Alert: I wrote this story in an attempt to expand the limits on my Angst Meter. If you don't like angst, hurt/comfort, get 'ems, intense emotional content or whatever else we care to call it, don't read any further. You have been warned! Actually, on my scale this probably ranks around a 7, which puts it somewhere in the vast middle ground of angsty fanfic.
It took me forever to finish this story, and I suspect I'll never be satisfied with it. I finally got to the point where I had to cry "Enough!" and type THE END. Apologies for taking so long to complete it.
Thanks also to my beta readers, Joanne, for her gentle guidance with POV and attribution (I'm working to improve!) and Shellie, for keeping me focused. As usual, any mistakes are writer's prerogative.
Note: In fandom, there seems to be a mixed view on just where Kung Fu: The Legend Continues is supposed to take place. One aired episode showed Niagara Falls, so some stories have hinted at New York City. The TNT site actually says Toronto, which is where the series was filmed. Another episode took father and son quite easily to the ruins of their Northern California temple, so other fanfic has placed the duo in the Northwest. For obvious reasons, Seattle suits my purposes nicely, so I'm falling in with the Northwest contingent.
Rated PG-13.

Destinies Entwined
-- by Mackie

Part One
Looking as if he hadn't had a good night's sleep in a month, Detective Jim Ellison walked sluggishly into the bullpen at Cascade PD. In fact, it had been two weeks since he'd last slept well--two weeks of concern that became worry that finally blossomed into dread. He hardly slept at all now, just on those rare occasions where his body simply shut down from exhaustion. When that happened, he found himself battling the demons of his nightmares and woke as weary as when he'd first closed his eyes.
Now, with steps that felt leaden, he went to his desk, shrugged out of his jacket, and hung it up. Or rather, he tried to hang it up; somewhere between his fingers and the coat rack, the jacket slipped and fell to the floor. He looked at it for a long moment, wondering if it was worth the effort required to pick it up. The whole exercise seemed pointless. It was getting harder to come in to work each day, but he'd already taken off so much time, and the hours were adding up....
"Jim."
He turned to meet Simon's concerned eyes. "Morning, sir."
"You look terrible, man," the Captain blurted, surprised at the lassitude he saw in his friend. "Are you getting any sleep at all? How's Sandburg?"
Jim didn't answer, just shook his head.
"Damn." Simon sat on the edge of the desk. "Did you take him back to the hospital?"
His jacket forgotten, Jim slumped into his chair and stretched his long legs under the desk. "He won't go."
Concern for both men unintentionally hardened Simon's tone. "Then you need to insist."
"I don't know." Jim worried at the problem before trying to explain. "He wasn't being stubborn, Simon. He just wanted to know what they could do for him as an in-patient that they can't do for him as an out-patient."
"And what did they say?"
"Nothing," Jim answered bitterly, scrubbing both hands over his face in an effort to drive away some of the weariness. "They don't have a damn clue about what's wrong with him. All the blood work indicates an immune system disorder of some sort, but they've been unable to pin it down. They're using all the buzzwords they like to toss around when they've run out of ideas--'chronic fatigue syndrome', 'multiple-chemical sensitivity'--it's all just bullshit to cover up the fact that they might as well be reading tea leaves and tarot cards to find the answers."
"Haven't they been able to do anything to help him?"
Again, Jim shook his head. "Last week, they put him on a wide-spectrum antibiotic, but it hasn't put a dent in the thing."
Simon scowled with worry. "Sandburg on antibiotics. He must be feeling pretty desperate to go to that extreme."
Jim nodded, then finally admitted quietly, "He's scared, Simon. Hell, I'm scared, too. It started out like a mild case of flu, but he's not getting any better, and it's slowly working its way into every part of his body. He just keeps getting weaker." Weaker? His roommate was losing ground daily in his battle against the microscopic predator that had invaded his body. One of the most heart-wrenching symptoms that had appeared early on was a growing mental confusion, an inability to process simple thoughts without intense concentration. Blair's memory was fading bit by bit, leaving behind only emptiness.
"Then go home," Simon ordered gently. "You need to be there."
"You wanted me here for a meeting with the FBI." As tired as he was, he suspected he'd be pretty worthless as a participant.
The Captain shrugged aside the protest. "I'll bring Stubing in on this. The FBI likes the fact that he knows languages, so they're willing to bring him on board. Go. The kid needs you."
Jim managed to snag his jacket off the floor before climbing stiffly to his feet. "Thanks, Simon."
"Keep us posted. We're all worried."
The best Jim could manage was a tired, "Yeah."
Part Two
Jim quietly unlocked the door to the loft, but Blair was awake, sitting on the sofa, a brightly colored blanket wrapped around him and a phone book open on his lap. Several days ago, he had abandoned his bed in favor of the couch, where he'd created a comfortable nest of bedding and pillows. Jim changed the sheets and pillow cases regularly without complaint, understanding his roommate's need to feel he wasn't bedridden and helpless.
Blair didn't acknowledge his arrival, so Jim shifted aside the rumpled sheets and sat down carefully beside him. He noticed the phone book was the enormous Bay Cities Edition, a combination directory for Cascade, Seattle, Tacoma and the numerous small communities that formed the sprawling conurbation of this swath of Washington coastline.
"Hey, Chief."
Blair glanced up at him, his normally vivid blue eyes lackluster and haunted in the gray pallor of his face. "Jim. Good, I'm glad you're home. How was work?" He seemed to lose track of time all too easily.
Jim was saddened by the worsening condition he could see almost hourly in his best friend. Blair had lost weight; more importantly, he had lost vitality. Although he was able to eat small meals, his strength was waning despite all attempts to beat back whatever was attacking his body. This morning, he had either forgotten or not bothered to shave, and the shadow of beard was black against the almost alabaster translucence of his skin. "I didn't stay."
He's dying, he thought with almost overwhelming despair. It was a possibility he had refused to face before now, and he drove it from his mind now with savage determination, as if afraid the thought might give way to reality.
"Oh. What time is it?"
"A little after nine. How's your fever?" He reached out a hand to touch Blair's forehead, then jerked back in surprise and pain. It felt as if he'd laid his palm on a hot griddle.
Blair frowned. His mental fog made it difficult for him to process unusual events. "What?" His expression was almost child-like with wide-eyed surprise.
Jim looked at his palm, but there was no evidence of the blisters he felt he should have seen. It was a crazy notion anyway; no one could run a fever that high. "Nothing. Just a weird sense of touch for a moment." Cautiously, he returned his hand to Blair's forehead. It was warm, but not hot.
"Still hovering around a hundred," he said. "Damn low-grade fever. Nothing's getting rid of it." He was frustrated by his helplessness; how could he defeat an enemy he could neither see nor touch? What the hell good was he? For that matter, what the hell good were the doctors who kept assuring him it was just a matter of finding the right medicine...new strains of bacteria were appearing every day, each more resistant to antibiotics than its predecessors...if they could just get a handle on this one, they could knock the infection down quickly...Damn! Couldn't they see Blair was dying while they stumbled around blindly in their laboratories...?
"Sense of touch?" Blair echoed, clearly worried. "Has it happened before?"
"Yeah, a couple of times. I'm just tired, that's all. Don't worry about it." Fighting back a tremor of despair, Jim gestured toward the book on Blair's lap. "What are you doing with the phone book? Did you take your pills?"
"Yeah," Blair replied without interest. "And I made some more tea. You'd think the herbal formula would be working by now."
You'd think, Jim contradicted in his mind. I don't have much faith in your herbal concoctions.
"Jim, we need to talk."
Jim's eyes slid away of their own volition, his thoughts in terrified denial. Damning himself for being weak and selfish, he forced himself to meet his Guide's probing look, but Blair had already gone back to staring at his hands spread across the pages of the phonebook.
"Then let's talk," Jim said, but his voice was tight with reluctance.
"No, it's OK." The response was whispered, but filled with futility and disappointment.
"Blair."
His name, spoken with all the love and compassion Jim could find in his heart, caused Blair to lift his head again.
Jim's eyes were full of sorrow, but his words were calm now, no longer tense with strain. "Tell me what you need to say." And God help me, I hope I'm strong enough to hear it.
After a long moment of silence, Blair nodded. "OK. Thanks." He took a minute more to gather his thoughts, trying to form his words so they wouldn't sound too dramatic or fatalistic. He didn't want to turn this into a tearfest; there'd be enough time for that later. "If the worst should happen--" he began, then paused as Jim's body jerked in rejection of the possibility.
But Jim held his tongue, the denial dying in his throat. Knowing this whole conversation was painful for them both, Blair nonetheless continued. "If it gets bad, I don't want to die in the hospital."
Jim's breath caught in his chest. "No." Whether he was whispering an agreement or a denial was uncertain.
Blair could no longer look at the intense hurt and sadness in his friend's eyes, so he turned to look out through the French doors. "Home hospice care would be my first choice, but that would be too difficult."
Breathe, dammit, Jim told himself. When he finally managed a shaky inhalation, he said, "Difficult how?"
"You've already missed too much work because of me--"
"Irrelevant."
"--and it's too expensive. I don't think my insurance covers it. Maybe you could check?"
Numbly, Jim only nodded.
Blair had never realized there were so many details associated with dying. He didn't have a written will because he'd never thought about it before. Now, he supposed he had to write one, if only to list the few things that were his and get the rest of his stuff back to the museums and universities he'd borrowed it from. "I think regular hospice care is covered," he went on. "There are some good ones listed with the University. I hate asking you to do this, 'cause I know it's hard--"
"I'll check into it." Jim couldn't hold back a qualifier: "If it becomes necessary."
Blair nodded. "Yeah, if it becomes necessary." He fidgeted with the thin paper of the page he had open on his lap, and the corner flaked away under his fingers. "Did you find Mom?"
Mom, not Naomi, Jim noted. Blair really had a need for her to be here right now. "I've left a couple of dozen messages in four countries, but I haven't been able to track her down."
"It's OK." Blair didn't like the frustration he heard in Jim's voice. "She gets around a lot. It's not your fault."
"Yeah." Jim felt useless. "Blair, what are you doing with the phone book?" he asked again.
His roommate seemed surprised to find it open on his lap. He stared at it for a long time, then actually smiled as he remembered. Dredging up a memory had become a triumph lately. "Oh, yeah. The Seattle Cultural Museum."
Jim thought back. "You were there a couple of months ago, right? The exhibit of religious artifacts."
"Right. I met an herbalist. I thought maybe he could help me." He frowned. "Not herbalist. Another word. What is it?" He concentrated, but the answer would not come, and he thumped his hand on the phone book in frustration.
"Uh--pharmacist? Chemist?" Blair shook his head, his irritation growing. "Druggist?" Then Jim had it. "Apothecary?"
Blair nodded and sighed in relief. He savored the word. "Apothecary."
Jim looked down at the phone book. Both pages were filled with the same name. "Caine? What's his first name?" Blair only shrugged. "Do you know what city he's in?" This time, a morose shake of the head answered his question. "What did you two talk about? Maybe he said something that would help us find him." He didn't have much faith in herbalists, faith healers, or palm readers, but he was willing to try anything to ease the fear he saw growing daily in Blair's eyes.
Finally, Blair sighed. "Actually, we never met. I saw him there, and someone told me who he was."
Great, there must be a hundred Caine's listed...and then there's Kane and Cane and maybe a spelling or two I haven't thought of yet.... "Blair, none of the herbal stuff you've tried so far has worked. What makes this guy different?"
Blair looked sullen and stubborn, or perhaps just desperate. "I don't know. He just seemed--special."
Jim sighed. "OK, I'll try to find him. In the meantime, don't you think maybe it's time we went back to the hospital, Chief?"
Blair shook his head and placed his hands almost reverently on the open phone book. "Find Caine."
"I'll make a deal with you," Jim offered. "I'll phone every Caine, under any spelling I can think of, if you'll just check into the hospital." I'm afraid, Chief. I'm afraid you'll get so weak, your heart will stop beating. You've got to be where someone can help you, where there are people who can keep you alive....
Tears glistened suddenly in Blair's eyes but did not spill. Very softly, he said, "Jim, if I go to the hospital, I'll die."
Jim felt the anguish in those words all the way to his soul. Please, please don't take me on one of your mystical, magical mystery tours right now, partner. I don't have the strength for it. "Why do you think you'll die if you go to the hospital?" he asked finally, ashamed at what he'd been thinking. Sandburg might have been the one losing strength, but it was destroying both of them.
"I just will." Blair started to cough, a dry, hollow sound that shook his frail frame. The cough was a new symptom that had appeared the day before. Whatever was slowly killing him had reached his lungs.
Killing him. Angrily, Jim said, "I'm going to call the hospital again. They must have figured out something after all the tests they've run on you."
He stood up to put words into action, but a soft knock caused him to take a slight detour to the front door. Opening it, he was startled to find a slender, middle-aged man standing before him, his common street clothes cheap but clean, the soft suede boots on his feet inadequate protection against the wet and cold of the local weather. His thinning gray-brown hair was worn long and straight, the wisps framing a kind face filled with gentleness and wisdom.
The man spoke slowly, an odd precision to his words. "I am Caine," he said humbly. "Someone here needs me." With that simple introduction, he stepped past Jim and entered the loft.
Part Three
Jim didn't move, his hand still clutching the doorknob. Blair had mentioned a need to find Caine, and now the man was here; it was an event that should have raised alarms in his normally suspicious mind. How had the man known he was needed? How had he known where to find Blair? But most incongruous of all, the weirdest thing Jim would remember about that moment was his own absolute acceptance of the rightness of Caine's arrival.
Another voice spoke lightly from the hallway. "Don't worry. The speechlessness will pass. He has that effect on people."
Jim suddenly focused on his second visitor, a conventional-looking young man with an unruly tousle of dark hair, a wry smile, and lively brown eyes at once youthful and guarded, as if they'd seen things beyond the understanding of normal mortals.
The man held out his hand. "Hi. I'm Peter Caine."
Automatically, Jim accepted the offered handshake. "Jim Ellison." He stepped back and allowed the man to enter, then shut the door and turned toward the sofa, where the elder Caine had crouched down in front of Blair. "He's your father?"
"Yep."
"How did you get here?"
Peter shrugged. "I could say we drove, but what you meant to ask is how did he know to come here. The answer to that is--I don't know. He comes to me and says, 'Peter, we must make a journey,' and I just point the car in the direction he tells me. So, here we are."
"You're armed." Jim's focus was almost entirely on the older man and what he was doing with Blair--nothing, as far as he could tell, beyond a murmured, "I am Caine; I have come to help you"--but he'd noticed the weapon.
"Oh, sorry--I'm a cop with the 101st." Peter's tone held only the barest hint of apology. "You want to see my badge?"
Jim shook his head, surprising himself. Any other time, under any other circumstances, he would have demanded it. "No." After a moment, he added, "So you're a cop, and your father is --?"
"A Shaolin priest."
This didn't explain a whole lot, but Jim accepted it for now and walked to the sofa to stand behind Blair, who hadn't said a word since the knock on the door. He sat quietly, his head downcast, allowing Caine to hold his hands and stroke his arms gently from elbow to wrist.
Jim started to ask what the priest was doing when Caine said, "He has been poisoned."
"Poisoned?"
"You must find it. We need to understand its nature if we are to fight it."
Oh, sure, Jim thought savagely, I'll just whip out my handy, dandy poison detector...
Although Caine was kneeling on the floor in front of the sofa, he was close enough to reach up and catch Jim's wrist. He gave a slight tug, and Jim almost lost his balance over the back of the sofa, catching himself just in time.
He winced as he felt his bones grind together. How could such a slender man possess so much strength?
"The poison is here," Caine said, his voice still soft but filled with conviction. Abruptly, he pressed Jim's hand against Blair's exposed forearm.
Beneath his fingers, it felt as hot as newly forged iron, and Jim gasped at the agony that coursed through him. Despite a reflexive attempt to pull away, the priest held him effortlessly.
Caine's next command held an angry edge as he finally released his grip. "You can recognize it. Find it."
Straightening, Jim was surprised to feel the pain in his hand vanish as quickly it had come. He looked at his palm, but it was free of burns and blisters just like the other times he'd touched that fire on Blair's skin. Tossing a bewildered and somewhat exasperated look at the priest, he turned around and stalked into the kitchen. With determined, angry motions he began to grab anything that might have come into contact with his sick partner.
Nearby, Peter Caine leaned on the counter and watched. "You didn't introduce the patient."
Jim was intent on his search. "Blair Sandburg,"
"And you're a cop, right?" At Jim's glance, he said, "I saw your badge on the table by the door."
Satisfied, Jim went back to the hunt. "Yes." Suddenly, his fingers brushed a small paper sack containing one of Blair's many herbal remedies. It seared against his skin like hungry flames, and he grunted with pain as he dropped it onto the counter. Three other identical bags followed, each one burning his fingertips like hot coals.
Peter looked at them. "That's it?"
Jim nodded.
"All four of them?"
Again, Jim nodded, unable to bring himself to touch the little brown sacks again.
Reluctantly, Peter reached out and cautiously touched one. When it had no adverse effect, he glanced at Jim. "How did you --?" he began, then just shook his head, picking up all four bags in one hand. "Never mind. Every day, I realize the number of things I don't understand just keeps growing."
He carried the sacks to his father.
Following him, Jim almost smiled. Something about the younger Caine's energetic way of speaking reminded him of Sandburg. But Blair's energy came from his natural exuberance, the sheer excitement he found in the wonders of each new day. On the other hand, Peter's energy seemed to flow from his nerves, raw and unfocused.
Jim took up his vigil again behind the sofa. Blair was now stretched out, still wrapped in the blanket, and he looked peacefully asleep. When he reached out with his senses, he found a weak but steady heartbeat and unencumbered breathing. "What did you do?"
"He needed rest." Caine examined the Chinese characters on the exterior of one of the small bags before unfolding the top to examine the contents. "A harmless blend of herbs to aid in relaxation."
"It's what I felt." He finally had the curiosity to wonder how Caine could have known he could feel the poison in his Guide's blood, especially when he had attributed his own odd reaction to a momentary glitch in his sense of touch. "It felt as hot as molten lava."
Caine nodded. "Someone has tampered with the contents." Gently, he shook Blair's shoulder, rousing the young man from his light sleep. "Blair, where did you get this?"
Blair squinted groggily at the sack for a minute. "The University. Someone was handing out an herbal sampler as part of a--" He looked up at Jim, trying to find the word.
This challenge was becoming all too familiar to Jim. "A promotion? A thank you?"
Blair nodded. "A thank you...for a cultural exchange exhibit we did with China last semester. A bunch of the teachers got them."
"Thank you." Blair instantly went back to sleep. The priest looked at Jim. "Have any of the other teachers fallen ill?"
"I don't think so. I called the university when he first got sick. I'm sure someone would have mentioned if there had been others."
"I agree." Caine set the bag aside. "It was a clever ploy to allay his suspicions and encourage him to accept the gift."
Peter was examining another one of the bags. "Pop, isn't this --?"
Caine interrupted smoothly. "Yes. Please have someone bring him to me, if it suits him."
"You know who prepared the teas?" Jim asked as Peter stepped away to use his cellphone.
"Yes, but you have my word he was not responsible for introducing the poison. However, he may be able to describe the person who purchased the original herbs."
Peter put away his phone and came back to sit on the edge of the coffee table. "Skelany's going to track down the Ancient and bring him here."
Jim was perplexed by the odd name. "The Ancient?"
Caine nodded. "A very wise apothecary. I will require his assistance to help your friend."
Again, Jim was surprised by his easy acceptance of Caine's assurance that this 'Ancient' could not be involved in the poisoning; furthermore, he felt no qualms about allowing the man to minister to Blair. His weirdness meter was definitely going off the scale and it bothered him. "I should take one of the sacks over to the hospital. With a sample of the poison, maybe the doctors can come up with an antidote."
"You must, of course, do as you think best. But with your permission, I would like to start treatment of this young man."
Jim couldn't keep a twinge of sarcasm out of his voice. "More herbs and potions?"
"I will not harm him."
The priest's humble serenity convinced him of his good intentions, and Jim went to the kitchen to find a shopping bag. He held it open toward Peter. "Mind dropping one of those sacks in here?"
Peter complied, and walked with him to the door. "Don't worry about Sandburg. My father's very good at this sort of thing."
Jim retrieved his badge and keys from the table. "Yeah. For some reason, I trust him." At the younger Caine's look, he said, "I know, he has that affect on people."
Peter chuckled. "Only on the good ones." Calmly, he took the truck keys from Jim and dropped them back into the basket. "Come on. I'll drive." He opened the door and paused to look back at his father. "Unless you need me here?"
Caine understood the restlessness in his son and merely shook his head once. Besides, Jim was exhausted, barely able to concentrate, and the priest did not like the thought of the detective behind the wheel of a vehicle. "We will be fine until you return. Be careful."
Peter just grinned and ushered Jim out the door.
Part Four
Carrying the grocery sack containing the bag of poisoned tea as if it might explode into flames at any moment, Jim went down the stairs. He could almost feel Peter's nervous energy pushing at him from behind, as if he would have preferred taking the steps in full flight. He wondered how the young man coped with being rooted in two worlds--the spiritual world of his father and the primal, violent world of law enforcement.
Outside, the younger Caine unlocked the passenger door on a black Stealth. It was a sporty two-seater, and Jim felt uncomfortable as he lowered himself into the passenger seat.
Peter jumped behind the wheel and fired the powerful engine, then glanced over at his passenger. "What is it?"
"I'm not used to riding so low to the ground."
Peter chuckled. "Let me guess--you look like a truck sort of guy to me." He looked where Jim's nod directed him and grinned broadly. "A sixty-nine Ford? Man, that must really impress your dates." He glanced down at Jim's shoes. "What? No cowboy boots?"
"Just drive." Jim pointed in the direction the car was facing. He was grateful for the flow of innocuous words. They lent a sense of normalcy to a world that had become unfamiliar and dark the past few weeks. "By the way, is there any special form of address I should use for your father?"
Peter pulled away from the curb. "He's usually just called 'Caine'--or 'Master Caine', if you're feeling particularly respectful. He doesn't care. The Ancient is Master Lo Si, and he's quite a character. And Skelany is Detective Mary Margaret Skelany."
Jim was glad to have the little social matters out of the way. For some reason, his fatigue made him want to focus on the irrelevant. Normally, he wouldn't have cared what one called a Shaolin priest. "What about you--do you prefer Pete or Peter?"
Peter shrugged. "Either's fine." He stopped for a red light and glanced at his passenger. "I don't know this town very well--where's the hospital?"
Jim drew himself back to his present worries and managed to give coherent directions. Peter followed them without asking for further guidance. He drove the way he moved--with smooth, quick precision; he was heedless of the speed limit and yet missed nothing of what was happening around him as he threaded deftly through the mid-morning traffic. "OK, my turn. You're a cop, right?"
"Right."
"Which precinct?"
"Central--Major Crime."
"Ah --- OK." Peter frowned thoughtfully. "Any big cases right now that someone might be trying to keep you away from?"
Jim shook his head. "I've thought about that. No."
"OK, then your partner, Sandburg. Is he working anything on the side?"
"He's not a cop." He'd been over the possibilities again and again in the brief time he'd known about the poison, but nothing was sparking an idea, or else he was just too tired to recognize it. "He's a consultant, and we work our cases together. 'On the side,' he's a teacher and anthropologist."
"Right. He mentioned getting the tea at the university. So there's no motive to get rid of him?"
"No--and a slow poison is more a weapon for revenge. Or maybe a means to distract one or both of us from...something." Jim shook his head at the sluggishness of his thoughts.
"Revenge. Against him or you?"
"That's what I intend to find out."
Peter parked in front of the hospital.
Jim climbed awkwardly out of the sports car. "You coming inside?"
Peter was already getting out. Sitting still didn't seem to be part of his nature. "Sure."
In the hospital lab, Jim explained the situation and left a sample of the tea for analysis. The rest he would take to the police labs for further testing. He didn't know which facility would get the job done the fastest, and he wanted to cover as many bases as possible.
"Where to next?" Peter asked as they returned to the car.
"Police labs," Jim said. Damn, but he was tired. It had been almost two hours since his last dose of caffeine, and the stimulant seemed to be all that had kept him going these past few days.
Even his senses had started doing strange things--sounds fading in and out, sight blurring and colors fluctuating from one eye blink to the next. It hadn't become critical yet, but he knew he was approaching a point where he would no longer be able to function. He wanted to grab some sleep before that happened, because collapsing in a house filled with strangers would be just too embarrassing....
"That's in your building, right?"
"Sorry, what?"
"The police lab--that's in your precinct building?"
"Yeah."
Peter roared away from the curb. "OK, I know where that is."
Once again, the visiting detective accompanied Jim. They went to the police lab first, then upstairs to the bullpen. With his badge clipped to his belt, Peter received several curious stares from the other detectives as Jim led the way to the Captain's office.
Simon listened with growing skepticism to Jim's account of his morning. "Are you sure about this poison?"
"If you mean do I have scientific evidence, then no, but the tea's being tested now. Caine's certain it's been poisoned, and so am I."
"Because it felt hot when you touched the bags." Simon looked skeptical. He glanced at Peter. "I don't mean to sound as if I doubt your father--"
The younger Caine shrugged it off. "I know he seems really out there sometimes, Captain. In my head, I have difficulty believing the things I've seen him do, but in here--" He tapped his chest. "--in my heart, I know what he does is real. If he says Blair Sandburg has been poisoned, you can take any odds that he's right."
"But you showed up out of the blue, Detective."
"Yeah, and we would have been here sooner except my father was out of the country for a time."
Simon's disbelief persisted. "But he sensed Sandburg was in danger?"
Peter struggled to explain something he didn't altogether understand. "A couple of months ago, my father saw him at a Seattle museum. He told me Sandburg has a very special aura--and before you ask, I haven't a clue what he meant by that--but that there was a cloud of danger hovering over him. What my father saw and felt may seem like magic to the three of us, but his being here is anything but mysterious--I looked up Sandburg's name and address in the museum's guest book."
Simon sighed. "Well, I suppose your story is no stranger than some of the things we have going on around here." He glanced at Jim. "Any ideas on motive?"
Jim had been gazing idly through the office window into the bullpen, and he dragged his attention back. Tentatively, he tried to wrap his tongue around some very foreign words. "Does anyone know what that means?"
Peter's eyebrows rose fractionally. "It's Chinese for 'we have a problem'."
Jim muddled through another phrase. "What about that one?"
The younger cop's interest was definitely piqued. "Meet at the usual place at four o'clock," he translated helpfully.
Simon scowled. "Jim?"
"Our newest recruit, Stubing, just made a phone call," Jim said quietly, but there was anger lurking in his tone. "The conversation was in Chinese. He told someone there was a problem, and whoever he spoke with set up a meeting."
"Stubing?" Peter asked, not seeming the least curious how Jim had managed to overhear both sides of a quiet telephone conversation through a closed door and halfway across the bullpen.
"Transferred to Major Crime so he can be part of the new FBI joint task force on organized crime." Simon immediately grasped the implication. "He wasn't going to make the team until Jim got sidetracked by his partner's illness."
"FBI joint task force on organized crime," Peter said thoughtfully. "I don't suppose that would include Chinese gangs?"
"Very possibly. Why?"
"Because if Detective Stubing has decided there's a problem, it might be because he recognized me and not just because Jim's come in."
"Why would you pose a threat?" Jim asked.
"The 101st includes Chinatown, and my father and I have taken a big bite out of crime in our neighborhood." He smiled slightly. "Enough so that some of the crime bosses may have started looking for friendlier climes."
"Like Cascade," Jim concluded. "Damn, if Stubing had anything to do with poisoning Blair--"
"We'll let him be for now." Simon's sternness left no room for argument. "I'll put a tail on him, see who he meets at four o'clock. In the meantime, Jim, you just continue as you've been doing. Go home and look after your partner."
Reluctantly, Jim nodded. As he and Peter left the office and headed through the bullpen, it took every ounce of his willpower not to glare daggers at Stubing.
Settled in the Stealth once again, the days of worry and tension caught up with him, and he leaned back in the comfortable bucket seat.
When he jerked awake sometime later, they were cruising through Cascade's Chinatown. "Where are we?"
"Just cruising around," Peter said. "It's true, you know," he continued in the same light tone. "They say driving around puts a sleepless baby right out--it sure did wonders for you."
Jim threw him a caustic glance, then peered out the side window at the insular community that looked as if it had been dropped intact from a bustling portion of Hong Kong or Beijing. "Are we looking for anything in particular?"
"No, I just wanted to check out the area. I'm not familiar with your Chinatown. However, we've picked up a tail. Blue Chevy sedan three cars back."
Jim glanced in the side mirror and spotted the car. "What about the white one behind it?"
Peter nodded agreeably. "I don't know, let's check 'em out." He turned right at the next corner.
Both cars followed obligingly.
"Well, well, we're certainly popular." He took another turn, left this time, and the two vehicles stayed with them. "I wonder if they're just keeping tabs on us, or if they have something more confrontational in mind."
A moment later, he had his answer. "Here they come."
Part Five
Caine knew his young patient's struggle would be a difficult one. Before even starting to address the first step in the recovery process, he brewed a powerful tea and helped Blair sit up to drink it.
The young man grimaced at the bitter flavor. "What is it?" he asked, his voice so weak Caine feared his arrival might have come too late to do any good.
"It will help you focus. We have much work to do."
Blair looked doubtful. "I don't think I'm up to it," he confessed, a little ashamed by how pathetic he sounded. "I'm so tired."
The priest was insistent. "We must overcome the first component of the poison you have been consuming. It will not be easy, but I will help you."
"Poison." It was clear Blair really hadn't grasped what was happening to him.
"Yes." Caine stood up again and went around the couch so he could place his hands comfortably on Blair's shoulders. "Your chi--your life force--has been unbalanced. You have lost your harmony. We must find it again."
Blair concentrated on the words and tried to make sense of them. They sounded like something Naomi would say, so they had a warm familiarity. "Is that why I'm sick?"
"It is why the poison has been able to invade your body slowly without resistance." Caine began a slow massage of Blair's neck and shoulders. "When we bring your chi back into balance, your body will begin fighting back."
"Will I be OK?"
Unable to lie, Caine admitted, "I do not know. The poison has been able to do its work unchecked for a long time. You are very weak, but your spirit is strong. I promise I will do all I can to help you."
"I know." Blair's mind drifted on the comforting strength flowing from Caine's fingers as the priest kneaded his shoulders. "I knew you were special when I first saw you."
"And I you," Caine responded softly. "Your aura has great power. You have a remarkable destiny."
"Yeah?" The question emerged as a sleepy sigh.
"Your friend also possesses a unique aura." Caine worked across Blair's upper back. "But it was only when I saw you together that I realized you are both halves of a single whole...complementary parts that, when combined, create a powerful source of strength and wisdom."
"Wow," Blair breathed dreamily. "Don't talk that way around Jim, or you'll send him running for the hills."
Caine smiled slightly. "Yes, he resists your common destiny. But his reluctance does not mask his love for you."
Blair sounded faintly incredulous. "We share a destiny?"
"Yes. I do not know why this is so. It is enough that I know."
He moved around to the front of the sofa again and helped Blair down onto the floor. "We must meditate and refocus your chi."
Blair's limbs protested as he assumed a position he normally found relaxing and comfortable. Today, everything hurt. "Will that make me feel better?"
Caine neatly avoided a direct answer. "It is only the first step, but it is the most important one. Let us begin."
Part Six
Peter floored the Stealth and slid it into a hard right turn, Jim's protest dying to a grunt as he was slammed into the passenger door.
"Bad move?" Peter asked with a grin as the car straightened out and shot up the street, their pursuers close behind.
Jim tightened his seatbelt. "I was going to say 'don't turn right'." Somehow, everything seemed to flow past a lot faster this close to the ground.
"Oops."
They were in a warehouse district, racing between rows of long buildings.
The powerful car ate up the road. "What's ahead?"
"The bay."
"Uh-huh. To the right?"
"A raised railroad bed. This car will never clear it."
"I guess that just leaves left." Peter slid the car into another hard turn.
The Stealth gripped the road like a jungle cat, barely fishtailing as it accelerated out of the corner.
The two sedans lost ground, one of them spinning in a complete circle before its driver regained control and was able to continue the pursuit.
More warehouses flashed by on either side. Ahead of them, a long tractor-trailer rig blocked their path. They closed the distance with remarkable speed.
"What d'ya think?" Peter asked, guessing the clearance from the ground to the bottom of the trailer was about six inches too low to slip under.
"Not a chance." Jim automatically cringed in the seat. Next time, by god, he was going to do the driving!
Peter swung the wheel again, and the car lunged up a cargo ramp to the loading dock. Jim was certain if he hadn't been in the passenger seat to counterbalance the weight, the Stealth's left wheels wouldn't have touched the ramp, and the car would have rolled for certain.
But they made it with inches to spare.
Peter hit the brakes, stopping just short of a large stack of shipping crates.
On the road, the driver of the first sedan was too slow to react to the danger. With a squeal of brakes and a desperate sideways skid, the car slid under the trailer. The top sheared off, instantly decapitating both driver and passenger, and the car exploded in a fireball that continued down the road after clearing the far side of the rig.
The driver of the second car managed to stop in time. After a wild spinout, the car's tires squealing and smoking on the asphalt, he turned the car around and peeled back the way he had come.
Peter slammed the Stealth into reverse. The sports car rocketed backwards along the loading dock and down the ramp, where he executed a perfect 180.
The pursuer had become the pursued.
Somehow during the wild ride, Jim managed to pull out his cellphone. He called Dispatch to report the wreck and the pursuit, describing both vehicles engaged in the chase.
Then the sedan abruptly turned into a huge storage facility.
Peter skidded to a halt behind the larger car. All four doors were open, the interior seemingly empty. "Welcome to the OK Corral."
He and Jim bailed out just moments before a fusillade of shots fired from a behind a stack of crates pelted the concrete floor around them. Jim scrambled around the Stealth and crouched next to Peter beside the driver's door.
Peter returned fire, although he did not have a clear target. Jim pulled his own weapon and waited patiently, his attention directed elsewhere. The younger cop looked at him oddly, but Jim just nodded with his chin toward the apparently deserted sedan. From the back door of the car, a weapon emerged slowly, held by a gunman crouched low in the seat.
Peter scowled, and almost before Jim had a chance to react, the young man dove across the concrete floor, rolling and bring his weapon up in a single, fluid motion. He fired once, and the hand visible inside the sedan went limp, the gun it was clutching falling from nerveless fingers.
Jim was already moving, practically scooping Peter off the floor and half-dragging him to cover as the other gunmen opened up again. They found shelter in a maze of crates across the wide center aisle from their opponents. "I'll bet your father worries a lot about you."
"Only every hour or so." Peter grinned, charged by the surge of adrenaline. He ducked as the top of the nearest crate splintered under the impact of numerous bullets.
Jim listened in the silence that followed. "They're on the move."
Peter looked perplexed. "How do you know?"
He didn't answer. Instead, he led the way deeper into the labyrinth of narrow lanes formed by neat rows of shipping containers. He'd heard the heartbeat of the ambusher lurking in the back of the sedan, and its absence now assured him the man was dead from Peter's bullet. Now, however, he could hear five more attackers stalking them through the warehouse.
"They're trying to surround us."
"How many?"
"Five."
Peter shook his head in amazement. "I guess I was too busy driving to count how many heads were in the car."
"I guess."
The initial rush of adrenaline that had sustained him through the car chase and its immediate aftermath was starting to wear off. It took more effort to concentrate, and he knew if he tried too hard, he'd probably zone from sheer exhaustion. Resolutely, he tuned back his hypersenses and used his hearing only in short bursts to keep track of their opponents' location.
They were just crossing an intersection in the huge storage facility when Jim felt a gentle waft of air from above. His reflexes were dulled with fatigue, but he was still quick enough to tackle Peter as a large pallet of crates dropped toward them from an overhead hoist.
The heavy boxes shattered on impact, scattering their contents like shrapnel, but the two men managed to scramble clear. They hadn't even regained their balance before they were attacked from all sides.
Jim wasn't at all surprised to discover their adversaries were Chinese. Although trained in the basics of martial arts, he lacked the speed and agility to use those skills to their maximum advantage. Still, he knew enough to protect himself from serious injury, and when he landed a blow, the power behind it generally sent his attacker reeling.
Peter, on the other hand, had the training and the physical agility to take on three of their opponents at once. With lightning precision, he blocked and delivered blow after blow, his almost acrobatic prowess making short work of the conflict. One of his antagonists went down, and the other two fled when confronted with Peter's superior skill.
Jim managed to finish off one of his attackers with a solid right to the man's chin. The last man limped off quickly to join his fellow combatants in retreat, and Jim let him go, too tired to give chase.
Peter handcuffed his man, then hurried over to Jim. "Are you all right?"
Jim was breathing heavily after the intense exertion, but he managed to handcuff his prisoner before sitting down abruptly on the concrete floor. He'd reached the limit of his physical endurance. "Yeah."
Peter shook his head, somewhat amazed Jim was still going. "Man, if you don't get some sleep soon, you're gonna be a basket case."
Jim closed his eyes and fought to find the strength to get up. It was a lot harder than it should have been. When he'd climbed to his feet, he braced his hands on his knees and drew great gasps of air into his heaving lungs. His mind felt strangely disconnected from his body; if he went much longer without sleep, he knew he'd probably start hallucinating.
Sirens wound down outside.
"Cavalry's here," he said needlessly.
Part Seven
By the time they'd given verbal reports to the officers at the scene and repeated their stories via cell to Simon (with the promise of follow-up paperwork the next day), Jim was feeling decidedly detached from reality. A dose of caffeine might keep him awake, but it would be unable to sharpen his increasingly sluggish mind.
He dozed all the way back to the loft, and Peter remained uncharacteristically quiet. He woke as the younger man parked the Stealth, but he had difficulty recognizing where he was for a moment. Then he climbed wearily out of the car and headed for the front of the building.
"Hi ya, partner," greeted a too cheerful female voice as they reached the door.
"Hi yourself, Skelany."
Jim hadn't even heard their approach. He turned and saw an attractive brunette and a small, frail looking Chinese man. The elderly man could be no one but the "Ancient" Caine had spoken of earlier.
Peter performed the introductions as the little group walked through the foyer and crowded into the elevator. Jim managed to say something in greeting, but even a moment later wasn't sure exactly what.
"Already, you have had an adventure," the old man observed with pleasure.
"How can you tell?"
"There is always something different about the way you bounce after you have been in an altercation."
Peter laughed self-consciously. "Bounce? I don't bounce."
Skelany's response was droll. "Trust me, Peter, you bounce."
They reached the third floor, and Jim led the way to the front door. As he inserted his key, he realized the door was unlocked. He'd forgotten to secure it behind him when he'd left.
With a sigh of irritation, he went inside.
Thoughts of rest fled as he saw Blair huddled miserably on the sofa, his flushed, perspiring face contorted with feverish dreams.
"What happened?" he demanded angrily, rushing to kneel beside his partner. He could feel the heat radiating from the young man's tortured body.
Caine soaked a washcloth in a small basin of cold water and wrung it out. "He is fighting the poison."
Jim snatched it from him and folded it gently against Blair's forehead. "I don't understand." Worry and helplessness quickly drove away his earlier anger.
"The affects of the poison are cumulative." Caine gestured to Lo Si and handed him one of the bags of tainted tea. The Ancient took it and headed promptly for the kitchen. "Under normal conditions, it would have been detected quickly and dealt with by the body. Ingested over a long period, however, the effects are far more devastating."
He was unable to make sense of any of it. "You mean, if we'd come to you sooner--?"
"No. I mean Blair's own body would have defended itself from the first onslaught." The priest removed the wash cloth from Jim's hand, soaked it again in the basin and twisted out the excess water before handing it back. "For that reason, the first component of the poison was a--what would you call it...a precursor?--to disrupt his chi, his defenses, so that his body would not recognize the danger."
Jim recalled the persistent low-grade fever that had plagued his partner from the beginning. "His system didn't know it was sick, so it couldn't fight back?"
Caine nodded. "As a first step, he has refocused his chi."
"In time?" Jim asked desperately, not caring that he hadn't understood everything the priest had told him. "Is he going to be all right?"
"I do not know. But it is good that you are here. As his fever has grown, he has asked for you many times."
Jim felt a rush of guilt. He'd run away from his helplessness over Blair's illness to do cop stuff, normal stuff. He shouldn't have left....
Caine touched his arm gently. "You are not at fault. I should have told you what would occur. I am sorry."
Blair stirred weakly. "Jim?"
Instantly, Jim schooled his confused, frantic expression into one of calm confidence. "It's OK, Chief, I'm here," he said quietly, wafting the wash cloth gently through the air to cool it again before folding it back against Blair's forehead. "You're gonna be OK."
The young man opened his eyes a bit and squinted against the brightness of daylight. "I feel terrible."
"I know, but you're getting better."
"You left." The tremulous voice wasn't accusatory, merely unhappy.
"Yes, but I won't leave again," Jim promised.
Blair managed a slight nod. "Good." In an almost childishly conspiratorial whisper, he said, "I think there's someone else here."
The weirdest houseful you could imagine, Jim thought, smiling. "It's the person you were looking for--Caine."
Blair's eyes brightened with hope. "You found him?"
"He found us." Jim moved enough so Blair could see the Shaolin priest crouched beside him. "He's been helping you."
"I remember." Blair frowned uncertainly. "Auras--and meditation?"
Caine nodded and smiled. "You are an excellent patient."
Blair looked back at Jim. "You've never told me that."
"Because you talk too much. Go back to sleep. You need the rest." As he saw Blair's expression crease with worry, he added, "I'll be close by, I promise."
Thus assured, Blair closed his eyes.
Jim looked at Caine. "He's going to be all right, isn't he? I mean, you must have some idea."
"We need to bring his fever down now, but I am feeling more confident." The priest rose easily to his feet. "Will you tend him for a moment while I speak with my friend?"
"Of course."
Only then did Jim realize other things had been going on around him while he'd concentrated on his partner's condition. He could hear Lo Si puttering around in the kitchen, and when Caine joined him, the two apothecaries began a quiet discussion. Peter was sitting at the table, a sandwich and a cup of coffee in front of him as he read a magazine.
Mary Margaret came over to him and held out a cup.
"It's tea," she said apologetically. "I've made a pot of coffee, but the Ancient won't let me give you any. He said you need to get some rest tonight, and he's not a person I want to argue with."
Jim accepted the mug gratefully. "Thanks. It's fine." He sniffed the brew--it was one of the less obnoxious herb blends--and chanced a sip. It was delicious. "Thanks for bringing the old man." He monitored Blair's breathing to see if the conversation was affecting his rest; it wasn't.
She smiled. "You're welcome. Besides, maybe I can help keep Peter out of trouble."
Another similarity to his own trouble-prone partner, he thought.
The phone on the wall rang, but before he could even start to get up to answer it, Peter sprang up and grabbed the receiver. "Hello?" He listened for a moment. "Yeah, Captain Banks, he's here, but he's kinda busy. What d'ya need?" He listened some more without bothering to gesture for Jim. "Hey, I can do that," he said, then hastily overrode the objections spilling from the receiver. "Hey, Captain, I know you have a whole police force at your beck and call, but I'm about as useful around this apartment as a boil on a baby's butt, and I'd really like to help, OK?" Having apparently mollified Simon's irritation, he grinned. "Great. See you in a few." He hung up, and only then realized everyone was staring at him.
"Something I should know about?" Jim asked, his quiet tone not masking the acidity in the question.
"Uh, no, your Captain just wanted to coordinate the details of the tail on Stubing and have you look at some mug shots of the guys who got away from us this afternoon." Peter sounded eager to make amends. "I figured you'd want to stay here with your partner, and since I got a good look at 'em, too, I sorta thought--you know, maybe I could do it."
The young man couldn't keep still for a minute, Jim realized with an inward grin. "OK, just remember you're not officially working the case."
"Oh, sure, no problem."
Mary Margaret put down her coffee cup with a sigh. "I'll come with you."
"You don't have to," Peter said. "Shouldn't you be getting back? It's your day off and all, and you've already done more than enough."
She wasn't swayed by his argument. "You may need backup, Pete. Even when you think you don't, you do."
Caine spoke up calmly from the kitchen. "Thank you, Mary Margaret."
Thus outvoted, Peter relented. He grabbed his half-eaten sandwich off the table and flew out of the loft like a whirlwind of energy, Mary Margaret hastening in his wake.
Once again, Peter reminded Jim of Blair, whose usual energy rivaled a furious tornado. The two men were so remarkably similar, and also so obviously different. Both were young, exuberant, inquisitive and talkative, ingenuous and instinctively kind. But where Blair had retained an almost childlike innocence, Peter had a harder edge.
A difficult childhood had caused Blair to withdraw into academics to find security, and within the comfortable shelter of that world, he had found the strength and optimism to face whatever life tossed his way.
Whatever path Peter had followed into adulthood had made him come out swinging, ready to confront any challenge and take on all comers.
Blair's energy came from his natural exuberance, and his eyes were always bright with wonder and excitement. In contrast, Peter's energy seemed more of the nervous variety, and his eyes were veiled, hinting at painful memories and perhaps a wisdom too ancient for his years.
Since Blair was sleeping peacefully, Jim got up and went into the kitchen, where Lo Si and Caine were in deep conversation. "Caine said you might remember who bought the herbs from you."
Lo Si nodded sadly. "Tyrone Lee. He bought an assortment of herbs from me to prepare teas for energy, relaxation, concentration, and sleep. He is a nice young man who has wavered between the forces of good and evil for some time."
Jim couldn't find any sympathy. "Looks like he made his choice. He lives down in your neck of the woods?"
"Yes, but he lacks the skill to prepare a poison such as this," Lo Si insisted softly, his English excellent, delivered with the same thoughtful precision as Caine's speech. The dark eyes blazed with anger. "Only someone with an evil soul and great knowledge could conceive such an insidious mixture."
Jim felt a momentary flush of weakness at the image of the ancient horrors trying to claim his friend's life. "Have you identified the poison?"
"It is no one thing," Caine explained, and Jim realized he'd heard the priest say something to the same effect earlier. "We must determine each component, and then combat it. Such efforts take time, and your young friend has been greatly weakened already."
"Yes, I'm sorry, I forgot you told me." He fought to stay alert. "The person who prepared the poison--do you have any idea who it could be?"
Caine exchanged a look with Lo Si, who nodded and answered. "Yes. His name is Kam Lee. He was once a student of mine, but he was less interested in helping those in need than in exerting his power over them."
"A god complex."
The Ancient nodded. "Yes."
"Kam Lee--is he any relation to this Tyrone you mentioned?"
Caine shrugged. "That is like picking two Smiths from your telephone book and asking if they are related. Chinatown is filled with Lees, many of them related, many of them not."
"Do you know where he lives?"
"I do not," Caine admitted. "But he is here, somewhere in Chinatown."
"OK." Jim reached for his jacket on the coat rack. "I'll be able to track him down."
Very softly, Caine said, "You walk two paths on your life's journey. Mostly, they exist in harmony. It is only when they diverge that you have a conflict, and choices must be made."
Jim's hand stilled inches from his coat, and he looked toward the sofa. Then his gaze swung back to Caine. "I'm a cop, damnit."
"Is not choice, by its very nature, the rejection of one course in order to embrace another?"
Jim closed his eyes for a moment. "It's hard seeing him like this."
"Yes."
"I can't help him."
Caine's patient expression never wavered.
A moment later, Jim dropped his hand away from the coat rack and reached for the telephone instead. "Simon," he said when his call was answered. "I need you to track down a Chinese apothecary named Kam Lee. He's here in Chinatown somewhere. He may be responsible for making the poison." He waited while Simon wrote down the information, then continued. "Also, a young man named Tyrone Lee, unknown if he's a relation to Kam. He bought the herbs down south. The 101st may have something on him."
Satisfied that Simon had the investigation in hand, Jim hung up the phone and returned to the sofa, where he slumped down on the floor and rested his hand against Blair's forehead. He was so tired, he knew he had to sleep soon or risk collapse, but his worry wouldn't let go. Abruptly, he registered Blair's temperature. "Caine, he's too hot. His fever is way too high."
Part Eight
The Shaolin was immediately by his side, confirming with his own palm what Jim had told him. "Yes, we must bring the fever down."
Jim's thoughts raced. "The bathtub? We can fill it with cool water."
Briskly, Caine rubbed his hands together, focusing his chi and opening the pathways that flowed between all living things. After a moment, he frowned. "He will not let me in."
"Not let you in?" Jim repeated blankly. "In where?"
"I can fight the fever from within him, but he resists my efforts to help."
It was more mumbo-jumbo Jim didn't understand, but he didn't question it or Caine's methods. Instead, he bent close to his partner's ear. "Come on, Chief. You asked for Caine, and he's here to help you. You've got to let him."
From deep within his feverish coma, Blair moaned a soft denial.
"Please, Blair--." He jumped as Caine grasped his hand firmly. "What?"
"We shall make the journey together," Caine explained. "He trusts you."
"But I don't know how--." He closed his eyes briefly in an effort to drive back his sudden panic. "Without Blair to guide me, I don't know what to do."
Caine's calm assurance never faltered. "Simply close your eyes and open your heart and your spirit. I will help you."
Forcing himself to take several deep breaths, Jim closed his eyes again, one hand still on Blair's forehead, the other returning Caine's fierce grip. Seconds passed, and he thought he had failed....
With frightening abruptness, he felt himself swept through a tunnel of swirling lights and fog, and when he regained his equilibrium, he was standing in a dense, humid rainforest. It was unbelievably hot and putrid with rot. Slime dripped from naked tree branches, and the forest floor was a mat of shriveled dead ferns and grasses. The air shimmered with heat and was filled with the stench of sulfuric gases. The very ground beneath his feet felt as if it would liquefy beneath the unrelenting onslaught.
Steeling himself against the unfamiliar sensations, he looked for Caine, and saw the priest towering above him, his expression one of astonishment.
It was then Jim realized he had become the panther. There had been many times he had seen the black jaguar in his visions, but never had he morphed into the animal. The knowledge that this was even possible startled and frightened him, and for a moment, he thought he would not be able to maintain the link Caine had established between them.
The priest understood his difficulty. "You are safe with me. Take me to the place where the heat is most intense."
With a soft growl of acknowledgement, Jim tasted the air with senses even more acute than his own sentinel gifts. After a moment, he lunged through the forest to their left, Caine sprinting in his wake.
Ahead, broad vents in the ground spewed super-heated gases into the fetid air. Unerringly, the panther padded to the largest and most noxious rent in the forest floor.
Caine paused and repeated the act of rubbing his hands together. Centering himself, he extended his hands toward the shimmering curtain of heat--and pushed.
Wind whistled around them, and for a moment, the hiss of the vent diminished as the currents rising from its interior cooled. Then, a howl like a demented demon ripped through the air, driving back both spirit guide and priest.
Undaunted, Caine tried again, using all his strength to quench the hellish heat. Again, just for a moment, the air cooled before succumbing to the hungry needs of the poison spewing from deep within the chasm.
Nearly exhausted now, Caine prepared himself for one more attempt; he knew it would be the last before his strength was gone. Summoning energy from the secret pathways of the universe itself, he channeled it through his body.
As the gale wind howled its defiance, the vent began to cool and close. In that moment, the panther lunged, returning the primal shriek with a roar equally strong. The vent crumbled, the pieces caving inward to block the escape of more noxious fumes. 
Caine's eyes flew open and he looked over at Jim. The detective was sound asleep, his breathing deep and even. His head was pillowed against Blair's shoulder, his hand still resting gently atop the young man's forehead.
With a smile of satisfaction, Caine loosened his grip on Jim's other hand and placed it gently on the sofa, where it automatically sought another hand to hold and found it with his Guide.
The priest checked Blair's temperature. Still high as the frail body combated the various elements of the poisons coursing through him, but the fever was no longer life threatening. Together, Shaolin and Sentinel had defeated one enemy, but others still lurked, waiting to claim their turn at devouring their victim from within.
The battle would be engaged again later. For now, the Sentinel and his Guide could rest.
Continue on to the second part....

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