Blair awoke the third morning to the sound of tinkling bells. He lifted his head slowly, trembling and stiff after another night on the ground, lightheaded and a little sick from hunger and thirst. The bells grew fainter, as though ascending the steeply terraced slopes above him. Blair looked upwards, but was blinded by shafts of morning sunlight.
Azael hadn't survived the night. He lay stiff in the grass a short distance from Blair with his shirt thrown over his face.
Blair closed his eyes against his grief and despair.
None of this was supposed to be happening. He'd promised Jim it was safe. The fighting was nowhere near this part of Chiapas, and it was just going to be six weeks examining frescoes at a small site east of the Rio Grijalva. More like a vacation than an expedition, Eli had said.
Yeah, right. Jim was gonna kill him and Dr. Stoddard both.
OK, that really wasn't very damn funny.
Blair heard the bells again and looked around, his eyes skittering over Azael until, ashamed, he forced himself to look at the dead man. Blair hadn't expected any of this, but Azael may have known. He'd been keeping one step ahead of the Mexican army for the past five years. Maybe he'd always known they would catch up to him someday.
There it was again, on one of the terraces high above. A whisper of sound like bells ringing, and a flash of darkness, the sunrise shadows between the stones of the ruined terracing becoming darker still. Crenelations of black where there was nothing at all. Blair shivered.
Hunger, exhaustion and exposure, he knew. No wonder he was feeling a little nuts. The only surprise was that he wasn't suffering full-blown hallucinations by now.
A group of officers were making breakfast around a small fire some twenty feet away. Blair could smell coffee and beef and peppers, and he decided he did feel hungry, but was too sick to eat. One of the officers must have noticed Blair moving around, because he looked back and watched Blair pointedly.
Blair lowered his eyes. No use antagonizing the man with the gun
And then he nearly jumped out of skin. Azael had moved. The body lay on its side now, and the coat had slipped down to uncover his blank, dead face. One eye was open, as though he were winking.
Blair skittered frantically back, hampered as he was by his bound hands and feet, panicky little sounds filling his throat and spilling out into the morning air. The soldier who had been watching Blair barked a few sharp words in annoyance and the other captives ducked their heads or lay flat on the ground, making themselves as invisible as possible. Blair clamped his teeth down hard on the noises swirling in his mouth. He didn't look back at Azael, but kept his eyes fixed on the ground until the army officer's boots filled his field of vision. The officer snarled a highly uncomplimentary remark about Blair's parentage and Naomi in particular, and Blair managed not to say, "If that's what you really think, why are you all so scared of her?" but the officer kicked him in the gut anyway.
Blair doubled up, retching. The officer kicked him again, getting the ribs this time, and Blair curled up even more tightly, knees pulled up to his chest. A few tears of rage and humiliation burned his eyes and blurred his vision. When he could see again, Azael's open, obsidian eye glittered at him out of his deeply shadowed face.
Actually, it had become obvious by the end of the first week that they weren't looking at the ruins of another long-destroyed temple of the Sentinels like the one in Sierra Verde. Yes, the deer hoof at the central figure's ankle probably indicated speed and light-footedness, and the dual-length haircut was common enough for the warrior class, but the twenty golden bells around the figure's other ankle had no correspondence with any other sentinel representations Blair had seen over the years. The mirror the figure held looked far more like Tezcatlipoca's smoking mirror than a sentinel's mirror of far seeing. And the jaguar? Not a sentinel's spiritual animal, but Tezcalipoca's naual.
This wasn't a sentinel shrine at all. More probably an ancient crossroads, marked by a momuztli and dedicated to Tezcatlipoca. He Who Has Left-Handedness. The Lord of the Here and Now. The Enemy on Both Sides and the Capricious Creator.
He and Eli were still arguing about it when they went to bed that night. And by dawn, the Zapatista rebels were in the camp.
Blair tensed himself, bracing for another blow, but instead the officer knelt behind him and freed Blair's hands and feet. Blair was carefully covered the whole time by another of the officers. He didn't make a break for it. He could hardly stand up straight. The sharp pain in his belly and his side kept him hunched like an old man, but he staggered on at the soldier's direction towards the long ditch that served as the camp latrines. He was afraid there was something wrong with his eyes, because he kept seeing odd flashes of movement around him, in particular a fumbling kind of darkness that came and went in the lees of the terraces. Blair wondered if he were on the verge of passing out.
When he came to the edge of the ditch and the soldier pointed the gun at him, Blair assumed he was about to die. A sluggish grief overcame him and he slumped to his knees, disbelieving and resigned at the same time. He was still seeing Azael's one open eye, smoky black and glittering like a polished obsidian mirror.
Azael had been polite but entirely immovable.
The little group of Zapatistas wanted Naomi Sandburg. More specifically, they wanted her voice and her passion for their cause in the States. Once Blair got over being completely astonished that his mother's work for Sanctuary was known all the way out here in the Chiapas highlands, he thought that she'd be thrilled to find out, and glad to help.
Maybe a little less thrilled that her son was being held hostage to get her attention, but Blair agreed the cause was more than just, and too many people had already died. If Blair and Naomi's choices now could save even one more life, Blair couldn't say it wouldn't be worth it.
And so Eli and the rest of the expedition returned to San Cristobal Las Casas to get in touch with Naomi while Blair remained behind as a gesture of good faith. He hadn't even thought to warn Eli not to tell the local authorities what was going on up here.
Though maybe Eli hadn't ratted them out after all -- the man wasn't an idiot, just a little detached from political realities sometimes. It was entirely possible that the Mexican army had been following Azael all along. At any rate, they caught up to him the second night after Eli left. Three of the Zapatistas were shot dead in the first assault. Azael had lasted two days. The rest, like Blair, were being allowed to die slowly of hunger and thirst.
Blair didn't know why the army had remained here instead of returning to San Cristobal themselves, but he supposed the mountain path was too vulnerable to ambush, now that the other Zapatistas in the area knew the army was here. Maybe they were waiting for reinforcements.
I'm sorry, Jim, Blair thought. He knew he wouldn't survive.
The ground under his knees shook a little. The stench from the open pit welled up and Blair turned away, gagging, his bruised stomach and ribs protesting the movement.
Without warning, the soldier behind him gave a shrill, shocking cry. He threw down his gun as something crossed over his like smoke, blurring his features.
The sound of ringing bells was suddenly very close, and the soldier dropped, still shrieking, and began to drag himself across the ground on his belly. Blair was shaking too hard even to go for the gun, incapable of doing anything but watching in horror as the man grasped at the earth, crawling like a snake. His head darted from side to side in jerky, unnatural movements, and from Blair's point of view he looked as though he no longer had a face, just a blank, black surface, smooth as a mirror. It finally ended when a shudder convulsed the soldier from head to toe and he went still, clawed fingers still digging at the earth.
Blair threw himself forward and grabbed the gun. He rolled onto his back, the rifle clutched in both hands. Figures were swarming up the side of the mountain, leaping from terrace to terrace. Their faces were covered with scarves, their clothes ragged. Zapatista rebels come to rescue their comrades, looking like scarecrows with guns.
The soldiers above Blair fired back, filling the morning with chaos and noise. Sunlight shone through the smoke of gunfire. Blair still lay on his back, unable to move, fingers curled so tightly around the rifle barrel his fingers were going numb.
The gunsmoke betrayed the outline of the Other who moved across the mountainside in the midst of battle.
The Capricious Creator and the Maker of Himself. The Sower of Discord on Both Sides.
Who would have guessed? The land still sacred to Tezcatlipoca, and he returned hungrily to bloodshed. Where his feet fell, the ground shook.
Sometime around midnight Jim became aware of the armed men who were also using the path up the mountain, and he swerved off into the forest, tracking the Mexican army's encampment by sound, then by smell. Above the trees he moved further still away from the path, watching the skyline to be sure his silhouette wouldn't become visible as the sun rose.
From time to time he saw the jaguar ascending the mountain just before him. He mistook it for his own totem, and his heart broke, thinking for the first time since he'd gotten Eli Stoddard's phone call that he might truly be too late to save Blair. The panther only appeared when everything had already gone to hell in a handbasket. Jim bowed his head, mastering his emotions with an effort, and then pressed on.
But when the animal appeared for the second time, Jim tasted immanence. It was sharp and cold as an obsidian blade.
In a sense, it was no surprise, because the world was crammed with gods. Ever since Blair had drowned in the fountain, Jim had learned the presence of them, the taste of them like the spices in a rack, keen and sudden, overwhelming as a perfume counter until you put the lid back on the bottle.
But not this one. This one was like someone had strewn double handfuls of ground chitpotle all over the damned kitchen.
Jim crouched on the ground, arms over his head in an instinctive, protective gesture Blair probably would have disapproved of, since it had nothing to do with rising above fear through meditation and everything to do with being freaked half out of his mind. He remained there, shuddering, until the first, overwhelming immensity of the numinous began to fade, settling back into a world view that had been more than half cracked ever since Blair had come back from the dead, but manageable for all that. It certainly beat the alternative.
With that thought, Jim realized he was close enough to track Blair himself. Jim could smell him, and he was half-starved and filthy, body souring and pinched by the lack of water.
Jim began to run.
There was no place to hide, even if Blair could have forced himself to get up. He continued to lie flat on his back, afraid even to roll on his stomach for fear a raised shoulder would draw a bullet. The men around him were panicked and insane, as likely to shoot their own comrades as a foe. In the lull of the gunfire bells jangled and jangled until Blair though he would go mad from the sound of them.
When he realized there was no sound of gunfire any longer, just the endless, intolerable ringing of unseen bells moving away up the slopes, tears filled his eyes, and he would have lain on the mountainside through the next day, and perhaps the next after that and then the next again, except that from out of nowhere Jim Ellison suddenly dropped to his knees by Blair's side.
His face was green and black.
Camouflage, Blair thought after a time. Not in honor of Tezcatlipoca.
"Chief," Jim said at long last in a very gentle voice. "Are you hurt?"
Blair stared up at him.
Eventually, Jim slid the rifle out of Blair's hands. He didn't let it go easily. Then Jim put arm behind Blair's shoulders and eased him up. He got out his canteen and held it out. Blair looked at that, too, so Jim uncapped the lid and put it to his mouth. Blair drank a sip or two before jerking his head back, sputtering.
"It was here," he said finally. It seemed important that he tell Jim.
"I know," Jim said, and that was such a relief that Blair closed his eyes and slumped against him. He felt Jim's hand stroke his cheek, and then Jim's lips touched his temple, and finally the corner of his mouth. That was a surprise, maybe, but not a bad one, Blair decided. He wrapped his fist in the front of Jim's shirt, and at the last, fading tinkling of the bells high above, he passed out cold in Jim's arms.