By the Gods, a Lone Wolf Cries - Part Two
Jim knew what plants he needed, he just didn't know if he'd be able to find them. He still had no idea where he was or how he and Sandburg had gotten there. Somehow, he'd fallen through a hole in a cave and ended up in Wonderland. So, the question was, would this Wonderland have the plants he needed? Some of them were only indigenous to certain regions, like South and Central America, but others were more widespread. He was supposed to be in Mexico, but he'd never heard of cities like Corrins or Damacus in Mexico, and he was pretty damn familiar with the geography. As a matter of fact, the names sounded more European, maybe Greek, but he knew he couldn't possibly be in Europe. That would have been one HELL of a fall.
A few minutes later, he spotted a plant that looked promising. Purple leaves adorned a green stem, with oval leaves that were slightly toothed. He crouched by the group of flowers and picked one, giving it a critical look.
Taking a modest breath, he inhaled the plant's scent. Basil. At least, that's what the U.S. version was called, but there were different varieties throughout the world. He picked the entire lot of flowers and stuffed them in his pack. The leaves, flowers, and essential oils of the plant could be used as medicines, but only against certain bacteria. He just couldn't remember what types of bacteria it was supposed to be effective against, and, even if he could, it wouldn't help him much because he had no idea what, exactly, was the cause of Blair's illness.
Jim spent the next hour searching for plants, but he only managed to find one more species that he could use, and he didn't want to spend too much more time away from Blair.
It was weird, really. His body was on fire, but he was shivering with cold. He knew his blankets were around somewhere, he just couldn't seem to make his arms work to feel for them. He tried to open his eyes, but they felt pasted shut.
"How is he?" a deep, familiar voice asked.
"The same," a softer, feminine one replied. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
"I hope so."
Was he hallucinating? Blair struggled to open his eyes, but they refused to obey. He opened his mouth, but it was too try to form words, and his tongue felt like lead.
Magically, a hand slid beneath his head, lifting it up, and cool water caressed his tongue. His throat felt dry and scratchy, and, even with the refreshing liquid, it hurt to swallow, but he tried anyway. He managed two small gulps before closing his mouth and turning his head away.
"Come on, Chief, just a few more sips," the gentle voice urged.
Jim? Blair managed to crack his eyelids a fraction, and he saw a blurry figure above him. There was too much light for him to be in the loft, so he guessed he was outside.
"That's it, Blair," the blur said. "Open your eyes a bit more."
Blair tried to obey, he really did, but it was all he could manage to keep his eyelids open that much -- lifting them any further was just plain impossible.
"Okay, I guess this is good enough," Jim said, as if answering his unspoken excuse. "Let's try some more water. I need you to take a few more sips for me, buddy."
Okay, Jim. Blair opened his mouth as the rim of the bottle touched his lips. The soothing liquid filled his mouth, but coursed like fire down his throat when he swallowed. He winced, trying to pull back, but either he didn't possess the strength to move, or the hand behind his head held him too firm.
"One more time, Chief," Jim urged.
Easy for you to say, Blair replied silently.
More water filled his mouth, some of it dripping down his chin. He closed his eyes and swallowed, flinching as the pain flared in his throat. He felt his head being gently lowered onto something soft, and a damp cloth slid across his brow.
Remarkably, his throat felt a little better, and his mouth a little less dry. He managed a weak croak. "Thanks, Jim."
"Just part of the job, Chief," Jim said. "I'll send you the bill later."
Jim pressed his palm against Blair's forehead, tensing when he realized the fever had risen another notch. He looked up at Xena, who knelt next to Gabrielle by an impressive campfire. Hercules and Iolaus sat nearby, discussing strategies for their encounter with Sirus.
"I need to get a stew going with some of the plants I gathered," Jim said.
Xena nodded. "Since we only have one kettle, we'll skip the dinner, but how are you going to make a stew without water? What you have there isn't enough."
Jim glanced at the discarded backpack. "I have a few more bottles in the pack, but I'll have to make do with one."
The water was too precious to waste. If the antibiotics worked on Blair, then at least he'd know that the illness was bacterial, and he could simply boil the water. If it were chemical, on the other hand, he and Blair would have to make the three remaining bottles in the pack last -- well, two bottles after he used the one for the stew.
"I've been doing some thinking," Hercules announced, gaining the group's attention. He glanced at Xena, then at Jim. "Sirus might come through here, and if he does, you and your friend won't stand a chance."
Xena nodded. "Yeah, I've been thinking about that, too."
"One of us should stay here," Gabrielle offered.
Jim didn't exactly know who Sirus was or exactly how many men he'd have with him, but he knew he couldn't defend against more than two men without his gun... especially not when he had his injured partner to protect.
"We'll go to Damacus," Hercules said. "I think Iolaus and I can handle Sirus on our own, if need be."
Xena agreed readily. "Okay, we'll stay here until they're ready to travel. If he comes through this way, Gabrielle and I will deal with him."
Jim raised his eyebrows. While the taller woman looked quite capable of handling herself, the smaller blonde woman hardly looked like the combat type.
"Just how many men are we talking about here?" Jim asked.
Xena shrugged. "It depends on how many men he recruits since his last attack, but I'm guessing anywhere from twenty to forty."
Jim didn't like the sound of that. He couldn't see how three people could do much against a small army.
"Look, if you think he's coming through this way, then I'm thinking we should just pack up and leave. I know Sandburg's not in the best condition to travel right now, but I don't see that we have a choice."
Xena shook her head. "We don't know what direction he's coming from. He attacked Corrins a little over a day ago, but we don't know where he went to regroup."
Jim released an exasperated sigh. "What about the local authorities?"
"They're in Damacus, and they don't have much in the way of protection. It's a small village, farmers mostly," Hercules replied.
"No police?" Jim asked.
The four people glanced quizzically at one another.
"Police?" Iolaus asked.
Jim sighed. "Yeah, you know, the police... the authorities... people with guns."
"Guns?" Gabrielle inquired. "What're that?"
Jim clenched his jaw in frustration. Am I speaking Latin, here? Jesus, who ARE these people? Whoever they were, he didn't have time to explain the ABC's to them.
"Look, Sandburg doesn't have time for this. I'll deal with Sirus and his men if and when he gets here," Jim said. "Right now, I've got to prepare these plants, and I need something to cook the mixture in." He looked at the horse. "I don't suppose you have anything in your saddle pack that I could use?"
Gabrielle nodded quickly. "Yeah, we have a small kettle."
About two hours later, Jim had the mix prepared. Gabrielle had helped him prepare some of the plants while Xena collected fish from the river. Hercules and Iolaus had already left for Damacus, so it was just the three of them, plus one very sick anthropologist.
"You called this what?" Gabrielle asked, peering into the boiling mixture in the kettle.
Jim sighed. "An antibiotic mixture."
"And it's supposed to do what?"
"Kill bacteria," Jim answered tersely as he removed the kettle from the flame. He kept the fire going so that Xena could cook the fish.
"What's bacteria?" Gabrielle asked.
Jim clenched his jaw as he set the kettle next to Blair. "Look lady, I don't have time to give you a biology lesson right now. Okay?"
"Sorry," Gabrielle muttered, turning her back to him and throwing some sticks on the fire.
Jim felt a twinge of guilt in his chest as he glanced at the young woman. She meant well, and she HAD taken care of Blair before he arrived. He knew he should keep his temper in check, but his insides were all tied in knots and he just didn't have the patience to spare. Once he got Blair through this, there'd be time enough later for him to make amends.
He turned his head around to see Gabrielle standing above him, holding out a small bowl. Jim offered a small, apologetic smile and took the offering. "Thank you."
She nodded, smiling. "I hope this works," she said, glancing at Sandburg.
Jim followed her gaze, his eyes falling on the pale, sweaty face of his partner. "Me too," he mumbled.
Sandburg had shown no signs of waking since his last sip of water, and Jim kept close tabs on his heartbeat. The weak rhythm was much slower now, and, as he listened to each beat, he feared that it would be the last.
Jim grabbed the wooden handles on the kettle and poured some of the mixture into the bowl. He had to wait for the preparation to cool down before attempting to give it to his partner, but he helped the process along by stirring it with a stick and blowing on the mixture.
A few minutes later, he dipped his finger into the mix to test the temperature. Satisfied that it was cool enough for consumption, he set the bowl next to the kettle and moved over to Sandburg.
He hoped he could rouse the young man. Gently, he placed a hand on Blair's head to feel his temperature. He wasn't surprised to find that Blair was still burning up. Slipping his hand beneath Blair's shoulders, he lifted the young man up a few inches, propping his head in the crook of his elbow. The heat poured from Sandburg's body and soaked into his own.
"Blair, come on wake up," he urged, giving the young man a firm shake.
Blair moaned softly, but his eyes remained closed.
"Come on, Chief," Jim said, giving his partner a light slap on the cheek. "Open your eyes for me."
Blair flinched from the sharp touch, mumbling something incoherent.
If he couldn't wake Blair, he'd have to force the mixture down his friend's throat. He shifted the arm that cradled Blair until the young man's head was tilted back, then he forced his thumb in between Blair's lips to open his mouth. He grabbed the bowl and raised it to Blair's lips, pouring a small amount of the liquid into his mouth.
Quickly, he lowered the bowl and forced Blair's mouth closed. "Come on, Sandburg," he urged. "Swallow this for me."
Jim used the hand that was wrapped around Blair to hold the kid's mouth closed, while his other hand stroked Blair's neck to induce the young man to swallow.
Sandburg started to swallow the mixture, then choked. Quickly, Jim lifted him to a sitting position as Blair spit the mixture out, his face contorting distastefully.
"Sandburg," Jim said, giving his partner another shake. "Come on, wake up."
Blair's eyes fluttered open, drifting over to Jim, but his gaze remained unfocused.
"I need you to drink this for me, Chief," Jim said.
He raised the bowl one more time and poured some more of the liquid into Blair's mouth. Sandburg flinched from the vile taste, spitting it out again. Weakly, he raised his arms, pushing against Jim's chest and mumbling blurred words.
Jim clenched his jaw. "Sandburg, stop it. You need to swallow this," he said, his voice a bit harsher than he intended.
"Can I help?"
He glanced up at Gabrielle and nodded. It looked like he would have to take sterner measures to force the liquid down Blair's throat.
"Can you hold his arms for me? I guess I'm going to have to force this down his throat."
Gabrielle nodded and knelt next to the two men. Gently, Jim lowered Blair to the ground and grabbed his arms, crossing them over his chest. Gabrielle placed her hands on Blair's arms and balanced some of her weight on top of him. Jim grabbed Blair's chin with one hand and tilted the young man's head back.
Keeping his grip firm, he poured another mouthful of the liquid into Blair's mouth, then put the bowl down so he could use his other hand to coax Blair into swallowing the mixture.
Blair tried to turn his head away, but Jim's hand held him firm. He used his other hand to close Blair's mouth, then pinched his nose. Blair struggled, but he was too weak to put up any significant resistance. He choked once, and his heartbeat skyrocketed, but he seemed determined not to swallow the liquid.
"Damnit," Jim muttered, alarmed by the sudden change in his partner's heartbeat.
The kid was going to give himself a heart attack. Quickly, he released his grip, gesturing for Gabrielle to do the same, and Blair promptly turned his head and spat out the liquid. His eyelids lifted partway, revealing tormented blue eyes.
And the next words Blair mumbled came through surprisingly strong and clear, sending a shiver down Jim's spine.
"You can't be me."
Jesus Christ, kid. He should have figured it out sooner. There he was trying to force the liquid down Blair's throat just like Lash had done. He had to break through Blair's delirium before making another attempt, because the kid's heart was just too weak to sustain another adrenaline rush.
He leaned over his partner. The kid seemed on the verge of consciousness, as though struggling to stay awake. Slivers of blue were barely visible through the cracks of his eyelids, and he continued to mumble incoherently.
"Blair, it's okay," he whispered in his partner's ear. "It's me, Jim. You're okay, buddy. Lash is dead."
Blair's anxious mumbling quieted, and he turned his head toward Jim, his eyelids lifting another fraction. Jim slid his arm under Blair's head and cradled his partner against his chest.
"That's it, buddy. It's me, Jim. Open your eyes."
"Jim?" Blair mumbled weakly, tilting his head to look up at the larger man.
Jim smiled. "Yeah, Chief. I'm right here."
He gestured to Gabrielle, and she handed him the bowl.
"Thanks," he told her, and she nodded an acknowledgment, having the good sense to remain quiet while Jim worked with his partner.
The Sentinel looked back down at Blair. The kid was still blinking at him as though trying to clear his vision.
"Blair, I made some medicine for you, and I need you to swallow it for me, okay?"
Blair nodded weakly. "'Kay."
"It's going to taste like crap, but you need to keep it down," Jim instructed.
"Mmmm-hmmm," Blair mumbled.
Jim raised the bowl to Blair's lips and, this time, the younger man accepted the liquid. He winced slightly from the taste, but quickly swallowed the mouthful.
"Oh man." Blair brought one hand to his stomach, and Jim felt the tremors course through the smaller man's body.
"Keep it down, Blair," Jim ordered. "I know it's hard, but it needs to get into your system."
Blair clenched his eyes against the nausea.
"Take it easy." Jim propped Blair straighter against his chest so he could rub the young man's back. "It'll pass in a few seconds."
After a moment, Blair relaxed, sinking against the larger man as exhaustion claimed him. Unfortunately, Jim knew he couldn't let his partner rest. He needed to get several more mouthfuls of the medicine into Blair's stomach.
Soft sunlight caressed his face, prodding his eyelids open. A bright blue sky greeted him, and the lively chirping of birds heralded his awakening. It would have been a lovely beginning to a beautiful morning, if he didn't feel like a rag that had been wrung too tight and hung out to dry.
And to top it all off, he was freezing.
"Welcome back, Chief."
He turned his head toward the voice and saw Jim's face smiling down at him, blue eyes twinkling with relief. Something heavy was draped over him, and he looked down to see Jim adjusting a second animal skin placed over the one already covering him.
"Better?" Jim asked.
Blair nodded. "Yeah, thanks." The raspiness of his voice surprised him, and he swallowed in an attempt to wet his dry throat.
A bottle of clear, sparkling water appeared in front of him, and Jim lifted Blair's head an inch and placed the rim against his lips. He took several greedy gulps, but the bottle was pulled away much too soon.
"Not too much just yet," Jim said. "If it comes back up it won't do you any good."
Blair creased his brow as the fatigued haze enveloping his mind lifted. He studied Jim's face as though analyzing an abstract work of art, trying to figure out just where he was and what had happened.
Jim's palm pressed against his forehead, resting there for a few seconds before sliding down to his cheek. "Fever's down. How're you feeling?" he asked, giving him a gentle pat.
"Lousy," he replied. "What happened?"
"I think you drank some bad water. You gave me quite a scare there, Chief, but it looks like you're gonna be okay."
The crease in Blair's forehead deepened and he pulled his gaze away from Jim to look at his surroundings. He was laying in a field next to a river, with a small campfire kindling a few feet away. A horse and two woman shared space around the fire. He found himself staring into a pair of warm blue eyes, and it took him several seconds to recall the woman's identity.
"Hello," she said, leaning forward to throw some sticks on the kindling fire.
"Hi," he croaked, his eyes drifting to the smaller figure sleeping next to her.
Xena and Gabrielle, he remembered. So it wasn't a dream... With that realization came the memory of how he'd ended up there, and he swallowed quickly, glancing uncertainly at Jim.
His face must have revealed more than he thought, because Jim placed a solid hand on his shoulder and leaned closer to him. "I know we've got some things to talk about, Blair..."
Blair's heart sank with heavy dread, and he struggled to sit up. "Jim, I--"
Jim pushed him back down. "Cut it out, Sandburg. You need to rest."
"But--" Sandburg made one more attempt but Jim held him firmly down.
"Just take it easy, kid, and let me talk, will ya?"
Blair sank back against the ground, too tired to argue. He didn't know how or why Jim was there, but he was grateful for that small favor, even though he still found it difficult to meet the older man's stern gaze.
"Look, Chief, I know I acted like a jerk. I should have squared things with you before you left. I was pissed when I called you a liability, but I didn't mean it." He leaned even closer to Blair, lowering his voice to a whisper. "It was my fault. I zoned in there and Simmons got the drop on me. I was angry at myself, but I took it out on you. None of it was your fault."
Blair felt as though a large weight had been dropped on his chest. He wished he could believe Jim's words, but he suspected the Sentinel was just taking pity on him in consideration of his weakened state. He knew Jim was just trying to make him feel better, but the truth was the truth.
"I got in the way," he whispered, keeping his gaze low.
"No you didn't, Sandburg." His gaze flickered uncomfortably to the two women, then back at Blair. "You should know me by now, Chief, I say stupid things all the time. It's practically genetic, probably part of the Sentinel stuff," he said, his voice low.
Blair couldn't help but smile at that comment, and he glanced nervously up at the Sentinel. "So you're saying you're genetically predisposed to putting your foot in your mouth?"
Jim's eyes twinkled. "And it's a pretty big foot."
Blair chuckled, but his eyes searched Jim's face for the truth. The weight seemed to lift from his chest at the sincerity he saw in his friend's blue eyes.
"Hey, you're awake."
Blair looked over to see Gabrielle sitting up, peering at him through sleepy eyes.
"Feeling better?" she asked.
He nodded. He supposed he was, but since he didn't really remember much since waking up in the field, he couldn't be absolutely sure. "Yeah, I guess so."
"Speaking of which," Jim said, "it's time for another dose."
"Another dose?" Blair asked, looking back at the Detective.
"Yep." Jim grabbed another bottle, this one filled with a thick green liquid.
"What is that?" Blair asked, gazing apprehensively at the bottle.
Jim flashed a wicked smile. "You're always trying to shuffle those herbal remedies of yours off on me. Now it's my turn to return the favor."
He unscrewed the cap and lifted Blair's head. "Two generous sips, Sandburg. Swallow quickly, and it won't be that bad."
Blair turned his head away from the whiff he'd inhaled. "Oh man, that stuff smells awful."
Jim grinned. "And it tastes worse. Bottoms up." He tilted the bottle against Blair's lips, and was pleasantly surprised when the young man took two quick drinks.
Blair's face contorted, and a shiver of revulsion ran through him. "God, Jim," he gasped. "You trying to kill me?"
Jim lowered Blair's head gently to the ground and brushed a strand of hair out of his eyes. "Nah, if I did that, who'd help me with these senses... not to mention the paperw--" He broke off suddenly and cocked his head.
"All right, Ares, show yourself," Blair heard Xena say, and wondered who she was talking to.
Whatever or whoever she was talking to, Jim seemed to sense something. "What is it, Jim?" Blair asked.
"One of these days, Xena, you're going to have to tell me how you do that."
Jim shot to his feet, and Blair lifted his head to look past the Sentinel. A tall, muscular man stood in the center of the campfire, seemingly oblivious to the kindling flames. He was dressed in black, with shoulder-length black hair, a goatee, and hard, dark eyes.
"Who the hell are you?" Jim barked, glancing in disbelief at the fire that wasn't burning the man's boots.
The man raised his eyebrows and stepped out of the campfire, his coal black eyes locked with the Sentinel's steel blue gaze. "Ares, God of War," the man said. "The question is, who are you?" His gaze dropped to Sandburg. "And who are you?"
Jim shifted to block Ares' gaze. "James Ellison, Cascade PD."
The man took a few menacing steps, circling the Sentinel. Jim matched the maneuvers, keeping himself in between Ares and his partner.
"What was that I heard about senses? And just how is it that you are the only mortal, besides Xena, who seems able to sense my approach?"
"What are you doing here Ares? Come to check on your handiwork?" Xena asked, her voice hard.
Ares chuckled, turning to look at the warrior woman. "Sirus is loyal, if stupid. Still, he makes things interesting, don't you think?"
"Well, I hate to disappoint you, Ares, but we'll be putting a damper on your entertainment."
Ares grinned and looked back at Jim. "I love it when you try." He peered around the Sentinel, looking at Blair. "Now this is very interesting. There aren't many Sentinel-Guide pairs around these days."
Blair's stomach did a flip-flop, and he pushed himself into a sitting position. "How do you know about that?"
A flash of light caught Blair's eye, and a lanky, odd-looking man with pale skin and maniacal eyes appeared. He giggled and slapped Ares on the shoulder. "Way awesome, Ares," he said. "What a blast!"
"Just who the hell are you?" Jim bellowed, taking a menacing step toward the man.
The newcomer's eyes widened in mock-fear and he took a step behind Ares, raising his hands defensively. "Ooooh. Don't hurt me. I'm just a lowly God after all."
"What do you want, Ares?" Xena said, pointedly ignoring the newcomer.
"One-two-buckle-my-shoe," the crazy man sang. "Three-four-switch-a-roo." He released another cackled laugh, then waved his hand in the air. "Tootloo!"
Another flash of light erupted and the two Gods disappeared.
Blair blinked in surprise at the sudden disappearance, noting absently that the birds seemed to sense the strangers' disappearance because they suddenly began to chirp with renewed vigor. He glanced at his partner. "Who were they? And... and did I see what I think I just saw?"
The Detective looked pointedly at Xena. Gabrielle now stood at her side, her expression stern.
"Just who is Ares?" he asked. "And how did they pull that little disappearing act?"
Blair studied Xena's face for a reaction. She didn't seem all that friendly with Ares, so he gathered they were more on the side of enemies.
"Ares is the God of War, like he told you. Don't tell me you don't know about Ares?" Xena asked.
Blair raised his eyebrows. The God of War? Yeah, right... and I'm the Grand Dragon of the KKK. The animal fur covering him began to irritate his skin, and he scratched absently at his arms and legs. Finally, he pushed the coverings off and decided it was time to get off his butt. His legs felt a little weak as he pulled them up, and using his hands for support, he started to push himself off the ground. An almost overpowering stench hit him at just that moment, and his butt plopped down on the ground as he pinched his nose.
"Oh man, Jim," Blair groaned. "I can still smell that sludge you made up, and it's making me sick."
Jim looked down at Blair. "What are you doing?" He asked, crouching down next to the young man and pulling the animal fur back over his legs. "You should be lying down and resting."
He placed a palm on the younger man's forehead, then cocked his head. Blair batted his hand away irritably, but then he noticed the sudden pallor of his friend's face and it sent his blood cold. Jim was literally white as a sheet.
"What is it, Jim?"
Jim reached out his hand and placed it firmly over Blair's heart. "I can't hear your heartbeat," he whispered, glancing at his outstretched hand in awe. "I can feel it now, but I can't hear it." He raised his chin a fraction and closed his eyes in concentration. Blair recognized the gesture and remained quiet as Jim listened to his surroundings. After a few seconds, the older man opened his eyes and shook his head. "My sentinel hearing seems to be off-line, Sandburg. It's back to normal."
"Normal?" Blair furrowed his brow as a sudden sinking feeling tugged at his chest.
He opened his mouth to ask Jim to test his other senses, when he noticed a strange drumming sensation over his chest. He looked down at the hand covering his chest, and realized that he was feeling Jim's pulse through his hand. As if a switch had been thrown, he heard the accompanying rhythm with alarming clarity. He could actually hear the soft woosh as the blood flowed in and then out of each chamber. The slow, steady beat drew him in, almost hypnotic in its regularity.
The soothing rhythm was interrupted by a harsh, high-pitched squawk that almost burst his eardrums and sent a bolt of pain through his skull. He cried out, his hands shooting up to protect his ears, and the noise sent another stab of pain through his head.
Hands grabbed his shoulders, lowering him to the ground, but he was barely aware of the motion. All of a sudden, the world orchestrated an all-out attack against him, pummeling his senses with its ferocity. Birds chirped, their scattered squawks penetrating his skull like bullets. The sickening stench of the plant-mix filled his nostrils, adding to the headache at the same time that it threatened to overwhelm his stomach. The animal fur scraped his skin like sandpaper, and he lashed out with his legs, trying to kick off the offending blankets but unwilling to remove his hands to do so.
With sudden clarity, it came to him. "One-two-buckle-my-shoe, three-four-switch-a-roo." The lunatic's words suddenly made perfect sense, and, with that realization, came a heavy feeling of dread.
His partner lay curled on the ground in front of him, dressed only in boxers, his hands locked over his ears in a futile attempt to block out the sounds. His bare legs kicked at the blankets, and Jim quickly grabbed the furs and threw them aside. Xena and Gabrielle crouched on the other side of his partner, confused by Blair's sudden reaction but seemingly content to let Jim handle the situation.
Jim felt like the ground had just dropped out from under his feet. He knew exactly what Blair was going through, because he'd been there before, but Blair had always been there to pull him out. He wasn't Blair. He couldn't even come close, so how could he even try to do what Blair did seemingly on instinct?
Cut the crap, Ellison, he needs you, he berated himself. His sitting there feeling helpless definitely wasn't helping Blair, so he had to try SOMETHING.
What does Blair do? he asked himself, and the answer suddenly presented itself. He talks to me... and sometimes he places a hand on my back or shoulder.
His hands already held Blair's shoulders, but he scooted forward and slid one of his hands to the center of Blair's back. He began to draw slow circles on the young man's back, hoping the touch would distract his partner from the other assaults on his sense of touch.
He leaned forward, bringing his mouth inches from Blair's ear. He knew that the kid would hear him no matter how hard he tried to cover his ears, because not even the best earplugs could totally counteract sentinel hearing.
He began to speak in a low, soothing voice, trying his best to mimic the tone he'd heard Blair use when guiding him through his own sensory assaults. "Blair, listen to my voice, focus just on my voice. You've gotta find the dials, kid. I know you know how to do it because you taught me. So listen to my voice and block out the other sounds. Picture the dial in your head, and it controls all your senses..."
Blair remained curled in a tight ball, and, since Jim couldn't hear the kid's heartbeat, he had no idea if he was getting through to him. Then he realized that, even if he couldn't hear Sandburg's heartbeat, he could still feel his pulse. He kept one hand on Blair's back, and slid his other hand up to Blair's neck, his fingers searching for the pulse. He found the beat easily, concerned at just how fast the kid's heart was pumping. Blair was still weak from his illness, and he didn't know just how much more Sandburg's heart could take.
"Blair, come on, listen to my voice. Relax. Picture the dials in your head. Right now it's set on ten, maximum. You're gonna lower it, and as you do, all the things that you hear, smell, and feel are going to diminish. Same with your eyes, too. I know you have them closed right now, but the dial's gonna control how sensitive they are to light, so, when you lower the dial, you can open your eyes, okay? Let's start slow. You see the dial, and it's set at ten. Turn it down a notch. Now it's at nine. Turn it down a bit more until it's at seven. Now it's set at seven, and your senses are being turned down. Take it down another couple of notches, and now it's at five..."
Jim felt some of the tension leave Blair's body, but his hands still remained locked over his ears.
"See, Blair, you can do it. You have complete control over the dials, just like you taught me. Turn it down some more, and it's now set at four. Another notch, and it's at three. Let's take it down one more and leave it set at two."
Most of the remaining tension melted beneath Jim's touch, and Blair shifted closer to his friend. Sandburg still kept his hands over his ears and his eyes closed, and Jim knew that Blair still didn't completely believe he was safe against another sensory assault.
"Come on, buddy, open your eyes," he said, grabbing Blair's wrists. "It's okay, you can lower your hands now, Blair. Nothing's gonna hurt you." Gently, he pulled Blair's hands down, relieved when the young man didn't resist. "See, that's not so bad, is it?" he reassured his partner. "You can open your eyes now. Everything's okay."
Blair's eyelids opened a crack, and, as he realized that the light didn't hurt his eyes, he opened them all the way and looked up at Jim.
"Thanks, Jim," he said, his voice a little shaky. "I'm sorry, man. You should have told me."
Jim furrowed his brow. "Sorry? What are talking about? What should I have told you?"
Blair took a deep breath and rolled bonelessly onto his back. "I never knew it was so bad. Now I understand why you said you didn't want the sentinel senses."
Blair suddenly remembered the two women, and he glanced at them uncertainly.
"It's okay, Sandburg," Jim said. "I think we all have some explaining to do." He shot a glance at Xena, and she raised an eyebrow in reply. "As for the sensory spikes, it's not usually that bad. You just weren't prepared for it, that's all. Now that we know what's going on, we can handle it," he said, trying his best to sound confident.
"So what did Ares mean when he mentioned the Sentinel-Guide thing?" Gabrielle asked, looking first at Xena and then at the two men. "And what happened to you, Blair?"
Jim sighed, rising to his feet. "First tell me what Ares is exactly. I know, I know, he's the 'God of War', but, besides vanishing into thin air, what else can he do? What IS he?"
"Jim," Blair said, pushing himself up into a sitting position. "I think I'm beginning to figure out what's going on here."
All three pairs of eyes looked down at him. He suddenly seemed to realize how much skin he was exposing, because he blushed and grabbed one of the animal furs, wrapping it around his shoulders and chest like a cloak.
"Ares is the Greek God of War. No one here seems to have even heard of the United States, and-- " a small crease formed in his brow as he glanced up at Gabrielle, "-- I think I remember one of you saying something about time travel, like it's been done before." He shook his head. "Anyway, I fell through a hole in the cave, and ended up here somehow. Maybe it was some sort of time-space distortion and we ended up in an alternate reality." A glint of child-like awe flared in Blair's blue gaze, and he leaned forward, the cloak slumping off his shoulders as his mouth took control of his hands, causing them to gesture wildly. "In this universe, the Gods exist... you know, Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite.. the whole lot. I'm assuming you were in the cave, Jim?" he asked, his eyes flickering to Jim for confirmation. The Detective nodded quickly, and Blair continued. "So, you and I are really in some alternate version of ancient Greece... or at least, somewhere in that geographical region. Now, if there is a warp in the time-space continuum at that spot, I'm not quite sure how to get back. I guess we could try to go back to the same spot we landed in -- I landed in some kind of a clearing. How 'bout you?"
Jim nodded. "Same place you did. I know because I found your footsteps and a few drops of your blood."
Blair raised his eyebrows. "Blood? Oh yeah, I hit my head. I remember that now."
Jim looked like he was fighting a headache. He squeezed the bridge of his nose and released a slow sigh. His head was spinning, and a dull pounding started behind his eyes. He was trying his hardest to assimilate all the information, but a part of him refused to believe it was real. He half-believed he would wake up in his bed and realize it had all been a dream. Just the fact that his senses had apparently been transferred to Blair left him feeling out-of-whack.
He rubbed his hand over his face, taking a critical look at his partner. Blair stared up at him, his blue eyes filled with concern. Jim was amazed that the kid bounced back so quickly from the sensory spike, seemingly taking it all in stride. Oh, alternate universe, no big deal... happens every day. A little role reversal? No problem? He almost laughed.
"You okay, Jim?" Blair asked, shifting to get to his feet.
Jim crouched down and placed a firm hand on his partner's shoulder. "Sandburg, what did I tell you? You're not over this... not by a long shot. You need to rest. Got it?"
"Jim, I can't lay here all day," he protested. "I need to use the bathroom, and I'd like to get dressed."
Jim pursed his lips, realizing he was being a bit unreasonable and overprotective. I guess that's a Jim Ellison trait, after all, and not a Sentinel-thing, he mused. On the other hand, Blair was just as protective when it came to the Sentinel's safety, so maybe that part of it didn't change from Sentinel to Guide.
He winced inwardly at the thought. Am I a Guide now? Is that what I'm supposed to do? He still had the size and combat advantage on Blair, so it's not like their roles would be completely reversed, but he'd have to be more in tune now to his partner without the use of heightened senses. He'd have to make sure Blair didn't zone, and try to protect him from sensory spikes... all the things Blair did as a Guide for him.
Blair held his hand out for assistance, and Jim offered a lop-sided grin as he helped his partner up. "If you weren't so stubborn, Chief, you'd probably be dead now." He was still amazed at how quickly the kid seemed to bounce back from things.
Blair grinned, letting the fur drop to the ground as he snatched up the jeans. "Thanks, Jim," he said sarcastically, slipping into his pants. He grimaced as he fastened the zipper, and looked at Jim.
"These are a bit damp."
Jim shrugged one shoulder. "They were washed. I guess they haven't completely dried yet."
"Oh, okay. Thanks." He grabbed the shirt, giving it a quizzical look. "This isn't mine."
"Oh yeah, your other shirt got blood all over it," Gabrielle informed him. "We got that one from a merchant in Corrins."
Jim blanched at the mention of Blair's shirt getting bloodied, but he reassured himself with the knowledge that the kid was alive and in one piece right in front of him.
"Oh," Blair said, his brow creased. All of a sudden his face got a shade whiter, and he dropped his gaze to the ground as he slid into the shirt. "Oh yeah, I remember now. He died, right?"
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances. "Yeah, he died," Gabrielle said gently.
"He was one of Sirus' men. He attacked the village and cut down several men before I got to him. It's not like he was an innocent bystander," Xena said, somewhat puzzled by the young man's reaction.
Blair finished tying the laces on the front of his shirt and looked up at Xena, his eyes bright. "I know that, but a life is a life. I'm not saying I'd excuse what he did, but you don't know the forces in his life that brought him to that point. You don't know what his future might have held if he lived. People CAN change, and, if possible, everyone deserves that chance."
Xena raised her eyebrows, and her eyes drifted to Gabrielle. "Okay, you have a point," she said, looking back at Sandburg, "but it wasn't possible in this case. There were other lives at stake."
Blair pursed his lips and nodded. "I know, I'm not accusing you, or anything, but you wanted to know why I feel bad, and I told you."
The warrior woman seemed content with that answer, and she shifted her gaze to look at Jim. "Now it's your turn to tell us who, exactly, you two are and what Ares meant by a 'Sentinel-Guide' pair."
Jim nodded at Blair, giving his partner permission to explain a concept he'd probably explained about a hundred times in various lectures and articles.
"In primitive cultures, many tribes had a watchman," Blair began, his eyes taking on their familiar zeal. "The watchman was chosen because of a genetic advantage."
"What's a genetic advantage?" Gabrielle asked.
"Oh right... it's a trait someone is born with, like brown hair or blue eyes," he explained. "Anyway, the trait in this case is heightened senses. Usually it takes something like a prolonged period of isolation to activate the senses, but they're always there, just under the surface, so to speak. Anyway, a Sentinel always had someone to back him up. If a Sentinel concentrates too much on one sense, he can end up blocking out the rest of the world. That's called a 'zone.' The Guide's job is to watch the Sentinel's back, help him control his senses, and make sure he doesn't zone."
"So what happened to you earlier?" Xena asked.
"A sensory spike," Blair answered quickly. "Because the Sentinel's senses are so sensitive--" he chuckled and glanced at Jim, "Try saying THAT five times fast."
Jim shook his head in amazement, but he gave into the smile that tugged at his lips. The kid's bubbling enthusiasm never ceased to amaze him.
"Anyway," Blair continued, "because they're so sensitive, they can easily be overwhelmed." He looked back at Jim. "I was listening to your heartbeat, and I think I started to zone..." his gaze shifted, and he seemed to stare blankly into space. "Really cool, now that I think about it. I never knew what it was like before."
Jim placed a hand on Blair's shoulder, just in case the kid was about to give a repeat performance. Was it possible to zone on a memory? He'd never done THAT before, but he didn't put it past the kid to try to listen to his heartbeat again and end up zoning a second time.
Blair blinked and looked back at Jim, offering a brief, nervous smile. "Oh, sorry... yeah, back to the point. Anyway, when I heard your heartbeat, I kinda got pulled into it. Then there was this loud noise, like a bird maybe, and it hit me like a train. I lost it all after that. Everything suddenly got WAY amplified, and I wasn't ready for it... I mean, I'd never experienced anything like that before."
"So, you were a Sentinel," Xena said, gesturing to Jim, then looked at Blair, "and you were the Guide? Ares and Strife switched you?"
Blair nodded, looking somewhat more grim than he had only moments ago. "Yeah, apparently." He glanced at Jim. "We've gotta get them to reverse it somehow. I mean, there's no way this can be permanent."
Jim felt uncomfortable under Blair's questioning gaze, especially since he had no answer for the kid, so he looked to Xena. "How 'bout it? Can we get them to switch us back?"
"I don't know. Ares isn't the accommodating type, but maybe Hercules can help us out."
"Hercules?" Blair asked. "As in the son of Zeus?"
Xena nodded. "Yes, he's Ares' brother. The two don't like one another much, but Hercules has some influence with the Gods."
Jim grimaced... so that explained the 'half-god' comment he'd overheard earlier. This world was just getting stranger and stranger by the minute. At least Hercules seemed like a straight arrow, so maybe they had some hope of getting out of this mess after all.
"So how do we find Hercules?" Blair asked.
"He was here earlier, Chief," Jim explained. "He's heading for Damacus to stop some kind of a confrontation."
Blair nodded, his jaw set, looking like the solution to their problems had just been dumped on his lap. "Okay, so let's go to Damacus."
Jim raised his eyebrows, giving his partner a critical once-over. He almost tried to extend his hearing to listen to the kid's breathing and heartrate, but he caught himself, and his jaw twitched in frustration at not being able to monitor Blair's vitals.
"I don't think you're ready to travel yet, Sandburg," Jim protested.
"He can ride Argo," Xena said.
Blair smiled gratefully, then looked at Jim. "See? No problem, Jim." He clapped his hands once. "So let's get going!"
Jim leveled a narrow gaze at his partner. He knew Blair tended to exceed the limits of his endurance.... well, 'tended to' was an understatement. The kid just didn't know when to quit. He was still sick, and, on top of that, he now had Sentinel senses to deal with. The cold he'd gotten once had made it quite difficult for him to keep control of his senses, and the cold medicine had just sent things haywire. Blair had to deal with a nasty bug and a shitload of antibiotics. He'd have to keep a close eye on the kid.
"Okay," Jim said, then waved a finger at his partner. "But you stay on the horse, and you take the medicine when I give it to you without complaint. Got it, Junior?"
Blair nodded quickly, raising his hands. "Yeah, yeah. I got it, Jim, but I'm perfectly capable of remembering to take the medicine myself, you know."
"Uh-huh, sure," Jim said, unconvinced. "This is an antibiotic mixture. You've gotta take it all, even though you're feeling better."
"I know, Jim!" Blair exclaimed, throwing his hands up in the air. "God, I've been to enough hospitals, and I took BIO 101, thank you very much. I know all about antibiotics and have sat through I don't know how many doctors telling me how I'll create some new super-strain of resistant bacteria to be unleashed on the world if I don't finish the antibiotics and kill all the buggers. Happy, big guy?"
Jim sighed. An uppity Blair was a sure sign that the kid was feeling better. It was going to be a LONG ride to Damacus. He allowed himself a small chuckle and batted Sandburg on the cheek.
"You know, Chief, I've got some tape in the backpack, so watch the lip."
"Ha. Ha..." He scrunched his face suddenly. "Tape? You brought tape? What else do you have in that thing, man? Lemme guess... handcuffs, a flame-thrower, those little freeze-dried army packs of food, a flashlight, rope, and the kitchen sink. Am I right?" He waggled his eyebrows and ducked just as Jim swatted at him.
"Smartass," the detective muttered. "Just put your shoes on and get in the saddle."
The four persons and one horse walked in relative silence through the untouched wilderness. Xena led Argo by the reigns, and Gabrielle walked alongside, occasionally chatting with either Xena or Blair.
Jim kept his position alongside the horse where he could keep a close eye on Blair. Several times, the Detective had attempted to extend his hearing to either listen for danger in the path ahead or tune into his partner's vitals, and several times he met with frustrating silence. He was beginning to realize just how much he'd used his Sentinel senses.
He glanced up at Blair, but the kid seemed lost in thought, his gaze focused on some imaginary point up ahead.
Blair felt rather than saw Jim's eyes on him, and he resisted the temptation to look down at the man. He tried to seem casual about it, but inside he was a quivering wreck... and not just because of the aches in his joints and the queasiness of stomach.
Just what was he going to do with Sentinel senses? And what if it was permanent? He wasn't a Sentinel... that was Jim's thing. He was just an anthropologist and police observer. Hell, he didn't even like guns, and he made a pretty lousy warrior. Sentinels were warriors -- it was in their genetic make-up. Guides, on the other hand, were shamans... at least in primitive cultures. Jim definitely did not fit the bill of a shaman, and he, Blair Sandburg, neo-hippie grad student, definitely couldn't fill the shoes of a Sentinel.
So what are we gonna do? he asked himself for the hundredth time. Of course, once again, it was all his fault. Oh, he knew he wasn't to blame, but he was the cause-in-fact, as his philosophy prof used to say -- the "but for" cause. "But for" him going to Mexico to "clear his head", he'd never have fallen through that... that... well, whatever it was he'd fallen through, and he and Jim wouldn't be in such a mess.
But he had gone to Mexico, and, as a result, he now found himself heading toward some place called Damacus to stop a war with two very attractive but oddly-dressed women and one pretty cool horse. Oh, and he was a Sentinel now.
He almost groaned, but caught himself in time. He'd always wondered what it was like to possess Sentinel senses... to be able to hear a person's heartbeat from across a room... to tell if someone was lying by the dilation of their pupils and the increase in his heartrate... even to listen to the sounds of nature in astonishing clarity: the flutter of wings against air, the chirping of birds half a mile away, the rustle of the wind through the treetops.
He could do all those things now, even if he wasn't really a Sentinel. Again, he resisted the temptation to glance down at Jim. He wondered how his partner was holding up. Jim looked fine, but then, he almost always looked fine, but Blair knew it had to be hard on the man. He'd gotten used to having the senses. Hell, despite his grumbling about them, they really were a part of him -- right down to his genes. It was WHO Jim was, a Sentinel. So having those senses stripped from him must be affecting the big guy.
What if this is permanent? Will he eventually resent me? He knew that was a strong possibility. Oh, Jim would never say it, but, hell, resentment was part of human nature. Jim had been born with heightened senses, and with that came a whole slew of personality traits, like being a control freak.
Jim was definitely a control freak. He liked being on top and in charge of the situation, and he liked having an edge as a Sentinel. Now that edge had been taken from him and transferred to Blair, and the anthropologist-psych-minor knew that had to eventually eat at the Detective. He'd be reminded every day of what he'd lost just by waking up and having breakfast with his "Sentinel" partner.
Blair pursed his lips as a new thought occurred to him. If being a Sentinel included the personality traits, well, then, maybe those personality traits had also been transferred to him, which would mean Jim had gotten whatever it was that was SUPPOSED to make Blair a Guide.
He pondered that possibility for a few moments, searching his inner self for a clue to the answer. He didn't FEEL any different. He didn't feel the need to be in control, and he didn't possess the urge to "protect the tribe", which, he supposed, now consisted of Jim, a horse, and two women. In less than a day, that tribe might grow to include Damacus.
No, Blair concluded. He really didn't think he'd gotten the "Sentinel personality" in the switch, which meant that Jim still possessed those urges without actually having the senses to back them up. That HAD to be frustrating for the big guy. Blair finally spared a glance down at his partner, and when his gaze locked with Jim's, the Detective gave a brief smile, but Blair swore the big guy looked like a deer caught in headlights.
"How you doing?" Jim asked.
Blair shrugged casually, returning Jim's smile. "Fine, but my butt's a little sore."
Jim chuckled and glanced up at the sun's position in the sky. "Let's stop for a minute," he said, raising his voice so the two women could hear. "You need another dose of medicine."
Blair groaned and rolled his eyes, opening his mouth to protest, but Jim cut him off.
"Uh-uh. Don't even try it, Sandburg. This was the deal, remember? You take the stuff when I tell you without complaint. Remember?"
Blair smiled sheepishly as Xena brought the horse to a halt. "Okay, big guy. You win. Can I please, please have some of that wonderfully aromatic and tasty green sludge you made up?"
"That's better," Jim grumbled, obviously doing his best to look stern. He swung the pack off his shoulders and retrieved the bottle. "Now, take two large swallows, and THEN I'll help you off the horse."
Blair took the bottle but gave his friend an annoyed look. "I can get down by myself, Jim. Thanks. I'm not exactly a stranger to horseback riding, you know," he said, unscrewing the top.
"Yeah, I know. You're a real renaissance man," Jim muttered.
"We can't delay too long," Xena said, glancing only briefly at Jim before turning her watchful gaze outward. "I want to reach Damacus by sunset."
"No problem," Blair remarked, then took a deep breath through his mouth and swigged a mouthful of the drink. His face contorted suddenly and he practically threw the bottle back at Jim, giving in to a shiver of revulsion. "Oh man, Jim. I swear that stuff tastes ten times worse than it did before, and, believe me, I wouldn't have thought that possible."
Jim held the bottle back out. "One more drink, Junior."
Blair shook his head, his nose still scrunched in disgust. "No way, man. Get that stuff away from me. Even the smell makes me sick."
"Sandburg--" Jim growled.
"Jim, I'm having a hard time keeping that one mouthful down. If you don't cap that thing soon, the green sludge is gonna come back up. Trust me."
Jim sighed. "Sandburg, do you still have the dials turned down?"
Blair shrugged. "Uh. I guess so," he replied, swinging his leg around as he slid off the horse. He worked out a kink in his leg and rubbed absently at his rear-end. "Man, I haven't ridden a horse like that for a LONG time."
"What do you mean you 'guess so'?" Jim pushed, screwing the cap back on the bottle.
"I don't know, Jim. I'm not as practiced at this stuff as you are."
"Blair, you taught me how to do it. Hell, this should be a piece of cake for you. You meditate all the time, right?"
Blair offered another shrug. "Yeah, Jim, I know, but this is different. This is sorta like when you feel pain. Meditation can help with controlling pain, but once you go out of the meditative state and your mind becomes occupied with other things, the control starts to slip a bit."
Jim sighed. "Okay, why don't we work on a few of those exercises you're always putting me through?"
Blair glanced at Xena. "Later, Jim. We need to get to Damacus by sunset, remember?"
Xena stepped around Argo to stand in front of the two men. "Just how sensitive are your senses?" she asked Sandburg.
Blair threw Jim an anxious glance. "Uh... well, pretty sensitive. Why?"
Her eyes scanned the terrain as she answered him. "Can you listen for signs of Sirus? Could you hear the people in the village from here?"
"No way," Jim said. "He's not used to the senses. You saw what happened earlier."
Blair wasn't too crazy about the idea himself, but he did understand what was at stake. He looked at Jim, noting the tight muscles that twitched in the larger man's jaw, and he knew Jim was immovable on the subject.
On the other hand, he knew Jim would do it in a second. Being a Sentinel made one a guardian, a protector. Blair might not be a "real" sentinel, but, at the moment, he was the next best thing. If he could use his senses to give them an advantage and maybe help the people of Damacus, then he would.
"I'll try," he said, and braced himself for the explosion.
He didn't have long to wait.
"Are you crazy, Sandburg!" Jim snapped. "No way. You've had these senses for all of--" he glanced at his watch "--three hours. You just keep them reigned in. I don't wanna try pulling you from a zone or bringing you down from another sensory spike. I don't know how to do what you do, so we play it safe. Got that, Junior?"
Blair shook his head. "No, Jim, I don't 'got that'. There are people that need help, and if I can pinpoint Sirus' position, we'll have an edge. We might even save some lives. You know you'd do the same."
"I said NO," Jim reiterated. "Right now, you're the Sentinel and I'm the Guide, and that means you do what I say."
Blair almost burst into laughter. "Bullshit, Jim. How many times have you ignored what I said when I was trying to help you?"
Blair watched in awe as Jim's face turned a noticeable shade of red, and the tendons in his neck popped out like chords. "Listen, kid," he began, his voice taking on that low, dangerous quality he'd heard Jim use when talking to suspects, "I may not have always listened to you, but that's because I have a job to do... and I usually paid for ignoring your advice, didn't I? You don't have a "job" here, Sandburg -- other than to take the damn medicine when I tell you and stay out of the way while I figure out how to get us home."
Jim might as well have punched Blair, because a physical blow couldn't have hurt anywhere near as badly as those words. Stay out of the way...
"Goddamnit, Sandburg, you're nothing but a liability!"
A wave of heat grew in his chest, rising up his neck and washing over his face. He saw the exact moment Jim realized what he'd said, because the Detective's eyes widened at first, then softened until he looked almost apologetic.
"Blair, I--" Jim reached out a hand, but Blair batted it away angrily.
"Forget it, Jim," he said, turning his back to the man and walking toward Xena. "I'm doing it." He glanced at Xena as he passed her, then chose a relatively level spot and sank into the lotus position.
The older woman glanced at Gabrielle, then Jim, and her gaze held a note of disapproval. She turned and walked toward Blair, stopping a few feet behind him, her icy blue eyes locked on his still figure.
"He's still kinda weak, Xena," Gabrielle remarked softly, moving next to her friend. "You think this is a good idea?"
"Sandburg, wait a minute," Jim said, walking up behind the young man. "Look, Chief, I didn't mean that the way it came out." He sat in front of the him, crossing his legs Indian-style and leaning forward to gain his friend's attention. "I don't know how to do this Guide stuff, Blair. I was just trying to protect you. Cut me some slack, here, will ya, Chief?"
The queasiness in Blair's stomach seemed to rise, but he pushed it back down. "It's okay, Jim. No big deal," he said, though he still felt the sting from the words. "So are you gonna help me with this, or not?"
Jim took a deep breath and nodded. "Yes, of course, Sandburg. Since I can't seem to get through that hard head of yours, I've got no choice."
Blair remained silent for a brief moment, his gaze unflinching. "You have a choice, Jim," he said finally, and the expression on Jim's face told him the older man knew exactly what he meant.
"I'm not going anywhere, Sandburg," Jim said firmly. "So let's just get on with this."
Blair nodded slightly, taking several deep, calming breaths. "Okay, so how do you wanna work this?"
"Just do what you do," Jim said. "Take deep, calming breaths like you're doing. Close your eyes and focus on the sounds around you... just on the sounds around you. Don't try to extend your hearing yet."
Blair closed his eyes and did as Jim said, listening to the wilderness around him. Birds chirped softly. Beneath that, a gentle breeze swung through the brush, eliciting a soft whisper of motion as it disrupted the leaves and branches above.
"Okay," Blair said.
"Now I want you to find a scent... something pleasant, like a flower. You can use that as an anchor against zoning, just like you showed me. Okay?"
Blair nodded and searched for the scent. He used Jim's suggestion and focused on a light floral scent beneath the muskier odor of vegetation. He couldn't identify the variety of flower, but he knew the source originated about ten yards to his right.
"Got it," Blair said. "Flowers."
"Good, now start to extend your hearing... just a little bit. Find a faint sound, and focus on it until it becomes clear."
Blair focused on the faint rustling of leaves, honing into the sound. It rose in volume steadily, becoming almost painful. He tried to pull back, but it sucked him in like a whirlwind, roaring like the engine of a Boeing 747. His eardrums seemed on the verge of bursting, and he felt the jackhammer vibration down to his bones.
A touch on his back brought him back, and he gulped in a large lungful of air as the roar dimmed and the vibration ceased.
"Blair?" Jim's soft voice called to him. "You okay?"
Blair opened his eyes and nodded numbly. "What happened?" he gasped.
Jim's eyes peered at him with a mixture of concern and admonishment. "You started to zone, I think. This is the first time I've been on this side of a zone," he said, offering a small, concerned smile. "You stopped breathing there for a second, Chief. Scared the hell out of me."
Blair took several more deep breaths and tried to find his center. "This isn't right, Jim. It shouldn't happen so easily. It's like I can't even try to use the senses without losing control."
Jim placed a hand on Blair's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. "I know, Blair. That's why I didn't want you trying this. You're still sick, and you've got the antibiotics in you. It's hard for me to control my senses when I'm sick, and I've had them for years now. You've had them for less than a day."
Blair swallowed hard, realizing the truth of Jim's words. He didn't relish the thought of experiencing another sensory spike, or another zone, but the people of Damacus needed help.
"Can we try again, Jim?" Blair asked, hoping the Detective would go along with him.
After a brief hesitation, Jim nodded, keeping his hand on Blair's back. "Okay, Chief, one more time."
Blair offered a small, grateful smile and closed his eyes, slipping easily into his breathing exercises.
"Okay, Chief, we'll start over..."
Jim took him through the exercises again, this time keeping his hand on Blair's back as an added anchor.
Blair smiled as he focused on the deep cadence of Jim's voice and the gentle touch between his shoulder blades. He felt much more in control as he stretched out his hearing, and he wondered if the simple sensation of Jim's touch made the difference. Is this how it is for him? he wondered. Did his voice and touch really act as an anchor for Jim? He'd have to remember to ask the Detective about it later.
Voices caught his ear -- distant and faint. He pictured a rope extending between him and the source of the sound, and followed the line through the vegetation. As he progressed along the route, the voices became louder until he could hear every word clearly.
"Please... Please, I'm just a farmer. I--"
"That's not what I asked you! One more chance. Is it true that Hercules and Xena have been called to Damacus?"
"I... I think the magistrate sent word for Xena, but I don't know about Hercules. Please, let us go. Don't hurt my wife. We've got three little girls to take care of. They--"
"Did I ask for your family history?" A brief pause. "But you certainly do have a lovely woman."
"Keep your hands off me!" a woman's voice spat.
"Leave her alone!"
"NO!" the woman screamed.
"No please--" a sickening sound that Blair imagined as steel slicing through flesh silenced the man's plea.
Blair pulled back suddenly with a gasp, the queasiness in his stomach rising to full-blown nausea, and he hunched forward just as the green sludge erupted from his insides.
"Blair! What is it? What's wrong?"
Blair gagged the last of the vile liquid out of his stomach, then fell like a log onto his side, his head pounding with a sudden headache. "Oh man..."
"What happened, buddy?" Jim asked, using one hand to keep Sandburg from rolling onto his back. Then he raised the other hand to Blair's forehead and checked for a fever.
Blair felt each beat of his heart like a hammer in his skull, throbbing in tune with his pounding headache. He'd hoped, even expected, to hear Sirus, but he'd never expected to hear a murder.
"What happened?" Xena asked, peering down at the two men.
"I found Sirus," Blair managed, forcing himself to take deep, even breaths. "He..." Blair closed his eyes, willing his voice steady. "He killed someone, an innocent man... a farmer with a wife and children." His eyes shot open. "Oh God, Jim!" He gasped, bolting into a sitting position. "The woman's still alive. They're... they're gonna--"
"Easy, Sandburg. Breathe. Nice and easy," Jim instructed, placing his hand on the younger man's back.
"Can you tell where they are?" Xena asked.
Blair nodded, hesitating a moment to gain control over his breathing. He raised his hand and pointed northeast. "They're a little bit ahead of us that way."
A slow smile formed on Xena's lips. "Could you tell how many men there were?"
Blair shook his head. "No, but I guess I could try listening to their heartbeats."
Jim shook his head. "No, I think you've had enough, Chief."
Xena pulled Gabrielle aside, a predatory glint in her eyes. "We can intercept them before they reach Damacus."
"But what about Hercules?" the young woman asked. "We could sure use his help, but if he reaches Damacus before we confront Sirus, he's not going to be much help."
Xena's smile grew wider. "Oh, I think we can handle Sirus and his men... especially since we've got an edge," she said, glancing at Blair.
Jim patted Blair on the shoulder and then retrieved the bottle of medicine. "Okay, Sandburg, since you threw up the last mouthful, you'll have to take another one." He unscrewed the lid and handed the bottle to his partner.
Blair groaned, but took the offering without further complaint. He swirled the contents around, then held it up to gaze at the green liquid in the sunlight.
"Don't study it, Chief, just drink it," Jim admonished.
Blair's complexion looked about ready to turn a shade of green to match the liquid. "Jim, man," he said, holding the bottle out to the Detective and turning his head away from the stench. "Even the smell is making me sick. I swear, you make me drink this and I'll just throw up again."
"Then pinch your nose and take a slug, but you ARE drinking it," Jim insisted.
Blair sighed and caved in. He pinched his nose with his fingers, then closed his eyes and took a huge swallow of the liquid. A large shiver ran through his body, and Jim grabbed the bottle quickly as it tilted precariously in Blair's grip.
"Oh man this sucks," Blair groaned, falling onto his back and covering his stomach with his hands. "This really sucks."
Jim chuckled as he replaced the cap and stuck the bottle back in the pack. "Don't worry, Chief, there's only a third of the bottle left."
That comment elicited another groan from the young man.
"We'd better get going," Xena said. "I wanna try to get ahead of Sirus and set some surprises for him."
"What about the woman?" Blair asked, struggling to his feet. "We can't leave her with them. They'll kill her."
Xena nodded. "I know. Don't worry, I've got something planned."
They traveled for another couple of hours, keeping up a good pace. The plan was to intercept Sirus, which wasn't that hard since they were already traveling on an intercept course. Sirus and his men were heading northeast, and Xena's group was traveling northwest, so the two paths were bound to converge. The trick was in getting ahead of Sirus with enough time left to work their surprises.
Blair extended his hearing at regular intervals to check on both Sirus' position and the condition of the captive woman. Jim wasn't too thrilled about THAT part of the plan, but he recognized the need for the information.
"I think we're far enough ahead now," Blair said, and Xena stopped, bringing the horse to a halt.
"How far?" she asked.
Blair shrugged. "About a mile, I think. I'm still not too good with judging distances. Everything sounds a lot closer than it is."
Blair's eyes hardened a fraction. "Alive, but we'd better get to her soon."
Xena nodded. "Okay, we'll stop here." She glanced at Jim and Gabrielle. "I'll leave you two to furnish the traps. I'll get the woman."
"By yourself?" Jim asked, looking at the woman as if she'd just grown a second head. "Are you crazy? You said it yourself, there's at least twenty men with Sirus."
Xena smiled, her eyes dangerous. "Don't worry about me. Just get those traps set." She glanced at Blair and patted the horse's neck. "Sorry, but I'm gonna need Argo on this one."
Jim and Gabrielle worked at setting the traps while Blair kept an ear tuned to Sirus and his men. Though Jim had instructed him not to use his senses unsupervised, Blair saw little way around it. Jim needed to help Gabrielle with the traps, but somebody had to keep tabs on what was going on with Xena and Sirus. He hadn't heard much out of the captive other than an occasional plea for water or rest, and he could only imagine what kind of treatment she'd endured. First, she'd witnessed her husband's murder and then she'd been claimed as property by Sirus.
Blair clenched his jaw and looked to where Jim and Gabrielle were fastening a trip wire made of vine. The thin line blended so well with the vegetation, that Blair suspected he'd never be able to see it without the benefit of Sentinel vision, which meant that Sirus and his men wouldn't discover it until they'd run into the trap.
Blair finally decided he'd had enough sitting around, and he rose to his feet and walked over to Jim. "Come on, Jim, let me do something," he pleaded.
"Sandburg," Jim growled, turning to look at the younger man, "I told you to sit down. You've still got a slight fever and you're STILL weak."
"Look, I can do something sitting down, like cutting vine, or making an arrowhead, or something," Blair insisted.
Jim gazed at him critically for several long seconds, and Blair assumed he was trying to gauge his health. He tried to look as energetic as possible, even though his stomach still felt queasy and the headache still pounded behind his eyes.
Finally, Jim sighed and nodded. "Okay, Chief," he said, pulling a knife out of his back pocket. "Take this and--" he looked around briefly until he found a large, thick stick, "--this," he added, handing the piece of wood to Blair. "Sharpen the end into a spear."
Blair beamed and nodded quickly. "No problem," he said, taking the items eagerly. "I'll have it done in no time." He spun around and headed back to his spot on the ground, then set to work.
Xena crouched low behind the bush, peering at the men several meters ahead as they passed along the trail. She'd ridden Argo at a light gallop to save time, but she would be better able to launch a surprise attack on foot, so she'd sent the mare grazing. She spotted the woman seated behind one of the soldiers in the rear, and allowed herself a small smile. A rear attack would make things relatively easy.
Using the brush for cover, she moved closer to the trail. The woman's horse approached at a slow gait. Tensing, she waited until the horse had just passed, then sprung out of her hiding place and attacked.
In one swift motion, she pulled the soldier off his horse and mounted the saddle. Before the stunned horsemen could react, she yelled, "Hold on!" to the woman behind her and kicked the horse into a gallop.
"After her!" a large man with dark skin and black hair yelled, and Xena immediately recognized him as Sirus.
The soldiers took off in pursuit, and Xena pushed her horse hard, heading straight for the traps she hoped Jim and Gabrielle had finished setting up. She knew exactly how to avoid the traps, because she'd helped plan the layout.
An arrow whizzed past her head, and she pushed the horse harder, veering off the path and into the woods to use the trees as cover. It would be much harder for the soldiers to aim their arrows while trying to navigate through the trees, and, even if they did managed to get one or two off, the trunks of the large trees would act as cover.
In the time it had taken her to reach Sirus' party, the men had managed to cover additional ground, so her destination now laid about 1/2 a mile in front of her. She covered that distance in minutes, giving out a high-pitched yell to warn Jim and Gabrielle, since she didn't know if Blair would be listening for her.
Blair's head snapped up and the spear dropped to the ground, forgotten. It was his second spear, having finished the first one. The roar of hooves reached his ears, and he heard a few deep shouts from angry men.
"They're coming," he said, scrambling to his feet.
"I don't hear... oh, right," Gabrielle said.
"Let's move," Jim ordered, grabbing Blair's elbow and pulling him to their hiding spot.
Gabrielle took up her own position a few feet away, and the three of them waited. Moments later, an undulating scream pierced the air, and suddenly Xena emerged on horseback from the brush. She slowed the horse briefly near Gabrielle's hiding spot, and the young woman leapt up and pulled the woman off the horse.
"It's okay," Gabrielle reassured the frightened woman, grabbing her arm and forcing her to crouch down behind the brush.
Xena steered the horse through the small strip she knew was clear of booby traps. The soldiers followed closely behind, but, as predicted, most of them veered off the small, rocky path that was much more difficult to navigate but, ultimately, much safer.
The first trap was sprung when one of the horses in the lead caught its back leg on the trip wire. A spear flew out from the path, catching the horse in the side. The animal went down hard, falling on top of the soldier and pinning him to the ground.
Blair winced from his position behind Jim. Unfortunately, the horses made much larger targets than their riders and, although they'd tried to set most of the traps to take down the soldiers, they all realized that the horses would end up getting hurt. It was an unfortunate necessity, but Blair hated to watch innocent animals suffer because of their owners' deeds.
Jim tensed as a group of three soldiers came into view, and he sprung his trap. A large log swung down from the tree tops, throwing all three men from their horses. The animals kept running, leaving their former riders behind. Jim acted quickly, leaping from his position and disarming the stunned men.
One of the horsemen spotted Jim and raised his sword to take down the man. Blair yelled out a warning, but realized Jim couldn't hear him over the roar of hooves. He acted quickly, picking up a large rock and throwing it hard at the man. His aim was true, and the projectile hit the soldier in the head, knocking him off the horse just as he was about to strike. Jim spun around as the horse flew past, and he saw the dazed soldier on the ground nearby. He crouched low to the ground and dashed over to the man, knocking him out and taking his weapons. Then he rushed back to Blair.
"You okay?" Sandburg asked.
Jim nodded. "Yeah. Do I have you to thank for that?" he said, indicating the fallen soldier with a jerk of his chin.
Blair smiled and shrugged. "I made a decent pitcher in little league."
Gabrielle sprung her trap soon after when one of the horses veered into position. She released the tether and a large branch snapped forward, throwing the rider off his horse. Gabrielle followed the protocol and leapt from her position, knocking out the soldier and stealing his weapons.
"Six down and, oh, about a dozen or so to go," Blair counted, peeking his head over the bush to gauge their progress.
"Sandburg, get down!" Jim barked, pulling the young man back to safety.
There was one more trap to be sprung, and Xena steered her horse off the path. Sirus flashed some hand signals and half the men veered off, abandoning the pursuit to follow Sirus toward Damacus. The other half continued after Xena.
Xena's horse jumped over a small patch of leaves, but the horses following her ran over the area. The leaves caved into a natural depression about a foot deep and six feet wide, and four of the horses stumbled forward, hitting the ground hard and throwing their riders to the ground.
That left three horsemen in pursuit of Xena. The Warrior princess steered her horse to the left, circling back toward Gabrielle and Jim. A few seconds later, the men fell into position, and Jim and Gabrielle sprung out of their hiding places, taking out one rider each. Xena withdrew her sword and took out the last rider quickly.
Xena dismounted, her hair ruffled from the chase. Blair and the woman emerged from their hiding places, and Xena patted the horse, glancing at the woman. "Well, we've now got an extra horse to get us to Damacus," she said.
"That was some pretty impressive stuff," Jim said, then glanced at Gabrielle. "You too."
Gabrielle smiled. "Not bad yourself."
Jim turned to Blair and raised a finger. "And you... I know we've got one of those police baseball events coming up, and you're on my team. Got it?"
Blair grinned, cocking his head in mock thought. "I don't know, Jim. The guys from Homicide can come up with some pretty good offers..."
Jim swatted Blair on the head. "You're getting a bit too big for those britches, Chief."
"So, you think he'll still head for Damacus?" Blair asked, shifting his weight in Argo's saddle. His rear end and thighs were really beginning to hurt. He glanced at the woman seated behind Gabrielle in the second horse, but she kept her gaze fixed ahead, her eyes blank.
Xena shrugged as she walked up ahead. "I'm not sure. Seven men will still make a formidable force against a defenseless village, but he's not gonna try it if he thinks he'll meet with resistance, and that means either us or Hercules. He'll realize he didn't take me out when his men don't return, so I doubt he'll hit the village until he can round up more men... and now that he's down to seven men, that's gonna take some time."
"So why don't you organize some men from the village and form a search party?" Jim suggested. "Seven men are nothing next to an armed force."
"Actually, seven men are nothing when faced with Xena and Hercules," Gabrielle shot over her shoulder, flashing a smile at her friend. "And, heck, Xena's handled seven men on her own before."
"And if Hercules really is the son of Zeus, he's supposed to have superhuman strength. Right?" Blair asked.
Xena nodded. "Yes, he does."
"Is he mortal or immortal?" Blair continued.
"As a half-God, he's probably immortal. I haven't seen very many things hurt him," Xena informed the young man. "And he likely won't age, though he's still young by mortal standards."
Blair glanced at Jim. "I have an idea," he said cautiously, knowing Jim would protest. "I can use my senses to track Sirus. Then a couple of us can follow discreetly behind Sirus while the others go up ahead and get Hercules. I should probably go to Damacus, because then I'll be able to find you when we're coming back... since we won't know in what direction Sirus will be heading. Once we've got Hercules, Sirus should be no problem. Right?"
Xena stopped the horse and looked up at Blair, then glanced at Jim. "It's a decent plan. How 'bout it?" she asked the older man.
Jim clenched his jaw, his eyes sending a silent message to Blair that indicated he wasn't pleased with the suggestion. "I hate to admit it, but it seems like the best alternative right now."
Blair released a relieved sigh. "Okay then, let's do it now before they get too far ahead."
Blair was getting much better at using his senses, and he didn't know if that was because he was really beginning to feel better or if it was due to the amount of practice he'd gotten. It took him less than two minutes to pinpoint Sirus' location, and Jim's hand on his back kept him anchored against a sensory zone.
"They're half a mile to the east," Blair announced confidently.
Xena nodded. "Good work." She glanced at Jim. "You two head onto Damacus, and take her with you," she said, glancing at the woman still seated on the horse. "Gabrielle and I will follow Sirus."
"Okay," Jim agreed. "It should take us only a few hours to reach Damacus. If we find Hercules right away, we should be back here before morning."
"Damacus is a small village. You shouldn't have any problem finding Hercules," Gabrielle said.
"Take the other horse," Xena said. "Argo stays with me."
Jim and Blair reached Damacus a little after sunset. They were immediately greeted by a small group of villagers who apparently recognized the woman. The woman had said nothing during the entire trip, so Jim and Blair still didn't know her name.
"Marias!" one of them exclaimed, reaching up toward the woman. "We were so worried when you didn't return. Where's Darren?"
It was then that the woman gave her first significant reaction, bursting into tears as she slid off the horse and fell into waiting arms. Blair dismounted, standing next to Jim as the villagers whisked the young woman away. An older man with greying hair and plump cheeks stepped forward, offering a slight bow.
"I am Samir. You have our gratitude for returning her," the man said, his brown eyes studying Jim and Blair. "Do you know where her husband is?"
Blair swallowed. "He was killed by Sirus. I'm sorry," he said, lowering his gaze to the ground.
The man nodded solemnly. "I feared as much."
"Is Hercules here?" Jim asked, knowing how precious a commodity time was in their situation.
Samir nodded. "Yes, he and his friend arrived shortly before sunset. They are staying with Borrelio and his wife."
"Can you take us to them?" Jim asked. "We know where Sirus and his men are, and we'll need Hercules' help."
The old man nodded quickly. "Yes, yes, of course. This way."