Disclaimer: I own none of the ideas, characters, or locales present in this fanfic.

Author's Note: WOW! If anyone out there still has this on their alert or favorites list, God bless you! I do not deserve such loyalty. I could go into a long spiel about why I haven't written in oh-so-long, but I won't use excuses. I am back, and intend to use my time constructively, which means a significant portion of writing. This story has been revamped slightly(mostly little stuff), and to send out an alert to everyone, I'm posting a teaser chapter so I don't break ff net's rules.

Anyway, again, and if you're still out there willing to read, God bless you!

Chapter Six

Slayn rubbed his eyes tiredly as he and his comrades made their way from Bornia to the tunnel to Rolandia. He glanced back, shooting an unnoticed dark look at the source of his current misery.

'I seriously wish I'd followed my impulse and knocked him unconscious,' was the thought that followed. Thanks to Hugh's rather LOUD snoring, Slayn had had very little sleep through the night. Some tonkaf helped him to be more alert, but he couldn't wait to sleep in a separate room again.

A giggle caught his attention, and he shot another look back, seeing Annette quietly talking with their guide. The young Featherian was quite shy, he'd found out; after her offer to let them use her house, she'd barely spoken to them beyond what was necessary...but it seemed like Annette had really taken to her. Slayn thought that the feeling was mutual, seeing as Monika did seem more relaxed with Annette around, and once or twice, he could have sworn there was a small smile on her face...

Before that thought continued any further, the quartet found themselves in front of the tunnel entrance where by chance, the same guards they had met the other day were stationed again.

"Ah, there you are! I just received orders from Sir Granford to let you pass!" the guard standing by the smaller door informed them.

"What? You mean...Sir Granford came here personally?" Annette asked with some confusion.

"Uh, no...I mean, orders came through one of Sir Granford's messengers," the guard clarified. Turning quickly, he released a bolt, and threw the heavy beam that barred the door back. Pulling the door open as he stepped to the side, he said, "You're free to go. But..." At this, his eyes turned down, and he began nervously chewing his lip. "I would suggest you brace yourself for what you're about to see."

"What do you mean?" Slayn asked.

Silence was their answer until the other guard stated, "We of the Schelfengrif Empire had to turn our backs on the starving masses in Rolandia. Thus, it's why the tunnel was barred...we haven't heard anything for over a year now."

A warning bell went off in Slayn's mind at such selective words, and he shot a look at the others. Monika was hard to read, but she seemed nervous, whereas Hugh and Annette were curious, albeit concerned.

"Well, we can't go forward standing around. Let's go," the silver-haired boy said. With only the slightest hesitation, the others followed him inside.

"...I was prepared for the worst, but not for this. This is plain ugly..." Hugh said with a note of despair.

Shaking her head in rage, Annette fumed; "This is far beyond ugly! How many people perished here?"

Around them was the subject of Hugh's and Annette's concerns. In multitudes of boxes, or scattered about the floor where they fell, were the skeletal remains of Rolandia's citizens. One skeleton that had caught Slayn's eye when they entered was still lying at the door, scratch marks deeply embedded in the bottom half of the wood; almost as if the person had tried clawing their way through the door barehanded.

"Why would the Empire abandon scores of innocents in Rolandia, leaving them to die?" Annette continued.

"They couldn't do anything but stop the famine from spreading. They had to do this; there was no choice," Hugh explained.

Silently, Slayn and Monika watched as Annette spun and glared at Hugh, as though he were the one who personally ordered the tunnel closed. "There's always a choice! They made the wrong one!"

Continuing to reason with her, Hugh explained, "Think about it Annette. If thousands of diseased, starving refugees piled into the Empire, what would have happened? The Schelfengrif Empire could barely sustain the people they had. Adding more would have pushed them beyond the breaking point." Sighing as he looked about with pain in his eyes, he added, "I'm not saying I agree with this...but their decision IS understandable."

Blinking a bit, Monika spoke for the first time: "Hugh...I am surprised. That was so...well said."

Sniffling a bit, Hugh replied, "Oh...I, I'm full of surprises. Y, you'll see."

Her jaw working at nothing, Annette simply turned and walked off to a nearby corner. Slayn knew she understood what Hugh was getting at as well, but she needed some time alone to sort things out. Deciding it would be best to give her that time, he began looking the room over...and did a double take as he saw a transparent shape standing over the skeleton near the door.

Raimy gasped. "Slayn! Do you see what Raimy sees?"

Glancing over to make sure his companions wouldn't hear, he whispered back, "That ghost, you mean?"

Raimy hovered just in his vision range and nodded. "They're confused...they can't find their place in the life cycle again."

'Life cycle...eternal circle of birth, life, death, reincarnation...the goal of our order...'

Again, something nagged at Slayn, and propelled by impulse, he walked forward, approaching the ghost. As he got within a few feet of it, he could hear its pleas:

"...Open up! Please...open the door! We're...we're starving!"

Slayn gently touched the ghost, and a sound almost like a sigh was heard as the spirit quietly disappeared.

Sensing more nearby(though he again wasn't sure how), Slayn quietly ducked into the next antechamber and sure enough, saw three more confused spirits.

The first was spiteful towards the Empire. "Why? Why won't they help us? We're dying in here!"

Taking the same route that Hugh had with Annette, Slayn calmly explained the situation, adding that he didn't think it was the right decision, but the only one that ANYONE could have made, given the circumstances. As he finished, the ghost slowly nodded. "...R, right...if we were in their position..." And with that acceptance, the spirit sighed and disappeared.

The next was a little child, who was crying in pain. His heart aching for the child, Slayn was even more saddened upon hearing the child's words: "...I can't feel my legs anymore. Mommy? Daddy? Help me!"

Speaking softly, Slayn said, "Hey, little one. Listen, if you stay here, you won't be able to see your Mommy and Daddy again."

Confused, and still sobbing a bit, the child looked up at Slayn. "R, really?"

"Yes...you have to go to them. I'm sure that they're in as much pain as you right now, and want you back with them."

"But...where do I...?" Suddenly, the child hopped to its feet and turned towards the wall. "OH! There they are! Mommy! Daddy!"

With another sigh, the spirit was sent on its way, leaving Slayn to deal with one last soul.

"The failing sunlight brought this tragedy to us. Why did the sun weaken?" the ghost complained.

"...I don't know. But we are on our way to investigate a plan to save the world. I pray that this will include restoring the lost sunlight," Slayn tried to assure the ghost.

Nodding slowly, the ghost smiled. "Please...find the cause and save those still living..." Entrusting Slayn with his hope, the ghost disappeared silently.

Her voice tinged with compassion, Raimy spoke again: "They suffered so greatly, and just wanted someone to understand their pain." Hovering in front of her companion's face, she smiled. "Slayn gave them what they needed to be released from this place and return to the cycle of life." Her smile disappeared and she gestured. "But Raimy thinks you need to speak to Annette right now, don't you think?"

Agreeing, Slayn returned to the entrance, seeing Monika and Hugh in deep discussion. Seeing that they seemed to be fine, he headed straight for Annette, though as he passed by;

"So you see, sweet-cheeks..."

"I would greatly appreciate it if you didn't call me that."

Stopping behind his friend, Slayn asked, "Annette? You okay?"

Wiping her eyes hurriedly, the auburn-haired girl turned and nodded. "I...I'm sorry, Slayn. I'm all right." Forcing herself to be a bit more optimistic, she said, "We should hurry to do our job here. It may be presumptuous to think so, but I want these to be the last deaths from the lack of sunlight."

Nodding, Slayn called for Monika and Hugh, and the four continued on their way.