"Hang on, we're going down!"
Jim's eyes darted around the confines of the helicopter, his mind quickly cataloguing the men's names and faces. Seven men, born to serve, but destined to die in the service of their country. The whirring of the helicopter blades above his head slowed as the engine sputtered, the chopper occasionally lurching downward even as it spun horizontally out of control. Jim reached out, snagging the arm of one of the younger members of the unit, fighting against centrifugal force to keep the man upright.
"Grab on! The rest of you, grab on!"
Gloved hands fumbled, fingers entwining in a makeshift lifeline, a chain of humanity. Sight, sound, taste, smell and touch collided as he watched the links of the chain snap apart before his eyes. He heard the men's screams as metal dueled with flesh, smelled their blood as arteries and veins exploded, spilling life onto the floor of the cabin. Bile rose bitterly in his throat as he felt pieces of his own flesh being torn from his body. The cooling, lifeless hand of the young man beside him slipped from his grasp. His eyes raked over the scene, refusing to believe, and yet incapable of disbelief as well.
Endless minutes passed, and the world grew silent and dark. He floated somewhere between life and death, wishing for one, and dreading the other. There were no words to describe the eerie emptiness of it all, the complete and utter feeling of total desolation. To be alone in death was worse than death itself}.
Slowly the images swirling in his mind began to take shape. The first thing that Blair became aware of was a loud whirring sound directly overhead. The ground beneath his feet seemed to sway slightly, and he sensed that he was not alone. Blinking furiously to clear his sight, Blair darted a curious glance around what appeared to be a helicopter. Men in army fatigues, each shouldering a weapon, exchanged whispered conversation. Blair studied the faces, not recognizing any of the men around him. One man's face remained hidden behind a wall of others, and Blair found himself drawn to reach the stranger.
"Hey, guys, you want to tell me what's going on here? Where am I?" Blair moved through the cabin, seemingly unnoticed by its inhabitants. "Come on guys, what gives?"
"They cannot hear you, " a voice behind him stated calmly.
Blair spun around to face the source of the voice, shocked to see Incacha's spirit standing directly behind him.
"Incacha, where am I? Why have you brought me here?"
"You have traveled to this time and place to close the circle. You have accepted your own death, but you have not accepted the death of the other. Only through acceptance can you fully understand your role as Shaman. Mistakes will be made, and you must face the consequences of your actions."
"What consequences? Accept whose death?"
The words had barely left Blair's mouth, when the helicopter lurched forward violently, tossing the occupants of the cabin into a heap on the floor. Blair's eyes flashed over the scene, coming to rest on the face of the man that had remained obscured from his sight.
"Jim? Oh, my God. Incacha, no. Please! Please don't do this. You can't do this. Jim!"
He saw the terror in Jim's eyes as he lunged forward, grasping the hand of a young soldier. Jim's shouted orders to his men rang in Blair's ears. Blair staggered towards Jim's side, intent on helping his friend any way that he could.
"I'm here, Jim, grab on." Blair extended his hand in invitation, frustrated by Jim's lack of response. "Come on, Jim!"
Reaching out to grasp Jim's shirt, Blair watched in horror as his hand passed right through Jim's body. He stared at his hand in disbelief, shaking his head to clear his thoughts. "No, this isn't happening." Determined not to give up, Blair repeated the action with the same result.
Fear gripped his soul as he watched the young soldiers being tossed about like rag dolls. "Stop! Make it stop!" Blair pleaded, overwhelmed by the screams for help and the sickening thud of flesh against metal.
Blood spewed from open wounds, spattering Blair's chest in red splotches. His stomach churned as he watched, helplessly, the scene play out before him. Jim's body became airborne, hitting the roof of the chopper with a loud bang, then crashing back to the floor with an agonizing groan. It was more than Blair could take. "No more! That's enough!"
"You cannot change what has been."
He closed his eyes, allowing himself to sink deeper into the void. He welcomed death now, courted it in his mind. For a fleeting moment, he pictured his father, standing at the entrance to his childhood home, listening to the officer that had been sent to inform him of his son's fate.
"I'm Colonel Patterson. I'm sorry to disturb you at your home, sir, but there's been a situation. Captain Ellison's helicopter has gone down somewhere in Peru, and we've lost contact with the unit. Unfortunately, given the unstable situation in the country at the moment, we're unable to dispatch a rescue team. I'm sorry, sir."
Jim wondered how his father would take the news of his disappearance. Their relationship had been shaky at best, not exactly the typical father and son bond. Sally would cry, that much he knew. Steven? Steven was another matter. He pictured the two men at his memorial service, accepting condolences from strangers, all the while checking their watches and hoping to make it home in time for dinner.
Only vague shimmers of memory remained of his mother, and with them came the cutting edge of bitterness. He closed his mind to her face, hoping to blot it from his memory entirely.
There seemed no real reason to continue to fight for what little life he still had within him. There was no special woman waiting for him back home, no child to weep for the loss of his father, no family to mourn the untimely death of their son. His life had been filled with acquaintances, with no real friends that he could call his own. His true self had died years ago at the hands of his father, and the shell of a man that remained was a hard, unfeeling entity.
Dropping to his knees beside the crumpled form, Blair probed Jim's neck for a heartbeat. Again, his hand passed through Jim's body without making contact, but he could see no movement of his chest. "He's not breathing."
"You hear, but you do not listen. Others have said that they listen with their hearts, you must listen with your soul."
"I don't care! I don't care about this anymore. Help me, dammit, do something!" Blair could barely contain the panic in his voice as he stood to face Incacha's spirit. "Please!"
"Why is he here?"
The words caught Blair off guard, and he took a moment to compose himself. "To complete the bond."
"He is here because of you. Did he not ask to delay this journey?"
"What do you mean? You told me that we had to do this. You told me that he was ready, that he had to make some sort of preparations."
"There are many voices, but only one true voice."
Blair glanced down at Jim's still form, shaking his head in disbelief. "Are you saying that I made a mistake? He knew about this, didn't he? That's why he insisted on writing those letters. He knew he could die! What have I done?"
Laying a hand on Blair's shoulder, Incacha smiled. "Be with him now, listen to his soul."
Blair nodded, slowly returning to his place beside Jim. "I'm sorry, Jim. I made a horrible mistake. I'll stay with you, no matter what happens. I'll be right here. Always. Just rest."
As the shadow of death loomed closer, he unleashed his caged self, allowing it to break free, and savor the nectar of the last drops of life. His senses flared, swimming out of control in his mind. For so many years he had suppressed this part of his being, muting the voice that beckoned him. Now, faced with imminent death, he listened intently to the voice, allowing it to surround and then move within him. A presence of sorts touched his eyes, tracing circles around his tightly clamped eyelids. The spirit moved along his ears, touching his mouth and nose, and finally coming to rest in the palms of his hands. The feeling of loneliness lifted, giving way to a sense of fulfillment and energy. He fought his way back from the eye of death.
"You have come. Today you are to be reborn."
The presence drifted away from him, the image fading into a sea of haze.
Brushing his hands over Jim's eyelids, Blair sighed as Jim's skin now played gently along his fingertips, now able to feel the body and spirit of his friend. "Rest, Jim..."
Carefully, he moved his hands over Jim's face, wiping blood and debris gently away from eyes and ears, nose and mouth. One hand brushed lightly across a bloodied brow as the other trailed along the scraped cheek and jaw. Finally, Blair ghosted his fingertips along Jim's hands, grasping them and bringing them up to rest on the battered chest.
Suddenly, Jim's chest heaved, a choked gasp escaping his mouth. Blue eyes flickered open momentarily, coming to rest on Blair's face. A small smile touched Jim's lips as he struggled to speak.
Nodding, Blair blinked the swelling dampness from his eyes and tightened his grip on Jim's hands. "Right here, Jim, I'm right here," he smiled as their surroundings faded into the darkening blue of the spirit plane.
A voice of familiar cadence called to him, asking him if he was all right. Jim felt the soft caress of the water against his skin as he raised heavy eyelids. His vision slowly focused, settling on a familiar and concerned face hovering over him.
"You with me, Jim? Man, you trying to give me a heart attack, or something? Are you okay? I thought your heart stopped."
With Blair's help, Jim slowly propped himself up into a sitting position in the pool.
"I'm okay," Jim murmured, his voice almost as shaky as his muscles felt. "Just give me a minute." He eased out of the pool, Blair aiding him with an arm around his back. Sitting on the edge, he tried to even his breath as his heart slowed to a more normal rhythm. "What just happened?"
Blair sat dripping beside him, curling wet hair behind each ear as he stared searchingly into his eyes.
"I was there! I saw it, all of it. The helicopter crash, your men...."
"You saw it?"
"Yes! God, Jim, no wonder you repressed memories of the crash and your time in Peru. How did you ever survive? It didn't look like anyone could have," Blair stammered, wrapping his arms around his body as shivering began to take over.
"You saw it?" Jim repeated, astonished.
"I saw it! I was there. I could see it happen, but I couldn't do anything to stop it." Blair jumped up and began pacing, arms waving. "I tried to help, but I couldn't touch you, I couldn't help you. Incacha was there..."
"He said that I needed to listen with my soul." Blair suddenly stopped right in front of him, his voice rising angrily. "He said that you knew that this was dangerous, that you could die. That I had to accept your death. Did you? Did you know that this could kill you, and you didn't tell me?"
Jim shook his head. "No, Blair, it wasn't like that. I had lots of dreams, nightmares really, before we left. You know how nightmares are, your worst fears go into overdrive. I probably dreamed that I died, that we both died, doing this. But that's all it was, Chief, just a dream. It was just fear talking." He stood and placed both hands on Blair's shoulders. "And you did help, I just remembered. When I felt the most hopeless, something helped me to hang on. It was you, wasn't it? Somehow you were there, with me, in my vision - and we both survived."
Blair pulled away and returned to his pacing, one hand dragging rapidly through his hair.
"Jim, maybe we should stop here. I didn't know that this could be dangerous when I asked you to do it. I figured that either we'd have some kind of spiritual experience together, or nothing at all would happen and we'd go back to Cascade with a good tan and some gifts for our friends. It's not worth it, man...."
Stepping into Blair's path, Jim placed one hand over his thundering heart.
"It is worth it, Blair. We both agreed to it, we both want it. We're still alive, and it seems that Incacha is with us, guiding us in some way. I don't think he's gonna lead us astray. We need to trust Incacha, and each other. Okay?"
Taking a deep breath, Blair looked searchingly into Jim's face, then finally nodded.
Jim sighed deeply. "Okay. Now what."
"How are you feeling?"
"I'm okay. You?"
"I'm all right. Well, next, we do this again, except you go first into the pool, and I'd guess that I'm going to have some kind of vision that you will see."
"I'm gonna be spending time in your head? Maybe you'd better give me some of that other drink."
"Cute, very cute. Ready?"
"Yep. Let's do it."
Blair picked up the wooden cup from the edge of the pool and handed it to Jim, and he took another drink of the bitter contents. Taking it from his hand and setting it back on the edge, Blair began mirroring Jim's earlier actions.
"Watchman...Protector...Sentinel," Blair murmured, blessing each word with water from the pool on Jim's forehead, lips and chest, copying Jim's earlier actions that he could still feel as a feather light tingling on his own skin.
Warmth and tingling spread from each spot that Blair touched, and the words seemed to echo through Jim's head. An almost liquid relaxation took over his body. Eyes drooping, he felt Blair gentle him into a sitting position on the edge of the pool, help swing his legs over, then lower him down into the warm waters. Hands carefully stretched out his arms and legs, resting lightly for a moment on his shoulders, then disappeared, leaving his body and consciousness to float away.
Naomi knelt in front of him to look him straight in the eye.
"I'm sure you're going to have just a wonderful time, sweetie, and I don't want you to miss out just because I can't go right now."
Blair still couldn't believe his ears. Naomi wasn't coming along? She was just going to send her ten-year-old son by himself, to South America, with a bunch of strangers? Okay, he knew that Dr. Adams was Naomi's cousin the anthropologist, but he didn't really know him.
"Why can't I come with you, mom?"
"Now, honey, it's a trip for grown-ups only. I can't take you with me. You know I would if I could."
He watched, still stunned, as Naomi whirled and walked off down the airport terminal, turning once to blow him a hurried kiss before he lost sight of her in the crowd. Moisture clouded his vision as the ache grew in his chest, but he sniffed loudly and took a deep breath. He was not going to cry in front of her friends. He stiffened briefly at the weight of an unfamiliar hand dropping onto his shoulder, and he looked up into Dr. Adams' concerned face.
"I'm sure you'll have a great time, Blair. Just think of all the stories you'll have to tell your mom and your friends when you get back."
Blair nodded and sniffed again, staring down the hallway for one last glimpse of his mother, but she was nowhere to be seen. He swiped at his nose with his sleeve before slowly walking over and joining Dr. Adams and the rest of the group.
Jim found himself standing in what looked like an airport terminal. He glanced around to discover where he was and why he was there, when he spotted two somewhat familiar faces over to his right. Without conscious effort, he moved closer.
A young woman in a wildly colored poncho, bright auburn hair in a long braid trailing down her back, led a small curly-haired boy by the hand over to an empty group of seats. As he approached, she sat the boy down in one of the seats and knelt in front of him, brushing riotous curls off the boy's forehead with one hand.
Naomi and Blair, it had to be. A much younger Naomi and Blair, Naomi appeared to be in her late twenties or early thirties, and Blair maybe nine or ten years old. He couldn't help but grin at the sight of his roommate and friend, hair sticking out all over, short legs kicking back and forth in the almost perpetual motion that he had come to expect from Blair. He listened in as Naomi began to talk, his grin fading as he heard her plans to abandon her son with her friends.
Blair's face, as always, revealed his rapidly changing emotions as Naomi's words sunk in. Jim could hear the increasing pounding of the small heart as he watched shock and disbelief flit across that open and trusting face. He angrily strode up behind Naomi and reached down to grab and shake her.
"How dare you..."
He pulled up short as his hand passed right through her shoulder. Staring at his hand, he spun around at the sound of a familiar voice.
"She cannot hear you."
Incacha stood beside him, his calm gaze focused on the pair in front of them.
"Incacha, what the hell's going on?"
"You are here to see the shaman's heart, his soul. To close the circle and complete the bond with him."
Jim clenched his fists as he watched Blair's face cloud over, his lower lip begin to quiver, his eyes fill with moisture as he listened to his mother's plans to leave him so she could go on some spur-of-the-moment jaunt with a new friend.
"How can she do this to him? He's just a child. Doesn't being a parent mean anything to her?"
"You cannot change the past, Enqueri."
His heart ached for the sad little boy that gave a brief wave as his mother left him, looking so small and alone, arms crossing over his chest as if to hug himself. He longed to take that little person into his arms and console him, to tell him that it would all be okay. Just as he moved up to Blair's side, the scene wavered and faded into gray.
He laughed nervously, trying to act grown up and fit in with the rest of the group that was seated around the campfire, even though he was only half their ages. As upset as he'd been that Naomi wasn't with him, he'd discovered that he loved working on the excavation and learning about a long-dead people. He'd proved that he could work hard, carefully cleaning and labeling the group's finds and helping out all around the site and the camp. Most of the others had started treating him like a little brother, and he felt more and more comfortable as the days went by.
Even though it was late, Blair loved sitting around the fire with the others, listening to their stories and adventures. The first night one of the women, Lindy, tried to get him to go to bed early, but he'd pretty much ignored her, politely telling her that if his mother thought he was grown-up enough to come on the expedition by himself that he was grown-up enough to stay up late. That had made everyone laugh, but they'd let him stay up as late as he wanted, although Dr. Adams had warned him that Naomi would "have his hide" if Blair didn't get enough rest and came home looking worn out.
Tonight had been different. A few of their native guides had decided to stay at their camp overnight instead of going off on their own as usual. They had brought some food and drinks with them, and after Dr. Adams and his assistant went to bed, apparently while Blair had been in his tent grabbing a sweatshirt, the native men got out their treats and shared them with the few that were still up. They passed around some smelly cigarettes that reminded Blair of the pot that Naomi and her friends smoked, as well as some containers of a native drink. As the evening grew later, their laughter was louder and their stories funnier, although Blair didn't really understand them all.
He had passed on the offer of a smoke, but agreed to join the others in taking a few sips of drink from one of the containers. After all, Naomi's friends occasionally let him have a sip of their drinks, when her back was turned. Although he'd tried to take just a sip, Steve had tipped up the container and Blair ended up getting quite a mouthful. Steve just laughed and patted him on the back as he choked on the bitter taste, calling him "quite the little man."
Now he began to feel warm, and he wiped at the sweat building on his forehead. The fire was hotter than he'd thought, and he took off his jacket and tossed it toward his tent. He could swear that the ground was moving beneath him, and he began to feel a little dizzy. Maybe drinking that stuff hadn't been such a good idea, after all. Deciding that going to bed sounded good, he tried to get to his feet, but instead wavered on unsteady legs and sat back down suddenly. Whoa!
Steve's face seemed to magically appear beside him, wavering like a mirage as he felt an arm drape across his shoulders.
"What's wrong, little guy?"
The voice sounded strange in Blair's ears, and his mouth felt full of cotton as he replied.
"I feel funny. I think I'll go to bed now."
"Come on, pal, we're just starting to have fun. Here, have some more. Great stuff, isn't it?"
Blair's muscles didn't seem to want to work as Steve tilted his head back and poured more of the bitter liquid into his mouth before Blair could raise a hand to stop him. Even as he sputtered he could feel it tracing a hot path down to his stomach. Feeling heavy and limp, he tilted to one side and felt the ground rush up to hit him.
A point of light began to emerge from the swirling gray fog, and Jim began to make out a number of figures sitting around a campfire. He glanced around him, recognizing the sights and sounds of the jungle at night. Examining the people in front of him, he spotted the same curly-headed boy from the airport and moved closer.
Blair was seated with a group of five or six men, including a couple of natives. They were laughing and joking, passing around homemade cigarettes and gourds of a pungent-smelling liquid. As he watched Blair took a drink, helped by a young man that tipped the bowl up, almost choking Blair with the rush of liquid. He began to rush to Blair's aid, remembering at the last minute that he could do nothing to interfere.
"You can not help him."
Jim turned to see Incacha at his side again.
"Why? Why make me watch this?"
"Has he not seen into your heart, your soul? Are you not here to bond with your guide, to share his heart and soul as well?"
Jim shook his head, fists clenching in frustration as he watched one of the men give Blair another drink as Blair became limp and eventually tilted over.
Everything seemed to be moving incredibly slowly as he looked up at the sky, his view of the stars interrupted by the smiling faces of Steve and one of the native men. Their eyes seemed to have an odd gleam in them, or maybe it was just the drink.
"You look like you're awfully warm, Blair. Why don't we get some of these clothes off?"
His own muscles felt like water as hands reached down towards him, and he flailed weakly to bat them away.
"No!" Jim shouted as he shook in helpless rage. "You bastards, leave him alone!"
"You can not change his past," Incacha repeated.
"Why are you showing me this?"
"As he has seen your path to the man that you have become, so you see his path to the man that he has become. You must see, to decide if your path is to become one."
"I don't need to see this."
"He has hidden it deeply, but you must see his soul."
Jim watched, jaw clenched tightly as the men leaned over the drugged young Blair, still conscious and feebly protesting but unable to coordinate his muscles enough to have much effect. Fortunately, the drink was affecting the men as well, as they wavered on their feet and one fell over, laughing.
Before anything else could happen, a young woman came out of one of the tents, stretching and yawning. Heading for the fire, it took her a few moments to notice the two men and the boy on the far side of the fire. Staring in disbelief at first, she quickly recovered and ran to Blair's side, shoving and kicking at the two intoxicated men and helping Blair to his feet and into his tent.
Jim followed them into the tent. The young woman asked Blair repeatedly if he was all right as she eased him down onto his sleeping bag, and his mumbled "yes" appeared to reassure her. Despite her best efforts, he did not say more. Assuring him that she would watch out for him, she woke his tentmate Jeff and explained what she thought had happened. She left the tent and Jim could hear her loudly berating the others outside. Jeff remained awake only long enough to pat Blair on the shoulder before falling back into slumber.
Rolling over onto his side toward the wall of the tent, slowly regaining some muscle control as the drug's effects faded, Blair hid his face in the sleeping bag. His shoulders began to shake, then his whole body rocked as barely muffled sobs tore out of him.
Jim dropped to his side, heart aching at the forlorn sound, determined to try to comfort his friend as his younger self. This time his hand didn't pass through the figure in front of him, but rested on a thin, shuddering arm. He settled down on his side behind Blair, curling up behind him and wrapping an arm over him, hoping to share warmth not only of the body but of the soul. The sobs eventually slowed as the boy dropped into a restless sleep, and Jim slipped into darkness as well.