Slayers Balance by Esther Nairn | Chapter Four: | The Chakar Capital! A Very Strange Welcome!
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As a rule, whenever anyone teleported to Elik'haren, the Chakar capital, they never went there directly. There were guards on watch at all times with instructions to shoot anyone who tried, in case it was a Chakanai soldier or spy. Also, there was a safety risk in attempting to reappear in the middle of camp; people were usually walking about and there was a chance that someone would attempt to phase in in the same place someone else was standing. Instead, the Chakar set up small areas about a quarter mile away from the camp itself that teleporters could use without fear of running into anyone. A constantly maintained Chana shield enveloped these areas and the camp itself to protect the vicinity from both prying eyes and Chakanai forces. The last of the Chakar fighters were pouring in from the Chakanai outpost-turned-battlefield, Erika and Janak among them. They immediately cleared the teleportation waypoints to make room for others.

As soon as they were safely out of the way, Janak grabbed Erika's shoulder, and whipped her around to face him. "[Just what do you think you were doing back there?!]" he yelled in Ancient Choriani.

Erika flinched and yanked her shoulder out of his grip. Despite the healers' hasty help, she was still sore from the beating she had endured at the hands of the Chakanai. "[What do you mean, what was I doing?]" she bit back.

"[What do I mean?]" Janak repeated in exasperation. "[I mean that stunt you pulled with Malikh! What were you thinking, allowing him to speak to you telepathically?]"

Erika's eyes flashed angrily. "[The battle was already lost--what else could he have accomplished? Besides, he made the sign. He asked permission."] She made the signal herself, crossing her chest diagonally with her index and middle fingers extended. It was the signal Chakar and Chakanai telepaths used to ask others if it was all right to speak to them mentally. The Chakanai applied it in all situations strictly, while the Chakar were more lenient in its use. Janak was particularly lenient; at best, he viewed it as an unnecessary detail that made communication cumbersome.

Janak raised his eyebrows and threw up his arms in an exaggerated manner. "[Oh,]" he said sarcastically, "[Oh, I see. You enemy’s Elder, a man who personally tried to kill you, into your head because he asked nicely. That makes perfect sense!]"

Erika opened her mouth in protest but was interrupted before she could reply by the arrival of Lina, Gourry, Ameria, and Zelgadiss from further down the path. "Where have you been?" Lina demanded, heedless of Erika's and Janak's obvious argument. "We've been waiting fifteen minutes! A woman named Rikha told us we had to wait outside town until--"

"Janak? Erika? What's wrong?" Ameria interrupted, astonished at their flushed, angry faces.

Janak turned to their friends. "I'll tell you what's wrong," he growled, surprising everyone with his tone as he gesticulated at Erika. "What's wrong is that Erika here decided to take time out to have a little chat with Elder Malikh before we got out of there." His declaration was met with skeptical expressions. He threw his hands down and clarified hotly, "She allowed the Elder to speak to her telepathically!"

Zel glanced from Janak to Erika, who folded her arms across her chest defensively and glared at the prince. "And that's...bad?" he said dubiously.

Janak huffed in disgust. "You know what her uncle tried to do?"

"Take control of people's minds," Lina supplied readily.

"Yeah, well, Malikh could have done the same thing to Erika. The first lesson you learn as a telepath is that your power is also your weakness. Telepaths are particularly vulnerable to mind control once they let their defenses down. She should know that." He crossed his arms and glared back at Erika, mirroring her pose. Everyone else raised their eyebrows and looked at her in surprise.

Erika uncrossed her arms and huffed, "Look, he could have taken control of my mind that the whole time we were there. It's not like he would have needed my help--he's very powerful, as you saw, Janak. He was even able to interfere with your Chana, which is unheard of. Besides, his tribe is fanatically against misusing power. He wouldn't do that to me because it would violate everything they believe in. Now let's just go--we're the only ones out here now, and they'll be expecting us." She brushed between Janak and Lina without another word, heading off in the direction of the Chakar capital. Janak gritted his teeth and stalked after her. The rest of them followed him after exchanging a glance that communicated their desire to stay out of the argument altogether.

The trees surrounding Elik'haren were dense--so dense that no one would have ever guessed that a whole village was concealed beyond them were it not for the chorus of ululating cheers ringing through the forest. The afternoon sun surely blazed overhead, given the warm temperature, but the thick flora above them blocked most of that light. As the newcomers followed the two Chakar, picking their way through the foliage, they gazed around, looking for the encampment so well hidden that they could see no trace of it. The trees were strange here--their bark was a rusty, red-brown and their leaves a glossy gray-green. Their branches curved and snaked their way around each other, each tree's boughs so tangled with the next that it looked almost as if thick, leafy nets had been suspended above their heads. The jubilant, unintelligible cries of the Chakar rang sharply in their ears, filling the air with a powerful, arrhythmic beat that became so loud as they got closer it seemed to affect their very heartbeats. Lina covered her ears, both entranced with the strange musical quality of the Chakar victory cries and irritated that it was so loud her eardrums were pulsating. As she looked around for some sign of the source of this cheering, she spotted something through the canopy of brown and green and stopped in her tracks with a gasp.

"There's a house up there!" she exclaimed over the din, removing one hand from her ear long enough to point to a snatch of wall and thatched roof visible between two thick branches.

Everyone stopped. Ameria, Gourry, and Zelgadiss clustered around Lina, their heads tilted up, looking for what she saw. "Hey, she's right!" Gourry said loudly. "It's a tree house!"

Erika's face lit up into a brilliant smile and, her earlier anger forgotten, she dashed ahead. Everyone followed her quickly and stopped when she did, still on the outskirts of the village. Her face was filled with wonderment, like a child watching a snowfall for the first time. "It's just as Mother and Father described it," she breathed, although no one could hear her. Janak understood, though. His own anger melted away, and he placed a hand on her shoulder. She turned to face him, her expression bittersweet. Before their deaths, she had awaited the day her parents would bring her here, as all Chakar living outside the capital were required at least once in their youth.

No one else noticed this; they were all too busy gazing around in amazement. Above their heads was a veritable city in the trees, not just on one level but several. The strange, web-like tree branches and blankets of thick leaves provided floors for houses of varying sizes. Some were barely bigger than large closets, while others were large enough to house several families. The lowest level appeared to be one solid web, although they couldn't see clearly how big it was. The Chakar had built houses on higher levels of branches, although these were more sporadic and dependent on the altitude at which each tree's branches had grown and become intertwined with other trees. They could see all this through holes poked in the dense foliage that allowed rope ladders to hang down to the level below for those who couldn't levitate themselves or teleport to their homes. Each house had a short porch to which was attached one end of a rope bridge strung with wooden planks, connecting it to at least one other house, forming a network. Children were chasing each other along these precarious bridges, screeching with delight, but their yells were drowned out by the all-encompassing Chakar cheering. There seemed to be few adults here; the small number they saw seemed to be heading away from them, toward what they guessed to be the center of town. Most of them weren't even bothering with the bridges or ladders; they simply gave big, effortless-looking jumps and used their Chana to levitate themselves onto the next porch.

As they moved deeper into the village, they could see between the thick tree trunks a few cabins similar to those above. Beyond that, however, they couldn't see much except a wall of people, some hugging soldiers returned from battle, others waving fists or weapons in the air and contributing to the joyous cries. They started toward this crowd, wondering what they should do next. Rikha had said she would return once Erika and Janak arrived, but they could see no trace of her anywhere.

They were only a few yards from the edge of the mob when Gourry, who was bringing up the rear, stopped with a gasp. The sword at his side flared to life as if the trilling cheers of the Chakar had suddenly awakened it. Without warning, golden light began leaking out from the sheath and the weapon broke free of the iron grip of control Gourry had over it, taking into itself all the energy it could from the surrounding Chakar. The people in the crowd closest to him exclaimed aloud in shock and whirled around to face the newcomers, recoiling as they felt the effects of the strange weapon. Immediately, some of them teleported away and others gave giant leaps, using telekinesis to lift themselves through the branches onto higher levels and away from the struggling swordsman. The cheers of the rest of the crowd turned to a chorus of panic as they began pushing away from Gourry, their painted faces full of shock. Even Erika and Janak were caught off guard by the rebellion of the 'sword that takes'; they staggered away, off to Gourry's right, until they backed into a tree and remained there, struggling to build a barrier between them and their friend to keep themselves from being drained completely. What was most strange about the whole scene, however, was that Lina, Ameria, and Zelgadiss instinctively rushed up to Gourry, feeling no ill effects at all.

"Gourry?! Gourry!!" Lina exclaimed, calling his name over and over frantically. "What's wrong?! What happened?!" Gourry couldn’t bring himself to answer; he could only cry out in obvious torment, grabbing frantically at the sheath with one hand while the other gripped the swirled pommel as if he was trying to keep the weapon from leaping out. The muscles in his arms bulged with the effort, making his veins stand out purple against his fair skin. Setting her jaw in determination, Lina made a grab for Gourry's arm but he twisted away from her with another anguished howl.

"No!! Don't...don't come near..." he choked, his eyes squeezed shut. He caught his breath and bellowed, "I won't let it hurt you! Just stay away!!"

Lina stopped, stunned, as all eyes fell to her. "Gourry-san," Ameria breathed, and she and Zel took a step closer.

"You too!" Gourry cried, staggering backward. "Get away!!" The sword, still emitting its strange golden glow, pulsed once, and the shouting of the crowd got louder as the people on its edge gasped and shrank back even further. Desperately, Gourry tried commanding it to stop, but his control was slipping every second. It was all he could do to keep it from draining every last drop of power out of the people around him, although, one small part of him realized in the midst of this maelstrom, it was strange that the sword was bypassing his energy completely in favor of others'.

Lina's face pinched with resolve as she gathered her wits and stepped up to him. "Gourry, you'd better let me help you, or I'll--"

"Lina Inverse!" came a new voice from the midst of the crowd. It was an old voice but it carried much power, so much that Lina froze in place. Zel and Ameria whirled around just in time to watch the obviously suffering Chakar part to let the owner of the voice through.

As the outermost layers of people fell back, they revealed two people, one familiar and the other not. Rikha, the steward of the Chakar, looked as if she was struggling against the power of Gourry's sword, but she began walking toward him anyway. The man walking next to her, however, did not seem to be affected at all. He was stern but serene, full of authority and wisdom; he had a graveness to his manner that made it impossible not to feel respect for him immediately. He was, as they guessed immediately, Elder Ashri, the patriarch of the Chakar tribe. A long, deep green, hooded robe hung over his seventy-year-old frame, dragging on the ground a little as he walked. Despite his apparent age, his back was straight and he stood taller than Zelgadiss. He carried a staff in his right hand, the ring on his index finger glinting in the golden light of the sword. He calmly walked up to Gourry, who was now bent over the sword, almost on his knees. "Do not touch him, Lina Inverse," he commanded. "He is right; in this state, the sword is dangerous to anyone who would try to touch it."

"Can you help him?" Zel asked sharply. If the Elder couldn't stop this, he fully intended to drag Gourry away from what seemed to be the source of the problem--the Chakar--and try to get the sword under control again using whatever means he could think of.

The Elder nodded once. "I believe I can." He took a step closer to Gourry, glancing at Lina. She didn't come any closer, but she didn't back off, either. His next step elicited a strong reaction in the sword; the golden light seeping out from the sheath intensified, throwing the old man into high relief. Undaunted, he reached out a hand. Gourry tried to wrench away, but the Elder's eyes narrowed and Gourry found himself unable to move. Quickly, Elder Ashri covered Gourry's right hand with his own, drawing on the power granted to him through the ring on his right index finger. Gourry gave a choked shout and collapsed to his knees; now, the Elder had to bend over to keep their hands on the hilt of the sword.

His eyes still squeezed shut, Gourry gasped, "What...are you doing?"

The Elder smiled a little as he began weaving his own power into that of the sword, binding and restraining its energy-draining properties. "Just trust me, young man. Keep your mind open to me--I can seal off the sword's power, but only through you, the one who must come to master it."

Gourry nodded, and, although he didn't quite know how to "keep his mind open," he concentrated on reigning in the mutinous weapon. To his relief, after a few moments, he felt the sword's power lessen and his control over it strengthen. As the golden glow faded, the crowd of Chakar stopped shouting, although they still kept their distance until the sword was completely controlled.

Gourry opened his eyes and felt his muscles relax. The first person he sought out was Lina; she was standing just a few inches behind the Elder, watching anxiously, an expression on her face that was a mix of frustration that she couldn't do anything to help him and respect that the Elder could. He looked up into Ashri's face, which had also relaxed and lost its stern look, and nodded. "I think it's better now."

Elder Ashri released the pommel of the sword and straightened, taking a step back to give Gourry some space. As he rose, Gourry felt his legs wobble, a fact that none of his friends missed. They started toward him, but he regained his balance quickly. "Thank you," he said to the Elder. "It happened so suddenly..." He trailed off, looked down at the sword at his side, and frowned. It bothered him on a fundamental level that he wasn't able to keep his control of a weapon. His swordsmanship had always been something he'd excelled at, something he took for granted. When he still had it, he was capable of wielding the legendary Sword of Light as if it was an extension of his own body. And while he was still getting used to this new sword, he thought he was getting better at controlling it. Until now... he thought ruefully. He didn't know exactly why it had happened, but he knew one thing: he had a lot of training still left to do.

"Are you all right, Gourry?" Lina asked quietly, watching him intently. She felt as much as he did that this development was disturbing. He nodded, tearing his eyes from the sword to assure her with a sheepish smile. She was anything but reassured, but couldn't do anything about it at the moment, since Elder Ashri began to speak to them.

"As soon as I felt a touch of that sword's power, I could sense that it is attracted to the power that is inherent in my people. It bears some similarity to the energy controlling ability some with Chana have," the old man stated, taking a few steps back so he was closer to the crowd behind him. "I have placed a sort of energy seal on it with your help, Gourry. That means that you must not draw it unless you want to break that seal." As he said this, there was a noticeable change in the Chakar mob; people relaxed as soon as they knew the weapon was contained, and now they were edging forward toward the foreigners with interest, discussing the latest development among themselves in hushed tones.

Gourry nodded, ignoring the crowd. "I understand." He glanced at his friends; they looked at him cautiously, as if they weren't sure if he was just saying he understood or if he really meant it. Not knowing what else he could do to reassure them, he simply tried to look confident and focused on the old man, who glanced to his left in the general direction of Erika and Janak and began to speak.

"Now then," the Elder said, "I must be brief. Before we celebrate our victory, I must attend to those who need me most: the wounded and the grieving. But before I even can do that, I must speak with the ones who brought you here." To his left, Janak, looking a little pale after having what little energy he had left almost completely drained by Gourry's sword, stepped up. Erika followed him silently, her face pale as well but for an entirely different reason. Prior to their capture, she had been apprehensive about this meeting, but she hadn't had time to really think about it while the Chakanai held them. Now that she was about to meet her people face to face, she felt hollow and shaky, as if butterflies were flitting around inside her. She was the last of a now defunct, failed royal line and virtually an outsider to her own clan. She was about to meet her dead father's best friend, one who had known her parents in life better than even she had. What would the Elder, and her tribe in general, think of her?

Janak must have seen the look of anxiety on her face. Don't worry, he thought to her, but she did not reply. Together, they crossed the distance between them and Elder Ashri and knelt before him. At the same time, Rikha passed her shakak to someone in the crowd, left the Elder's side, and stood between Lina and Gourry.

"I'll translate," she whispered, and gratefully, they all moved closer to her so they could hear her.

Janak began speaking in Ancient Chorioni, keeping his head bowed humbly. "[Honored Elder, my friends and I thank you for our rescue from the hands of the Chakanai. We were in a lot of trouble and didn't have any way to escape, but our forces drove back the Chakanai in the nick of time.]" he said, grinning at the crowd, which gave a cheer at his words. His manner of speaking was plain by Chakar standards, Rikha explained quickly to the four outsiders, but it was a well-known fact that the youngest prince of Orios was never impressed by pretty speeches and never used them himself.

The Elder appeared amused by Janak's straightforwardness and motioned for him to rise. Erika remained kneeling, humbly keeping her eyes to the ground. Janak stood and the Elder clapped a hand on his shoulder. "[I only regret we did not sense you sooner, young prince.]" He gestured to the crowd behind him and explained, "[I had gathered a full half of our forces, preparing to attack the Chakanai in a place where we had discovered a weakness in their defense. This weakness, however, proved to be a carefully calculated ruse. The second we attacked, we were surrounded and blockaded and quite unable to send or receive thoughts. However, we maintained our defense against the enemy, and for four days they laid siege to our position.]" Gesturing in the direction of his top general, he said, "[It was only when honored Rikha arrived with her army that we were able to make a dent in their armor both from within and without. At one point in the battle, the Chakanai seemed distracted, perhaps because their Elder was too busy with all of you to direct the battle from afar. We naturally used that to our advantage, and the tide turned in our favor. Then we saw your signal; I knew it could only have come from one person. The arrow-beacon confirmed it. General Rikha and I decided to send as many teams as we could spare via that beacon, and the rest should be common knowledge now, given how quickly news travels among us.]" There was a chuckle in the crowd followed by a cheer; clearly the Chakar were ready to celebrate their twin victories, both of which were made sweeter by the fact that they occurred within Chakanai territory.

Janak cheered with them. Ashri turned around and his wizened face split into a grin. When the noise died down, he held out his arms and spoke loudly in Ancient Chorioni. "Kah'lhren sokha machnet fa tul derhen fa shilltek!" There was another raucous cheer and the crowd began to disperse. A good quarter of it simply disappeared, presumably teleporting back to their homes. The majority of what was left gave giant leaps up to the levels of houses above them so that, for a few seconds, the air was unbelievably thick with people laughing and shouting to each other as they rose straight up. The rest headed off on foot, some trotting toward the rope ladders that snaked down the red-barked tree trunks. Rikha stayed with Ashri, who waited until everyone had cleared off before he spoke again.

Gestured to Erika, he said to Janak, "[This must be...]" Janak nodded. Erika remained kneeling until he motioned for her to rise. Then, she hastily got to her feet and, with much difficulty, managed to bring her eyes up to meet the Elder's.

Silence hung in the air for a moment. Elder Ashri gave her a long, measuring look, his expression unreadable. Finally, he spoke. "[Honored princess, long ago, your honored father predicted this meeting. You were very small, and he decided not to tell you about his premonition.]" Erika's eyes widened and her breath caught in her throat. "[Yes, that means that both he and your honored mother knew they would not be with you as you grew up.]" The Elder's aged face suddenly looked tired. "[The gift of clairvoyance is a double-edged sword. We who can see the future generally know when we will die, although we know not the exact moment or the manner of our deaths.]"

To Erika, it seemed as if the rest of the world melted away in that instant. She met the Elder's weary gaze with her own shocked one, unable to breathe and unable to speak. She didn't see the sympathetic expressions on her friends' faces as soon as Rikha translated Elder Ashri's words. Janak took a step closer and put a hand on her shoulder, which she barely noticed at first until she felt a feather-light touch against her mind, the telepathic equivalent of a nudge in the arm. She was only dimly aware that Elder Ashri began speaking gently, repeating his words until she was able to parse them together into sentences.

"[Of course,]" Elder Ashri said kindly, "[this means that there is no shame in what happened to you at the hands of your uncle or your government. It is regrettable that the leaders of Chorion allowed the Dimas to rot with corruption the way it has, but in a way, it may be better for you. Now, you are free to do with your life what you wish. You are always welcome among us, and I can easily tell you will always have a place among your friends.]" He glanced up at Janak, behind Erika, and he nodded.

Erika nodded dumbly, her mouth dry and her body still feeling numb. "[Thank you,]" she said softly, still too shocked to feel relieved at Ashri's words. Suddenly, many things she had been brooding about a few short days ago seemed small compared to what had just been presented to her.

"[Now, Princess,]" the Elder said, glancing from Erika to the four gathered around Rikha not far behind her, "[I must ask--]" He stopped mid-sentence when Erika caught her breath and interrupted.

"[Please...please don't...]" Erika interjected, her face turning red as she realized her rudeness. Fumbling for words, she feebly gestured with both hands as she said, "[Please don't call me by that title. It's a part of me that's dead now, and I'd rather not--]"

It was her turn to stop as the Elder held up a hand, silencing her. "[My friend, your honored father, was king of Chorion. I used his title when he was alive, just as I will use your title now. As will the rest of the tribe.]" Erika bowed her head, helpless to protest any further. Continuing with his earlier thought, Ashri said, "[I know the general circumstances of Rolard's death, and I heard what happened in the capital, but I must ask what prompted you to come here. Regardless of your situation, Princess, it is unheard of to reveal our secret to outsiders in this way, especially outsiders as powerful as these are.]"

As the Elder turned his attention to them, they suddenly became aware of their own haggard appearances. Their clothes were torn and spotted with blood, mud and grass stains, their hair was completely disheveled, their faces were streaked with sweat and grime, and they all were sporting various wounds from their capture and the subsequent battle. Lina could feel the mud matting her hair down and her hands longed to wash it out with clean water. Ameria surreptitiously scratched a long, shallow cut in her forearm as it tried to scab over. Gourry was beginning to feel the bruises along his wrists and ankles from when he tried to break free of the metal cuffs the Chakanai had secured on him. Zel glanced down at his bare left arm and his bicep twitched unconsciously where Elder Malikh had pierced it with his Chana-infused knife; he didn't like having this much skin exposed and folded his right arm over his left. None of them felt powerful at the moment; they all knew they had escaped certain death only because of the good timing of a very powerful people, and they looked it.

Unaware of her friends' discomfort, Erika said something in Ancient Chorioni to Janak, and he turned and walked over to Ameria. "I need the book," he said softly as Erika tried to swallow her emotions and began to give him a more detailed description of what had happened to them at the hands of the late king of Chorion. Ameria opened the little pink pouch she carried on her belt and pulled the fragile old volume out carefully. She passed it to Janak wordlessly, listening to Rikha's running translation of what Erika was saying.

"[Once it was all over, we returned to Castle Ori and began searching Uncle's things, figuring there had to be something among them that would explain how he came to know of such a place. We were hoping to find something that would tell us more about Gourry's sword. What we discovered solved a few riddles but presented far more.]" She took the book from Janak's hands and carefully opened it to a page that seemed to contain the spell that her uncle had recited at Achek's Tower. She could barely read it, but by its structure it seemed safe to assume that it was an incantation or poem of some kind. Turning it so it was upside down, she passed it to the Elder and said, "[I studied this book a little on our way here. I can't read the characters enough to be sure, but I believe this is the spell Uncle used to release the sword Gourry now holds from the magic circle at Achek's Tower.]"

Frowning, Elder Ashri took a step closer and peered at the yellowed page Erika was showing him. "[He chanted a spell in our tongue?]" he asked, his brow furrowed as he looked from her to the book and back at her sharply.

Erika nodded grimly. "[I don't know what to make of it, myself. At the time, we had other things on our minds--Uncle's ability to use such powerful magic despite his Chakar lineage, for one--so I didn't stop to think about it. When we found this book, it explained where he got the spell, but it created a bigger mystery. We came to ask the assistance of the tribe in translating it into the common speech. We hope that by translating it, we will not only learn why such a book was written in our language and why Gourry's sword acts as it does, but also how Uncle was able to use the spells contained within. All I was able to understand in the book's description was that it is 'the sword that takes' and that there is a 'sword that gives' somewhere. There is a third area marked on a map in the middle of the book that mentions something about bringing the two together, but that was all I could figure out.]"

Reaching out, Ashri accepted the book from Erika. "[I will have my scribes begin work on it immediately. I, too, would like to know what secrets it holds. It may take some time--a week at least, I would guess--but when it is finished we will provide you with a translation.]"

With that, both Erika and Janak bowed. "[Thank you, honored Elder,]" Erika said respectfully, keeping her gaze lowered until Elder Ashri spoke again.

"[And now, for these foreigners...]" he trailed off, turning toward them. Rikha nudged the four of them forward, whispering for them to bow and wait until he addressed them. They did this in unison and looked at him expectantly. But he made no move to speak; instead, he merely stared intently at each of them, starting with Zelgadiss. The chimera immediately found himself fighting the urge to recoil from his penetrating gaze; while it didn't feel as if the older man was attempting to read his mind, it seemed as if Ashri could peer into a person's very soul. It was stupid for him to feel uncomfortable, pat of him reasoned, but regardless, part of him demanded that he turn away from the old man--now. He could feel beads of sweat gathering on his forehead--the weight of the forest's tropical heat bore down upon him as words demanding that the Elder leave him alone caught in his throat. Just as he thought he couldn't take anymore, Ashri's blue-gray eyes flicked to Gourry. Zel squeezed his eyes shut, turned his head away, and let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding, wondering what had just happened.

At first, Gourry wasn't quite as bothered by the Elder's measuring stare. He had lived his life as an open book; he was probably about as uncomplicated as a person could get. But for some reason, as the Elder held his gaze, he found himself thinking of the few dark parts of his soul that still haunted him: the hazy memories of him stealing the Sword of Light from his family, of using it many years later to attack his friends under the control of a small, smiling child, of the times he had nearly lost Lina. Gourry winced and his heart pulsed once painfully; he wondered if the older man could sense the fear these memories dredged to the surface, including the fear that somehow something similar could happen again. If he could, the Elder made no show of it. After a few seconds, he merely moved on to Ameria.

Ameria saw the discomfort in both Zel's and Gourry's faces and steeled herself not to react in the same manner as the Elder's gaze met her own. Most people would flinch under such an incisive stare, but, more than her friends, Ameria was accustomed to people watching her and judging her. As she had taken on more and more important royal duties, she had grown used to meeting with important leaders--and the way some of them underestimated her because of her youth and exuberance. She couldn't say she had ever met someone very important in the state she was in before, of course; her cream-colored clothes were torn and muddied, her body was exhausted, and her face was bruised and streaked with dirt. Despite this, she stood with her back straight, her demeanor calm and befitting someone of her stature. The Elder seemed to recognize both the grit and graciousness in her, nodding almost imperceptibly just before he turned his attention to Lina.

At first, the little sorceress stared back at the old man, matching his keen expression with one of her own. But even the famously impregnable will of Lina Inverse could not withstand this for long. Despite the occasional trilling shout coming from somewhere in the village, other audible signs of Chakar daily life, and the forest teeming with wildlife behind her, the scene became so quiet to her that she could hear her own heartbeat. After a few pulses, she blinked hard and drew in a sharp breath. The Elder wasn't doing anything to her mind; the creepy feeling she'd had when Erika and Janak had spoken to her telepathically was completely absent. But he was doing something, and after a moment, Lina figured out what it was. "Our futures," she murmured, forcing herself not to recoil as Zel finally had. "You said 'we who can see the future...' You're clairvoyant, too, and you're trying to see our futures. Why?"

Ashri's expression softened a little as he passed the ancient book to Rikha and grasped his staff with both knobbed hands. "Because I have seen you before...heard your names..." he said softly, looking away. "And I was not the only one. You see, honored Richard, Princess Erika's late father, saw you in a vision, too. I do not know if those with a talent for sorcery can divine the future, but for us, precognition is a fleeting affinity that is difficult to control. Even if two people have a vision of the same point in time in the future, there is no guarantee they will see exactly the same thing--one may see a different possible outcome or a different perspective than the other. Therefore, when two people see the same people in separate visions, that is noteworthy indeed." He glanced at Erika, who looked pained at the mention of her father and his abilities. "Neither I nor your honored father, Princess, knew when these people would come to us, although he knew they would somehow be connected to you. Personally, I had hoped that you all would come after my time." He sighed heavily and shook his head slightly, almost talking to himself, now. "But that is not for me to decide. People such as these four always find themselves wherever they are needed to change the balance of this world."

Erika and Janak looked at him with concern. Erika began to ask what he meant by that last part, but Ashri continued before she could interject. "Lina Inverse, by leaving your homeland, you and your friends set in motion a chain of events, the effect of which will be felt long after you leave this world. Part of that chain directly affects us, the Chakar tribe, but how, and for good or for ill? I am not sure. Each vision was so short and so vague that I could not tell you the specifics of what will happen to you--or us. You four are the harbingers of change, the catalysts of revolution. In your wake you typically leave a path of destruction." He saw the looks of protest on their faces and added, "But destruction begets creation. Such is the way of this world. We see it every day, how this forest refreshes itself. It is my hope that despite whatever awaits my people, we will be able to recreate ourselves in the same way as the trees around us do all the time."

Their protests died on their lips. They had no idea what to say in response to the Elder. Finally, it was Ameria who cleared her throat and stepped forward. "Honored Elder," she said, picking up on what seemed to be a standard form of address in this part of the world, "you are obviously wise and worthy of respect and loyalty. We will all ponder your words as we have pondered other prophesies we have encountered. If what you say comes to pass, that we will somehow bring change upon your people, please be assured that we will do everything we can to ensure that the outcome brings no harm to you. It is the least we can do in return for the sacrifice you and your people made to rescue us from the Chakanai." She bowed and the Elder nodded in return, a ghost of a smile playing across his lips.

Turning to Rikha, Ashri spoke to her briefly in Ancient Chorioni and Janak turned to Erika and grinned. Erika smiled back weakly, throwing a nervous glance at Lina and her friends. The Elder turned his attention back to Ameria and spoke, "You are most gracious, honored princess. You assure me that I have made a good decision just now." He smiled at their skeptical looks. "After your ordeal, I am sure you will find a hot bath relaxing. In the meantime, we will prepare a feast to celebrate both our victory against the Chakanai and your acceptance into the tribe." Erika winced as Zel and Ameria raised their eyebrows in unison and threw her questioning looks. Lina and Gourry, on the other hand, brightened considerably at the sound of food. Janak and Erika bowed to the Elder and then turned to their friends.

As Ashri and Rikha left them for the center of camp, Lina and Gourry turned to each other, their eyes watery and as wide as dinner plates, and clasped each other's hands. Gourry had to crouch so he was close to eye level with Lina. "Gourry, did you hear what he said?" Lina said in a wavering, overdramatic voice.

"Lina...I know..." the swordsman replied just as fervently. Drool began leaking from the corners of their mouths.

"We're going to eat!!" the pair exclaimed joyously, pulling together and then breaking apart, only to link arms and begin skipping in a circle around their friends.

"Food, loo loo loo!!" Lina sang at the top of her lungs.

"Food, la la la!!" Gourry chimed in.

Zel, who was unfortunately accustomed to this kind of behavior, squeezed his eyes shut, rested one elbow in his palm, and began to rub his forehead as if to ward off an impending headache. Ameria rolled her eyes and shook her head as Erika looked on incredulously and Janak burst out laughing. As funny as it was to see the little sorceress, her clothes and hair a mess but her dirt-streaked face the very picture of rapture, skipping around like a small child, it was hilarious to see Gourry, a tall, grown man, doing the same. They circled a few times, half shouting their song, and then Lina pulled them to a stop in front of Erika and Janak, who was by now wiping tears of mirth from his green eyes.

"So!" Lina began expectantly, looking from one Chakar to the other greedily. "How 'bout that feast? I forgot how hungry I was until now!"

Janak was about to respond when Zel pulled his hand away from his forehead and said, "Hold it. There's something more important someone seems to have forgotten to tell us about." He looked at Erika meaningfully. The former princess quailed under his unyielding, aqua gaze, biting her lip nervously as she fidgeted with the tattered hem of her tunic. She managed a glance up at Janak, who held up both hands as if to say "This is your responsibility, not mine." She glared at him in reply.

"What do you mean, Zel?" Gourry asked, his eyes flicking from the chimera to Erika and back questioningly. Lina stepped over to where Erika was standing and looked at her suspiciously. She had a familiar expression on her face, one Lina had come to recognize as the look she got whenever she was about to explain some crucial piece of information she'd neglected to tell them when it would have been highly useful for them to know.

"Well, um...well, you see..." Erika started, lacing and unlacing her fingers and gesturing feebly. "You see, there's, um, this matter of Chakar laws."

"And?" Lina said, quirking an eyebrow at her. She looked at Janak, but he merely shrugged and looked at her mildly. It was obvious he had no intention of helping Erika explain, for whatever reason. "What about them?"

"Well...under Chakar law, anyone who has been to one of our camps must be made a member of the tribe. That will happen in a little ceremony before the feast Elder mentioned," she explained, her tone betraying that there was more to this than she was telling them.

"You never said anything about this," Zel said accusingly, folding his arms across his chest. "What if we don't want to join your tribe?"

Erika winced as he said this, galvanizing Ameria to her defense. "She can't help it if that's how their laws are written, Zelgadiss-san!"

"Well, she could have mentioned this before we got here, so we'd have some choice in the matter," the chimera pointed out.

"Unless she didn't want us to have that choice..." Lina trailed off suspiciously.

Janak shook his head. "No, it wasn't that, I can assure you," he spoke up. Erika looked up at him gratefully. "I tried to get her to tell you earlier, but it was nerves that held her back. It wasn't as if she was trying to lie to you."

"And why would she be nervous about this, hmm?" Zel countered, his eyes narrowed with suspicion. "What does this ceremony involve?" He clenched his jaw in dread and anticipated her response, which would probably be even more ludicrous than the things he'd been forced to do in the past. He didn't know what could be worse than wearing a dress, a medieval nobleman's outfit, or worse yet, a bunny suit, and being forced to sing or dance or play a ridiculous word game in front of a few hundred people, but he was sure it would be something pretty bad. He always ended up being humiliated at times like these.

"Um...basically, what it amounts to...well, what you do is...is, y-you swear an oath not to betray the tribe...not to reveal our power to the outside world--" she stammered, pinwheeling a hand, "--things like that. Then there's um...well, there's a--a little pact of sorts, and then we're done."

"And then we eat, right?" Lina clarified, and Erika nodded hesitantly. "You forgot that part. That's the most important part." Gourry nodded vigorously in agreement.

Erika smiled weakly. "Yes, and then we eat."

Ameria glanced at her friends, gauging their reactions, which were mixed. Zel still looked suspicious, but Lina and Gourry had obviously already concluded what Ameria was about to point out. "That doesn't seem too bad," she said. "We've done stranger things in the past."

"All right, now that that's settled, let's go!" Lina said quickly, cutting off Zel as he opened his mouth to comment. "The sooner we get cleaned up, the sooner we can eat!" She grabbed Gourry's arm and began to pull him away, heading off in a randomly chosen direction, humming her food song. She had no idea where the baths were, but Lina never let details like that get in her way.

Growling with irritation, Zelgadiss grabbed her shoulder guard roughly and yanked her back. She bent backward and then toppled over with a screech, almost pulling Gourry down after her. "Zel!!" she shouted in protest.

"We're not finished yet," he snarled. "Not until I know the details of this 'pact.'"

Lina jumped up and immediately got in Zel's face, quite a feat given her tiny frame. "That's no reason to go pushing people around!"

"Think for a second," Zel snapped. "You should know better than to be so casual when it comes to agreements like this." He held up his left hand in front of her face, palm inward, and pointed to the greenish rocks protruding from it. "Trust me. You can get burned when you don't know what you're getting into."

Lina huffed and swatted his hand away. "All right, all right," she said and turned to Erika, waving a hand impatiently. "So tell us about this pact thing. In thirty seconds or less."

Erika seemed reluctant to say, but under the forceful gaze of a hungry Lina, she couldn't argue. "It involves a...well, a-a-al-a little bit of, um..." She stopped for a second, realizing that there was no subtle way out of this, and sighed resignedly and said dully, "It involves a little bit of blood. Basically, the Elder will make a cut in my arm and a cut in yours and press the two wounds together. Then you'll become one of us."

"A blood pact," Ameria commented quietly.

Lina paused, her hunger momentarily forgotten. "That's pretty serious, Erika," she said, her tone the same as Ameria's.

Zel exhaled slowly and shook his head. "I know things are different here," he said, his tone surprisingly gentle given what he had just learned, "but among those who can use magic, blood pacts are very serious. No sorcerer worth his salt will touch one of those unless he's absolutely sure he knows what he's getting into. And even then..." He trailed off and shook his head again.

"You don’t understand!" Erika protested, her usually alto voice raised several pitches. "You need the blood pact, so you can become Chakar!"

"We know, Erika, but--" Lina said, but Erika interrupted her.

"No, you don't know!" she said insistently, wringing her hands. "You don't understand! It's not just as if you say a few words and make a little cut and it's all ceremony, all for show. Once you do this, you'll become Chakar!"

There was a pause, during which Ameria, Zelgadiss, and Lina exchanged confused glances; obviously they were not communicating on the same wavelength. They glanced at Janak, but he just looked at them blandly, obviously unwilling to help them understand what exactly was going on. Gourry, on the other hand, smacked his fist into his palm and exclaimed, "Ohhh! I get it! Then we get chalky!"

Everyone blinked at him for a second. Then Janak's face brightened in comprehension and he threw his head back and roared with laughter. At the same time, Erika, now at the end of her rope, smacked both hands over her face in sheer aggravation. "It's Chana," she corrected, her voice flat and muffled. "Cha-na. Not china, not cha-cha, not...not chalky," she said incredulously, pulling her hands from her face, "Chana. Got it?! Chana!!"

Gourry nodded smartly, oblivious to her frustration. "Chana. Got it." Erika smacked her hands back over her face again and let out a muffled cry of extreme frustration from the combination of Gourry's flippant attitude and her stress at being put in the spotlight as she was right now.

"What?" Lina exclaimed, ignoring Erika's distress, as realization dawned on her face just as it did on Zel's and Ameria's.

"Wait, you mean--" Ameria started to say, but Zel cut her off.

"How is that possible?!" Zel demanded.

Erika just stood there, still clutching her face, breathing heavily between her teeth; she was obviously at the breaking point from the combination of physical injury and fear of death from earlier that day, from what the Elder had told her about her family, and from having to explain such a crucial and touchy requirement to her friends.

“Chana is passed on by blood,” Janak explained calmly, almost bemused at the idea of finally bringing everyone in on the secret. “We don’t know how or why, but it is. The early Chakar often ended up taking in outsiders, either by marriage or when someone stumbled across them, and they made a law stating that all outsiders must receive Chakar blood to deter them from betraying the tribe—a law we still follow today. It doesn’t take much blood for an outsider to gain Chana, although the effect is less than for those who were born Chakar. He looked at the three sorcerers thoughtfully. “Of course, we don’t really know what the effect magic has on the whole equation. Magic-users have joined the tribe before, but none nearly as powerful as you—from what I can tell, no one in our part of the world can do much more than a light spell, so there would be no real reason for them or their descendents to experiment with magic once they gained Chana. I would think it would make no difference in your spell-casting ability--it didn't for Erika’s uncle, and I know a few recent additions to the tribe who can still cast what little magic they know.”

“So…wait just a minute,” Lina said incredulously, still trying to grasp what they were telling her. “You mean to tell me that once we do this pact, we’ll end up kind of like you?” She glanced from Ameria, who looked amazed, to Gourry, who looked as if he had already accepted this and was ready to move on, to Zel, whose expression had changed from a perturbed stare to cautiously eager, maybe even slightly devious as he realized the ramifications of gaining new power.

“Kind of,” Janak agreed. “Typically, outsiders gain one or two common affinities, like telekinesis, telepathy, teleportation, or healing, although it’s not unheard of for them to pick up a rarer one like empathy, pyrokinesis, or hydrokinesis. In addition to that, anyone who receives so much as a drop of Chakar blood gains the ability to sense other Chakar, and Chakanai for that matter, within a certain distance." Janak grinned. “You won’t gain the immunity to magic that we have, but all told, it's a good deal.”

"And all we have to do is promise not to tell people about you," Zel said, still suspicious despite the budding excitement he always felt whenever he found something that just might bring him that much closer to his cure. "That's it. Nothing else? No bizarre side effects? We don't have to stay here, or go on any strange side quests for your people, or anything like that?"

Janak flashed them a winning smile. "Most people who join the tribe stay, but that's because they like our company, not because they're compelled to. Initiations are rare--we only do maybe one every two years or so. But they usually involve small groups of people; typically, when outsiders find out what they're getting into, they bring their whole families. Sometimes we get runaways, like kids who don't like who they're betrothed to, but no one has found their pact to be oppressive yet, that I know of."

"But what about me?" Ameria asked. "I'm the princess of a foreign kingdom," she pointed out. "Won't that cause problems for your tribe, having more foreign royalty involved?"

Erika, who had calmed down to the point where she was now merely standing there, hugging herself and looking drained, admitted, "The Elder is taking a big step in bringing you in. But I think he already had his mind made up about you before he even met you personally. You heard what he said--he'd seen you before in a vision." Her expression darkened. "As did my honored father."

"You weren't able to understand what he said to General Rikha, but he basically told her that he had to trust his and honored King Richard's visions. Perhaps you would be risky for our people, but what if the tribe would somehow be irreparably harmed if he didn't make you one of us?" Janak patted Ameria on the shoulder and she gave him a small smile. "I think he saw what kind of person you are and felt that he could trust you.

Erika added, "You--and most likely your children, for that matter--will be in the same situation my family and Janak's family have been in, but you'll probably be able to chalk up any unusual abilities you gain to your ability with magic, once you leave the forest. In that sense, you'll be better off than we are."

Ameria nodded. "That's true. That will, of course, mean that Saillune should work out some kind of formal alliance with the Chakar, even if it's kept secret from the public. I'll have to talk to Elder Ashri about that."

Zel let out a long breath and racked his brain, trying to think of ways this could come back to hurt him. When none came to mind, he shrugged and said, “Well then, what are we waiting for?”

“You’re not mad?” Erika asked, turning toward him apprehensively.

Zel looked at her wryly. “Why would I be mad? I just wish you would have told us sooner that once we got here, we’d be given new power.”

“That’s right,” Lina agreed. “We were helpless against the Chakanai. At least now, if we ran into one of them, we’d have a better chance.”

“Maybe it’ll help me control this better,” Gourry mused, looking down at the sword hanging from his belt. Before their arrival at Elik’haren, he was beginning to get used to the constant feeling of the weapon tugging at him, seeking his or any other energy. Now, ‘the sword that takes’ was conspicuously dormant, which made him wonder just what the Elder had done to quiet it, and, more importantly, what he could do to achieve the same thing.

“That settles it,” Ameria said, gesturing for Erika and Janak to lead them. “Let’s get cleaned up and then get to the feast!” With that, they headed toward the east side of the village of Elik’haren, toward the river and a much-needed hot bath.

* * *

An hour later, after their bath, Lina, Ameria, and Erika joined Gourry, Zelgadiss, and Janak outside the bathhouse. Dusk had fallen and the forest was mostly dark and full of the nighttime sounds of insects and animals. The air carried the smell of moist leaves, forest mold, burning wood, and barbequed meat, an observation that Lina and Gourry did not miss. They grumbled about how hungry they were until Rikha arrived to give them instructions as to what to do during the initiation ceremony.

Erika and Janak bowed as Rikha approached, holding a lantern in one dark hand. She had changed out of her patchy green tunic and hose to a long, pale blue robe with the same insignia on the collar of her uniform embroidered along the neckline. The color of her robe matched the streaks of makeup on her cheeks. A thin, leather belt rested low over her hips and a long knife hung from it within easy reach of her right hand. She had let down the complicated knot of cornrow braids that had previously rested atop her head and twisted them into a simpler loop at the nape of her neck. She nodded to each of them as she approached. "Good evening. I see you have been given fresh clothes," she observed.

Indeed, each of them had been given plain green short-sleeved cotton tunics, loose-fitting, comfortable pants, and sandals woven from rushes. They had kept their weapons, belts, and jewelry, but surrendered the rest of their clothes to the young teenagers charged with taking care of them during their bath. Their clothes would be mended, cleaned, and returned to them in a few days, they were told. Erika had rebraided her flaxen hair and had painted her face with two long streaks of brown color on her right cheek and one yellow triangle on the other. Janak sported an obtuse, deep green triangle on one side of his face from his cheekbone to his jaw and a brown triangle on the other cheek. These marks indicated their primary affinities, they explained, and how powerful they were. Janak's tunic had deep green embroidery along his collar, but Erika's was plain, just like their friends', because they had never been to Elik'haren before.

"Yes, we appreciate it," Janak said in reply to Rikha. "Ours were in pretty bad shape. The kids took care of us well."

"Except, we're hungry," Lina said sullenly. Gourry nodded readily.

Rikha arched an eyebrow; obviously, she didn't understand the full power of Lina and Gourry's otherwise notorious hunger. "Dinner is almost ready, but won't be served until after the ceremony. We are almost ready for you. Everyone who lives in Elik'haren is already assembled. We're just waiting on latecomers teleporting in from other bases. In all, about a thousand should be here," she said.

Janak whistled. "They're here to see her?" he asked, nodding toward Erika, who looked apprehensive at the thought.

Rikha nodded. "And they're curious about these newcomers. We've never let in magic users as powerful as you before," she said to Lina, Zel, and Ameria, "nor have we ever seen a weapon like yours, Gourry." The swordsman just shrugged. "Anyway, this is what is going to happen: honored Elder will make a cut in Erika's arm and a cut in yours. He will press the wounds together and ask you to swear that you will not reveal the Chakar tribe or your Chana to the outside world." She looked at each of them seriously, the flame in the lantern causing her bright blue eyes to flicker. "You may feel the effects of your Chana immediately, or it may take several days. It may come quietly, or it may be...violent."

"What do you mean, violent?" Ameria asked, furrowing her brow with concern.

"It may be a very forceful reaction," she replied evasively. "Whatever the case, just try not to panic, and you'll be all right. If anything gets out of control, we'll handle it." Lina and Zel exchanged a glance; neither of them liked the sound of that. Rikha ignored their dubiousness; she paused and cocked her head to the side, as if she was listening to a voice only she could hear. "Everything is ready. Come," she said, turning and heading toward the center of camp without waiting for them to follow.

Lina, Zel, and Ameria glanced at each other, nonverbally communicating their unease with what Rikha had just said. Gourry followed behind her without hesitation, and Janak and Erika brought up the rear. Erika looked nervous, Janak noted, so he said quietly, "You'll be all right. You know what to do."

Erika ducked her head, her braids brushing against her face as she absently fingered the hem of her tunic. "I just...I just don't know what they'll think of me," she said hesitantly.

He reached out and patted her on the shoulder. "Relax, you haven't done anything wrong. Everyone knows that, or will soon--you know how fast people can spread the word around here." She shrugged slightly, unwilling to believe him. Frowning, Janak leaned in closer to her and said gently, "Erika, what's done is done, and you can't do anything about it. You're here now--not as queen, but as someone who did what she had to." She met his eyes briefly, then looked away, and finally nodded slightly.

He didn't have time to say anything more; by that point they had reached the edge of the clearing that formed the center of Elik'haren. Long tables had been set up, lined with benches on each side, and seated on those benches were hundreds upon hundreds of Chakar, laughing and talking among themselves both out loud and telepathically. This area of the forest was well lit, both from a giant fire in the center of the clearing and from the torches at the end of long poles stuck into the ground among the tables. Their eyes were drawn upward as they approached; here, the web-like branches of the trees had been cut away so that they could see the little tree houses on each level above ground. Interestingly, the light coming from this area seemed to stop just below the very tops of the trees due to the Chana shield that was constantly maintained over the camp to prevent spying Chakanai and regular people alike from spotting it.

The buzz of activity quieted as they were led in between the tables to a small wooden stage not far from the fire, over which was suspended the body of a giant boar, turning of its own accord, roasting on a telekinetic spit. Good smells wafted over from a rather large building nearby on the ground level, presumably the kitchen for the entire camp. By the time Erika and Janak hopped up onto the stage and all had bowed to Elder Ashri, who was waiting for them there, a hush had fallen over the crowd, and they could all feel more than a thousand pairs of eyes on them from all sides.

While Lina and Gourry looked longingly at the roasting boar, Ameria, Zelgadiss, and Erika looked back at the crowd with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. People seemed to be seated according to the colors of their robes or the thread on their tunics. Most of the people had brown embroidery or robes, but there were also large groups of people in yellow and white. Red and pale blue were the next biggest groups, with small groups of people wearing purple, black, and gray. They spotted the children who had first raised the shield around them at the Chakanai camp, all dressed in identical brown robes and staring at them with mildly curious expressions. Several people in white robes or tunics approached the stage as soon as they arrived and took up position along one side; Erika recognized one of them as the man who had healed her ribs on the battleground.

"Good evening," Elder Ashri greeted them, the hood of his green robe thrown back to reveal a balding head and tufts of gray-white hair that matched his stringy beard. "I trust you were well taken care of?"

"We were," Janak agreed. Erika shot a look at Lina and Gourry warning them not to bring up how hungry they were.

"Good." He looked at Erika, who snapped her attention back to him. "Princess, are you ready?"

Erika licked her lips and sucked in a breath to settle herself. "Yes, I'm ready, Elder," she replied.

He studied her for a moment and she tried not to look away or fidget. He nodded, apparently satisfied that she was, indeed, ready, and then stepped around her to one edge of the stage. Holding his arms out, he addressed the hushed crowd in a loud voice in Ancient Chorioni, but neither Rikha, Erika, nor Janak translated for the four who didn't understand. They guessed they were being introduced by name when Ashri called out Janak's name. The prince apparently knew quite a few people present and was well liked; when he dipped an easygoing bow to the audience, they applauded loudly and cheered. Ameria, Zelgadiss, Gourry, and Lina were next, in that order. Apparently, everyone was interested in Ameria's royal status--several people bowed their heads respectfully when the Elder announced her title. Gourry's reception was cautious, given what had happened earlier with his sword, while Zel's and Lina's mostly consisted of polite clapping. There was a hush, however, when Elder Ashri announced Erika. She had moved to the side of the stage to make room for her friends and stood, rooted to the spot, as everyone's eyes fell to her. Her parents had been well-known for being both powerful and wise, but no one had seen or heard much beyond rumors about their child, and it seemed as if they were sizing her up. Erika shifted uncomfortably when the crowd finally started applauding, wondering just what they were thinking.

Once the Elder finished speaking, he turned toward the center of the stage and held out one hand. The ring on his finger pulsated once, and flames suddenly engulfed his hand up to his wrist. He closed his fist around the flames and dropped them onto the wooden stage, causing the four foreigners to jump slightly in surprise. The fire stopped just short of the wood and expanded so that it was about two feet in diameter.

Ashri then turned to Rikha, who unsheathed the long knife from her belt and bowed down on one knee, holding the weapon across her right palm and closed left fist. Now that they were in better light, they could see that the leather sheath was inscribed with complicated symbols and patterns. A similar pattern was etched into the hilt, which looked very old. Ashri took it from her, his hand uninjured despite the flames he had just conjured, and Erika stepped closer; together, the two of them stood in front of the hovering fire. Erika extended her right arm, palm upward, and, after a few words, the Elder drew the tip of the blade from the crook of her elbow down to her wrist. Blood welled up from the shallow wound and dripped freely into the flames, which danced in reply. Once the cut was finished, Ashri held the blade vertically over the fire, telekinetically wiping the blood from it. Rikha quickly ushered Ameria to the left of Ashri, explaining that she would be first because she was royalty. With a gulp, she extended her arm over the fire as Erika had.

"This weapon was created almost a thousand years ago and has touched the blood of every outsider to join the Chakar," Elder Ashri said reverently, his accented voice just barely audible. "You have learned our secrets and therefore have agreed to bind yourself to the Chakar tribe by taking on the blood of the one who brought you to us. You will inherit Chana, that which brings balance to those granted it. As you are already experienced in magic, I will only remind you that power can be used for both good and evil, and the fate of your very soul rests on your decision either to use or misuse the power you have been given. We ask only that you swear two things: never to reveal the nature of your power to the outside world and never to betray the existence or location of our people. Do you swear this?"

Ameria swallowed, her eyes flicking from the Elder to Erika, whose solemn face was white in the light of the flames, to the weapon Ashri held in his hand. The knife was viciously long and she realized she had forgotten to ask just how big and deep of a cut was sufficient. She had never particularly liked bladed weapons, not since her mother's death. "Don't worry," Rikha murmured behind her as she saw Ameria's shoulders tense. "One of our healers will close the wound almost as soon as he makes it."

Letting out a breath, Ameria's blue eyes hardened with determination and she held out her arm a little farther. "I swear it," she responded. He took her tiny wrist into his knobbled left hand and placed the tip of the knife near her elbow. It bit into her skin and she looked away. I hope I know what I'm getting myself into, she thought, biting her tongue against the pain. As soon as the cut was finished, he passed Rikha the knife and swiftly grabbed Erika's arm. Flipping the taller girls palm over, he brought their arms together, pressing Erika's wound to Ameria's. Their blood mingled and dripped into the fire below them and Ameria could feel the flames licking at her arm, rising higher as their blood fed the fire. She caught her breath as the cut suddenly seemed to flare to life and her whole body tingled with energy. Reflexively, she tried to pull back, but Ashri had a solid grip on their arms and did not let go.

Just when Ameria didn't think she could take any more, the Elder released her and Ameria stumbled backward into Rikha. "Do you feel any different?" Rikha asked in her ear while passing the knife to the Elder so she could hold onto her.

Ameria shook her head, which felt like it was buzzing with energy. "Tingly, and--" She stopped and looked up at Rikha as if she was seeing something for the first time. "It's so hard to describe..." she said, her voice hushed with amazement. "It's like I could close my eyes and still see you there...see everyone. Not the details, just...an aura..."

The Chakar general smiled. "Welcome to the tribe." She motioned for two of the healers standing alongside the stage to come. As she handed an awed Ameria off to them, the little princess thought she heard blood roaring in her ears, but when she looked around, she saw that people were clapping for her--people whose presence she could feel even with her eyes closed. One of the healers, a boy not much older than she, took her arm in his hands while the other steadied her shoulders, and passed his hand over the cut. As he did so, it sealed itself until there was only a paper thin, white line on her arm from elbow to wrist. They moved her to the left side of the stage to make room for Gourry, whom Ashri had decided to call up next.

The swordsman looked from Erika, who was standing silent and still despite the fact that her arm was bleeding freely, her face ghost-white in the light of the fire. "Is she all right?" he asked Ashri, nodding in Erika's direction.

"She'll be fine," he replied firmly, reaching for Gourry's wrist. "She put herself into a light trance, so she feels no pain and will recover quickly from the loss of blood. Now then," Ashri said quietly, and repeated what he'd told Ameria about the knife, holding Gourry's wrist lightly in his left hand. "You have learned our secrets and therefore have agreed to bind yourself to the Chakar tribe by taking on the blood of the one who brought you to us. You will inherit Chana, that which brings balance to those granted it." He glanced at the sword at Gourry's hip and continued, "Your heart seems to be free of the lust of power, but you must temper yourself further to master the power inherent in that weapon. If you do not, it will abuse and ultimately consume you and those dearest to you. For now, I ask you swear two things: never to reveal the nature of your power to the outside world and never to betray the existence or location of our people. Do you swear it?"

Gourry looked at the Elder seriously, knowing he was right about the sword, his swordsman's resolve hardening within him. "I do," he replied, and Ashri brought the knife to his elbow. Gourry didn't flinch as the blade nipped through his skin until it reached his wrist. Passing the weapon to Rikha, who telekinetically cleaned it over the fire, the Elder brought Erika's arm over to Gourry's and held her wound over his. The fire flared as it tasted their combined blood, and Gourry felt a bolt of power jolt through him, making his body shudder.

"Strengthen your mind, Gourry," Ashri said, looking at him keenly. Gourry felt his whole body begin to tingle and he gritted his teeth, willing himself to stay put and see this through. The tingling rapidly became pure pain as he was overcome with energy and the cut in his arm began to burn worse than any of Lina's fire spells could have made it. He yanked it backward with a cry and managed to break Ashri's grip.

A few paces behind him, Lina gasped in horror as he sank to the stage, clutching the wound with one hand, a cloud of sparks enveloping his whole body. His hair stood on end and his muscles twitched as energy flowed unchecked through him.

"Gourry!" Lina cried and started forward, but Rikha held her back.

"Don't interfere! I said we'd handle it!" the Chakar general bit harshly.

The Elder stepped closer to the swordsman, doubled over on his knees, his wrinkled face hardened. "This time I cannot help you, Gourry. You must control this yourself. You are more than this power. Resist it!"

For a few seconds, it seemed as if his words had no effect. Then, with an unintelligible roar, Gourry threw his head back and the haze of power around him vanished. He knelt there for a moment, panting, his face screwed up and his left hand still clutching his right forearm. His clothes were now singed and his long hair was sticking out every which way. Slowly, he turned his head and looked up at the Elder intensely. "I think," he said slowly, "I'm going to need some practice at this."

Ashri nodded and extended his hand to help him up. "You have made a good start." He glanced at two more healers waiting offstage and they quickly joined them. Turning to everyone else on the stage with a satisfied look on his face, Ashri explained, "Gourry's Chana is strong, considering that he was not born of our people. He has the power to manipulate energy. It can be a difficult power to control, but I have no doubt he will come to master it quickly." Ashri met Lina's eyes. "He will be fine."

Unconvinced, Lina looked over at Gourry, who was flexing the fingers of his right hand, the cut in his arm now merely a white line. He suddenly looked up, as if he had just noticed the crowd of a thousand people all watching him and was seeing them for the first time. Feeling a little overwhelmed by this new kind of sight, he turned to Lina and noticed her concern. He immediately flashed her a brief smile as he started to pat his hair down and she felt herself relax marginally. "Lina..." Ashri said, and she turned to look at him. He crossed the stage back over to the Erika and the fire and beckoned her toward him. "It is your turn."

The little sorceress nodded and stepped toward him, albeit not without trepidation. Rikha handed Ashri the knife again and reluctantly, Lina placed her right wrist in his palm. Glancing from Erika's ghostlike face to his, she listened as he repeated what he'd said to Ameria and Gourry before her. "You have learned our secrets and therefore have agreed to bind yourself to the Chakar tribe by taking on the blood of the one who brought you to us. You will inherit Chana, that which brings balance to those granted it." He tightened his grip on her slightly and looked into her eyes, which were a deep crimson in the firelight. "Of all the people in this world, perhaps none have tasted power to the extent you have. And yet, I sense there is still much for you to learn about the true nature of power and its many forms. It is my hope that you use what you gain from us to do what is right. I ask you swear two things: never to reveal the nature of your power to the outside world and never to betray the existence or location of our people. Do you swear it?"

"I swear it," she said, her eyes locked with the Elder's even as she felt the knife cut into her arm. He looked away once he had finished it, passing the blade to Rikha and reaching for Erika's still bleeding arm.

Lina felt something happen the second Erika's blood reached her own wound. Th-thump...th-thump... Her heart pulsed forcefully and the cut throbbed in reply. She sucked in a breath and closed her eyes, trying to steady herself, and as she breathed deeply, her insides seemed to contract inside her. That hollow feeling spread throughout her whole body, and for some reason, she could not open her eyes once she had closed them. She felt a tingling sensation in her arm that quickly traveled to her head and became a roaring sound, like the waves of the ocean as they crash against a rocky shore. Amidst the roaring, she thought she could pick out something else--the sound of an unfamiliar voice, creaky with old age.

Just as the voice became louder and the roaring softer, the blackness in front of her eyes lightened, as if she was coming upon the end of a dark passageway. The roaring abated somewhat, but did not diminish completely, as the lightness brightened until she could stand it no longer. Then, suddenly, she could make out shapes against the light--the shadowy form of a man--no, two men. One had his arms raised and was the source of the voice. The light died down and the picture sharpened, as did the man's voice, until she could make out features and syllables and could see the area around her.

She was in the midst of a field blanketed with golden wheat surrounded in the distance by mountains. The place had a very familiar feel to it, she realized as she gazed around in confusion, but she couldn't quite figure out when she had seen it before. She turned to the man who wasn't speaking, intending to demand what was going on, but stopped when she saw the expression on his face. He was a little older than she, stout with brown hair and a brown beard. He looked like he was ordinarily an easygoing person, but right now he was scared more than he ever had been in his short life. Just as she found her voice, there was an enormous crack and her head snapped around to face the man who was speaking. He was a short, bony old thing who would have looked frail were it not for the enormous power he had just produced and was now barely controlling with his feeble hands as he continued chanting. Lina caught her breath; even though she could not understand his language, she recognized the ball of power he was holding aloft. It was strange to see it from this angle, as an outside observer, but the shape of it and the weird feeling of chaotic energy in the air were unmistakable. She tried to lunge forward, to yell, to do anything stop him from completing the incantation, but she couldn't move her legs at all. As he neared the end of the spell, a gust of wind burst outward from the old man's upturned hands, blowing down all the wheat around them and knocking the younger man to the ground. The air just passed through her, though, and her scream was lost as soon as it left her lips in the chaos that was building around the old man. A great black vortex opened up in the sky above him and touched the power in his hands when he whispered the final two words of his incantation. As he said those words, Lina caught a glimpse of something just beyond the terrified young man cowering on the ground. It was the huge, beastlike form of a giant wolf, standing tall against the blowing wheat, its golden, slit-pupiled eyes watching the vortex with feral glee. Then, the blackness of the vortex descended around them all, and the ground exploded upward in a ring around the old man, filling the air with black chaos and dust until she could see nothing more.

The next thing she knew, could feel the roughness of wood under her back and could hear the hum of many hushed voices, punctured by one familiar one calling her name. "Gourry?" she groaned, squeezing her eyes closed tighter as her head began to pound with pain. "What happened?"

“Lina,” Gourry repeated, sounding relieved.

"Lina, please open your eyes," another voice commanded, one that she couldn't ignore. Slowly, she complied. From where she lay, her field of vision was filled completely with two heads--Gourry's and Elder Ashri's. Gourry looked concerned, while the Elder looked more thoughtful than anything else. "What happened, Lina? Did you see or feel anything strange to you?"

Everything she had just witnessed flashed again before her eyes, and she decided immediately that she didn't want to tell anyone, much less the Elder, what she had seen, not until she, herself, knew what had happened. She opened her mouth to give whatever excuse popped into her head, but fortunately, her stomach did all the talking for her. It suddenly quivered and growled so loudly that both men gave a start when they heard it. Putting this timely development to good use, she put on her most pitiful expression and said, "I must have fainted from hunger." She heard a snort coming from Zel's direction and resisted the urge to throw her leg out and kick him in the shin. Raising a hand to her forehead, she said, "I haven't eaten since early this morning and I get so weak if I skip lunch..."

Rikha, who had been standing above Lina’s head, barked out an order, and two healers stepped up. Gourry and the Elder stood up to give them room to work; the expression on Gourry’s face told her that he knew something more had happened, but he would follow her lead and let her be the one to say something about it if she wished. Lina looked down and realized that her arm had already been healed; only a thin, white scar remained as evidence that she had been cut. She gave a start of surprise as she felt her body lift from the wooden stage of its own accord. The healer to her right set her down on her feet gently with his Chana while the other held her steady. As they led her offstage and to a half-empty table, there was a round of applause from the congregated Chakar. While one of the white-robed men helped her sit down on the rough-hewn bench, the other passed her a basket filled with slices of bread. She dug in hungrily—it was just out of the oven, she could tell, but even if it had been completely stale she would have eaten it all the same. She could feel the Elder’s gaze upon her and knew he was suspicious that she was not telling him something.

Reluctantly, Elder Ashri turned his attention to the last person to be initiated. Zelgadiss stepped forward silently until he came up level to the Elder, near the fire. "How do you plan to do this?" he asked skeptically, crossing his arms. Nodding to the now clean knife Rikha had just passed to Ashri, he said, "Ordinary weapons won't do a thing against me."

Ashri held up the blade between them; as he did, it took on a soft, silvery glow. "Chana will make this knife strong enough," he said. "You may experience more pain than the others did."

Zel shrugged and extended his right arm, his gaze traveling between Erika's oblivious face and the knife. Taking Zel's wrist in his hand, he told him the same thing he had told the others: "You have learned our secrets and therefore have agreed to bind yourself to the Chakar tribe by taking on the blood of the one who brought you to us. You will inherit Chana, that which brings balance to those granted it. I sense that you need that balance, Zelgadiss." The chimera looked at him sharply and the Elder nodded sagely. "Your spirit is restless, constantly searching for power. But power without balance is nothing more than tyranny--tyranny over others or over oneself. I hope that you will not misuse what you gain from us, that you do not let it consume your soul. But all I will ask of you is that you swear two things: never to reveal the nature of your power to the outside world and never to betray the existence or location of our people. Do you swear it?"

Zel felt his mouth twist in a scowl, irritated at the Elder's words. The old man couldn't possibly know everything he had gone through in life, nor why he was still searching for a cure to make himself normal again. Ashri noticed his hesitation and caught his gaze, his expression pointedly placid. Zel shifted his eyes away quickly, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. "I swear it," he grumbled, and Ashri's grip tightened on his wrist. The tip of the blade touched the inside of his elbow and, after some pressure, the glowing weapon pierced it. Zel clenched his jaw as he felt his rocky skin crack open where the knife sliced through it with a sickening splintering sound. The advantage to such a tough exterior was that he was rarely injured in such a way that he felt much pain. But when he did manage to get hurt, it hurt much worse than a similar wound would in a normal human being, and it was an act of sheer will not to hiss in pain or pull back from the blade. Blood sprung up immediately from the cut and hugged the rocky crags of his arm like rainwater dripping down a mountainside. Ashri handed the knife off to Rikha and brought Erika's arm to his. Her eyes were flat and unresponsive, dull even in the dancing light of the flames in front of her. Her arm was stiff and her skin cold as their wounds touched and their blood intermingled. He felt a tingling sensation in his arm. Ashri held their arms together even after that sensation dissipated; after a long moment, he released them.

Immediately, two healers rushed up to him, just as they had his friends. One of them began healing the cut, which was almost as painful a procedure as when the cut was made. Because of the rocks, it took more effort to move his split flesh together again to heal, so he watched Erika's healing instead to distract himself from the pain. Rikha and another pair of healers crowded around her, holding her upright while Janak used his Chana to mend her arm. At the same time, Ashri held his hand over the crackling fire and it leapt upward, dissolving into his palm without even a puff of smoke. Rikha and the healers then laid Erika down on the stage so that the two men in white tunics could revive her. He couldn't see what happened next, but he heard her talking softly to them in Ancient Chorioni. After a moment, they helped her, pale and shaking from the loss of blood, to her feet, both of them supporting her weight with their shoulders. She looked first to Janak, who flashed her a thumbs up, and she smiled weakly first at him, and then at her friends.

Zel let out a breath and felt himself relax a little as the crowd erupted into cheers to welcome their new members. Knots in his stomach that he didn't even know were there loosened and he could feel tension drain away from his face and down his spine. As he followed Gourry and Ameria offstage to join Lina, he even smiled a little. Immediately after they took seats at Lina's table, kids about the same age as those tending the baths came out of the camp kitchen, bearing platters of food that smelled wonderful. The six friends dug in ravenously as soon as they were served, forgetting the trials of the past two days in favor of the pleasure of a good, hot meal.

* * *

It was not an uneventful meal, however. Typically, Lina and Gourry were about evenly matched when fighting over food. Lina's sheer force of will and speed due to her tiny frame balanced Gourry's strength and swordsman's reflexes. Usually, she narrowly won because Gourry knew a victory on his part was not worth the heartache, much less the headache she caused whenever she lost. However, in this case, Gourry clearly had the upper hand. Every time Lina would reach across the wooden table to steal a snatch of meat or a roasted potato, uncontrolled sparks would fly from Gourry's blocking hands and zap her painfully. Rikha, who was seated at the head of their table, tried throwing out suggestions for him to try to rein in his newfound power, since her primary affinity was energy manipulation as well, but the swordsman was too busy eating to have much luck controlling his wayward Chana.

Of course, everyone else had a few good laughs at Lina's expense--until she favored them with her patented death glare. After that, Rikha kept her observations restricted to mild comments like "I have never seen anyone eat so...energetically before." In the meantime, Zel ate more than he remembered eating in a long time--he hadn't realized just how hungry he was. Ameria knew how hungry she was, but once she saw the effects of Gourry's Chana, she wisely decided to keep to her own plate. Half the time, she simply gazed around, amazed at the fact that she could not only see every person near her, but feel their presence just as easily as she could feel the ground under her feet and the bench on which she sat. The rest of the time, she peppered Janak, Erika, and Rikha with questions to try to learn more about the Chakar and how they lived.

"Everyone seems so..." she pinwheeled a hand, searching for the correct word as she observed the Chakar around her, "so...color-coded. Everyone at the table behind me has white on, and everyone behind Janak is wearing yellow, or at least has yellow threading. What does it mean?"

"White is for healers," Rikha said, and took a sip out of her earthenware cup. "Although sometimes it's used for people who have very specialized telekinesis--like the ability to block others' attacks."

"Just like the kids who saved us," Zel observed.

"Exactly," Janak said. "Yellow is the color of teleporters, brown is for telepaths, and it goes on from there. I'm lucky--dark green is the color for really rare affinities." He grinned and batted his eyes teasingly at Ameria and Erika, who were seated next to each other across from him. "It matches my eyes, don't you think?"

Zel and Erika both snorted, but Ameria giggled and nodded. "Yes, yes it does. So why does everyone with the same affinity sit together? Don't people sit with their families?"

Rikha answered, "Families usually have time together after meals, unless we're locked in a big battle. Dinnertime is when people who share a deep similarity--their Chana--can relax and bond with others of their own kind. Often, people with the same affinity who are around the same age train together as children, so they form lifelong friendships. Also, it gives us the opportunity to give the younger ones good examples of how to use their Chana outside their formal training."

"What about the kids serving tonight?" she asked as she noticed a girl of about eleven dressed in a plain brown robe laboring to levitate a platter of food over the heads of the people at the next table, who were talking loudly, some of them clearly boasting of their exploits in the battle earlier today. Her face was screwed up with concentration as the wooden slab wobbled its way down to the table's surface.

"There were kids at the baths, too, right before we left," Zel recalled. "Don't they get to eat?"

"They eat in shifts, mostly before everyone else," Rikha answered. "Don't worry, they're not slaves--they're more the equivalent of pages at a royal court."

"It's part of their training, right?" Erika said, remembering what her parents had told her about Elik'haren when she was a child. "Even before they gain Chana, children have to learn the discipline that's required to use it wisely. When they start to gain their powers, they can try to use them to do their chores under the supervision of adults."

Ameria took a bite of potato and chewed thoughtfully, remembering when Erika and Janak refused to use their power both at Chorion City and during their first skirmish with the Chakanai. "That kind of discipline is important to you, isn't it?"

Rikha nodded gravely. "Perhaps it seems harsh to you, being from the outside world. But you have witnessed the horror of a battle between people with Chana. If we did not teach our young ones that their power is just as much a curse as it is a blessing, we would descend into chaos, attacking and killing each other like animals. We learned hundreds upon hundreds of years ago what happens when people with power misuse it--sorcerers drove us into these woods, and we have not emerged since. We resolved then, as a people, never to become like that."

Ameria considered what she said, absently sipping from her cup until it was empty. Rikha's words were heavy and made her think about home and how people viewed magic in her part of the world. It was disquieting how the magic guilds and sorcery instructors paid lip service to the idea of ethics when using magic, now that she thought of it. "I think," she mused as she reached for a pitcher of water on the table in front of her, "I'll have a talk with Daddy when I get home about how the magic guilds--AAAAAAAHH!!"

As soon as Ameria gripped the handle of the pitcher, it seemed to burst in her hand with an earsplitting bang. Broken earthenware splattered all over the table and water gushed everywhere, dripping onto Ameria's lap, but she didn't notice. The noise was so loud that everyone at her table as well as two tables on either side of them was jolted to silence. Even Lina and Gourry stopped eating and stared at her in surprise. Several tables away, Elder Ashri paused in his meal, a piece of pork halfway to his mouth, looked in Ameria's direction with a knowing smile, and calmly resumed eating. "I...I..." Ameria stammered, her heart thumping so powerfully in her chest everyone could see her pulse in her neck, "I must've...dropped...it..."

"You know very well that's not what happened, Princess," Rikha said quietly, rising from her seat and stepping around the bench to Ameria's side. Gently, she reached over Ameria's shoulder and brushed shards of pottery off of her skin, where they left little streaks of blood. The pitcher had been reduced to tiny pieces and dust; everyone knew there was no way she could have broken it so thoroughly by dropping it.

Ameria turned and looked up at Rikha, her eyes as wide as saucers. "Of...of course I did. I must have," she insisted, her voice raised a few pitches with tension. "How else could it have--"

"You destroyed it," Erika said just as quietly as Rikha had, while Janak poked his head up over everyone else's and looked around, signaling to the people at the other tables to stop staring and keep eating. Gradually, the sound of raucous conversation returned to its previous volume. "You have that power--that's your Chana," Erika continued once the spotlight was off of her friend. Her face, still pale after her ordeal at the initiation, was reverent as she gazed at Ameria.

"Her Chana?" Gourry repeated, eyeing Ameria cautiously as he brushed pottery dust off of his right arm and away from his plate. The little princess slowly brought her hand inward, cradling her lacerated left wrist in her right hand and staring at it as if it were some alien appendage she had just sprouted.

Lina, who was more accustomed to things exploding around her and therefore was far less shocked, took the opportunity while Gourry was distracted to snatch as much from his plate as possible. Her mouth stuffed full, she said, "Moo mean hee's rike sha womran hoo rew up sha cufhs?"

Wrinkling his brow as he turned his head toward her, Zel spoke with the incredulity echoed on everyone's faces at Lina's almost flippant attitude. "What did you say?"

The little sorceress gulped down what she had been chewing and threw her hands out. "Whaaaaat? He's been zapping me all night!" she exclaimed, gesticulating widely at Gourry and his plate. Huffing with indignation, she said, "I said, 'you mean she's like the woman who blew up the cuffs.' You know, the one who just touched them, and boom! They were off."

"Exactly like," came a new voice from not far away. Everyone looked up to see a big man threading his way between the tables with some difficulty to reach them. He was the wild-haired man who had freed Ameria, Zelgadiss, and Janak of their metal cuffs back at the battleground. His face was clean-shaven and rugged from sun damage; his mouth was wide and smiling, and his eyes were a light brown. His neck was like a tree trunk and his hands were about the size of dinner plates. His frame was bulky and muscular, and he stood at an imposing seven feet tall. He stopped at their table across from Ameria, towering over them.

"Everyone, this is Lieutenant Ef'hraim," Rikha introduced quickly.

"There, there, your highness," the newcomer said heartily, his speech guttural but clear. "You're just like us!" He jerked a thumb behind him toward a table full of people either wearing red or sporting red embroidery on their clothes. Some of them waved to Ameria, their smiles a bit crooked, but warm. "There's no concise way to describe it in your language, but basically, you have the ability to destroy things by touch." He beamed at her as if this was the best possible news anyone could possibly receive.

Zel, Gourry, and Lina all looked at her with a mixture of astonishment and alarm. Ameria looked as if she was about to cry. Her heart was pounding and her head swimming as pain was beginning to build up in her hands. She felt as if every nerve in her body was on fire, brimming with catastrophic potential. It was as if, at any moment now, she herself would explode just like the pitcher did. Erika realized that Ameria was losing control; just as Rikha moved to help her stand and Zelgadiss and Janak rose from their seats, faces full of concern, Erika grabbed the panicking princess's hands in her own and hissed loudly as they absorbed some of Ameria's rampant destructive power. "General..." she grunted, and Rikha started barking out commands, her dark face calm and serious.

"Take her over there," she ordered Erika, pointing to a spot beyond where people were eating and where the trees were still somewhat thin. "Lieutenant, show her how to control her Chana so she's not a danger to herself. The rest of you, keep eating. She'll be fine."

Erika didn't wait to hear anyone protest; in a split second, she and Ameria disappeared, reappearing where Rikha had indicated. Ameria immediately collapsed to her knees and Erika pressed her hands to the ground, where the Chana flowing from them diffused harmlessly. Ef'hraim stumbled through the narrow gap between benches to get to them, wading through the noisy, crowded area as fast as his large frame could carry him. The crowd didn't take much notice of the minor crisis taking place--they seemed used to the idea of strange happenings in their midst. In the meantime, Rikha resumed her place and gestured for the others to do so.

"How can you say 'she'll be fine' so casually?" Zel demanded of Rikha. "She's obviously suffering--what will happen to her?"

"Easy, there," Janak growled, pulling the chimera back down onto the bench roughly. "The more people there are around her freaking out, the more she'll lose control."

"Exactly," Rikha agreed. "Erika and Ef'hraim have it all under control. She'll be able to finish dinner in a few minutes, once she gets used to it."

"But--" Zel began, but Gourry cut him off.

"She has to learn to control it herself," the swordsman said, looking down at his own hands soberly. As if to punctuate his point, sparks arced between a few of his fingers.

Zel, Lina, and Gourry all looked over to where Ameria was now standing, her hands engulfed in Ef'hraim's enormous ones. He was speaking to her calmly while Erika waited behind her friend. After a moment, the Chakar lieutenant nodded to her, and she looked back toward her table. She teleported to her place a few seconds later, her face white with weariness. "She'll be all right," she reported, although nobody but Rikha and Janak looked ready to believe her. "She's already beginning to get the hang of it."

"Ameria's always been a pretty quick study--she mastered the Ra Tilt at a young age," Lina pointed out, stuffing the last bite of meat into her mouth. Her stomach was swollen with as much food as she could stuff into it, and she patted the bulge with satisfaction.

"Well, she'll have plenty of training to do while you're all here," Rikha said, looking at each of them seriously. "You all will, as your Chana manifests itself." She turned to Gourry and said, "You will train with me, since our affinities are the same. Starting first thing in the morning, we will work on controlling small amounts of raw energy, and then, depending on how fast you pick it up and how strong your Chana proves to be, we'll move on to more complicated aspects of control. I'd like to see you reach the point where you can use your Chana to rein in that sword, so there are no repeats of what happened earlier today."

Gourry swallowed the last bite of his meal and nodded. He had a feeling that this training would be as intensive as anything he had ever undertaken, perhaps more so. Rikha was obviously a strong warrior who would accept nothing less than one hundred percent effort. "I'll be ready."

Janak looked from Zel to Lina and asked, "Can either of you sense the people around you, as well as seeing them? It may look like everyone has a faint aura, or you just sort of know where everyone is without having to look at them." Lina and Zel shook their heads. "Your Chana hasn't shown up yet, but it may during the night. If it does, remember to stay calm and call one of us for help," Janak said. He grinned and added as a casual afterthought, "We can only hope you won't turn out to be sleep-teleporters..."

"What?!" Lina yelped.

Laughing, Janak held up a placating hand. "Just kidding, just kidding. I don't think that's really possible, is it, Erika?"

Erika shook her head, amused despite her fatigue. "It's never happened to me, and that's my primary affinity."

Janak gave her a "There, you see?" look, and Lina and Zel rolled their eyes. Despite the unintentionally impressive displays of power they had seen coming from their friends in the past couple of hours, neither sorcerer was worried for his or her own sake. Both of them were highly capable, competent spellcasters in part because of their ability to focus and control massive amounts of power.

"Then I'm sure we'll be fine," Lina said glibly, waving a hand, and Zel nodded in agreement. She yawned loudly and patted her full belly once again. "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm ready for bed."

"I'm tired as well," Erika said, rubbing her eyes, which were sporting dark circles in contrast to her milky skin.

By this point, as dinner was wrapping up, people had begun to filter out of the clearing and to various parts of camp or their homes in other places in the forest. Others began collecting plates and cleaning their places at the tables. Rikha handed her plate to a passing teen and rose from her seat. "As soon as you discover your Chana," she said to Zel and Lina, "please let me know. I will ensure that you are properly trained, as Princess Ameria and Gourry will be."

"We will," Zel said, unable to help feeling more than a little anticipation for what kind of power he would develop. If his Chana was anything like Ameria's or Gourry's, it would be something to look forward to, indeed.

At that moment, Ameria and Ef'hraim returned to the table, Ameria looking much more relaxed than before. "Are you all right?" Janak asked, looking from the princess to Ef'hraim, who grinned.

"She'll be fine," he said confidently. Ameria looked up at him gratefully and he said, "I'll see you tomorrow, bright and early. We'll go over what I showed you tonight, and then go on from there. You're going to be quite powerful, despite the fact that you weren't born of our tribe."

"Thank you," Ameria said, and he turned and returned to his comrades in red a few tables away.

Rikha rose and stepped around behind Lina, heading out of the clearing. "Come," she said, motioning for all of them to follow her. "I'll show you your rooms."

They followed the Chakar general toward the outskirts of camp, where two little wooden huts stood. Lights were beginning to appear in the windows of the other cabins as people returned from dinner, and they could hear the sounds of the Chakar families as they settled in for the night. As they approached one of the little buildings, Lina elbowed Ameria and asked quietly, "Hey...what did it feel like?" Behind the two sorceresses, Zel's ears perked up, also curious to know what to expect.

Ameria looked down at her hands and winced. "It was completely sudden, and then it hurt--a lot. I don't know, ask Gourry. I feel pretty normal now, except I'm trying to concentrate on some of the things Ef'hraim showed me."

Zel and Lina looked at the swordsman, who shrugged. "I just...lost control. I can't explain it," he said simply. "You should know it when you feel it."

Just then, Rikha stopped in front of one of the cabins and held out an arm. "This one's for the girls," she explained. "I'm sorry, but we don't have any more room for you, so you three will have to share. The guys won't have it any better--they're in the other one. I just hope you all get along well," she said wryly.

With that, everyone bid each other good night and filed into their respective houses. When the girls entered theirs, Erika lit the little oil lamp sitting on a rough cut, wooden side table by the door. Three beds had been crammed inside, leaving little room to walk. The place was clean, though, and would be comfortably warm given the humid, temperate climate of the Tes'sha Forest. Silently, the girls changed into nightshirts they found on their pillows and climbed into bed, suddenly feeling exhausted after the events of the long day.

Lina, however, couldn't fall asleep right away. Long after she heard Erika and Ameria nod off, she lay awake, absently running a finger along the new scar in her arm and thinking about everything that had happened today. In the other cabin, Zelgadiss was in a similar frame of mind; he also lay in bed pondering what had happened. Both were already impatient for their Chana to show up; if it had already happened to Ameria and Gourry, and they were eager to see what kind of new power they would gain. With that thought in mind, they drifted off to sleep, their bodies grateful for the much-needed rest after such an eventful day.


Author's Notes:

This chapter has been a long, long time in coming. And I'm not just talking about how long it took get it published; this chapter has been in my mind since the beginning, since the very first chapter of Slayers New. It really is the focal point of the story, the turning point after which things start to get interesting, and that's why it was imperative to write it carefully and revise it extensively. Everything up until now has been a setup for what took place in this chapter. This is the chapter in which I really started to go out on a limb, and so perhaps some of the delay was in part due to my nervousness about how the changes will be received among fans.

These changes will be important. That's not to say that I will fundamentally, drastically alter the characters everyone knows and loves. To do so in fanfiction is, I feel, ficwriters' suicide. But the characters will see some changes. Why? Why did I decide to do such a thing as add in a whole new system of power, separate but in some ways parallel to magic? Why did I take the characters so far down as to show in graphic detail just how defenseless they are in the face of this new power system? Why did I choose to induct them into this new system, so that they are now straddling what seems like two worlds?

There are two different schools of thought in fanfiction--those who advocate cleaning up the sandbox after they're done playing in it, and leaving it precisely as they found it; and those who advocate leaving it different, leaving it changed. I belong to the latter camp. I have written both kinds of stories--stories that fit in well with the rest of the series, which could be inserted at a given point and not have any effect on the ultimate plot, and stories that bring about some change in the characters' universe that takes them beyond what we've seen on our TV screens. I prefer the latter, and I made the decision very early on in this story that this trilogy would slowly coax the existing characters out of their comfortable, well-known world and bring them somewhere they have never seen before, facing challenges the likes of which they have never experienced before.

I did this because I think it's consistent with the nature of the show. Every season of Slayers has brought something new to capture our imaginations. Every season has taken the characters to a new level, and they've come out of their struggles a little stronger, a little wiser, but still the same people they always were. That will not change in my story. While I realize that this new direction could be controversial among fans, I want to assure readers that I do not plan to take these characters on an egocentric trip through my own vision, completely abandoning their personalities and personas as they have already been expressed so strongly throughout the anime.

The way I see it, Lina, Gourry, Zel, and Ameria all have room to grow as people, and they have grown considerably throughout their time together facing down their world's biggest threats. But I have sometimes heard fans complain that Lina and her friends are just too super-charged--that the show hinges so much on magic. I have read fanfiction in which the characters have been reduced to shadows of themselves--mere caricatures--because the force of their personalities lends them toward black-and-white characterizations. The writers for the anime were wise and made sure to mature such strong characters as they went along, but there is a reason why the anime ended when it did and the way it did: there simply wasn't much more left to tell. After Dark Star/Vorpheed, who else is a strong enough, powerful enough motivating factor toward greater self-awareness? No one, except the characters themselves. And that kind of internal struggle is extremely difficult to portray on screen as opposed to in words. That's what makes me glad the series ended when it did, despite the fact that I love it and sometimes wish I could watch more of my all-time favorite characters in action. Another season would have been more of the same.

But the beauty of this show is that it sparks the imagination--indeed, that is the beauty of most anime, as anyone can see when they go to an anime con or simply search for a title on the Internet and turn up hundreds, if not thousands of pages of fanart and fanfiction. As I have thought more and more about these characters, I saw how much room they had to grow, how comfortable they were in their world and their lives, despite the big, looming bad guys. I am, at heart, a quintessential devil's advocate, and I love to shake things up (which explains my fascination with Xelloss ^_~). So that's what this story is about, more than anything else. Shaking things up for these characters by forcing them to face their biggest challenge of all: themselves. Not so much that they become unrecognizable; in fact I think you'll find as you keep reading that the characters remain very much the same. But this story will whack them out of their standard way of solving problems and viewing the world around them, and, hopefully, it will do the same for every fan who reads it.

Feedback/constructive criticism is always appreciated, but I am particularly interested to hear how Slayers fans have received this chapter. If you are so inclined, you can email me using this form. As always, thank you very much for reading and for any feedback you are moved to send me.


"Slayers" is copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi. Original ideas, artwork, and text present on this page are copyright Esther Nairn, unless otherwise noted. No reproduction is allowed without express written or emailed permission. Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.