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(aka The Blair Sandburg Story)
Good afternoon, gentlefolk.
Yes, I know it's unusual to have a wolf talking to you, but I'm not one of your normal, run-of-the-mill wolves. I'm a spirit guide. A Watcher.
There aren't very many of us left working, I'm afraid. Long ago there were more, a lot more, but over the last two or three centuries fully ninety percent have retired to Tir nan Og. Not many people believe in us any more, you see. It gets quite disheartening trying to guide someone who is quite certain you're just a figment of his imagination.
It's the same with the people we guided. This past century, most of the sentinels and shamans who have the seniority to get a choice have chosen not to reincarnate. There are a few seniors still working, of course - there are always some people who don't want to retire - but most of the working shamans are young souls. So are eight of the eleven sentinels still active, and with the best will in the world these youngsters just don't have the experience to deal with everything they sometimes have to handle.
Eleven sentinels in the entire world... Once there were hundreds, and the young ones could be given easy posts for their first four or five lives. Now nobody gets an easy job any more, not even a first-life sentinel, and the places that used to be easy never get sentinels any more. Nothing we can do about that, but it's not fair to them, and we know it!
Sorry, I sometimes get quite nostalgic for the old days.
Oh, occasionally one of the retired ones gets bored and decides to accept another life, but it's getting harder and harder to ensure that every working sentinel has a competent shaman helping him. Come to think of it, only about a quarter of the shamans have ever had what it takes to partner a sentinel - it's far and away the most demanding job a shaman ever has to undertake - but centuries ago the ratio of shamans to sentinels was such that we never had any difficulty in finding a good shaman for every sentinel. Today...
Today, there's no guarantee that there'll even be a shaman for every sentinel. That's why you get the crazy ones like Alex Barnes.
She used to be really good, you know, one of the best. Reliable, couldn't do enough for her tribe - but at the same time she always depended just a little more on her partner than was healthy. This time round, Raoul - the shaman assigned to her - was killed in a freak accident when he was eight, a year or so before they would have met. Her Watcher despaired; when Alex was about fourteen, Jaguar begged for a good shaman, even a merely competent shaman, to be assigned to her charge, but there just wasn't one. There's always had to be a first time for any shaman partnering a sentinel, but there wasn't even a potential partner available, apart from one less than a year old. Jaguar did her best, of course, but... well, you know what happened. Alex turned bad, and there's nobody worse than a sentinel turned bad. Although she couldn't - wouldn't - leave her charge, Jaguar decided to retire as soon as Alex died. She didn't really want to, but she couldn't face the possibility of being so helpless again.
My charge is one of the exceptions. To everything.
He's an experienced shaman - this is his twenty-third incarnation, believe it or not; fifteen to twenty active lives is enough for most, but he just won't give up. I've been his spirit guide for eighteen of those lives. It would have been nineteen, but the timing for that one was tight and we all knew it; two lives back he was born prematurely - he always was impatient - eight days before the shaman I was guiding at the time actually died, and I couldn't desert old Jaquin in his last days. If Alainnet hadn't been so determined to arrive early, he would have been born five days after Jaquin died; but he was early, so my cousin Lupus got the job of guiding him in that life and I got an unexpected holiday. Not that I didn't need it - Jaquin was the last of four shamans I'd guided in succession, with only a few days between each - normally we get a break of some years - but all four were ones I'd watched over in previous lives and I'm quite possessive of 'my' people, unlike my friend Panther who has rarely guided any sentinel more than once.
And even spirits can get tired.
You have a question?... Yes, some of us always guide shamans and some always guide sentinels. One or two will do either, but most of us choose to specialise. It makes life easier.
But although I was free for a while, that time, I kept an eye on what Lupus was doing with Alainnet. Have to admit, though, he did a reasonably good job, and well, Alainnet did learn one or two things from Lupus I wouldn't have thought of teaching him. Hard though it is for me to admit it, it does make sense for a human to have a different spirit guide occasionally.
Anyway, Blair is highly experienced. He doesn't remember those past lives, of course - too many memories can inhibit a mortal; so part of my job is to make sure he doesn't actively remember past lives, past experiences, while making sure he does remember the skills he learned.
He's often been responsible for helping a sentinel. This is his sixteenth time as a guide, and he's been with the same sentinel fourteen of those times, though obviously he doesn't remember that either. Although a sentinel and guide can be assigned to work together more than once, the same sentinel/guide pairing hasn't usually been repeated too often. A lot depends on how well they work together; Blair and his first two sentinels were adequate together, but you couldn't say better than that. However, when he and the man now called Jim met for the first time... let's just say they always have done better together than either did with anyone else, and it doesn't often happen that a pairing is so exclusively effective. In fact, I can only think of one other case - you'll know them as Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and they both retired several centuries ago.
Our Boss is nothing if not pragmatic, though. If a pairing works well, stick with it, is his motto.
Well, it would be his motto if he was the sort of being who believed in them.
Interestingly, Panther was Jim's spirit guide four of those times. Yes, Jim is one of the few sentinels he's guided more than once, the only one he's guided more than twice. He seems to be particularly fond of Jim, for some reason. I'd known of Panther before we actually met, of course, by reputation, but the first time we worked together it was amazing how well we meshed. And seriously, the entities who are now Jim and Blair, Guided by Panther and me, has been, though I say it myself, one of the most successful teams in our history. When Jim and Blair and I have been together with someone else as Jim's Watcher we haven't done quite as well - no denigration of any other spirit guide intended.
Although we've only been together with Jim and Blair four times and it's been the most successful teaming we've had, Panther and I have actually been together more than that - we've been teamed a dozen times at least, though each of those other times Panther had a different sentinel and I had five different shamans, and none of those were much more than averagely successful. It does seem that to be really good, you all have to be together a lot. But because of the way human death - and reincarnation - work you can't guarantee always being together with the people you work best with.
But is quite surprising how well Panther and I get on. Even though we're spirits, I'm a dog and he's a cat, and even here in the spirit world dogs and cats usually prefer not to socialise much. Of course, if your humans are partnered, you have to learn to be polite to each other at the very least. Though don't even think to ask me about the time my shaman ended up with a partner whose spirit guide was a rabbit. Mark you, it did leave me with a surprising amount of respect for rabbits... See this scar on my nose? Rabbit did that, just a few days after we met - I... er... momentarily forgot myself, and I got the shock of my life when Rabbit kicked me. But Panther and I - we'll both deny it with our dying breath, and if you tell him I admitted it I'll kill you, but at heart we do like each other. It started off as respect, but we've become quite fond of each other. Like our favourite humans, we work well together and we both know it.
Blair and Jim have also developed a deep affection for each other, even though they forget it each time they're reborn and have to redevelop it from nothing.
It was harder than usual this time round, though, to get Jim and Blair together. For a start, there's that difference in their ages. Usually there's not more than a year or two; and in fact Jim should have been younger than his guide.
Unfortunately, the boy who was eventually reborn as Blair accidentally fell out of a third storey window when he was ten years old, landed awkwardly, and broke his neck. I wasn't his assigned Watcher - Kestrel was, and - well, he was nearly squashed flat trying to halt Shaun's fall. He would have been squashed if he'd been a mortal bird. He's a good Watcher, but he just wasn't strong enough to break his charge's fall.
Anyway, Shaun volunteered for immediate rebirth, knowing that he had been the designated guide for Jim, and was reborn ten months later as Blair Sandburg. Kestrel wanted to be his Watcher again, but I was free by then, and I pulled rank to get the job - Blair has, after all, been one of my people for centuries.
That of course is where Blair's nervousness regarding heights originated, and he'll probably never lose it, no matter how many more lives he accepts.
In this life, Blair - well, now, what can I say about Blair?
I know one thing; it's a wonder he's turned out as well as he has in this life; his mother this time round... she's like a grasshopper, always on the move, and when he was still a child she taught young Blair that the purpose of life was to amass as many new experiences as he possibly could. It wasn't exactly the kind of upbringing that you'd say would lead to him settling down to guide a sentinel. But I managed to push him a bit, get him interested in sentinels, and - well, as it turned out, Naomi did make a surprisingly good job of teaching him a sense of responsibility; once he met Jim, he proved to be far steadier than I'd expected. Although...
Naomi didn't care for confrontations. Her preferred method of dealing with potential unpleasantness - even if the potential existed only in her own mind - was to move on. But moving around the way they did, Blair never learned how to feel that he belonged, that what he was doing mattered. Even when he knew that his input was important, it was hard for him to believe it.
I could have done something to steady him if Naomi had made him as basically irresponsible as she wanted everyone to think she was, but contrary to what you might think, there's a limit to how much we spirit guides can do, and the way someone is brought up in any life does have a fair amount of influence on his behaviour for that life... to say nothing of colouring what he - or she - does in future lives. You're the sum of your experiences, so of course each life adds to that. About a thousand years ago, one of my people was born brain damaged from a difficult birth. He wasn't able to fulfil a shaman's duties in that life, but what he learned from it... You see, even brain damaged, he still had his intelligence. I watched him, of course; made sure that he had the best life possible, but even so it was a very difficult life - and a fairly short one. But then life expectancy back then was shorter.
It made him a much better shaman in every life he lived after that, though.
But we're not talking about him.
Naomi originally came from Texas, but by the time Blair was sixteen she had dragged him over half the world. She was independently wealthy; she was the favourite niece of her mother's older sister, a woman who saw in Naomi what she would have liked to be but whose sense of responsibility kept her at home looking after an invalid parent. Her aunt gave Naomi an allowance large enough for her to do exactly what she wanted with her life, though she was surprisingly shrewd with it; she didn't waste it, and she never let anyone, especially her succession of boy friends, know just how wealthy she actually was, and she taught Blair the same discretion.
His formal education was patchy; most of what he knew, he learned from his voracious reading. When he was sixteen, he insisted on going into school long enough to sit the exams that would let him attend Rainier, and passed them easily.
When he went to Rainier, Naomi gave him an adequate allowance, but he kept much of it securely banked, took out a very small student loan so that he could truthfully say he had one and worked weekends and holidays in the same way that most of his fellow students did. He learned several skills - he had always enjoyed learning, but I don't think I ever saw him as enthusiastic about acquiring new skills as he was in the years between his sixteenth birthday and his twenty-seventh.
During those years he was away from Cascade as often as he was in it. He went on as many expeditions as he could; he took summer jobs that took him all over the country - one year he drove big rigs with an 'uncle' - one of Naomi's ex-boyfriends who had bonded well with him.
Just after Blair's twenty-sixth birthday, Panther contacted me. It was, he said, more than time Blair met up with Jim.
I knew that, of course, but at the time Blair was living in a Yanomami village, studying the effects of the tribe's contact with 'civilisation', with another eight months of the expedition to run.
The village he was in was one that actually had a sentinel - well, a part sentinel; he had sight and hearing. He and his guide were surprised at their white guest's interest in them, his anxiety to learn from them; and Blair was gratified at how willing they were to talk to him about their work for the village. Of course, Ocelot, Margay and I had a hand - well, all right, a paw -in that. Blair picked up a lot of tips from them, both consciously - things they said - and unconsciously - things he absorbed from watching their interaction, things that triggered memories from past lives.
It was a long eight months for me. Although I knew Panther was concerned about Jim, I could only guess how concerned he was. However, I did know that he wouldn't have contacted me if he hadn't considered it serious.
Even a long eight months passes eventually. Chronologically it still takes eight months even when it seems like eighteen.
Yet for Blair it was hardly long enough. He always did love learning, and even the ten months of the expedition weren't enough for him - he still felt that there was a lot he didn't know about the Yanomami culture, although he certainly had enough information about them to write at least three books and a dozen articles for anthropological journals.
He never did get them written. He was too busy doing other things.
As soon as we got back to Cascade I let Panther know we were there; then we both started pressuring our respective charges. We had to get them into a situation where they could meet, and with one of them an academic and the other a cop, we knew that wasn't going to be easy.
So I pushed Blair into dating a nurse at the hospital, and encouraged him to talk to her about his interest in people with better than average sight or hearing... then Panther pushed Jim into 'recovering' his suppressed senses sharply enough that they spiked. That in turn drove him to the hospital, where Blair's nurse friend saw him, saw the note of his symptoms, and remembered Blair's field of interest. Even so, even wanting to do something to help Blair, it was not until Panther pushed her that she contacted him.
Unethical, especially on Panther's part? Possibly.
But can you imagine Blair's feelings when he got that message? Mmm... No, I don't suppose you can. Not entirely. Well, think of the best present you were ever given; think how you felt when you opened the parcel and saw it... multiply that by ten... no, by a hundred - and you'll still fall short of how Blair felt. When he explained it all to Jim, he described it as finding his Holy Grail - and that was after he had time to calm down a little.
I was pretty sure that when Jim said "You mean like you?" to him and Blair replied, "I'd love to", Jim was really being sarcastic; although Blair had saved him from being run down by that garbage truck, I could see that Jim was far from sure that a 'neo-hippy witch doctor punk' really could help him. He was, however, desperate for help, any help; and Panther didn't even have to apply any pressure.
At that point, of course, Blair had no idea what he was letting himself in for.
He soon learned. Anxious to prove himself to his new partner, he went onto the bus with the Sarris woman. Believe me, he was terrified; but his guide's instincts kicked in. Whatever else, he could not let his sentinel down, and Jim - who I knew had initially taken him very much at face value - was impressed enough that he looked beneath the surface and saw something of what Blair was.
Any lingering doubts he might have had were dispelled a few days later when Kincaid attacked the PD, taking the civilian personnel there hostage - as well as one or two cops. Panther told me afterwards that Jim hadn't thought it possible that a student, an academic, could defend himself as efficiently as Blair did that day. You could say it was Jim's equivalent of my experience with Rabbit. It didn't leave a scar, but it did teach Jim a lot of respect for his new partner.
Panther and I were quietly satisfied that things were going well; we had brought the two men together, Jim had learned respect for Blair's abilities, they were settling down to work together far more readily than we had dared hope... Oh, they weren't friends yet, just friendly acquaintances - but they were shaping up to be good friends.
Few things happen by chance; it's amazing how often the Powers intervene to make things happen. But the explosion at Blair's warehouse home was one of those rare times when circumstances produce exactly the effect that is needed. You all know what happened; Blair moved in with Jim "for a week" - and he's still there.
I often choose to stay in the background, not letting my charge know I'm around, with the result that it was Jim who saw me first. He didn't realise that the unlikely wolf he saw in the jungle had any connection with Blair; he only knew that he was hunting.
Believe me, even a dream arrow hurts.
The only warning I could give Jim of the danger that threatened was to take on Blair's appearance; though in hindsight I might have been wiser to have morphed into Alex - because Jim misunderstood completely. He thought he was being warned that he would cause Blair's death, so he acted to prevent that by pushing Blair away.
It's amazing how often people who do that bring about the very thing they're trying to avoid.
Meanwhile, poor Jaguar was desperately trying to make her charge see sense.
It almost seemed that Alex had a vague memory of the importance of a guide to a sentinel - she had always been very dependant on her guide, remember - and she realised that if she killed Blair, it would handicap Jim tremendously. All Jaguar could do was push Alex into knocking Blair out and dropping him into the fountain instead of shooting him; there was no way at all that we could revive someone who had been shot through the head or heart. By the time Jim arrived, however, it was almost too long and I was nearly ready to give up and let Blair go.
Panther took on Incacha's appearance, knowing that Jim would listen to the man who had first taught him to use his senses, even although he wasn't a guide, and persuaded Jim to 'use the power of his animal spirit'. Then Panther and I took over; yes, we were a bit melodramatic about it, but we wanted to impress Jim.
Then Jaguar begged Panther for help, hoping that between them they could change Alex by making her fall in love with Jim and use that to try to bring her to a sense of what a sentinel is. Panther knew that wouldn't work - it was a guide she needed, not a love affair with another sentinel. He could sympathise with Jaguar's desperation, however, so he agreed to try.
It really puzzled Blair - yes, and hurt him too, seeing Jim kissing the woman who had killed him. Ultimately, however, despite everything Jaguar could do...
There's only one punishment for a sentinel who goes bad; after he - she - dies, the sentinel abilities are removed permanently. Even for a spirit, it's crippling - like leaving a non-sentinel blind and deaf but able to remember what it was like to see and hear... It may seem cruel, especially when - as with Alex - there was no guide available to help her; but nobody forced her to use her senses to commit crimes. She chose to become a criminal, chose to harm the tribe.
She can never harm the tribe in just that way again.
Jim took Blair home again, but although they seemed to resume their friendship so that no mortal realised there was a problem, there was a... a distance between them that hadn't been there before. A distance that was only bridged when Blair repudiated his dissertation on sentinels.
Well, Blair was surprisingly happy with the idea of becoming a cop, though he was sorry about losing his doctorate. But with Jim's support, he pushed. Sued Graham, and won. Then because he had never actually submitted the sentinel dissertation Rainier agreed to give him a second chance, and he finally became Dr Sandburg with a dissertation on the police as a closed society - the one he had told everyone who asked why he was riding along with Jim.
And Panther and I settled down to watch over them, secure in the knowledge that as long as they were together, our charges were virtually unbeatable.
Despite all the dangers they continued to meet.