The Storm by Ronnee
Prolog: A Gathering of Rising Winds

Washington DC, 25 August

The man glared at the information on his computer. After taking a long moment while he thought through the information, he frowned. With swift movements, his fingers typed in a new search guideline. The answer was the same. Weary eyes closed for a moment before he reached out and picked up the phone.

"Sarah, I need you to get Rage on the line. Also, find out everything you can about Cascade. Looks like there's a situation brewing there." He spoke very softly to his secretary, praying his words would be wrong. Her response would tell him if he was right. If Rage could be contacted by Sarah, then he was overreacting. If Rage was moving to protect the unsuspecting players, it was worse than he had feared.

Sir, he already called, trying to reach you about Cascade. I would have transferred you the call but it came while you were on the phone with Deputy Director and he couldn't wait. He requested that a Mr. Sandburg be added to the Rover lists as a contributing associate member, effective immediately..." Sarah's voice was tense, as if she was afraid of his response. "He said he was on his way to Peru to call in a debt."

"Go ahead and add Mr. Sandburg to the list. Do you have all his contact information at Rainier? If not, I have it in my files. I also have a welcome letter already drafted for him." The tired man closed his eyes, listening to her words. As usual, she had everything under control. "Thank you, Sarah. That'll be everything. Oh, if anyone except Rage or K call, I'm out of the office."

After replacing the handset, he sighed. He closed his eyes, hoping to open them and find that the whole situation was a bad dream, a nightmare. He opened his eyes again. The file in front of him was still there. The reproaching title still glaring at him: "A Study of the Unusual: The Importance of the Sentinel/Guide Bond in Ancient Millennial Sacrifices".

The question of how in the world this information had been gathered, much less published, ran through his head. The threat was obvious. Someone wanted to practice the old sacrifices, and soon. The paper explained, in way too much detail, the entire event, from precedent to theory throughout the entire 21 day series of sacrifices. Only the names of the participants were obscured by titles and mystical wordings. Sentinel, Guide, Sanctificado.

He only knew of one fully active sentinel/guide pair, and they were in South America. He had his suspicions about Sandburg; only a guide in search of his sentinel would be as tenacious in his search. Since only half of the pair had been identified, how was he going to warn them? Besides, they would have to get the information to Sandburg without upsetting the cop he worked with -- not an easy task. From what he remembered about the young man's file, the cop was part of some study on police culture. And for some reason, the local police had adopted the anthropologist as part of their team. All of their quiet probes had been rebuffed and Rovers did not want to upset the local police.

Maybe Rage was right to fly down to Peru and try to reach Fortaleza. She had enough training in this stuff to at least see the whole picture. If she could help Sandburg find his sentinel and protect the pair from the threat, it would be worth her anger at being called home. The phone rang, interrupting his thoughts.

"Sir, it's an urgent call from Rover-6. Dr. Abraham Zelinski collapsed in customs and has been rushed to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. What do you want done with the collection?" Sarah's voice was calm as always, just a touch tired from the long day.

"Have it held until further notice. What's the diagnosis?"

"Unknown, sir. At this point, they believe he has contracted some kind of tropical disease. I will have the updates forwarded directly to our office."

"Very well." He hung up and began composing a series of messages. Something was definitely up. First the paper. Then the foremost American researcher in the old sacrifices collapses. Now all he needed was for something to happen to either Fortaleza or Sandburg. They were the only ones that he could think of who knew anything about Sentinels. Time to pull in some more assets. He picked up the phone and began dialing.

Peru, 27 August

"Hildalga, your people come." Ayuane shook her shoulder, waking her.

"It's too early," she murmured, slowly coming awake.

"I recognized the helicopter, Kyrie. It is the same one which came for your uncle last year." The sentinel's voice whispered in her ear as he pulled her up, onto her feet. "It is time for you to get up. We need to get back to the village now."

"Is she awake yet?" Tito called from outside the hut. He stuck his head in the doorway, his white teeth gleaming against his dark skin. "Come on, sleepy head. Time to move, little girl."

"I'm up. I'm up!" Kyrie shook her braid behind her as she grabbed her vest and backpack. She glared at the two laughing men. Sentinel and guide, they moved together as if part of the same person, packing what few things they had with them. Reflexively, she brought up her camera, catching them in motion. They turned and frowned. She laughed at them. "See, I'm up!"

"Good, we can leave now." Tito grinned at her, as his sentinel grabbed his crossbow and ducked out of the hut.

"What's wrong?" Kyrie watched him go before turning back to her friend, seeing his smile disappear.

"You dreamed aloud last night. Your premonition was not a good one." Tito pulled her into an embrace. "It's time for you to go home and face civilization."

"Oh, no, you don't." She broke away and darted outside. The young sentinel looked up at her and raised an eyebrow. "Neither of you can make me go."

"Let's see what news the helicopter brought first." Ayuane was already tracking their path, finding the safest trail. His guide had quietly moved to stand behind him, one hand on the other's shoulder, grounding him. What he heard was not good news for them. "Soldiers saw the chopper. I hear them moving."

"Then we run, eh?" She checked that her backpack was comfortable and followed the two men into the jungle.

A Calim'a village, Peru

Dr. James Canon was furious. He already told these interlopers everything he knew but they were still bothering him. He raised his voice. "Look, I have no idea how to reach the bloody bastard. All I know about K.A.J. is that he shows up and disappears whenever he wants to do so. If I want him, I tell the chief and the pictures show up the next morning."

"So, you're saying that neither K.A.J. or Fortaleza stay with you at the village?" The big man asked quietly.

"No. He lives off somewhere with a couple of the natives, the watchmen of the village. As for Fortaleza, he went to the far side of the valley with the shaman. Or maybe I have that backwards. All I know is they're not here." Canon was tired of being questioned. He'd been warned when he began this trip that K.A.J and Fortaleza. tended to stay with the natives but he hadn't quite expected his guide to completely disappear too. Everything he'd wanted documented was done, but it was done when he wasn't around. The fact that the elusive man had been known to steal his graduate students to take the pictures without asking first was enough to drive him up the wall.

"Rage. Why are you here?" A woman's voice called from the edge of the jungle. Flanked by a pair of heavily armed natives, a young woman stepped forward. She was breathing heavily, having obviously run quite a distance to get back to the village. The strangers were rapidly welcomed by villagers, children racing to bring them water and food. The two men began speaking rapidly to both the tribe's chief and the shaman.

It was the camera hanging around her neck that gave the professor her identity. Clad in worn khaki shorts and a T-shirt, she looked like she could be any of his students. The camera and the worn, heavily embroidered vest marked her as either the elusive photographer or the guide the new arrivals had been hunting. He started to speak but stopped to listen to the strangers.

"It took you long enough to get here. We've been here almost an hour." The dark haired man answered her. He took her arm and led her out of earshot of the professor.

"You gave me no warning. This had better be real good because the army is on its way, tracking your chopper." The woman slung her backpack to the ground and accepted a water gourd, thanking the child who offered it in his own language.

"Your marker has been called in."

"Now? Which one?" The very words made her stand straighter. Her pale eyes stared at the men near the helicopter.

"Now. Zel's sick and someone dug up more Consegrado tablets. You are needed." The man pointed discretely towards the men waiting at the helicopter.

"Who's the target? One of the Consegrado?"

"We think that the target is a searching guide. He wouldn't know to run from the hunters. You know how persuasive they can be."

Kyrie bowed her head, thinking furiously. She shifted her pack with her foot, cataloging its contents and knew she had to make some stops first. "I'll meet you in Lima in twelve days."

"That's too long. You leave now, with us."

"Can't. I have prior commitments. I have to speak to several people and make arrangements. Ten days."

"Fine. And you set up your own arrangements to arrive in Cascade."



"I am NOT going back to the US." The woman backed away from the tall man, hand diving towards her backpack. "You never said the Guide was in the US."

"The debt's been called. You don't have much choice, kid." The big man grabbed her arm, holding her in place. He'd expected resistance, but not fear. Unfortunately, Fortaleza was the only one who could do this. "Besides, Zel needs you to help him while you're there. You don't want to ruin his tenure plans, do you?"

"For him, I'll go. But I don't know anything about university life so I'll need help with that part." A.J. knew she was being manipulated but she had no choice, not if her marker was being pulled. She looked up at the man, the fear gone from her eyes. She shook her head as she assimilated the information she'd been given so far. "I'll need information about the person you think is the Guide -- background, anything you can get me. Also, why will he think I'm there? I assume I have to be close to him. Or is it a woman? Oh, who is behind the ceremonial rite? Why choose an unpaired guide? What about...."

The man shook his head as she began to accept what he'd said. "Zel kept records of who tutored you, when and where and which subject. I'll see about getting the information validated and placed in your files. I'll take care of getting you a place and a position to cover for Zel, using those records. Do you have a laptop with you?"

"Yes. It's in the village."

"I'll leave you an uplink kit, some files and spare batteries. Contact me tomorrow." The man turned his back and walked to the helicopter. "Don't fail me."

"No, sir." Fortaleza bowed her head as she answered in a whisper. "I won't fail either of you."

"Kyrie?" Ayuane placed his hand on her shoulder. "We can help you disappear."

"No, my friend. This is, as Incacha told me a long time ago, a test sent by the spirits. I must obey the call. Besides, I promised to deliver a package to Enqueri, if I ever went to Washington. Maybe, Cascade is close to him."

"What is Enqueri's white name?"

"I have no idea. Moi said he lived in Washington. How many people have lived in the jungles for that many days and then moved to the land of the Great Eye?" Kyrie Fortaleza laughed aloud, bitter mirth that grated on the sentinel's ears. Tears formed in her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. "Maybe he's the one I'm supposed to be searching for."

"The village is ready to move. They will take the professor and his students with them." Tito came up to them. He gently tugged on Kyrie's braid. "It'll be all right."

"Really? Then why do you refuse to tell me about my premonitions?"

Sentinel looked at guide. Both shuttered their faces and shrugged. Then the guide smiled, "To keep your already swelled head from getting any bigger?"

"I'm scared, Tito. Really scared. This feels like a bad wind is coming." The moment she said the words, the two men pulled her into a hug. Neither man said a word, they just held her, their faces reflecting their own fears, ones they refused to tell her about.

Lima Airport, 08 August

She stared out the window, watching the clouds pass. She'd never been afraid to fly before, but this journey was different. With a frown, Fortaleza stood and walked to the front of the plane. Several men watched as her slim figure passed by, but she ignored them.

Once the lavatory door was closed, she leaned against it and sighed. With swift, economical moves, she stripped out of her worn shorts and T-shirt. The only things she didn't remove were the leather strip around her waist and the beaded jewelry she wore. He fingers flew as she unbraided her hair and spread out the waist length mass.

For a moment she look at herself in the mirror, staring at the clear reflection. How long had it been since she'd had a moment to herself? She swiftly calculated and came to a grim conclusion. This was definitely the first time she had been on her own since her seventh birthday. There was no one waiting for her to join them, no one to whom she could pass her latest finds and theories, no one to hold her hand through the nightmares. This was definitely going to be hard. She washed quickly with the limited time and space she had.

AJ sighed and pulled clothes out of her backpack. The jeans were looser than she remembered, but the softly worn T-shirt fit fine. She turned critically. The leather tie at her waist was hidden by the clothes; the beaded necklaces were safely tucked under her shirt collar; the markings on her arms were hidden by its sleeves. A smile spread slowly over her face. With clothes like these she could hide just about anything. She pulled on a cotton work shirt and tucked it in pensively. She stared at the vest, noticing that it needed mending again. She put it back down, knowing she'd have more than enough time on this flight, and laced her combat boots tightly onto her feet. All she had left to do was her hair.

With swift, sure movements she pulled it back and separated it into lengths. They were rapidly braided and coiled into a smooth but intricate pattern. She stared into the mirror as she savagely shoved the hairpins into the growing crown. For a moment, she could hear Tia Elena instructing a much younger version of herself.

"Uno de estos dias, chica, vas a ser una mujer y en ese tiempo vas a necesitar ser una mujer elegante. Es mejor aprenderlo y aprenderlo bien hoy dia, cuando tienes el tiempo, que morir en el futuro porque no lo aprendiste." One of these days, child, you will be a woman and then you may need to an elegant woman. Now that you have the time to do so, it is better to learn and learn it well than to die in the future because you didn't.>>

The soft voice had never been raised in all the time she'd known the old woman. But she'd never been able to deny the tiny old woman anything. Now, thanks to her, she could hide herself under this facade of calmness. Carefully pushing in the final pin, she surveyed the results. Where just moments before a young, waif-like urchin had stood, was a calm and slightly daunting young woman. A grim smile flashed across her face. "By the time I arrive in Cascade, no one who knew me before will recognize me."

Panama City

The stop in Panama was nearly her undoing. She had to switch airlines and airplanes. That meant racing across the airport to the other end of the terminal. She wasn't prepared for the sheer number of uniforms. Usually, she had little or no problem with uniforms, but now she was tired from the seven hours of flight time plus the days of land travel and preparation before arriving at the Lima airport. The fact that neither Zel nor KAJ was there to calm her frazzled nerves didn't help.

For a moment she flashed back to the day her old life had ended, the memories of everyone else dying in the fire fight between good cops and bad cops. Flashing lights and uniforms, lots of uniforms, military and civilian, police, fire and rescue personnel, people screaming and bullhorns. She shook her head and was hit by the next flash, one from years later in a South American prison. Black uniforms and angry shouts were quickly followed by the feel of steel cuffs. She shook her head again, forcing the memories away and was back in the airport.

"Are you all right, ma'am?" The gentle voice caught her attention. The man watched her, his face concerned.

She looked up at him. He was American, military insignia proud upon his shoulder. A captain, if she remembered the insignia correctly. She nodded slowly. "It's been a long day."

Her accent made him look her over again. "Do you need any help?"

"No, thank you. I just need to catch my plane."

"If you're sure." His reluctance to send her on her own was obvious but finally he nodded.

A.J. forced her stride to be firm but not rapid as she walked away. She didn't want to be stopped and miss this connection. She still had to stop in the Yucatan and pick up the infernal package that had forced her to take this long and roundabout route to Cascade. As she walked through the airport, she felt the young captain's eyes watching her, wondering.

Merida Airport, Yucatan Peninsula, 10 September

AJ's nerves had finally settled by the time her plane arrived in the Yucatan. The flight had been long and filled with brief stops along the isthmus. Only the fact that she had to stop at so many places to pick up or reroute Zel's packages kept her going. He had planned on taking three weeks to stop at each location and do what she was doing in 72 hours. She was going to have to remember never to let herself get into this tight a sequence again.

The sight of both Rage and Ese waiting at the gate brought back the tension. They were supposed to meet her in Dallas later today. Something had to have gone very wrong for the two of them to be meeting her here. The premonition that had been teasing the back of her mind flared strongly. At least the company man wasn't with them. The thought of facing the cold eyed CIA man again made her shudder.

"Fortaleza." The taller of the two acknowledged her arrival.

"Rage." She nodded, looking around curiously. She didn't notice any of Ese's bodyguards in the area.

"AJ" Hazel eyes met hers, lines crinkling as he smiled down on her. "Your trip's being delayed."

"What happened?" She glanced at the men, realizing how odd she must look. Both of her companions wore tailored suits. Her worn jeans and vest made her seem grubby in comparison. Rage's wicked smile told her he enjoyed making her uncomfortable. She dragged her attention back to what was being said.

"...entirely certain. The director of the university wants someone to meet you before he will authorize the collection to be packed, much less sent out of the country." Ese took her camera bag and handed it to Rage as he explained. "Thanks to your flight's delays, you've missed him. The head of antiquities won't be able to meet with you until noon."

"Have you arranged couriers to escort the collection?" AJ allowed him to tuck her arm in the crook of his elbow. She was too busy rearranging the schedules and arrangements to argue with him. "If the knives aren't ready to go, I really can't wait for them."

"We have to find someone qualified to escort them through customs. The main knife can only go in your custody." Rage spoke quietly, his voice calm and cool, unperturbed by the delays. "I'll give you the information for the others as soon as I have it."

AJ nodded. With all of the warning signs, they had to have protection for the cursed thing. The final days of the sacrifices couldn't be held without the whole set, but that one knife, the king knife, was the one that scared her the most. She wished vaguely that she could drop them into a sacrificial cistern. That would stop the sacrifices, for a while, anyway. With a mental shrug, she turned back to the men walking her through the airport. "So, where are we heading?"

"A hotel. We have a lot of work to do between now and your appointment this afternoon." Rage led them through a seldom-used corridor. At the end of the hallway, a guard waved them through, barely taking the time to stamp AJ's passport. "I have the files, and we need to go over them."

"What's the name?"

"Blair Sandburg."

"I know that name... isn't he the one who wrote that paper on the Yanamamo -- the one I forwarded to you?"

"Yes, he is. He's also a new member of Rovers Inc.'s research teams. We wanted an easy way to keep track of him and he fit the profile very well."

"That was fast." AJ looked at the two men, allowing them to guide her into a limousine. They smiled wolfishly. "I take it that there is more than meets the eye here. He's the one you think is a guide?"

Both men nodded. Rage opened a briefcase and handed her a file. AJ skimmed it, glancing at the details until she got to the last few pages. Then she froze and paged back before going forward again, far more slowly. Closing the file, she looked up, and asked: "There was a rogue and she attacked him?"

"The facts speak for themselves." Ese was noncommittal, his face held carefully neutral. "We didn't know about her until the manhunt was already underway. By then it was too late for us to interfere; too many people had been affected."

"Hmm." AJ mused to herself, looking at the pages again. Finally she handed it back. "If, and only if, he is a guide, he's a strong one to be able to turn away a rogue sentinel. How did he survive?"

"We don't know. According to the reports, he died." A shark-like smile crossed Ese's face as the big man thumbed through the file. "If it weren't for the current situation, I would be asking if you'd volunteer to investigate. This way I get to kill two birds with one stone."

"I never volunteer, Ese." AJ's voice was cold. "I won't snoop into his life. You know better than that."

The man smiled grimly at her. "And what do you call all your assistance in the past? You always volunteer if it's important. As for the snooping, I want to know if he's a guide."

AJ shook her head. This wasn't the time or the place for this argument. She turned back to the papers he held. She flipped open the cover and read the first page. Toward the bottom she saw a notation and winced. After a moment she sighed. "He works with the police department? Great."

"You won't have to work with the local police." Rage went silent at her grim headshake.

Neither man spoke for the time it took for her to reread the file. "This is too incomplete. I'll need more information on his background. I need everything you can get your hands on. I also need files on his roommate, his co-workers, and, if possible, whichever policeman he's studying."

"That'll take at least a few days, especially as we don't want to attract anyone's attention. Ellison is too high profile for us to be too obvious about it." Rage leaned forward and glanced at the file. He flipped a page, noting the names there. "We already started a search on Ellison. I'll add the others tonight. You'll have the files a few days after you get to Cascade. You think he's found a sentinel?"

AJ looked at the two men. Both were watching her closely, trying to measure the veracity of her words. Even if Ellison turned out to be a sentinel, she wasn't going tell them. She trusted them, to a point . . . and that point did not include sentinels or guides. "Too early to tell. If he has, he'll be hiding the identity. All leads will be tangents. That means a lot of coverage to protect them from the ceremonies. If he doesn't have a sentinel, he'll be safe enough that I won't have any trouble keeping him out of it all."

"I don't want you sticking you neck out any more than necessary, kid." Ese's words were calm but the tone behind them was icy, hard with worry. "Your job is to keep an eye on Sandburg and set Zel's exhibit."

"What about the ceremonial stones?"

"That's our end of it. We'll find out where they are, where they came from, and who found them. " Rage's quiet words made her look up. "I have a list of contacts for you in the Cascade area."

A.J. looked at the list and frowned. "Company list?"

"It's their tab."

"No. I won't touch their contacts. If we had any private ones of our own, that would be one thing." She closed the file again. "I don't like working with them, they have too many hidden agendas."

"It's their dime, kiddo." Rage ignored the quick glare she threw at him. "They called us before we could establish contact with you. We can't ignore them, not without serious repercussions. They already knew that another set of stones had been found. We can't let them be used. Not by cultists and not by a government agency. Do you understand me?"

"I know my duty. I won't let you down." AJ closed her eyes, missing the look the two men exchanged. She was tired. Sleeping on an airplane wasn't something she could do. Too much noise, too many people, too little space. She didn't reopen her eyes until she felt the limousine stop. She glared at the hotel facade, not wanting to move. Finally she gave up and growled softly, "Coffee. I need coffee. Lots of coffee."

"It's already waiting for you." Ese nudged her into movement, watching her slow careful movements. For a brief moment, AJ looked fragile. Then she shook herself and stepped lightly out of the car. The moment her foot hit the pavement, her shoulders squared and her movements firmed. Even her face changed, becoming more alert and wary. He shrugged at her raised eyebrow, "We have a lot of work to do and not much time."

TWA Flight 119, 11 September.

AJ stretched in her seat, not quite sprawling. Her eyes ached. Ever since Panama she'd been on her guard. Mexico had only made it worse. Trying to watch for trouble, keep from having any more flashbacks, and trying to rest at the same time didn't work for her. She fingered her vest. She'd fixed the tear and added more embroidery to the newest patches hours ago. A smile crossed her face as she traced an unfinished figure. She had to get back to the Calim'a so she could finish the figure. She hadn't learned the rest of it yet.

With a sigh, she turned on the laptop computer. Who could figure out a hand held computer like this? It was just such a neat toy, so much faster and lighter than the one she'd gotten the last time she'd been in Manaus. Every time she stopped in civilization there were so many new things to find and learn about. She even had games on this one. What was Tetris anyway? Rage told her she'd like it, but she didn't have time for games. She still had more to read about this man she was meeting.

She reread the notes on Blair Sandburg's research. Not bad for someone raised in the States. But with his background, she wasn't too surprised. His master's thesis had been on sentinels. Again the thought went through her mind that he could help her find the one she needed. She had promised the Chopec to deliver the Shaman's bag if she ever went to Washington, so now she had to find the American sentinel and deliver it. If Sandburg really was a guide in search of his sentinel, maybe he'd know how to find Enqueri or could at least give her a clue to where he would have gone. Washington was a big state and she didn't have the time to search the whole thing.

The overhead speaker crackled. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are now approaching Cascade, Washington. We will be landing in twenty minutes. Please turn off all electronic equipment at this time and return your seats to the upright position while we land."

AJ shut down the file and turned off the computer. Almost show time. Her hands skimmed her hair, tucking in the loose strands and checking the security of the hairpins. Now she had the role of her life. She had to live in the USA, on a college campus, take care of Zel's exhibit and stop the sacrifices. Stopping the sacrifices would be no problem, either she stopped them cold or she substituted for the victims and destroyed the tablets before her own sacrifice. That she had been prepared for, and raised for, and taught to do. Living in the US, with normal kids and dealing with the U and the exhibit, that was going to take a lot of acting to pull off successfully. She muttered a quick prayer in Quechua, earning her seatmate's shocked stare.

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