Redhawke.org
Sentinel Too Part Two
Sentinel Too Part Two
By CarolROI

Beta read by BethB
Written for PetFly by:
Teleplay by: Gail Morgan Hickman
Story by: Gail Morgan Hickman & David H. Balkan
Rated PG-13
internal thought in * *

~~~~~ Act I ~~~~~

Screeching to a halt in front of Hargrove Hall, I'm leaping out of the truck and running up the stairs. I'm nearly at the top when something makes me turn around. "Oh my god!" He's in the fountain. I stumble down the stairs and across the lawn, splashing into the water, yelling for H to give me a hand.

We each grab an arm and a leg and haul him out of the pool, laying him face up on the grass. I'm on automatic pilot now, yelling "Sandburg! Sandburg!" as I check for a pulse.

Simon bends over his still form, pressing his ear to Blair's chest. "I don't hear a heartbeat. Do you? Do you hear a heartbeat? Jim! Jim!"

I shake my head. "No, nothing." Nothing.

The captain snaps out orders. "Get an ambulance! Jim, get his airway open. All right, here we go."

I breathe for Sandburg, feeling the resistance, knowing his lungs are full of water. Simon does five chest compressions and I breathe for him again. "Come on, Chief."

More chest compressions, more breathing, more swearing. "Breathe, damn you!"

Then someone's pushing me to the side. Two EMT's are bent over him now, ripping open his shirt, charging the defibrillator, placing the paddles on his chest. "Clear!" Blair's body arches in the air, then flops back. "Again!" the tech calls, and electricity courses through his body for a second time.

"This can't be happening. This can't be happening. Come on, Sandburg. Come on, Chief." Please, please no, god, no.

Again and again they try to shock his heart into beating, but it's no use. One of the medics looks up at me and shakes his head.

"No! No! He's alive!" I yell, shoving EMT out of the way, doing the chest compressions myself.

Simon grabs me and pulls me back. "He's gone!"

Something inside me tears then. "No! He can't be gone, he can't!" A sob erupts in my chest. "No…oh, god, no."

I look at the faces, at the friends hovering over Sandburg. Rafe and H are silent, their expressions stricken. Megan's making little whimpering sounds around the hand over her mouth. And Simon--Simon's eyes are filled with tears.

In that moment, I truly realize what I've lost.

~~~~~~~~

Blinded by tears, I'm forced to pull over barely a block from the university. *Get a hold of yourself, Alex. Things didn't turn out like you planned. Blair's gone--get over it.*

But I'm wracked by sobs I can't control, and the sense of loss is so profound it's a physical pain. The world turns topsy-turvy as my senses go haywire--my skin is on fire, my hearing off the scale, my eyes burned by the sun. From a distance, I hear myself screaming, then everything goes blessedly black.

When I awaken, it's to the sound of Blair's voice. I look around wildly, but I'm alone in my car, the street deserted. My whimper echoes in the stillness. It was all in my head--his voice was in my head, it wasn't real. Tears sting my eyes again, and I close them, seeing him in my mind, watching his face light up as he talks about my senses, about sentinels; his amazement when I showed him my artwork. He believed in me, believed I could get past the sensory spikes, could learn to use my senses. No one else ever believed in me--about anything.

My pleasant visions are shattered by the image of Blair's pale, frightened face as I forced him to go with me, of the silence where his heartbeat should have been. "I'm sorry, Blair," I whisper, "I'm so sorry."

Turning the key in the ignition, I start the car. This will be my last job. Carl can have his freaking nerve gas and do whatever the hell he wants with it. I just want out. No more--no more frightened faces.

~~~~~~~~

"Jim…"

I breathe for Sandburg, then press his chest. "Come on, buddy."

Someone lays a hand on my shoulder and Simon's voice sounds in my ear. "Jim, let him go. He's gone."

I ignore him, focusing all my attention, all my will on Blair. "Come on!" Damn you, Chief, damn you! Don't you do this to me, don't you leave me!

Arms wrap around my chest, physically dragging me away from him. "No…no…let me go!"

"He's gone!"

"No! No!" I'm struggling, trying to break free, my gaze fixed on Sandburg's still, white face. A wolf's visage appears over Blair's. I stagger back in shock as the jungle surrounds me. The wolf from my nightmare stares at me, then turns and runs into the jungle.

I start to run after it. Incacha, the Chopec shaman who guided me before Blair, appears in front of me. "Use the power of your animal spirit."

Breaking free of Simon and Brown's hold on me, I drop to my knees next to Blair, cradling his face in my hands. Again, I see the wolf running through the jungle, only this time it pauses, looking back at me. Then I'm changing, shrinking and growing at the same time, becoming less human and more feline until I'm the jaguar, and chasing after Blair.

The wolf stops and turns, then sprints toward me as I run toward him. We leap into the air, combining in a burst of blinding light.

With a jolt, I'm knocked back out of the jungle and into reality. My hands are still cupping Blair's face--and it's no longer deathly cold. Stretching out my hearing, I pick up a heartbeat. I look up at my captain with tears in my eyes. "Simon, I can hear a heartbeat."

Pinching Blair's nose closed again, I breathe for him. "Come on, Chief, come on, come on!"

"Come on, Sandburg," Simon coaxes over my shoulder.

Blair's body heaves and shudders under my hands, then he's coughing and choking, vomiting up water. Quickly, I turn him on his side, brushing his wet hair out of his face as he continues to gag.

The paramedics push me out of the way then, placing an oxygen mask over his face. "We'll take it from here, detectives, thanks."

I get slowly to my feet, knowing there's nothing else I can do for him, and wondering how in the hell I did what I did. I start to sway, and Simon and H step in, each throwing one of my arms over their shoulders. "See?" I tell them, "It's gonna be all right."

Exhaustion makes my knees buckle, and it occurs to me that bringing someone back from the dead takes a lot out of a guy. Unable to keep my eyes open any longer, I pass out.

~~~~~~~~

When I come to, I'm lying on a gurney in the back of an ambulance, and judging by the movement I feel, I'm on the way to the hospital. I can feel the slight pressure of an oxygen mask on my face, and I breathe deeply, needing to clear my head, needing to remember what happened.

"Just relax, Detective Ellison, we'll be at Cas-Gen in a few minutes," the paramedic leaning over me says. "We're pretty sure you just fainted from the stress of the moment, but we want to have a doctor check you out as a precaution."

Nodding slightly, I glance to my left. Blair is lying on the gurney next to me, his hair wet, his eyes closed. An oxygen mask covers his face as well, and a second medic is checking the I.V. line running into his arm. Reaching out with my hearing, I listen to his heartbeat.

With a rush, the memories come flooding back. He was dead. I couldn't hear his heartbeat, he wasn't breathing, and I shiver as I recall doing CPR, tasting the chlorine as I blew air into his water-filled lungs, feeling the damp chill of his skin as I did chest compressions. All my senses had told me Blair was dead, yet here he was now very much alive.

My mind is still a jumble. Images of Incacha, of a jaguar, a wolf, and a bright light tumble over each other, blurring together.

Blair's eyelids flicker, then open, and my memories rapidly fade. Raising up on my elbow, I lean over him. "How you doing, Chief?" I ask him, pulling my mask down so he can hear me.

His shoulders lift in an infinitesimal shrug, and his lips move, but no sound comes out. He shrugs again, then graces me with a soft smile as his eyes close once more.

I lie back down, drinking him in with my senses, and I realize it doesn't matter how he was saved, or why he's still here. All that matters is that he is, and I have another chance to be his friend.

~~~~~~~~

The doctors and nurses keep telling me to rest, to try to sleep, but I can't turn off the thoughts racing through my mind.

What in the hell happened back there at the fountain? One minute I'm struggling with Alex, the next Jim's whaling on my chest and I'm coughing up a lung. In between, there was this crazy blue jungle…. Is this what Jim sees? 'Cause I can see now why he resists the mystical side to his abilities. It's just damn freaky, and from me that's saying a lot.

I run my hand over my face, avoiding the oxygen cannula. I don't understand why I have to stay here over night. If it weren't for the bruises on my chest, I'd feel fine. A shudder goes through me as the reality that I was dead for several minutes, if not longer, hits me again.

Jim chooses that moment to knock on the door frame, then enter. "You know, Chief, if you want to meet nurses, there are easier ways." He gives me a smile.

So that's how it's going to be, laugh it off. Works for me. "That's great, man, that's great. Now you tell me." But as much as I know we both want to avoid examining what happened, I have to tell him how I feel. "Thank you."

Pulling up a chair, Jim quips, "I couldn't let you die. You owe your last month's rent."

If he's more comfortable joking, then fine. "Oh, that's right. Sorry about that."

Jim looks away for a moment, and a flicker of intense grief crosses his face for a split second. "You doing all right?" he asks softly.

I shrug, unsure of just how much he wants to know. "Yeah, you know. I'm all right." I pause, then what happened to me spills out in a torrent of words. "I saw it. The whole out-of-body experience. It wasn't like that classic light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel thing. There was just a jungle. I was this wolf, and I was running towards a black jaguar. Then we collided, and there was a big burst of light. Next thing I knew I was spitting up water. The doctors are trying to tell me it's some type of an endorphin rush when the body starts to shut down but it was--"

"The same image. I saw the same image."

Whoa. And I thought it was freaky before. "You had the same vision?"

Jim nods slowly, looking as uncertain as I feel. "Yeah. It was Incacha who guided me how to bring you back."

Relief rolls over me, and I laugh. "I can't believe this. Einstein said the greatest experiences we can have are the ones with the mysterious. We are definitely there, my brother. Come on in, man. The water's nice." I wiggle my fingers at him, grinning like a fool.

His expression slips from wonder to fear. "Chief, I don't know if I'm ready to take that trip with you."

Closing my eyes, I bite the inside of my lip, forcing down my hurt. It's my fault he can't embrace what happened, the connection forged between us. He can't trust me because I helped Alex. Alex…there's a question no one's been able to answer for me. Opening my eyes, I look over at him. "Did you catch Alex?"

Getting to his feet, Jim shakes his head. "No, she gave us the slip. That's why I can't stay. Until she's behind bars, you're still in danger."

"Jim, man, you've got it all wrong. She didn't mean to kill me. She just wanted me to go with her, to help her with her senses--"

"--To be her guide." Jim's tone is venomous, and his eyes are blazing.

I gesture helplessly. "Yes, no, I don't know. But I do remember I was trying to run away. I slipped and fell into the fountain."

Jim clenches his jaw so tightly I hear his molars grind. "And she left you there! Some protector of the tribe she is!" He huffs out a breath, then stares at the ceiling. Finally he says, "Look, Chief, I've got to find her. Get some rest. I'll see you later." He stalks out of the room, and I'm not sure if his anger is because of Alex--or me.

~~~~~~~~

After leaving the hospital, I find I'm too angry to go back to the loft. I shouldn't have snapped at Sandburg the way I did. He died, for God's sake, and I can't even tell him I'm glad to have him back, that I don't know what I would do if I lost him. Instead, I yell at him for being himself, for empathizing with someone in pain.

I drive around for the next hour or so, trying to cool off, trying to get a handle on my emotions, until I finally come to a stop outside Alex's apartment building. Getting out of my truck, I stare up at it for several minutes, until the urge to go inside becomes too strong to resist.

Ducking under the crime scene tape, I enter Alex's home, dialing down my sense of smell. I pick through the rubbish, examining the remains of a jaguar sculpture. As soon as my fingers touch it, I'm transported to the jungle, where a moss-covered temple of crumbing stone juts out of the forest floor.

I drop the bit of pottery as if I've been burned. No more jungle. Bad things happen in the jungle. I need something of this world, something I can use to find Alex. Straightening up, I move to an armchair, laying my hands on the damp upholstery. Another vision assails me, only it's of this apartment, pre-explosion. Alex is talking to a dark-haired man with pockmarks on his face. As I watch, he pushes her into the wall, then pulls her hair. I let go of the chair.

Trying a table next, I see Alex in a sundress, leaning against an open doorway. She's looking out across a beach to the ocean. Wiping my sooty hands on my jeans, I growl in frustration. It's great to have visions. It would be even better if I knew what the hell they meant.

With a sigh, I leave the building. Maybe I can find the man I saw if I look through some mug shots. It's going to be a long night.

~~~~~~~~

Simon spends several minutes perusing the file I gave him before he looks up. "Carl Hettinger?"

I nod. "I had seen him." I don't mention where, though. "And then had an artist rendering run through the Fed's database and it spit out a name."

The captain consults the file again. "Hettinger…International weapons trafficking…Known to have contact with South American drug lords Carlos Arguillo, Jacquin Ceasarro." He looks up at me. "Now, you saw this man with Alex Barnes?"

I hesitate. "Yeah, in her apartment."

"Why didn't you mention this before?"

I try to obfuscate my way out of answering that directly. "Simon, this guy is known to have traveled to Sierra Verde twice in the last three months. Now, Arguillo operates out of the same region. I think that's where we're going to find Alex and the nerve toxin."

Simon's gaze is suspicious. With a sigh, I confess. "My senses are picking up things--like with Sandburg--that I don't fully understand at this point, but he's alive because I trusted a vision."

His eyebrow shoots up. "You got all this from a vision?"

"Yeah, I got a clear mental image of her talking to him. And then I saw a beach."

Skepticism drips from his next words. "A beach in Sierra Verde?"

I shrug. "I know it's going to sound odd, what I'm going to tell you, but Alex and I are both sentinels. I know, I know. But somehow I can sense her, sense her presence. I don't know how or why."

"Okay, okay." He sighs. "Right."

I take the file from him, and as I do, I hear the growling that's been a constant through out this case. The jungle reappears and two jaguars, one black, one spotted, circle each other warily in front of a crumbling stone temple. Sandburg's wolf watches from the shadows as the cats lunge at each other. The image fades as the felines clash.

*What the hell does this mean? And will I figure it out in time to keep Blair from being hurt again?*

~~~~~~~~

Forcing down my revulsion, I allow Carl to paw and kiss me. We're in a hotel room in Sierra Verde, where he claims to have a buyer for the nerve gas. When he finally comes up for air, I move quickly out of reach. "I should still go with you," I say, continuing our argument.

He shakes his head. "Arguillo will only work with me."

"I'm your partner, "I persist. Even though it's my last job, I'm not going to let him cheat me.

He snorts. "You're the thief; I'm the fence. I'll be back in a couple hours. We can go out and celebrate."

As if, I start to say, when the hotel room is replaced by jungle. Instead of Carl, I'm staring down a large snake. Raising its head, it hisses at me, baring its fangs.

I don't need Blair's help to interpret that message. I take a trip with Carl, and he comes back without me, the local policia chalking it up to banditos preying on tourists. "Why don't we stay in and celebrate?" I suggest. If I'm going to have to face off with Carl, I want to be on turf I'm familiar with.

He gives me what I know he considers his sexiest smile. "Even better."

After he leaves, I shudder in disgust. The sooner this is over with, the sooner I'm free of him.

~~~~~~~~

Crossing the room to the balcony, I lean against the doorframe and stare out at the waves crashing on the pristine beach. For a moment, my guard is lowered, and the sudden emptiness in my soul nearly drives me to my knees. *Stop it, Alex, just stop it. Blair's gone. Nothing is going to change that. You've got to get your head on straight and get past it.*

But I can't. Every time I think I've got it handled, something will remind me of him. It's the ocean this time, hell if I know why. All I know is the constant ache inside me becomes agony. I want to curl up in a ball and die. I even considered it a couple times on the way down here.

Wrapping my arms around myself, I shiver. Somehow I think there is more to the sentinel/guide thing than even Blair knew.

But something's kept me going, some internal drive that's made me restless and short-tempered, but it pushed me to continue, to get to Sierra Verde. God how I wish Blair were here, wish I could ask him about my dreams, which are stronger and more full of temples and jaguars and eye imagery than ever before.

"What does it mean?" I ask aloud. But the roar of the ocean holds no answer.

Whatever it is, I need to deal with what Carl's planning first. Shaking off my emotional upset, I focus my attention on Carl, who I can see walking down the pier to an expensive yacht.

He climbs aboard and it takes me a few minutes to attune my hearing. This would be so much easier if Blair were here--*but he's not, so deal.*

<--They just closed down my biggest processing plant. They just keep pushing and pushing until I must fight back. So when can you deliver the VX?> That must be Arguillo.

<As soon as I get the money. But the price is now five million dollars.>

<We agreed on four million.>

<What's another million? Your señoritas blow that every month in Rio shopping.> What's Carl up to? He'll be in trouble if Arguillo doesn't go for it.

There's a long pause before Arguillo answers, and part of me hopes he decides to take Carl on a one-way boat ride. But then he finally says, <It's a good thing I like you, cabron. Okay, five million it is. But stay away from my women, all right? Ven aca.> His voice lowers as he adds, <Don't you ever try to screw me again. You got that?>

If Carl knows what's good for him, he won't try screwing with me either.

~~~~~~~~

When Carl returns, he's bearing champagne, and makes a big deal out of popping the cork and pouring two glasses. Handing me one, he raises his in a toast. "To four million dollars."

I clink mine against his. "And equal partners."

He drains his glass in one swallow and is pouring another before he notices I haven't touched mine. "What's the matter?"

"Four million, Carl? That's not what I heard." I touch my ear with my fingertip, then point toward the pier where Arguillo's boat had been docked.

Carl's face twists in rage, then he rushes me, shoving me down on the bed and pinning me there. "You conniving bitch! You listened to me!"

"Good thing I did," I spit. "You were going to keep that extra million to yourself, weren't you?"

He can't argue with the truth, so he slaps me across the face so hard my ears ring. "I've got the nerve gas. I don't need you anymore!" His hands close around my throat, squeezing until I can't breathe.

I'm struggling, but it's no use. I can't move pinned under his weight, and the edge of my vision grows dim. I see the jungle again, and the thought crosses my mind that I could just let go, that if I let Carl kill me I won't hurt anymore. And maybe, maybe, I'll be with Blair, wherever he is. I can tell him I'm sorry….

Then I'm the spotted jaguar, and an anaconda is wrapped around me, crushing me. We roll over and over on the damp earthen floor of the forest, in front of the temple. Finally my jaws clamp around the snake's neck, and with a vicious shake of my head, I snap it.

The snake falls away; I'm back in the hotel room in Sierra Verde. Carl's lying on top of me--dead.

Shaking, I crawl out from under him, then stare at my hands. I killed him--I killed him just like I killed Blair….

For a moment I can't move, my mind unable to decide whether to scream or to shut down. Then an unnatural calm settles over me. It doesn't matter, none of it matters. I did what I had to. Now it's time to get rid of the VX and go home. It doesn't seem the least bit strange that my image of home is the mysterious temple in the jungle.

~~~~~~~~

Once we arrive in Sierra Verde, Simon and I go straight to the local policia. The chief is on the phone when we enter, having a heated conversation in Spanish. When he finally hangs up, he gestures for us to enter his office.

Giving us a pained smile, he says, "When we were married, she always said what a great father I was. Now that we're divorced, everything I do is wrong."

Simon nods. "That sounds familiar."

"So you must be the policemen from America. Please, sit down."

Simon takes a seat, while I remain standing. Something about Sierra Verde raises the hair on the back of my neck. I've felt strange ever since we arrived.

Ortega continues, "So, tell me, what can I do for the United States of America?"

"We're looking for two suspects wanted in a series of robberies. We believe they might be here in Sierra Verde," Simon explains. He hands the chief the folders on Carl Hettinger and Alex Barnes.

Taking a careful look at the photos in each file, Ortega finally says, "Her, I have not seen. However, I can tell you where to find him." He gets up from behind his desk. "Come with me."

Simon and I follow him through the small building to the basement, to a door labeled "Moratoria". For the split second before Ortega opens the door, I wonder what the word means. Then I follow the policia and Simon inside and I know--morgue.

Ortega walks over to a drawer and rolls out the slab. He pulls down the sheet to reveal Carl Hettinger's corpse. "Señors, is this not who you were looking for?"


~~~~~ ACT II ~~~~~


Simon finds his voice first. "How did he die?"

"Broke his neck in a fall down the stairs at his hotel." Ortega shrugs. "I mean, we'll schedule an autopsy, but our examiner believes it was an accident."

Accident, my ass. "Any witnesses?"

The policia shakes his head. "No, and he was registered alone."

I flash on Alex's spotted jaguar roaring, and suddenly, I'm sweating, almost dizzy. "Is something wrong?" Ortega asks as I wipe my face.

"Uh, no, no. I'm fine," I stammer.

Captain Banks comes to my rescue. "Captain, could you give us a few minutes alone? We'd like to examine the body."

Ortega looks surprised, and I'm sure he's thinking all American police officers are nuts, but he gives his permission. "Sure, sure, no problem."

"Thank you," Simon says as Ortega leaves, then he turns to me. "Another vision?"

I nod. "Alex had something to do with this."

The captain rolls his eyes heavenward and sighs. "Look, Jim, I believe in your abilities more than anyone, but we could use some regulation evidence."

I take a close look at the body, then point to his lips. "There's a trace of lipstick on him." An image of Carl and Alex kissing pops into my mind. "It's hers." Running my fingers over his face, I say, "There's an impression on the muscles from tissue damage." Another snapshot from a vision, of Carl holding Alex down, his hands on her throat. She's struggling, her eyes wide with terror, then she goes limp, her expression blank. Her hands reach up slowly and grasp his face, one on his chin, one in his hair. With a quick twist of his head, she kills him.

Shuddering, I look up at Simon. "She killed him. He was strangling her, and she just calmly snapped his neck. It may have been self-defense, but…" I get one more vision of Alex, of her standing alone in front of that damn temple, the wolf hiding in the undergrowth behind her. What the hell does that mean? Is Blair still in danger?

Simon's voice brings me out of the vision. "All right, all right, let's run this down. Alex comes down here to sell the nerve gas. Hettinger is her contact."

Eager to focus on anything but the cryptic images, I say, "Right."

"But once he sets up the deal, she doesn't need him anymore, they argue, she gives him the big kiss good-bye. Jim, if that's the case, she's already done the deal. She could be anywhere by now."

"She's still here in Sierra Verde," I answer. "I can feel her. We've still got time. Come on."

~~~~~~~~

We leave the morgue and go in search of Ortega, finding him outside in the corridor. "Captain, that body back there was trafficking in drugs and weapons," I tell him.

"Well, perhaps his fall down the stairs wasn't an accident then. Do you have any facts for me?"

"Did you ever see Hettinger meet with Carlos Arguillo?"

The policia shakes his head. "No, but it is not the time to do business with Señor Arguillo."

"Look, we've done our homework," Simon interjects, "and if your business is weapons or drugs, he's our man."

Ortega lets out a long-suffering sigh. "Señor, my government is cracking down hard on his operations, okay? I mean…Perhaps he didn't pay them enough to look the other way, and so it's a war now, and it's too dangerous to get caught in. I think your Señor Hettinger dealt with somebody else, okay?" He hesitates, then glances around the station to make sure no one's within earshot. "Listen, it is not safe to talk of this here. There's a café across the street from your hotel--the best margaritas. Why don't we meet there, say, around 4:00? And I'll have a list of other businessmen for you to consider."

"That'll be good. Thanks," Simon responds. Leaving Ortega, we head out of the building. Once we're on the sidewalk, he turns to me. "I've got to go to the American consulate. I'll meet you at the café."

I watch him leave, making sure no one's following him, then I head back to the hotel.

~~~~~~~~

"There you are, my pretties," I say out loud as I dig out the canisters of VX gas from their hiding place just inside the perimeter of the jungle. After I…after Carl died, I wasn't sure what to do. It was a relief to have him out of my life, but I didn't know what to do next. The pain inside me hadn't gone away, and I was beginning to think it never would. All I knew was I couldn't stay here. Then I realized with five million dollars, I could go wherever I wanted. I could go someplace peaceful and quiet, someplace I can get this sentinel thing under control, some place I can forget about Blair.

Sliding the canisters into a backpack, I pull out a radiophone and dial Arguillo's number.

<Quien es?>

"If Arguillo wants his nerve gas, hand him the phone," I snap.

There's a brief moment of muttered Spanish, then Arguillo comes on the line. <Hello?>

"I've got your nerve gas, Arguillo."

There's a pause, and more Spanish in the background, then he says, <So you're the one who killed Hettinger.>

I'm a little surprised at the steel in my voice when I answer. "He was cheating me. He brought on his own death. The law of the jungle--kill or be killed."

If Arguillo's shocked by that kind of callousness coming from a woman, he doesn't show it. <So how long before we can arrange the delivery?>

"As soon as we agree to terms. Price is ten million American."

He chuckles. <Now you are cheating me, eh?>

I don't laugh at his joke. "We never had a deal. I'm negotiating."

<Why should I pay you double, señorita?> he growls.

"Your operation grossed $500 million last year before your government went to war on you. Now you barely clear $250 million. My ten is less than five percent what you'll get back when you put this nerve gas to use."

<And you are well informed.>

I take that as agreeing to my conditions. "I'll call tomorrow with the time and place. And tell your local law enforcement friends to stay home."

Hanging up the phone, I tuck it away in the backpack, then glance around the forest. Even here, still close to civilization, I feel more at home, at peace, than I've ever felt in my life. There's something about this place. I feel connected to it, like I've been here before--and I have, but only in my dreams. Blair should be here to share this with me. He'd feel the pull, I know it, and we'd find the temple of the sentinels together, the way it should be.

But you ruined all that, the voice in my head whispers. You killed the guide. You left him to die. You're not a true sentinel, not without a guide. The ache in my heart assaults me again, and I close my eyes, but I can't hold back the tears.

~~~~~~~~

When I found out Jim had gone to Sierra Verde without saying a word to me about it, I was pissed. So was Megan, for that matter. After all, she was actually the lead investigator on the case, before Jim came back to work after being shot.

So why is it, now that we're in Sierra Verde, I'd rather be any place else than here? Seeming to sense my uneasiness, Megan looks up from unpacking her suitcase. "You okay, Sandy? You sure you're feeling all right?"

Laughing nervously, I sit down on the edge of the bed. "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. All the doctors said so. Damnedest thing they'd ever seen. I mean who knows how long I was underwater? According to them, I should have all kinds of trouble with my lungs, hell, even brain damage…" My voice trails off.

Megan stops what she's doing and moves to squat in front of me, her warm hands wrapping around my suddenly frozen fingers. She looks up at me, moving her head until I'm forced to meet her eyes. "I can't even begin to imagine what you went through, Sandy, but I know it must have been terrifying."

Biting my lip, I shrug. "That's what's so strange. I wasn't scared then. I…in some ways, I was at peace, you know? But now…I'm scared now. Not so much of what could have happened, but that I don't know what will happen. How will I feel if I come face to face with Alex again? And what's going to happen with Jim and me? I mean, am I still kicked out of the loft? The last time I saw him, he was storming out of the hospital, vowing to hunt Alex down."

She gives my hand a squeeze, and I stop babbling. "Well, we'll just have to track him down and ask him."

I'm touched by her caring, so much so that I can only nod and mutter, "Thanks," in return. She stands up and returns to the contents of her suitcase, while I flop back on the bed, staring at the ceiling.

The door slams open with a bang. Jim appears in the doorway, his weapon out and at the ready, his warrior's mask in place.

I sit up like I've been bit, calling out, "Wait! Jim, don't shoot, man. It's only us."

His stony gaze searches the room for a moment, then he blinks and holsters his weapon. "What are you two doing here?" he asks brusquely.

Seeing I'm still recovering from my surprise, Megan answers, "Oh, I heard you and Simon came to Sierra Verde without me so I thought I'd come and help you. Did you find her?"

"We know she's here." Jim turns as if he hears something, then shakes his head.

"Have you seen her?" Megan asks.

Jim hesitates, giving me an odd look before he replies, "Yeah, sort of." I get the feeling he's not talking about the physical plane. "I've got to meet Simon at the café."

I'm still uneasy about being here, about facing Alex. "Well…we'll just stay here."

Grabbing my hand, Jim pulls me to my feet. "Come on. You're not getting off that easy." As if that settles everything, he hauls me out of the room, Megan on our heels.

~~~~~~~~

Five minutes later we're across the street, seated at an outdoor table at a small café. Simon joins us, his eyebrows crawling up his forehead as he catches sight of Megan and me. The three of us try to fill him in all at once. He holds up his hand for silence. "So basically what you're telling me is you decided to show up here without consulting me."

"Well, technically, Captain, I'm employed by the New South Wales Police Department, " Megan points out, "and, as such, I did contact my supervising officer in Australia and informed him of my intentions."

"And I'm a civilian, so you can just consider me a concerned tourist," I say, giving Jim a pointed look.

He shakes his head. "I already played this game with them, Captain, and lost."

Simon sighs. "The point I'm trying to make, Connor--"

Megan interrupts him. "Captain Banks, if our purpose is to find Alex Barnes, then four can do double the police work of two."

Before the captain can answer, a man dressed in the uniform of the local policia approaches the table, some papers in his hand. "And if there are five?" He gives the papers to Simon. "These are Sierra Verde's usual suspects."

Any further conversation is cut short by the rumble of a large, armored transport carrier as it rolls down the dirt road next to the café. The men on top are scanning the area intently, weapons at the ready. The policeman has disappeared. I'm getting a very bad feeling about this when Jim yells, "Everybody get down!" just as bullets spray overhead.

I dive under the table but quickly realize we can't stay here. Jim must have the same thought, as he ducks around the side of the café. Then it's a mad dash through the narrow streets and alleys of Sierra Verde, hearing the inexorable clank and growl of the transport behind us, but we don't dare pause to look back.

Jim darts inside the door of a restaurant full of people. The rest of us follow, disappearing into the crowd. Through the window, I can see the soldiers drive by, still looking for us. They pass the restaurant without slowing.

Breathing heavily, I sink into a chair, feeling my heart pound, hearing my blood rushing in my ears. This was a bad idea, a very bad idea, following Jim to Sierra Verde. I just came back from the dead. I'm not ready to die again.


~~~~~ ACT III ~~~~~


Late that night, we finally take refuge in a church. Simon, Megan, and even Jim are asleep on the hard wooden pews, but I can't shut my mind off. Why am I here? And it's not just lying on this bench I'm talking about. I should be dead.

*Stop dwelling on it, Sandburg, accept it and move on.* I roll over on the pew, trying to get comfortable. Jim makes a noise, and I realize he's awake as well. "You know, there's actual beds in the rectory. We obviously must have sinned to have deserved this."

His quiet reply wafts up from the bench in front of mine. "Chief, why don't you save your confession for the morning?"

Hoping innocuous conversation will take my mind off my morbid thoughts, I sit up and lean forward, resting my arms on the back of Jim's pew. "You know, we could've just stayed at the hotel, right--I mean, underneath an alias?"

"We'll be safer here. Now get some sleep, okay?" Without looking, he reaches up and pushes me back with a hand on my forehead.

But I want to talk about anything to delay being alone with my thoughts. "Hey, you know…did you ever see that movie, "Cool Hand Luke"? Paul Newman, he gets shot in a church."

"Yeah, you know why?" Jim grumbles. "Because he wouldn't stop talking."

In spite of myself, I laugh. "That's good."

"I don't think anything's going to happen in a place where they worship."

I don't answer, my brain still racing, only now it's remembering this afternoon at the café, and the way the police chief disappeared as soon as the armored transport showed up. "Hey, you think Ortega's the one who set us up with Arguillo?"

Jim sighs. "I don't know. It's possible. All I know is that we can only trust ourselves outside these walls. Now, come on. Get a little rest, huh?" He gives me a friendly shove back toward my makeshift bed.

"Right, right." I start to lie down, when another idea hits me. "Hey, uh, do you think it was Alex that set us up?"

Fully alert now, Jim sits up. "I don't know, Chief. It would seem Arguillo's got the most to benefit from the possession of this toxin with his war on the government or whatever else he's got going on, you know. All I know is that we got to find a way to stop Alex from making delivery."

I nod. "Right. God knows nothing seems to stop her. I mean, she left me to die in that fountain…." I suck in a breath. "Well, actually I guess I did, huh?" I scrub my face with my hands, pushing the thoughts of dying away again.

Jim shrugs. "Yeah. Though I don't think killing you was part of her plan. That's not what I'm getting from these visions."

Snapping my fingers, I latch onto the vision thing. "That's it. That's our edge--these visions. You know, you should be asleep, man." I push him down on the pew. "You know, something might come to you. What are you doing messing around with me?"

I lie back down, punching my backpack into a more comfortable pillow. But try as I might, sleep eludes me. When Jim starts to snore, I sneak out of the church.

~~~~~~~~

Something wakes me in the gray light of early dawn. I sit up in bed slowly, running my fingers through my hair, wiping the sleep from my eyes. A dream--that's what woke me. I was dreaming about the temple again, about the two jaguars meeting there.

Ellison's in Sierra Verde. I can feel him, and though I don't relish the idea of confronting him, I know it's inevitable. Who knows, maybe I'll finally find relief from the unending pain in my soul.

*Come on, Alex. Don't you think you're being a bit melodramatic? It's not like life has been all sunshine and roses for you, now has it? Sell the VX, get the money, then you can go to pieces on some remote tropical island.*

Shaking myself, I rise, and slip into a swimsuit. Maybe a swim in the ocean will help me clear my head.

A few minutes later, I'm walking on the sand, watching the sun rise over the waves. The beach is deserted, save for a lone figure sitting on a dune. His long hair is loose, and it blows around his face, obscuring his features. For a moment, my heart believes it's Blair. Then I extend my vision and my hearing and…it is Blair!

How can this be? He was dead, no heartbeat, no breathing--dead. Is it a ghost? Or just my mind playing tricks on me, conjuring up my deepest desire? I take a moment to calm myself, then approach slowly, silently, afraid that if the apparition notices me, it'll disappear.

I draw closer, all the while my senses telling me it's him, his heartbeat filling my ears, his scent tickling my nose. He's staring out at the waves, so engrossed in whatever he sees there he doesn't notice me until I drop to my knees beside him.

His head turns toward me, his eyes widening in shock then he starts to scramble backwards, crab-like, on the sand.

"Blair, please, I won't hurt you. Please, I just want to know if you're real." He stops moving then, but doesn't say a word. I inch closer, reaching out my hand slowly, not wanting to frighten him any more than I have. I just need to touch him. My hand comes to rest over his heart. I feel the warmth of his skin through his shirt, the slightly rapid rise and fall of his chest, and reaching deeper, the steady thump of his heartbeat.

The ache, the fear, the guilt that's plagued me since I had to leave him at the fountain is replaced by more joy than I've ever felt in my life. "You're alive," I whisper, tears spilling down my cheeks. He just looks at me, his face expressionless. "I'm sorry, Blair…so sorry. I tried to help you, really I did. But I couldn't get you out of the water, and the sirens were screaming and I knew they were coming and I couldn't leave you, but I had to, I had to…" I'm babbling, reliving the horror of that night. "I couldn't hear your heartbeat, and I knew you were dead, and I didn't want to leave you, hurt so much to leave you…."

His fingers close around my hand where it's still pressed against his chest. "I believe you, Alex," he says softly, "I believe you didn't mean for me to get hurt."

Sniffling, I nod rapidly. "I would never hurt you, never." There's silence between us for a long moment, as we stare at each other. He's wary of me, despite his words, and I'm terrified I'm going to wake up and find the most powerful moment of my life is a dream.

Dream! I need to tell him about my dreams about the temple in the jungle. As the vivid images come to mind, I feel its pull on me again. "The temple of the sentinels! It's here, Blair, here in Sierra Verde!" That gets a response out of him, his eyes going big and his mouth dropping open in surprise. "I know, I know, but ever since I arrived I've been dreaming about it, getting all sorts of visions. It's like it's calling to me, and when I go into the jungle, it's even stronger! Come with me, Blair, I know together we can find it."

I can see him turning the offer over in his mind, then he says, "Give up the nerve gas, and I'll go with you."

I don't have to even think about my answer. Blair's alive. Nothing else matters, not the gas, not Arguillo, not the money. "Okay."

Blair smiles at me--and a gunshot goes off a split second before pain rips through my right arm. I topple back on my ass in the sand, seeing fear and horror in Blair's blue eyes.

~~~~~~~~

Maybe I'm an idiot and a fool, but so help me God, I believe her about the temple. The pure excitement in her eyes is that of a child's, and I feel honored that she wants to share its discovery with me. It makes me even happier that she's willing to return the VX gas. I knew she wasn't the hardened criminal Jim made her out to be. She can be a true sentinel, a protector of the people.

I smile at her, looking into her eyes, seeing she's telling me the truth. I'm about to ask her for more details about the temple, when there's a sharp popping sound, and Alex topples backwards, her hand clutching her arm, blood spilling through her fingers.

A second shot kicks up a mini-geyser of sand, and I hit the ground, covering my head with my hands. Who in the hell is shooting at us?

Raising my head carefully, I glance back up the dunes. Jim is standing there, his gun trained on Alex. "Jim! No!" I yell. For a split second, his concentration is shattered, and Alex takes advantage of that moment to dive into the ocean.

No, no, no…I can't believe it! I was so close to getting through to her. Damn it! What was Jim thinking?

Getting slowly to my feet, I brush the sand from my clothes, then cautiously walk up the beach toward him. I don't know what in the hell is going on between Jim and Alex, but I've got to figure it out before one of them ends up dead.

~~~~~~~~

As Alex escapes into the sea, I lower my weapon and drop to my knees. What in the hell was I thinking? What if she'd moved? I could have hit Blair…

When I awoke this morning to find Blair missing, somehow I knew instinctively where he'd gone. It didn't take me long to pick up his scent, to track him to the beach. Part of me expected to find him with Alex, after all, he'd defended her after she'd killed him.

But to see them together, to see her touching him so intimately, and for him to allow it, after all she put him through--it made me sick, and fueled the anger inside me. Anger at Blair, for having anything to do with Alex to start with, at her for killing him. And, truth be told, I'm furious with myself for getting involved with Sandburg in the first place. You start to care about people and then they leave. When will I ever learn?

"What in the hell did you think you were doing, Jim?" Sandburg yells as he approaches me. "I had it under control! She was going to give up the nerve gas, and you go and shoot her! She'll never trust me again!"

Getting to my feet, I ask, "Is that what you want? Her? Fine, go after her. I don't care."

I stalk off across the sand, Blair trotting to keep up. He gets in front of me, blocking my path. I try to go around him, but he refuses to yield. In frustration, I give him a shove. To my surprise, he shoves back--hard--his hair whipping in the wind, his eyes blazing.

"Where do you get off, Ellison, telling me what in the hell I want? You wanna know what I want? I want Alex caught. I want that nerve gas back where it belongs, where it can't kill anyone. But I don't want anyone else to die, okay? Not you, not Alex, and definitely not me, man. Once is enough." A change comes over his face then, his expression of anger replaced for a moment by fear. A shiver goes through him, and then he steps out of my way.

I don't move, but a long moment passes before I say, "I'm sorry, Blair. I don't know what came over me. I just saw the two of you together--and I assumed the worst."

Blair's gaze softens then, and he lays a hand on my arm. "Why do you keep acting like I'm going to leave you, Jim? You've been pushing me away ever since this case began, and I'm still here. I'm not going away. Hell, even death couldn't keep me from returning to you. If you need something to believe in, believe in that. I came back from the dead for you." He laughs nervously. "God, does that sound morbid or what?"

Shrugging, I give him a smile. "I'm trying really hard not to think about that whole coming back from the dead thing. Can we just…drop it?"

He brushes his hair out of his face, squinting into the sun over the water. "Sure. It's not something I'm all that comfortable with either." Blair starts toward the ocean, and I follow. Taking off his shoes, he walks onto the damp sand, letting the waves wash over his bare feet. "Come on in, Jim," he cajoles, "the water's nice."

Remembering his words at the hospital, I swallow hard. Then I move to stand next to him. The salt water is warm, and the foam tickles when the bubbles burst as they hit my skin. "I need your help, Blair," I finally admit. "I don't think I can find Alex without it."

He nods sagely. "So give me something to go on. Like why does she affect you like she does? You are so off your game, man. I've never seen you like this."

"She just seems to hit a nerve, Chief. She makes my skin crawl, and I'm beginning to think it's tied to these damn visions."

"Oh?" Blair turns his head and looks up at me, one eyebrow raised. "What are you seeing now?"

"Her, the jungle, the jaguars circling each other, a temple. None of it makes any sense to me."

"You dreamt of a jungle temple, and Alex told me she's had the same vision, in fact, that she's sure the temple's here, in Sierra Verde. There's a legend about this temple of light, where sentinels go with their teachers to receive spiritual guidance. There's supposed to be a grotto with magical waters where those who bathe in it would transform and they'd be allowed to see the eye of God."

I shake my head. "I don't know. All I want is to be able to catch her, Chief, forget about the visions and the myths."

He chews his lip for a moment, obviously lost in thought. Finally, Blair says, "I kind of have a theory, about why you feel so antagonistic toward Alex. Actually, it was your theory."

"My theory?"

"Yeah, when you asked me why Alex, a new sentinel, was in Cascade, of all places on earth, and how did she get hooked up with me. I think she was instinctively seeking a guide. And if I'm a guide, then she was drawn to me, which didn't sit well with you, since I'm your guide, and that's made you get all territorial. And because we didn't recognize your reaction for what it was, well, that's how we got into this mess."

I stare at him. "So are you saying you're the bone, and we're two dogs fighting over you?"

He actually flushes. "Um, yeah, I guess you could put it that way."

*Lord, why me?* I ask silently, gazing at the sky. "Look, I don't care about the why. I just want to know how to control it, otherwise, Alex and anyone else in the way could end up getting hurt." It terrifies me not to be in control of my own actions.

"I don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know? This is supposed to be your area."

He throws up his hands. "This is beyond my area of research. I mean, I'm not supposed to be involved here, I'm the observer, remember? This guide being something a sentinel'll actually kill for thing is all new to me. Some kind of primal doorway's been opened, and we're all being dragged through it, whether we like it or not."

Nodding, I walk back up the beach. He's given me a lot to think about.

~~~~~~~~

After lying low most of the day, we make an excursion out to Arguillo's compound. Connor and Simon are to provide a distraction for the guards, while Sandburg and I reconnoiter the area.

Since I flipped out and blew my chance to apprehend Alex this morning, we need to find out when she's meeting with the drug dealer. If what she told Blair was true, then she still has the VX.

I creep through the undergrowth, Sandburg right behind me, his hand wrapped in my belt to keep from losing me in the darkness. I don't need to get right up to the house to hear what's going on, but I definitely need to be closer than the road.

Stopping next to the wall surrounding the estate, I extend my hearing, letting the warmth of Blair's hand on my back keep me grounded. Somewhere inside the house a phone is ringing and I zero in on that.

<Bueno?>

<Six miles south of the village of Monte Leon there's a fork in the Zatagordo River.> It's Alex.

<I know the place.>

<I'll meet you on the west bank tomorrow at noon. If I see more than you and one other person, the deal is off and I sell to someone else.>

Arguillo doesn't hesitate in his answer. <I'll be there. Ciao.>

When the conversation ends, I look back at Blair. "You get anything?" he asks.

I nod. "Yeah. Now we're going to need a map."

~~~~~~~~

The next morning, we're hiking through the jungle, heading toward Alex and Arguillo's meeting place. I'm in the lead, Sandburg and Connor behind me, Captain Banks bringing up the rear. Something catches my ear, and I pause.

"What is it?" Sandburg asks.

"A.T.V.'s by the water. This way." I change direction and head through the trees, trusting them to follow. A few minutes later, we come out of the jungle a little ways up river from where I can see Arguillo and one of his men waiting by two all-terrain vehicles.

The others come up behind me, and I point to a hiding place. "Take cover behind the log." Squatting next to Blair, I check my weapon, making sure a round is chambered. The distant sound of a motor reaches me. "What is that?" I ask.

"What?" Blair looks at me, then points to the sky, where a helicopter is noisily descending. Alex gets out once it's landed and starts to walk toward Arguillo. She pauses, clearly listening, and her gaze swings toward the log. All of us duck, but I can't shake the feeling that something is wrong.

"There's something else down there," I hiss to Blair.

He peers carefully over the top of the log. "Down there? Down where? Down by the river?"

I take another look, and this time I can see men with guns hiding in the reeds by the water. "There--in the bushes…"

Blair's gaze follows my pointing finger. His gasp tells me he's spotted the men. Rocketing to his feet, he yells, "Alex! Get back. It's a trap!"

Her head swivels in our direction and I can see the surprise on her face. Then Arguillo's men open fire, and I drag Sandburg to the ground, growling at him to stay there. For several long seconds the only sound is gunfire, Arguillo's men shooting at both Alex and us. Connor, Banks and I return fire, as does Alex, then she sprints for the chopper. With a roar, it takes off, and Arguillo's men head into the jungle.

Pulling Blair up to a sitting position, I ask, "Chief, you all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," he says, brushing twigs out of his hair.

Megan crawls over Simon to squat next to him. "Glad you're all right physically, Sandy, but what is mentally wrong with you?"

Flushing, Blair shrugs and shakes his head.

He might not know why he warned Alex, but I do. Despite his assurances yesterday that he was my guide, not hers, I'm not so sure. My gut is telling me that if we don't catch Alex soon, I could lose him.


~~~~~ Act IV ~~~~~


As soon as I'm sure Arguillo and his men are gone, I get everyone moving again.

Staring up at the bit of open sky above the river, Simon shakes his head. "She got away with the damn nerve gas."

"I can find her, Simon," I assure him. "Hold on a second." Crouching, I run my finger through a drop of oily liquid, then sniff it. Fuel.

A vision overwhelms me. I see a helicopter stalling and bobbing in the air, then plunging to the ground. Alex's face appears in the window, her eyes huge with terror, her mouth open in a silent scream.

"Jim, you all right?" Blair's shaking me by the shoulder.

I get to my feet, wondering what Blair's reaction would be if I told him I just saw Alex's helicopter crash.

Connor puts her hands on her hips, glaring first at Blair, then at me. "Have we decided whose side the two of you are on?"

Blair glances at me nervously, then asserts, "We're with you. Get the gas and the girl. We're back on track."

Connor doesn't seem convinced. "She was in a helicopter. By now, she could be halfway to Panama."

"And that helicopter's leaking fuel. Let's just keep heading upriver."

I enter the jungle, hearing Simon yell after me. "Jim, even if the chopper goes down, there's no way for us to track her in this bush. " When I don't answer, he gives orders to Sandburg and Connor. "Ahh, damn it. I want you two to stay with him. I'm going to get help. Sandburg, I'm going to give you this. It's a G.P.S transponder. It'll help me locate you later."

"Okay," Blair answers, then he and Connor catch up with me as Simon's footsteps head in the other direction.

~~~~~~~~

With a groan, I come to. It takes a moment for my head to clear and for me to remember the pilot fighting with the controls, then clipping several trees as we go down. Trying to orient myself, I find I'm hanging upside down in the back of the helicopter. The stink of spilled fuel and blood overwhelms me, and I scrabble at the seatbelt harness holding me in. It comes loose suddenly, and I tumble to the ground, landing on my already injured arm. I can't hold back my shriek of pain, nor the nausea that has me retching into the foliage.

Staggering to my feet, I stumble away from my own stench, trying to get my senses under control. Leaning against a tree trunk, I close my eyes, listening to Blair's voice, seeing him in my mind. *Count backwards from ten, letting the pain fade, turning your sensitivity down. Ten…nine…*

I count along with him and by the time I reach one, the world stops spinning. Breathing deeply, I push myself away from the tree and toward the chopper. I collect what supplies I can from it, including the VX gas, which appears to have survived the crash intact.

"Now what?" I ask out loud. The green of the jungle deepens to blue and a spotted jaguar, the cat Blair called my spirit guide, enters the clearing. I get it--follow the jaguar. What have I got to lose?

~~~~~~~~

Once again I nearly trip over Jim when he suddenly stoops to examine something on the ground.

"Helicopter fuel?" Megan pipes up sarcastically from behind me.

"Yeah." Rising, Jim continues into the forest, not even sparing us a glance.

Megan grabs my arm as I start to follow him. "I've seen trackers in the outback, but never anything like that. A splash of petrol in the middle of the jungle?"

Great. I so do not need this now. Jim's still wary of me as it is. What's he going to think if I accidentally let Megan know he's a sentinel? "Well, yeah. When he was in the Rangers, he was the best in his unit," I bullshit.

She doesn't buy it. "That's not an answer."

I start walking after Jim. "Come on, Megan. We're falling behind."

~~~~~~~~

The jaguar disappeared as soon as I left the helicopter, but I know I'm going in the right direction. I keep getting flashes of the temple, and each one makes me wish Blair was here with me.

I meant what I told him on the beach--I would have gladly traded the nerve gas for the chance to share the discovery of the temple with him. Forget the temple, I would have given everything up just to have him back. My arm throbs, and I rub my makeshift bandage. It's clear evidence that Ellison won't give Blair up without a fight.

Kneeling by a pool of water, I splash some on my face. When I look at my reflection on the water's surface, I see the jaguar again. It growls at me, then runs into the jungle.

I follow, and a few minutes later I come across the stone jaguar from my dreams. Behind it rises a rough pyramid shape, covered in moss and foliage. "It's real. The temple of light."

It calls to me, and I begin to climb the steep, crumbling stairs. Reaching the top, I hesitate. This feels right, and wrong at the same time. *Blair should be here.* I scan the forest, listening intently, but I hear nothing save the animals chattering overhead, and the wind in the trees.

I shiver. I'm alone. *So what? You've been alone most of your life, Alex. The only person you can depend on is you.* Digging a flashlight out of my pack, I switch it on, then step inside the dark opening at the top of temple. Even the thought that it resembles a great yawning mouth doesn't deter me. Its siren call is too strong, and I have no intention of resisting.

~~~~~~~~

The vision hits me so hard I stumble, grabbing onto a nearby tree for support. Alex and the spotted jaguar, on the stairs of some kind of temple. She climbs to the top, looking around for a moment, then she enters the ancient ruin.

Blair's hand on my arm drags me out of it. "Are you okay?"

I nod, aware of Megan's critical gaze. "Yeah. Let's just keep moving." We continue on, but the light is fading. It'll be dark soon, and we'll have to stop.

~~~~~~~~

My fingers wrapped around a tin cup of coffee, I stare into the low flames of our campfire, trying to figure out what's going on with me, what's going on with Jim. I know all those times he had like a mini-zone out today have something to do with Alex. With Megan tagging along with us, any kind of whispered conversation with Jim just makes her more suspicious. But we need to talk. "Megan, you want some coffee?" She's rolled up in a blanket on the other side of the fire, her back to Jim and I. "Megan?" She doesn't twitch. "She's asleep."

Like me, Jim's gaze is fixed on the dancing fire. "Alex found the temple," he finally states.

My heart starts racing at his announcement. "How do you know?"

He shrugs. "I saw it."

I was right; he was having visions today. "Man, that's incredible." I pause, turning my next question over in my mind, knowing it's one I should be asking myself. "How are you feeling about Alex?"

Jim wipes his palms slowly on the cloth of his pants, taking his time before he answers. "I know I need to catch her, to recover the gas, and turn her in to the authorities, but part of me still wants to kill her, to rip her throat out and dance on her corpse."

Whatever I was going to say dies on my lips. I swallow nervously, then push my hair back. "I suppose you kind of want to do the same thing to me, huh?"

He looks at me then, his blue eyes almost black in the flickering light. "No, Chief," he finally says quietly, "I want to protect you from her."

"How many times do we have to go over this? She's not going to hurt me. And I'm not going to let you hurt her." My vehemence surprises me.

Shaking his head sadly, Jim says, "I'm not so sure about that. When we come face to face with her again, Sandburg, you're going to have to decide whose side you're on, Alex's, or mine. What happened at the riverbank cannot happen again. Neither of us can hesitate. It could end up getting all of us killed." With that, Jim lies down with his back to me.

I'm left staring into the fire, wondering how things have gotten to this point. I feel like I have to protect Alex and Jim, from themselves, and each other. *Maybe I'm not cut out for this guide thing. Once again, I have no clue what I'm doing, and everything I do seems to make things worse, instead of better.*

Lying down, I try to get comfortable, but I know I won't get much rest tonight.

***

//The blue-green jungle rises around me as soon as I close my eyes. Slowly, I turn in a circle, trying to find a trail, a path, a hint of which way to go. There's nothing. Choosing a direction at random, I begin to walk. I've only gone a few paces, when a Chopec warrior in full ceremonial armor and face paint appears before me. "Incacha."

"Finally, you have come," he tells me.

I'm confused. Incacha has been dead for months, died after passing the way of the shaman to Blair. "How am I seeing you?"

"My body is dead, but my spirit lives on within you. Your journey has been long. Now you must face your most difficult trial."

Trial? Does he mean the challenge I face from Alex, or the feelings of murderous rage I feel every time I'm near her? "It's as if I have no power to control my feelings." My lack of control could have killed Blair on the beach.

"Power can lead to truth or corruption. You must choose your path. But you must go alone. The danger you face is not to be shared by your friends."

No, no, I can't put Blair in danger again. Watching him die once was more than enough. "How will I know the right path?"

The shaman gives me a small smile. "You already do." A light emanates from the paint on his chest, growing brighter and brighter until I can no longer keep my eyes on him.

When it winks out, the temple of the sentinels looms over the forest for an instant, then the dreamscape fades away.//

I awake determined. Alex is at the temple; I can feel it. The temple is calling to me. Getting up, I head into the jungle, leaving the campsite, leaving Blair behind. For a moment, going without him feels wrong, but I recall Incacha's words. I have to do this alone.

~~~~~~~~

I awake to find the fire's gone out, and the dawn's light is turning the leaves from dark to pale green. Groaning and stretching, I sit up, gazing around the campsite. Megan's still huddled under her blanket on the opposite site of the fire's remains, but Jim's gone. I figure he's out scouting and will be back soon, but when several minutes pass with no sign of him, I realize he's ditched us.

Sighing, I rake my fingers through my tangled hair. I don't know why I'm surprised. I should have expected this, even though I thought we'd talked this all out on the beach. But last night he was having doubts about me again, about where my loyalties lie.

Getting to my feet, I walk a little way into the jungle, looking for any sign of Jim. All I want is for this to end without Jim or Alex getting hurt. I could talk to Alex, get her to turn herself in, and then she and Jim wouldn't have to get all primal ragey with each other.

But I guess Jim doesn't see it that way. I suppose he thinks I'll run off with her, or she'll kill me again. But he wasn't the one looking into her eyes on the beach. She doesn't want to hurt me, and she didn't even hesitate when I asked her to give up the VX gas. I think she really wants to do the right thing. All she needs is someone to give her that chance.

I recall Jim's words from last night, about wanting to rip Alex's throat out. As dread fills me, I hurry back to camp and begin packing up. Jim didn't leave in some misguided attempt to protect us, he left so I wouldn't be able to stop him from killing Alex. "Megan!" I yell sharply.

She shoots upright, her weapon drawn. "What! What is it?"

"We need to get out of here," I tell her, stuffing gear into my pack, kicking dirt on the fire's embers.

Stowing her gun in its holster, Megan begins to clean up as well. "Where's Jim?" she finally asks.

"He's gone. His trail just leads off into the jungle and then it vanishes."

She stops what she's doing, staring at me with a look of confusion on her face. "Why would he leave us?"

Despite my suspicions, I really don't know Jim's reason for striking out on his own. "I don't know. Maybe he thought he didn't have a choice. I think the best thing we can do is head in the direction we were yesterday and hopefully find him."

There's silence for a few moments as we finish packing. We're just about to leave the clearing when Megan says, "Sandy?"

"Yeah?"

"Is Jim a sentinel?"

Not now. I can't deal with this now. I pretend I haven't heard her, and concentrate on adjusting my backpack.

She gets right in my face and says, "I found your book at the church--*The Sentinels of Paraguay.* Then I started to put it together. All those times I couldn't understand why he knew things, saw things. That's what it is, isn't it? And Alex Barnes--is she one, too?"

I don't know how to answer her without jeopardizing what little trust Jim has left in me. So I don't. I simply start walking, hoping she'll get the hint and leave it alone.

~~~~~~~~

When the first pink rays of dawn illuminate the temple of light, I'm ready. Ellison is on his way; I can sense his presence in the pit of my stomach. I simply have to wait for him to come to me.

So much has changed in the past twenty-four hours. Last night was the turning point in my life. I spent hours exploring these ruins, listening to the hundreds of voices in the walls, voices of the sentinels who've been here before me. They explained it all to me, about tradition and ritual, about how to become more than I am, about how to be reborn.

So I did as they instructed, searching out herbs in the forest, making a potion that heightened my awareness, made me see my life clearly for the first time. Made me realize my true potential.

A rustle from the jungle catches my attention, and I focus my hearing with incredible ease, no need for a guide now. It's Ellison, his heartbeat thudding in my ears. A few seconds later he appears, heading straight for the temple stairs.

When he reaches the top, I raise the blowgun to my lips. One quick puff of air and he's clutching at his neck. The natural tranquilizer on the dart works quickly, and he crumples to the ground just outside the temple entrance.

Leaving my hiding place, I approach slowly, uncertain what to do with him now that I have him in my grasp. Killing him has somehow lost its appeal. Perhaps it's because I'm enlightened now, having spent last night communing with the ancients.

Perhaps Jim Ellison could do with a little communion as well. Grabbing him under the arms, I drag him into the temple.

~~~~~~~~

Water…wet…Blair…NO!

My eyes snap open, and my body wants to rise up with a roar, but my limbs are paralyzed. Panic seizes me, but I can't even lift a finger to help myself. My gaze darts wildly around the room, but it takes me a moment to register my surroundings, to realize I'm in some kind of pool in what appears to be the interior of the temple.

Alex appears in my field of vision then, leaning over me, trailing her fingers through the still water. "It's no use trying to move. The drug on the dart is still in your system." She waves her hand to encompass the room with its intricately carved and painted walls. "It's amazing, isn't it? The early sentinels discovered that extreme isolation in these chamber pools heightens the senses, especially when accompanied by a drink made from local plants and herbs."

She picks up a carved wooden bowl and holds it under her nose, inhaling the pungent scent. "I found the instructions carved on the wall. It was a 2,000-year-old language, and yet, somehow, I understood. I tried it last night--and I saw inside myself--my true being."

"Alex, you're moving way too fast," I rasp. "This knowledge has to come from understanding, not in some kind of drink."

She shakes her head, ignoring my warning. "My sensory awareness has doubled. There's so much more to experience. I want you to see what I see, feel what I feel."

"Listen to me," I plead, but I can see the hint of madness in her eyes.

"No. You listen…And see…And feel…" She caresses my face with her hand, prying my jaw open, pouring the thick purple liquid down my throat. I'm forced to swallow to keep from choking. "I'll be back," she promises, "After I've seen the eye of God."

She moves away from me, and I can hear the splash as she slips into the pool next to mine. Then the room begins to melt, all the shapes and colors running together as I'm plunged into hell.


~~~~~ ACT V ~~~~~


//Falling…I'm falling…the helicopter exploding…dead…they're all dead…I couldn't help them…I couldn't save them. "My obligation is to help the people." I failed…I failed…

Danger…explosions…gunfire…the Switchman…Blair's voice cuts through the cacophony. "You could be the real thing. I know about your time in Peru."

For a moment, blessed calm. Then I'm falling again, landing once more in the indigo jungle, chasing the black jaguar until it turns into a Chopec warrior, the human counterpart of my animal spirit guide. "Are you prepared to make such a journey?" he asks.

No…no…I’m not ready…I've never been ready….

Somewhere in the distance I hear myself screaming….//

~~~~~~~~

After hours of hiking through hot, humid undergrowth, I finally admit to myself that Megan and I are lost. Just as I'm about to make that announcement to her, I'm hit by an overwhelming wave of fear and panic. With a cry, I go to my knees, gasping like I've just run a marathon, my heart trying to pound its way out of my chest.

"You okay, Sandy?" Megan asks as she gives me a hand up.

"I…I don't know. I just felt…" I shrug. "Whatever it was, it's gone." Strange time for a panic attack, though it didn't feel like it was coming from me, more like I was being affected by something--or someone--else. Alex said she could feel the temple of the sentinels calling to her, so did Jim. Could I be being called by it too?

Shaking my head to clear my racing thoughts, I catch a glimpse of something metallic through the trees. "Come on," I say to Megan, "There's something over there."

When we finally get through the thick tangle of underbrush, we discover the remains of the helicopter Alex escaped in yesterday. Walking toward the front of the copter, I peer inside, then turn away with a grimace. "The pilot's dead. There's no sign of Alex or the nerve gas."

"So now what do we do?" Megan starts to ask, when Carlos Arguillo's men surround us. She makes a move for her weapon, then thinks better of it, and raises her hands, as do I.

Arguillo moves to stand in front of us. "Are you lost, gringos?"

Megan's eyes flash, and she states, "I'm a police officer."

He laughs. "There's bodies of police officers spread all over this jungle." He walks over to me, grabbing my collar and shoving me against the side of the helicopter. "And you, are you a policia also, señor?"

I shake my head. "Anthropologist."

"So what is your interest in this?" When I don't answer, he shakes me, then lets go. "Never mind, both of you are coming with me. Come on, let's go."

Megan behind me, I follow Arguillo out of the clearing, the sensation of fear I had before returning.

~~~~~~~~

//Blood…violence…gunfire…explosions…Simon hitting the floor…a crimson stain on the back of his shirt…glass shattering…Megan's terrified scream…Blair's calls for help…//

"NO! Incacha, help me!" I cry. The disturbing images fade, to be replaced by my mentor's features.

"Why do you call me?" he asks.

"I'm losing my mind."

"Do not be afraid to walk through your dreams. You must allow your spirit to speak."

I can't…I can't…I'm so frightened by the images I see. "But all I see is death in my dreams."

His tone is calm in the face of my panic. "If there is darkness, then you must face it. The darkness will flee from the light. But the light must shine from within; I cannot bring it to you. What do you see?"

//I'm the warrior from my dream, no expression on my face as I aim the crossbow and fire. The wolf screams and falls, his fur turns to skin, his sightless eyes become Blair's. No…no…not again!//

Incacha's voice breaks through my terror. "What do you fear?"

//The world loops and spins and I'm back in time, holding Danny Choi's body in my arms, hearing Blair tell me he's gone. Then Blair's shoving me under a bus, and holding out his hand to me as I drown in a vat of oil. Veronica Serris' voice in my head keeps saying over and over "You let him die…" as I frantically try to breath life into Blair at the fountain. Gunfire…explosions…death…always death…always failure…

Through it all I see Blair shining bright as the sun…hear him calling me…he is a beacon in the storm-tossed seas of nightmare…giving me hope…giving me strength…//

"THIS IS NOT ME!"

Silence.

Slowly, I test my body, raising one hand from the pool's slick embrace. Drops of water return to the pool with the crash of boulders. I nearly zone, but the sense that Blair needs me keeps me in the now. Grasping the rocky ledge at the side of the pool, I haul myself out to lie dripping on the stone floor, gathering my strength.

Pushing up to my hands and knees, I see Alex in the second pool. She's still as death, her eyes wide open but unseeing. "Alex?"

But before I can investigate further, I hear voices outside the temple, and the heartbeat I know better than my own.

~~~~~~~~

A hand between my shoulder blades shoves me into the clearing. With my hands tied behind my back, I overbalance and fall to my knees. Cursing, one of Arguillo's men hauls me to my feet--and I get my first glance at the temple of the sentinels.

Its faded grandeur fills my senses, and I'm overcome with the desire--no, need to be inside. I'm halfway there before Arguillo holds me back.

"You two stay here," he orders. With a wave of his hand, he sends two of his heavily armed guards forward.

They climb the stairs cautiously, then enter its black mouth. Minutes pass without their return, then a figure appears in the temple's entrance. It's Jim! Arguillo shoots at him, swearing when he misses. Jim vanishes back inside the doorway.

"Calderon, you go!" he commands, and his remaining henchman disappears into the ruin. Arguillo paces back and forth in front of us, waving his gun.

"What do you think is going on?" Megan whispers to me.

"Divide and conquer, I think."

Arguillo hears us. Grabbing me by the hair, he pulls my head back, shoving the gun against my chin. "Shut up!" He looks back toward the temple. "Calderon!" There's no answer. "Calderon!" More silence. He glares at us again, then releases me, giving me a push toward the temple steps. "You know what? You two come with me, okay? And you do as I say, comprende? Or I shoot you both."

I glance at Megan, who shakes her head and shrugs, then starts climbing the stairs. I follow, figuring we'll know what to do when the time comes.

Arguillo forces us to enter the temple first. It's dark and dank, and smells of algae and stale water. A few flickering torches provide enough illumination to keep us from tripping over our own feet, but the blackness outside the small pools of light could hide all manner of evils.

"Show yourself, coward!" Arguillo yells, pointing his gun at my head.

A shadow separates itself from its brothers, moving at warp speed, knocking Arguillo to the ground and out before he can so much as squeak, let alone squeeze a trigger. Jim looks back over his shoulder at me as he tucks the drug lord's weapon into his belt.

"You all right?" he asks, moving to loosen the ropes binding my wrists.

Tongue-tied for once, all I can manage is a "Yeah," while I'm trying to figure out why Jim seems to be soaking wet.

The sound of water splashing on stone draws my attention away from Jim. For the first time, I notice two man-made pools of water, inset at the top of a few stairs. That's how Jim got wet; he was in the pool. Immediately, I know they are the grottos of legend, the holy waters in which sentinels purified themselves. Alex rises slowly from one of them, her eyes open but her gaze fixed on something only she can see.

"Alex," Jim calls out to her.

"I'm home," she intones reverently, a look of utter peace crossing her face. "I can feel the vibrations of the earth itself. I can hear the clouds moving in the sky. I can see the molecules in a drop of water."

If what she's saying is true, then the legends are true, this is the temple of light! My excitement is short-lived though, as the feeling that something is terribly wrong twists my guts. I start to speak, but Jim gets there ahead of me.

"Alex, this isn't home. It's time to go now."

She blinks slowly, then turns her head toward him, as if noticing him for the first time. "You need to see as I see. There's so much you don't know, but you will." She gets out of the water and starts toward us.

Jim quits working at the rope binding me and goes to block her path. "It's over, Alex." She stands her ground, and the two sentinels face each other in some kind of silent showdown.

I manage to get my hands free just as Jim reaches for her, grabbing her by the arm. She resists for a moment, pulling away. Stumbling, her hands go to her head, her face contorting in pain. "My skin--it's on fire! My ears!"

Alex collapses on the steps, curling into a ball, crying out in agony. Her tortured gaze falls on me. "Blair? Blair…please, it hurts so much…please…please help me…my eyes…too bright…hurts my eyes!"

Automatically, I start toward her, but the look on Jim's face stops me. I remember his words from last night, *… you're going to have to decide whose side you're on, Alex's, or mine.*

My gaze fixes on her again, watching as her eyes lose their focus, as her cries of pain grow weaker. When unconsciousness finally claims her, it's a relief for her, and for me.

Jim bends over her then, checking her vital signs with clinical detachment. I swallow past the lump in my throat, then untie Megan. We use the ropes to secure Arguillo and his henchmen, working silently. When we're finished, she finally says, "Sandy…"

Shaking my head, I answer, "Not now." I walk out of the temple and into the jungle, not stopping until I'm certain I'm out of earshot. Falling to my knees, I give in to the nausea I've been holding back, and retch pitifully into the grass.

~~~~~~~~

When I return to the temple, it's swarming with the policia, as well as the militia. Simon must have arrived with the cavalry. I find him directing operations at the base of the stairs, Megan with him.

"Sandburg! Where the hell have you been? I thought I was going to have to send out another search party for you."

I shrug, my attention caught by the sight of Alex being carried down the temple steps on a stretcher.

"So, Sandburg," Simon says, his hand coming down on my shoulder, "what happened in there?"

Letting out a long sigh, I explain, "The second time she went into the grotto, it must have been too much for her, and, uh…"

"She fried her circuits," Megan supplies smugly, "put her sentinel senses on overload."

Simon raises a skeptical eyebrow at me. "Uh…basically, yes," I answer, then walk away, avoiding any further questions.

I find Jim seated on a rock in front of the temple, out of the way of everyone. Taking a deep breath, I approach, wondering what in the hell I can say--about anything from the past few days. I settle for the mundane. "Hey, man. Are you okay?"

There's a long moment before Jim answers, long enough that I start to be afraid of what he's going to say. Finally, though, he speaks. "You know, when I got out of that grotto, I realized I had it all laid out right in front of me; all the answers to it all. But in a way, I just wanted to go back in there so bad. I mean, just…"

"But you didn't," I interject.

He shakes his head. "No."

"That's the difference between you two." I pause, catching a glimmer of my role in all of this. "She lost her way."

Jim's shoulders lift in a shrug. "Perhaps. Listen, Chief, it's getting toward sundown. I'm going to go see about setting up camp." Getting to his feet, he strides off, effectively ending the conversation.

~~~~~~~~

Tired of tossing and turning later that night, I throw off the blanket covering me and take a walk. Even though the clearing surrounding the temple is filled with sleeping soldiers and the light of several fires, I feel quite alone as I climb the ancient steps to the top of the ruin. Taking a seat, I lean back, gazing up at the stars visible through the hole in the canopy of leaves.

I've been doing way too much thinking the past few hours, and I've figured out that this whole thing with Alex was a test, not of Jim, but of me, the guide. I failed. I'm supposed to be Jim's shaman, according to Incacha, so why in the hell was I messing around with Alex? Oh, I know the answer, but it's not the one Jim thinks it is. He made it clear he thought my attraction to her was because I'm a sucker for a pretty face.

It wasn't. I was getting off on playing God. Really, who did I think I was, telling her, telling Jim, for that matter, that I knew all about sentinels, that I could help them? Shit, Jim sure didn't need my help to track down and capture Alex, in fact, I was a big hindrance. And if anyone ever needed a guide, it was Alex. She came to me for help, and I let her down again and again. I told her if she listened to me, I could solve all her problems. Instead, she's catatonic, a vegetable.

And still, in that moment when she was crying out for my aid, I actually thought I could help her. I couldn't even get that right. I let my fear of what Jim might think stop me from going to her.

The stars waver and swim before my eyes, and I blink, feeling a tear slide down my cheek. The sound of footsteps on the stone stairs startles me, and I wipe hastily at my face, then rub my damp hands on my thighs.

Jim appears at the top of the stairway. "I thought that was you I saw up here. You need to get some rest, Sandburg. It's a long hike back to town tomorrow."

Shrugging, I answer, "I couldn't sleep. Came up here to do some thinking."

Sitting down a little bit away from me, Jim leans back on his hands and stretches his legs out in front of him, crossing them at the ankles. "Ah, that was that burning smell then," he jokes. When I don't laugh, he gets serious. "Look, Chief, I've been doing some thinking myself, and I need to apologize to you."

Apologize? I'm the screw-up. "For what?"

"For not listening to you. You told me the temple was a place where sentinels went for enlightenment--with their teachers. Last night I took off without you because Incacha told me to in a dream. But he also said it was a test. I just didn't figure out what kind of test, until now."

Okay, this is all new to me. "Incacha came to you in a vision, and that's why you left Megan and me alone in the jungle? Did you know we were seriously *lost* before Arguillo found us?"

Jim actually squirms, his boots scuffing on the stone as he uncrosses and re-crosses his legs. "Yeah, sorry about that. I took my vision literally, not even considering that it was the test. A test of my faith, my trust in you." He looks away from me, out over the campsites. "And we know how that turned out. I didn't trust you enough to take you with me, hell, to even tell you where I was going. I crept away in the night like a coward. I shouldn't have doubted you, Chief. When it came down to it, you sided with me."

I think I'm going to be sick. "Look, Jim, you were right to go without me. I…I…when Alex called out to me, I almost went to her--"

"But you didn't. Don't you see, I had it all wrong. Even when you weren't there, you helped me, you kept me sane while I was in that pool, under that drug's hallucinogenic effects. When I thought I was going crazy, it was your image, your voice in my head guiding me to the safe way out." He reaches over and lays his hand on my shoulder, his fingers tightening for a long moment, then releasing. "I just want to say thanks, and I'm sorry I didn't trust you."

He gets to his feet. "Now I'm going to try and get some shut-eye. I suggest you do the same."

After Jim leaves, I sit on top of the temple for a while longer, turning our discussion over in my mind. As cool as it was to hear I'm not a total failure as a guide, I'm still not so sure I did the right thing at any time during this whole experience.

And what happens the next time I mess up? Will Jim be so forgiving then?

Shivering in the suddenly chill air, I scrub my hands over my tired eyes. Time to do what Jim says and get some sleep. *Things will be better from now on,* I tell myself. *They have to be, because we can't go through this again.*


The End

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