by Sheila Paulson
Summary: When Blair's former step-sister brings him an ancient book that makes reference to Sentinels, Jim and Blair don't realize they are about to face a dangerous challenge. Rated a mild PG. This story was originally published in the zine Sensory Overload 2.
Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Jim and Blair and the other characters do not belong to me, much to my regret.
Jim could sense Blair's heartbeat as he started down the hall toward the loft; he checked for the sound of it automatically when he came home if he and Sandburg hadn't been together during the day. It was a subconscious protective thing, the Sentinel making sure his Guide and Shaman was safe. But tonight, Sandburg's heart rate seemed a little elevated. It wasn't enough to indicate trouble, but it quickened Jim's pace.
Sandburg turned toward the door as Jim came in. No, he wasn't in trouble. His eager grin blazed out; he was bouncing with excitement. "Jim, this is so cool, man!"
"Easy, Chief, or I'll have to pry you down off the ceiling," Ellison said tolerantly, unable to repress a smile. "You sound like a kid who just heard Santa Claus at the top of the chimney."
"Better, Jim," Sandburg cried. "Whitney's coming. This is great!"
For a moment Jim drew a total blank, then he remembered a couple of times when he'd brought the mail up; there'd been letters for Sandburg with 'Whitney' the only return address. Casting his mind back, he realized the letters had come from far-flung locations; once there had been a postcard from Rome. Jim hadn't read it but he'd noticed the signature. Whitney might have been an anthropology colleague but that handwriting had been female.
"Old girlfriend?" he hazarded. Blair had his share of them.
But Sandburg shook his head, hair bouncing. "Nope. Whitney's my sister, man. She was never my girlfriend."
"Your sister?" Jim echoed in disbelief, vaguely disappointed that Sandburg had never revealed this unexpected family member. "Come on, you never mentioned a sister. And neither did Naomi when she visited us."
"Well, it took you a long time to mention Stephen," Blair replied, but not defensively. Jim might have a lot of unresolved issues with his long-estranged brother, but these days they were making progress in working them out. "Anyway," Sandburg continued, gesturing with the pages of his letter, "she was only my sister for a year." Seeing Jim's look of utter perplexity, he took pity on him. "For a year Naomi lived with Jed Stone, and Whitney is his daughter. So for a year she and I were kind of like brother and sister. She's about three years older than I am, but we hit it off in spite of the age difference. We both liked old sci-fi movies, and she was interested in anthropology, too. I was only fourteen, but I was already into this kind of stuff--" a gesture at the textbooks and research materials that were strewn around the living room "and she was too. She was more into music, even then. I guess I always knew she'd make it big."
Jim looked blank. "She's a musician?"
"Where have you been for the past six years, man? In a cave? You never heard of Eddie Plummer?"
Jim nodded. "Yeah, Leftover Souls." He was extraordinarily pleased to be able to come up with the name of Eddie Plummer's biggest hit; Ellison's musical tastes ran more toward Santana and others of that time period. But Leftover Souls had been a ballad, approachable by anyone, and it had lingered on the Top 40 charts for months.
"He shoots, he scores," Blair lauded, amused. "You got it. Whitney's the female vocalist in the Eddie Plummer band--and she's married to Eddie. They've got a little boy, Cy--I think he's three. I'm his co- godfather along with Eddie's cousin, even though I wasn't there for the christening."
"Moving in high circles, Sandburg?"
Blair grinned. "Well, I haven't seen Whitney in five years and that was just a flying visit. I never met Eddie. I got invited to the wedding, but I was scheduled to be in Fiji about then so I couldn't go. That was a hard call, but Whitney said I had to go to Fiji and that she understood."
"Well, Sandburg, this is something new. A woman you never tried to hit on."
Blair gave Jim a nudge with his elbow but otherwise ignored the remark as beneath his dignity. "Whitney's great, Jim. You'll like her. The band's booked for a concert in Seattle tonight, but they have the rest of the weekend free, and she's coming tomorrow. She says she's got a book for me with something in it about Sentinels."
Jim stared. "She knows about that?"
"Not about you, Jim," Blair assured him hastily. "I've never told anybody about you. But she's read some of my articles and she knows about my research. She's got really good hearing; not quite in a sentinel league, but up there. We used to do tests on it. She thinks it's why she has perfect pitch. I did a lot of tests on musicians after we worked that part out. Sight and hearing seem to be the senses that are most commonly elevated; but then they're the easiest to detect. I thought maybe people who wind up as food tasters might have a tendency to a Sentinel sense of taste and I contacted a winery about it once and did tests on their tasters. It was cool, Jim. Two of them did have the senses, both taste and smell...."
Perceiving a long-winded dissertation approaching, Jim held up his hands to stem the flow. "Easy, Chief, you've told me a lot of this before. So this Whitney shows up tomorrow. You think this book can help you out?"
"Whitney says it's really old; actually she thinks it might be a book of spells, and it's in Latin. But she found some stuff about sentinels. The Latin word is excubitor. That's what you are, Jim, an Excubitor."
"I think I like 'Sentinel' better," Jim replied dryly. "A book of spells, Sandburg? Give me a break. There's nothing mystical about this, it's just genetic."
"Yeah, and how well did primitive man understand modern genetics?" Blair asked reasonably. "After all, if they thought an eclipse was caused by pissing off the gods, why not think a spell could create heightened senses. Wow, this could be really cool!"
"Just so long as you don't start muttering spells over me, Sandburg," Jim replied, amused.
Blair shook his head. "It's hard to imagine spells and you in the same sentence, Jim. It just doesn't compute."
Jim hoped that wasn't a case of famous last words.
When the knock came at the door the next morning, Blair launched himself at it like a rocket. He'd been pretending to work for at least an hour, eager to see Whitney again. Jim, who had the day off and who had meant to get up early and go fishing with Simon, had called Captain Banks the night before and canceled out. Blair had teased him about being a groupie, but he suspected that Jim just wanted to see the woman Blair had claimed as a sister. Jim could be protective of him, sometimes unobtrusively, sometimes blatantly. He'd been halfway reading a Tom Clancy book for the better part of an hour, and Blair had noticed him prick up his ears a few minutes before the knock.
Whitney and Eddie Plummer himself stood there, both tall, both Nordic blond, although Whitney was a strikingly beautiful woman, and not even Eddie's fans could call him conventionally handsome. His face was too long, too bony, his chin too prominent. But his smile was good humored and his blue eyes were friendly and intelligent. His stance at Whitney's side wasn't possessive; it didn't need to be. Even a stranger could look at them and tell they belonged together. The rock star held a huge, ancient book tucked under his left arm.
"Blair," cried Whitney and lunged for him, enveloping him in a vanilla-scented embrace. She kissed him satisfyingly on the mouth, rumpled his hair, hugged him again, fiercely, then backed off just far enough to study his face. "Look at you. You look wonderful. I don't think I've ever seen you look so good."
"Should I be jealous, love?" Eddie asked, although without a shred of worry in his voice.
She turned and gave him a smile so dazzling Blair felt an absurd need of sun glasses. "Never," she said. "Eddie-love, this is my kid brother, Blair."
Eddie stuck out a friendly hand. "I've heard a lot about you," he said with an easy grin. "Whitney says the year she had you for a brother was the best one she spent when she was growing up."
"It was," Whitney confirmed. "My dad was happy when he was with Naomi. I was sorry when they broke up. I always hoped they'd get married, but Dad said that wasn't Naomi's way. He always looked back on her with fondness."
Blair knew his mother had equally fond memories of nearly every man who had been part of her life. She always 'detached with love' when their time had ended. "Yeah, I wished the same thing," he said. He cut back on a flood of reminiscences. There would be time for that later. "Whitney, this is Jim Ellison. He's my partner. I told you about him."
"Your studies with the police," Whitney replied. "Hi, Jim." She held out a friendly hand. "So you put up with this little pipsqueak?"
"It's tough sometimes," Jim replied in the same spirit.
"Ji-im," Blair protested with a grin.
Eddie stuck out a hand. "Eddie Plummer," he introduced himself as if anyone wouldn't know him on sight. The spiky hair with the sunglasses perched in it was a trademark that was easily recognizable. Fans copied it, but Eddie was unique. Blair had checked up on him when Whitney had joined the band, reading articles about him, and finally decided Plummer was a decent guy. He didn't read the promo stuff; even Attila the Hun would have looked good in his PR. But Blair found a couple of people who actually knew Eddie, and they said he was a decent guy. He had, oddly enough, a Ph.D. in Physics and had taught for a year at Ohio State before he'd given up and gone to music full time. Blair remembered reading it had caused problems with his father; the family owned a prestigious science laboratory in Cleveland and Eddie had been slated to work there. Instead he'd recruited his friend Jackson MacKensie and Whitney and formed the band. Leftover Souls had proven a megahit, and the rest was history.
Having greeted Jim, Eddie offered the book he'd been carrying to Blair. "Here you go, Blair. Whitney thinks this might be just the thing for you. A lot of the stuff in here is weird; we were looking at it in the hotel room last night, but if you just ignore the spells and don't try to cast them you should be fine. Whitney had Ray look at it to be sure."
"He knows about occult things," Whitney explained. "He works with Eddie's cousin. He wants it when you're done with it, but he knows your work, Blair; he says he's read a couple of your articles about Sentinels, and he trusts you to use it for serious research. I've got a phone number if you have trouble with it."
"Is this for real?" Jim asked skeptically. "Spells? Give me a break. It's just a lot of mystical mumbo jumbo."
"No, it's not," Blair, Whitney, and Eddie said in unison. Blair grinned and continued, "The thing is, Jim, a lot of stuff like that does work, but it works because the people believe it will. Primitive tribes honestly believed their shaman could control elements of their lives. And so they gave him power. I think sometimes the will to accept granted a little genuine power, but let's not go there now. The thing is, anybody might have a little reluctant belief. Modern man might think he's not superstitious, but he might refuse to walk under a ladder or toss salt over his shoulder if he spills it. There could always be just enough doubt going to make things like this dangerous."
"And if it's the real thing, a skeptic might anger it," Eddie put in.
"Anger what?" Jim asked with growing impatience. But Blair, who knew about certain weird aspects of the Sentinel concept, even about the panther spirit Jim had seen on occasion, suspected Jim was angry because, as a rational man, he resented anything that took away control. Jim was a real control freak.
"That's just it, we don't know," Eddie replied. "I was like you once, Jim. A skeptic. Until an entity came out of a statue and tried to devour people's souls."
Blair saw the closed-up look on Jim's face and intervened quickly. "The thing is, Jim, anything that has to do with power is dangerous in the hands of a layman. You wouldn't want somebody who never touched a gun before to get his hands on an M-16. This is like that."
"But an M-16 is real," Jim insisted.
Blair could hardly start talking about mysterious panthers invisible to all but Jim in front of Whitney and Eddie, so he said, "Okay, Jim, you can be the skeptic. The thing is, there's a lot of nasty stuff in books like this. It looks like a grimoire." He opened it and peered into the pages. "Hand-written, by the look of it." Gesturing in the couple toward the couch, he said, "Come on in and sit down. There was a pause while everyone got settled
Jim glanced over Blair's shoulder to see the book more clearly. "One of those things monks did in the middle ages? It should be under glass."
"It's newer than that," Whitney said. "Ray looked it over and said he thinks it's from the Eighteenth Century."
"Who is this Ray guy, anyway?" Jim asked.
"Ray Stantz," Whitney explained as if no further explanation was necessary.
Blair's eyes widened. "The Ghostbuster?" he asked. "Way cool! I know him. I mean, I e-mail him. He's found some articles for me that have really helped out. Shaman stuff. I have to do a lot of research on shamans." He cast a sideways glance at Jim. Let Whitney and Eddie think it was connected to his anthro classes. He wasn't even going to tell his former sister that he was now the 'Shaman of the Great City'. That was private. Jim's secret wasn't his to share. He'd told Whitney in letters that he was doing research on the interrelationship of police officers in the field and had been partnered with a detective to account for the time he spent with Jim. She knew him well enough to be aware of how eclectic his interests were and she had never questioned his cover story.
"My cousin is a Ghostbuster, too," Eddie admitted. "Egon Spengler. My real name's Eddie Spengler, but don't spread it around." He grinned engagingly.
"So that's how you know about all this weird stuff?" Jim asked. Blair remembered them watching a program about the Ghostbusters on TV once and the way Jim had scoffed, dismissing them as carnival performers out to make a fast buck. Blair, who had already been e-mailing Dr. Stantz, had tried to defend them, but Jim hadn't wanted to listen. If a ghost appeared to Ellison, he would probably refuse to see it and walk right through it.
"Jim's not a believer," Blair said with a grin. "But that's okay. We don't want to start casting spells. I just want to check out this material on Sentinels and see if it's anything I can use in my work."
"I looked at the book when I found it," Whitney said. "I had two years of Latin in high school and I can remember bits of it, though not very much. It looks like the book's divided into sections. A lot of it is information. There were words like custos and defensor, and I know they mean 'protector' or 'guardian'. And then I found excubitor, and that means 'sentinel' or 'watchman'. So I thought maybe I was onto something. After that I got out a Latin dictionary--we inherited a really great library when we bought Segue, our house. And tried to find other terms that tied in. Blair, you talked about guides, who used to work with the primitive sentinels so I looked that up, and I found the word dux, which means guide. I couldn't find a Latin word for 'shaman'. It just wasn't in my dictionary--actually the word didn't come into usage until Latin was a dead language so that's not surprising. I couldn't really translate it, not without hours and hours of work, but I knew you had a better grasp of Latin than I did."
"That's great, Whitney. I can't believe you did all this."
"It was fun. We all helped, trying to look it over. Eddie and I, and Tommy--our butler--and Nina, who's Eddie's secretary. She knew Latin, but that didn't surprise us. She knows a little about a lot of things, a great lady. Cy even tried to help but he's hardly fluent in English yet." She smiled maternally.
"Think of it, you with a baby," Blair said. "I hope I get to meet my godson one day."
"We never bring him on tours," she said. "But if you ever get to New York, we're just up the Hudson a bit."
Eddie pulled an envelope out of his jacket pocket. "This is what Nina wrote up for you, Blair. It's rough, but it might help. She said it was something about a link between a protector and an intermediary, but she said the phrasing around 'intermediary' was weird and maybe it meant 'priest' even if the words aren't anywhere near the same. She said she thought it could be about a shaman, but that the term wasn't in use in Latin at the time this was written."
Blair took the pages gloatingly. "This is great, man."
"I'll never pry him away from it," Jim mourned. "But it can wait. If you've never been to Cascade before, we can give you the tour. And lunch. We found a restaurant where Sandburg is willing to eat but that has food normal humans like."
"Is he still on that nature stuff?" Whitney asked, wrinkling her nose. "He and Naomi used to do that, and I remember dad and I would sneak out for a burger with all the trimmings at least one night a week. And you came too," she reminded Blair, gripping his wrist affectionately.
"So now the truth comes out," Ellison retorted, amused.
Blair had leafed through the book as they talked, and now he lifted his eyes reluctantly. "I was a kid, Jim. Give me a break." He turned one page further, squinted at the pages and reached for his reading glasses.
Jim forestalled him. "Not now, Chief. Whitney and Eddie didn't come to watch you do your research. We're going."
Blair opened his mouth to protest, caught Whitney's eye, and laughed. "All right. But it's going to be great. I'll call and tell you what I find out, Whit."
Blair lay the book on the coffee table with Nina's notes on top of them, brushing his fingers over the text and the patterned design in the margin. "I'll get my jacket," he said. "Whit, you've gotta see my office. Okay, so it's not the fanciest place around, but the stuff there--you'll go crazy."
"The whole tour, Blair. That's the deal."
As the door closed behind them, the text on the page shimmered.
"Wow, that was a great weekend, wasn't it, Jim?" Blair asked the following evening when they returned from seeing Whitney, Eddie, and the third member of the band, Jackson MacKensie, off at Cascade International Airport. "I know you. You're gonna gloat like crazy at the station."
"Simon will be doing a little gloating himself," Jim said with a reminiscent grin. They had dined out Saturday night with Simon and his son, Daryl, who had been thrilled nearly speechless to discover he was to eat with the Eddie Plummer band. Blair could still remember how wide Daryl's eyes had grown when Jackson had seated himself beside Blair and talked to him about music. The kid had been floating when Simon had finally pried him away to take him home. Sandburg was glad he'd remembered the huge poster of Jackson Daryl had on the back of his bedroom door at Simon's house. But he could imagine Simon's reaction to Daryl's confession that he wanted to learn to play the drums just like Jackson. Simon would be hot for Sandburg's blood when that fact came to light.
"Isn't Whitney great?" Blair asked. "We were buddies when Jed and Naomi were together and we had a lot of fun. One or two other times Naomi was with someone who had a kid or two, and I never meshed with them the way I did Whitney."
"She's an intelligent woman," Jim replied. "I picked up on that right away. And she has a lot of interests. I can see why she'd get along with someone who has a brain like a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking in information as fast as a computer does."
Blair grinned, pleased with the comparison and delighted to see Jim so mellow. He'd watched Jim and Eddie talking; they were about the same age and had found some common ground there, although Eddie had never been in the military. Blair could relate to Eddie, too, even though the singer's background in academia had been relatively short and in a different field. Then too, he was related to one of the famous Ghostbusters, and that thrilled Blair, who was young enough to feel hero worship, just like Daryl did. Knowing Ray Stantz over the Internet had been a huge boost to him, and he might have to contact Ray about the book and its occult references.
He frowned consideringly. Was the concept of a Sentinel and his shaman/guide 'occult'? Well, it was secret, obscure, and some might call Jim's abilities 'powers', although they simply gave him a genetic advantage. In the days before such explanations were known, the Sentinel concept might have been considered occult by some. Blair preferred the scientific approach to his work with Jim; it was a lot easier to control than mystic mumbo-jumbo, especially when it wasn't mystical at all. But if the primitive tribes had considered it mystical, there had probably been different approaches in antiquity. It wouldn't hurt to research as much about those angles as he could.
"I know that look on your face, Sandburg," Jim cut into his thoughts. He grimaced. "You're going to dig into that musty old book and start devising new tests for me, aren't you?"
"Well, I'm going to dig into that musty old book," Blair conceded. "Why, does it smell musty to you?"
"It smells--odd," Jim replied after a considering sniff. "Not offensive, not really moldy, just different. It's a kind of dry smell, like you get on some of those weird artifacts in your office. I always think of it as the 'age' smell."
Blair's eyes rounded. "Wow, Jim, do you know what this means?"
"No, but I'm afraid you're gonna tell me."
"Don't you get it? You could validate artifacts. Maybe we wouldn't even need carbon dating with you around, at least not at first. We could weed out the hoaxes right away. Well, people who know about it can pick out obvious fakes. You wouldn't believe the processes people go through to fake artifacts; there are a zillion different processes to do it, including things like feeding them to an chicken and passing them through its digestive tract, not to mention chemical baths--"
"Whoa, time out, Chief. I now know more about the aging of fake antiques than I ever wanted to know."
"That's okay, Jim. We can test you on some of the things in my office one of these days. For now, I want to take a look at the book and at Nina's notes. After all, they're not experts on Sentinels. They might be reading things into it that aren't there. But if they are--Jim, this book predates Burton! It's got to have a lot of cool stuff in it. Maybe Burton even had access to this information."
Jim reached out and stroked the cover of the book. "It feels funny," he said thoughtfully. "Like something I never touched before. But I know how leather feels."
"Maybe you've got something there, Jim. Leather from different animals would feel different, wouldn't it?"
"I never thought about it. Tanned hide is tanned hide, isn't it?"
Blair frowned. "Jim, this is a grimoire."
"And what's that when it's at home?"
"A book of spells. Books like this were rare and were passed on to sorcery practitioners, witches, people like that. Sometimes they were bound in human skin. Or so the legends go. I never really saw a grimoire before. I don't know for sure if this is a real one, or just something pretending to be. You know, something an amateur whipped up."
Jim's fingers lingered on the cover a second more then it dawned on him what Blair had said. "Human skin!" he echoed in disgust, yanking his hand away. "That's disgusting, Sandburg."
"I know. I think so too. But you've gotta remember, the further back you go in history, the less value a lot of people gave to human life. And fanatics never did care about their enemies as people."
"This is a little too heavy for me, Chief," Jim said, rubbing idly at his hand as if to remove all feel of the books's cover. "But you go for it. I think I'm gonna watch the game. The Jags are playing--the first pre-season game. That's a lot more fun than musty old books that might be bound with human skin."
Blair grinned. He could never quite manage to involve Jim in the intellectual research necessary for his work. Jim liked practical applications and was most likely to agree to tests that he could apply directly to his police work. Blair, who would have liked to test simply for the sake of testing just to increase his knowledge base, understood--most of the time--that he couldn't turn Jim into a lab rat, and he didn't want to. Jim was his buddy, his best friend, and that was more important than being his research subject. "Okay, Jim," he conceded. "But I want to get started on this tonight. I've don't have any classes till ten tomorrow, and I want to do some work on it before I go in. I'll be free after one to work with you, so this is the best chance I've got to put in some uninterrupted work on it."
Jim went over to the kitchen to fetch a beer, held a can up for Blair, who nodded, then returned with two cans, passing one to Sandburg. He turned on the television set and sat down in front of it, while Blair went for his laptop, a notebook, and his well-thumbed Latin dictionary.
He read over Nina's rough translation first, knowing he'd have to redo it later for fine points. In essence it spoke of a tribal guardian who stood like a sentinel, defending them from the threats outside the borders of the tribal territory. The guardian knew all, saw all, stood tall, able to see like the birds in flight, to move silent and unnoticed like the snake among the grasses, to hear the stirring of an earthworm in the soil. It was the duty of the tribe to venerate and support the sentinel, to see he had food and clothing, shelter from the weather, women to satisfy his carnal needs--Blair grinned. It would be fun to tell Jim about that part of it.
The guide was the protector's protector, for when the watchman stood on duty, he needed someone to guard him. His concentration was intense, and could not be wasted on minor irritations. But he must have a guide/priest at his back, to tend to the necessary rituals. Rituals? Blair frowned. What rituals? Something to satisfy a primitive religion? Offerings to the gods? Or something specific to sentinels? He hadn't come upon this ritual bit before, at least not so specifically. Until now, when he'd touched upon it, the implication was simply a part of the ongoing worship practiced by the tribe. He and Jim didn't need any rituals, did they? This was intriguing. Comparing the text to Nina's neat, practical hand, Blair dug open the dictionary and went to work. Ritual? Ritus meant both rite and ritual. He needed a more thorough dictionary.
Tracing his finger over the Latin text, he found the place she had translated from. 'Perform the necessary rituals.' Yep, the word was 'necessario', pretty clear-cut. Also meant 'essential'. Hmm. He could feel slight ridges from the ancient ink. The pattern along the side of the page was intriguing, vaguely similar to Celtic knotwork, although with unusual twists and curls that resembled nothing Celtic he'd seen. There was something almost ominous about them.
Blair looked up at Jim. He was engaged in his game, his body language reacting to an exciting fast break. Sensing eyes upon him, Jim turned his head and looked at Blair.
His eyes glowed.
Blair blinked. He hadn't seen that, had he, that edge of red in Jim's eyes? Maybe it had been a reflection bouncing off building windows from the taillights of a car in the street below. It had vanished now. There was no trace of it.
"How you coming, Chief?" Ellison said in a perfectly normal voice. "You've been quiet for a whole hour. That's got to be a record."
"An hour? Come on, Jim, it's only been a few minutes, hasn't it?"
"An hour," Jim insisted. He turned away. "You're missing a great game here. The Jags are going to have a terrific year." A commercial came on, and he shrugged. "Want another beer?"
Blair realized he hadn't touched his first one. "No, not now, Jim, I'm okay. This is kind of weird stuff about rituals."
"It better not involve me going out naked in the moonlight to bay at the moon," Jim said with a grin.
"I sure hope not," Blair replied, winning an amused swat from Jim as he passed on the way to the kitchen. "Now if it involved that Sandy from the second floor...."
"You can sign me up for that one," Jim agreed as he returned from the kitchen. Blair blinked as he passed because there was something.... He wasn't sure what it was, and Jim sounded completely natural. But something felt different.
Blair turned away hastily, uncomfortable, and sought out the passage in the book that dealt with 'necessario' rituals. It was something about a temptation of joining or uniting. A test? A test of bonding? What did that mean? Temptacio? He frowned, trying to make sense of it. Consociare meant 'to unite' but it also meant to be united as partners. Maybe the book spoke of a ritual to unite the Sentinel and Shaman in their joint purpose. But 'temptatio'? The word meant 'test' too, but Blair had a bad feeling about it. Was there something to be done to link the Sentinel and the Guide? And what would happen if it was never performed? Burton hadn't mentioned any such rituals, but then there were papers and writings of Burton's he'd never been able to locate.
He started scribbling notes, pausing to trace his fingers over obscure and unfamiliar words, text that had faded, ambiguous lettering. In a way it was like trying to solve a cryptogram. He didn't know what he was doing, really. He only knew he was over his head until he completed a full translation.
He turned the page.
From the layout of the text, he realized he had found a spell. The person who had written it had drawn pentagrams into the four corners of the page and traced out obscure sigils or symbols between them. Blair had a font on his computer called 'Cthulhu', an ornate script that looked like something from the Necronomicon; he used it sometimes as a page border just for fun. This wasn't the same, but it seemed similar in concept. An ancient, magical language, the letters unfamiliar. It didn't resemble cuneiform or hieroglyphics, it was just weird. He touched the strange letters.
The light in the room shifted, each bulb dimming until it gave off a faint glow in the filament, bright enough for Sentinel and Guide to see each other and the outlines of the furniture but dark enough for huge, menacing shadows to converge and fill up the corners of the room. The TV screen was vaguely blue, flickering faintly, the sound vanished. Even the balcony windows seemed shrouded in darkness, damping down the glow of streetlights. Blair blinked. It might have been a brownout, although they didn't usually happen in October, but he didn't think it was. This had a weird, otherworldly feeling about it. He closed his eyes as if to shut it out.
When he opened them again, Jim was standing over him, glaring down at him, his eyes glowing red.
"Jim!" Blair yelped and tried to scramble into the couch cushions.
Jim opened his mouth and words came out in a language Blair had never heard before. The sound was familiar; it was still Jim's voice. But Blair had the weird idea Jim wasn't the one who was talking, that someone else looked at him out of his best friend's eyes.
The feeling melted away at Blair's yell, and Ellison said, "What the hell, Sandburg?"
"Did you feel that?" blurted Blair. "You were talking in a language I didn't know--and what the heck is wrong with the lights?"
Jim shivered. "I...yeah, I could hear myself, but it was like I was standing off in a corner, listening to myself, only I didn't know what I was saying. What the hell is going on here?" He checked the nearest lightbulb, then shook his head.
"I don't know, Jim," Blair replied. He shivered. His normal urge was to move closer to Jim, who was, after all, his 'blessed protector', but the inimical glare in the red, glowing eyes had removed any sense of safety he might have felt in Jim's presence. "Maybe it's...the book?"
"That book? You mean it's dangerous after all?" Jim said the words as if they tasted bad. He didn't want to admit the possibility.
"Ray tested it," Blair argued. "It didn't react to him. He probably used all sorts of Ghostbuster equipment on it. It should be safe, but it isn't."
"Give me a break," Jim scoffed. "That stuff's garbage, and you know it."
"So why did you suddenly decide to start talking in tongues?"
Ellison opened his mouth to argue and then closed it again. "I don't know," he said, for once at a loss. He could face a physical threat with the most courage Blair had ever seen in a human being. He'd unhesitatingly stood up to dangers that would have given Blair nightmares for weeks. When Blair knew himself to be full of anxiety, Jim had been a tower of strength. But what he couldn't face with equanimity was the unknown. He'd been panicked over his awakened abilities--until he understood what was happening. Once again he was faced with something he didn't understand, something outside his ability to believe and, knowing Jim, he would face it. But he was uneasy, off balance.
Blair, more receptive to the possibilities, suddenly realized this was one occasion when he had the edge. He'd never belonged to the lunatic fringe who saw UFOs every time they looked at the sky or believed a bear in the woods was Sasquatch. But he'd done enough research, traveled enough, and see so many things that weren't sensible by conventional explanation that he accepted that the world was bigger than most people believed, that the possibilities were greater.
"Jim!" An idea caught him. "This book was talking about a kind of test of bonding or unity, something to form the partnership between a sentinel and a guide. Maybe I...activated it by messing with the book. Maybe it didn't react for Ray because it needed a real Sentinel and a real guide to make it come alive. Maybe it's going to put us through this bonding test."
"By making me speak a foreign language? Give me a break!"
"By pushing us," Blair said. He didn't know what was about to happen, if anything, but he did know the air felt thick and strange as if it had trickled in from another time. There were scents in it he had never smelled before, jungle scents, desert scents, the acrid tang of salt water, all mingled together and laced with the coppery smell of spilled blood. It was as if the Loft had suddenly opened up to invite a bit of ancient history in. "This is weird, Jim," he cried. "Can you smell that?"
"I've been trying not to. It's like a slaughterhouse." Jim shuddered. "Only there's more to it. I've been trying to isolate it. One minute it's arid and dry, with a cold, weird tang to it, like the desert at night, the next it's almost like Peru when I was with the Chopec, only the smells are different."
"And then it's like the ocean. All sorts of different places. Jim, I want you to focus on me. You can keep smelling it and listening for danger, but I want you to find a focus. Don't zone out, but concentrate. I think something's going to happen, and I don't know what it is, but I think it's going to be bad."
Jim said something abruptly in a foreign language. Blair didn't think it was the same language, but before he could comment, Jim lunged at Blair, tackled him around the hips, and flung him down on the couch, landing hard on top of him. The air went out of Blair's lungs in a painful whoosh that didn't drown out the swish of air just over their heads. A thunk of sound followed it instantly, making Jim slide off Blair to the floor and look around. "Son of a bitch!" he cried. He wiggled off, keeping low, popped up briefly, tugged at something that came free quickly enough to make him stagger, then he dropped down and crawled back. Blair spent the interval wheezing for breath and had just managed to pull air painfully into his lungs when Jim held a spear in front of his eyes. It had a Folsom point and was decorated with feathers just ahead of the grip that had been made with a lanyard pattern.
"Wow," Blair exulted. "Native American. I don't know which tribe; I'd have to do some research. This is incredible."
"Somebody's trying to kill us, Sandburg. I don't think that's exactly incredible. We can worry about who it is after we stop them," Jim snapped. He was back in 'cop' mode, reacting as he always did to a threat. Pulling Blair down off the couch to the floor, he said, "Stay low. I want to check it out."
"Jim, no. You're affected by whatever's going on. You spoke in a different language this time."
Jim said something very short and Anglo Saxon that Blair agreed with wholeheartedly. A little profanity didn't go amiss in a situation like this.
The smells were fainter but they hadn't gone away. "Jim, maybe it's like there's a door opened up between other worlds. We can't see the doors, but that doesn't mean they aren't here. Different climates. There's got to be at least three of them. And they can see us."
"You mean we're available for target practice but we can't shoot back?" He reached for his gun.
Blair grabbed his wrist. "No. Don't, Jim. You can't just shoot at random. You might miss a gate and have your bullet go through a wall and kill somebody."
"Chief, we don't know there are any mystical gates around here. What we do know is someone just threw a spear at us, and it's not a Chopec spear. I'd recognize one."
"So would I," Blair confirmed. "No, this is Southwest. Maybe even Anasazi. But the Anasazi are long gone. So if it's one of theirs it would either be from a museum or it would be--well, from another time. This is kind of cool, Jim."
"If you think it's 'cool' to have someone throw spears at you, I really worry about you, Sandburg," Jim snorted.
"Jim, try to listen. Focus your hearing, see if you can hear anything that wouldn't be part of a normal evening in Cascade. We can both smell stuff, so it's gotta be strong."
Jim's nose wrinkled in confirmation. "You called that one right. I've been trying to focus my vision to see if there's anything to this gate thing, any vibration in the air, any change in color, any blurring of objects. I'm not seeing anything. I just can't buy it."
"Maybe we should try to find a gate by feeling for it. We could walk through." Blair tried to sit up.
"And wind up trapped back in history?" It sounded like Jim was slowly starting to come around. Then his features narrowed. "This is ridiculous. It's possible we're hallucinating, or that someone has plotted against us. Maybe opening the book released a poison gas or something."
"Come on, Jim," Blair insisted. "You know it's got to be something more than that. It didn't poison Whitney or Eddie. I think the book is testing us."
Ellison shook his head. "I can't believe that. It's just an old book. It doesn't have any power. I don't believe it," he repeated stubbornly.
"Jim, you've gotta," Blair tried again. "I don't understand it any more than you do, but I know it's true. You have to trust me here. You have to believe it, and go with it."
"I trust you, Chief. That goes without saying. But you're asking me to believe the impossible."
"We've gotta work on that, Jim," Blair insisted. "Maybe you can't believe six impossible things before breakfast like it says in Through the Looking Glass, but if you can buy the Sentinel concept and panther spirit guides, you have to know there's a bigger world out there than we can see with our senses, even with your senses. I don't know what's going on here, Jim, and I don't like it, but we have to deal with it-- somehow."
"Then tell me how," Jim said, his mouth tight, his body braced and wary. He was listening for the threat of danger, his senses tightly focused, concentrating for all he was worth. "How can I fight against spears that come right out of midair? Look at that trajectory, Chief." He gestured. "That spear had to come from the kitchen, but there's nobody in the kitchen and no way anybody could have gotten in there without me seeing or hearing him."
"Jim, when you see the panther, it gets right up to you without warning you?" Jim never talked much about the panther, but Blair was pretty sure it came and went soundlessly, alerting Jim by means of a sense that wasn't one of the conventional five.
Ellison's frown deepened. "But it isn't throwing spears. This is tangible." He hefted the weapon. "I can touch it and feel it. It's real. What I can't believe is that something real can come out of something unreal."
Blair's eyes were moving continually, watching this way and that for the slightest movement in the shadows. The darkness was vast, as if the room stretched away beyond the faintly-defined boundaries of walls. It was as if he could get up and walk right through the walls into...another place. The sensation was so strong he couldn't believe Jim didn't feel it too.
"We have to do something," he said. "We can't just huddle on the floor. If I'm right and it's some kind of test or crisis caused by the book, we have to face it in order to get through it. And if you're right and it's somehow rigged by an imaginative criminal, we still have to do something. The longer we sit here, the better chance we give whoever threw that to get the jump on us." Usually it was Jim who came up with the plans, but Jim had pulled his disbelief around him like a shield. He would fight what he could see, but he his mind was more conventional than Blair's, and just maybe it couldn't stretch far enough to take that in.
But that wouldn't matter when facing physical spears. A weapon like that could kill, no matter where it came from. There had to be a solution. There had to be a way to stop what was happening, and if Jim was determined to treat it as a crime instead of a mystery, how could they ever hope to stop it?
"I'm not letting anybody get the jump on us," Jim insisted. Gun in hand, he edged around the corner of the couch and surveyed the room, eyes narrowed.
"Focus, Jim. Concentrate," Blair said automatically. "Try to center your vision. This is different. Try to look for vibrations or disturbances in the air like you said. You can see differences like that if you look for them."
Jim obeyed; in spite of his refusal to believe, he was accustomed to acting on Blair's coaching. "I don't see anything like that," he insisted.
"You can do it, Jim. That spear came from somewhere. Look in that direction. Follow the trajectory back. Then focus there; short of the kitchen wall. Stay with me, don't zone out. You can hear me, but you can see much more detail. Try to imagine the molecules in the air."
Blair had to give Jim credit; he honestly tried to do what Blair urged even if the possibility was so far outside his realm of possibility that he couldn't accept it. But either the passage wasn't visible, even to a Sentinel, or his disbelief impeded him. He made an irritated gesture, then he rose slowly, braced to duck at the first sign of movement. "Stay here, Sandburg," he insisted and started toward the kitchen, gun at ready.
Blair wanted to stay down where it was safe. He was constitutionally opposed to placing himself in the line of fire. But he came to his feet as if drawn by invisible cords, and put himself at Jim's back. He was Jim's guide and, while the Sentinel had a job to do, he needed the Shaman to do it without risking the zone-out factor. Blair knew Jim faced threats at times when his guide wasn't present, when he was at Rainier, in classes or unavoidable meetings, in student conferences. But he also knew Jim didn't risk total immersion in his senses at times like that. It would take a major crisis or the risk of someone's life for him to chance going in too deeply when Blair wasn't there to watch his back. Simon could help in a pinch, but knowledge of Jim's abilities didn't make him an expert.
"I told you to stay put, Sandburg," Jim hissed, aware of Blair at his back.
"I can't, Jim. This is something we're not prepared for. You might have to focus really deep; you need me."
"I need you not to take a spear through the heart, Chief," Jim insisted fiercely. "You're not trained to be under fire."
"You're not trained to be under this kind of fire," Sandburg began when the scent of jungle intensified. "Look out, Jim," he said.
"Behind you!" Jim shouted, pinpointing the direction of the scent. Grabbing Blair, he yanked him sideways instinctively.
Blair didn't know if his sense of disbelief made him hesitate that fatal split second or if it would have been too late in any case, but the whoosh of sound ended in blinding pain digging into his left side just above his belt. He goggled idiotically at the arrow that had slid into his side and protruded on both ends from his body, although only a couple of inches of flesh imprisoned the arrow. It had nearly missed him entirely, and that was due to Jim's lightning reaction. It was a small arrow, the kind the jungle tribes in the Amazon basin used to bring down small game. The kind they sometimes tipped with poison....
Blair's knees gave way on him and he went down, folding up like an accordion. Jim followed him the whole way down, hands steadying and supporting him. "Chief?" There was a tearing note of panic in his voice.
Stunned and shaky, he struggled to find his voice. "Jim," he said, his voice quivering, "sometimes, they poison the arrows...." He was amazed at his ability to speak reasonably.
"It didn't hit anything important," Jim was saying in a reassuring babble. It pretty much just passed through the flesh of your side. I have to take it out, but it'll bleed then. I need the first aid kit." His hands were on Blair's shoulders as he eased the smaller man down on his uninjured side. "How do I tell if it's poisoned?"
"Think, Jim." Blair was floating. "You've been in the jungle. Check the tip. It's gonna have...my blood on it." That idea made him shiver. "But if it's poisoned, there should be an oily substance. Take it out, Jim, and make sure...."
"Do you feel any numbness or paralysis?"
Blair shook his head. "I don't think so. It just hurts, man."
Jim pulled Blair's shirt away from the edges of the arrow; he had to unbutton it and lift each side up carefully so as not to jar the wound. It hurt. Blair flinched involuntarily, causing Ellison to bite his lip but not to stop his work. When he had exposed the tiny arrow, he took out a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it carefully around the wound. It had only caught a flap of skin and the cloth could reach to entry and exit wound. If it wasn't poisoned, Blair would be sore for a few days and that would be it--assuming other arrows didn't hit him. But if there was poison....
Shamans in history had learned how to absorb poison without killing them. They had practiced all kinds of mystical abilities to preserve their lives; sometimes they even employed ritual mutilation, a practice Blair had never wanted to emulate. His mind was completely clear. Too clear? Didn't some poisons do that, create a dreadful clarity before the end?
"Stay down," Jim said urgently. His hand clasped Sandburg's shoulder tightly, reassuringly, then he was gone, scuttling away to retrieve the aid kit. Blair could feel the arrow as if it touched every molecule in his body. The room was suddenly cold, icy cold, and the smell changed....
"JIM!" He erupted upward, dislodging the handkerchief and causing a stab of pain through his side. "Something's coming!"
Ellison's senses must have given him an instant's warning even before Blair cried out. He went flat on his back just as a huge white shape charged him in a musky smell and a clatter of claws on the floor. Blair got a glimpse of a pointed muzzle and hot eyes before the great white bear lunged at Jim. Ellison drew his legs up to his chest and met the animal's leap with the force of both feet against it. With a growl that shook the entire room, it fell backward. Jim raised the gun and pumped six rounds into it in rapid succession. For the first three, it kept coming, making Blair's stomach knot in dread. The fourth made it pause. With the fifth, it staggered, and the final shot made it collapse in a massive heap, patches of red staining the white fur.
Blair heard himself give a hysterical laugh. "There's your proof for you," he said. "How many times do polar bears come out of thin air into people's living rooms?"
"This is crazy, Sandburg," Ellison cried, warily circling the beast, checking for signs of life.
"So how are you going to explain a dead polar bear in your living room?" Blair gripped the back of the couch to maintain his balance. He was shaky and still bleeding, but his hasty motion had not entirely dislodged the arrow. It felt different, though. He reached down for the shaft, realizing it had broken. The tip with the arrowhead had fallen free and the back half was barely impaled any longer. He plucked it loose and held it up to look at it.
"Damn it, Chief, what the hell are you doing?" Ellison grabbed his shoulders and eased him down on the couch. "You're bleeding--"
"Of course I'm bleeding," Blair returned. "What do you expect. Let it bleed a little and clean the wound."
Jim snatched up the arrow tip and focused eyes on it. "I don't see any foreign substance." He sniffed it. "Or smell any. Just the smell of your blood."
Blair still felt acutely focused, ever sense sharp. "I've gotta say, Jim, it's pretty crummy when you have to know what my blood smells like."
Ellison lowered his head. "Sometimes I think maybe Simon's right and I've got no business dragging you into--"
Blair held up a hand. The motion tugged at his wounded side and he winced but ignored the pain. "Jim, listen. You have to. You need me to keep your senses in line. It's just a crazy world, that's all. Besides, this wasn't something you got me into. This time I got you in trouble."
"You're the one who's bleeding." He picked up the handkerchief and placed it over the wound again, the pressure of his fingers causing Blair to suck in a painful breath.
When Jim would have yanked his hand away, Blair said quickly, "You have to, it's okay. Jim, listen. There's a warning. We can both smell it when a gate opens, even me. I could feel the cold that time, too. I thought for a second I was passing out or something, but it was because that passage opened into a place cold enough for a polar bear to live. Don't you get it, Jim? We activated some kind of test. We have to get through it together and finish it. Stick a few band-aids on me and get me on my feet."
"It's a test for my senses, Chief. You're hurt. You take this test on the sidelines."
Blair shook his head. "I can't, Jim. I have to do it with you. It's a test of unity, whatever that means. I think it means we have to find the solution together--as a team."
Jim shook his head, still clinging to his stubborn resistance. "I don't know how it happened, and I still don't want to believe it."
"I know you don't. Come on, Jim, a control freak like you needs to feel like you can take charge of everything around you. The thing is, none of us can. We can regulate pieces of it, and that's all. But you think you have to all the time, and that's why you come down so heavy with the house rules and stuff--because that is something you can influence. It's one of the reasons you make a good cop, too, because being a cop is imposing order." He had to get it said because he felt woozy and weaker than he liked, even if he knew the wound wasn't serious in itself. The greatest dangers of it were infection and shock, and both could be prevented with luck. He just didn't know how much luck they might have.
"I've gotta bandage that wound," Jim said impatiently and made a quick run for the first aid kit. He didn't want theories. He wanted concrete things to do. That was the way he was made; it was the way he thought. It was why he didn't always listen when Blair was giving him the theories behind the various experiments they tried together. Jim didn't want to know why, he wanted to know how, and to know what the end result would be. Blair understood that. He just wasn't sure Jim understood his side of it.
Blair lay sniffing the air while Jim was gone and greeted his return with relief. Wounded, he felt far safer with his Blessed Protector right beside him. Besides, who knew what was going to jump out of the air next. Jim's gun wouldn't stop a charging rhino or a tribe of headhunters--and who was to say only primitive challenges would emerge?
But the air didn't change. The lights were still dimmed, the faint glow of each bulb's faded filaments providing little illumination. The shadows grew in Blair's imagination as Jim worked on his wound, monstrous shapes that could come to life in a heartbeat. He watched them uneasily, concentrating fiercely to block out the agony of the disinfectant Jim was applying so liberally.
"Sorry, Chief," Jim breathed. "I have to. I don't have any reason to think we can just walk out of here but as soon as you're taped up, we're gonna try."
"What if it follows us, Jim?" Blair lifted his eyes from the shadows and drew his gaze back to his friend's face. "What if we have to finish it before we can be rid of it? It isn't just going to stop. It's a test. You have to complete a test before it's over. You can't just walk away."
"You can decide not to take it," Jim returned.
Blair shook his head. "I don't think we can refuse this one, Jim. Not unless we want to give up what we do. The Sentinel thing. You'd still have your abilities, but I think this is something important."
"Not as important as your life," Jim insisted. "Why is it important?" his voice rang with frustration.
"I don't know yet. But I know if it wasn't important, I wouldn't be able to smell the gates opening as quickly as you do. I don't have any Sentinel ability, Jim. But I can smell whatever it is. That weird smell that feels ancient like a forgotten tomb."
"Smelled any tombs lately, Chief?" Jim said. Maybe he was attempting to lighten the mood or simply to point out to Blair he didn't have to view everything in extraordinary imagery.
Blair nodded. "I was in a pyramid once in Central America. They broke into a sealed room. I wasn't there as an archaeologist but because the natives were working with the archaeological team and they needed an anthropologist on site for a few weeks because most of the tribal people hadn't seen a white man before and they wanted to make sure they didn't do all kinds of cultural damage. Anyway, they broke into a sealed chamber and it was a burial chamber of some kind. They tossed most of their sacrificial victims into the cenote--the sacred well-- but these had been bricked up alive. They didn't find out why, at least not when I was there, but the natives made me go in and look." He made an abrupt gesture that pulled on his wound and made him wince, but he scarcely noticed. "They said it was important. I don't know why. But, God, Jim, those people had died struggling to get out. I had nightmares about it for weeks. Anyway, there was a smell in that room, like the way the Loft smells right now. It smells centuries old. Ever been in the Catacombs in Rome? There's that old feeling there, too."
"Easy, Chief." Jim put his hand on the younger man's shoulder. "I know the smell you mean. I can smell it perfectly, remember. So how do we fight it?"
"I don't know," Blair returned. "I just know we have to work together."
"We always work together," Jim reminded him. "That's what partners do."
The air thickened. "Uh-oh," Blair said uneasily as the salt-tang of ocean air permeated the loft.
This time the spear was flaming, and it thunked into the inside of the door, igniting the poster there in an instant. Jim was moving almost before the impact, yanking it free, stomping out the fire, beating at the flames on the door.
"Jim! You'll burn--" Blair launched himself at Jim, grabbing up a shirt that had been left on the back of a chair. He caught Jim by the arm, whirling him around away from the blaze. Sandburg's side was a huge throb of agony, but he ignored it, beating at the fire with the shirt.
Jim took it out of his hands and finished the job. "Sit down, Chief. You'll break your wound open and start it bleeding again."
Blair knew it was already bleeding. He could feel the warmth of new blood trickling down his side and the sticky wetness of the waistband of his jeans. But he could tell from the way Jim dropped the shirt when he had finished beating out the fire that Ellison's hands had been burned. Now they were both injured. And so far, all they'd been doing was reacting to threats. They had yet to take the initiative or figure out what needed to be done to complete the test.
"Jim, come on, Jim, let me see your hands."
"Damn it, Chief," Jim began. "I told you to stay put!"
"Never mind that," Blair said just as hotly. "I want to see your hands."
Jim grabbed Blair and yanked him over to the couch, hissing with pain as he touched Sandburg. He made them both sit down then, impatiently, he stuck out his hands.
Blair caught his wrists and studied them. Already reddened, his palms were beginning to sport a few blisters. "Jim, you've got some second- degree burns here." He felt a surge of panic that he quickly suppressed. If Jim couldn't hold a gun.... Yet a part of him knew this test wasn't about guns.
Jim pulled free, donning that stubborn, stoic expression he wore when he meant to persist in spite of his physical condition. He'd worn just such a look when the golden had blinded him and he'd intended to continue working in spite of it, concealing his condition from all but Blair and Simon. If he'd broken his leg, he'd still be trying to walk on it if he perceived a threat that needed to be dealt with. "I'm okay," he said. "I have to deal with--with whatever this is." An impatient gesture around the dim living room.
"So do I," Blair replied. He didn't like it; he was scared, but that wasn't a new condition. He'd often been afraid since he started working with Jim. What mattered was doing what he had to do, in spite of being afraid. Maybe they were more similar, in their very different ways, than people thought. Jim didn't act scared, but that didn't mean he wasn't, just that he'd learned better than Blair had how to conceal it and do the job. He'd probably had to when he was trapped in the Peruvian jungle for eighteen months, not to mention years as a cop. Blair's job didn't exactly have that many hair-raising moments. He expected them in the field, but the threats of academia were totally different. Blair had learned to expect moments of utter panic while working with Jim, but not this kind. At least those other times, he'd understood the threat. He didn't understand it now, but he realized suddenly he understood it better than Jim did. This crisis required a Sandburg solution, not an Ellison one. Jim might not want to admit that, but Jim was far more out of his depth with the concept of their crisis than Blair was. He was facing it with his usual great courage and Blair was proud of him, but he was also stubbornly resistant to the very idea of it. And that might be enough to endanger them.
Wincing, Jim redid Blair's bandage, his senses focused sharply on their environment. In spite of the burns, his fingers were gentle, soothing. Blair allowed himself a moment's respite, sagging back against the sofa, trusting Jim to protect him the way Jim always did.
But that wasn't enough, was it?
"Jim, listen," he began excitedly, forcing his aching body to straighten up. But before he could finish, the air changed again, this time hot and dry like the desert. Ellison went into his most alert and protective mode, his every sense focused, and he pulled the half- bandaged Sandburg flat on the couch, shielding him with his own body, prepared to defend him. But the desert odor faded with no overt attacks. No arrows, no spears, no charging beast. The two men stared at each other from about a foot apart. "Nothing came through," Blair blurted in surprise.
"Nothing we know about, Chief. Something happened. Something attacked us each time. We're not safe this time either."
"But what.... Can you hear anything? Focus your hearing, Jim. If something's here, it's quiet, but you should be able to hear an animal breathing."
Jim concentrated, his face scrunching up. "There's...something," he said after a second. "But it's so faint I can scarcely hear it. Not quite a scraping noise. Whatever is here doesn't seem to be breathing- -it's stopped now. No, it's fainter...." His voice trailed off as he struggled to pinpoint a sound so faint it would be no sound at all to anyone less than a Sentinel.
"Jim, careful," Blair urged. "Don't zone out. Listen to me, hear my voice. Stay linked to it." No, that wasn't the answer. He wrapped his fingers around the wrist of Jim's hand. Not his gun hand. "Feel my grip," he breathed. "Focus on that. Now listen, but don't forget the link."
Jim moved fractionally so he wasn't weighting Blair down from his protective lunge, and his senses narrowed to an extremely tight focus. Blair looked past him at his view of the ceiling and the back of the couch. He was listening, too, but he could hear nothing except their urgent rasps of breath. Even the normal street noises outside had faded away. They were totally isolated here as if they'd stepped outside of time. Maybe they had....
Half expecting something horrible to pop up over the back of the couch and jump on him, Blair concentrated fiercely. The motion was so slight he barely had time to see it before Jim moved, jumping up with a wild yell, his hand lashing out, the gun striking the moving thing in a smooth motion that hit so fast the scorpion that had crawled up the back of the sofa had no chance to flinch away from it. Jim smashed it then struck the remains three more times to be absolutely certain.
He sat up shakily, eyes locked with Blair's. Sandburg shuddered. He hadn't expected anything like that. "Jim! You could hear it walking? That's so cool, man!"
Ellison nodded, the vagueness melting away as his focus expanded. "I didn't even see it until I hit it," he said. "I was counting motions and it was so fast, but there was a scuttling sound. I could even make out the individual feet. I don't think I ever went in so deep without zoning out before."
"Wow, that's great, Jim." Blair was shaking. Scorpions! God, he was afraid of them. He forced himself past that; it was dead, after all. "I knew you could do it! And you didn't zone out either! You did great!"
Jim grabbed his shoulders. "God, I hate those things, Sandburg," he admitted, his fingers digging in.
"Yeah, I hear you, man." Blair reached up and caught his wrists. They stared at each other, acknowledging a shared fear, all the tensions of the day, the concern that one or both of them might not make it through the crisis. "I could deal with the spiders that time with Alex, but scorpions...." Blair continued. He jumped up off the couch, moving away from it. "What's it gonna be next?"
Ellison moved with him, settled him into a chair, and automatically began to rebandage his wound. Blair let him, already feeling the cold, shaky weakness that comes with blood loss. He was glad Jim was here, that he didn't have to go through all this on his own. He tried to say so.
"Sandburg, you're the one who knows what will happen next," Jim interrupted. "This is more your game than mine. What do you think we should do?"
Abruptly the room lightened a bit. They eyed each other in astonishment, trying to understand why.
"What do I think we should do?" Sandburg hesitated. The light faded again. Then he straightened up. "The answer's in the book, man. I know you don't like that kind of thing, but we have to check it out. We have to understand it." The light brightened again.
"That stupid book." The light dimmed.
"Jim!" Blair's eyes widened in sudden realization. "Jim, listen. I know you hate the mystical stuff. I know it's hard for you to believe in it, but I think I'm starting to get it. Do you really think this is my game?"
Jim hesitated. "It's sure not mine, Chief. I don't understand this kind of thing. It's one of the reasons why I have a guide, a shaman, remember?"
"Then you have to listen, Jim. I know you don't like the answers, but you have to hear them, man. This isn't a battle about fending off spears and scorpions. It never was."
"Then what?" Jim demanded, irritation in his voice.
"Jim, do you trust me?"
"With my life, Chief. You know that. I have, more times than I can count." They stared at each other intently.
"Then trust me now. We have to get the book. We have to solve this my way. Shooting only prolongs it, gives us one more threat from another dimension or wherever it is."
Blair could feel Jim closing himself away from the possibility. "Jim, just trust me," he insisted.
Ellison stood there a moment longer, his face intent, then he gave an exasperated snort and retrieved the huge book, setting it in Blair's lap. "Now what?" he asked.
Blair grinned up at him. "Now we finish the test. You can do it, Jim. I know you can." The light quivered a notch brighter.
Wild yells erupted from the direction of Blair's bedroom and two tribesmen, hair braided elaborately, armed with long, curved knives, charged straight for them, stunned expressions on their faces. They didn't know where they were or what had happened to them, but they saw Jim and Blair and must have figured the two men were responsible for putting them into such a plight. That made them enemy and, without hesitation, the two knife-wielders charged.
"Jim!" Blair cried as Ellison ducked the slashing blade. "Get them, Jim. Get 'em!"
Ellison fired into the air, the loud report of the gun making them jerk to a doubtful halt, trying to understand where the sound had come from. Uncertainty wouldn't hold them long, but Blair knew he had to take advantage of even a second's delay. Trusting Jim to guard him from the attackers, he yanked open the book and fumbled for the right page.
Jim fired again, the bullet striking the leader's blade and knocking the knife from his hand. The man yipped like a dog and threw a jumble of alien language at his crony, and the two of them darted toward the dubious shelter of the kitchen where they bunched in the doorway, eyeing Jim and Blair suspiciously. Any minute now, they'd discover the kitchen knives....
Blair found the page and frowned at it. There had to be an answer here, and he had to find it before the two men attacked. Here was something. It seemed silly, but it was the only thing he could think of. "Jim. Clap your hands together three times," he called.
"I'd have to put the gun down," Jim began. The lights dimmed again.
Blair heard the tension in the natives' hasty words and knew they were getting ready to attack. If Jim put down the gun.... But Jim could stop them, even if he didn't have a gun. Blair knew that. "Jim, listen. You have to," he called. "I know it's crazy, but you have to."
Ellison shot him one dubious glance as if Blair had decided to abandon sanity, then he shrugged his shoulders. "Hell, Chief, I trust you," he said and, tucking the gun into his waistband, he clapped his hands together three times. "Do I have to say I believe in fairies now?" he asked wryly, his eyes never leaving the natives in the kitchen.
Before he finished speaking, all the lights blazed on at their full brightness. The otherworldly sensation trickled out of the air and the sounds of Cascade crept back, traffic sounds from the street below, a stereo thumping on a lower floor, the distant slam of a door. Blair stared at the kitchen. All at once, the tribesmen were gone without even time to throw a knife.
Over near the balcony doors, the huge, dead polar bear vanished before Blair's stunned eyes.
"Jim! You did it!" Blair exulted, bouncing gleefully. "You did it!"
"That'd be great if I had any idea what it was that I did," Jim replied sourly. He held up his hands. "The blisters are going away," he realized.
Blair felt the wound that had left him cold and sweating only moments before. His side was tender under his probing fingers, but the pain was already easing. "Wow, Jim! We're healing! Just like that! Just like it never happened. Oh, man, this is so incredible!"
The Sentinel reached down, felt Blair's forehead, eyed him measuringly, then bent to unfasten the bandage. Blair craned his neck and saw the wound mutate into a healing scab then fade away entirely, leaving him just faintly sensitive when he touched it, although that was easing too. The bloodstains lingered a minute longer, then they, too, began to fade. The charred marks vanished from the back of the door. "I don't believe that," he blurted.
"Neither do I. You sure you're okay?" At Blair's nod he shook his head helplessly. "Then what the hell happened? Did that book really tell you I was supposed to clap three times? You understand all this, Chief?"
"Sort of," Blair admitted, buttoning up his shirt.
Jim sat down on the couch, remembered the dead scorpion, and leaped up again to check for it. The insect, too, had vanished. He sat down again, more cautiously this time. "Then explain it to me, Chief."
Blair was silent a minute, thinking. Then he said, "I haven't translated all the Latin, but what I could figure out was that it was a test on how well you and I could work together."
"But we always work together," Jim objected as if it were a given.
Blair hesitated, pleased by Jim's involuntary words. "Yeah, I know, Jim, but there are still a few things--I don't know all the police stuff you do, so I have to take it on faith when you tell me something. Sometimes I get carried away and don't listen as well as I should, but it's enthusiasm, not doubt. I don't doubt you know your job. I trust you, Jim, and if I get carried away and screw up, it's not because I don't trust you."
"And you think I don't trust you, Sandburg?" Jim queried blankly. "My god, without you teaching me to use my senses, I'd be a basket case. I might even be in a rubber room for the rest of my life."
"I know you trust me--most of the time, Jim," Blair said seriously. "You listen when I talk to you about your senses, even when I'm only one step ahead of you with a new theory."
"Then what's the problem?" Ellison genuinely didn't know.
"Jim, you're outcome-oriented. You want to know why something works, and not only that, but how you can use it. You don't like the thought of tests unless you can see exactly how they'll help you--in a concrete way. But sometimes everything isn't concrete. And when that happens, you...zone out, in a way. You just don't listen any more."
Ellison hesitated, then he frowned, but it wasn't an angry frown. "The thing is, Chief, you talk all the time. And half of what you say is just rambling. You know it is."
"And you tune it out," Blair said. He didn't mind that--well, not very much. Sometimes he just babbled to organize his thoughts, sometimes simply because it was his nature. A lot of what he said couldn't mean a thing to Jim. No wonder he blocked it out--he could always recall it later if he focused, anyway. "Okay, Jim. I understand. But sometimes it's important. Then you have to listen."
"Like I did when you told me to clap my hands?" Jim shook his head. "I thought you were losing it there, Chief."
"Sometimes it's going to seem like that," Blair replied seriously. "Jim, this test, near as I can figure out, is about the guide and Sentinel trusting each other when the chips are down. There are times you have to listen even if what I say sounds crazy. That's what the book said, to give you a command that wouldn't make sense to you."
Jim stared. "It didn't tell you to have me clap three times?" he asked, irritation spreading across his features.
"No, it left the choice up to me. That was the only thing I could come up with fast. I knew you could get your gun again quick if you had to. I thought it would be safe--but it still had to be something weird. It had to, Jim. I was supposed to test you, and that's the only way the spell or whatever it was would end."
"I think that sucks, Sandburg," Jim returned.
Blair gave him a tentative grin. "I know but it was the only way. I had to have your attention and I had to let you know how important it was. If I'd stopped to say I was making up something weird, you'd never have done it." He paused thoughtfully. "I'll make a deal with you. If I think it's one of those times when you have to listen even if it seems crazy, I'll tell you. But you have to try, too. Because sometimes I won't have all the answers. You don't know how hard I have to run to keep ahead of you in your training." He looked up earnestly. "Sometimes I don't have a clue, Jim. I have to go with what feels right, and I'm scared to death I'll get us both in trouble because of it."
Jim must have heard his plea for understanding as well as the underlying fear that Blair had, that he'd screw up, that he wouldn't be able to help his friend. He smiled, reaching out to grasp Sandburg's wrists. "I trust you," he said. "Come on, Chief, no one in the world knows this stuff better than you do. You've studied it for years. You're forced to adapt it to the modern world, and you can do it on the run, when we're up against something tough. I didn't want to listen this time because I felt like I was in Fantasyland. But maybe sometimes it'll be that way out there. I get it. I understand what the test was for."
Blair's smile blazed out in return. "That's great, Jim. So next time I tell you to stand on your head and whistle Nights in White Satin, you'll do it without hesitating."
Ellison shot him a dirty look. "Don't press your luck, Sandburg." And both of them grinned.
"Jim, those natives," Blair said a little while later, when they'd put together a meal and sat munching contentedly. "They were weird. I can't identify them. They were Oriental; they had the epicanthic fold of the eyelids. But they didn't match any tribes I've studied. This is weird, Jim."
"Maybe they came from an earlier time," Jim offered. After all they had gone through, time travel didn't seem quite as impossible as it had that morning. Was that progress? Ellison wasn't sure, but today he'd had his mind stretched. The process had been painful, but fortunately for both of them, not fatal.
"Wow, Jim!" Blair's eyes grew huge. "That would be so cool. Maybe they were from the time of Genghis Khan! After all, we can only theorize about how they wore their hair. If only I could have seen those knives better. They obviously knew how to work metals, so that means...."
"Never mind what it means," Jim interrupted. "We didn't have time to take pictures, so you'll never know."
"But, Ji-im," Blair protested.
"Listen, Chief, we've got something more important to worry about right now," Jim reminded him.
"What? Think what we could learn, Jim!"
"Not out of that book," Ellison said with complete finality. "I've been thinking about it. If you hadn't figured out what it meant and got us out of it, we could have died in there. You were about to go into shock, and you know it. If we hadn't figured it out, you could have died. I don't care what kind of tests are in that book, I'm not taking any more of them. So unless you can study it without calling down attacks from other dimensions and other times, I think we should put that book in the incinerator the minute we get done eating."
Blair heaved a disappointed sigh, then he grinned and waved his fork for attention. "No, Jim, I've got an even better idea. We'll take the book to New York and give it to Ray and the other Ghostbusters. I've always wanted to meet them. I bet they'd give us a tour of their headquarters and everything, introduce us to their tame ghost. Come on, Jim, what do you say? Don't you think this would be a great time to listen to your guide?"
"No," said Jim simply. "Package it up and mail it to them if you have to. As long as nobody opens it, it should be safe enough. And it didn't hurt Whitney and Eddie. Maybe you have to be a Sentinel and Guide to make it work." He applied himself to his dinner, muttering, "Tame ghost!" in disgust under his breath.
"But it would be so much fun...."
"I've had too much fun already."
"You're a killjoy, Jim, do you know that...."
They looked at each other, content with their lives and with each other, and suddenly burst out laughing.