you will lead you to a place and time where you will lose your fear and face death.~
Blair pushed himself away from the cliff and stalked to the edge of the ledge, staring down into the ebony shadows which cloaked the mountainside. His eyes tracked to the right, instinctively seeking the place where he had left his Sentinel.
"And the final path?" he whispered.
~A new beginning as is the coming of each day.~
Blair's gaze swung left, seeking the horizon. In the east, the night was losing its hold. Day was indeed coming. He swiveled his head to the west again, drawing in a deep breath. Anders would be there. And Jim. Incacha's spirit had raised questions to which he had no certain answers. If there were any chance his friend was still alive, then he had to find him, or at least die trying. And if Jim was dead, the answer was the same.
A Guide's place was at his Sentinel's side.
"I would know the truth."
~Then let us hunt, young one.~
Jim crouched in the darkness of the tent, struggling to get his wildly fluctuating senses under control. The pain which strobed across the back of his skull and the drug that still lingered in his system, ate away at the little control he'd established earlier. He had tried the breathing exercises Blair had coached him through in the past, but they weren't having much effect.
He tugged at the handcuffs again, testing the links. He'd managed to get his hands in front of him at least. That would give him a better chance to take out the guard when they came in to check on him. The Sentinel's eyes glittered in the dark as the feral thoughts of exacting revenge on Anders and his men filled his mind. Once he took out the guard he'd have a weapon and then nothing would stop him from finding his Guide. Nothing.
His head snapped up. He'd heard a noise in the compound. He closed his eyes, concentrating only on hearing, but his control flickered in and out, distorting the sounds and making him almost sick to his stomach.
Another sound, this one closer and there was a movement at the tent flap. Tensed and ready to spring, Jim waited silently as the intruder entered. Before the flap fell back into place, the momentary illumination from outside gave him a chance to size up his visitorseveral inches taller and maybe twenty pounds heavier. Before the man's vision could adjust to the darker interior, Ellison leaped forward. His unexpected charge spun the taller man around. Swiftly, the ex-ranger slipped his cuffed hands over the attacker's head, using his own body-weight to pull the man backward.
Jim jerked and felt the metal links of the handcuffs choking off the man's air. At that moment he didn't care that he'd be committing murder. These men had taken something precious from him and he intended to get it back. He shifted his hold, preparing to make the killing stroke.
"Jim... it's me..."
Startled by the unexpectedness of the familiar voice, Ellison loosened his hold for just an instant. It was all his captive needed to twist free.
"Take it easy. It's Simon."
A flashlight beam cut the darkness and Jim winced, blinking away the flashing spots which danced under his eyelids. Dazed, he found himself staring at his captain.
Sounds from beyond the tent beckoned to him again. He tried to focus on them, but his senses were still surging in and out. He wavered on his feet and immediately felt strong hands wrap around his upper arms, supporting him.
"I called the Mayor's office, prepared to give her a piece of my mind about loaning out my people without clearing it with me first. Imagine my surprise when she didn't know anything about it. After that I made a few more phone calls." There was a pause, and Simon's voice became apologetic. "It took a while to cut through all the inter-agency red tape, otherwise we would have been here sooner."
"Who else?" Jim struggled to form the words, his mind still in shock. He'd written off any form of rescue and now here it was, living and breathing right in front of him.
"Most of the department, for starters," Simon responded. He brought the flashlight beam up just high enough to take a good look at his friend. "God, Jim, you look like hell. Are you all right?"
"Yeah. Anders took me down with some kind of drug. It put me out for a while and it's still playing havoc with my senses."
"What about Sandburg? Where is he?"
"Out there. Somewhere..." Jim wondered if the despair he was feeling was obvious in his voice. "He managed to get away, but Anders has men searching for him. He wants to test him... us. That's what this was all about, Simon. It was all an experiment to see how we'd react. What we could do. The bastard said he wanted to see what the connection between us was all about. And when he was done with his tests, he planned to make us a part of this private little army he's put together."
"He knows you're a Sentinel?" Jim could hear the horrified realization in Simon's voice.
"And he knows Blair is my Guide," The Sentinel answered in the same tone. "Simon, Anders is insane, obsessed. He knows... everything... things that no one could know or has a right to know. We've got to get to Sandburg before he does."
Jim felt the grip on his arm tighten in sympathetic reassurance. "We will. Come on, let's get you out of those restraints."
He let Simon guide him out of the tent. With his senses still swinging out of control like an erratic pendulum, the sights and sounds in the camp were like a physical assault. Taking a deep breath he tried to manipulate the dials again. Slowly, the world came back into focus and the noise abated to a tolerable level.
Scanning the campsite, he caught sight of familiar faces in the early morning light and the looming form of Joel Taggert headed their way.
"Joel, see if you can find the keys to these cuffs," Banks called out, still maintaining his hold on Jim.
Taggert spun around and barked an order to one of the uniformed cops. Jim watched as the man approached a group of figures, huddled on the ground. Recognizing them as some of Anders' men, Ellison snarled and started to take a step forward.
"Take it easy, Jim," Simon pleaded, holding him back. "I know how you feel, but that's not going to help Sandburg."
It took a moment for the rational part of Jim's brain to accept the older man's words and acknowledge the truth within them. He forced himself to take another breath, pushing back the rage with a promise that retribution would come.
The Sentinel closed his eyes and tried to work the dials again. He would need all of his senses back on-line if was going to be able to help his Guide. That was the important thing now, he reminded himself. Concentrate. Get control. Find Blair.
Slowly, the sensations assailing him settled into manageable levels. He opened his eyes, surprised to find himself sitting on a folding camp stool in front of one of the tents. The handcuffs had been removed and Simon was packing away a first aid kit, staring up at him in concern.
"Welcome back," Banks murmured softly, handing him a thermos cup filled with coffee.
"Thanks," Jim's voice sounded strained and shaky even to himself. He took a sip and felt an immediate rush of warmth. He shook himself and rose to his feet, Simon moving with him, a restraining hand on his arm.
"I'm all right, Simon. Not quite 100 percent, but close enough." He took a quick look around the camp and his eyes settled on the group of Anders' men once more.
"They'll pay for this, Jim. I promise you that," Banks murmured softly. "They were the only one's here when we hit the camp. How many more men did Anders have?"
"At least a dozen," Jim replied grimly.
"Well, between our guys, the FBI and the Rangers, we have them outnumbered at least."
Jim glanced up at him in surprise.
"FBI flew us in," Simon explained, handing Jim a gun and watching closely as the detective checked it and slid it into the holster at his back. "The Rangers provided some special equipment and we managed to track a cell transmission coming out of the mountains just east of here. When we picked up trace signals coming out of this camp we split up, dropping half of our forces here. The other half headed for the source of the call."
"A cell transmission?" Jim asked eagerly, swinging around toward the mountains where he'd sent his Guide. Their dark, rugged silhouettes were shrouded in the early morning fog. "That's Blair. He had his cell phone with him. The plan was to try to get up high enough to get a signal out. He did it. Half dead with exhaustion, scared of heights and all, he did it."
"If we picked up the feed, then Anders probably did too."
"He did," Jim nodded. "That's why he's not here. He went out to handle the retrieval himself. He was going to bring Sandburg back and try out some more fun and games on the two of us."
"What kind of 'games'?"
"I don't know, Simon. He was Special Forces. Anders' idea of a 'game' could mean anything short of outright killing the participants."
"Was is the operative word, Jim. The agency is as eager to get their hands on him as we are."
"No. They're not," Jim whispered, his voice ice cold. Rage burned through him again, but this time he focused it toward the man who deserved it.
"Taggert, get on the link and warn the others to keep a lookout for Sandburg," Banks barked. "The FBI and the Special Forces Rangers seemed a little too eager to catch Anders," he explained quickly to Jim. "Rafe and Brown went with them to make sure they remembered that finding you and the kid was the first priority."
"Thanks, Simon, I" Ellison's eyes widened and his body jerked suddenly.
Before the Sentinel could respond, the faint explosions of gunfire echoed in the crisp morning air.
"Damn!" Simon spun around and found Joel lumbering toward them.
"All hell's breaking loose up there, Simon," the big man gasped. "The FBI agents stumbled upon a group of Anders' men. They had to return fire."
"What about Sandburg? Any sign of him?"
"Rafe says they found the cell. High up in the cliffs. No trace of the kid, though."
"He's coming here."
The half-whispered comment made Banks turn back to Jim. The Sentinel stood motionless, his gaze locked on the forest.
"Simon, Brown says Anders' men are falling back," Taggert reported, one hand held to the headset, his expansive brow furrowed in a frown. "Chances are they're headed this way."
"Jim, if Anders intended to meet them, you know where that puts Sandburg, don't you?"
"Right where he always is, Simon," the detective answered grimly. "In the middle of trouble."
A coal black shape suddenly materialized on the edge of the woods. The great cat turned its baleful yellow eyes on the Sentinel and then abruptly melted into the trees. Jim sprinted forward, leaving Simon and Joel gaping in surprise.
"Where the hell is he going?" Taggert gasped.
"To find Sandburg," Simon answered. To find the other half of his soul.
With a shake of his head, the captain called out for some of the men to join them and took off at a run himself, plunging into the forest in pursuit of his detective.
Blair tripped on a half-hidden branch and grabbed at the trunk of the nearest tree to keep from falling. Chest heaving, he struggled to push back the terror which had claimed him. He could still hear the sounds of the firefight behind him.
~Tread carefully, young one. The third path is before you.~
There was an uneasiness in the voice that Blair had never heard before. Closing his eyes, he made himself breathe deeply, searching for calm, letting the image of Incacha's face fill his inner vision.
"Why are you troubled?" he asked.
~You must walk this path alone.~
"Why?" Blair demanded desperately. "You claimed me and I accepted my fate. Why are you deserting me now? You promised to help me find justice for my Sentinel."
~It is as it must be. At the end, should all prove successful, I will leave you to your destiny and seek mine.~
Realizing a cusp had been reached, Blair trembled, then nodded. "May you reach the stars, Guardian," he murmured, voicing the ancient ritual words that came unbidden to his tongue. "The tribe will be guided... for as long as I live."
~Peace, young one. Seek your way with my blessings.~
Incacha's voice fell silent and Blair opened his eyes, scanning the thick foliage which surrounded him. Seeing a narrow opening in the trees, he started forward, moving as quietly as he could.
Within minutes, he came to a small clearing. He angled to the right, choosing to bypass the open space in favor of remaining protected by the denser shelter of the trees. His foot struck something in the thick grass. He reached down and extracted a handgun. Turning the weapon in his hands thoughtfully, he glanced up, caught sight of a flash of red and gingerly parted the bushes, drawing in a sharp breath when he saw the body hidden there.
One glimpse was all he need to realize that it was one of Anders' men. A knife protruded from the man's ribs and Blair knew that Jim had taken this man outpossibly during the frantic attempt to buy his Guide the precious time to escape. The overpowering sensations the premonition had held threatened to swamp him again, but Blair shook them off angrily. That was the past and there was no changing it.
What honor required, belonged to the future.
Blair's head snapped up at the sound of approaching footsteps. He tightened his grip on the gun and scrambled for cover. A few seconds later, Anders emerged from the trees with two of his men just steps behind him. All thoughts but one were burned from Blair's mind when he recognized the mercenary. He charged forward, the gun raised threateningly.
"Don't move," he snarled, planting himself in front of Anders and taking aim at the man's chest.
The mercenary pulled to a halt, one eyebrow raising in surprise. The two men with him reached for their weapons, but Blair stayed focused on Anders.
"Tell them to put them down and move back, or you're dead," he demanded, his voice cold and seething with anger.
With a quick gesture, the older man signaled them to do as Blair had ordered. Two distinctive thuds announced the contact of the guns with the ground and the men backed off several paces, waiting.
"Now yours," Blair commanded. "And the headsets. Toss them out of reach."
The mercenary stared at him measuringly and Blair brought his other hand up to grip the gun, steadying it. Anders' eyes narrowed as he considered the threat. He remained motionless for a few more seconds before withdrawing his own weapon and slinging it off into the brush. The headset followed.
"You would appear to have the advantage, Mr. Sandburg..."
"Get rid of your assassins. Now!" Blair hissed through clenched teeth, jerking his head to indicate the two men. "They stay away from us, or you're dead."
Blair tightened his finger on the trigger as one of the men started to take a step forward in protest. Anders' reacted immediately, raising his hand in a warding off gesture.
"Go," he ordered tersely, his gaze never straying from Blair.
The two gunmen exchanged a quick look before disappearing into the forest.
"Still your play," Anders murmured.
"I should kill you right now," Blair whispered.
"But that won't get you what you want."
"Where is he? What did you do with him after...?" Blair choked on the words, unable to voice the rest of his demand.
"My camp is just over the last rise," Anders answered calmly.
Blair motioned with the gun. The mercenary turned and moved into the trees, walking at a steady pace, his arms hanging loosely at his sides. Keeping the weapon trained on Anders' back, Blair stayed close enough to guarantee that if he did have to shoot, he wouldn't miss his target.
They walked in silence. Oblivious to the rapidly brightening day, Blair's world had narrowed to the mercenary, the gun in his hand and the driving need to reach his partner. To at least recover his Sentinel's body, so that Anders couldn't hurt Jim any further.
"I have to compliment you on your survival skills," Anders said abruptly. "You've led us quite a chase."
"Just keep moving," Blair snapped.
"I'd be interested in knowing how you got through my men," Anders continued, glancing back over his shoulder as he walked. "We picked up the transmission you know. Not that your low power signal is going to carry far, but it was really a very inventive move. You surprised me by coming back though."
"Shut up and keep moving, I said!"
Blair took a quick step forward and shoved the gun into Anders' back. The older man stumbled forward and dropped to one knee.
"Get up or I'll shoot you right here!" Blair shouted, clenching the gun in his trembling hands.
"No, you won't," Anders said softly. Still crouched on the ground, the mercenary eyed the distraught Guide with contempt. "I know you. You don't have it in you to kill."
"Congratulate yourself, then. You've given me the incentive," Blair retorted angrily. "No one's ever killed my partner before."
Anders' eyes widened in surprise. "Ellison's not dead."
Blair's sharp intake of breath was all he could manage as he stared down into the mercenary's eyes. The hope which had awakened at Incacha's questions surged to the surface.
"Did you really think I'd go to all this trouble and let him get killed?" An infuriating smirk played at the corner of Anders' mouth.
Blair's anger flared again. "I heard the shots. I picked up the exchange over the com link. One of your men said he was 'down'."
"Not gunfire. Dart guns. Loaded with a simple, but quite effective tranquilizer."
Blair's heart thundered in his ears. "Tranquilizer? What kind? How much did you give him?"
"Enough to stop him in his tracks," Anders answered smugly.
"Damn you! I said how much? What dosage?" Filled with terrifying visions of what that kind of drug could do to his partner, Blair took a step forward without thinking, the gun dropping slightly.
Without warning, Anders moved. Blair tried to retreat and raise the weapon, but the older man was quicker. He struck out, swinging a broken length of branch not at the gun, but at Blair's left knee. The younger man screamed as pain erupted from the blow and lurched sideways, legs buckling under him.
The ground reached up to meet him, driving the air from aching lungs and making his next scream a choked gasp. His vision filled with black spots which danced chaotically in time to his pounding pulse. Blair fought off the dizziness, craning his neck to search for the gun that had fallen from his grasp. He reached out for it, but Anders was suddenly at his side, trapping his right wrist with a booted foot and pinning it painfully to the ground.
Desperately, Blair struck out at the man's ankle with his free hand. Anders caught the awkwardly thrown blow easily, pushing the younger man's wrist down against his chest. Blair tried to squirm away, but the mercenary just laughed and with his other hand leaned his weight on the injured knee.
A white-hot stab of pain spiraled from the point of contact, straight up Blair's spine, exploding into bursts of fire in his head, tearing another scream from his throat.
A half mile away, Ellison stopped abruptly, his head whipping around to catch a fading trace of sound.
"What is it?" Simon asked urgently, skidding to a stop at the detective's side.
"Blair. That way," the Sentinel answered, his face reflecting the anguish he'd heard in his Guide's cry.
Without a backward glance at the others, Jim started to run.
Taking advantage of his captive's distress, Anders quickly snapped handcuffs around Blair's wrists and pressed them back against his chest once more, using the weight of his body to hold the younger man in place. The mercenary took a deep breath and gave an odd, piercing whistle which was answered in seconds by another, not too far off.
Anders stared down at Blair, grinning into the dazed, pain-filled eyes. When the younger man tried to move again, the mercenary pushed down on the injured knee and agonizing pain shot through Blair once more, stilling his struggles.
"That's going cure your running away, my young friend," Anders whispered menacingly.
Shuddering, Blair watched in horror as Anders' men suddenly appeared.
"We've got trouble, Colonel," one of them reported. "The retrieval teams on the mountain ran into FBI and what appear to be Special Forces Rangers."
"What about the camp?" Anders demanded.
"Can't raise them."
The news was music to Blair's ears. He managed a lopsided grin. "Guess the game's really over now, 'Colonel'."
Anders rewarded his sarcasm by giving his knee another painful squeeze. As the pain arced through him, Blair clenched his teeth, determined not to cry out.
"It's not over until I say it is," Anders hissed, his eyes glittering with rage. Sadistically, he pressed down on the knee again until Blair writhed and moaned helplessly.
With a satisfied sneer, Anders released his hold and stood up, turning his attention to his men and holstering the gun he'd retrieved from the ground.
"It's time to scram this mission. If they've taken the camp, Ellison's free. He'll be hunting for his partner. We can use that. Contact air support and have them meet us at the delta rendezvous point. That's only a few minutes away."
"You wanted to see your Sentinel again?" Anders asked mockingly as he shifted his gaze back to Blair. "Well, now you will. Bring him," the mercenary ordered his men.
Dragged to his feet, a despairing groan escaped Blair's lips. Help had arrived, Jim was not only alive, but free, and yet what he'd most feared was about to come to pass.
"NO!" he whispered, defiantly as they dragged him away. No matter what it took, he was not going to let Anders get his hands on the Sentinel again.
Hearing extended to its limits, the Sentinel targeted on the faint vibration of his Guide's heartbeat and raced through the forest. He flinched at every skip of that familiar rhythmstaggered at every gasp of pain which carried across the distance that still separated them.
He felt another vibration intruding on his concentration and lengthened his stride, leaving Simon and the others to follow as quickly as they could. Splitting his concentration between the tenuous contact he had with Blair and the sound of the incoming chopper, he altered his course slightly, headed toward where the helicopter was likely to touch down.
His own exhausted muscles screamed at him, begging for relief, but he ignored them, focused solely on the need to reach his Guide and free him before it was too late.
Anders led them to the edge of a deep ravine and followed it almost to the top of the next hill. With a glance toward the still obscured crest, he stopped and waved the men dragging Blair between them, forward.
"Leave him with me. Go and meet the chopper," Anders ordered. Grabbing at the links between the handcuffs, he pulled the younger man to him. Blair took a staggering step and felt his knee give out. He collapsed on the ground at the mercenary's feet, shaking with pain and fatigue.
Anders' cruel laugh reverberated in his head and he gritted his teeth, forcing himself to remain silent. He nearly lost his control when the mercenary grabbed a handful of hair and pulled his head backward. He shuddered at the mad gleam in the man's eyes as Anders loomed over him.
"Call him," Anders demanded.
The older man shifted his stance and kicked out, connecting with Blair's knee. A strangled moan broke from the younger man.
"Call him!" the mercenary hissed, wrenching Blair's head and kicking the injured joint savagely.
The choked cry was louder, but it still didn't satisfy Anders. He jerked the younger man closer and stepped down with his full weight, pinning Blair's leg to the rocky ground.
This time there was no stopping the scream which erupted from the tortured Guide.
"LEAVE HIM ALONE!"
Dully, Blair managed to turn his head just enough to find the source of the outraged shout. His vision blurred with pain and tears, the young Guide's eyes found his Sentinel's.
"Jim." Trust, horror, joy and rage burned through the air between them.
With a rough jerk, Anders pulled Blair to his feet, wrapping an arm around his chest to hold him upright. Anguished blue eyes sought the Sentinel's gaze again as the cold muzzle of a gun stabbed against the soft skin of his neck, just under his right ear.
"I have what you want, Ellison."
Blair winced at the words and at Anders' breath that brushed hot and revolting against his bruised cheek.
"Let him go, Anders," Jim growled as he moved closer, his gun raised, ready to fire at the first opportunity he saw .
"Drop the gun or I'll kill him," the mercenary threatened.
"You won't kill him. You need him for your little tests, remember?" Jim drew another step closer.
"Maybe it's time to change the direction of the experiment," the older man said softly. "It might be interesting to see how a Sentinel survives the death of his control. Or to see how long it takes you to bond with a new focus. I'm confident we could reconstruct whatever it is that Mr. Sandburg here does for you, from his notes. He's been a very thorough observer. I'm sure there's a great deal of material to work from."
The Sentinel hesitated. Up to now, he'd been convinced Anders wouldn't kill Blair, but the conviction in the man's words terrified him. Looking into those cold eyes, Jim realized the mercenary was capable of carrying out his threat. The gun in the detective's hand dropped a few inches.
"Jim, don't!" Blair had seen the flicker of fear in his partner's eyes. He knew what was coming.
"Put the gun down, now," Anders commanded, tightening his hold on his prisoner and cocking his own weapon.
Slowly, Jim lowered his gun to the ground, his gaze locked on his young partner.
"No, man. Don't do this!" Blair shook his head emphatically, panic filling the wide blue eyes.
Anders answered Blair's desperate plea with a triumphant, barking laugh. "He doesn't have any choice." The air around them shuddered with the sound of the incoming helicopter, and the mercenary's smile grew. "It appears that our transportation has arrived. Time to take this game to the next level."
The older man pulled the gun away from Blair's neck and gestured with it, indicating that Jim should precede them. The second the weapon shifted, Blair breathed a whispered warning"Watch your back, Jim"and let his knees buckle. The sudden shift in weight pulled Anders off balance for a fraction of a second. The moment his knees hit the ground, the younger man pushed backward with all of his remaining strength.
The violent movement carried them both to the edge of the crevice. Jim was rolling to his knees, the gun he'd retrieved in a frantic dive already rising, Sentinel sight seeking a target. As he scrabbled for a foothold on the crumbling rocks, Anders' startled expression changed to blind fury. Blair's unexpected lunge had dislodged his hold on the younger man, but his grasping fingers locked in the anthropologist's hair.
Still too far away to reach them in time, the Sentinel watched as Anders and his Guide teetered in a swaying bid for balance at the edge. His horror grew when he realized that Blair was trying to shift them backward, willing to end his own life in an attempt to take the other man out. The roar of denial which ripped from his soul merged with another, much more primal scream of rage. A black wind streaked across the Sentinel's vision, morphing into the sinuous, deadly shape of the panther. The Spirit Guide shrieked its own battle cry, thrusting itself between Anders and his Guide, knocking the younger man forward.
The air exploded in sound as three weapons discharged their deadly missiles. Anders' body jerked with the impact of each bullet and seemed to hang for a split second, suspended in thin air. The panther leaped toward the enemy and the mercenary plummeted into the ravine.
Barely conscious of Simon and Joel running toward them, Jim stumbled to Blair's side. Dropping to his knees he pulled the shuddering body of his Guide into a fierce embrace. The Sentinel stayed in that position, sheltering the younger man from the chaos which followed as Simon directed the pursuit of the men still with the helicopter. Jim whispered soft words of encouragement each time Blair flinched in response to the sharp retort of discharging weapons from the top of the hill.
Finally, the chatter of gunfire ceased and the stillness of the forest wrapped itself around them in a blanket of peaceful silence. Jim eased his hold enough for Blair to raise his head. Fingers latched in a white-knuckled hold on the detective's shirt and deep, ocean blue eyes begged the question a frightened mind couldn't form.
A ghostly, triumphant scream rose from the depths of the ravine and the Sentinel drew in a deep breath, knowing that the nightmare was finally over. Abruptly aware of Simon's presence at his backstanding sentry over them until they were ready to movethe Sentinel nodded, smiling as the fear left his young Guide's eyes.
Knee wrapped in a protective brace, Blair leaned wearily into the support of the tree at his back. He stared at the pacing figure of his partner and shook his head. Jim was still in full 'Blessed Protector' mode with a healthy dose of wary Sentinel thrown in for good measure. He'd nearly bitten the head off of the Ranger medic that had attended to Blair's injuries, ushering the man away as soon as he had finished. He'd snapped in anger at the FBI's demands for an immediate debriefing and Blair knew that it was only Simon and Joel's intercession which had kept things from getting out of hand.
"You're wearing me out, man," he muttered, Sentinel-soft. "Not to mention the damage you're inflicting on the poor ground."
The Sentinel paused, his gaze swinging his Guide for a moment before returning to monitor the activity in the camp.
"Simon's got it under control, Jim," Blair said gently. "It's finished. Give it a rest."
With a sigh, Ellison crouched down next to the younger man, eyeing him uncertainly.
"Anders is finished. He won't bother us again."
Blair nodded. Finished was a relative term. He could see by the look in the Sentinel's eyes that there was something the older man wasn't telling him, but this wasn't the time or place to pursue it. He'd have the full story from his partner soon enough. As far as the others were concerned, it was over, although they had their own questions.
The Rangers had been puzzled when they'd dragged Anders' body from the ravine. What was left of it, that is. The corpse had been savagely mauled. Jim had heard one of the men speculating that a wild animalpossibly a large cathad gotten to the body before they had. The fact that the ferocious hunter had left no tracks was a curiosity to everyone except the Sentinel and his grateful Guide.
"But what about the rest?" Jim prodded. "What about"
"Incacha? That's nearly finished, too."
The quiet confidence in Blair's voice surprised Jim. He studied the younger man closely. Looking past the bruises and the strain of exhaustion, he found a familiar sparkle in his friend's eyes. And something more.
The eyes which had always revealed the totality of the younger man's soul were different. The calm depths seemed to hold something olderalmost ancient. But the change wasn't disturbing. If anything, the gaze that met his was even gentler than before.
"'Four paths shape the way of the Shaman,'" Blair murmured softly. "Three have been traveled. One remainsthe journey of a lifetime. The ritual is nearly complete."
The Sentinel reached out and grasped his Guide's shoulder, squeezing it gently, anxious eyes reflecting his concern. With a blazing smile, the younger man patted his hand in reassurance.
"You were right, Jim. All that was required was trust. I am who I was meant to be. Your Guide. And your Shaman."
The Sentinel nodded. He too saw that there was more his Guide wasn't saying. Yet. Easing Blair to his feet, he guided the younger man to the waiting helicopter. As the chopper lifted and headed toward the still rising sun, the Sentinel watched his Guide slip off into sleep, then settled back himself, lulled by a familiar, invisible purring at his feet.
Seeing the detective relax, Simon leaned back in his seat, studying the two partners through steepled fingers.
The Watcher was no longer, but the Guardians remained vigilant.
~ End ~
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Page last updated 8/15/03.