by Lonnie McDowell
Joseph Brightblade was awakened by a loud pounding on the door. "No one," he thought, "ever pounds with good news." He got up to answer it anyway. Before the door was fully open, two gun toting humans and a dwarf burst through it. The taller of the two humans spoke. "I'm sorry, Joe, we didn't know where to go. We need your help."
The air fairly throbbed with the stench of violence in their auras. He'd warned Lemuel repeatedly about the so called "friends" he was making, but Lemuel didn't seem to want to change. Increasingly, his brother had only been angered by his efforts to help him follow a better path, and eventually he had stopped talking to Joseph altogether. Until he showed up tonight, asking for help.
"What do you want?" He knew what they needed from the trauma patch on his brother's leg seeping red out from under it's edges, by the dazed and wary look on the dwarf's face, and by the wince every time the other human breathed too deeply, but often Lemuel let his wants override his needs. "I told you: we need your help. We got jumped by a bunch of thrill-gangers, and shot up pretty bad. You can heal us, can't you?"
"How fortunate that you were all dressed in dark-colored armored clothing, and equipped with assault rifles to defend yourselves." Joseph noted. Lemuel flushed. "So we're just supposed to let ourselves get killed, right?" Joseph let it drop. "And what do I get?" "Drek, Joe, we're brothers. If that's not enough, then fine." Lemuel made no move to leave. "Yes. We are brothers. And brothers look out for each other, don't they." It wasn't a question. "Bring them up to the waiting area. I'll need to prepare." "Um, Joe, Jale's still in the back of the truck. He's hurt pretty bad." Joseph paused, then said quietly, "Bring him up too."
The medicine lodge and the adjacent waiting room sat on the roof of the building. Every week Joseph had fresh cedar boughs shipped in from the Cascade Crow nation. It wasn't the same as having a wilderness lodge, but Joseph did what he could. He ignited a bundle of incense herbs, and arranged several items from his medicine bag. When that was done, he sat cross-legged and petitioned Bear for guidance.
Somewhat surprisingly, Bear answered in person, along with two cubs who seemed more interested in wrestling with each other than in Joseph's petition.
"You have some decisions to make." The growled words were perfectly intelligible.
"I know. My brother... there is less and less good in him. In part it's because of Jale. How can I heal a man who revels in violence, who has enhanced his body for the sole purpose of increasing his ability to destroy? If I heal him, Lemuel may be lost. Others will certainly be hurt or killed."
"A pair of millennia ago, a boy older than his years recorded a comparable dilemma. When he sought guidance, the spirit he followed told him that it was better that one man should die than a whole nation should dwindle and perish, and provided the means to slay the one man. You, however, are in a different place and time, with different means."
"And the nation survived?" asked Joseph.
"Yes, but not for long. Soon thereafter the nation divided, and ultimately one side, then the other turned away from what they knew in their hearts was true. Once they lost their guidance, they became for themselves, and were lost as a consequence of their actions."
"That's not very encouraging."
"Contemplating death, your own or a nation's, is rarely encouraging. Although some of my peers would disagree." Bear whuffed with disapproval.
One of the cubs stopped wrestling and looked up at Joseph. "We don't want Jale here. Why don't you keep him?" The other cub batted him on the head, and they were gone again, rolling and tumbling.
Joseph looked back at Bear. "So what do I do?"
"Make a right choice."
"A right choice? That's not very helpful."
Bear remained silent. Apparently totems didn't bicker. Joseph sighed. What good was having a spiritual guide if he wouldn't tell you which way to go?
Both cubs stopped wrestling and looked up solemnly. "You have to listen before you can hear." said one. Joseph wasn't sure if it was the same one as before.
Bear rumbled deeply, and began to fade. "Sometimes life and death rest on the results of much simpler decisions. Do not forget what you know."
An eternity later, Joseph exited the lodge. He motioned for Jale to be brought in, and instructed Lemuel and his friends to set the unconscious body against one wall. He began a chant, one he seldom attempted. Healing magic streamed its way through the lodge, infusing both him and Jale. On the third repetition, he altered the chant slightly. No one noticed.
Jale's breathing became less ragged, and he visibly relaxed. Joseph continued the chant, and an aura of light around Jale grew brighter, then dimmed. Joseph dropped to his knees, drained.
Lemuel's face held awe, and jealousy, and pain. When Joseph didn't move, pain won out. "My leg is killin' me. Can you mojo me now?" Lemuel asked. "No. The rest will have to wait a while." Joseph said wearily. Lemuel muttered something, but Joseph was too tired to hear or care.
After he recovered enough to strand unassisted, he channeled mana into Lemuel and his buddies. The dwarf seemed to have recovered on his own, although he probably would have been helped by a good hygiene spell. Joseph didn't have one handy, and wasn't inclined to write him a referral. He dismissed them as soon as Jale woke up. A few insincere thanks were exchanged as they left.
Two days later Joseph was in the middle of his lunch break at work when Lemuel showed up again. He was not happy. Joseph motioned for the remaining members of his trauma team to continue eating, and walked with Lemuel to the street outside the clinic.
"What'd you do to Jale?" Joseph didn't flinch from Lemuel's angry stare. "I'm a healer, Lemuel. I healed him. His soul needs more, but I did what I could."
"What you did was make him a fraggin' wimp. He's sitting in a chair 'thinking about retiring from the biz.' He's talking like you - I knew you did something. You just couldn't stand it that I had a team, that I was getting someplace." Lemuel was not going to calm down anytime soon. Joseph tried anyway.
"Lemuel. He made a choice. I helped him see the natural consequences of it. I had hoped you would see them, too. Guns and a decker do not make a team. A team needs purpose, a goal: something more than a desire to extort or steal cred. Thugs steal, Lemuel. Dad raised you better than that."
Lemuel turned red, then pale. Then he started swinging. There was murder in his eyes, and Joseph knew he'd pushed his brother too far. He blocked some of the blows, but Lemuel had always been bigger and stronger. He saw stars as his head thudded against the stone entryway once, then twice again. He cursed Lemuel's short-sightedness as a red mist clouded his vision.
"Back so soon?" Bear growled. The cubs were gone.
"Not by choice." Joseph blinked. He hadn't given much thought to the afterlife, but it looked a lot like the astral plane. Curious. "Lemuel... reacted badly to my efforts to help." Joseph confessed. Bear grunted neutrally. "I helped give Jale second thoughts, but Lemuel figured out what I'd done, and resented it. And now, here I am. Am I dead, or am I only astrally projecting?"
Bear's face wasn't meant to grin - too many teeth - but he managed to convey the sentiment. "And where does one stop and the other begin? You have too limited a grasp of eternity. But we can remedy your theological misconceptions some other time." The grin disappeared. "Another choice for you: do you want to stay, or to return?"
Joseph thought. "What happens to Lemuel if I go back?" Bear was silent. Joseph tried again. "What if I stay here?" Bear nodded slowly. "Then Lemuel becomes subject to the consequences of his actions, and your influence over him ends. And vice versa."
"Will going back make it better?" Joseph felt like he was consulting the Oracle at Delphi, but he felt that he needed more information to go on. Bear didn't seem to agree; silence was the only answer the shaman got. "Can I make it better?" Joseph already knew that answer, and Bear said as much.
He awoke with heart monitor #4 (the one with the squeaky wheel) recording and displaying his vital signs. He'd passed out twice before in the clinic from drain, but he'd never been on the receiving end of the full spectrum of monitors, tubes, and medical treatment. Nice to know it all worked as advertised. He found out from the attending intern that he'd been out for the better part of two days. Time did funny things in the spirits' realm. Lemuel had run off before Lone Star got there. He hadn't come back since.
When Joseph was released from the clinic, he went looking for Lemuel, but couldn't find him. Jale (who had decided against retiring after all) told him that Lemuel had left town, and didn't leaving a forwarding com number. None of Lemuel's other friends knew where he was. It was several days before Joseph found the note in the lodge.
"Joseph - we all make our own choices. Dad never realized that. He was always so proud of you; you got everything I never had. Someday we'll meet again, on my terms. For now, leave me alone." The note was written in surprisingly neat handwriting and signed with an L. Joseph put the note in his medicine bag and carefully closed the lodge entrance behind him as he left. It was time to order more cedar boughs.
(c) 2000 Lonnie McDowell. Used with permission.