by Sheila Paulson
Summary: When Naomi visits the loft in the wake of TSbyBS, Jim is wary--but when he senses the presence of evil, things go from bad to worse.
Author's Notes: This story was original printed in Cascade Beyond the Veil 2 and is posted with the permission of Skeeter Press.
Sections enclosed in ** should be considered italicized.
Disclaimer: Alas, I do not own Jim and Blair or The Sentinel.
Jim heard the voices as soon as he got off the elevator. He wasn't consciously concentrating, any more than he automatically checked to see if Blair was home before him on days when their schedule didn't put them together, a sensory task he performed by rote. Sometimes it was no more than registering the familiar heartbeat, along with a quick assessment that all was well with his guide. Now that he was just finishing the several courses that had been required at the Police Academy to make him officially a police officer, their schedules didn't usually match. But today, Blair had company.
Even before he stuck his key in the hole, Jim had identified Blair's guest: Naomi. Great. He'd been a little stiff with her since she'd mailed Blair's dissertation to her publisher buddy Sid and opened that major can of worms six weeks back. He'd forgiven her for it--she hadn't known what she was doing to Jim--but he couldn't help but be wary of what wild stunt she might pull next. The kindest possibility was that he might be facing the latest feng shui arrangement of the loft or the scent of some weird incense intended to invoke tranquility. At least he didn't smell any mysterious substances out here in the hall, and he would have been able to do that without even focusing much. Not that he didn't like Blair's mother, in spite of the chaos she'd so unintentionally caused, but she was definitely weird, and he didn't quite trust her not to create a whole new crisis. It couldn't possibly be as bad as the last one, but he'd better be on his toes. Still, he had to say that knowing her had explained a lot about his roommate and guide. It was amazing that Blair was even as "normal" as he was.
Jim let himself in. "Naomi. Welcome back to Cascade." Better not mention the dissertation disaster. Blair shot him a wary glance to see if he'd bring it up, and Jim tried to look reassuring. It wouldn't kill him to be polite to Naomi, and it would make Blair more comfortable.
Blair's mother flung herself at Jim and enveloped him in a vanilla- scented embrace, pressing a kiss to his cheek. She was wearing a long, flowing robe or caftan that didn't look like streetwear, although you could never tell with Naomi, who never bowed to conventions. Her bangly bracelet tangled momentarily in the nubby fabric of Jim's sweater, and she gave a cry of distress and fussed over disentangling it.
"Hey, Jim." Blair sounded amused, and that was a good sign. Probably relieved that Jim hadn't tensed up over her last visit. He had to realize that sometimes, when Naomi Sandburg was around, Jim was resigned to drifting with the tide. Maybe it was self-defense, but Naomi marched to the most different drummer Jim had ever heard. When he'd said so, once, to Blair, Blair had grinned a mile wide and muttered, "Welcome to my life." Now he beamed. "Mom's in town for a couple of days. I told her we could put her up. I'll sleep on the couch and she can have my room."
Jim's scalp tightened slightly. He couldn't be inhospitable and he liked Naomi, even after last time, but he couldn't quite relax in the loft with female company--at least not this kind of female company-- hanging around. The longer she stayed, the more likely she was to get into trouble--or to get Jim and Blair into trouble. "That's good, Sandburg," he said. "But no incense this time. And if you've got any more publisher friends, don't contact them. Deal?" He quirked an eyebrow at her so she'd know that, while he meant it, he had come to terms with her.
Naomi raised a laughing face to his. "Don't worry, Jim, I learned my lesson over that one. Besides, Blair explained about your allergies. I'll be careful." Her eyes met his for a long, shocking moment.
*Evil. Evil. Evil. Evil. Evil.*
Whoa. Where the hell had that come from? Cold panic knotted up Jim's stomach so fiercely he nearly doubled over. His scalp tightened, and a sick awareness of a dark, hovering, nasty presence stroked his senses like hungry claws. He couldn't remember encountering anything quite this malicious, this...inimical, not even Lash, or some of the other criminals he had encountered as a detective for Major Crimes. It wasn't a sense of vicious madness that flowed over him. It was a cold and deliberate awareness, a consciousness that hovered, ready to pounce on him.
Or on Blair.
Naomi's face was filled with amused good humor, but, for an instant, her eyes glittered. Just for an instant, and then they were Naomi's eyes again, mildly amused, convinced she knew best for Jim as well as Blair, ready to institute a healthy hippie regimen at 852 Prospect.
*Did I just imagine that?*
"I think a nice, cleansing meditation will ease all that tension out of your shoulders, Jim," Naomi promised. "Did Blair ever tell you that clenching your jaw like that will cause headaches, not to mention being bad for your teeth? It can even misalign your spine. You can't focus when you're so tense. Did you have a bad day?"
The evil was gone. Had he imagined it? Had his senses slipped in something new, the way they had when he'd seen Molly's ghost last spring? Was there a ghost here? No, that ominous evil hadn't been a ghost, at least not the same kind of ghost as Molly. No drifting spirit but...something else, an entity he could sense with that part of him that Blair claimed was the sentinel sixth sense.
*"After all, Jim, if your other senses are enhanced, why not the paranormal one, too? That's why you could see Molly and I couldn't. Man, this is great. I wish you could share that one."
"Want to see ghosts, do you, Sandburg?" Jim asked, amused.
Blair's eyes widened and he considered it. "Uh, well, maybe when you put it like that. I'm not sure how the Ghostbusters do it."*
But there had been something. Jim knew he had the senses for a reason, even if he didn't always understand what that reason was. If only he dared ask Blair about it. But how could he do that with Naomi watching him so expectantly? He met her eyes, and they smiled at him, full of delighted good humor and the wicked urge to rescue Jim from himself.
And then they glinted again, just for a second.
*Evil. Evil. Evil. Evil. Evil.
Oh, man.* He shook his head to clear it. "Blair offer you anything to drink?" he asked her, turning toward the kitchen, away from that baleful glitter. What the hell *was* this?
"Herbal tea, but thanks, Jim. You should drink some, too. It releases the spirit, frees up the mind for greater clarity."
"I don't think I need my spirit free right now, thanks. I'll just have a beer. Sandburg?"
"Yeah, if you're getting one, bring me one, too, Jim. Mom's got dinner cooking."
"Not tongue?" Jim said involuntarily, but it was a rote protest. He didn't dislike tongue as much as he'd once thought, but he'd rather sneak off to have a Wonderburger instead. Or just sneak off and try to figure out what new curve ball his senses were pitching to him. He couldn't let it go, even if he were imagining it. *I have to be imagining it. Maybe it's because of what happened last time she was here, no more than that. Some kind of weird, subliminal resentment coming through. God, listen to the psychobabble. I sound like Blair.*
Naomi sparkled at him. "No, Jim. You just wait till you taste it. You'll never know it's not red meat."
"I already know it's not," he countered. He hoped he didn't sound as uncomfortable as he felt.
Blair tried to catch his eye. He should have known Blair would clue into the fact that something was bothering him. Blair could read him far better than he'd ever expected. He could tell by the most minute twist of Jim's mouth or arch of eyebrow that a new sentinel thing was going down. Ever since the fountain, he was more alert to things like that, as if whatever mystical thing Jim had done that had found Blair in the other realm and merged with him had offered up selective clairvoyance. It wasn't always there, and sometimes Jim found himself backing off, even a little afraid of the new awareness. Blair had always clued in to his senses--maybe that was a guide thing--but now Jim was more aware of it himself. He'd told Blair in the hospital after the fountain experience that he wasn't ready to go there with him, but the part of him that was a sentinel hadn't listened to that decision. Awareness crept in when Jim least expected it. God, it was almost like having his own psychic hot line directly to Blair. At least it was sporadic. He wasn't sure he could cope with daily bursts of telepathy. The Jim Ellison who had been a normal cop seemed as distant to his present day incarnation as the planet Jupiter.
The funny thing was, in spite of his wariness, he found himself gradually accepting it, a little more each day, especially now that the diss mess was behind them and he and Blair were at peace with each other again. His senses knew more than they had before, and he trusted Blair, trusted him with the senses thing more completely, even though Jim had the senses under better control and hadn't zoned for a long time. Maybe he *could* function without Blair, but he didn't *want* to function without him. Blair had turned into something Jim had never believed possible on the day he'd encountered the "hippie freak"; a brother. You didn't try to function without family.
And that was even weirder because, for Jim Ellison, family had never been a secure and reassuring refuge. It hadn't been a state to be desired--until now. Because family had always meant something colder and less supportive, Jim had resisted the term, resisted the trust that was supposed to go with family. But now he glanced over his shoulder at Naomi as he hauled two beers out of the fridge. *God, this is gonna just kill Blair.* And he didn't even know what *this* was.
*It's evil. I know that much. It's evil.*
Naomi regarded him blandly. The corner of her mouth quirked, and that otherness glittered in her eyes. She knew that he knew. And she was acknowledging it. Worse, she was amused by it, as if Jim's knowledge was no threat to the creature she had become.
*Creature? Geez. Okay, Ellison, you're losing it here. Hard day, that's all. And maybe you're still having reactions to seeing the ghost a while ago. This might just be a weird sensory backlash.
And maybe Blair will develop a craving for Wonderburgers.*
He passed Blair a bottle of beer.
"Let me get you glasses for those." Naomi flashed past him into the kitchen.
Blair laughed. In spite of that momentary insight, he hadn't noticed any of it. He was just so relaxed, delighted to have his mother here. But if he caught Jim's eye, he'd know immediately that something was wrong. "We're guys, Mom. We drink it right out of the bottle."
"Well, you can go back to doing that when I don't have to watch you. Jim, do you have any coasters?" She rummaged in his cupboard.
*What if she finds the knives?*
Jim chuckled. "It's okay, Naomi. Blair never thinks of coasters. I've been trying to civilize him for four years and this is as good as it gets."
Blair made a face at him. "Jim's had a tough day. Let him drink his beer out of the bottle. It's a guy thing. Don't encourage him with the coasters. Next thing you know he'll be following me around with a sponge mop." He raised his bottle and took a long, savoring swallow.
"He's teaching you bad habits," Naomi countered. Jim wasn't sure which of them she meant. God, it should have sounded so normal, but it didn't. Jim knew what he'd seen, what he'd felt. He had to warn Blair, get out of here.
*Warn him of what, exactly? That there was something weird in his mom's eyes? That Naomi was--what? Evil? Possessed? Insane?* No, not insane. He'd seen enough of that in the course of his job to know the difference. At least, he thought he could tell. Sometimes mental illness could mask itself in a cloak of normalcy so that you didn't spot it right away. They hadn't guessed with Lash immediately, after all. But then Jim's senses hadn't freaked like this around the guy, either.
"I've got a stakeout tonight," he heard himself say. It was true that there was a stakeout, but it had been assigned to Rafe and Brown. If he could get away, call them, let them know he wanted to switch without warning Blair--or Naomi. Or whatever Naomi was now. "I was gonna take Sandburg with me, let him have some on-the-job training."
There had never been a sensory experience like this before. What the hell *was* it? Jim hadn't met Naomi that many times, but he'd never detected vibes like this from her before. Had she always been like this and he just hadn't been able to see it? Had seeing Molly cranked his sensory abilities to a whole new level, like Blair had suggested? Maybe Jim should have gone for those ESP tests Blair wanted to run with those weird cards. No, next thing he knew they'd be playing with Ouija boards and going to s‚ances or trotting off to New York to visit the Ghostbusters. After the Molly experience, Blair had e-mailed them a couple of times, not to tell them about Jim but to ask for information. They hadn't figured out something weird was going down out here in Cascade. At least they hadn't shown up at the loft with their weird equipment to take readings of him.
Blair glanced at Jim, and his gaze sharpened. Alarm flashed on his face, just like that. It only took one quick look and he *knew* something was wrong. "Hey, yeah, Mom, they like me to put a little time in," he confirmed. "I hate to do it on your first night here--and you can't come," he added firmly. "You can put on some music and relax. That retreat you were on sounds like it wasn't very relaxing."
"Retreat?" Jim asked. "Like the time you dragged me off to visit the Brothers, Chief?"
"No, not like that," Naomi replied. "It was a meditation session in San Francisco. We had a channeler and we did directed communing with tranquil spirits."
"Uh-*huh*," Jim said. What if one of those spirits hadn't been so tranquil after all? What if it hadn't gone away?
"Who ya gonna call?" Blair teased his mother, but shadows had crept into his eyes.
"We didn't want to incarcerate spirits," Naomi corrected primly. "Is this a cop thing? Locking everybody up?"
"Yeah, I'll have to show you my handcuffs," Blair kidded her.
"Handcuffs? How kinky." It should have sounded like a joke, and it did, but Jim couldn't find a smile.
"Are you kidding? That's the least of it," Blair said. "Hey, Mom, I'll go redo the bed for you, while you check the dinner. If we have to go on a stakeout, we better get organized here." He grinned at her and vanished into his bedroom. But he cast one disturbed glance over his shoulder.
Jim finished his beer and set the bottle down. Then he turned to Naomi. Now. The confrontation was coming now. He could feel it.
The glitter was back in her eyes. "I know what you are, Sentinel," she hissed in a voice that didn't sound remotely like her own. "And you are aware of me because of your heightened senses. If you threaten me, I shall take great pleasure in destroying your precious guide." She flung up a hand and pointed in the direction of Blair's room. The bracelet jingled on her wrist.
"What *are* you?" he demanded. Unconsciously, he shifted position so that he stood between Naomi and the bedroom door. She recognized the movement for what it was, and her expression was amused and patient, as if she had all the time in the world.
"What I am is beyond your understanding. But I am no poor, wandering spirit left over from the meditation session. Such a one would be easily banished." She whisked to the oven and opened it, but there was nothing of Naomi in the way she moved. It was as if "Naomi Sandburg" was only a shell, something to be manipulated from within. Could Naomi still be in there, trapped, a prisoner in her own body?
He had to know. "Are you really Naomi Sandburg? Or do you just look like her?"
"She is here, too. She cannot fight me, but I can see into her mind, know what she knows, behave as she behaves. From her I learned of your abilities. I shall not need her much longer. I am sorry you recognized me too soon, but it will not be long before I leave her a broken shell--and absorb all that you are."
Jim hardened his voice, and his purpose. "I won't let you do that."
The spirit in Naomi grabbed a pot holder and whipped her casserole out of the oven. For the first second, Jim thought she meant to fling it into his face, and he braced himself on the balls of his feet, ready to duck, but she didn't. Instead, she set it on the stove top. "I'm glad we understand each other," she said with a smile that was a travesty of Naomi's. "If you tell Blair, I will have to kill him. And if you tell him secretly, I will know. I am sufficiently Naomi that I will be able to sense his fear and disbelief."
"What makes you think he'll disbelieve?" Jim countered. "If you underestimate him, you're a fool."
"No. I am many things, but I am no fool. Why do you think I am here, Sentinel? I am here to take possession of your body. This form--" she gestured at herself-- "is simply a means to an end."
"Okay, I've got everything," Blair called as he emerged from his room with an armload of bedding that he dumped on the couch. Naomi smiled at him.
"Wait till you taste this, sweetie," she called out in a completely normal voice, although the malign glance flickered over Jim for an instant. *This is not over, Sentinel.* "You're going to love it."
*If it's not poisoned.* Jim focused his sight and smell on the casserole and narrowed his concentration as he set himself to identifying ingredients.
"Come on, Jim," Blair teased him. "It won't kill you."
*No, it doesn't want me dead, but I'm afraid it might kill you.*
So, how to get a signal to Blair? This was one of those times when he wished he'd gone along with the training Blair had wanted to start after the fountain. Jim had held off, resisting, trying so hard to return to "normal", so that he wouldn't become any more of a freak than he already was. But Blair's spirit guide was the wolf, and it had been real. If there was a genetic imperative that made Jim a sentinel, maybe Blair was equally predisposed to be a guide. Maybe they *could* communicate without words, without having to zip on over to the spirit realm or whatever that jungle place was. *Sandburg, get out of here. There's danger.* He thought it at his guide as hard as he could. Blair simply grinned at his mom and went over to sniff the concoction. No. Jim couldn't let him taste it. He had a bad feeling. He wasn't sensing anything like poison in the dish, but something was off. Knockout drops? A Mickey Finn? If Naomi meant to drug them unconscious, the entity inside Naomi could slip over and steal Jim's body just like that, with both of them out for the count.
Naomi scooped up a spoonful of the dish of the day and held it out to Blair. "Take a taste of that."
"No!" Jim yelled.
Blair stared at him as if he'd lost his mind. "It's okay, Jim," he teased--and took a bite.
Jim was an instant too late. The empty spoon went flying and Blair gaped at him in disbelief. Her back to her son, Naomi flung Jim a spiteful, triumphant glance. Too late. Jim had been too late. With a crash, the spoon did a number on a glass Blair had left in the sink. They all turned to stare at it, then Blair whirled around to confront Jim, seething with annoyance.
"What the hell was *that* all about?" Blair glared at Jim. "Come on, man, just because she e-mailed my diss to her publisher doesn't mean she's gonna *poison* us." His eyes narrowed, and then widened. "Oh, man," he groaned. "Something's wrong. I can tell. You look...." Abruptly he fell silent and a startled expression slid into his eyes. They narrowed, and he blinked hard. "What is...." His voice faded and he fumbled for words. "Jim, I..." His hands shot out and grabbed Jim by the arms. "Jim, I feel...funny."
The next thing Jim knew, his guide was as limp as an old towel against him. God, whatever was in that one spoonful had acted fast. What if it *was* fatal? A shiver of panic chased itself up and down Jim's back and made his stomach clench. He scooped up the slighter form protectively in his arms and concentrated on the regular thump of Blair's heartbeat and the slowing of his respiration. Blair wasn't completely out yet. His eyes hung at half-mast, but they appeared unfocused, and he barely responded when Jim yelled his name to try to get through to him.
"You can't stop me," Naomi spat at him. "Although you might try. I shall relish the attempt, but I shall win for I am more powerful than you. You grasp at heightened senses but you have no powers other than awareness. You cannot fight me."
"You poisoned your own *son*!" Jim spat at her. "What kind of monster are you?"
"He is *not* my son. He is *her* son, and she hates what I have done. She has served her purpose. I will discard her when I take you in her place, and she can revive your pitiful guide. I may yet kill them both, but not in such a way that you will be blamed. You will serve me best free and in your position of authority."
"I won't serve you at all." Jim whirled around and carried Blair to the couch. "Come on, Chief," he urged in an undertone. "Don't do this. I need you with me." Gently, he chafed Blair's cheek. He didn't let his attention slip from the hovering entity as he checked Blair's pulse and respiration.
Blair stirred and moaned faintly. "J-Jim?" he breathed only to go limp again.
"Come on, Sandburg. God, don't *do* this. This can't be happening." *Shit*. That was what he'd said at the fountain. He knew what it felt like to lose his guide and best friend, and he wasn't going to do it again. No matter what it took, no matter what commitment he might need to make about his senses, he would find a way to stop her, get Blair back. Get Naomi back, too, because he owed that to Blair, and to Naomi, who had never meant to hurt him, and who was as much a victim here as her son was.
"Oh, I assure you, it is happening," purred the Naomi creature complacently. She cocked her head. "If I can't take you while you are sleeping, then I will take you awake. It will be harder, but not impossible. You cannot fight me. I know from Naomi that you are stiff and stubborn, but you resist being what you are. That resistance will make it impossible for you to defeat me."
How much did Naomi know? She had to know that Blair's dissertation was true, even though she had pretended to buy into the press conference like everybody at Major Crimes had. The entity had taken all that knowledge from her mind, understood what a sentinel was, and had chosen to use him, use his *body* to be free in the world.
Jim let his hand rest for a second on Blair's forehead. His skin felt cool and normal, and he shifted restlessly and pressed his head trustingly against Jim's palm. "J'm," he breathed. God, in spite of the weirdness over the drugged food, his faith in Jim hadn't gone away. His concern for Jim had never gone away, either, not even when Jim had flung it all back in his face over the dissertation. Blair had given up his whole life's work to protect him. Much as he loved academia, he'd sacrificed it in a heartbeat for Jim's protection. And now, even though he was not quite conscious, and probably as confused as hell, his instinctive reaction was still to trust Jim.
*I won't let you down, Sandburg. I give you my word on it.
I know, Jim.*
God, had he really "heard" that? Had it happened? Mental communication out of desperate need? Or was it only because he *wanted* so much to get a response?
*Sandburg, what do I do? Is there some sentinel trick here? Some spirit animal thing? I've got to stop her, and I don't know what to do.*
No response. Damn it. He hadn't really expected one, but that moment when panther and wolf had leaped together in midair and brought Blair back from the dead should have fused some kind of link. Jim had rejected it, more fool him, and now they might be doomed because he hadn't allowed himself to take the risk.
No! He wouldn't let that happen. He spun around and saw that Naomi had come right up to him, a hand outstretched. The bracelet glinted silver on her wrist as she reached for him.
He batted her hand away. "Don't *touch* him."
"Or what? You'll shoot me? Is that what a *pig* would do? Go ahead, shoot me. And then he'll wake up and find you've killed his mother, and he'll hate you for the rest of his life. You think he'd sacrifice anything for you because he loves you, but if you kill his mother, he'll hate you, and he won't *know* it was me you tried to kill, and not her."
"He'll know," Jim said positively. But she was right about one thing. He couldn't use a gun. God, if she won, she might make him use it on Blair. No, this wasn't a cop thing. It was a spirit thing, a thing of the realm of the panther, the realm of his senses that made him the most uneasy. If only he could see Incacha, question him, find out what he was supposed to do. There had to be an answer, but he'd always avoided the mystical side of being a sentinel. It wasn't mystical, it was genetic. It had to be. Anything else was too unreal.
But he had seen a ghost. And he had merged his spirit with Blair's and brought him back from death at the fountain. He had experienced those visions in the jungle, and encountered the spirit of Incacha.... God, he didn't want the paranormal realm to be real. He just wanted to be a good cop, a normal good cop.
*Jim, you're so much more than that. Be all there is in you to be.*
"Sandburg?" he said aloud, because the mental tone was so real that he thought for an instant he'd heard it. He spared one quick glance at his guide, who shifted restlessly on the couch, eyes closed. "Chief? Come on, Chief."
Naomi reached out for him again, and he knew without speaking that he couldn't let her touch him. She'd touched him before, kissed his cheek; God, she'd marked him. It might be easier this time, now that she was ready. He would have jumped up and moved away, but that would leave Blair open to her. He was out of it, helpless for the moment, unable to defend himself. Jim had to protect him. If the spirit within Naomi couldn't get to him, it might take Blair in revenge. He raised his hands to fend her off.
"Who are you?" he asked. God, if he stalled long enough, Blair would wake up and he might have some answers. Together, they could do anything.
But Blair was drugged, pretty heavily, too, from the sound of his breathing. He wasn't going to pop up and theorize a quick, glib solution for Jim. How could he? He'd never said anything about possession when he was explaining what he knew about ancient sentinels. He wouldn't have any more idea how to solve this than Jim did.
"Who am I?" The familiar mouth twisted in a travesty of a smile. "I am Naomi Sandburg. Any court in the land will back my claim. Should you insist I am possessed, it is you who will be scorned and disbelieved, even if it is the truth. Don't fight me, Jim. Together, we can rule the world."
Talk about delusions of grandeur. He flung a challenge in her face. "I'm not going to give in to you. I think the reason you want me is because you know I'm a threat to you. It isn't just that you want what you claim are my abilities. You're afraid of me, so you have to defeat me first. Are you *afraid* to tell me what you are?"
Her hand shot up to plant a ringing slap on his face, but he caught her wrist to stop her. His fingers closed around the bracelet that slid down her wrist and he felt the metal charm dig into the flesh of his palm--
--and knew that he had made a major mistake.
A surge of power ran through his body like a lightning bolt, stabbing into his hand, up his arm, through his chest, and then with a surge of heat and light, up into his brain. He felt the crawling-worm sensation of invasion as the entity surged free of Naomi and flowed into him, filling him up so tightly that his identity, his Jim-ness, retreated involuntarily before it, sliding back into a corner of his awareness. The entity gloated as it took control of him, its triumph pulsing through him with the beating of his heart. Down, down, down, he slid into the furthest recesses of his mind, and no matter how he struggled, he couldn't stop the thing.
Naomi made a choked, helpless, agonized sound without words, her eyes rolled up in her head, and she slid down to lie, unconscious or dead, in a puddle at Jim's uncaring feet.
*Jim! Jim, listen to me. Jim!*
The voice came from so far away that the fragment of Jim Ellison that still vied for control could barely hear it.
Nothing. The call trailed away to nothing, and Jim shuddered as the creature tested its control. Each hand curled into a fist, relaxed, curled again. Arms swung up above his head. The movements were jerky, like a puppet controlled by a drunken puppet master, but Jim knew they would smooth out. He could feel the creature probing at his mind, his consciousness. So far, it didn't have his mind, only his body.
That was enough to start with.
Jim felt himself kneel beside the unresponsive Naomi and unfasten the bracelet from her wrist. The entity held it in Jim's hands, studied it, then popped it free. Jim could see it perfectly, see the weird symbol etched into the silver, an esoteric design that looked vaguely pre-Columbian. Blair might recognize it, but Blair couldn't help him now. The link ran both ways. Jim couldn't read the entity's mind, but surface thoughts were visible to him, little skittering flashes of emotion and memory. Without even thinking about it, Jim knew that the entity had been confined in the charm. Somehow, Naomi had come into possession of the bracelet. Maybe her meditation and channeling had unlocked the entity's prison and freed it to take over her mind. Maybe Jim would never know, or maybe the entity would reveal the truth to Jim when it finally penetrated his mind.
*Who are you? What are you?*
No response. Only the pressure at the edges of his consciousness as it tried to find its way into his mind the way it had swept into his body.
He couldn't let it do that. Better dead than that. Give up himself, be a prisoner in his own body? No, that was unendurable.
*You can fight it, Jim. You can fight it. You know how.*
Did he? How could he fight it? Was that Blair telling him what to do? But Blair was unconscious.
Blair had been *dead* at the fountain.
Shit. Shit. Jim let rage at his own stupidity fuel his strength. He couldn't win, not here. But there was a place where he had more power than this, a place where there might be answers.
He curled protection around his awareness and let it slide over into the steamy warmth of the dark jungle night.
A shriek of disbelief echoed through Jim's senses as he emerged running, sleek and powerful, his paws instinctively landing on the vine-draped trail. This was *his* realm, not the spirit's. Here, the contest could be fought on *his* terms.
Everything was sharper, brighter. His senses kicked into full control, everything heightened, but bearable in this form, in this dreamscape, the way they could never be back in the real world.
This world was real, too. He had never wanted to acknowledge that, but it had to be real. If it wasn't real, he was doomed, and Blair and Naomi with him. He had to defeat the entity here, in a place where he made the choices. If he lost here, all three of them were condemned.
A desperate baying echoed through the jungle. Jim's head came up and he drew in the smell of the night, questing for the familiarity of the wolf. There it was, running toward him down the path, its frantic need evident in the long, low lines of its body. It came right up to Jim, sniffed at him, then morphed into Blair, a Blair who still had the long hair of his pre-Academy days, who looked free, unfettered, but desperately worried. Jim felt himself flowing upright, and glanced down briefly at himself to see that he was dressed in jungle camouflage, as he had been in Peru.
"Oh, man, Jim, what's happening?" Blair blurted out. He stared around him wildly, taking in the astral plane, and a million questions filled his eyes. Being Blair, he asked the emotional one first. "Mom isn't...Mom, is she?"
"She is now," Jim replied. "It left her. But it's in me. It wants me because--"
"Because you're a sentinel," Blair cut in. "This is *bad*. Is it here with you now, Jim?"
He risked a tendril of thought. Was it here now? Yes, he could feel it, but it was blocked from him. Here, in the spirit realm, it couldn't touch him. Here, he was safe from it. "Yeah, but I don't think it can hurt me here," he explained hastily.
"Then we've gotta stay here, Jim, until we figure out how to stop it." Somehow, here, Blair picked up on his signals a lot easier than he did in the real world. Not that he was remotely clueless there. His eyes were huge as they scanned the jungle, spotted the temple pyramid that lurked through the vines. "We can do it," he insisted.
But they could not stay here indefinitely. Blair would regain consciousness and depart, and Jim wasn't sure how he had come here and what might force him back. The entity might, even if Jim tried to stay. But staying would eventually be counterproductive, too. Here, he couldn't eat and drink. He would be believed comatose if he stayed in this refuge, and who would believe Blair if he started babbling about spirit planes, especially if Naomi was permanently affected by what the creature had done to her? Simon might believe--although he'd never come around to buying Jim's story about the ghost. Heightened senses was pushing the limits of Simon's ability to accept the impossible. Joel Taggart might believe, and Connor probably would, but there would be nothing they could do to help, even if Blair called them in as backup.
Could Jim wait out the entity? Force it to abandon him in order to survive? Could it read his thoughts, even here where it had no power-- and wasn't that an assumption on his part, that it had no power here? It might simply have *less*. Could it jolt him to return to the real world? Threaten Blair and force him back that way?
"It drugged you," he explained hastily. "I think it knew that we could find out together."
Blair's eyes rounded. "I didn't know...." He raked his fingers through his hair, and Jim realized how much he had missed the gesture since Blair had bowed to Police Academy guidelines and cut his hair. He was determined to grow it back as soon as possible, and already it was longer, but not like this. Jim hoped he would. Even though it had bugged him at first, he had become accustomed to it; it was just a part of Blair. "I knew there was something weird about Mom as soon as she showed up at the door," Blair admitted hastily. "But I thought it was because she's really not that happy about me being a cop. She likes you, and she likes Simon and she's glad the Department offered me a place to go, but she still thinks we're all pigs. She can't help it."
"Think we'd leave you without a place to go, Sandburg?" Somehow, it was very important that be made clear before they went any further.
"I--" Blair hesitated, then his face cleared. "I know you wouldn't, Jim," he said, and there was triumph in the cry. "Man, this is a tough one. We have to get you back." His eyes traced over their surroundings and narrowed in on the pyramid that was visible through the undergrowth.
"You don't have any handy dandy little mystical sentinel rules to un- possess somebody, do you?"
"I don't remember reading anything like that. Burton wrote a lot, and I've been over *The Sentinels of Paraguay* and the transcripts of what journals have been located all over the world, and I don't remember reading anything about possession."
"Then come up with an answer. You've been checking out the ghost thing ever since Molly. There has to be something."
Blair's face scrunched up as if he were about to have a full-blown panic attack, but Jim knew he was stronger than that. He wouldn't unwind that way until the crisis was past. When things went wrong, Blair didn't run, he *thought*, and his remarkable mind came up with inventive solutions. Cutting holes in elevators to drop bombs down the shaft. Dousing armored car robbers with a fire hose. He might be one step ahead of Jim in the sentinel area, and running like mad to stay that far ahead of his pupil, but he was the one who had come up with the white noise generators to deal with Jim's hearing. He had so many solutions. He had to have one this time, too.
Blair gripped his forearms. "Jim, there has to be a way. Let me see. If we hypnotized you--"
"You can't hypnotize me on this plane, Sandburg." Jim wasn't sure how he knew it, but he did. "And back there, in our own bodies, you're unconscious, and I'm possessed."
He glanced down at his hand. Naomi's bracelet dangled from his fingers. When he'd been in the panther's form, he hadn't had it, had he? "Sandburg, your mother was wearing this. I think it's what confined him. I don't know how long she had this, but I think she woke it at the meditation seminar thing."
Alarm ran across Blair's face, alarm with an amusement chaser. "You're coming on with the beliefs, aren't you, Jim? Way to go! Let me see it."
"Don't touch it, Chief. It might affect you, too."
Blair's hair bobbed with the force of his headshake. "No, it won't. It doesn't want me. It wants you because you're a sentinel. I heard that. Somehow, I heard that."
"You were unconscious, Chief," Jim objected.
"Not here, Jim. Not here." He plucked the bracelet from Jim's hand and frowned at the symbol. "This is a power sigil. I don't know what it means, but I've seen it before, or something like it, in one of my books."
"You mean it's a sentinel thing?"
Blair frowned with concentration. "No, I don't think it is. But it's...I think it might be Mayan. A Mayan glyph. The Mayans were the only literate people in pre-Columbian America. The Incans had their *quipu*, their system of knots that they used for recording, but the Mayans were the ones who had a real writing system. They even had *books*, Jim, pre-Conquest books. A genuine Mayan codex is priceless. Scribes were so important in their culture that when one king conquered another, he'd have the scribes' hands destroyed so they couldn't write anymore."
"I don't think I want a lesson in Mayan history, Sandburg. I just want to find a way to stop this thing and get rid of it."
"I know, Jim. I'm trying to understand it. I'm not exactly fluent in Mayan writing or Mayan mythology. I'm a cultural anthropologist--or I *was*--not an archaeologist or a linguist. I know a few languages, but I can't read ancient ones. But I think I've seen this symbol before. It's something out of Mayan mythology. It looks kind of like a horned owl."
"You're saying I've got some mythological creature from Central America in my head? How come it speaks perfect English?"
"If it does, it took it out of Mom's head. Or maybe it could hear when it was confined, and it learned. Where are we, Jim? Do you recognize this place?"
"No, but there's a pyramid over there. When I've come here before, I've encountered pyramids, but this looks like a different one."
"Come on, we'll check it out." Blair fell into step so naturally with Jim that Jim was startled to realize how naturally their steps matched. When they walked together, he automatically shortened his stride and Blair lengthened his. He wondered how long they'd been doing that and why he had never noticed before.
Brushing away the trailing vines, they cut their way through the jungle and came to a stop at the small clearing. Jim knew from his experience in Peru that the jungle could grow up overnight to cover untended buildings, but this pyramid was untouched by creeping growth. No vines draped it, and the moss that covered most of the stones had left it severely alone.
Standing at the entrance to the pyramid were a couple of Mayan statues, stylized and unfamiliar to Jim. But Blair bounded forward with the eager energy of a puppy who has just picked up a ton of fascinating new scents to investigate, until he skidded to a stop in front of the nearer of the two figures.
"Jim, I think this has to be Balam," he cried. "Once I knew what your spirit animal was, I wondered whether that was significant."
Jim squinted at the incised shape before him. If you didn't look too closely, it was vaguely jaguar-like. "So who's Balam?" he asked.
"It's one of the Mayan gods. It protects the people's daily lives. It takes the form of a jaguar and it protects the community against outside threats. I always kind of wondered if maybe that didn't tie in to the sentinel mythos, you know, a Mayan version of the sentinel legend, as if Balam represented the sentinel in Mayan culture. Just think, Jim, it could be. We know there were sentinels all through pre- Columbian America. I think this is how the Maya personified them. Maybe that's even why you see the spirit animal you do, because there's a sentinel race memory or something. Wow. This is so cool, man."
Jim put his hand on the stone figure's head. Beneath his palm, he felt a quiver of subliminal power, a sensation of tactile pleasure, as if the stone recognized and welcomed him. "Okay, but how does that help us, Chief?"
"It's not always about how it helps us," Blair replied. "Sometimes it's just about knowledge." He shook his head. "But this time it has to be about solutions. I'm scared for Mom, and we have to get that thing out of you before it can take control." He turned huge, worried eyes to Jim.
"What do you suggest?" he asked wryly.
"I don't think I *can*, Jim." Blair was silent a moment, his brow wrinkled up in concentration. He raked the hair back from his face. "I think you have to be the one to figure it out, on your own. All I can do is give you information so you can solve it. That's all I'm allowed to do. I'm not sure how I know that, but I just do."
Jim wasn't sure how anything worked on the spirit plane, but he knew Blair was right. This was always a place where Jim learned new little life lessons. If Blair gave him answers, he wouldn't learn a thing. Maybe he was even here to learn more than how to be unpossessed, but he'd worry about one thing at a time. If only Incacha would pop in and give him *more* information, even if it were obscure and symbolic....
He pointed to the other figure. "So what's this other weird thing?"
Blair patted the jaguar's head. Something about the gesture caught at Jim's throat and he felt a rush of gratitude to his friend for standing with him, here in the spirit realm. *Thanks, Chief. I don't tell you I appreciate you enough, do I?*
Blair let his hand trail down off the jaguar's nose and turned to the other figure. His face whitened. "Omigod, Jim, I think this represents Tlacolotl. *That's* what the charm symbolizes, too."
"Who's Tlacolotl?" Now that Jim got a good look at the second figure, his skin crawled, the hair rose on the back of his neck, and he gritted his teeth so tightly he could feel a headache beginning. His shoulder muscles went rigid. It resembled the design on the charm, and that was bad.
"Well, Jim, it's sort of the Mayan version of the Devil. It's a god of evil, anyway."
"Sandburg, if you even *try* to say I've got an evil Mayan god in my head...."
Blair's hair flew with his headshake. "No way, Jim. You couldn't. This would be *his* realm. He'd be so powerful here he'd overwhelm you in a heartbeat. He *isn't* the one in your head. You'd be able to sense him a lot clearer if he were. I think what you've got is somebody who *worshiped* Tlacolotl. One of his followers. That's why the glyph on the charm held him, because it was the symbol of his god." He very carefully didn't touch the statue, even though his hand had gone out automatically to the jaguar.
Jim squinted at the statue. He had to say it looked a little like the stylized symbol on the charm. "So what is this place, then? A combat ground, where I have to fight it out for my soul?"
Respect flashed in Blair's eyes. "I think that's exactly what it is, Jim. The protective god against the destructive god, maybe. Or their avatars."
"Okay, Sandburg, you want to put that one into language an ordinary cop can understand?"
"You're not an ordinary cop, Jim. You're special." The words came so automatically that Jim couldn't help feeling humbled. He couldn't be what he was without Blair's help. He'd have either found a way to repress the senses again or gone insane.
"An avatar," Blair continued, "is really a Hindu concept, the incarnation of one of the Hindu pantheon. But it's also a personification or embodiment of a thing, and that's what we've got here. You're the human representation of what Balam does, the Sentinel of the Great City, protecting the tribe against threat. And Tlacolotl is the one who wants to destroy what you protect. It isn't just because the thing in your body wants your heightened senses that it came to you. If it can control you, then it's won a victory for Tlacolotl, it's defeated everything that makes you what you are." He grasped Jim's arms and gazed earnestly into his face. "Jim, you can't lose this fight. It's about more than just you." His mouth quirked. "But you've gotta win it for you, too. It's the only way. I can't be the Shaman of the Great City without a sentinel," he concluded with forced lightness.
The Tlacolotl statue quivered abruptly and shook itself. Chips of stone flew everywhere with bullet force. Jim grabbed Blair, flung him to the jungle floor, and shielded him with his own body until the lethal pellets stopped flying. He felt one graze his ear, but he didn't think he was injured.
When he lifted his head, the statue was gone. In its place, a massive horned owl hovered over them, six-inch talons outstretched. It radiated a malice so powerful, Jim could feel it all through his body.
"Jim! Look out!" Blair screeched and tried to yank him sideways.
But that wasn't the answer. Jim knew instinctively that he couldn't retreat. The sureness of that was as real as anything he'd ever felt. He didn't understand how he knew, and that bugged him; he was a rational guy who liked his answers to be concrete, reasonable. But this wasn't a place of reason. It was a place of instinct, and his senses screamed at him to react instinctively.
He flowed into the form of his spirit creature as easily as he might snap a pair of cuffs on a perp. With a furious growl, he leaped for the owl and tried to bat it out of the sky.
It soared aloft easily and hovered just out of range, wings beating fast enough to stir up a breeze that made Blair's hair flow wildly about his face.
Owls were predators, and this one was big enough to snatch a human being.
"Stay down, Sandburg." Was that growl his voice?
Blair stared at him. They were close enough to touch, and Jim edged closer. The urge to protect his guide was a driving force that pounded through him, so automatic and instinctive that the personal need to protect his friend was nearly submerged in it, but not entirely. He was sentinel, but he was still Jim Ellison, even in this form, and that owl-thing wasn't going to get Blair. It would have to go through Jim to do it, and that was the bottom line.
Blair knew it without a word exchanged. For an instant, warmth and joy flooded his features, then he snapped his fingers and closed his eyes. In an instant, he had mutated into the wolf, and he flung himself into place at Jim's side.
*Watch out, Chief. Get back.* He didn't speak the words aloud, but he knew they'd get through. If only it could be this easy in the real world.
*No way, Jim. I'm sticking with you. This is the way it's supposed to be. I know it is*. Telepathy? Spirit communication? Whatever it was, it was as vivid--and as natural--as talking face to face. For an instant, Jim reveled in it, glorying in what felt so right that he was stunned he'd had doubts before. Then hesitation crept in. Not hesitation about Blair's claim, though, never that. Jim realized it was true. Sentinel and guide had a bond that no crisis had ever been able to break forever, although there had been some bad patches where he'd wondered if it would ever be right again. That was why it had worked at the fountain, when he had felt himself merging with Blair to save his life. He hadn't understood and it had scared him. The part of him that craved normalcy still hesitated, but here, in this realm, it was as true and right as the sun rising in the east. Immutable.
Together, they turned to face the deadly owl.
Jim could feel the entity at the edges of his mind, restless and desperate, pushing futilely at the barrier it was so automatic to create in this place. He didn't know how he had done it, didn't understand a bit of it, didn't have a clue. He only knew it worked.
But the owl didn't want it to work. It swooped down at them, talons spread, savage beak ready for the attack, and zipped right between them so fast they moved apart involuntarily.
The spirit inside Jim crowed with triumph.
Blair turned and lunged up in a fierce jump, his teeth just missing the owl's tail feathers. He landed hard, rolled, and bounced to his feet, lips pulled back in a snarl to reveal the canine fangs.
*Why, grandma, what big teeth you have.
The owl dove again before they could regroup, heading directly for Blair this time, as if it sensed the guide was vulnerable without the sentinel's protection. Blair was about as vulnerable as a rhinoceros, even though his strength might not be readily apparent to a stranger, but he wasn't as accustomed to this realm as Jim was, and he couldn't stand up to Tlacolotl on his own. Blair lunged into the attack, snapping with his fangs, but the owl's vicious claws caught in the fur of his shoulder and tore, and the wolf staggered back. A smear of blood blotted his fur, and he favored his left front leg as he circled for a new attack.
*It's not bad, Jim.*
The owl soared high, and Blair turned his head and tried to lick the wound with the instinct that went with the animal form. God, he was losing blood. They had to take care of this fast. Bad enough he was already unconscious back in the real world. With a wound on top of that, he was going to be in bad shape. Naomi might even be dead back there. Time was running out.
*You lose, Sentinel,* crowed the enemy voice inside his head. It wasn't the owl talking to him--no, it fought silently. It was the entity who had borrowed Naomi's body to get to him. *You can't fight the power of Tlacolotl alone. You never could.*
*I can stop you*, Jim insisted. He didn't know how, but he would do it. He would drive this evil from his mind, and that would stop the owl. Stopping the owl wouldn't free him; he suddenly realized it was a distraction, something to batter away at his resistance until the spirit inside him could take control. He couldn't let that happen. He *wouldn't* let it happen.
The owl divebombed him again with what seemed like the speed of a swooping fighter plane on a strafing run. Jim bunched his body and leaped, meeting it in midair. They collided with a squeal of fur and feathers and the owl flopped sideways and fell to the jungle floor. The force of the impact knocked Jim flat and he lay, panting harshly, conscious of Blair screaming his name in his mind over and over.
*Get up, Jim! Get it! Get it before it flies!* Blair tried to pounce on it, but his foreleg gave beneath him. He let out a pained growl and struggled to push himself to his feet. Jim felt a surge of pride at his guide's determination as Blair forced himself to his feet and took a cautions, three-legged step toward the downed owl.
It was going to fly. Jim saw the shoulders bunch, saw the wings spread, and he leaped for it, but it was gone in an instant, erupting skyward. His spring took him through the place where it had hovered, and the spirit in his mind laughed derisively at the futility of his effort.
*You can't win, Sentinel. You are not strong enough to take us on together.*
And then Jim *knew*. The answer came to him in a glorious rush, and he turned his head away from the banking owl long enough to meet the golden-eyed glow of the wolf. *I'm ready,* he thought, and he saw recognition in the near-feral gaze of Blair's spirit form. In that instant, no words were necessary, just as they had been unnecessary at the fountain.
They turned to face each other, and even as the owl dived for them, huge and menacing, ready to shred them with knifelike talons, jaguar and wolf leaped, met in mid-air, and flowed into each other in a fantastic melding of everything that mattered: life, understanding, strength, trust, courage. Strengths and weaknesses balanced out, and as one, they whirled, shape not even defined. For that glorious moment, they were no longer sentinel and guide, Ellison and Sandburg, but something greater, an avatar, as Blair had claimed, perhaps an avatar of Balam, the protector. Ellison/Sandburg seemed to grow in stature, melding into a shape neither of them could see from the inside, but one that must have frightened even the avatar of Tlacolotl. As the horned owl tried frantically to avert its dive, Jim knew that the golden glow of their shared essence was too powerful for the owl. Deep inside him, something inimical shriveled, twisted, and fell away from the unity, seared in the ferocity of the light, and Jim felt it leave him as the spirit crumpled to the jungle floor. Its conscious essence withered to nothing and died. Jim/Blair didn't see it with their eyes, but they saw it inside and understood it.
The possessing entity was gone. Jim's soul was free.
With a harsh cry of rage, the owl spun on an outstretched wing and soared back to the broken stone plinth where it had stood. As they watched it with their shared eyes, it drew in the great wings to its sides, and lifted the proud head in a glare that held hatred and resentment, and the threat that, next time, it would not be so easy to walk away. Then the living stone slid up its form and transmogrified it into its former state, glyphic and rigid, confined until the next encounter in its rocky prison. For one final instant, baleful eyes glinted yellow before the stone slid over them, leaving it no more than a lifeless representation of something once malevolent that had become powerless until some force might awaken it again.
Jim's head was empty of the threatening presence. And full of Blair.
Then the unity faded and died, and he was so alone in his head that he could almost hear the echoes of Blair's going. The loft materialized around him like the transporter room of the *Enterprise* when Scotty beamed up Captain Kirk. Jim shook his head to clear it and flung himself at the couch, where Blair sprawled, groggy and half conscious. Naomi lay curled on the floor at Jim's feet. Her eyes were closed, but she was breathing deeply and regularly, as if she were only asleep.
Jim didn't know what to do for her, and she looked like she could wait. Her pulse felt normal and her eyes weren't dilated. He took a second to scoop her up out of the way, deposit her on the loveseat, and cover her with a blanket before he went to his guide.
"Sandburg!" He grabbed up his friend and lifted him to check his shoulder for the place the talon had ripped. "Come on, Blair."
Blair's shirt was in tatters, but the skin beneath was undamaged except for three fading red welts where the claws had bitten. As Jim watched, disbelieving, the swelling faded, the redness lightened, and Blair's shoulder was whole. Shirts, it seemed, fared less well in the realm of the spirits, but the tattered fabric was proof, had he even needed it, that what had happened was real.
Jim prodded cautiously into his mind. Nothing. No lingering remnant of the entity, nothing to suggest it had ever been there at all, nothing beyond the ruined shirt--
--and the certainty, inside his head, that he had, like Luke Skywalker, taken a great big step into a larger realm.
It was almost lonely inside his head without Blair there. In that brief instant, there had been a sharing, a knowing--even more than the time at the fountain that had been so hedged about with his agony over Blair's death that he had been unable to face and accept it. Gazing down at the half-conscious man, he felt a sudden wave of warmth, of love, of understanding, feelings he'd never be able to speak aloud without terminal embarrassment. How was it possible to know another human being all the way down to the soul? Was this the way sentinel and guide were meant to be? Could he live like this? Jim Ellison, essential loner? Congenitally anal, as Blair had once accused? Conventional? Stubborn and independent? It went against his entire nature. Could he accept what had just happened?
On the other hand, could he live *without* it?
He put out his hand and touched Blair's cheek. His flesh felt cool and normal under the touch--and very important to him. It wasn't like any relationship he had ever experienced: not a lover, not family, not even what he had always thought of as friendship. Instead it was something greater--deeper, stronger, richer. There weren't a lot of sentinels and guides walking the earth in this day and age. Maybe what made it work was so much more superior to anything he'd ever before experienced that there was nothing to compare it to.
That didn't mean he had to go around *talking* about it.
Blair's eyelids fluttered and he gazed muzzily up into Jim's eyes. "Welcome to my world," he said, in a shaky voice that could have been due to the lingering effects of the drug--or to an emotion he couldn't express any more easily than Jim could. There was hesitation in his tone, too, that went along with Jim's reaction in the hospital after the fountain. "Ready to test the water now?" he ventured hopefully.
"Hell of a world, Sandburg," he muttered. Disappointment flashed in the blue depths of his guide's eyes. "It's not what I'm used to," Jim added hastily. "I'm not sure I can handle it that intense."
"I don't think we have to," Blair replied with a sudden realization. "Not all the time. That's special. For a need. For when we have to. But if we've had to twice, we might need to again. Jim, come on, we've got to take this step. Please?"
There was the puppy-dog look he could turn on at the drop of a hat. Jim didn't want to admit he was helpless in front of it. Big, tough cop, and Blair could wheedle him into almost anything.
"Shit," he muttered under his breath. "I couldn't have done it without you," he said. "How did you know...?"
"I didn't, not for sure," Blair admitted. "But I thought that's what it was. It's just that...you had to be the one to figure it out. I wanted to yell it to you loud and clear, and I knew I couldn't."
"It was a test?" Jim heard his voice rise on the last word, and that made Naomi shift and mutter something faintly under her breath.
"Not *my* test," Blair said hastily. "It wasn't about a test. It was about that entity wanting to take you over. I didn't know all the ins and outs until we were...over there." Jim knew he could never match the awe that rang in his guide's voice.
"But to win," Blair continued, his face scrunched up as if he were thinking furiously, "we had to use the full abilities of sentinel and guide together." He stretched out a hand and curled his fingers around Jim's wrist. "Don't you see, Jim? Most of the time, it'll be normal-- well, at least as normal as we ever get. But sometimes--well, it can be so much more. It's so cool, man. Before, it was so fast, and there wasn't time for...." His voice trailed off. His eyes locked with Jim's. "Oh, man, it scares me, too. But that's okay. As long as we're in it together?" There went the puppy dog look again, but along with it was something more, a need for Jim to accept that went all the way down to the bone.
Jim hesitated. God, this scared him, and he didn't like being scared. He shrugged. He couldn't back away now. "Guess I better make sure I know how to tread water," he said.
Elation burst across Blair's face, and he lunged up and threw both arms around Jim's neck.
"Oh, for God's sake, Chief...." But he returned the embrace for a couple of seconds before Blair stiffened and drew back. His face was positively green. "Uh, Jim, I gotta--" He blundered up past Jim and raced madly for the bathroom.
Jim followed. He should have expected that after whatever it was the entity had forced him to eat when it was controlling Naomi. He held Blair's head while he brought up the entire contents of his stomach, the fingers of his other hand gentle as he rubbed Blair's neck.
Okay, if he was in for this, he was in for it all. "Hang in there, Chief," he soothed. "It's gonna be just fine."
"Is Mom okay?" Stomach eased and his face mopped up, Blair ventured out of the bathroom. He looked a lot better, if still shaky on his feet.
"She's starting to wake up. What I can't figure is how you threw off the knockout drops so fast. I could smell it in the food, that's why I tried to stop you from taking a bite."
"Oh, man, you could *smell* it? Jim, that's incredible. I wonder if sentinels had the job of testing the food before the king would eat it, things like that." He craned his neck to look past Jim at his mother. She was curled up on the loveseat, smiling a little in her sleep.
"Maybe spirit walking or whatever the hell we just did takes care of Mickey Finns," Jim theorized lightly. "It took care of that shoulder wound you had."
"Shoulder wound?" Blair's hand flashed up to investigate. "Jim! It doesn't even *hurt.*"
"First thing I checked. Think I want you bleeding all over my furniture?"
"Ji-im!" He felt around for any trace of a wound and craned his neck to try to see. "It's not even *tender*. But my shirt's a mess. Oh, man."
"So what the hell happened?" Jim blurted out. "Your mom got possessed at her seminar or whatever it was?"
"She said they were channeling." Blair's eyes widened. "I think the charm on her bracelet had the ghost or spirit confined in it and whatever they did at the meditation freed it. She's had that bracelet for years. I remember it when I was little. But I bet that channeling she was talking about loosed the spirit, somehow."
"And things like that really happen?" In spite of the experiences of the evening, Jim couldn't hold back his skepticism.
"Q.E.D." Blair grinned. "I don't think we'll ever know all the details, but I think the spirit was Mayan. I think it worshiped Tlacolotl. That's why the avatar could fight us on the spirit plane. It was more than just an attempt to take over your body, Jim. In a way, you became the avatar of Balam, to protect and defend."
"Balam sounds like a kind of Mayan cop god, with this protecting the innocent bit."
"Maybe he was the Mayan god of sentinels, Jim. I bet if I checked it out, I could find some references. I haven't done that much research on the Mayans, more with the South American tribes. But I don't think it was so much because you had the senses that it wanted you. It was because you were a sentinel. You were the antithesis of its beliefs. If it could control you, control your senses, it would win. It's so great that you held it back long enough to go over into the spirit realm. Over there, you were stronger and you could fight it."
"With your help, Chief."
Blair beamed. "Just think what we can do, Jim! It's so amazing." He went over and knelt beside his mom. "What do we tell her when she wakes up? Will she know what happened?"
"The entity said she was still there, that she was aware but she couldn't fight it. I had a few minutes of that, shoved off in a corner of my mind, but I could still see everything around me. She might be a little shaky, but I think she'll be fine." He glanced at his watch. Maybe they should call 911 for her. Then he froze. "Chief!"
Blair broke off taking his mother's pulse and looked up. "What's wrong, Jim?"
"It's five a.m. We were over there all night!"
"I bet time moves differently over there," Blair replied. "That's why I'm awake. The knockout drops had time to wear off. Maybe Mom just passed into normal sleep. When she wakes up, she'll want to know what happened."
"And what do you want to tell her about what happened, Chief?"
Blair hesitated, then his smile blazed out. "That we *won*, Jim. That we got it right."
Jim felt the corners of his mouth turn up in a smile that didn't want to quit. "You called that one, Chief," he said. "I think we finally did get it right."
Blair's answering smile lit his whole face. They didn't need any more words than that.
Then he turned and bent over Naomi. "Mom? Come on, Mom, wake up, it's all over. Everything's just fine."