Slayers Balance by Esther Nairn | Chapter Two: | Bathtime Trouble! The Mischievous Trickster Priest!
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Humid air blanketed the Tes'sha Forest and the evening calls of insects and animals echoed through the woods. There was no breeze, but the treetops rustled slightly as nocturnal animals moved through the forest. Standing perched atop a thick branch, a woman peered down through the canopy of leaves at an eerie, red, glowing orb that was threading its way between the trees. She glanced down and to her left, and a man dressed in a dark green tunic and hose stepped out of the shadow of the tree. He held his shakak, the indigenous weapon of the Chakar, as if the heavy weapon weighted nothing at all. He glanced to his left, and twin blurs of deep green whizzed by him and vanished. Finally, he gestured to a young woman dressed in a similar uniform in the shadows behind him. In her slender hands was a bow fitted with an arrow. She looked at him uncertainly, and then stared at the red sphere of light that was now moving away from them. Silently, the woman on the branch gave her comrades their orders, and, simultaneously, all three disappeared, melting into the night.

The three reappeared a few yards away from the mysterious red orb, the two women taking positions in tree branches while the man concealed himself by a large tree trunk. They peered out from their hiding places to get a glimpse of the source of the red light.

Xelloss, knowing full well that he was being followed, wound his way between the trees at a leisurely pace, the glowing ruby on his staff turning the foliage around him from green-grey to a rusty brown. Soft moonlight threaded its way between the leafy treetops and formed irregularly shaped pools of light on the pine needle-covered ground below. Xelloss avoided that light as much as possible without breaking his stride, humming a pleasant little tune softly.

He smirked as the three people behind darted from branch to branch or tree to tree to keep up with him, keeping his head low so his bangs covered his closed eyes. Cheerfully, he passed his staff from one hand to the other and stepped around a patch of light, and as he did so, he began to sing a little ditty he'd once heard a long time ago under his breath. A few lines into the song, he begin to sing louder, his tenor voice a sharp contrast to the nighttime sounds of the forest, so that none of the soldiers nearby could miss his presence in the forest. Xelloss smirked again and went into the second verse, the ruby of his staff glowing just a little brighter. There were two men some fifty feet ahead, he knew--he could sense them, although if it weren't for his singing and the glow of his staff, he doubted they would be able to sense him.

Xelloss kept walking and singing, biding his time until he was mere yards away from the ambush point the five soldiers had set up for him, and chose precisely the right moment to duck behind a tree and disappear into the darkness.

Instantly, all of the soldiers sprang into action. The two soldiers who had been waiting for him darted behind a fallen log, expecting a sneak attack, their eyes suspicious and searching in the moonlight. They didn't move a muscle when their three comrades approached the log and then split up, each going a separate direction to search for him.

They returned a few long, silent moments later, obviously mystified as to the location of their quarry. Xelloss, now seated on a tree branch that was safely veiled from view by thick leaves, peered through a hole in his cover and caught a glimpse of the soldiers' faces in the silvery light. Each of their faces was streaked with varying patterns of colored paint. Two of the men and the younger woman held powerful hunting bows, while the other woman held a handful of deadly looking throwing stars. The third man held his shakak ready for battle, its curved blades painted black so they wouldn't reflect the moonlight. The soldiers looked at each other for a moment, apparently conversing telepathically, until they seemed to come to the conclusion that they should search for their hidden intruder once again. Turning, three of the soldiers disappeared and two headed out in the opposite direction.

Xelloss waited patiently until they were all several yards away from the ambush point, then rose up off the tree branch and glided down. Taking a deep breath, he suddenly burst out into the chorus of the song he'd been singing, and, almost instantaneously, three arrows and a throwing star embedded themselves in his chest.

Ignoring the weapons, his staff glowing brighter now, he kept singing, but stopped abruptly and looked up, rubbing his chin thoughtfully with his free hand. After a pause, he snapped his fingers, as if he suddenly remembered the words to the next verse, and launched into it. Another arrow sprouted from his back, followed by a star in his upper arm. Nevertheless, he kept singing as if he was completely unaware of the weapons lodged in his body.

In an instant, The five of them were upon him decisively The man with the shakak leveled the heavy weapon at his throat while the older woman held a knife to his back. The others simply gaped openly at him, their weapons held at ready, their shocked faces illuminated by the moonlight and the ruby glow of the jewel on his staff.

Xelloss cracked an eye open and stopped singing, regarding the man in front of him as if he hadn't even noticed the people who had attacked him. "Ah...what's this?" he said calmly, his voice carrying a note of calm disapproval. "It's rude to interrupt a person on a pleasant evening walk, you know."

The man with the shakak raised it a fraction of an inch, so that the blade on its end was now just under his chin. "Travelers don't belong in this part of the woods," he growled, his words heavily accented. "The penalty for trespassing is death."

Xelloss quirked an eyebrow and regarded the man dubiously. "Somehow, I suspect that won't be easy for you to enforce." He tilted his head downward for a second, and everyone's eyes traveled to the arrows and stars that still remained embedded in his chest. Before their eyes, the weapons faded into nothingness. There was no evidence he had been hit--even his clothes appeared perfectly intact.

"How--how did you do that?" the young woman gasped.

"Hmmmmm..." Xelloss rubbed his chin and pretended to appear as if he was searching for a way to explain. Finally, he looked up and winked at the girl, wagging a no-no finger, and proclaimed cheerfully, "Sore wa himitsu desu!"

Taken aback, the young woman glanced at her companions, unsure of what to do. The man with the shakak pressed the curved blade against Xelloss's throat, in a gesture that would have drawn blood in a human being. Meanwhile, the woman behind him pressed her blade against the fabric of his cloak and growled harshly in his ear, "Who are you? Where did you come from? Are there others with you? Tell us now or you'll be sliced to ribbons."

"You're really rather serious, aren't you?" Xelloss replied, turning his head slightly to face the woman. "Very well then," he said, nodding in acquiescence. "Do you know the town of Sharistan, several miles south of here?" He received a few nods and smiled brightly. "I don't, so that has nothing to do with this, does it?"

One of the men to his left, fed up with Xelloss's cavalier attitude, dropped his bow and pulled a knife out of his belt. With a snarl he pressed it up against Xelloss's chest near the spot where a human heart would be. "Answer the question or I'll kill you myself and spirit your lifeless corpse into the town square of Sharistan, so everyone there can see what happens to those who venture into the forest!"

Lifting both eyebrows, Xelloss regarded the man with mild surprise. "Well, well, everyone is so serious. I suppose I should be too." He nodded pertly, as if to emphasize his decision. "I came from Murak, on the edge of the forest. In fact, I just had an excellent meal at the Dancing Flute Inn on the outskirts of town." Around the blades pointed at him, he lifted his free hand and tapped his chin with a finger thoughtfully. "I believe I overheard from someone that they had to tap into their hidden grain storage this year, though. They suffered too many attacks from the 'aborigines', as someone put it." He looked at the man holding the shakak, impressed. "That's you, isn't it? You and your people? You must have some sort of...special ability, to be able to cart that much food away without getting caught." The five soldiers all exchanged sharp glances, but before they could speak, Xelloss added, "Perhaps you'd be willing to let me go peacefully if I tell you one more thing," he offered.

The man to his right, who had silent so far, snorted. "You've survived everything else we've thrown at you..." He was silenced by the woman behind Xelloss, who hissed and threw him a dangerous look. No doubt she reprimanded him telepathically.

"And just what could you tell us?," the woman behind him said derisively in his ear, her voice harsh.

"Well..." Xelloss leaned forward as much as the weapons pointed at him would allow, drawing his audience closer, though they were not aware of it. "The rumor has it that the princess of Chorion has been deposed, and is now traveling in this area with the fourth prince of Orios and a group of magic-users." He straightened, making a point of looking obviously pleased with himself that he had gleaned this information from somewhere.

"We knew--" the young woman began, but the man with the shakak cut her off immediately.

"Say no more," he ordered, and she fell silent. Turning the weapon in his hands slightly so the metal dug into Xelloss's skin, he shot the Mazoku a rueful smirk and said, "We are in your debt for the information. But not for long--it's time for you to die." With that, he lunged forward with a yell, thrusting the heavy weapon in his hands outward.

As soon as the man started moving, Xelloss promptly disappeared. The soldiers stumbled toward each other but shifted their weight quickly, catching themselves. They glanced around frantically, trying to find their victim, and finally the young woman spotted him precariously perched on a thin tree branch that would not have held his weight if he hadn't been floating just barely over it. "There he is!" At the same time, arrows and throwing stars whizzed through the air, but they all bounced off an invisible wall in front of the smiling Mazoku.

"Now, now, you really should be more polite to travelers," he said reproachfully. "If you don't treat people well, they'll never come back. You wouldn't want that, would you?" he said lightly. Their only response was another hail of arrows.

"What are you? How are you able to able to do that?" one of the men shouted in frustration as the winds picked up a little, rustling trees and their hair.

Xelloss laughed out loud. "That seems to be a popular question. Unfortunately for you, the answer is..." he leaned forward and wagged the same no-no finger as before, "...a secret!" The deep thuds of the five soldiers facefaulting into the grass echoed throughout the warm, humid forest, temporarily silencing insects and animals alike as Xelloss spun on his heel and disappeared.

* * *

Peals of laughter rang through the night air, accompanied by the sound of splashing water. Lina and Ameria were gleefully attempting to drown each other in the steaming hot water of the kosen, breaking the tranquility of what would otherwise have been a peaceful scene. The outdoor heated mineral bath, which stretched along the entire length of the adjacent inn, was nestled between the inn and the Tes'sha Forest, and was surrounded by a ten-foot high, ivy-covered stone wall on all sides. Oil lamps on poles lined the wall, their dim light giving the bath a soft, relaxing appearance. A hollow wall formed a barrier between the men's and women's sides; pipes containing heated mineral water ran through that wall. Strategically placed rocks piled high against one section of the hollow wall formed a trough from which the water trickled, flowing into the pool and refreshing it. Pockets had been etched into the stone and were filled with earth, from which fragrant flowers grew. Perched at the corners of the walls were stone statues of women in flowing skirts playing flutes.

"Erika!" Ameria screeched as Lina yanked on a section of her hair. "Help me! Lina-san's so mean!" Turning, she wrenched her hair from Lina's grasp and splashed her in the face.

"Don't listen to her! She's the one who started it!" Lina shouted in response, reaching blindly through Ameria's splashing to shove her off her feet.

"I'll take no part in your mischief," Erika shouted back decisively, keeping her distance. Anytime Ameria or Lina got too close to her, they were met with a large wave of water that forced them back, courtesy of Erika's Chana.

Ameria and Lina paused in their roughhousing. "Awww, come on, Erika, you can do your hair anytime," Lina said.

"At least come talk to us," Ameria said, pouting.

"I have to do this when it's wet, and I have to concentrate," Erika insisted, gesturing up to her head. Telekinetically, Erika had separated her long, blonde hair into five sections, and those sections were now weaving themselves into a complicated five-way plait. A leather tie was hovering over her head, waiting to be used. "One wrong thought and I'll mess the whole thing up."

"Why are you braiding it that way?" Ameria asked while Lina sank into the water and savored its warmth. "I've never seen a style like it."

Erika's hair paused mid-braid as a shadow of the haunted expression she had worn for the better part of a week crossed her face. But it was fleeting; she took in Ameria's smile and Lina's curious gaze and Zelgadiss's words about friendship flooded to mind. Smiling back, she answered, "My mother taught it to me--it's sort of a traditional hairstyle. Since we'll be in Chakar territory once we leave this town, I'd like to look like I belong to the tribe."

"Oh, I see," Ameria replied brightly. "Maybe you could braid mine like that someday! It looks pretty."

Erika paused, and her hair began braiding itself again. "After we reach the encampment," she said, "I could try it. Your hair is a bit short, but it might work."

Ameria smiled back, happy to see that the melancholy that had gripped her friend had lifted somewhat. She had gone through her fair share of losses in life, but she knew that, given enough time to grieve and work through anger, the scars would start to fade. And we'll be there to help her, she silently resolved.

While Ameria was distracted, Lina dove under the surface of the water and grabbed the little princess's ankles, yanking her feet out from under her. Ameria went down with a choked scream, and another round of screeching and splashing ensued. Erika simply sighed resignedly and continued concentrating on her braid.

Meanwhile, in the men's bath, Gourry was washing his hair in the bathhouse while Zelgadiss and Janak sat in the heated mineral water outside. His hands clasped behind his head, Janak was amusing himself by juggling three bars of soap using only his Chana. He spied another unused bar on top of an overturned bucket by the door, and silently, that bar rose up and joined the others.

Zelgadiss watched him, occasionally rolling his eyes between sips of red wine. Janak noticed Zel's exasperated expression and joked, "Look ma, no hands!" He laughed out loud at the indignant look Zel threw at him. Scowling at the prince, Zel poured himself more wine from a bottle resting on a tray on the edge of the patio and picked up the wineglass by its stem with his fingers. He moved it around in a small circle, pointedly ignoring Janak now, watching as the red liquid sloshed against the thin glass walls. After a few moments, he drank its contents down and replaced it on the tray. He sank down to his chin in the warm water and closed his eyes, shutting out the rest of the world.

Gourry finished cleaning up and emerged from the bathhouse, a towel tied around his waist and his long, blond hair twisted in a messy braid to keep it out of his way. Setting his towel and bath supplies aside, he sank into the kosen and watched Janak curiously for a moment; by now, the bars of soap had been joined by two washcloths and Zel's wine glass. Occasionally one item would fly high up in the air and tumble down almost to the surface of the water before it was caught at the last second. "Hey...can I try that?" Gourry asked after a moment.

The objects in the air didn't waver an inch from their course even as Janak turned his attention from them to face Gourry and smiled amiably. "Well, I don't think our good friend Zelgadiss appreciates the entertainment," he said wryly, earning a derisive snort from the chimera, "but be my guest." The four bars of soap promptly floated over to Gourry and deposited themselves in his callused hands, while the towels were flung to the side of the pool and the wine glass came to rest gently on the tray near Zel.

After a false start, Gourry managed to get all four bars of soap in the air without dropping any. Janak watched for a few moments, impressed, until he was sure the swordsman was immersed in the activity. It was as good a time as any, he supposed, to have a little conversation with Erika. Sitting back in the pool, he closed his eyes and reached out to her mind with his.

Erika was securing the leather tie at the end of the long, complex plait in her blonde hair when she heard Janak's voice in her mind. Erika...are you busy?

I thought I told you not to talk to me this way, she thought back, annoyed, as the thin leather strip gave itself a good tug to tighten the knot. It gives me a headache. Besides, now that she was feeling more like talking instead of brooding, she wanted to join Ameria and Lina, who seemed tired of roughhousing and were now sitting immersed in the water up to their chins, chatting languidly.

Janak detected the obstinacy in her thoughts, but kept thinking to her regardless. Well, excuse me, your honored highness, he replied, an amused smirk crossing his face, but I wanted to ask you something important, and now seems to be the best time.

Erika sighed. Unnoticed by her friends, she leaned against the smooth stone that formed the side of the pool, closed her eyes, and rubbed her temples as if to ward off her impending migraine. All right, all right, she thought back, make it quick, though--you know how this tires me. And don't call me "highness."

Janak's smirk became a grin. Don't you think you should tell them sometime soon what we could be walking into once we set foot in the forest tomorrow? he asked, getting straight to the point.

Well... Erika began, but winced and fell silent.

I think it's about time you did, he said firmly. They're so blissfully ignorant of the situation... Janak cracked an eye open and glanced at Zelgadiss, who had remained statue still since he put his wine glass down. He knew, however, that Zel was the type to be alert at all times, even when he appeared not to be. Well, Zelgadiss seems to be suspicious by nature. But the rest of them... He trailed off and watched Gourry, still juggling soap bars, occasionally catching one behind his back or tossing and catching them with one hand. They're going to have to be just as alert as our stone-skinned friend if we're going to survive the trip through the forest.

They're still capable fighters, Erika pointed out impatiently.

Janak nodded. I know, he said, and I'm sure that they're quite accustomed to keeping themselves vigilant. But they have never been anywhere like the Tes'sha Forest before. They need to know what to look out for, but they won't know until they're told.

I didn't say anything earlier because I didn't want to make them worry unnecessarily, Erika came back, a little defensive. I'm not entirely sure we're in that much danger--how do we know the tensions are really that high? It's been a while since you've been here. Things could have quieted down by now.

It's bad, Janak countered, at least according to what my brother Arrakh said, and he left the encampment a few months ago. The worst it's been in a long time, probably worse than it was when I was there, three years ago. I know the encampment has moved twice since then--that is, of course, part of the reason we have to walk there instead of teleport. You know it has to be bad if they move the whole camp. Furthermore, I have no idea how safe my routes are anymore, so they have to be warned.

Erika groaned. Couldn't you contact Elder? Let him know we're coming, and see if he could give us the location of the new camp so we could just teleport right there?

She could practically sense him shaking his head. It's not like I haven't been trying over the past several days, he said. I just haven't gotten a response. I'm beginning to think they're in the middle of another big battle--big enough where the Elder would be cut off from communication.

All right, all right--you and I can tell them tomorrow at breakfast, Erika agreed resignedly. You've been to the encampment before.

You've known them longer, Janak said. Erika growled in irritation and he chuckled. Well, I guess I'll help, he said mock-indulgently.

Your royal highness, you're too kind, Erika replied sarcastically.

Am I? Janak asked innocently. I'll have to stop that.

Erika was about to come back with a clever reply when she heard Ameria gasp loudly. "What's wrong now?" she called over, half expecting to see both girls roughhousing again.

Contrary to her expectations, Ameria had sunk into the water, covering herself with her arms as best she could, her eyes wide as saucers. "I think someone may be watching us," she whispered, panicked. "I heard something coming from behind the wall."

Upon hearing that, Lina, staying low in the water, snapped her head around in all directions, her eyes narrowed. "Where?" she hissed. At that moment, the moon ducked behind a cloud, so that she only had low lamplight to search by. "Che..." she muttered in annoyance under her breath.

Erika sucked in a silent breath, scanning her surroundings both visually and with her Chana. She tensed, and, in a sudden flash of thought, she snapped up a Chana shield over most of the bath. At the same time, from the other side of the ivy-covered wall, they heard the soft p-twang of arrows firing.

Ameria screeched as six or seven arrows rained down on them, only to bounce off of Erika's invisible, hemispherical shield ten feet above their heads. Unconsciously, the three girls cringed as a frightening chorus of ululating war cries broke out from behind the wall.

A split-second later, all hell broke loose.

Lina counted seven men and women dressed in dark green tunics and hose, their faces painted with dark slashes of color, as they scrambled or levitated themselves over the stone wall, their swords unsheathed and quivers of arrows slung over their shoulders. They're Chakar, she realized in shock, and she glanced back at Erika, who was clutching her head with her hands, gritting her teeth and squeezing her eyes shut. And they're attacking her! "Ameria!" she snapped, waving one hand in the air to communicate her plan.

Thinking quickly, Ameria realized what she meant, and held out a hand above the water. "Dark Mist!" she yelled.

"Erika, get out of the bath!!" Lina hollered against the weird chorus of screams, alternately high- and low-pitched, coming from the Chakar attacking them. More cries were coming from the men's side of the bath, mingling with the clanging of steel and shouts of surprise from Zel, Gourry, and Janak. There was nothing she could do for them now, though. Moving quickly through the black fog that instantly coagulated in the air, Lina grabbed Ameria and scrambled for the far side of the pool and their towels. Fumbling in the blackness, she grabbed the lengths of terrycloth off of the bench where they had left them and whipped hers around herself after shoving Ameria's into her arms.

Ameria finished securing her towel around her and felt around for her friends in the darkness. "Erika? Are you there?" she shouted so she could be heard over the war cries that pierced the haze.

"Right here," came her weak reply through the fog. They could hear the attacking Chakar mere yards away, screeching and shouting in an unintelligible language. "They're...trying to break down...the shield..." Erika said, screwing up her face in concentration.

"Well, Chana or not, they're gonna get it for disrupting our bath," Lina replied with grim smugness. "Let's see if they get a little charge of this!" Slamming her hand down against the stone tiles, she shouted, "Digu Volt!"

Sparks of electricity flashed against the dark mist as a web of bright power shot from her hand through the ground in the general direction of their attackers. Lina hoped that some of them were near enough to the water where the combination of electricity and liquid would do more damage, but her strategy proved futile. They heard shouts of surprise but none of pain. She cursed under her breath, then yelled, "Erika! What magic will work on them?"

"I...don't know...can you make the ground attack them?" she said back through gritted teeth. She could feel concentrated bursts of Chana energy striking the shield holding their attackers back; a few more strong hits and she knew she wouldn't be able to hold on to it any longer. Where are you, Janak?! she screeched telepathically, sparing a bit of precious energy to let him know they were in trouble. She wished fervently she hadn't spent so much energy a few minutes ago talking to him; she was in no condition to hold up a shield against so many.

"I'll get your swords!" Ameria meanwhile cried, fumbling through the fog toward the entrance to the bathhouse, where their weapons rested against the wooden door.

"Ground attack, hmm? How about this!" Still crouched, Lina slammed her other hand down against the stones of the patio and yelled, "Vlave Howl!!" She felt the stones underneath her hand begin to buckle as the earth beneath them melted into magma. Controlling the spell so the ground under and behind her would be spared, she directed it outward, hoping to catch all of their attackers in the ankles before they could react. Satisfied as warlike screeching melted into pained shouts, she peered through the fog, which was starting to thin. Ameria returned just then, dumping a stack of wooden buckets in front of her and passing Lina her short sword. She held Erika's sword out in the gloom and felt the former princess take it with a shaky hand. "Buckets?! What are those for?" Lina demanded as she took her sword.

"I don't know!" Ameria wailed back. "I can't think of any spells that will work against them!"

Lina smacked her forehead in frustration and drew her sword, about to tell Ameria to forget the buckets and cast another fog spell, when she heard Zelgadiss's voice ring out, "Dug Haut!" Immediately, the ground underfoot shook violently. There was an ear-splitting crack, and, right in front of the three girls, a pillar of magma shot up into the air and hardened immediately.

They shrieked and leapt backward to avoid the spikes that rose up after that, throwing hot magma in the air, which cooled immediately into hard rocks that rained down on them. "Zel, you messed up my spell!!" Lina hollered angrily, shielding her face from rock fragments with one arm. The combination of spells seemed to work, however; over the din of exploding magma, they heard a female voice bark orders in a foreign tongue. At the same time, they could hear shouting coming from around the outside of the wall around the inn and kosen--apparently the townspeople had learned of the attack. The woman's orders were apparently a call to retreat, for just as quickly as the attack had began, the Chakar disappeared, either via teleportation or levitation over the high wall around the kosen.

"Lina...I think we're safe now," Erika said, her voice pained. Lina and Ameria saw through the rapidly thinning fog Erika struggling to keep her towel secured around herself as she shakily rose to her feet, her sword tucked under her arm.

Lina gestured after them with her sword. "Care to explain just what the heck THAT was just now?" she demanded, but there was no time for Erika to reply. Just then, Gourry, Janak, and Zelgadiss burst out from the bathhouse, their white, hotel-supplied yukata robes haphazardly belted and their swords drawn.

"Lina!" Gourry shouted. "Are you all right?"

The three girls whirled around, instinctively holding their towels against themselves, and, for a split second, everyone froze in shock. Flushing in embarrassment, Zel, Janak, and Gourry began stammering apologies, but it was too late. Angry feminine screeches rang through the night as bath buckets and bolts of magic whizzed through the air at the hapless men, who beat a hasty retreat back into the bathhouse.

* * *

Forty-five minutes later, Lina, Ameria, and Erika knelt on cushions before a low table in a private room located in a section of the Dancing Flute inn that hadn't been damaged in the attack. Silently, they sipped green tea, occasionally lowering their cups to glare at the men kneeling across from them, whose faces and arms were patched with bandages. Zelgadiss, of course, had been the least injured due to his stone skin, but he was the first to break the silence. "Look," he began, slamming his teacup down on the table so hard it almost broke, "once we had them on the run we rushed over to help. We had nothing but the best intentions--you should know that. All three of you overreacted completely."

"But no good deed goes unpunished, apparently," Janak, seated next to him, grumbled, looking at Erika pointedly. He had taken the brunt of her telepathically launched volley of Ameria's conveniently placed wooden bath buckets, which had been followed by anything else around them that was loose enough for her to move; Lina's and Ameria's magic had no effect on him. She flushed and looked away guiltily.

"Are we going to have to pay for the damage?" Gourry asked, innocently unaware of Lina's still murderous gaze. "We really blew up a lot." He was right; both sides of the outdoor mineral bath had been all but demolished. Lina's Vlave Howl had turned the ground around both pools into magma, effectively melting the piping system that supported the flow of heated water up from underground. Zelgadiss's Dug Haut had only added to the damage--the outer wall on the men's side had been mostly destroyed, along with whatever sections of the two large pools Lina's spell had missed. Lina had taken that all in stride, claiming--and rightly so--that they had done nothing to provoke the attack, and furthermore their actions protected the rest of the inn and its occupants from their attackers. Erika had taken it upon herself to further explain to the innkeeper, using her palace-learned diplomatic skills to persuade him not to have them arrested and fined for the damage to the inn, regardless of who had started the fight.

Shaking her head and remembering grimly how close they all came to getting into real trouble for what had happened, Erika replied, "No, fortunately, they have insurance at this hotel, the innkeeper told me. Of course, I had to pass him some money under the table before he was willing to tell me that--something about premiums, he said." She paused, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. "As it turns out, the kosen wasn't the most damaged part of the inn. You didn't get a chance to see it, but the front of the inn, near where the grain store is, took the most damage. As in, the storehouse doesn't exist anymore," she clarified ruefully. "So we weren't to blame for the worst damage. It seems the storehouse was the primary target, although the innkeeper is mystified as to why--it's been empty all year."

"Insurance is almost unheard of where we come from," Ameria commented. "No one would make sure to pay for it unless they were expecting to sustain property damage at some point." She shook her head, her still damp hair sticking to her face as she did so. She brushed it away and said, "I just don't understand."

"Neither do I. Erika? Janak? I'm sure you'd be willing to explain, right?" Lina said in a tone that clearly left no room for argument, folding her arms across her chest. "Perhaps you'd be willing to tell us why were attacked by Chakar, for starters, and what they wanted here." Zel, Gourry, and Ameria nodded, looking at the prince and former princess expectantly.

So much for telling them over breakfast, Janak thought to Erika ruefully.

Ignoring his comment, Erika took a sip of tea and replaced the cup on the table in front of her. Smoothing the fabric of her yukata against her lap, she said, "They weren't Chakar. Not in the strictest sense." She looked up from her hands at Lina and explained, "They're rebels, I guess you could say. A breakaway faction."

"The Chakar tribe is at war," Janak simplified helpfully, and four pairs of surprised eyes snapped to him. "There has been a civil war off and on for about the past one hundred years. The fighting hasn't been constant, but the past few years have seen some of the worst battles in decades." Pouring himself some more tea from a pot in the middle of the low table, he said, "They call themselves 'Chakanai', or, roughly translated, 'the true Chakar'."

Zel looked from Janak to Erika, one eyebrow hovering skeptically. "What was the cause of the war? And why would these people be attacking this village? Are there Chakar here?"

Janak shrugged his broad shoulders. "None, except us of course. I don't know why they'd attack this place, unless they were trying to steal food. The Chakanai have no fields, so they sometimes have to steal from neighboring villages to feed their people."

Erika sighed and brushed a lock of hair that had come loose from her braid off of her face. "As for the cause of the's a long story."

"We're here all night," Gourry pointed out gently.

"I think we should know the details before anything else happens," Ameria agreed quietly. Lina nodded and motioned for Erika to continue.

Finishing off her tea, Erika traced the rim of the cup with her finger and propped her chin up with her free hand, taking a moment to think before she began to speak. Finally, she said, "It started with my honored great-grandfather, Dimas Chakar. He and his six sons ran a farm on the edge of the Tes'sha Forest--the Chakar tribe has a few farms to keep the food supply constant. At the time, Chorion was deep in the throes of a civil war. The commoners had risen up against the ruling oligarchy, and the fighting spread throughout the entire country, from the capitol all the way to Great-Grandfather's farm."

"One night, a group of rebels broke into his barn, seeking shelter from some of the oligarchy's troops, who had been chasing them for several days. The rebels had already lost over half their strike force, and there were only eleven left. They were all very young and obviously poorly outfitted--the rebel army couldn't even provide shoes for everyone. One of my honored great-uncles, the youngest of the six boys, noticed this and ran to get his father. When the troops arrived there, Great-Grandfather told them he had seen the rebels slip into the forest, knowing that the Chakar sentries would finish off anyone who intruded in the woods. The troops bought the lie and left."

"The eleven rebels were, of course, very grateful for the help. Seeing that they were exhausted after the long chase, Great-Grandfather offered to put them up for the night. Over dinner, the battle-weary soldiers told Great-Grandfather everything about the war, to the last heartbreaking detail. The oligarchy had taxed the people into poverty, so they had the resources to raise a great army. The rebels were underequipped and undertrained, so it looked like they were going to lose. All of them had lost fathers or brothers in the fighting. Great-Grandfather and his sons were so moved by the plight of the people of Chorion, they decided to join the rebels. The next day, they left their farm and enlisted in the rebel militia. They fought alongside rebel factions across the south of Chorion, keeping their Chana hidden and calling on it in ways that wouldn't make anyone suspect they had any strange power."

"Hold it," Lina interrupted. "Why did they keep it hidden?" She paused as another thought occurred to her. "And, come to think of it, we know why you kept your power hidden, but why did your uncle keep your power hidden as well?"

"Where we come from, power like magic and such is nothing to hide," Gourry pointed out.

"Heh...just ask Lina," Zel added with a smirk.

"Hey!!" Lina protested sharply. "I'll show you a little of that magic right now," she threatened, rising up on her knees and rolling up her yukata sleeve.

Gourry half leapt to his feet and grabbed Lina's wrists in one fluid movement. She struggled for a second while he said placatingly, "Hey, hey...calm down, calm down."

"We've done enough damage here tonight, Lina-san," Ameria pointed out, looking at the little sorceress nervously. Lina snorted, plopped back down on her cushion, grabbed her teacup, and drank the brew down. Ameria gratefully took that to mean that the danger had passed, and turned her attention back to Erika. "Gourry-san has a good point--why is it so different here?"

Erika looked to Janak, and he shrugged. "Hundreds of years ago, we weren't so powerful. Those without Chana hunted down those who did, sometimes burning down whole villages or holding witch trials with those they caught. Our tribe went into hiding in the forests, resolving not to reveal our power to the outside world, for fear of persecution," he explained.

"But your people are powerful now," Zel countered. "Why do you still hide it?"

"You could do a lot of good for people with your Chana," Ameria added.

"There are many reasons," Erika said firmly. "None of which are of great importance right now. Back to the story," she said crisply, and dove in without waiting for any further questions. "The rebels were so impressed with Great-Grandfather's ability to figure out where the oligarchy's troops would go and how they would attack that they made him a general. Eventually, because of some key tactical decisions made by Great-Grandfather and his sons, the tide of victory turned and the rebels won the war. The rebel troops and their leaders set up what later came to be named the Dimas, after Great-Grandfather. It was a parliament of representatives chosen directly from the people, so that the Chorioni government's decisions would always be in their best interest. Then, they voted unanimously to make Great-Grandfather king of Chorion."

"Now, at that point, there was already a Chakar monarchy in Orios, but that one had come about entirely by accident." Erika looked at Janak and gestured for him to explain.

Janak shrugged his brawny shoulders and said, "Well, I wouldn't say by accident, exactly...surprising would be a better word. Some eight or nine generations back, a young man named Barakh Chakar ran away from home and ended up living in Orios. He made his way to the capitol, where he secured a job at the palace. After a few years working there as a palace guard, the king of Orios died, leaving the queen childless. Somehow, he caught the queen's eye; they fell in love and eventually were married."

Zel snorted. "She fell in love with some commoner? I'm surprised her family allowed the marriage."

Janak lifted an eyebrow and looked at Zelgadiss skeptically. "You would have preferred hearing that she married some prince from another country, and have Orios ruled by someone who wasn't Orian?" He shook his head. "Nobles don't always marry other nobles, around here. Less inbreeding and more control that way. My mother isn't noble by blood."

"My mother wasn't a noble, either," Ameria said brightly. "I guess that's one more thing we have in common."

Janak smiled. "One more thing in a long list of many," he agreed.

"Anyway," Zel said gruffly, "back to the story."

"Of course," Janak said quickly. "I'm sure the Chakar would have taken issue with Barakh's marriage into the royal family...if they had known about it." He grinned and his green eyes twinkled with mirth. "It was quite a shock when they eventually found out--about fifty years later, when Barakh's granddaughter secretly traveled to her the tribal ands, now queen of Orios. Even though the Chakar feared and opposed the idea of a Chakar monarchy, they agreed it would do Orios quite a bit of harm if the royal family suddenly abdicated the throne. They worked out a deal by which the Elder would secretly keep tabs on the king or queen to prevent them from abusing their Chana in their rule."

"They never expected more Chakar to find themselves in positions with that kind of political power, though," Erika said, folding her arms on the table. "When Great-Grandfather was offered the throne, it caused quite an uproar. Nobody really liked the idea, but some took our philosophy regarding the misuse of our Chana to the extreme. And, of course, it didn't help that Great-Grandfather said he wouldn't allow the Elder to interfere in Chorioni politics if he accepted.

"Why did he refuse the Elder?" Ameria asked. "Wouldn't that have just made things easier?"

"Great-Grandfather had spent a lot of time with the rebels, and sympathized with them greatly," Erika explained. "The old oligarchy only considered advice from the rich elite, and Great-Grandfather wanted nothing to do with their practices. He argued that it was only fair to the people of Chorion that any king or queen should be responsible to them, not some tribe in the far corner of the country that wasn't really affected by the king's decisions, anyway."

"Makes sense," Zel commented. "Obviously, he accepted the throne. What happened then?"

Erika looked at him gravely. "A full third of the tribe--those who were against Great-Grandfather's rule--seceded and set up their own tribe, with their own Elder. That was bad enough, but the rest of the tribe was willing to let them go peaceably. That is, until the Chakanai sent assassins after Great-Grandfather and managed to kill his oldest son, the next in line for the throne. Then war broke out in the Chakar tribe. Worst of all, during one attack they stole something of great value to the Elder of the tribe."

"That's terrible," Ameria said softly, her face pinched with sympathetic pain. She knew too well how horrible it was to lose a loved one to someone's political ambitions.

"What did they steal?" Gourry asked, seeing Ameria's expression. He picked up her cup and poured her some more tea, which she accepted gratefully, and then resettled himself on his cushion.

"A long time ago, two rings were made for the Elder of the Chakar tribe. Before death, each Elder would imbue the rings with some of their power, so that, regardless of their individual affinities, all Elders to come would possess great power as well as knowledge. That's why the Elder is always able to read Ancient Chorioni, even if he or she was never a scribe. Someone imbued that ability into the rings. But, not long after Great-Grandfather became king, the Chakanai managed to steal one of the rings by cutting off the Elder's arm. Now their Elder wears that ring, and has the same knowledge and power as the Elder of the Chakar tribe," Erika answered, her face grim.

"The Chakanai became a dangerous enemy to the Chakar, in part because of that, and for a long time the war dragged on, each side trading victories and defeats," Janak said quietly. "Since then, the tension has risen and fallen over the years. Over the past fifteen years, the two sides have basically left each other alone, with only a few skirmishes a year. Then, the Elder of the Chakanai tribe died a few years ago. Their new Elder is very hawkish, so now the fighting has resumed with a vengeance."

Lina exhaled heavily and leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table so she could rub her temples with her fingers. "So let me get this straight. There isnít just one Chakar tribe, there are two. Both live in the Tes'sha Forest, and have been at war for a century over Erika's family's reign over Chorion. I'm assuming the Chakanai live somewhere relatively close by and they don't take kindly to visitors, so that means tomorrow we may be walking into a warzone. Correct?"

Erika winced and Janak looked at her sheepishly. Janak opened his mouth to say more, but Zel interrupted with a flash of insight. "What Lina said begs an interesting related question." He folded one arm across his chest and rested his other elbow in his palm, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, ignoring the slight scraping sound of stone against stone the motion caused. "Were they really after that grain when they attacked this place, Princess, or were they after a far more tempting target?" he said rhetorically, looking at her evenly. "They don't seem to be above assassinations."

Erika flinched at the sound of her former title, and floundered for a response. "I...well, I..." She gave up after a second and looked at Janak helplessly.

"It is a good question," Lina said, her ruby eyes alive with the look she got whenever she was thinking through a puzzle, "though I don't know how they'd know she was here."

"It's unfortunately a question we can't answer definitively," Janak said calmly. Lina huffed in impatience, but he held up a hand and said wryly, "We have no real way of knowing whether they came for Erika or just happened to stumble upon us during a routine raid. It wasn't like any of us had the time to pull one of them aside and interrogate them."

"Couldn't you just have waved your hands or something and read their minds?" Gourry asked.

Janak's face hardened and Erika stiffened, and there was an uncomfortable silence for a moment. Lina, Gourry, Ameria, and Zel glanced at each other quizzically, wondering what it was Gourry had said that was wrong. "We don' that," Erika said finally. "It's just not right."

"Not right?" Lina repeated, a tinge of scorn in her voice. "But if someone's attacking you, and you can use the information--"

"Erika and I have to be particularly careful of treading down that path," Janak cut her off, his accented voice taking on a serious tone far different from his usual friendly manner. "What you just said is exactly what the Chakanai have argued Chakar in a position of political power would do."

"I don't understand," Ameria said, frowning. She studied Erika's face for a moment, suddenly reminded of how Erika looked when Zelgadiss had suggested she use her power to influence the representatives in the Dimas just before she gave up the crown. "Or...perhaps I do," she said slowly, after a few seconds. "You didn't want to do anything like that to the Dimas, either. Is this some kind of Chakar teaching we donít know about?"

Erika blinked, relieved Ameria seemed to understand, and nodded. "You could say that, yes. The responsibility that comes with our power is pounded into the heads of all Chakar children. A long time ago, our people were persecuted at the hands of people with far greater power than ours, and, as a people, we have vowed never to put ourselves in that position."

"Misusing Chana to read people's minds without permission, or using it to manipulate othersí thoughts against their will, for that matter, are considered to be the means by which a Chakar can start down the slippery slope toward self ruin," Janak added. "Of course, some glorify that kind of power despite--or perhaps because--it's such a forbidden fruit. That's why Erika's uncle Rolard wanted so desperately to control the minds of everyone in Chorion and beyond. But anyone who doesn't want to become as corrupt as he was stays away from that kind of temptation."

Lina and Zel exchanged a glance across the table that clearly communicated their dubiousness. In their minds, it could be a costly mistake to refuse to use such a useful weapon in battle. At the same time, they realized their friends' beliefs were too deeply instilled to change. Zel shrugged slightly and Lina shook her head, and both turned to Ameria, who was saying, "That's perfectly understandable. Maybe you can tell me more about your code of ethics later--that would be fascinating to learn."

"Code of Essex?" Gourry said curiously. He looked up and fingered his chin as five simultaneous facefaults resounded against the table with a collective thunk. "Is that some kind of secret language or something?"

Lina growled as she picked her head up off the table and reached across the table and gave Gourry a flat-handed smack across the head. "Nevermind, Jellyfish-Brains!" she snapped, exasperated. Turning to Erika and Janak, she threw up her hands and said, "All right, so you can't do certain things because you think it's wrong. Fine. Those guys may have been after you, Erika, or maybe they weren't, but the point is, we're heading into a bad situation tomorrow. Those people now know that we're here, and that they're immune to a key weapon--magic."

"And we know they aren't above sneak attacks," Gourry pointed out.

"Speaking of which," Zel said, "there's still one thing I don't understand. You two said that because of your Chana you can sense when people are around you. Why didn't you know they were coming?"

"Ah, I can explain that," Janak said smoothly, casually stretching his muscled arms in the air above his head as he spoke. "Erika hid her abilities from her uncle in part by going into something like a stealth mode. It involves using Chana to mask your presence to other Chakar." He brought his arms back down and shrugged. "It's not something all Chakar know how to do, but it's fairly common. It's a useful trick, since ordinarily, a Chakar's ability to sense other people is quite good. I'm relying on that to get us to the encampment, in fact."

Lina smacked her fist into her open palm. "You plan to just walk us through the forest until the Chakar figure out we're there, and send someone to meet us," she guessed.

Janak grinned. "Exactly. The borders between the Chakar and Chakanai change often and sometimes drastically. Also, the Chakar have a way of picking up our entire encampment and moving it elsewhere if it's threatened. But even if I knew where the encampment is right now, I wouldn't dare take us directly there. Chakar have safety nets, you could say, to ensure that strangers can't directly teleport into the encampment. Anyone who tries is killed on the spot, without question."

"Huh...tough crowd," Gourry commented appreciatively.

"I'm sorry this happened," Erika murmured, looking down at her lap. "I probably should have warned everyone earlier."

Ameria reached over and patted her arm. "It's all right. We know now, donít we? I'm sure everything will turn out all right tomorrow."

Zel marveled at Ameria's ability to be optimistic even in the face of a bad situation. Wandering through the forest until the Chakar found them was all well and good, but one question nagged at him: what if the Chakanai found them first? He looked around the table, and saw the same unspoken question in everyone's eyes. They would just have to cross that bridge when they came to it, he realized. If they turned back now, they would never know what other secrets were contained within the book Erika's uncle had used to find 'the sword that takes', nor would they ever know what the book meant by 'the sword that gives'.

"So..." Ameria murmured, scooting back from the low table, "I guess we'd better try to get a good night's sleep." She glanced at Lina and winced, wondering if she shouldn't just get some rope from the innkeeper now, while it was convenient, to tie her up once she fell asleep. She had no desire to spend the next day nursing black eyes from Lina's violent sleep kicking.

"Guess so," came several murmurs in reply as everyone rose to their feet. Suddenly feeling very tired, Lina glanced at Gourry and felt a sudden, unexplainably powerful surge of relief that he was there. Blinking away the strange feeling, she filed out of the room behind Ameria and Janak, hoping that breakfast tomorrow would help drive away the uneasiness that gnawed at her stomach. But why wait till morning? she asked herself rhetorically, and felt her feet begin to take her away from her friends and toward the kitchen.

Gourry noticed this immediately. "Hey, Lina, where are you going?" he called over to her.

She was already halfway down the hall. "Midnight snack," she said over her shoulder.

It was a small wonder that the rest of the inn didn't fall apart in the ensuing scuttle down the narrow hallway as Gourry attempted to scramble past Lina, almost knocking out an entire wall in the process. Rolling his eyes, Zel glanced at his remaining companions and simply continued down the hall toward their rooms. Ameria, Erika, and Janak laughed and followed him, the tension somewhat alleviated. As long as they kept their spirits up, Ameria reasoned, they shouldn't be afraid. Even if they ran into the Chakanai, no obstacle was so great that a little diplomacy and persuasion couldn't solve it...right? As she entered her room after Erika and got ready for bed, Ameria pondered that thought, hoping fervently that she would be proven right.

* * *

Deep within the Tes'sha Forest, the midnight air was thick with humidity and the sound of trickling water from a nearby stream. Soft moonlight filtered through the canopy of treetops, reflecting against the flowing water and turning it to liquid silver. It was along the bank of this stream that Tihrri, Commander Third Class, had been instructed to meet with her superior and report. The Chakanai woman stayed alert, her hand never far from her throwing stars and her eyes surveying her surroundings, despite the fact that she was well enough into Chakanai territory that she should have had nothing to fear. There was a war going on, and she had been well trained for it--too well trained not to be vigilant. Even without the training, she would have been on edge--she was far too nervous. The Chakanai chain of command by now knew well of her failure at the Inn, a failure which could cost her her life. She paced a little, her eyes sliding over every part of the forest, waiting for her superior to come.

The Elder of the Chakanai teleported to a spot mostly concealed by the thick trees a few yards behind Tihrri, keeping his presence masked so he could study her for a moment. He was a sturdy old man, short but stout, with a long graying beard and a wild, flyaway grey ring of hair around a bald spot on top of his head. His sinewy arms were folded in the sleeves of his brown robe; the only visible symbol that would give away his rank was the small gold medallion that rested against his chest. He curled his right hand and felt the thick gold around his right index finger--the source of a good deal of his power. He uncurled his hand and withdrew it from his sleeve, and, stepping out from the cover of the trees soundlessly, he walked right up to the young Chakanai commander and reached out and tapped her on the shoulder.

To her credit, Tihrri didn't make a sound as she whirled around and dropped into a fighting stance, ready to let her throwing stars fly. Also to her credit, she stopped before releasing them, and dropped into a hasty, low bow. "[Elder Malikh...]" she said in Ancient Chorioni, her voice low, trying to keep herself under control. "[I didn't expect...]"

"[I know,]" the old man replied. "[At ease, Commander. I'll be hearing your report tonight, instead of Lieutenant Karrakh.]"

"[Yes sir,]" she replied, straightening, but she looked no more relaxed than she had a few seconds before. Quickly and tensely, she summarized what had happened with the purple-haired stranger in the woods, her orders to follow up on the hints he had dropped, her call for more troops to back her up, and their subsequent failed attack on the Dancing Flute Inn.

"[So the dishonored one was able to sense you before you attacked,]" the Chakanai Elder said slowly, fingering his beard with one knobby hand. His ring glinted in the moonlight that streamed down between the tree branches overhead.

"[Yes sir, she may be just as powerful as we had heard,]" she said, her contempt momentarily masking her apprehension.

Malikh sneered and waved a hand dismissively. "[Perhaps they was merely lucky. Or particularly vigilant. Whatever the case, your attack failed in part because of Erika Chakar, and in part because of the magic-users,]" he said, studying Tihrri's reaction to his words.

"[I accept my punishment humbly,]" she said, her body going numb as she lowered her eyes in defeat. The Elder of the Chakanai left little room for failure, she knew. But to her surprise, the old man clucked his tongue and lifted her chin with his Chana. His grey eyes were unreadable, but they glinted with the cunning and intelligence he was renowned for.

"[I said your attack failed. Your mission, on the other hand, was entirely successful,]" he said softly, giving her time to realize what he meant.

Tihrri's jaw dropped a little, and she faltered for words. "[Sir...I don' mean...]"

"[I don't intend to lose a good soldier tonight,]" Elder Malikh said firmly. "[Not when you performed well despite the fact that you were not informed of your true mission.]" Tihrri swallowed visibly and stared at him in surprise, and he sensed a trepedacious feeling of relief emanating from her. "[If I and my generals had intended for you to win, my young warrior,]" he continued, smiling almost paternally at her, "[do you not think you would have been sent more troops?]"

Tihrri considered that, her paint-streaked face illuminated for a moment by a moving patch of moonlight. "[I did wonder, sir,]" she admitted.

Nodding approvingly, he replied, "[Good. That means you think as well as follow orders.]" Turning a little, he paced the ground in front of her, his hands clasped behind his back. "[Your mission, Commander, was to attempt an attack so we could see what the dishonored one and her companions, particularly the magic-users, are capable of.]" He looked up at her searchingly and stopped pacing. "[Based on your observations, perhaps we should adapt our plans a little...]" he trailed off, expecting her response.

Still recovering from the shock of the realization that she would not die tonight, Tihrri took a few moments to respond. When she finally got a hold of herself, she nodded and smirked. "[I think I know exactly how, when, and where we should attack.]"

Slowly, the Elder's wrinkled face split into a grin, and he clapped the young woman on the back. "[Let's continue this discussion at Camp Two. I think everyone there will be most interested to hear what you and your troops have to report.]" Still grinning maliciously, he led the young woman away from the meeting place and between the trees, and, after a few seconds of walking, the two vanished into the night.

* * *

When Xelloss returned to Wolf Pack Island, Zelas Metallium was already waiting for him. Bowing low, the Mazoku priest stepped up to her throne and awaited her acknowledgement.

"Welcome back," she greeted him, rising to stand before him. She took a long drag on her cigarette, pinching the holder delicately between two fingers. "Everything went well, I assume?" she asked lightly.

Favoring her with his trademark smile, he answered just as lightly, "Absolutely. The Chakanai are probably more hostile than ever."

Zelas nodded. "Good. We don't want to make things too easy on them," she said as her cigarette holder disappeared from her hand. "And," she added cryptically, "we need to buy ourselves a little more time." She stepped down from the dais upon which her throne was placed and walked past Xelloss, her cream-colored robes flowing behind her. Glancing over her shoulder, she beckoned her minion with a finger and crossed the throne room, exiting through a massive archway that housed two black doors, which moved of their own accord to allow her passage. Dutifully, Xelloss followed her, and the doors shut behind him.

They were in a long, familiar, narrow corridor. Black obsidian walls all but swallowed the dim light given off by the regularly-spaced torches. "You're probably wondering what this is all about--why I sent everyone but you away." She paused and turned to him as he murmured his assent, holding up her index finger and smirking at him in a perfect imitation of his trademark expression. "Sore wa himitsu desu," she said playfully

Xelloss sweatdropped and dropped his head in a half facefault. "Master..." he said under his breath.

"But," she said, whirling around and continuing down the hallway, "I won't leave you without a hint. You have to have something to keep you occupied while you guard this place over the next few days."

"I'm ever so grateful," Xelloss replied, smiling, the sarcasm in his voice subtle but still noticeable.

Zelas ignored it. "Quite welcome. Your clue is the place I'm taking you, on the place Dolphin, Grausherra, and I will be. We should be finished with our little project in three or four days," she explained. They fell silent as they wound their way deep into Zelas's domain and finally turned down a rarely-used passageway that ended in a delicately carved black wooden door. Its surface had been brushed lightly with gold, so the scene on it--an enormous wolf devouring a dragon--could be discerned clearly. This door swung open of its own power as they approached it. As soon as it opened, Xelloss could feel his body tingle with power. He had only been in this room once before, but it was unmistakable. A strange thrill of excitement rushed through him as he stepped inside and looked around.

It was the room in which Zelas had focused her power over one thousand years before, during the Kouma Sensou--the War of the Resurrection of the Demon King. The place that still contained one-fourth of the energy that had been used to create a massive trap for the Water Dragon King, Suiryuu-ou, and sustain the power of the newly-reborn seventh of the Dark Lord Shaburanigdo.

For all its awesome significance, the room was nothing more than a huge, empty place with an open-air hole in the exact center of the stone ceiling. The walls were carved of the same rutilated obsidian that formed the rest of Zelas's castle on Wolf Pack Island, and the same torches lined the walls, fires flickering in the slight breeze that wafted in from the skylight. Light from those fires danced across the floor--the only remarkable thing about the room. A magic circle took up most of the smooth surface at their feet, the intricate markings written in concentric circles within it superceded by the inverted pentagram that was situated so that its points all touched the outermost edge of the circle. It was the most powerful kind of dark magic circle possible, Xelloss knew at a glance. Three others of its caliber existed in the world, one of which had been deactivated once the source of its power--the Hellmaster himself--was destroyed by the Lord of Nightmares.

Knowing that, Xelloss therefore knew that what was contained within the circle--a transparent block of crystallized ice over ten feet tall, six feet wide, and just as deep--must be important, indeed. The block rested in the exact center of the room, placed over the mark of the Beastmaster that was carved inthe focus point of the magic circle. Xelloss had never seen anything placed within the circle, and was about to open his mouth to ask his master just what it was about when she turned and gestured to it with one hand.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" she breathed appreciatively. Xelloss nodded. "It will never melt," she said. Crossing from the door to the ice, she ran a hand over the surface of the crystal ice. She could feel the magic within it tugging at her, trying to suck in her hand, but she pulled away easily and turned to Xelloss again, noting the appraising glint in his amethyst eyes. He was already trying to figure out her plans. "Grausherra sent it on ahead of time. He wanted me to perfect the containment effects he placed within it," she explained, dropping a few more hints.

Xelloss nodded once. Typically, Mazoku didn't do magic in the conventional sense--to rely on a spell would be a fatal admission of weakness for any Mazoku except under very extenuating circumstances. The time Xelloss used the Blast Bomb to gently nudge Lina into buying his Demon's Blood talismans was one of them. The rest of the time, power was simply at their disposal, dependent on the strength they were given at creation and the energy they received from feeding off of the negative emotions of other beings. The fact that Dyanst Grausherra, one of Ruby-Eye Shaburanigdo's three remaining lieutenants, had used a spell to enchant the giant ice crystal--and that Zelas would apparently be doing the same--was telling.

After a few moments more, she shooed him out of the room, following right behind him after sparing a glance over her shoulder to ensure that the door closed behind her. "So, that is where I will be over the next few days," she summed up. "Along with Grausherra and Dolphin. Now," she said strictly, "we're not to be disturbed. Your lesser brethren have their orders, as you know--you shouldn't see any of them back here for a while. You know what to do with anyone else who tries poking around."

"As you wish, Master," he replied. Questions swirled in his mind, but he kept silent as they threaded their way back toward Zelas's throne room. They stopped before the huge wooden doors as they creaked open, and Zelas turned to her minion. She reached out a slender, tanned hand and stroked his cheek in a gesture that would have been fond were it not for the wicked hint of a smile that ghosted across her lips and the almost patronizing amusement that glittered in her lupine eyes. Just because Xelloss was the next most powerful Mazoku under herself and her two sibling dark lords didn't mean she couldn't feed off the energy he had stored up from his encounters among mortals. She felt his inquisitiveness at her plans as she drained some of that energy, but said nothing more in explanation--he wouldn't question her, she knew. No, he would remain as polite and dutiful as always, and wait patiently until all was revealed to him, or at least until he could piece things together for himself. She had always liked that about him.

Xelloss reflected her golden stare unwaveringly until she was finished. Striding into her throne room, Zelas said crisply, "I must prepare for our guests. I won't see you until after we're finished with the task at hand. Until then..." She extended a tanned arm out toward the throne that occupied the center of the back wall of the large room. "...Wolf Pack Island is yours." A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as he politely bowed and followed her gesture, taking a seat on her throne.

"Thank you, Master," he replied, his own smile mirroring hers. "May your endeavors be successful," he wished her, his voice echoing against the walls and arched ceiling.

Zelas nodded once. "I'm sure they will be," she said softly, her smiling ruby lips parted to reveal her fang-like canine teeth. Without another word, she turned and walked out of the throne room.

Xelloss watched her leave. The throne room doors creaked closed after her with a click as the latch fell into place, and silence descended on the room. Xelloss turned in the throne, hooking his legs over one arm rest and using the other as a backrest, mirroring the lounging position in which he so often found his master. He stayed in that position, unmoving, for several silent minutes. After a while, he conjured up a glass of blood wine and sat sipping it for hours untold, his expression deeply thoughtful.

* * *

If he hadn't been busy maintaining a heightened state of alert for the past four and a half hours, Gourry would probably have enjoyed the walk through the Tes'sha Forest.

He was bringing up the rear in a six-person chain that was winding its way through the woods, looking for someone who could bring them to the tribal grounds of the Chakar. Janak was in the lead, his purposeful but careful stride slowed only by the uneven floor underfoot and the fact that his head, like everyone else's, was whipping around at irregular intervals, scanning their surroundings for hostile Chakanai soldiers. His unease was positively contagious to everyone but Gourry, who remained calmly unaware of it.

Ameria, for one, was grateful the prince was forced to slow down a little--her legs were quite a bit shorter than his, and the ground had only gotten hillier the farther they walked. She was near the end of their entourage, with Erika in front of her, and Lina and Zel behind Janak. For the fifth time in the past hour, she surrepticiously tried to get a glance at at the taller girl's face. Erika looked as if she noticed her surroundings only secondarily because her mind was elsewhere. For hours, she had allowed herself to be led through the warm, humid woods, concentrating on shielding six people from the prying senses of any Chakanai who happened to be in the area. But, Zelgadiss had pointed out, how could the Chakar figure out where they were if they weren't able to sense them? So Erika had been forced to drop the stealth protection she had been maintaining for each of them and instead focus on a shield over all of them that would protect them from most sneak attacks for a few precious moments while they gathered their wits and fought back. It wasn't nearly as safe, Erika told them all, but everyone agreed they needed to be found by the Chakar as soon as possible. Erika seemed to sense that Ameria was watching her, however, and turned so her green-blue eyes met Ameria's gaze. She nodded as if to say everything was all right, and Ameria nodded back.

Lina, who had been reminding everyone of the fact that they hadn't stopped to eat lunch for the past several hours, growled softly and looked around at her comrades. "Guyyyys," she whined, "I'm still hungry."

"We can't afford to stop, Lina," Gourry said quietly from behind her. Nodding sympathetically at the half-pleading, half-threatening look she threw back at him, he said, "I know, but we don't want to stay in any one place too long--we don't know if the Chakraina are chasing us."

"Chakanai," all of them corrected him simultaneously under their breath, Lina rolling her eyes at Gourry's mistake.

"I know, I know!" she said impatiently. "But it's not going to help us avoid them if we all drop over dead from hunger!"

"Gourry's right," Zel said coolly. "And, as I've pointed out before," he smirked, "you could stand to skip a meal or two."

"Hey!" Lina protested, glowering at the chimera and planting her fists on her hips. "As I've pointed out before, you'd have a hard time finding an ounce of fat on me!"

Ameria sighed. "All the same, I'm hungry too. And it's really humid here. How much longer will it be, Janak?" she asked, hoping Lina's and Zel's sniping wouldn't erupt in to a full-scale argument. She was feeling very uncomfortable--the forest was warm and muggy, with no breeze to refresh the moldy air. Her clothes were sticking to her body with perspiration and humidity, something she wasn't used to, given Saillune's normally temperate climate. She wanted nothing more than to get to their destination and take a long, relaxing bath.

"I don't know," Janak replied softly. He looked around, his bright green eyes suspicious. Mentally, he rechecked all the places he had hidden knives or throwing stars in his green tunic, brown pants, and boots, ensuring with a subtle movement of his thick fingers that the two blades tucked into his long sleeves were ready to snap out with a flick of his wrist. Once Erika lowered her stealth shield from each of them, it should have been a matter of minutes before a Chakar guard teleported to them to meet them. They had been wandering in the woods for over an hour, with only their alertness and Erika's Chana barrier to protect them, yet they had met no one. Brushing a stray strand of hair out of his vision with his right hand, he kept his left hand hovering around the broadsword that hung at his right hip and tried not to let anyone else see that he frankly didn't have a clue as to where they were or where they were heading.

Despite this, Zelgadiss could tell Janak was at a loss for action. Janak had admitted to not knowing where the Chakar encampment was, but given the erratic pattern of his twists and turns, Zel's keen sense of direction indicated that he didn't even have a general idea as to where it was. Ordinarily, he would have taken grim satisfaction in pointing that out about the prince, but since he was now stuck in the middle of a potential warzone, and Janak was the only one who seemed to know anything about their eventual destination, such embarrassment would probably be more harmful than helpful. Occasionally, he would glance back at Gourry, silently communicating to the swordsman to keep watching the rear for trouble. Gourry would simply calmly nod back, keeping his left hand over the scabbard of the golden sword suspended from his belt, in theory to keep it from banging against his side, but in practice, Zel knew, to keep the scabbard steady in case he needed to draw the weapon quickly.

They threaded their way through the thick tree trunks, their breath stifled in their lungs and their footfalls thudding heavily against the moist, uneven ground, for another half an hour, Lina complaining about her hunger and occasionally echoing Ameria's comments on the heat. She could feel her body dragging and knew that the humidity was beginning to take its toll on her almost as much as her hunger was. She wiped her brow and suddenly an idea came to her. Sorcerers frequently used a variation of a spell called Grey Buster to create a little cloud of frozen water under their cloaks to keep cool. She readily suggested this idea to Zelgadiss and Ameria--Ameria was particularly grateful to hear it.

"I can't believe I didn't think of that before," she said, shaking her head, relieved. She held her hands under her cloak and began murmuring a chant.

"Wish I knew something like that," Erika grumbled. She was glad she had put her long hair up into the braid the night before--if she had kept it down she would have felt twice as hot. She smoothed her burgundy tunic, which was starting to cling to her form, and shook out her pants legs as she walked so they wouldn't stick to her legs.

"I'm fine without it," Zel murmured.

Erika looked ahead at him and asked, "Does that spell take magic to maintain? If not, I'd be really grateful if someone cast it for me..."

"That is, if we can cast it," Lina said before Zel could reply, her voice unusually flat. She stopped in her tracks, causing Erika, Ameria, and Gourry to bump into her, but she hardly noticed. Janak and Zel turned, scrutinizing her, bewildered.

"What do you mean?" Gourry asked, stepping around Ameria and Erika to Lina. He didn't like the puzzled, yet dread-filled expression on her face. "Why wouldn't you be able to cast it?"

Ameria stepped away from Lina and gasped, "You can't cast it either?" Her blue eyes were wide and confused and her hands were trembling slightly.

Shaking her head stiffly, Lina said, "No...I can't. I've tried five times...nothing happens."

Sighing, Zel held a hand to his forehead and said impatiently, "Honestly! Don't tell me both of you are--oh, nevermind," he cut himself off, but Lina and Ameria flushed anyway and shook their heads vigorously. Before Lina could pound him for bringing up "that time of the month," he held out his hands and called, "Grey Buster!"

Nothing happened.

"Grey Buster!" he said again, then looked at his palms quizzically and tried it yet again.

Still nothing.

"What's going on?" Erika asked, looking from the sorcerers to Janak and Gourry alternately, confused. The swordsmen just shook their heads and shrugged.

Zelgadiss shook his hands out, his brow furrowed in consternation. Lina looked at him with a tinge of smugness, but it was covered up mostly by her concern that her magic seemed not to be working. Ameria hovered around him, trying unsuccessfully to cast a Lightning spell. Frustrated, Zel held up a hand and muttered, "Freeze Arrow!" He threw his arm down in a huff. "Not even an ice cube. What's going on?"

"Zel," Lina said, thinking quickly, "do you remember when Jirasu took us up to that phony temple, where we couldn't do any magic?"

The chimera's eyes widened, as did Ameria's. "You don't think--" Ameria breathed.

Nodding grimly, Lina said, "Seems that way, doesn't it? The Astral Plane didn't exist in that spot, and if I were to guess...I'd say it doesn't exist here, either."

Groaning, Ameria said, "Great. So now what?" She heard a low hiss and the clink of metal coming from Janak's direction and glanced that way, stiffening at what she saw.

Janak's face had gone ashen, and his left hand gripped the hilt of his sword, which was drawn and ready. "Don't you think," he said warily, "that the precise time in which our magic-users lose their power would make an excellent time for an ambush?"

Erika gasped and opened her mouth to say something, but was cut off by the chillingly familiar screeching of Chakanai war cries descending on them from above.

The world seemed to move in slow motion to Lina as panic seized the six of them. She could see scores of green-clad warriors, their faces streaked with bright colors, gleaming weapons in their hands, leap down from the tree branches above or simply materialize out of thin air above them. She saw Erika sink to the ground, unconscious, and wondered dimly how they managed to burst through her shield so quickly. She was distantly aware of Ameria clinging to her cloak in fear and the clashing of metal against metal as the swordsmen fought back. She could feel the weight of her own short sword suddenly in her hand, since her magic was out of the question. She could see the blur of motion as she raised her arm to parry the blow of a tall Chakanai woman's sword and spun to counter her next strike...

She saw stars flash across her eyes as she felt the back of her head explode with pain. Then, her ears roaring in protest, she saw nothing more.

Author's Notes:

This chapter was thankfully a lot easier to write and edit, mostly because I got my ducks in a row and started writing the characters correctly. I can't say enough how much I enjoy writing Xelloss. ^_^ Xanthix thought for a while there that it was the Chakar attacking Lina-tachi, just like Lina did. I hope Erika's and Janak's explanation made sense, despite its length. Long stretches of dialogue like that aren't my favorite thing in the world to write, but when you make up your own tribe of people, and give them weird power to boot, and then start a war between them, and then throw Lina-tachi in the thick of it, it's sort of a necessity. ^^;;; What, you may wonder, was Zelas's point in sending Xelloss to tell the Chakanai the location of their Public Enemy Number 1? Sore wa himitsu desu, but if they wanted to cause trouble, it sure seems they succeeded, doesn't it?

On a lighter note, do please check out the omake for this section, in which your humble author learns never to put Akane in charge of costumes without supervision. ^_^

Of course, I can't end the notes without dropping a few hints for the next chapter, can I? ^_^ Lina-tachi have obviously been attacked and presumably captured by the Chakanai--bad news, since they don't exactly have warm and fuzzy feelings about Erika, or anyone who can use magic, for that matter. Speaking of magic, due to the inconvenient fact that the Astral Plane doesn't seem to exist in this part of the Tes'sha Forest, what's a hot-tempered, pyromaniac sorceress to do? Janak takes matters into his own hands, but will he be in time to pull everyone's fat out of the fire? Oh, and remember that shiny orb in the Epilogue of Slayers New? He's baaaaaaaaaack, although he just hasn't learned that you should always call ahead before dropping in to see the Beastmaster--she's a very busy lady, these days. But, most of all, am I going to be able to write two chapters in a row in which no one dreams of penguins? Stay tuned for Chapter Three to find out!

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