"How does this look, Chief? Why don't we unload and set up here?"
"Sounds like a plan, Jim. How far is the temple from here?"
"Not far, on the other side of that little ridge. I can see the top of it through the trees. But I think this is a good spot, close to the stream, and the downed trees over there will give us some protection from both weather and animals."
"I'm down with that. Man, I think my pack gained twenty pounds on the way here, and that stream looks like heaven to me."
Both men dropped their packs with loud sighs of relief, and Blair stretched and twisted as he looked around them. They had been hiking for more than a day since they left their Jeep behind near the end of the road, hopefully camouflaged well enough that it would still be there when they returned.
Jim looked around as well, scanning each detail of the surrounding jungle. Since they had decided to travel light and not bring a tent, Jim had been carefully examining their surroundings for the last hour or so as they approached the temple. The downed and rotting logs resting up against the massive trunks of two ancient trees would be the backdrop to their camp site; if needed, a roof of branches, ferns and bark could easily be constructed to extend out over their sleeping area and packs. The area was mostly level and the nearby stream was a bonus; rocks found along the stream would make a safe fire circle. He could feel the tension in his body drop minutely; at least one aspect of their journey was going well.
"Hey, Jim. Earth to Jim. Anything wrong?" Blair called across the small clearing, concern evident in his voice.
"No, not at all, just looking around."
"Okay, as long as you're not zoning out on me. You know, that stream's calling my name. Mind if I take a break and clean up a bit before we start making camp?"
"Good idea. I think I'll join you."
Blair headed for the enticing trickle of the stream and plopped down on a wide, flat rock at one edge. He tied his hair back, then began removing his hiking boots and socks. Leaning over the water, he filled his hands and buried his sweaty and dirtied face in them.
"Mmmmm..." he moaned as Jim joined him, kneeling down at the water's edge. He lowered his head and splashed water repeatedly over his own head and neck, scrubbing his short hair briefly.
Raising his head and wiping the water from his eyes, Jim took a moment to examine his partner. Blair was still panting heavily and his t-shirt was dark with sweat where it was visible under his ever-present flannel shirt. Blair was in reasonably good shape, but he often struggled to keep up as they hiked over long distances, although Jim had tried to measure his stride in consideration of his shorter friend. He smiled watching Blair submerge his feet in the cool water, his eyes closing and a grin spreading across his face in pleasure.
As Blair slowly lay back across the large rock, Jim noticed the red mark that disappeared into his hairline and was reminded that it hadn't been that long since Blair was almost killed in an accident in Jim's truck. Blair had been through the wringer over the past few months, helping Jim with several brutal cases, losing his girlfriend to a serial killer, receiving the head injury in the accident. Jim had been through a rough patch as well, having only recovered from an unexplained bout of severe migraines in the past few weeks. Neither of them was at his best coming into this journey.
"Hey, Chief, how's the head?"
Blair carefully touched the healing scar on his forehead. "Not too bad. Got a little headache, but nothing like it was. I'm sure it's just because I'm a little tired, but I'll be fine. We get set up, get something to eat, and I'll be good to go."
"Sorry, Blair, I know that I've been really pushing the last few hours, but I wanted us to get here well before nightfall. I wanted us to be able to pitch camp, take a look around, and get a good night's rest. We've both been through a lot recently, and it's been a long hike in. Whatever is going to happen, having a little rest can only help."
"No problem." Blair glanced around, an odd look growing on his face. "You wanna hear something weird?"
"Weirder than us being here at all?"
"Well, almost that weird," Blair grinned, his grin slowly fading as he met Jim's gaze. "This place looks familiar. As a matter of fact, it reminds me of the jungle in my vision, you know, the one after the accident when Incacha spoke to me."
"I'm sure it's just coincidence. You know, you've seen one jungle, you've seen them all." Jim busied himself wiping his face with the tail of his t-shirt, suddenly feeling a pressing need to check out the area and set up their meager camp. He stood and left the stream behind, scanning the area and picking up sticks and branches that would become their evening campfire. Moments later he could hear the shuffling steps of Blair behind him, joining him in the task and heading for the small clearing.
"Yeah, right," Blair replied under his breath. Dropping his bundle of wood, he knelt and dug around in his backpack, pulled out a candle and the foldable candle lantern. Stuffing them into a pocket of his jacket, he grabbed the familiar worn notebook and stood, staring toward the ridge. "I'd like to take a look at the temple before it gets dark, see if we can get more information from the pictures and symbols there. Join me?"
Jim's immediate reaction was to think "no," but he forced himself to swallow that response before it reached his lips. Despite the spark of fear that touched him at even thinking about the ancient pools, and his previous experience there, he couldn't deny Blair's need to do this.
"Sure. Lead on, Chief."
A few hours later, he rubbed a tired and dusty hand across his forehead. They had gone over almost every inch of the main room in the temple, the room with the two pools. Blair had been eagerly sketching the symbols and writings that they found there, and Jim interpreted the meanings when he could. They had also looked briefly into two other chambers, but Blair had wanted to focus on the characters surrounding the pools first. Jim had rarely seen his partner more focused, fully engrossed in his work.
Standing and stretching stiff limbs from sitting on the cold floor, Jim extended his senses around him. He could feel the temperature dropping and hear the subtle change in the murmur from the jungle that told him that twilight would arrive soon.
"Hey, Blair, it's getting late. Why don't we take a break, fix up camp and get some dinner. We can always come back to it in the morning. We've got two weeks, you know; you don't have to do it all in one night. "
Blair looked up from his notebook, his hand stopping in the middle of drawing yet another symbol from the temple wall.
"Oh, right. You know me, if I don't have an alarm clock to tell me when to stop studying and go to bed, I'll keep going all night. I guess it'll all still be here in the morning." With one final look around, eyes practically glowing in excitement, he stood and followed his partner out into the dusk.
Blair shifted the fiery embers, concentrating their heat under the simmering coffeepot. A faint trail of smoke rose from the spout, levitating above the pot, then disappearing gradually into the air. He watched the vapor, rising and dissipating, allowing his mind and eyes to follow its path into the unknown.
This journey, as Incacha had so aptly put it, held the same type of mystery, a rise to greater knowledge, and a quest into a world not yet charted. Settling himself cross-legged on the ground, he poked idly at the flames, watching the play of color and light against the backdrop of the forest. Jim had left him alone, obviously feeling the need to be alone himself, quietly making his way into the underbrush in search of the plants needed for the cleansing ritual and for the ceremonial drinks they would ingest before entering the temple pools.
After a restless night's sleep, they had spent most of the morning in the temple, continuing to work on documenting and interpreting the ancient language there. Jim had been incredible, pulling meaning and answers seemingly out of the air, and between the two of them they had interpreted much of the writing in the chamber of the pools. The ritual ceremony was described there, as well as the steps to prepare themselves and the drinks that each of them would take. Finally Blair had called a halt, believing that they had discovered all that they were going to about the ritual of sentinel and shaman, at least all that they would be able to interpret until after they had completed the ceremony.
Blair leaned forward, inhaling the bitter aroma of the tea that steeped over the flames. Reaching into his pocket, Blair fingered the tiny bag of herbs, hoping that his research had led him in the right direction. Up until now, so much of his ability as a guide had been based purely on instinct. The smattering of historical knowledge regarding the bond between sentinel and guide was only secondary to what seemed to him to be a primitive type of educated hunch.
These feelings, previously based entirely in theory, had led him on a search for an herb that would aid Jim in his own path to discovery. Although the writings in the temple were not precise, or they hadn't been able to translate them all precisely, they seemed to describe just the kind of herb he had chosen. Blair wondered if it had just been a good educated guess on his part, or had he subconsciously responded to a kind of shaman's instinct that had guided his choice.
The air stirred around him as the snap of a twig sounded in his ear. Turning in the direction of the sound, Blair met Jim's eyes.
"Hey Jim, you back already?"
Jim stood, one hand clutching an armful of plants wrapped up in the tail of his shirt, the other pointing in the direction of the fire. "What is that?"
Blair scrambled to his feet, unnerved by the shocked expression in the other man's face. "It's an herb, Uncaria Tomentosa, I brought it with me. We read this on the wall of the temple, remember? That drink that Alex gave you, in its true form it was probably meant for me, for a shaman. You were never supposed to have it."
Brushing past Blair, Jim moved slowly towards the fire. The smell of the tea seemed to call him, beckoning him to draw nearer. Dropping to one knee, Jim closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply. "It's Cat's Claw."
Blair nodded, amazed that Jim had been able to identify the herb purely by its smell. "That's another name for it. How did you know that, Jim?"
"I-I don't know. I've had it before. In Peru."
"Its medicinal purposes are endless, the Chopec probably gave you some after the crash. It supports the immune system, prevents viruses from attacking the body, regulates blood pressure, and any number of other things. This is incredible!"
"I remember it used to grow in the trees, like a woody kind of vine. It could be huge, almost a hundred feet long. Incacha taught me how to cut it so that it would grow back. He'd boil the root, and some of the bark, and we'd drink it. It was bitter, horrible really."
Blair smiled, happy to hear some of the initial shock leaving Jim's voice. Moving towards his friend, Blair laid a hand on his shoulder. "Well then, I guess we'll have to hold our noses when we drink it."
"The other stuff wasn't exactly champagne, Chief," Jim smiled, placing the plants on the ground beside the fire and kneeling beside him.
"Nothing could be worse than Rhonda's day old coffee," Blair said, watching as Jim sorted the leaves, roots and berries into two separate piles.
"You got that right," Jim chuckled as he finished and brushed his hands off on his jeans. He pointed to the larger pile on the left. "Okay, this should be enough for the cleansing. When it's mashed up and heated slowly with a little water, it could almost pass for one of those all-natural soaps that you like to use. And this other pile is to brew the shaman's drink - the plants and herbs that are described in the temple, not whatever it was that Alex used."
Blair shivered unconsciously at the mention of the evil sentinel's name, and quickly felt Jim's hand drop lightly on his shoulder. He reached for a couple of rocks that he had found by the stream, ones that could be used as a mortar and pestle.
"Looks good, Jim. Why don't you start in on the soap, and I'll work on the shaman's concoction. The cat's claw tea that we'll drink for the cleansing ceremony is almost done, and I'll make a concentrated batch for you to use in the temple. We should be able to have everything ready today, and start the ceremonies just before sundown as the writings prescribe." He felt Jim's hand slide quickly off his shoulder and turned, their eyes meeting. "Are you ready for this, Jim? You've gotta tell me if you're not. Both of us have to be ready and committed, or it's not going to work."
Jim broke the gaze and looked down, gathering some of the plants and tearing them into small pieces.
"I'll be ready when you are, Chief. As long as we do it together."
Stopping at a bend in the stream, both men stopped and looked at the small waterfall and inviting pool in front of them.
"I think this is the spot, Chief. What do you think?"
"Looks good to me. I think it will fit the bill."
Blair set his two containers down on a nearby rock and took a deep breath as he nervously recalled the details of the cleansing ceremony.
"Okay, first we drink the tea, both from the same cup." He lifted one of the containers from the rock and sipped half of the bitter liquid, his hand shaking slightly, then handed it to Jim. Jim met his eyes as he took the cup and sipped the other half, handing the cup back after finishing with just a trace of a grimace.
"Okay, good," Blair took the cup and set it down. He looked up nervously as he could feel the faint warmth of a blush on his cheeks. "Now comes the fun part. We strip down to skin and enter the pool together, then each of us has to wash the other with the soapy mixture, to wash away the influences of the outside world..."
"And to see each other as nakedly and honestly as our souls will see each other in the pools," Jim finished for him, not a trace of embarrassment in his voice. He grinned slightly. "I was paying attention, you know."
"Right." Blair shivered in anticipation of the chill water of the pool. "Well, then, let's do it."
"Let's do it," Jim concurred.
Both men began to undress quietly. Blair turned slightly away in modesty, even as he knew it was foolish under the circumstances, for once folding his clothing as he made a pile of it on the shore. His mind was spinning at the implications of what they were about to undertake. His musings were interrupted by the soft voice of his partner.
"The water isn't getting any warmer, Chief."
Blair swallowed quickly before answering. "I'm sure it's not." He picked up the bowl of soapy mixture and a couple of large, soft leaves and set them right at the edge of the water. "Ready when you are."
Their eyes met briefly, then they stepped, side by side, into the cool water. The shock of the change in temperature startled him momentarily and he began to slip on the mossy bottom, but was pulled up short by Jim's strong grip on his arm.
"Slow and easy, there."
Regaining his footing, Blair slowly made his way deeper into the water, stopping when the water reached his waist. He was about to reach back for the soap when he discovered that Jim had beaten him to it.
"The shaman is bathed first, remember? Dunk yourself and get all of that hair wet." Taking a deep breath, Blair lowered himself under the water. His skin tingled all over, and he realized that he was feeling slightly lightheaded as well. Maybe the strong tea had something to do with that, he mused. Standing up, he took a couple of breaths before leaning forward to wet his hair and run his fingers through the kinks a few times.
Looking at Jim, meeting his eyes hesitantly, Blair nodded.
Jim wet one of the leaves, then scooped some of the mixture from the bowl and spread it over the soft, green surface. He stepped up to and behind Blair and softly applied the soapy leaf to his back, slowly and carefully wiping across the shoulders, lifting Blair's hair to stroke across his neck. Blair was amazed at the gentle touch and closed his eyes, trusting completely in his friend, allowing Jim to raise his arms one by one to wash beneath them, and walking when gently prodded into the shallows so Jim could bathe the rest of his trunk and his legs. Although he had expected to feel embarrassed at the intimacy of the act, he felt only the warmth of trust and regard for the sentinel.
His skin felt alive, tingling, as if he was literally aglow from inside. He barely cracked open an eye when Jim pulled him back into deeper water. A gentle massage of his hair and scalp led him almost into a trance before Jim finished and stepped back.
"Okay, I think that's got it. Why don't you drop down and rinse off."
Blair did so, submerging himself completely and rinsing his hair thoroughly with both hands. The native soap rinsed off easily, although the tingling remained. He stood and wiped the water out of his eyes.
"All right, your turn."
Jim submerged himself briefly as Blair picked up the other leaf and a small handful of the soap, then turned his back so that Blair could begin as he had done. Blair rewet the leaf and then began smoothing it across Jim's broad shoulders, focusing on the task at hand and thinking only of his great good luck in finding not only a sentinel but a friend, a good friend that would go to the ends of the earth to help him meet his personal destiny as a shaman. He bathed his partner as gently as he would a baby, then tapped on his shoulders to encourage him to submerge and rinse off. The peaceful, contented look on Jim's face as he rose out of the water probably matched the expression on his own.
"How do you feel, Jim?"
"Clean, tingly.... Really alive. How about you?"
"Me, too. Almost like my own senses have been turned up a notch."
"So, are we done here?"
"Yes, I guess so. We need to wash out the rest of the soap into the water and the leaves go in too. Then we dress in the clean clothes we brought and meditate until we are ready to go to the temple and begin the ceremony."
They slowly left the stream, brushing water droplets from their bodies, grateful for the warm sun and slight breeze that helped dry newly sensitive skin. Dressing quickly, they headed back downstream toward the campsite. As he dropped down near the fire, Blair felt as if he could extend his senses and become part of the living jungle around him. He smiled at Jim as he found a spot to sit across from him, then closed his eyes and began slowing his breathing in relaxation.
Jim watched Blair open his eyes slowly, a look of calm and contentment on his tanned face. He stood and stretched, then brought a couple of handfuls of small logs and branches to the fire circle.
"Why don't you finish up here, bank the fire for later, I've got some other stuff I need to do."
"Meet me inside when you're ready, and oh yeah, lose the extra shirts."
Staring at the layers of flannel and cotton shirts that hung loosely from his upper body, Blair called after him, "Which shirts?"
"All but one t-shirt, " Jim called over his shoulder as he ascended the stairs into the temple.
Blair's voice followed him in complaint. "It's freezing out here."
"It's your journey, remember?" Jim teased, yelling from just outside the temple entrance.
"I hope the water's warm," Blair muttered, probably under his breath, but loud enough for sentinel hearing to detect easily.
Leaving Blair to complete his preparations, Jim moved into the shadowed area of the temple. Waiting for his vision to adjust to the dim light, Jim listened to the gentle flow of water from underground springs into the chamber. Slowly he approached the two magical pools. At the base of one of the pools, he eyed his reflection in the calm water. The image stretched before him, rippling slightly as his breath danced along the surface.
Breathing deeply, he focused on banishing his haunting memories of Alex, wild-eyed and out of control as she lost her mind, her cries of agony echoing off the stone walls. He fought to replace those images with the familiar image of his friend and guide, seeking a calm within before Blair would join him to begin the ceremony. Desire filled his being as unforeseen hands guided him toward the age-old ritual that was to fulfill their destinies.
The pulsing beat of distant drums filled his ears, pounding in time with his heart. The intensity of the sound increased, until it seemed to come from within his own body. Moments later, he could feel Blair's presence beside him. Without a word, Jim stripped off his outer shirt, and tossed it onto the ground.
As Blair reached Jim's side, the loud throbbing of his heart filled his ears, then was replaced with the sound of distant drums, somehow echoing within the temple walls. The beat surrounded him, pulsing along his spine, pounding against the walls of his heart. He watched, dumbfounded, as Jim examined them briefly, then moved to take the sentinel's drink from Blair's left hand.
The single word sent shivers through Blair's body as he watched Jim drain the contents of his bowl. Obediently, Blair drained the shaman's drink from his own cup and set it down on the side of the pool.
The liquid warmed him instantly, both inside and out. For a fleeting moment, he understood how the consumption of this drink had affected Jim and Alex. In small quantities, like Alex had forced on Jim, one's mind may have been affected, but in mass doses and with other unknown additives, like those Alex had consumed, the impact on a person's mind and body would be shattering. It was clear to him now, that Alex's catatonic state was partly due to the mixture she had ingested.
Signaling with his hand for Blair to remain where he was, Jim moved to a shadowed area of the room, and returned with two small woven bags. Handing one to Blair, Jim returned to stand beside his pool.
"Place your offering in the bag."
Blair hesitated for a moment, unnerved by the fact that Jim knew that his offering was nearby. Nodding, Blair retrieved the worn bracelet from his hiding spot, placed it in the bag, and pulled the drawstring closed. Following Jim's lead, Blair carefully eased the bag into the water, watching as it disappeared below the surface. Small bubbles rose to the top of the water, sending identical ripples though both of the pools.
Blair did as instructed, moving to stand in front of Jim. Dipping his index finger in the water, Jim gently traced a line across Blair's forehead, whispering a single word to the man before him. "Curanderos."
Blair inhaled sharply as the cool water bathed his forehead, a slight inner tingling joining the warmth growing within him. Again, Jim drew an identical line across Blair's lips and uttered a one-word blessing. "Brujos."
His legs felt weak as the tingling spread, and one of Jim's hands reached out to steady him. The final line of liquid was drawn across Blair's chest, just above his heart. The final word "Shaman," was spoken barely above a whisper.
Jim repeated the words as Blair took a half step toward him before his legs gave way. Strong arms caught him and swept him up, and he was vaguely surprised at his lack of fear as he was cradled briefly against a muscular chest before being lowered into caressing waters. "Healer, sorcerer, Shaman." Heavy eyelids drifted closed and his breathing slowed and evened out, floating easily in the warm water of the shaman's pool.
The transition had begun....
Jim moved unsteadily towards the opposite pool, barely able to force his body into action. He tried to ready himself mentally for what he knew was to come, but he knew that he could never be fully prepared for the visions that awaited him. Easing himself over the edge, he felt the all too familiar floating sensation work its way through his body. Staring at the ceiling of the cavern, he allowed the numbness to overtake him. His heart raced as his legs weakened and became useless extremities. He fought the urge to scream, fought his natural desire to maintain control. He had chosen to take this journey, chosen of his own free will, and now was the moment of truth. His breathing quickened, as his hands became unresponsive, and limp. The world ceased to exist, the blackness engulfing him.
Continue on to Act 3