Part 6

"Sir, we have reports that they've left Lorraine."

Meelak looked up, "That who has left Lorraine?"

"JP and Robert."

"And?"

"S-ssir?"

"Where did they go, why, when are they coming back?"

"I don't know, sir."

"Don't come to me with incomplete information! Get back out there and find out who they talked to, where they're staying, even how much fucking toilet paper they used!" Meelak punctuated his sentence by slamming his fist down on his desk, hard enough to rattle the frame.

Stuart Jones, Meelak's aide, nodded swiftly and scampered from the room. Meelak rubbed his head and leaned back, considering. After a few moment he picked up the phone and dialed.

"I need authorization for two taps."

"Subjects?" The voice on the other end of the phone asked.

"JP Tupo and Robert Burke."

There was a pause before the next question came, "Manner?"

"The works," Meelak idly twirled his pen as he waited.

"Approved."

He hung up the phone and allowed himself a few seconds of pure satisfaction before he slapped hi intercom, "Get Bruce up here."

***

"I found out about the Chochasi somewhat... Indirectly. About a year ago a series of events led me to start investigating an organization called Central. They're a shadow cell of the world government and, for all intents and purposes they don't exist." Tamara paused to make sure her visitors were following.

"Obviously they exist or you wouldn't be talking to us," Robert said as he shifted in his chair.

Tamara nodded and continued, "They recruit people from all over the place once they've demonstrated the proper qualities. They are then placed in position in key companies and work to look after Central's interests. To ensure that their agenda doesn't meet with resistance."

JP nibbled her lip in thought, "But what do these people actually do?"

"Central is basically dedicated to ensuring the prosperity and longevity of the human race." Tamara smiled at their disbelieving stares. "I know it sounds ridiculous but what that really means is maintaining a booming economy and a stable government. Fourty-eight percent of their resources are allocated solely for the discovery and development of new resources and industries."

JP waved her hands in the air and leaned forward, "Okay, we get the picture. Where does Lorraine come in?"

Tamara tilted her head, "I was just getting there. It was Central that made sure Lorraine was chosen as the last colony site. They overruled the protocols that would eliminate it from the running because it already sustained sentient life."

"Why?"

"I'm not sure but they are responsible for the Chochasi."

Robert hit the arm of his chair and stood to pace, "What I want to know is why it never occurred to anyone to talk to these people, try and make a deal. They just swoop in there with their big guns and commit genocide. I don't get it! It's just useless death."

Tamara tapped her pen on her desk as she watched Robert, "I would think that whatever Central really wanted on Lorraine the Chochasi wouldn't agree to give them. Or, at least, that's what Central believed."

JP broke into the conversation again, "As much as I love this brainstorming session it isn't getting us anywhere." She turned her attention to Tamara, "Do you have any proof?"

Tamara scowled at her desk, "I have logs which detail the fact that someone knew about the Chochasi's existence and overruled the protocols. Unfortunately, they trace back to a nonexistent server. I have bits of paperwork with mildly suspicious things on them but nothing overt, nothing that anyone would notice if they didn't already know about Central."

"So basically, we're screwed," Robert finally sat back down with his pronouncement and studied Tamara. "How do you know, anyway?"

Tamara's face closed off then and she leaned back, "That's not important. What we need is a smoking gun."

Robert and JP exchanged some more looks and then nodded at each other. JP threw her folder onto Faal's desk. "That's everything we have and know."

Tamara picked the folder up and flipped through it, "I'll need some time to look at this."

"We're leaving on Sunday," Robert said as he and JP stood.

Tamara nodded, already engrossed in the file, "Come back tomorrow. I'll tell Henry to let you in. And don't discuss this anywhere in the building but here."

They nodded. They were used to secrecy by now.

***

The moon had risen fully into the sky when the ground vehicle finally lumbered to a stop. Ay'nin crouched low and launched herself into a tree and quickly scaled halfway to the top to better see over the ridge obstructing her view. It took a few seconds for her eyes to adjust but when they did Ay'nin just barely managed to keep herself from falling out of the tree.

Stretched before her, where once there was an unending expanse of trees, now lay barren rock-strewn ground littered here and there with tree stumps. The devastation continued to a small mountain peak where Ay'nin could just detect the movement of machinery and see the flickering lights of a camp.

She ignored the group of people she had been following in favor of getting closer to the camp. It took long moments of judging distances and leaping from branch to branch but eventually Ay'nin arrived perpendicular to the mountain on the very edge of the remaining forest.

Here she could see distinct tents and campfires and row upon row of machinery that she did not recognize. Ay'nin strained her eyes in an attempt to find cover which would allow her to move closer but found none. She let out an aggravated breath and glared sullenly at the mountain.

Low voices carried to her from below and Ay'nin quickly rearranged herself to locate the source of the conversation.

"Orders are to stay here and reinforce the perimeter," a deep voice carried easily to Ay'nin's ears.

"Why?"

There were two Enforcers, an emblem on their uniform that was unfamiliar, standing right below Ay'nin's feet.

"Seems they think trouble's comin'."

"From who? We've been out here for seven months with nothin' to do. I'm bored!"

Ay'nin heard a hollow smacking sound and assumed that the owner of the deep voice had hit the other man. A sudden impact on the tree caught Ay'nin off guard and she suddenly found herself fighting to keep her balance. As her feet slipped and she reached for any branch she heard the Enforcer's conversation continue.

"You can always put in for reassignment!" A pause. "Otherwise, keep your damn opinions to yourself!"

Another impact against the bole of the tree sent Ay'nin's feet into thin air. She grasped frantically for a handhold and clamped her teeth shut, biting her tongue in her haste, to keep from making any noise. She fell for a terrifying second until her fingers grasped reflexively around a branch and Ay'nin breathed a silent sigh of relief. A slight creaking drew her attention to the connection of the branch and tree trunk. Her lifesaving bit of foliage was bending severely under her weight.

The utter stillness on the ground chilled Ay'nin's heart. She forced her body to stay perfectly still and closed her eyes, whispering a silent prayer to the gods of her father. Something she hadn't done in years. Either the Enforcers had moved on or...

"Did you hear that?"

"Yeah."

Crunching footsteps circled the tree for a minute and finally stopped.

"Musta been a critter."

"Musta been."

Just then the moonlight cut through the clouds and treetops and cast a distinct shadow on the ground. "Hey! Look in the tree!"

Ay'nin's eyes popped open and she chanced a glance at the ground. They were both looking up right at her with their weapons raised. "Shit!" Ay'nin powered her way onto the branch she was holding onto and paused for one second, indecisive.

That second cost her.

The branch, under too much strain for too long, splintered with an ear shattering crack. Ay'nin didn't bother holding in her yell as she fell through a net of branches and landed with a sodden thump.

"Oof!" The air left Ay'nin's lungs and she closed her eyes to keep from having to look at the four Enforcers above her. Funny, she thought there had only been two.

The deep voice reached her ears and it annoyed Ay'nin to note that it sounded amused, "Well, guess you won't be so bored after all."

***

They waited until they were out of the office, onto the street, and eight blocks away from the building before they started to speak. "What do you think?" Robert posed the question will constantly scanning the crowd.

JP edged a little closer to him as she pondered, "I think... We might have made a mistake."

"JP! This was your idea!"

JP shook her head, "No, not about the reporter. About what we gave her. What if she doesn't believe us."

Robert rubbed the bridge of his nose and squinted into the fading sunlight, "I admit that leaving Ay'nin and her part in this out of the file was a risk-"

"Risk? That thing reads like Swiss cheese without Ay'nin's part!"

Robert nodded, "I know. But I'm not ready to expose her or show all our cards. If Tamara Faal makes any decisions without asking for more information then she isn't the right reporter for us."

"Do you trust her?"

"Hell no I don't trust her. She had the best background in this kind of thing, that's why we chose her."

JP chewed on her lip, "I don't like that she already knew about this. That... Threw me off balance. If these people..." JP stopped talking as a group of people pushed past them on the sidewalk, "... If these people are everything she said, don't you think they'd have someone in IGNA? It could be her."

Robert shook his head, "I don't think it's her. When we asked how she knew there was something in her face."

JP blew out a breath that ruffled her bangs. "Fine, we'll table this for now. We won't have to make any decisions until tomorrow anyway." They turned into a motel, checked in, and headed towards their room.

They hadn't made any arrangements for accommodations beforehand, that was too easy to track. They were doing this whole thing by the seat of their pants.

"Hey Robert?"

"Yeah?"

"You think Ay'nin's all right?"

Robert paused and looked up from digging in his small bag, "I hope so."

***

She tried to stay on her feet, she really did, but her head was pounding so hard she could almost feel it in her breastbone and she was pretty sure she was still seeing double. So, when the Enforcers let go of her arms Ay'nin found herself in an undignified sprawl at the feet of the camp commander with numerous jagged little rocks digging into her skin.

A boot to the shoulder rolled her over and Ay'nin couldn't even muster the energy to groan. She squinted up at the slightly grey-haired man above her as he studied her.

"Well, aren't I lucky that it's my camp you happened to stumble into."

Ay'nin felt her eyebrow twitch and muttered, "Fell. I fell into it."

"Take her to the storage tent and post a watch."

Ay'nin squeezed her eyes shut and fought down the nausea until she was thrown rather unceremoniously onto the ground. Again. After long minutes of arguing with her stomach Ay'nin finally convinced its meager contents to stay down and cautiously opened her eyes.

Well, it really was a storage tent. Small, filled with crates and bags but a much more comfortable ground.

She rolled onto her side and unclenched her hand, rolled the stone around in her fingers to find the right edge, and started sawing at the rope which bound her. She figured one of three things would happen. Since this commander obviously knew who she was he would contact whoever was in charge of this thing. He would either be told to kill her on the spot, transport her somewhere else, or hold her until someone else came.

Option one was the worst as it left little time to do anything.

Option two also left little time to escape although being moved might present some interesting opportunities.

Option three seemed the best as it likely provided her with the most time but... She would then have to deal with getting out of this camp which provided no places to hide and was filled with weapon toting, bored soldiers. Never a good combination.

What to do, what to do.

Ay'nin looked around the tent and resolutely continued sawing at the rope despite the cramping in her hand and numerous cuts and bruises inflicted from her fall out of the tree.

She'd just have to take it as it came.

After studying the tent's contents as best she could Ay'nin turned her attention to sound. There was little to hear. The slight shuffling of feet outside and the far off rumble of machinery.

Ay'nin let out a groan as the rope finally came free and she brought her arms around and gently flexed her wrists to restore blood flow. She pushed herself up and took a moment to gather her wits before she stood.

She hurt, a lot, and purposefully didn't take a closer look at herself. If she knew she was supposed to hurt then she'd hurt more than she already did.

The bags held nothing useful save a large chisel which she took and tucked into her belt. Next she opened the lid of one of the crates and stared inside before she reached in and removed a rock. There was little light but she could still see the green veins that ran through the stone.

They were strip mining.

Ay'nin opened as many crates as she could, slowly and carefully, and came to a conclusion.

Whatever this ore was they believed it was valuable. But they couldn't find a way to process it. All of the crates contained raw ore and the mining dates on some of them went back as far as three years.

Ay'nin pocketed a smaller chunk and turned her attention to the only way out of the tent. She could see, vaguely, the outlines of her guards through the material. She crouched at the back of the tent and lifted the very bottom to peer outside. There were a few tents, one wooden shack, and not much else.

She swallowed as a sudden wave of dizziness came over her and put her cheek against the ground. It was cool and solid and kept the world from spinning. This was probably her best chance but if she dropped halfway across the camp it wouldn't do much good.

Ay'nin marshaled her strength and nodded to herself, "You can do this." She slipped slowly under the edge of the tent and paused before she started across the camp crouched low in the meager shadows.

The moon had gone behind the clouds again and Ay'nin allowed herself the tiniest bit of hope as she drew closer and closer to the edge of the camp and the beginning of the mountain. It wasn't really the direction she wanted to go but as long as she got away she'd be happy.

Sudden footsteps and voices froze her in her tracks for one heartbeat. She dodged right and dove under a bulk of machinery until the Enforcers passed. She watched as they drew closer to the tent she had just left and, throwing all caution to the wind, squirmed out from under the machine and started running for the mountain and welcoming forest which lay beyond.

Shouts and an alarm chased Ay'nin into the shadows.

***

When JP and Robert emerged onto the street the next morning the sky was grey and overcast and the weather forecast said to expect rain. If JP had been the superstitious type, she would have taken that as a bad omen. But she wasn't.

They arrived at IGNA and Henry waved them through to the elevator with a brief "You remember the way?", to which they replied that they did indeed.

There seemed to be a stillness encompassing the floor which housed Tamara's office and when they knocked on the door no one answered. Robert opened it and peered in, looked over his shoulder with an expression JP was learning meant 'Potential major uh-oh coming, brace yourself', and then proceeded into the office.

They sat and waited, tapped their fingers and bounced their knees. The phone rang several times which they studiously ignored. It was on JP's fifth trip around the small room that she picked up a framed photograph, one of the few personal items in the room, and studied it. It was Tamara and another woman, their arms wrapped around the other's shoulders and grins on their faces.

The door chose that moment to open and Tamara walked in, an apologetic look on her face and a stack of papers tucked under her arm. She held a cup and had a pencil behind her ear and when her eyes landed on JP she froze in her tracks.

JP looked up at the reporter and allowed a smile to crease her face, "What's her name?"

"Barbara," the name came out sounding stiff and hollow.

JP studied the photo a moment longer and placed it back on the shelf, "She's very pretty."

Tamara nodded and resumed her walk to her desk, speaking as she arranged herself. "Sorry to keep you waiting, I got a call from a man I've been waiting almost a month to hear from."

"That's fine. We understand, we were just a little concerned," JP took the lead as she sat next to Robert and consciously tried to relax.

Tamara nodded and folded her hands precisely on her desk, "I read your file. It was... Interesting. I understand your reluctance to be totally honest with me but I can't help if I don't have all the facts."

Robert leaned forward and placed his hands on the desk, "We told you everything that was pertinent. Frankly, how we know what we do seems immaterial to this situation."

Tamara leaned back and sipped her coffee, her eyes studying them, and finally nodded, "I understand the need to protect people. Regardless of who or what you're holding back I want us to do this together. We still don't have any hard evidence, though."

"We have bones."

The reporter's eyebrows rose in surprise, "I'm sorry?"

"We have bones," JP repeated, "from the mass grave the Chochasi bodies were placed in. We're working on getting them analyzed for age and other clues."

Robert shifted uncomfortably as he thought of his father and the fact that they had yet to hear back from him about the bone they had oh so trustingly handed over to him. Robert had tried to avoid the subject, avoid his parents all together since this mess had started.

Tamara's eyes flicked rapidly between them, "What is it? What's wrong?"

Robert sighed and rubbed his nose, "We gave the bone to someone we thought would help us get the information we wanted-"

"But?"

"But the next day the... The person we haven't mentioned to you was endangered and Lorraine was practically placed into a state of lockdown."

Tamara twirled her pencil, her eyes boring into Robert's, "Someone knows that you two know something."

Robert nodded.

"And you told no one except this person you gave the bone to."

Again, Robert nodded, his face devoid of emotion.

"And you know this person."

JP watched the exchange with rapt attention. Faal was good; at reading people, inferring facts, making educated guesses. It made JP feel just the slightest bit better about this whole situation.

Robert finally spoke through the lump in his throat, "My father."

Tamara didn't react at first. She hadn't expected that. In a place as small as Lorraine it was unavoidable that both these young people would find themselves with friends who suddenly became enemies. But to have it be your parent? Something niggled at the back of her mind then and she leaned on her elbows, "Who are you?"

"Wh-" Robert's face showed his confusion for only a second before understanding dawned. "Robert Burke."

"Burke of the Founder's Group."

Robert once more found himself nodding.

Tamara blew out a breath and scribbled onto a piece of paper, "Do either of you realize how lucky you are to have actually gotten out of Lorraine? The Founder's Group..." Her voice trailed off into a mutter briefly as JP and Robert simply watched on, bewildered. "You'll be watched when you get back. Closely. You won't be able to even sneeze without it being witnessed. They'll know you've spoken to me and they won't let you leave again."

She dropped her pen and turned to her computer, hit a few keys, and suddenly the printer jerked to life. "You'll need to be careful," she retrieved the document and slid it and the paper she had written on across the desk. "Take this. Follow the instructions," she indicated the hand written page, "and give him this," she tapped the printed page, "when he asks for verification."

Robert shook his head, "What are you talking about?"

Tamara looked up from rummaging in a desk drawer, "You need to get back immediately. The longer you stay here the more suspicious they'll be of what you did and what you learned."

JP's mouth opened as her head spun. This couldn't be happening. It just couldn't. "If it's really that dangerous why even go back?"

The reporter stopped what she was doing and leaned as close to them as she could get. "We need more information. The only way we can get that is to go back to Lorraine. I can't. It has to be at least one of you and I assumed you'd rather stay together. You'll only have each other."

JP and Robert turned in unison and stared at each other. Tamara leaned back from the intensity of their gaze and watched. "You stay JP."

"No. I'm going back. I have as much stake in this as you do."

"But-"

"No! Drop it. We will go back there and finish this thing how we started it. Me, you, and..." JP threw a look at Faal and trailed off for a moment. "All three of us, we'll finish this together." JP silently willed Robert to agree. We'll do this. You and me with Ay'nin because she's all right. She has to be all right.

Robert nodded.

Tamara spoke up slowly, "It might help, in case something does happen, to know everything. That's what those "Optional" instructions are for at the bottom. A way you can get the information to me and still control when I see it."

Robert studied the paper for a long time before he nodded and they stood. Tamara shook each of their hands and then handed over a small black rectangular device. "Give this to him when he asks."

JP took it and tucked it into her bag. She didn't understand these cryptic instructions or who 'him' was, but she was willing to follow along for now.

The trio shared one last lingering look before JP and Robert stepped outside of the office to face the largest challenge of their lives.

Staying alive.

***

Ay'nin's back slammed against a tree as she wrapped an arm around her torso and closed her eyes, her breath rattling painfully in her ears. This running through the forest was getting to be far too often an occurrence in her life.

She just needed a moment to rest and then...

Ay'nin groaned. Who was she kidding? She wouldn't last another fifteen minutes, no matter how long she got to rest. It was just... So hard. Her head was pounding and every time she opened her eyes she was treated to double of everything she saw. She never knew if that tree really was there in front of her. The world was spinning around her which led to a terrifyingly long second of disorientation when she stumbled and fell during which she never knew which way was up and which way was down.

Dawn was coming, she was pretty sure, which would make their search that much easier. She had heard people on her tail and the barks and growls of tracking dogs. The appearance of air vehicles was likely the next step and if that happened she would know just how badly these people wanted to catch her.

Ay'nin snorted. They had burned her house down, practically destroyed the life she had spent nearly a decade building. Why? To hide their secret.

She pushed off from the tree and focused on one point along the horizon that seemed to spin a little less than everything else. She needed shelter, somewhere to hide and rest. After that, she needed to get back to the cave and hopefully get news on Robert and JP from Cerina.

Ay'nin grabbed a tree and bit her lip as her stomach heaved and rolled. Her vision blurred as she fell to her knees and threw up, which quickly turned into dry heaves. She spat on the ground afterwards and fell onto her side, reveling in the cold that seeped into her head from the ground and soothed her headache.

Just a few minutes, just a few and then she'd get back up and find somewhere to hide.

As her eyes slowly drifted shut the far off rushing of water reached her ears. Ay'nin's brow creased as she tried to remember where she was. She couldn't; she had no idea.

That revelation was enough to force Ay'nin to her feet and spurred her on in following the sounds. She stumbled through the woods, grabbing trees every few steps to help her stay upright. It wasn't that long before the ground fell out from under her feet and she was tumbling down a slope feebly attempting to protect her head.

The rushing and crashing of water was much louder here but Ay'nin had forgotten why it was so important to get here. She felt herself drift slowly into that half awake half asleep place and ignored the tiny corner of herself which protested and insisted that she had to get up.

She was just so tired...

Barking. Ay'nin jerked awake and looked around, dazed, as she attempted to recall what was going on. Her eyes fell on the river and the waterfall and then the barking reached her ears once more.

Dogs.

Tracking dogs.

Looking for her.

She forced herself to her feet and waded into the water. The current pulled against her but Ay'nin had fear and adrenaline working for her. She focused on her goal and allowed herself to think only of placing one foot in front of the other.

The cold water felt good on her battered body and shocked her into wakefulness. She was halfway across and the water was up to her chest. The barking was getting louder and was now accompanied by raised voices.

Ay'nin leaned forward and reached out as she got to the waterfall. Her hand passed through the sheeting liquid and Ay'nin forced her body through the deluge and beyond, up onto the small rock shelf that was nestled in the fall's protective embrace.

She sat, back against the wall, and watched as the Enforcers and their dogs crested the ridge she had fallen down. The dogs yapped happily and pranced down the ridge, noses to the ground. They reached the spot she had landed and danced excitedly and followed the trail to the river's edge. The dogs stopped, uncertain, and then circled in a confused manner. Whines reached Ay'nin above the crashing falls and she waited with baited breath as the Enforcers gathered and consulted.

They looked across the river at the falls, gestured wildly, a few pointing to the river and another at the dogs. It continued like that and finally, two of the Enforcers raised their guns and started firing. Into the river, across the falls.

Ay'nin curled up low on the ground as the shots echoed and prayed that they'd leave soon.

***

"Are you sure this is the right place?" JP asked as she stared at the nondescript brick wall with a large steel door set into it.

Robert checked the paper Tamara had given them and nodded, "Yes, this is the right address."

"Okay, so now what?"

"Ring the buzzer twice." Robert looked up when he was met with silence to see JP staring over her shoulder at him, "What?"

"What buzzer?" She gestured at the wall and its unadorned surface.

"Oh." He ran his hands over the door and nodded to the adjacent sections of wall, "Check those."

JP complied. It took three passes of the bricks but she soon found one that had a different texture than the others. She pushed on it until it collapsed inward to reveal a small button. "I think this is it." She pressed it twice and then they both stood back and waited, not sure what to expect.

The door groaned open and a voice emerged. "Come in then. Nothing's going to blow up."

The duo shared a wary glance before they proceeded through the door and into a large, warehouse like room with shelves extending up to the ceiling and back as far as the eye could see. A large dark-skinned man materialized from the shadows and smiled, his teeth a sharp contrast to his skin. "What can I do for you?"

"Uh," Robert started uncertainly, not sure himself why they were there, "Tamara Faal sent us here with this." He extended the papers the reporter had given him to the man.

He took them and grinned as he read. "The name's Lambert. Come on in and make yourselves comfortable while I assemble this stuff." He started toward the back of the room and waved for them to follow. Lambert pointed at a counter and table, "Help yourselves to some refreshment. There's coffee, just made." With that he disappeared into the shadows.

JP looked around and finally focused on the counter and coffee machine that sat there. "Mmm, coffee. You want some Robert?"

"No, thanks."

"Suit yourself."

A little under a half hour later Lambert returned with several devices in his arms. He set them down on the table and then sat across from them. "Pay attention. This is a secure laptop. Keep it out of sight and secure and no one will be able to compromise it.

"I assume Tamara gave you a-" He stopped as JP slid the small rectangle across the table. Lambert smiled, picked it up, and inserted a small chip. JP belatedly realized that it was a cell phone. "This is also a secure line. Same rules apply as the laptop. Don't let anyone know you have it and you're safe to communicate with it." He pulled a card out of his shirt pocket and slid it across with the other devices. "This is mine and Tamara's personal phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Use them if you need something, or have to tell us something important. One of us will always be available."

JP and Robert stared at the small collection of technology they had suddenly accumulated. It someone made everything more tangible, more real. These people were putting themselves at risk to help two young kids who were, at best, fumbling around in the dark with hardly a clue of what they were doing.

But...

They seemed to be doing pretty good. They found Faal which led them to Lambert and together it seemed that these two people had the resources to help him and JP finish this thing. Perhaps it was dumb luck, or perhaps someone somewhere thought it was high time that the Lorraine conspiracy was brought into the light.

Whatever it was, Robert prayed it would hold long enough to keep them all safe and alive.

He was worried about Ay'nin. Every second, every minute they wasted put her in more danger of being caught or injured and the knowledge was wearing on him. He could tell JP was feeling the strain as well by the constant crease in her brow and the circles under her eyes. This fighting the good fight shit was exhausting.

Robert snorted as he gathered the devices into a bag and shook hands with Lambert.

Weren't all good things worth suffering for, though?

He nibbled his lip as they once more emerged onto the street.

Yes. But only to a point. Only when the cost didn't outweigh whatever was achieved.

And that was the heart of the matter, wasn't it? He wasn't convinced that they would be successful, that they would wreak any great sweeping changes. All he knew for certain was his life, and those of at least two good friends, were in danger.

The clouds that had been gathering in the sky all day finally broke open and poured their contents down onto the city. Robert licked his lips as rivulets ran down his face.

He couldn't see a good end to this, no matter how hard he looked.

***

"Wake up Ay'nin."

The far off voice penetrated her mind and Ay'nin managed to crack her eyes open to be met with a world full of indistinct shapes and cloudy edges. "G'way," her voice sounded hoarse to her own ears. She just wanted to be left alone; why couldn't everyone just leave her alone?

"Ay'nin, you must wake up. Now. Look at me!" A sudden chill passed through her body and Ay'nin did as she was told. She opened her eyes all the way and could just make out the shape of a translucent body.

"Good, now listen to me."

She snorted as the shape came into slightly better focus, "You're not Cerina."

"No. Ay'nin, you must concentrate."

"You're a hallucination."

"I am no such thing! My name is Lig-Jan."

Ay'nin's eyes drifted closed again as she muttered, "Log jam? Now I now you're not real."

Another sudden shiver gripped her body as the persistent voice returned. "Ay'nin, my name is Lig-Jan and I am of the Chochasi."

Ay'nin rolled onto her back and marveled at the disconnected feeling she had with everything, including her body. For the first time in at least a day she didn't hurt. Weird, but nice. She finally focused on the apparition from the corner of her eye and discovered she could actually see with some clarity that way. She noticed the nose plate and the numerous symbols which adorned her hallucination's nonexistent skin. It was the eyes though, still a resonating red despite being see through, which convinced Ay'nin she wasn't imagining this. "How can I see you? I can only see Cerina and Balwin."

Lig-Jan came closer and a sad smile graced her face, "Yes Ay'nin, I know. That is why you must listen to me. My status has not changed, I am still between realms. It is you; you're allowing yourself to die."

Ay'nin laughed, a harsh sound, which rapidly deteriorated into a rasping cough. "Lady, you've spent too much time dead drifting on wind currents. We don't get to choose when we do or don't die."

"But you can fight! You can fight to live and you must, Ay'nin. You must."

"Why? For you?"

"For yourself. You have so much left to do with your life Ay'nin. Don't give up now."

Ay'nin rolled her head from side to side, "I'm just... I'm just tired. Of hurting and losing things, people."

Lig-Jan came even closer and, had she had any, her breath would have brushed across Ay'nin's face. "Isn't there anything you'd like to do? You must have something worth living for."

She stared up, through Lig-Jan's body, and considered it. She had spent so much of her life, and the entirety of the last decade, focused on getting other people what they wanted and needed. She had forgotten what she had wanted for herself. Her eyes flickered and Lig-Jan raised her hand above Ay'nin's forehead before she plunged the appendage into Ay'nin's head.

Immediately the chill associated with touching any of the Chochasi gripped her body but the sensation was far off and Ay'nin knew she had little time left before she truly did pass beyond this world. It was the feelings and sensations that tumbled into her mind that captured her attention and anchored her mind quite firmly in the living realm.

As her eyes drifted closed once more and the chill left her body Ay'nin heard, far off, a gentle whisper.

"Hold onto that."

To be continued...

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Well, wasn't that fun? Comments welcome and encouraged at zarben314@hotmail.com